“how… could… you… even… think.. you could get away from me, dammit?” asr asked khushi in a voice roughened by need, rasping for it tries to hide hurt.
the call to the guptas had been made. now he wanted to get back to doing something about that bright alive feeling he was assailed by after two nights practically of no sleep.
he had paused between the words to kiss her on her eyes, cheeks, forehead…
khushi’s eyes were drowsy with the feelings rising and swallowing her as they surged.
“kiss me, don’t stop…” she whispered, her eyes closed, her lips quivering, “i was so scared…”
he stopped kissing her instantly and peered at her.
“khushi?!!” asr murmured gently, “kya baat hai? why are you crying? i am here, sweetheart… you’re okay…”
(khushi? what’s the matter? why are you crying?)
she was shivering slightly now, at last the tension that had held her taut ever since she had received that call from the ciao darling woman was receding… it was breaking away from where it had lain tightly knotted inside and was storming out of her being. her breath shook, her head felt woolly.
“aap ko kaise pata chala hum yahan hain? humne toh kaha tha…” khushi asked blinking at him, a helpless childlike expression settling on her face.
(How did you know i was here? i had told you…)
she could feel his chest move as he laughed under his breath, “exactly… kissi aur se pyaar karti ho tum… of course, that’s not possible… so it had to mean you were in some sort of trouble and pagal that you are…” he sounded matter of fact.
(exactly… you love someone else…)
“kya? kya?” khushi cut in, focussing suddenly, “why why? why is it not possible for me to love anyone else… why? aap apne aap ko samajhte kya hain?” she struggled to leave his arms and move away.
(who do you think you are?)
he held on nonchalantly and drawled looking down at her face through half closed eyes, “tumhara laad governor hoon… aur kisse pyaar kar sakti ho tum? tell me…” she made a move, he held her tighter.
(i am your lord governor, who else can you love? tell me…)
“actually don’t tell me, just let me do what you said i must…” he pulled her up so he could resume kissing her again as they lay there on the sofa at her home in gomti sadan.
his lips were warm and playful, his tongue made its way deliberately into her mouth and caressed, cajoled, teased.
“what me… must… kya?” khushi was blushing and feeling flushed at the same time, her heart pounded loudly and suddenly she was overwhelmed with shyness… so, of course, she had to be brash, “kya kaha humne?” she asked still straining away. her voice was low and guttural, she wished she could sound off hand and unaffected. this man!
(what did i say?)
“kiss me… don’t stop!” he repeated her words and a slow smile began to slant his lips.
khushi shrieked almost, heat rising up her ears in utter embarrassment…
the night was dark and silent, khushi knew if you looked up at the sky now the stars would be countless and she’d see the bright one that was her mother and the one next to it that was babu ji… laad governor’s mother and father would be there too she was sure.
she closed her eyes finally and reached up to place her lips back against his, she wanted his kisses to say things to her that she sometimes understood and most times was too overwhelmed by to decipher, her mind not quite functioning.
she had never had much time for the giddy romance novels preeto and her friends read, she was sure they exaggerated and said silly things. beside, she hadn’t really planned to fall in love, she had in fact thought she would not marry at all… yeah, babu ji would really have to get her married to that lizard she had brought for him from bali…
khushi chuckled. laad governor would throttle the lizard she was sure… no, he’d just glare at it balefully till it meekly scampered away from the wedding mandap.
yes, khushi was feeling definitely lightheaded. was it the tension though or was it the attention of the man whose hands held her like they’d never let her go, one didn’t know.
khushi kissed him breathlessly, she started opening the buttons of his shirt as she liked to and put her palm against his heart, the hair on his chest was bristly, she could feel the puckered skin of his nipple… she moaned lightly as she broke off the kiss only to bury her face against his chest. she kissed him on his bare skin and moved up tenderly caressing all the way up the long column of his neck, right up to under his chin… she could feel the graze of his stubble on her lips.
she sighed. he had exhaled quickly and his breath fanned her skin… “khushi,” his voice soft, almost inaudible.
khushi reached up and held his face with her hands on either side. she felt safe.
then a thought struck her.
“nahiiin!” she drew away with a jerk.
“i can’t do this…” she pushed him off and was standing up before he could react.
“khushi! what’s the matter…?? come back right here!” he growled and without giving her a chance to say anything more, he caught her wrist in a punishing grip and pulled her hard. she stumbled and fell back against him, landing on his lap mostly, her feet going up at a crazy angle, her hair tumbling out of its loosely tied parandi, her pompoms swinging wildly.
“no! no!… arnav ji… i can’t…” she said “she said they’d… no… if anything happens to you… nahiin nahiin…” she was babbling and flailing her arms, struggling to regain balance… leave him.
“shut up, khushi!” asr glared at her.
she hit out.
“i said, stop it!” his teeth were clenched, his voice whip like.
“don’t you trust me dammit? do you think two stupid con artists can do as they please… and i… arnav singh raizada, will just sit around and let them get away with it?” he sounded so furious, khushi paused.
asr was looking at her with extreme anger now, his brow tightly knitted, jaw set in a hard line.
but khushi loved him… she couldn’t not fear, not worry…
she reached out and stroked his cheek unable to stop herself, a lone tear slid down from her eye… if anything should happen to arnav ji.
he sat quietly looking at her with that dark pulsating gaze. he was wearing the clothes he had been wearing since the morning, his usual three piece suit with the jacket neatly buttoned down, a white shirt, he had taken off the tie in the plane, restless and feeling helpless. the clothes had started to look a little tired and creased in places, and yet he looked devastatingly handsome, the brown gaberdine of his jacket accentuated his irises and made his skin look earthier still. khushi could see his face looked drawn…
he lifted his hands languidly and fastened the button khushi had undone. with a grim look he got up and turned to her. she stared up at him, wondering what he was doing.
“come!” he said in his peremptory way, she started, goosebumps riding her shoulders. she always felt a funny thrill when he said that word in that particular way of his.
khushi followed him without asking where they were headed.
garima lay in bed, eyes wide open, fretting. it was past one in the morning but sleep eluded her completely. the entire day had practically gone worrying about khushi, now damad ji had called and said she was fine, she was at gomti sadan. garima sighed, her heart had not yet settled completely after all the terrible thoughts that had coursed through her through out the day. was her daughter safe? where was she? had something happened to her? was she hurt? was she kidnapped? was she… alive? garima had gone around a set of worries endlessly again and again, her mind unable to tell her which fear was to be heeded which discarded.
now she knew khushi was alright, but…
why had she gone away like that without telling anybody? khushi bitiya was always careful about not making shashi ji and herself worry. she would never go anywhere without telling them… garima would scold her at times and say khushi was becoming too independent, not even twenty, she thought she could do what she pleased… but garima knew in her heart that her younger daughter might seem flighty at times but she was extremely responsible and she also loved with all her heart, giving all she had.
which is why she would never make her amma and babu ji worry… or her bua ji and jiji… she would do anything for those she loved in fact. so why did she just go away…
garima sat up with a start.
“kya hua, garima ji…?” shashi gupta asked woken up by the sudden movement beside him.
(what’s the matter, garima ji?)
“nahin,” garima demurred, her breathing was slightly erratic, she’d had the most terrible thought. hey devi maiyya, let it not be true… but was damad ji in some sort of danger? was khushi bitiya behaving so uncharacteristically because of that?
the thought bothered garima badly. it made no sense she knew… even if damad ji was in danger why would her daughter suddenly vanish to lucknow without telling anyone. unless someone had threatened her and forced her to…
garima almost stopped breathing.
no… she told herself to not imagine things. just because you’re her amma doesn’t mean you can sense everything, know everything, garima admonished herself.
a little voice in her whispered, you do know. you are her amma.
garima determinedly pulled the covers over herself and lay down, she reached out and caught shashi ji’s hand in a tight grip and closed her eyes.
arnav bitwa was with bitiya, he would take care of her. khushi would be fine. fine.
her husband’s hand pressed hers slightly. she heard him say in his even tone, “don’t worry, damad ji will make sure our bitiya is alright and anyway… tomorrow you are going to get her married, aren’t you… hamri dono bitiya ghar chhorke apne ghar jaayengi…”
(both our daughters will leave home and go to their own home…)
he sounded forlorn. this whole custom of sending daughters away after marriage had always bothered shashi gupta. it made no sense really… and yet, that was how it had to be.
garima turned and drew his hand to her cheek, her eyelids getting heavier.
khushi sat without speaking next to him as asr drove down silent empty dark roads.
where were they going?
khushi stole a sideways glance at her husband to be.
the moment the thought registered, she blushed and looked quickly away, peering at the blackness…
when the lights came into view suddenly, she was taken aback at first.
then her mouth opened and her lips formed a perfect “o”, her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with her hands.
it was sheesh mahal.
why had arnav ji brought her to this hotel in the middle of the night? what did he want to do?
was he going to shout at her again for dashing into him and spoiling his clothes? was he going to make her pay for his ruined show? was all this really a bleak dark joke? he didn’t love her… they were not getting married… he had done all this only to take revenge!!!
hey devi maiyya, raksha karna, khushi thought.
“no, she can’t save you now, khushi kumari gupta!” asr said with a deadpan look; khushi had, as she often did when highly stressed, spoken aloud her thoughts.
“you better get ready to suffer… for the rest of your life,” he threw in casually but there was a threat in his voice.
no, not what, khushi thought, what the.
“suffer? what do you mean? why… why should i suffer? hum aapse dartey nahin hain, samjhe aap?!!” khushi retorted, her voice shaking despite her holding tight the edge of the car seat for support… how come the seat had cloth upholstery though?
(i’m not scared of you…)
“oh really?!” he turned to her and gave a sardonic smile, stopping the suv right in front of the imposing structure.
“then why are you gripping my arm so tight, khushi?” asr cocked an eyebrow, tilted his head slightly and looked at her amused.
khushi gulped, yelped and let go of his arm… then she snapped open her seat belt quickly and jumped out of the car.
but he had reached her side of the door before she could step out and bolt.
“not so fast, khushi kumari gupta!” he caught hold of her wrist and started pulling her after him up the steps of the hotel. the liveried durwan with the huge curled moustache held open the door with a beaming smile.
“sir, good evening, sir!” the man said to asr who gave him a curt barely there nod and walked in, still dragging his bride to be.
a little smile flitted across his face as he thought that. but khushi was behind him, all she saw was his rigid back and relentless steps. where were they going?
“right here…” he stopped suddenly and said. khushi looked around dazedly. here? in the middle of the foyer? what did he want to do with her?
and then she remembered… dark furious eyes were boring into her, she was staring at a crunchy orange jalebi crushed against a black silk shirt, the syrup had squirted all over, sticky shiny syrup, her eyes were transfixed between the bright jalebi and the brown gaze… something hot was falling on her face at regular intervals.
it was this stranger’s angry fiery breath.
khushi jumped back.
“exactly, khushi… yaad aaya?” asr said in a soft sibilant whisper, “do you remember? what you did?”
“haan toh!” khushi tried to draw herself up and face the adversary, he had been playing with her all this while, had he!
“i can pay you, d’you understand?” she adopted as peremptory a note as she could, like cures like after all, “i can even buy you a new silk shirt with my money… i have got my own salary you know… i earn a lakh of rupees every month!”
“pay me for the shirt?” he looked at her incredulously, “but what about the real damage you did? what about driving me crazy?” he jerked her forward and she fell, right against him, her hand came up to break her fall and slammed on his chest as it had the first time she had set eyes on him. her eyes grew huge, oh no…
she looked up hastily and sure enough he was staring at her.
then her knees almost gave way and she would have fallen if his arms hadn’t been holding her at the waist.
his eyes were clear translucent brown, the light from a candle on the reception counter was reflecting off his irises, adding an incandescent richness to them. chocolate, earth, almonds, jaggery, the tangy water in which you dipped golgappa… all things brown and wonderful flitted through khushi’s mind.
for the eyes were not angry… they sparkled, they shone, they were laughing and… khushi swallowed hard, they were flirting.
“do you know, from that moment on… when you barged into me, almost killed me with a plate full of jalebis… i have not been able to think of anything but you… i couldn’t concentrate on my work, i couldn’t get through a normal day, i couldn’t, hell… think, imagine, make, create, plan the most important show of the year… nothing… all i could see before me… were…” he paused.
khushi was gaping at him, entranced.
“jalebis?” she whispered helpfully.
“no, khushi, i am a diabetic… i don’t eat sweets… what’s more, unlike some people i know, i don’t fantasize about food…,” he laughed, a flash of white teeth sent khushi’s heartbeat racing again… as though the dhakdhak set off by the brown eyes weren’t enough… now the white teeth were doing their thing.
“your eyes, you pagal ladki…” he said gently… an uncharacteristic unusual rare precious gentleness.
khushi’s knees buckled again.
“i could only see them, think of them, and want them… want you… not a moment’s peace till i found you… well, till aman found you… and i heard your voice on the phone… by the way, it’s not haylow, it’s hello!” he grinned and pecked her on her cheek.
“haylow!” khushi gurgled trying to sound cool.
“yes, of course… drove me mad, you did. so now… you must pay!” he started to draw her closer, bending his head, ready to extract payment.
khushi wriggled free and exclaimed, “ramanchi!”
asr’s face scrunched up, a puzzled look on his face, “aman ji? you want aman here now? the poor chap is fast asleep in delhi and why…”
“aman ji nahiiin ramanchi… cheating… arnav ji.. cheating… aap cheating kar rahe hain!” khushi accused as she explained.
(not aman ji, ramanchi… cheating, atrnav ji… cheating… you are cheating!)
“khushi! come here,” asr ordered, he really needed to hold her now. he had been beside himself with worry… what if something had happened to her… what if he hadn’t got there in time… what if they harmed her… he had run with all his might that night in sheesh mahal… but too late, he had been not fast enough, not good enough… it was too late to save maa. she had already shot herself…
asr’s eyes closed as memory dashed against him and halted him for a moment.
how dare that woman threaten khushi… she would pay, he would not let her get away with this.
“aapne jo humey pagal banaya, usska kya? usska? kahiye, mr arnav singh raizada!” khushi charged still standing away… “jabse aap miley, hum aapke baare mein sochna band hi nahin kar paaye, aap itne burey jo hain… pata hai, woh lal aankh wala safed kabootar…” khushi looked at asr with huge eyes brimming with complaint.
(you made me go crazy too, what about that? that? say, mr arnav singh raizada! from the time i’ve met you, i couldn’t stop thinking about you… you’re so terrible… do you know, that white pigeon with red eyes?)
“i thought that kabootar was you…” asr’s eyes narrowed as she said this. a pigeon?
“and also you came to my dreams… you were a coolie!” khushi whined.
“a pigeon… a coolie… and… a frangipani chudail,” asr burst out laughing… now his whole face was lit, his eyes danced, his entire set of front teeth were visible and dazzling white and khushi’s dhakdhak reached such a crescendo, she had to clutch her heart…
“what’s the matter, khushi? tum theek ho?” he was again at her side in no time.
(are you alright?)
then he just caught her in his arms and kissed her deeply on the mouth standing right there in the middle of the foyer of sheesh mahal.
khushi felt herself melt and begin to kiss him back.
after a while she murmured in protest, “how can you do this here, everyone can see us!”
asr just picked her up in his arms in response and said matter of factly, “let them!”
he began striding with her up the stairs on one side of the reception desk… grand wide shallow steps went all the way up in a curve, he kept going up the steps till he reached the floor he wanted, then he turned left and walked out of a covered hallway onto an open terrace. he set her down there and said, “this was my favourite spot in the house, right here.”
khushi looked around at the square shaped terrace lined with potted plants. where would arnav ji play she wondered or maybe he didn’t play, he just sat there planning how to get after people. khushi grinned.
asr saw her smiling, instinctively he reached out and touched her lips… her smile.
“so you will pay for the damage you did for the rest of your life?” he asked huskily.
“yes, laad governor… but only if you’ll pay too,” khushi looked demure and peeped up at him coyly.
“yeah right… and which fool is paying you a lakh of rupees a month?” he replied.
she laughed and stood there looking around. night brought its mystery to this corner of the old haveli… moonlight gleamed on curved balustrades and the flowering trees and topiaries in the garden below. a warm floral scent soaked the air. something waited. khushi recalled a moonlit night in bali when she had been sitting under a tree talking to her stars and he had come by…
he walked up to her now, his steps slightly menacing, a catlike grace in his movements, and slid his arms around her from the back. khushi rested against his wide firm chest and tilted her head… as she looked up, her breath practically stopped.
up there in the inky dark sky twinkled millions of stars. khushi gazed rapt. it was perhaps three in the morning, yet she felt wide awake. the man holding her was pulling her closer, his lips nuzzled her neck, he bit her lightly and she shivered arching, giving him access…
“remember, khushi, never ever leave me like that again… never…” he said against her ear, his lips were wrecking her concentration as they moved over her ear lobe and yet she heard the seriousness in his voice, the need… the love.
she caught his right hand and brought it up to her lips and kissed his palm, his fingers, then she guided it to where her heart beat and kept it there.
she woke up before him. he was still sleeping on the sofa outside.
she ran and brushed her teeth, splashed water on her face, combed her hair and wore a blue churidar kurta with silver gota and tiny red pompoms. she checked her reflection in the mirror on the cupboard and decided she looked quite pretty… she chose a tiny red bindi and a couple of blue glass bangles as accessories, then she pulled out her favourite silver mojris and slipped them on.
rushing around the way she always did, she hooked on small jhumkas with red meena work. it delighted her to see that her ruby ring matched her red jhumkas. this she ascertained by holding her ring finger by her ears and peering intently at the mirror.
when she was satisfied with the way she looked, she went to the kitchen to make some coffee for laad governor.
he had not slept the night before he had told her, and last night by the time they got back and slept it must have been four a.m. she hoped he had slept well on the small sofa… she had offered to let him use her bed, but he had refused… actually he had fallen asleep half way through their argument.
khushi took out the bottle of instant coffee they kept at home. arnav ji liked his espresso coffee, khushi frowned, would he like this? she was looking out of the window still frowning when the red eye kabootar flew up to the window sill and perched.
“aa gaye, janaab? adaab adaab,” khushi grinned and spoke calmly to the bird.
(you’re here, sir?… greetings greetings!)
“now i shall make some nice hot coffee,” khushi said in all seriousness to her feathered companion, “then i will take it to arnav ji and wake him up, then he will drink the coffee, say it is terrible, what the what what the, then he’ll shout at me, isn’t this world wonderful?! and if you think i am mad for saying that… let me tell you, my red eyed friend, you are right… hum pagal hi toh hain… nahin toh itna khush hotey kya yeh sochke ki aaj shyam hamari shadi ho rahi hai ek khadoos rakshas jwalamukhi magarmach laad governor se? after this evening, my whole life will change and i will be in trouble for the rest of my days… i am so fortunate, hey devi maiyya, you are the best… kabootar ji, i will miss you, why don’t you come with us to delhi? wahan shayad aapke liye koi achhi si ladki mil jaaye?”
(and if you think i am mad for saying that… let me tell you, my red eyed friend, you are right… i am mad of course… otherwise would i be so happy thinking this evening i am to be married to a mean monster volcano crocodile lord governor? after this evening, my whole life will change and i will be in trouble for the rest of my days… i am so fortunate, hey devi maiyya, you are the best… kabootar ji, i will miss you, why don’t you come with us to delhi? maybe we’ll get a good girl for you there?)
“shut up, khushi!” her soon to be husband hollered from the sofa, “stop talking to that bird and make me some coffee!”
find all chapters here