Arnav had not slept a wink all night, tossing and turning as thoughts of Khushi crept in and out of his mind. Yes, they needed to figure out this attraction that was growing between them with each passing day. He had no idea how he was going to broach the subject with her, or how she would react to any of this. But it was getting increasing difficult for him to deal with his unruly emotions.
Turning to look at the clock on his night-stand, Arnav saw it was close to five. Jumping out of bed, as sleep was fruitless now, he got into his sweats and stepped out for a morning run. The fresh air may help him clear his thoughts a bit, he muttered, as he walked out of the house, silently shutting the door behind him.
Khushi too woke early after a troubled sleep. Throwing the covers aside, she trudged to the bathroom, her head still heavy. Within minutes she was back in the room, toothbrush in her mouth, pacing up and down, anxiously thinking about last night’s events. She had certainly not objected to anything that he was doing, she blushed and muttered. What was it about him, that influenced her so passionately; why was she like a puppet responding involuntarily to his touch; just a look could have her transfixed… and I actually hate him… she continued her muttering and pacing, all the while brushing her teeth fiercely.
‘Do you?’ someone asked, and Khushi spun around to see whom it was only to encounter the billowing sheer curtains towards the poolside. Through the opaque fabric she saw Arnav run towards the cabana, drenched in sweat. Rooted to the spot, she pulled in a breath when he stepped out within minutes in his swimming shorts. His bare chest glistened with sweat that he had worked up during his run; his perfect abs tapered into that washboard stomach that tapered further down …
‘Hai Devi Mayyiya’, she blurted and turned away embarrassed at her chain of thoughts. She peeked another look towards the windows and saw him lift his arms, biceps flexing and execute a perfect dive into the pool. Khushi shivered as errant thoughts of her clutching those bare forearms continued to pester her.
If she had known the word ‘voyeur’ Khushi would have been appalled at being called that, as that was exactly what she was doing, albeit unknowingly.
Brush forgotten in her mouth she stood transfixed as he sliced through the water neatly, completing lap after lap effortlessly.
‘Enough,’ Khushi nearly shouted out loud to her aroused body. ‘Enough’ she repeated weakly, turning towards the bathroom to complete her dressing. Jiji would be down soon, and there was no way that she could deal with her probing questions right now.
By the time everyone had collected at the breakfast table, Khushi had managed to get some control on her emotions. She kept stealing glances across the table to where he sat, acutely aware of his presence. For the first time in her life, the food she was eating had no taste or meaning to her. It had simply taken a back seat today, as she just shuffled it into her mouth ignorantly. Jiji and Akash jiju were making plans for the day and back to their cajoling her to stay for a few days more. It was getting embarrassing to keep turning them down, so Khushi just kept nodding and agreeing, deciding to speak to jiji alone later that she wanted to go home now. Secretly, she only wanted to escape being around Arnav, as he was scaring the living daylights out of her, making her feel things she had never even imagined in all of her sheltered 19 years.
Arnav escaped to his study after breakfast, still lost in his thoughts. It was going to be difficult to get her alone from her ‘mother-hen’ of a sister, he thought irritated. Maybe I can offer to drive her somewhere or something, he continued to plot ways to get her alone. It was the brown manila envelope lying on his desk under the other mail, which finally diverted his attention.
Tearing it open her pulled out the stark dossier he had requested for the other day on the phone. He had forgotten all about his request instigated by Payal’s ranting about her father’s sweet shop. There were other more pressing matters on his mind right now, he thought distractedly flipping through the neatly typed sheets, some with photographs of the Gupta haveli and sweet shop.
What started out as distracted reading slowly changed into a focused one as Arnav started learning facts about Khushi and her family that he had not known earlier.
The fact that she was adopted, and … jeeze ... just bloody nineteen! he thought, shocked as the words registered. He was already aware of her sisters earlier attempted wedding. As he went through the information, he understood her silence during all the times he had humiliated her over the last year. Her need to earn that money; to help her father get his shop back; get his self respect back. Suddenly Arnav felt very small. A wave of regret washed over him as each hurtful word he had spoken to her in his anger, jabbed at his already aching heart. The fact that she was so young, and not even their own child was only making matters worse. He now understood Payal’s protective stance towards Khushi and also her aunt’s who had once given him quite a mouthful when he had carried Khushi back from the guesthouse incident. What a jerk I have been! he groaned clutching his head and putting the file down with a bang on the table. What an absolute jerk! No wonder she always called him ‘Rakshak’, he felt like a bloody monster right now. And on top of that he was also literally cradle snatching, he let out a loud groan. She was too young to understand his urgent passion for her. Her innocence always shining through her candid reactions. ‘What a bloody mess,’ Arnav scolded himself harshly, turning back to the open pages of the dossier.
It was the next picture, as he turned the pages that blew the wind out of his sails. He felt as if someone had punched him in his solar plexus as his breathing became laboured.
‘WHAT THE…’ There, plain as the day, was a 8 x 6 print of his brother-in-law with Khushi’s parents. They were standing outside the sweet shop, as he turned page after page, there followed more pictures of them in the haveli and other places. The text below stated that this was Shyam Jha, the man who had been chosen to wed Khushi. He was living with her parents as a paying guest.
Arnav sat in stunned silence as he took in the information, numbly. What was his jijaji doing in Lucknow? Was he not abroad somewhere? Or was he? When did I speak to him last? Arnav’s dazed brain tried to assimilate the information before him.
‘Di’ he gave an agonized whisper … not wanting to believe what he was reading. But his shrewd mind realizing and recalling all the times that Shyam was conveniently missing whenever Khushi was around, the past year.
DAMN! Why did I not notice it before? He banged his fist on the table with a loud bang, unsettling the photograph of Di smiling gently at him through the silver frame.
DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!
Arnav felt his fierce temper rising. ‘No one hurts his sister and gets away with it’, he spoke menacingly to the open dossier. Picking up the glass paperweight close at hand, he flung it in anger towards the windows relishing the loud crash as the glass wall came tumbling down in an instant.
Khushi jumped out of her skin in the room next door as she heard the loud crash and shatter of glass.
‘Arnav’, was her first thought as she raced out of her room towards the study, flinging open the door and stumbling upon the ramrod straight figure of Arnav Singh Raizada standing frozen near the desk. The familiar rigid stance, clenched fists and straight back, brought a feeling of dread to her. Her eyes widened in shock as they fell upon the open pages of the dossier where she could plainly see her parents with a smiling Shyamji.
‘Shyamji?’ Khushi whispered, wondering what was happening here.
Her voice got him out of his stupor and he slowly glared at her, his eyes taking in her surprised look from his table to his face.
Khushi registered the fury on his face, still totally perplexed at what was going on. She watched with trepidation as he stormed around the desk and walked towards her menacingly. She backed up instinctively, petrified of his ‘black-as-thunder’ expression, and only stopped when she backed up against the closed study door.
The fear written plainly on her face, incensed Arnav further as his fury once more took over his every sane thought. His only thought to destroy the person standing in the way of his DI’s happiness.
Khushi cowered against the door, wishing that it would open and save her from the fury advancing steadily towards her. ‘What have I done now …’, had barely slipped out of her lips, when she felt his vice-like punishing grip on her forearm. With one swift motion he dragged her across to the desk where the dossier lay open at her parents photograph.
‘Yeh …’ Khushi began asking what her parents photograph was doing on her desk, when his roar shut her up completely.
‘WHAT IS THIS?’ he thundered pointing at the picture.
‘Wahi toh hum bhi pooch rahen…’
‘ENOUGH’, he cut her short again, ‘answer me, dammit’ he squeezed her forearm tighter making her wince.
‘Yeh amma babuji aur Shya…’
‘HOW DO YOU KNOW HIM?’ with each word he pressed her arm harder, till Khushi felt her blood flow stop, and her arm go numb.
‘Shyamji?’ she asked looking up into Arav’s eyes, thoroughly perplexed.
‘ANSWER ME’… as the pressure increasing again, Khushi felt tears well up in her eyes.
‘Why are you shouting?’ she asked with apprehension.
“KHUSHI KUMARI GUPTA … you are getting married to this man?’ Arnav ground out through clenched teeth, his tolerance running low.
‘Hum???’ Khushi looked from him to the picture again, wondering where he got that bizarre idea from.
‘Why is my family’s photograph with you?’ she questioned suspiciously, a bit of her feisty attitude returning. ‘What are you doing?’ she added anxiously, not trusting him a bit. He was a ruthless businessman and she had see he had complete disregard for anyone and anything. Was he harming her family in any way?
‘And you are hurting me,’ she added spiritedly, trying to jerk herself free from his hold.
It was probably the tears that were his undoing. And he slackened his hold on her arm; staring at the bruises his fingers had left there.
‘SIT’, he ordered her in a dangerously low voice. She was dumped unceremoniously on his chair behind the desk. She put out her hands on the desk to steady herself, and her eyes fell on the text below the picture.
Suddenly Khushi decided that she preferred the shouting ASR to this quiet deadly one. At least she could shout back and stand up to that one. She had no idea how to deal with this one.
‘But… I …’ she looked unclear what to say to him. And why was he getting so worked up! Her marriage plans, to whomever, had nothing to with him, she thought rudely.
‘This man here…’ his finger poked the image of Shyam in the photograph, ‘is living in your house in Lucknow, and is going to marry you …’ he was again speaking to her as if she was a two year old.
‘Haan… I just saw that … but what I want to know is what you are doing with photos and information about my family!’ Khushi stated firmly, not letting him intimidate her. He had done enough already, and she was not going to let him get away with it this time.
‘ANSWER ME, DAMMIT’… he barked
Khushi sank deeper into the chair muttering ‘haan … toh?’ with false bravado.
Arnav slammed his clenched fist on the table next to where she sat, making Khushi jump in the chair.
‘This … man … is … my … brother-in-law,’ he barely whispered softly, ‘Di’s husband’.
‘Huh?’ Khushi yelped, looking at him, as if she had heard wrong. ‘Anjaliji…?’ she started
‘Now tell me … what is he doing in Lucknow in your house?
It took Khushi a few minutes to understand and register what he was saying. But how was that possible, she wondered, her mind ticking as it tried to remember all the instances that Shyamji had been there at Buaji’s house …
‘KHUSHI …’ the low warning, brought Khushi’s wandering thoughts back to him.
She blurted out how he had come to save her from the mobs after the news of her and Arnav had been leaked to the press, and ended with how he was now living as a paying guest with her parents.
‘Where was he during Payal’s wedding?’ Arnav asked quietly, already knowing the answer to that.
‘He had work and was traveling’, Khushi told him, watching various emotions flitter across Arnav’s face.
‘And, your informant is wrong, I am not marrying him.’ Khushi added defensively.
Arnav started at her for a few seconds, before turning and striding towards the windows where he stood with his back to her, staring out into the poolside. Something told Khushi that he was not admiring the scenic beauty of the place.
She waited, her apprehension mounting, and she went back to quietly flipping through the pages of the dossier in front of her. ‘What was he doing with all that information about her and her family,’ Khushi wondered, her fear mounting. ‘And what was this about Shyamji being Anjaliji’s husband?’ Khushi rubbed her forearms as a chill passed through her. She silently called out to her devi mayyiya to protect them all.
Between anger at him from setting a detective behind them, to fear that he was going to harm her family in some way, it was finally the worry that Arnav was hurting that won, and Khushi slowly closed the file and got up to timidly walk towards him and offer some sort of solace.
She had barely made is around the desk, when he suddenly turned and glared at her.
‘First, YOU have to be removed from the scene,’ he told her accusingly. ‘Then I will deal with that cheating son-of-a…’
‘Removed…’ Khushi squeaked, ‘what do you mean, removed?’ Hey devi mayyiya, now what?
‘You will marry me.’ He stated firmly as if he had worked out some sort of solution to the problem at hand … ‘tomorrow, itself.’
Khushi could only stare at him with her mouth open as he walked across to the desk and slammed the offending dossier shut. He then gently made upright Di’s fallen photo frame on the table, promising her that he would ensure that all would be well.