Khushi entered the room, with a tray of breakfast she had just prepared for the ‘Lord Governor’! Amma was sitting beside him trying to convince him to stay another day till the fever broke, but Arnav was adamant that he was returning to the hotel immediately. They were all to fly out to Delhi later in the evening, and he also had the reception arrangements to see to.
Khushi gave a dirty glare to her mother as she walked past her and kept the tray firmly on the table next to the bed. Ignoring Khushi, amma patted Arnav on the hand and left the room, issuing instructions to Khushi to make sure he eats everything on the tray. After all he was on medication and had missed dinner too.
He was sitting up against the headboard looking very uncomfortable with all the attention that Amma had been giving him. As soon as she walked out, Arnav was on his phone, instructing someone that he would be there as soon as possible. ‘I’ll drive you, dude’, Aman sauntered into the room, freshly showered and towel in hand. His white unbuttoned shirt exposing his perfectly toned abs, his blue denims hung low on his waist. ‘Hey sweetie,’ he winked at Khushi as he walked closer to the bed, ‘slept well?’
Khushi stared at Aman doubtfully. ‘What was he up to now,’ she wondered. He never spoke to her like that, ever! She turned towards Arnav, still frowning, and reached out to give him the glass of milk that she had prepared without any sugar. She remembered that the ladoo’s she had made for rakshabandhan were with a sweetener, as Di has explained to her about his diabetes. No wonder he is such a sour person, she had thought then… cheeni kam hain!
When he did not take the glass from her, she looked at him to see that he was staring at Aman with such fury. His body was taut and he looked ready to burst. Now what, thought Khushi in alarm, holding the glass further towards him with apprehension.
‘Milk? … Arnav?’ Aman asked mischievously, and came and sat on the bed next to where Khushi was standing. ‘I’ll have it, K, if he does not want it’, he reached out and held the glass touching Khushi’s fingers that were still around it. ‘But your breakfast is downstairs Aman, amma is getting it ready,’ Khushi blurted, removing the glass from his grasp. She turned towards Arnav again, ignoring Aman’s weird behaviour, and held out the glass.
As his hands touched hers over the warm glass of milk, Khushi looked at him alarmed at the rush of emotions that went through her. Neither of them noticed a smiling Aman silently walk off leaving them alone. Arnav stared longingly at Khushi aware of his touch on her soft hands. He took in her startled eyes, slightly parted bare lips, plain pink kurta that hugged her figure in the right places, right down to her payal-clad bare feet peeping out under her salwar. He took the glass from her and drank the milk slowly, his eyes never leaving hers.
Arnav sipped the warm milk all the while enjoying her discomfiture. She was obviously not as indifferent to his touch as she made out to be. Just goes to show how right he was about girls like her, he thought suddenly. Having a relationship with that stud Romeo, and then behaving all innocent and virginal with him. The thought brought back a gush of anger and Arnav suppressed his tender feelings for her, breaking eye contact and gulping down the milk in one shot. He then got off the bed, pushing her aside and walked to where his achkan was lying on another chair.
Putting it on, he was ready to storm out of the room, when a cheerful Aman walked right back in. Looking from one to another, he came up and put his arm around Khushi’s shoulders, ‘why don’t you get ready too, sweetie. You can meet Payal also, when we go to drop Arnav.’
‘SWEETIE??’… Khushi, looked at Aman pointedly. Of course she did not want to go anywhere with that horrible monster, but meeting jiji was a tempting thought. She wanted to see for herself that jiji was okay there. And she had not even said goodbye properly last night. At least she could spend some time with her before jiji left for Delhi this evening.
By the time Khushi got dressed and stepped out of the house, she found Aman and Arnav already seated in the car. One, chatting away merrily, not a care in the world and the other with his usual stern, ‘I’m-barely-tolerating-this’ expression on his face. Aman had firmly put Arnav in the passenger seat and taken the wheel of his SUV.
He now jumped out to open the door for Khushi and made a big deal of seating her comfortably in the car. Khushi was getting more and more wary of his weird behaviour by now, and looked uncomfortably at Arnav seated in front. She saw a muscle twitch in his jaw, and knew that he was now controlling his temper. Well, he can go to hell, the ungrateful man, she fumed. I sit up all night at his bedside looking after him, and he’s behaving like a … And what’s with this Aman now, and all the ‘sweeties’, and touching her every two minutes. What was he up to?
The drive to Sheesh Mahal was a strained one. To top the tension of Arnav’s silence and Khusi’s discomfiture was Aman’s extra chatty behaviour. Khushi all but had a headache by the time they reached the entrance to the private residences of the Sheesh Mahal. This was a section that had not been included in the hotel plans and had been retained as their residence. As they parked in the porch, Aman jumped out of the car with an exclamation of delight. A vintage 1970’s Enfield Bullet was parked in an alcove, that he forgot everything, and ran towards.
‘Woooooooo…’ Aman exclaimed, turning towards Khushi, who was slowly walking towards him, aware of Arnav’s gaze on them. ‘Remember how I taught you on one like this years ago?’ he reminisced. ‘I taught her to drive a scooter too,’ he added. ‘No,’ groaned Khushi inwardly, remembering her accident with Arnav’s SUV when he had demanded that 25,000 that had gotten her into all that mess.
Di who was waiting for them on the porch steps, moved towards Arnav to assist him. ‘Yes, that’s chote’s bike’, she smiled indulgently at her scowling brother. ‘He was much younger, of course, when he used to drive that’ she added naughtily, a twinkle in her eye.
Khushi was looking uncomfortably from one to another. It was Di who saved the situation by asking her that she must be keen to meet with her jiji. Before she walked into the house with Di, Khushi felt Aman beside here, suggesting that he had some work to attend to so would be back later to pick her up. ‘Hey, why don’t I pick you up at the airport only in the evening? You can be with Payal till evening in that case,’ he suggested.
When Di agreed that it was a good idea, Khushi had no choice but to ignore Arnav’s rude glares and go along. At the moment, all she wanted was to get away from him.
Jiji looked pretty decked up in her bridal finery, and also a little nervous, Khushi noticed, as she ran up to her and gave her a reassuring hug. As they both burst out into chatter, Di left them alone to catch up with each other. Khushi had a million questions she wanted to ask and a million things that she wanted to tell, and settled down with her sister in her palatial room.
Jiji nervously looked at her watch after some time, and shared with Khushi that her mother-in-law had instructed her that lunch today was to be prepared by her. ‘Lets continue in the kitchen, Khushi,’ she added nervously. ‘I’ll help,’ Khushi volunteered, trying to change jiji’s mood. Obviously, mami was a bit overbearing, imagine having her as your mother-in-law, Khushi lamented!
And that is where Di found them after some time – working together in harmony in the kitchen, preparing lunch for the day. ‘I need a cup of tea for Chote,’ Di requested. He’s getting fever again and a headache also,’ she explained her odd request.
Khushi set about preparing the tea, while Akashji walked in next, and took jiji out with him. Alone in the kitchen, Khushi wondered where Lavanya was, and how she would get this tea across to the ‘Lord Governor’.
She need not have worried, as the object of her thoughts walked right into the kitchen, all formally dressed and ready. ‘Di?’ he barked at Khushi, who nearly dropped the pan from which she was pouring the tea into a cup. ‘Your tea,’ Khushi proffered the steaming cup out to him, hesitatingly.
“I asked you where Di was, I don’t want tea,’ he said harshly. ‘I have to go out for some work…’ Khushi did not let him complete his sentence ‘but you have fever, how can you go out. You should rest...’ her voice trailed off when she saw his expression.
“I told you I don’t want tea,’ he ground out through clenched teeth, walking menacingly towards her. Khushi felt herself instinctively backing away from him the teacup still in her hand clattering on its saucer. ‘I asked you where Di was,’ he continued his walk into the kitchen till Khushi felt herself back up against the cool metallic surface of the refrigerator, trapped with him standing inches away from her now.
Khushi looked up into his eyes anxiously, as he towered too close for comfort, and in her panic, felt the teacup finally tumble and fall to the ground with a loud shatter. But not before the scalding liquid fell all over her forearm, bringing instant tears to her eyes. She looked down at her exposed arm shocked as she felt the angry red blotched beginning to form on her sensitive skin.
She did not notice that Arnav had gone perfectly still for a few seconds before he grabbed her hand in a swift motion and pulled her towards the sink where, holding her in front of him, he immediately ran cool water over the burned area. Khushi gasped in shock as the cool water ran on her heated flesh, and reclined gratefully against him as the awful burning stopped.
Arnav felt her fall gently backwards on his chest, and thinking she was fainting again, put his left hand around her slim waist to steady her. He tried to look down at her face but his lips encountered her forehead instead. He felt her suck in her breath sharply, as she remained in his embrace while the water poured endlessly out of the tap on their outstretched hands.
Khushi shut her eyes and was completely lost in the moment. Her other hand stole slowly towards his around her waist and she instinctively raised her face towards his bent one. While his lips remained imprinted on her forehead, hers met the exposed skin of his neck where she felt him swallow uneasily beneath her soft accidental touch.
The sound of the running water and their laboured breathing was suddenly broken by the whistle of the pressure cooker on the gas, bringing Khushi to her senses. As she removed herself from his grasp and turned off the tap, she saw the mask fall back over his eyes, before he turned around and stormed out of the kitchen.
Khushi collapsed wearily against the kitchen counter, regaining her breath and admonishing herself for her wanton behaviour. Why did he have such an effect on her when he touched her, or even came close? Why did she forget all the humiliation and injustice she had suffered due to him? Why did nothing else matter but the touch of his hands on her… holding her… protecting her … always.
The rest of the day passed by in a daze, as she helped jiji make and serve the lunch. They spent the rest of the afternoon packing and getting jiji ready for her life in Delhi now, at Raizada Mansion. There was little time for her thoughts to dwell on anything else but her jiji … and Khushi was miserable when Akashji came to announce that they should be leaving for the airport now. Her time with jiji had just flown and it was already time for them to be parted again.
She was all but controlling her tears when they walked out to the porch where the cars were parked, waiting for them. As Akash and jiji were bundled together into one car with mama and mami, Khushi found herself looking forlornly into Arnav’s eyes as she walked towards where he waited near the other car in which Di and Lavanya were already seated. As their eyes met across the porch, Khushi felt her reserve beak down and the tears roll down her cheeks. She had this sudden gush to run into his arms and cry her heart out.
As Arnav waited for her to walk to where the car was, she saw her give herself a spirited shake and walk towards him. It was as if he could read her mind … he saw her control her sadness and move towards them, head bowed. As if sensing his gaze, she looked up, and he knew she was going to cry – he didn’t know how, but just knew it. And it took all of his will power and resolve to not gather her up in his arms and console her there and then.
Di, noticing her shaky walk, immediately got out of the car and comforted her as she settled down on the back seat with her. ‘I’m okay, thanks, Anjaliji,’ Khushi told her softly once the car had started moving. ‘It’s just that jiji and I have always been together … we have never ever been apart …’ her lips trembled as she tried not to break down again. She was unaware of Arnav’s dark gaze watching her in the rear view mirror every little while.
Aman was already waiting at the airport chatting with Payal and Akash when the second car drew up. While they unloaded their luggage, Arnav instructed a member of his staff who was in charge of getting the vehicles back to Sheesh Mahal. Aman sensing Khushi’s plight immediately walked up to her and gently putting his arm around her shoulder, took her to where Payal and Akash waited for the rest of them. ‘I’ll leave you two alone for a bit, I think,’ he told them gently, understanding their grief at being parted from each other.
Everyone was ready with luggage and trolleys to proceed towards the check in. Through the haze of misery Khushi was aware of Aman walking with Arnav towards the glass doors of the airport.
‘It was great meeting you, dude,’ he offered pleasantly. ‘Oh and before we part ways … I have it on good authority that one is supposed to tell a girl that one loves her. Apparently, they are not too keen on actions,’ Aman winked schemingly at Arnav.
They had all but reached the doors, and Arnav looked quizzically at Aman, wondering what he was saying now. His mind still at logger heads with his heart that wanted to rush and console Khushi right now.
“Dude ... I’m off to Bombay tomorrow to tell my lady love that I love her and want to marry her,’ he shared naughtily, ‘the same romp-in-the-hay’ one we discussed the other night?’ he reminded Arnav.
‘I’ll see you around then, dude … and a word of advice,’ Aman finshed, ‘don’t waste precious time … just tell her you love her.’ And with a jaunty salute towards a stunned Arnav, he turned and walked towards a sobbing Khushi and enveloped her in a comforting bear hug.
The last thing Khushi saw over his shoulder was not her jiji, but the stunned face of Arnav Singh Raizada looking back at her, as he was ushered into the terminal with the moving crowd.
It was the expression in his eyes that made her forget everything else – there was a look of complete joy and elation in them that Khushi had never seen before.
Anjali noticed the smile on Arnav’s face as they settled down into their seats. She peered at him from her own window seat, across where Lavanya was fidgeting between them. Yes, he was definitely smiling and staring at absolutely nothing towards the aisle, his head thrown back on the back rest, completely oblivious of his surroundings. ‘Could it be Lavanya’, thought Anjali, the eternal romantic, as they settled into their seats. ‘I must have a word with him, when I get him alone, soon,’ she decided and turned to look out of the window as the plane began to taxi for takeoff.
‘She not seeing Romeo,’ Arnav said to himself for the millionth time since he had walked into the airport. He had gone through all the motions of checking in etc as if in a trance. No one else had mattered, and he had not seen or heard anyone though the entire time it had taken them to finally settle into their seats. Everyone and everything had lost its importance and had faded into the background, as Aman’s words kept resounding in his mind constantly.
He shut his eyes, as he threw his head back on the back rest, and Khushi entered his thoughts as if a film had been switched on ‘Haan, di,’ he looked up from the screen at her, giving her a rare tender look. ‘Chote, I was thinking…’ Di started by remote. He saw in slow motion, Khushi raising her hand to his jaw on the terrace, Khushi asking if he was okay, Khushi checking his temperature in the middle of the night, lightly kissing his neck this morning as he tended to her burn…
The one-hour flight passed as if in seconds. It was later that evening when he was sitting outside his room, by the pool, engrossed with his laptop, that Di finally cornered him. ‘Can I join you, Chote?’ she did not wait for his response and settled down on one the chairs next to him.
hesitatingly, as he continued to scowl at his computer screen. ‘Hum nani se baat karen, Lavanya ke bare mein … its been some time now, and she seems to have gotten used to having Lavanya in the house,’ she trailed off, waiting for a reaction from Arnav.
‘Huh?’ Arnav looked distractedly at his sister, wondering what she was planning now. ‘Don’t be obtuse, Chote… I’m talking about making Lavanya the Raizada daughter-in-law. I think nani is not too averse to the idea … and I see neither do you seem to be,’ she added, tongue in cheek.
‘What is this Di,’ Arnav shut down his computer and turned towards her, ‘I told you, both Lavanya and I are not interested in marriage, then why is this being brought up again and again.’ “It’s being brought up, because I can see that you, my innocent Chote, are very much in love,’ she reached out and pulled his cheek.
‘In love??’ Arnav spluttered, backing away from her hand, annoyed at where this conversation was heading. ‘Whoever gave you that idea?’ he added shoving Aman’s similar comments to the back of his mind.
‘Really, chote!’ Di added playfully. ‘I have been watching you since we came back from the wedding … you are different…’ ‘Chalo, shut your eyes,’ she reached out and closed his eyes keeping her hands over them … ‘tell me the truth … what do you see’. Arnav groaned inwardly as images of Khushi entered his mind and music started playing along with it, as if on demand. ‘There…’ Di clapped her hands in glee, as she had noted his change of expression. ‘Tell me now?’
‘Its nothing Di,’ He rasped, angry for letting his heart get control again. ‘I told you once, that I am not interested in falling in love…’ ‘And I told you, that you will have no choice, brother dear...’ Di cut him mid sentence, dropping the subject for the time being. She would get it out of him, if it was the last thing she would do. After all, she had always wished for someone for Chote, who would make him forget his past and bring down the walls he had built around his heart over the years.
Khushi arrived alone to Delhi, for the reception. Babuji had suddenly taken ill. Maybe the pressure of the wedding, the doctors had told them. It was decided that Khushi would travel alone and she would stay with Payal for a few days and attend the reception too on their behalf.
She had called jiji, assuring her that babuji was okay and just needed rest, and fixed up her plan. Payal had promised to pick her up at the station. Aware of Khushi’s reservations about being near ASR, she had also told her that she and Akashji were staying alone at their farmhouse in Chattarpur these days. The reception was to be held there too, so Khushi would only meet the rest of the family, on that day, she added reassuringly.
Now standing at the platform with her suitcase, Khushi looked around the crowds searching for jiji or Akashji. And that is how Arnav saw her, dressed in a simple pale green chickankari churidaar kurta, hair braided and looking anxiously about her, searching for familiar faces. He had been angry at nani for insisting that he pick up Khushi and drive her to the farmhouse. It would have been a long drive for Payal and Akash from the farmhouse to the station and easier if he did it, as he was in any case going to the farmhouse later to see to the arrangements for the evening. He had tried to get Lavanya to accompany him, but she wanted to visit the beauty parlour for a couple of hours at least, she had whined. Surprisingly, nani had readily agreed with Lavanya on that one, Arnav thought suspiciously.
‘Is that all,’ he loomed behind her, making her jump back. He was looking at her single suitcase pointedly.
‘You??’ Khushi blurted automatically… ‘where’s jiji? Is she okay?’
‘Yes, she is okay,’ he spoke if speaking to a two year old, which rankled Khushi even further. ‘I was this side, so came instead,’ he lied, wanting to get out the crowds into the air-conditioned comfort of his car. “Chalen?” he asked her sarcastically raising his eyebrows.
‘Haan toh chalo,’ Khushi fumed, ‘humne kab roka hain’. She had to all but run to keep up with him as he took long strides towards the entrance. As they neared the doors, half of which were blocked by police barriers, creating a small crowd of people there, Arnav instinctively put Khushi ahead of him. As they tried to wade their way through the public moving as a herd out of the small opening, Khushi felt herself being pushed back into his broad chest and being secured within his out-stretched arms, as he protected her from the people rubbing themselves into her.
Within seconds, they were out in the open, both trying to be nonchalant about the moments of awareness that they had just shared. ‘This way’, Arnav started walking towards where the car was parked, and once again Khushi cursed him, as she barely managed to keep up.
The tension inside the car could have been cut with a knife, as they both sat quietly next to each other. He only asked her once about how her father was, and that was it. ‘If he hates me so much, why the hell did he agree to come pick me up,’ Khushi fumed, staring out of the window all the time. ‘She is just a disaster waiting to happen,’ thought Arnav, ‘and its better if I stay away and stay focused.’
The farmhouse was a small two-storey house set amid sprawling picturesque lawns. The long winding drive was filled with workers, hanging up flowers and lights on all the trees. Another lot was lining the path with small lanterns that would be lit later tonight.
Khushi watched in awe all the activity around her. The serene beauty of this place did not skip her attention through the entire bustle. She suddenly looked forward to spending some time alone at this place. It was heaven, and not at all like the imposing Raizada mansion.
Arnav practically dumped her at the doorstep, and reversed the car towards the garage. ‘So, even I am not dying to be with you, lord governor,’ Khushi muttered, promptly forgetting him as she saw payal jiji rush towards her.
Khushi twirled around in joy when jiji showed her the guest room that was to be hers. Not only was it HUGE, it had one full wall of bay windows opening out into the pool and lawns beyond. It was simply magical, Khushi thought, admiring the serene view. Sitting out there at night, as was a habit with her, would be so so wonderful. Jiji’s room was on the first floor, affording privacy to the newly weds. Khushi walked out on to the poolside from her room, looking around her in awe. ‘That’s the study and then Arnav’s suite’, jiji pointed to one side of the guestroom. Khushi saw similar bay windows also opening out on to the pool. ‘Thank god, he will not be staying here’, she told herself as she pictured herself bumping into him all the time, in this small place.
From the study windows, Arnav watched as Payal showed Khushi around the poolside, and lawns beyond. He marveled at the innocent joy reflected on Khushi’s face as she took in the beauty of her surroundings. He had always taken this place for granted. Of course, it had always been his retreat away from family matters and work pressures, but no one knew that. Jaiprakash walking in with the caterers took his attention to work back at hand, and Arnav got involved in the preparations for the evening.
A lunch tray was taken into the study, ensuing that Khushi had no encounter with the Lord Governor anymore, and she enjoyed her time with jiji completely. Akash too had joined his brother in the study leaving the sisters alone.
The black silk lehnga was laid out on the bed along with a simple black and gold choli and net crystal studded dupatta. It had been stitched from an old sari of amma’s and Khushi loved the simple repetitive paisley pattern on the skirt. The choli had been made out of the pallu, so was a little more adorned. She planned to wear the same gold jewellery that she wore for the wedding, and since she was a guest today, strappy gold high-heel sandals.
Jiji had left her a short while ago, as a beautician had been called home to get her dressed for the evening. She had suggested that Khushi get dressed so that the lady could then come and help Khushi with her hair also after she had tended to Payal. Left alone, Khushi decided to indulge in a luxurious bath in the sunken tub she had seen in the bathroom. Now this is something I could get used to, Khushi thought wickedly, as she lay back in the warm scented waters.
Catching sight of the watch, about forty-five minutes later, Khushi hurried out to get dressed expecting the beautician to come anytime now.
She had barely managed to put on her clothes, when there was a knock at the door. ‘Aa jao,’ she called out thankful of the lady’s arrival, as she needed help to tie the threads of her coli, which she was now struggling with.
Arnav stood in stunned silence at the door, as he saw her standing near the bed, with her bare back towards him Her long hair had been untidily tied up in a bun from which wet ringlets escaped towards her neck. Her arms, bare of all jewellery, were struggling with the ties of her blouse, which had no back at all. Arnav swallowed uncomfortably. His eyes traveled to her waist, where there was glittering a slim gold chain, calling his attention to the slimness that he could have fitted in the palm of one hand. The skirt fell over those full hips, hugging every curve, down to the floor where it was gathered next to a pair of sinfully high heels. His tortured gaze went towards the steam still gushing out of the open bathroom door, and Arnav clenched his fists, as images of her in the bath started to run havoc on his system.
‘Thank god, you are here,’ Khushi’s voice brought his wandering thoughts back, ‘I need help with this first.’
Shutting the door behind him slowly, Arnav walked quietly towards her, his eyes never leaving her slender form. Ignoring all the urgent warnings that his head was giving him to leave the room, he reached up and took the strings from her hands, gently brushing her back with his knuckles as he fumbled to tie the knots for her.
Khushi froze! She knew that touch! What was he doing here? Was she decent enough? She stared wildly at the bed in front of her, not knowing what to do next. She prayed to her goddess to give her legs the strength to not collapse into him again. She could feel his warm breath on the nape of her neck as he concentrated on the task at hand.
She did not realize what a task it was for Arnav to continue knotting those flimsy strings all the time aware of her warm responsive body that a part of him was silently willing to fall back into his embrace.
Another knock at the door broke the moment and an alarmed Khushi turned in panic towards the door, inevitably falling backwards on the bed taking Arnav, who tried to steady her, along with her.
Khushi felt her breathing stop, as she fell back on the bed with an unceremonious thump. Her arms wound around Arnav’s neck pulled him on top of her as he tried to brace his arms on either side so that his weight would not fall on her completely.
She could feel the crystals on her spread dupatta biting into her back as she started into his dark eyes, hanging on to his neck with both her arms. Her eyes widened in fear as she watched his eyes move from her eyes down to her lips, and then his face coming closer as if wanting to touch them to his own.
‘Arnav,’ she whispered drawn to his magnetic gaze, as one hand stole from around his neck to touch his lips. It was the touch of her hand on his lips that finally brought Arnav to his senses. Lifting himself off her, he stood with his back to the bed, reining in his racing heart, lest she see his weakness. ‘Di had asked me to come and see if you were comfortable or needed anything,’ he croaked. God! Was that his voice! He wondered mortified.
And without turning to give her a second glance, he stormed out of the room, ignoring the questioning look of the hairdresser waiting out side the room.