bronzed, lean flowing arms with toned muscles moved to a rhythm, sweat glistened on bare skin, muscles undulated, folded, surged, regular even breathing could be heard over the rustle of the waves. asr was working out with weights out by the ocean’s edge. he had just finished his early morning run, a few reps of these and he’d be done.
then onto looking at local silks and other materials with jean pierre, lavanya and akash, a quick trip to the volcano and a drink with some buyers from portugal holidaying here. it was their last day in bali. he was happy with the progress made. things looked like they were finally on track.
he quickly finished the last few sets of bicep curls and was about to start his tricep pulls when he saw her walking up to him.
she was wearing a shocking pink kurta with yellow and gota trimmings, a cluster of pink pompoms bobbed up and down as she trudged up the beach, her feet sinking in the sand.
shocking pink? early in the morning? asr smiled and muttered, “unbelieveable!” under his breath before picking up a dumbbell and beginning the tricep routine.
khushi looked up and saw him and almost stopped moving.
she hadn’t expected to see him like this. lavanya ji had said she’d find him on the beach, khushi hadn’t bothered to wonder what he might be doing out there. now she wished she had.
he stood there in running shorts and a singlet, his body gleaming with perspiration. the thin material of the singlet was wet and clung to his contours, it stretched over his taut stomach, the muscles of his abs clearly defined and rippling as he moved. his feet were slightly apart as he stood firm and straight, no slackness in his entire frame, his calf and thighs were supple and strong. his hair was pushed back, his eyes were bright and fresh, energy bristled around him, and when he swung his arm behind his shoulder and lifted it up over his head, she could feel her heart beat falter, fall right down to her toes then start to race. she swallowed hard and couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with this disturbing man.
“what, miss gupta, staring again?” an amused drawl greeted her.
she looked up hastily and saw him smirking at her. his arm kept moving without break or pause. the sinuous stretch and pull threatening to completely mesmerise her.
she gulped again and then braved, “s…sir, lavanya ji said they are all ready and would you like to meet at jon piye ji’s villa this morning…”
“jon piye ji’s… huh?” he broke into a grin, his white teeth flashing, “what do you think, miss gupta?” he stopped exercising suddenly and still holding the weight took a step toward her…
though there was a distance of almost ten feet separating them, she felt his move right on her being, a blast of something inordinately powerful seemed to hit her. instinctively, she took a step backward.
he cocked an eyebrow and looked at her, then eyes still on her, he took another step forward. she couldn’t keep her feet still, they took a step back again. he stopped and a satisfied smile lifted the corner of his lips.
“miss gupta…” he called out softly, “would you come here a moment?”
“ss… s.. sir?!” khushi almost passed out at the intimate note in that call. she was about to turn and run, when he insisted, “come here, i said…”
khushi managed to take her leaden feet over the sand toward him. when she was right before him, he smiled and held her gaze for a fraction of a moment before saying casually, “do me a favour, carry these weights back for me, will you.”
then without any warning, arnav singh raizada thrust the dumbbell into her limp hand. she was still looking at him nonplussed, nothing quite registering when she felt its weight and almost buckled under, her arm dragged downward.
he didn’t even look at her as he walked away toward his villa. “the other one’s right behind you… get it! see you at… jon piye ji’s… later…” his words floated across; the subtle yet deliberate pause before and after jean pierre’s name made her grit her teeth. was he implying something? she was sure she could detect a hint of mocking laughter in his voice. her jaw dropped at his peremptory behaviour.
who did he think he was!
she stomped her foot. the dumbbell pulled hard. she grimaced.
that man! ufff! he was really a magarmach.
how dare he!
she hated him! good she hadn’t seen him yesterday.
the thoughts raced through her mind. she scrunched up her mouth and shook her head in frustration and anger. then she picked up the second dumbbell and swore under her breath at the weight, almost falling down again, finally she pulled herself up and began to walk back.
“i swear if he were around, devi maiyya, i’d throw these at him,” she muttered, eyes narrowed.
“di!” he was making a quick call to his sister while getting ready, his blue tooth earpiece clipped to his ear, hands deftly knotting a silver grey knitted tie.
“hello, chhotey, how are you? all well?” anjali was happy to hear her brother, she missed him. she didn’t like disturbing him when he was working on a collection and he would not call her every day she knew. but he would miss her after a couple of days and make a short quick call, just as she’d expected.
“all well, think we’re ok, we’ve got it… nani alright? and mami? not too lonely without akash i hope? what are you busy with?” he kept talking while pulling on his charcoal grey linen waistcoat over the crisp white freshly laundered shirt, and buttoning it with precise movements.
“nothing, chhotey, just this havan i was planning…” anjali started.
“haven? di! not again!” he sounded amused, “anyway, where’s jija ji? all well with him i hope?” asr knew how important his brother in law was to his sister. to her happiness. he was eternally grateful to shyam for bringing his sister’s smile back, making her feel lovely and whole again. over the past three odd years that his sister had been married, asr had also come to respect his sister’s husband and value his opinion.
when you lose your faith and trust at 14, when a sense of betrayal clings to you like a second skin, always in your consciousness… it’s hard to let anyone into your life. asr had reserved all his love and tender emotions for just one human being. his beloved di. always a part of his life, di… who was to get married that night when things fell apart.
jija ji made di happy, not once in a while… but every day of their lives together. asr hadn’t been able to resist that. his feelings, for years bridled and kept in strict check, had flowed out unrestrained. he’d grown fond of jija ji. the first man he’d been willing to trust after his father shattered his faith. yes, even though he had known his father was unfaithful to his mother and his mother suffered, a little boy had held on to a hope, had trusted his pita ji, believing some day all would be well.
till that day had come when all was lost.
“what? he’s in australia? suddenly?… tell you, these clients… anyway, it’s work. i am happy for him,” asr slipped on his black calfskin hermes darbys, “ok di, see you tomorrow… no, everything is fine… ok, i’ll get some frangipani for your puja… bye!”
asr strode out and made his way to jean pierre’s villa.
“what do you think, aahnav?” jean pierre looked thoughtfully at khushi, “twist a leetle away from me, cherie!” he requested.
khushi stood stiffly, patently uncomfortable.
asr, jean pierre, lavanya and akash had been talking about the colours and fabrics for the collection, wondering about local materials they’d found when asr said he needed to see these draped on a person.
khushi had been sitting quietly behind akash, making little notes of what he asked her to, and since lavanya wanted to see the effect too it was decided khushi would be the model.
when khushi demurred, jean pierre laughed and trying to make her feel comfortable jested, “now, khushi, if you’d been worried in ze old days of bali, i would have said oui oui, i understand…” his gallic shrug and accent were accentuated.
“main samjhi nahin… i mean, i don’t understand…” khushi looked blankly at him.
“you know, those days ze women of this island… hmmm? zey went TOPLESS…” jean pierre grinned cheekily.
“kya?!! what… what’s that?” khushi still did not understand, “topless? you mean no top?” she tapped her head. she couldn’t imagine how such a thing was possible…
lavanya started laughing, akash had an embarrassed smile he tried to hide, asr looked on, his face impassive.
“no, khushi, ze ladies… wore nothing on top… see? here…” jean pierre pointed clearly at his own chest, jabbing his index finger trying to get khushi to understand what he meant.
khushi went red, from chin to cheek to ears, her whole face flushed, her ears flamed; her neck went hot. she lowered her gaze swiftly, unable to look at anyone in the room.
asr got up and walked slowly across to jean pierre and took the fabric he was trying to drape from his hands, he turned to khushi and said, “come!”
his voice sounded nothing like it had earlier on the beach. it seemed clear and unhampered. it felt calming, reassuring even, and was she imagining it? almost protective.
she looked up cautiously, peeping through her lashes, worried that again he would do something awful and unpredictable.
she was met with a steady sombre gaze. there was no laughter in his eyes, only a matter of fact, quiet look. he stepped up to her and held the corner of the fabric to her shoulder.
“lavanya, pins,” he said and waited till lavanya had pinned the material to khushi’s kurta. then he looked straight into khushi’s eyes. her hazel eyes still held trepidation, the merest hint of a smile touched his chocolate irises, “ready?” he asked.
she nodded obediently, some part of her washed over with relief and a feeling of being safe… clean. that topless story had been a bit much for a girl brought up in a home where such things were not taken lightly, in fact never mentioned.
he draped the length of wild orange silk with swirls of batik in dark red and flecks of many hues around her, pleating here, folding there… lavanya helped with the pins and tucks.
when it was done, he stepped back and gave her an appraising look. then without a word he went outside.
he returned with a large bunch of fresh, luscious, red frangipani in his hand. he walked up to khushi and still not saying a thing reached out and unclipped the single slide holding her hair up. that morning khushi had been running late, no time to make her tight plait, she had twisted her hair into a casual knot instead. her auburn tresses opened and fell in a swathe across her back, and as happens with fluid silken locks, a few strands swung forward onto her forehead.
asr tucked a tendril behind her ear, she could feel his breath touch her ears, she closed her eyes… then she felt his calloused fingers at the nape of her neck.
goosebumps shot across her skin. what was he doing!
a crazy tingle spread along her back and the pit of her stomach; her neck again went hot. she took a ragged breath in, and tried to hold still. no one was paying her even the slightest attention, everyone’s eyes were on the drape of the material, its sway and feel.
“agung… yes, it’s got that essence of a volcano seething…” lavanya murmured, touching and flicking the fabric. akash and jean pierre spoke about something.
khushi could hardly breathe as she felt his fingers brush against her skin, push her hair gently away from her neck. soft, velvet petals landed on the nape of her long arched neck… he was putting flowers in her hair!
khushi pursed her lips and tried to stay focused. her mind was willing her to places she feared… yet oh she longed for them.
what was happening to her? why was she feeling like this? why was her skin awakening to a touch of unfamiliar hands? yet they didn’t feel that unfamiliar. there were things happening inside her which even bua ji… no, no, even babu ji would know nothing about. and if billo mausi ever found out there would be mayhem surely.
but she couldn’t stop the feelings.
he had finished with the flowers, she felt his hands move away and stole a glance at him; she found him looking at her profile with a dark silent gaze.
then there was a smooth, slight movement just above where his tie was knotted perfectly. did he just swallow?
she so wanted him to wrap her in his arms. khushi almost sprang to attention at the thought… why were thoughts so quick? why did they flit across before you could catch them, tame them, temper them a bit?
what was she doing… and why did she again remember that kabooter with red beady eyes glaring at her!
asr turned and walked over to the other side of the room.
khushi could feel herself grow uncomfortable at her own thoughts. she stood rigid, waiting for sanity to descend.
the drive to the volcano had been long, but khushi was so absorbed in the sights flying by her window, she hadn’t noticed. asr and lavanya had gone in asr’s suv, the rest of them were in the hired car jean pierre was driving.
khushi was a little sad thinking this was their last evening in bali, but also quite happy that she would see bua ji soon. she was missing her world as she knew it. never in her life had she thought that she’d actually ever go to a foreign country.
foreign. imagine that.
she smiled thinking how everyone at gomti sadan would react when they heard that she, khushi kumari gupta, had gone to a country outside india.
yes, maybe she had taken a sudden and a spur of the moment sort of decision and yes, many things had been completely confounding, even scary, in the past three odd weeks, but she was still glad she had taken a step outside her world.
“khushi kumari gupta, jhansi ki rani didn’t become jhansi ki rani by just sitting in her palace, samjhi tum… remember, even if you’re scared, you have to do what you must do… babu ji always says that…” lost in her thoughts, khushi hadn’t realised she’d spoken the last few words out loud.
“darti hai par karti hai,” payal laughed and said the words they often used to describe her little sister, “what are you now scared of khushi?”
(she’s scared but she does it anyway…)
payal was sitting at the back, khushi turned around with an embarrassed smile and said, “nahin, jiji, i was just thinking…”
she didn’t notice jean pierre smile.
the volcano was silent now, yet you could feel its anger and power. as you walked up the slope you could never quite shake off the sense of fiery lava flowing down, rushing and cascading, annihilating villages, forests, life. khushi and payal held hands and walked gingerly on the rough gravel strewn paths.
“jiji!” khushi said suddenly excited, “pata hai, this angry mountain, from which fire comes out and smoke too… and everyone is so scared, it reminds me of shiv ji…”
“shiv ji!! khushi, kya kah rahi ho tum ab?” payal was taken aback by this sudden assertion.
(shiva!! khushi, what are you saying now!)
“par jiji, don’t you see? it’s just like shiv ji when he’s angry… remember? how he had danced in his rage… across the universe, his anger like fire swirling around him? how beautiful he was, and how uncaring of what he destroyed… just like that…!” khushi sounded excited.
“hai re nand kissore!” payal exclaimed like their dramatic aunt, “sanka devi’s sanak is back… the volcano is now shiv ji!” payal sighed and giggled at her sister’s ever fertile imagination.
she sat silent next to him as he drove down the mountain. jean pierre had asked lavanya to ride with him since he wanted to talk to her and akash about something.
khushi had looked at payal thinking she’d join her in asr’s car, but a strange sort of look passed between akash ji and her jiji, then payal told khushi to go ahead, she’d come with jean pierre.
khushi decided she may be wary of being alone with that totally unpredictable laad governor, but she was not scared, she would go with him alone… and survive it too.
what she hadn’t factored in was the crush of sensations that started to crowd the cabin of the suv as they drove in silence. evening had begun to fall, she couldn’t see much as she gazed out. she turned and sat staring straight ahead. the only movement in the car was that of his hand on the stick shift. she tried to guess which gear he was moving to, she’d learned driving only the year before, soon after her eighteenth birthday. babu ji had insisted and once in a way she had even driven their tiny car, though usually she rode her scooter everywhere, a nice happy blue bajaj, she really enjoyed riding it. wonder what it would be like to take this khadoos man on her scooter, she thought.
she drew in a breath and stared wide eyed ahead. again she had thought of this man in a way that was not required. not correct.
“stop fidgeting!” he ground out through clenched teeth.
“kya?!!” she turned and stared at him, caught unawares. he was looking at her with an exasperated air. in the not too clear light she could see his brown eyes glittering.
he saw her startled expression, eyes wide and filling with worry, lips trembling, pert chin trying to take stock and beginning to thrust out in defiance, and then in the dimming light his eyes caught sight of a red frangipani flower peeping out from behind her left ear. it didn’t look as fresh as it had that morning, but he couldn’t look away from it. he stared… and he could feel a surge rising in him.
the murmur of unspoken things grew deafening in the enclosed space. khushi gazed at him transfixed. what was that sense of waiting, waiting for something to break… break free… and flow and cover all earth and heaven and beyond with its resonance, its rage, its fire.
“hey devi maiyya,” the words went through her mind of their own bidding, she heard nothing else, only the look in his eyes. could one hear a look? yet that’s what she felt… she could hear his eyes, they wanted something, what… what?
if she could tell she’d give it to him she had no doubt.
he slammed hard on the brakes and stopped the car. in one simple fluid motion he unhooked his seat belt, got out of the car, went round the bonnet to her side and opened the door. she watched him, and when he stood at her door just looking, she looked back quietly, feeling a helplessness begin to seep in and take over her limbs, her breath, her very heart beat.
in his eyes she saw without any doubt a crazy pitching hunger. sheer craving hunger.
he swallowed hard and stepped close suddenly.
“come over here” she heard his whisper, on its hoarseness rode a possession and a surrender.
they moved toward one another, together, in unison, arms reaching out, clutching, holding, bringing near, keeping close and closer still. hungering.
his head was buried in her neck, the flowers were crushed against his face, their evening fragrance sweet and enveloping. he turned his head and took a deep breath, inhaling her scent, he gently kissed her neck. the muscle tautened and and he felt her quiver.
“khushi!” he whispered.
she clutched him tighter still, her whole body shook with a want. a guttural moan escaped her lips.
he lifted his head and looked at her, her head thrown back, eyes half closed, lips slightly apart, he could see her tiny little incisors gleaming in the dark.
“dammit, khushi!” he said as his lips came down on hers, his tongue darting in to play with her perfect little teeth.
khushi felt a jolt running through her. his lips, how much she had wanted them on hers, how terribly beautiful it felt to have him touch her, search her… she knew he looked for something, and she arched and ached to give it to him.
who was this man? she had no idea, she didn’t need to have any idea any more.
she pushed closer into him, sitting in the car while he stood outside, drawing her tight against him… his lips moved convulsively over her lips, then clamped hard…
“kiss me back, khushi,” he muttered, she had no idea what she was supposed to do, then she stopped thinking and let her body take over. slowly she began to kiss him back, tiny light quick kisses on his taut, defined lips… till her lips wanted to cover his and bite his lower lip, brush against the dip on his upper lip… her tongue licked where she’d nipped him then slid into his mouth… searching, looking for what she didn’t know. perhaps his breath, his heart, his what?
she felt an insane longing to kiss him where he had kissed her earlier. on the long column of his neck, his throat. she let her lips find their way over his neck. he turned his head and blew into her ear, she couldn’t help the streak of pleasure running through her body, then he tenderly tugged at her ear lobe with his teeth.
she wriggled and said “mmm, arnav ji,” that was all she could manage.
her hands till now clutching at his arms and shoulders, began to feel their own yearning, she let her hand roam over his waistcoat, her fingers sought his shirt, she lay her palm flat against his chest and despite getting completely lost in the moment, she could feel his heart… beating… against her fingers.
she sighed and nestled her head against his shoulder, letting her fingers slip in between the buttons of his shirt and touching his skin. smooth, firm skin, slightest graze of springy hair on her finger tips.
she smiled at the innocence of that skin her hands felt.
he groaned, his threshold breached, his control utterly broken.
he scooped her up in his arms and brought her out of the car, then still carrying her, he opened the back door of the suv and put her on the seat… he followed her in and pulled the door shut.
he pushed her gently till she lay flat on the back seat and then lay down beside her, holding her cheek with the gentlest touch he turned her face toward him and started kissing her lips. she felt the pressure of his lips, she shook with a feeling she was sure she had never felt in her life.
“khushi?” the softest whisper. what was he trying to ask her?
khushi shuddered again.
“this can’t go on,” he said, his breath uneven, his hands seeking hers, he pulled her hand to his lips and kissed each finger taking his time. warm, slow kisses… she watched him mesmerised…
“this can’t go on…” he said again… as she stroked his lips feeling the headiness of the hour, “i can’t let you go… no.”
then with an air of finality he suddenly sat up and ran his fingers through his tousled thick black hair… “khushi, there’s only one way to tackle this…”
khushi’s brow furrowed slightly. tackle? tackle which “this”?
he looked at her and said clearly, “come live with me… when we go back, pack your bags and move in with me… mere saath, mere paas, khushi… come stay with me.”
(with me, close to me, khushi…)
what was that he was saying, khushi wondered? had she heard him right? and what was this stay with me? how could she pack her bags and just move into his home?
in all her life, khushi had never heard of such a thing.
“aap kya keh rahe hain?” she sounded fragile, confused.
(what are you saying?)
he gathered her close to him and said, “don’t worry, i’ll be there, everything will be fine.”
“no, arnav ji, i don’t understand, what are you saying… how can i just go and live with you…? i mean…”
he started nuzzling her neck, “stop talking, dammit,” his voice reverberated against her as he kissed her throat, her chin, hovering close to her lips…
“no! no! i don’t understand…”
khushi could feel panic setting in. she started struggling, “how can i live with you… ” her voice rose, “we aren’t even married!” the words were out before she knew it.
he went still. time passed as neither moved. then his arms began to push her away.
“married?” his voice had lost all its warmth, its desire, “what are you talking about? sorry, khushi, i don’t intend marrying. what we have between us on the other hand i will not deny. there’s only one way to handle this… it’s the ideal solution, in fact. live with me… i need you, you need me, so what’s the problem?”
“what’s the problem?” khushi was close to tears. what was this man saying? and how dare he say such a thing! her anger came just when she thought she’d burst into tears.
she sat up and opened the door, and stepped out.
“no! i can’t live with you… how dare you… how dare you say such a thing to me?” her voice rose and touched the darkness.
“how dare i? don’t you dare talk to me in that tone of voice, samjhi tum!” he was livid, her anger fueling his.
khushi turned on her heels and started to run. she had to get away from him. the road ahead was dark and empty, she didn’t care… she had to get away.
she didn’t know how long she ran like that, she didn’t care, she wanted to escape that horrible moment, that feeling of degradation… how could he! she felt unclean almost.
tears streamed down her face, she sobbed uncontrollably as she ran.
when strong arms caught her from the back and gripped her tight, a part of her was not surprised. she knew he’d find her, he wouldn’t let her go, wouldn’t abandon her… she knew that. she wanted to turn into those rock solid arms and hold him tight, but she couldn’t. never again… not after this.
he swung her around to face him and his eyes blazed at her.
even in pitch darkness. even then, she knew they blazed.
“don’t you ever do that… d’you understand?” he yelled as he shook her.
holding her hand, he dragged her back to the car, waited while she got into the passenger seat, then drove back at a brutal speed, jawline set, eyes looking straight ahead.
when he reached the resort, he finally turned to look at her. her face was ashen and she sat there still, whimpering.