Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Arnav’s face was impassive as he waited with NK for Robbie to come to the door, but inwardly he was swearing viciously.
Despite the urgency, he hadn’t missed the graffiti covered walls; the ‘Out of Order’ sign in front of the elevator that looked like it had been hanging there for months, nor the poorly lit staircases that had more broken bulbs than working ones. The damn building was a fire hazard. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
No, the worst was the fucking door to their apartment. Jesus, one decent kick and the cheap prehung would fly off the hinges.
No security. Zero protection. One more strike against him.
He had been so caught up in her, he hadn’t given a single thought to her safety. Predators were bred in such dark corners. The hairs on his neck rose as his mind supplied him with an endless reel of horrific scenarios in high definition. How two women who looked like Khushi and Robbie managed to live here without incident was a fucking miracle.
She was not coming back here. In fact, their damn landlord would be hearing from the head of the city’s Buildings Department tomorrow morning.
His attention snapped back as the door jerked open.
“What’s he doing here?” Robbie exclaimed as her eyes narrowed on Arnav.
“It’s around 30 degrees out here, Dollface. You can give him the third degree once I’m warm, okay?”
Robbie wasn’t in the mood to be gracious, particularly towards the man responsible for her current state of anger and fear, but concern for Khushi overrode the rest. With grudging reluctance, she moved aside for the men to enter.
Arnav shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat as he leaned against the wall nearest to the door. He knew his presence was an intrusion, yet of their own volition, his eyes swept the interior of the space Khushi had called home for two years, hungry for something that held a piece of her.
Robbie spun on her heels, prepared to blast the man she’d directed hundreds of curses at over the last four days, but the words halted in her throat as she fully took him in.
Arnav’s face was a revelation. The proud features bore the marks of suffering, the raw pain in his eyes were emphasized by the harsh shadows of exhaustion.
She turned silently to NK, who had already made himself comfortable on the couch.
“Told you,” he mouthed.
Damn. No woman of flesh and blood could disregard such a disquieting display of unguarded male pain. Her heart yielded even as her frustration mounted. No wonder there were no best friend in the fairy tales, second hand romance was exhausting.
“Tell us what happened,” NK urged.
“We were planning to go job hunting today, but I got a call to come in for an early morning re-shoot. I came back just before noon. No Khushi. Just a note saying she needed to clear her head and she’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Robbie, that’s hardly something to be alarmed over,” NK replied, puzzled.
“You don’t understand, other than him,” she tilted her head to indicate Arnav, “Khushi’s never spent the night away.”
“Have you tried calling her? Is there a friend or colleague she might go see?” NK asked.
Robbie shook her head.
“The calls are going straight to voicemail. She’s friendly with co-workers, but keeps a distance. I checked our emergency stash and she took out a hundred. That hardly covers anything!” her voice cracked with tension as she finished, revealing the alarm rioting along her nerves.
“How could you leave her like that?” Arnav interrupted, jolting both NK and Robbie with the gravel hardness of his voice.
“Because we have bills to pay asshole! And thanks to you, Khushi was let go without a job reference. You may not think much of it, but having this roof over our head is preferable to the streets!” Robbie threw back at him.
Arnav winced. Regret was a sharp knife tearing through the flesh.
“How was she?” he asked, unable to stop the words.
Robbie gave him a scathing look. “What do you care?”
“Of course I care dammit!” he roared, a muscle jerking in his cheek.
“That’s rich coming from the guy who hadn’t made any contact in four freaking days after a royal fuck up!”
Arnav reeled as he processed Robbie’s meaning. “Was Khushi waiting to hear from me?”
Robbie gaped at him. “Unbelievable! I’m beginning to think all those women in the tabloids were photoshopped in with you,” she muttered.
NK smirked, “It wouldn’t be too far from the truth.”
“Since you clearly don’t speak relationship, let me explain in your native tongue. During an acquisition do you give up just because the other party disagrees on a key point? No, you negotiate until you reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. To answer you, of course you were expected to call! With apologies in the form of words, flowers, and gifts. Even those occupying the bottom most rung of your sex recognizes the well-established methods of opening up the line of communication. But you! Radio silence for four days!”
“I thought…” Arnav trailed off. He had assumed she would be hurting and angry. The thought that she might have been waiting to hear from him was startling. But of course, she was Khushi. She had an innate sense of fairness that would allow him a fair trial even when he hadn’t extended the same courtesy. When will he be able to keep up with her?
Robbie gave him a suspicious look. “Ohmigod! How massive is your ego? Did you think she’s been holed up here crying her heart out over you?”
Arnav wisely kept silent, crossing his arm in a defensive gesture.
“This is Sex in the City, not Romeo and Juliet. When the guy fucks up? She’ll cry with her girls, get drunk, curse the bastard, and then move on.”
“She’s not moving on,” Arnav clipped.
“With your current scoreboard Raizada, I wouldn’t be too confident,” Robbie fired back.
Arnav fought the urge to grab the blond and shake her, but at the same time he felt a grudging respect. Other than NK and Aman, few dared stand up to him. Robbie’s unfiltered honesty was uncomfortably astute, but in her anger, she had inadvertently revealed something crucial that eased some of the tension that had coiled tightly around his body ever since he’d let Khushi walk away. She hadn’t given up on him.
He needed to see her. To start making amends. To just fucking hold her. “Start over. When you were planning to head out today, did she mention any particular place?”
“No, but I just remembered something. Last night she got a phone call.”
“It was male. I thought you finally got your head out of your ass so I went to the kitchen to give her some privacy. She was strangely quiet after that, but I knew she’ll share when she’s ready, so I didn’t press.”
Arnav tensed. He had a good idea just who would call her. Fuck.
“Oh shit, it’s that wimp isn’t it?” Robbie groaned.
“Would she go meet him?” NK asked.
Robbie turned the full impact of a glare onto NK.
“No,” Arnav interjected before she formed a response. “She wouldn’t- not voluntarily. NK find out where Matthews is. Robbie, you need to give us a list of places she might go.”
She gave him an arched look, “When did you suddenly become reasonable?”
“You don’t pull your punches do you? Good.” Arnav jerked his chin towards NK, “He likes to toe the line. It’ll be pleasant not to carry the burden of reining him in all the time.”
“Asshole,” NK tossed at Arnav with a lip twitch.
“You’re not off the hook you know.”
Arnav’s expression grew somber, “I know, but I don’t like the idea of Khushi out there by herself either. Help me find her and I’ll pay my dues.”
“You read her file,” Robbie stated quietly as she searched his face.
“Yes,” Arnav responded, meeting her eyes without a trace of remorse.
“As much as I hate the infringement on her privacy… I’m glad,” she surprised him by saying, “She was made to feel a burden and she doesn’t trust easily. You being you makes it that much harder. But she’s the prize, Arnav. If you fail to take care, I guarantee firsthand experience of Indiana retaliation when you fuck with one of our girls.”
“What does Indiana retaliation involve?” NK asked mildly.
“A field, a rifle, and a marker.” Robbie responded coolly.
Arnav felt his body go solid. His eyes met NK’s, and upon seeing the mirrored understanding in them, both men roared with laughter.
“How can you laugh,” Robbie cried, “I’m being serious!”
“I know, Doll, that’s why it’s fucking funny.” NK came up behind her, placed an arm over her shoulders and grinned into her eyes.
Arnav watched the telling action with a raised brow.
Hell. Three for three. What were the odds?
Anjali. Khushi. Robbie. It was a diabolical day in the universe when the twisted hand of fate sent these women into their path. Dream women. Better, because they were real.
On an impulse, Arnav moved into the room until he was standing in front of Robbie, “Thank you.”
She gave him a wary look, “For what?”
“For finding Khushi and safeguarding her until I could enter her life,” Arnav responded sincerely, “For that I will make you a promise. I will do everything to make sure I never strike out in your book.”
Robbie blinked. Her mind blanked in shock. Had those words just come out from the mouth of Arnav Singh Raizada?
He gave her all of four seconds to digest before pressing forward. “Stay here and keep trying her cell. Text NK a list of places she might be, and we’ll get patrols out. We’ll be back after paying Matthews a visit.”
Khushi hadn’t exaggerated, the man was bossy. A wave of relief swept through Robbie. Breakthrough. She wasn’t sure what the catalyst was, but somehow, the ice fortress had been penetrated. And it wasn’t Prince Charming who emerged.
Just a man. A man in love.
A wish come true. Finally.
“Should’ve gotten those security details on Khushi sooner,” Arnav clipped under his breath as he and NK settled into the limo.
NK had been busy hitting buttons on his phone, at Arnav’s words his head jerked up. “She actually agreed?”
“She was … amendable to it before Saturday blew up,” Arnav responded, “What I can’t fucking believe is why you haven’t brought up the condition of their apartment building?”
“Better watch yourself mate, you’re still on a lot of shit lists, mine included,” NK retorted, as his brows snapped together. “You think I would ignore their safety? I saw that it didn’t escape your notice I also got a woman in there.”
NK cut him off. “Your problem Raizada, is that when it comes to shit that actually matters, you allow words to leave your mouth before that brain kicks in. There is an Italian proverb we need to mount in your office, ‘Don’t let your tongue say what your head may pay for.’”
At Arnav’s hard stare, NK smirked. “Look, their building is shit, but the neighborhood isn’t a bad one. The landlord is just a cheap bastard. He’ll be paid a visit. If he doesn’t see things our way by the end of the week, he’ll be dealing with AR’s legal team and a list of code violations longer than Fifth. Besides, I’ve had patrol here every night.”
Two thoughts came to Arnav at once. First, he had to regain his equilibrium before he faced off with Matthews. Second, he needed to stop pissing off the one person who always had his back. Damn. “Robbie know?”
“Of course not, she’ll bust my balls. Though after this, I’m going to make it 24/7 surveillance.”
“Khushi is not coming back here, NK.”
“Arnav, not shitting you, but the only reason you walked out of that apartment without a taste of Indiana justice is because Robbie is more concerned about Khushi’s safety. Once she’s found, you will have a lot to answer for. Me? I’ll focus on the art of groveling instead of pipe dreams.”
Arnav grimaced as he leaned back against the headrest. “Why the hell do you make so much sense?”
“Always been the voice of reason mate, you just haven’t been listening.”
“Where are we headed?”
“The Peninsula. Room 414.”
As soon as the limo pulled up to the curb of the hotel, Arnav turned to NK.
“Stay here. I’ll be back in twenty.”
“That’s fifteen minutes longer than necessary to ask a few questions,” NK noted.
“I have a score to settle.”
Understanding lit the other man’s eyes, “Just don’t do anything that will require body bags and lawyers.”
“Twenty minutes,” Arnav repeated as he ducked out of the car, “If I go beyond that- we’ll require lawyers.”
Before he walked inside, NK rolled down the window and called out, “After the face clock, go with jab-cross-left uppercut-cross. ”
Arnav jerked his chin in acknowledgment. He turned away grinning, definitely needed to stop pissing off the man with boxing combos on the mind.
If Trent Matthews was surprised to see a cold eyed Arnav Singh Raizada standing outside the door of his hotel room, he hid it well.
For long moments, neither men spoke as they faced off in the empty hallway. When Arnav’s lip curled at the corners after perusing him with unnerving intensity, Trent had the sense he had been measured, and found wanting.
“What do you want, Raizada?”
“What the fuck did you say to her?” Arnav demanded abruptly, disregarding even the veneer of civility.
“That’s between us,” Trent returned coolly. Something had gone awry with Khushi, he decided when a muscle jumped in Arnav’s jaw.
“She left you,” he stated when the other man gave nothing. “Worried she’s in here with me?”
His teeth ground together when Arnav laughed outright. “You’re the last man on earth she would run to. Now do you want this out here or in there? Decide because I don’t give one fuck if there’s an audience.”
“Your Board of Directors would disagree.”
Arnav’s smile was edged with ice. “Unlike others, I control my Board.”
Reining in his antagonism, Trent deliberately turned his back, leaving the door open.
Moving to the stocked minibar, he poured the bottle of gin he’d been deliberating over into a pair of tumblers. Hearing the solid click of the door, he turned, silently handing Arnav a glass before moving back against the opposite wall to nurse his drink.
The cold tone married with the ruthless personality no doubt made Raizada a formidable opponent across any boardroom.
Trent Matthews was a man of limited ability. It should be noted that he was well aware of his own shortcomings. Despite the limitation of his arsenal, they encompassed an uncanny ability to hone in on weaknesses. It was a skill that served him well.
He studied the man before him, searching for something, some expression that would give a clue to the inner man.
It was so minuscule, had he blinked he would have missed it. But when Arnav starred at the drink in his hand, unmistakable torment flashed in those shuttered eyes. He looked, Trent thought with satisfaction, like a man who had just suffered a major setback and was forcing himself to come to grips with it.
“You know about me.”
“Yes.” Arnav confirmed.
“What do you think you know?” Trent asked with genuine curiosity.
Arnav threw back the gin before he launched into a detached recitation of private knowledge that sent an unnerving chill along the spine of the man before him.
“You’re the oldest son in a family of three. Good upper middle class family from Chicago’s South Loop. When the auto industry went bust, you family made the decision to start over in Bronx. Steady real estate investments got you and your brothers into one of the state’s best private high schools, where rich little girls were ripe for the picking. Didn’t take you long to choose. Payal Gupta, pretty enough you won’t have to close your eyes when doing your duty, but more importantly, she’s the heiress to Gupta & Co. Then came Khushi,” at that Arnav’s eyes hardened, “should I continue?”
“By all means go ahead,” Trent replied coolly, trapped somewhere between amused incredulity and outright anger.
“You either developed a backbone or decided to act out a streak of rebellion, but after graduating from high school you dropped Payal. Got through college on your own, tried your hands at the stock market. However, all that came crashing down when NASDAQ nosedived. I suppose marriage to a shrew was preferable to facing financial ruin. You’re turning twenty-six in four months, stuck in a job you hate and a marriage you want free of, but it’s hard to let go, since both allows you to indulge in your penchant for fast cars and a certain lifestyle.”
Arnav paused, “Did I leave anything out?”
Trent lifted his drink in a mock toast, “Yes, what do I want now?”
Arnav looked him straight in the eye. “My woman.”
“I had her first.”
Deafening silence ensued in wake of the blatant red flag.
Trent knew he was baiting a dangerous animal, but the jealous acid that had been eating at him since he saw the photo of Khushi in this man’s arm demanded restitution. Sensing blood, he went for the kill. “A woman doesn’t forget her first love, especially when it’s the same man she gave her virginity to,” Trent drawled insolently.
“You son of a bitch!” Arnav hissed, tossing the glass without care to the floor. Before it shattered, his long fingers were curled into tight fists. He charged with purpose towards Trent, pinning the slighter man by the throat against the wall before drawing back his arm to deliver a relentless series of punishing blows to his ribs.
Trent grunted with each brutal impact, until he managed to break free from the hold. Crouching he charged at Arnav, sending their bodies crashing to the opposite wall.
Drawing back his arm, Trent aimed a punch at Arnav. In a move he had practiced many times with NK, Arnav linked his hands and hammered the other man’s back. Pressing the advantage he lashed out with a kick, followed by a sequence of jab, cross, and a strong uppercut that held enough impact to snap Trent’s head back for him to end the fight with a right hand finish that sent the bastard sprawling onto the shard covered floor.
“Motherfucker!” Trent spat as the tiny glass cut into the hands he’d thrown out to break his fall.
“I suggest you stay down there, Matthews.” Arnav said as he stared down at Trent.
Trent looked down at the blood dripping from the back of his hand with a derisive laugh. “They have no clue do they? Underneath the suit and polish, you’re barely a step up from a fucking mongrel. Khushi wants a gentleman. When she see the real you? She’ll run. I’ll bet she already has.”
“A gentleman, is that how you see yourself? Was it an act of a gentleman to lie and steal a girl’s virginity? Because that’s what it was. She didn’t give you shit, you stole that from her.”
“It kills you doesn’t it, to know that you’re not her first.”
“It does kill me. Not because I have some hang up about a fucking membrane, but because you aren’t worthy.”
“You’re a cocksure bastard aren’t you? Say what you want, but it wasn’t me who made her cry on Saturday.”
“You’re right. I did that,” Arnav admitted readily, “But at least I’m not waiting six fucking years to fix what I broke.”
“I’m getting a divorce.”
Laughter broke from disbelief, “What do you expect to happen? Do you actually believe Khushi would run into your arms, the past forgotten, your marriage to her sister overlooked?”
“She has a legacy at Gupta & Co-”
“Jesus,” Arnav bit out, “Do you plan to bribe her with something that rightfully belongs to her? That is low, even for you.”
Arnav shook his head, “To think, I considered you competition.”
“Don’t stand there and give me moral lessons Raizada,” Trent spat as his face contorted, “We want the same thing.”
“You’re wrong, Matthews. You may want Khushi, but you only want a piece of her. Her body, maybe her heart. That’s not enough for me. I want to possess every fucking inch of her. Every beat of her heart, every thought, every dream, every scar, every damn thing that makes her Khushi. I want everything she has to offer and I’m prepared to wage a war for it,” Arnav eyes locked on Trent as he finished, “You had a chance because you got there before I did. Unfortunately for you and lucky for me, you didn’t take care of it. Now it’s too damn late.”
“If you really believed that you wouldn’t have come here tonight. Besides, I don’t give a shit what you want Raizada,” Trent jeered, “Khushi knows where I stand now; she knows she has a choice.”
Arnav paused as it occurred to him that the frustration currently coursing through him must be a familiar feeling for NK and Aman. The sudden clarity effectively doused his anger.
Of course. How had he allowed himself to be so blind? This isn’t about him or Matthews, it’s about her. “Have you heard of Indiana retaliation, Matthews?”
“What?” Trent asked, staring in confusion at the abrupt change in topic and mannerism.
“It involves a field, a rifle, and a marker. I suggest you familiarize yourself with it,” Arnav replied on a smirk. “And Khushi already made her choice. She choose a friend whose loyalty is fiercer than that of a blood sibling, she took a lover who is capable of protecting her. She is no longer the helpless girl you knew. She has surrounded herself with people who give a damn. My advice to you? Spend your time consulting with a lawyer and your wife because we plan to collect on everything she’s owed.”
“He breathing?” NK asked as Arnav slid into the back seat of the limo.
“For now,” Arnav responded easily.
“You look pretty fucking satisfied with yourself.”
“Your boxing combo was put to good use.”
“Good,” NK replied with feeling. “Now let’s go find your woman.”
“You always had a way with words.”
“Like that is it?” NK asked on a grin.
“Yeah,” Arnav replied, “Just like that.”
“About fucking time, mate. About fucking time.”
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
“Fuck, if I was walking up these stairs every day I’ll have a fine ass.” NK muttered.
“Your Robbie is working herself into a state of panic, so better haul it.” Arnav and NK looked up to see Aman lounging casually against the railing. Despite the humor in his voice, there was a trace of perturbed uneasiness on the lean face.
“A word, Arnav?”
“I’ll go see to the girls,” NK said easily as he jogged up the remaining steps.
Arnav silently followed Aman’s lead down the hallway.
“Out with it, Aman, what’s eating you?”
Aman gave him a half smile. “I think I’ve passed the age where I can run to you with every little problem, big brother.”
“Never stopped you before,” Arnav rejoined, “Nani?”
“Yeah…. Jesus, Arnav. You sort that shit out in your head?”
“No, I figured once she told you we could knock a few back and work it out together.”
Arnav held back a grin as Aman gaped at him. “You’re not angry with her for keeping it from us?”
“I think I’ve passed the age where I can just recklessly point the finger of blame, little brother.”
“Never stopped you before,” Aman answered with feeling as he expelled the breath he’d been holding. “Fucking hell, Arnav, I’ve been operating under severe stress since Nani stopped by!”
“You’re a lawyer, that’s normal.”
“It’s different when it’s other people’s problem. Besides, I get paid for the tension.”
“You’re a good kid you know that? When the hell did you grow up, Aman?”
“A while back, you were just too busy empire building to notice.”
Arnav looked at him thoughtfully before nodding. “I haven’t been fair to you have I?”
“Who the hell are you and what did you do to my brother?” Aman demanded.
“I think that’s a question you should direct towards the women in our lives,” Arnav replied with a wry twist of his lips.
“I will never bet against our Dragon Lady. What else did she say to you?”
Arnav rested his arms on the railing, his eyes on the constant flow of city traffic. “I think I’d been staring at the same scene for too damn long, Aman. There’s something to be said about a new perspective.”
“Not a moment too soon. NK and I thought we were going to be cleaning up the blood spill for weeks.”
“I wouldn’t discount that just yet,” Arnav sobered as he turned his gaze down the hallway.
“The world is like a mirror, Arnav. If you spit and curse at it, it will not hesitate to spit and curse back at you. If you laugh, the world will follow and laugh with you, too.”*
“That you or Anjali?”
“A touch. I just hope like hell you’re right.”
NK paused at the doorway as his eyes ran down the lithe form of the woman currently wearing a hole into her already too thin carpet.
He hadn’t been surprised by the instant lust she’d inspired. She was gorgeous, even now in her overwrought state, she glowed with vitality. He’s had gorgeous, often enough to know it usually came packaged with a wide streak of vanity, petty jealousies and surprising insecurities.
He was a man with relatively simple taste. If beautiful came with a shit attitude and complications, he was willing to ditch it in favor of plain and sweet. Robbie Sinclair was all attitude and complications. And yet, he was beginning to believe she would be worth the effort.
A woman who banks on her looks yet treated it with careless detachment. There was too much impatience under those golden curls for pettiness, and whatever insecurities she struggled with, they paled in face of the fierce loyalty that shone from her like a fucking beacon. She would be a challenge for any man. It was a good thing he thrived on challenges.
“Robbie, come here.”
Startled, she turned, upon seeing NK she immediately resumed her pacing. “I’m going to kill her, NK! Fifteen missed calls! Even if it was someone I loathed, I would have picked up on the fifteenth call!”
“And I’ve change my mind.”
“About what?” NK asked as he moved towards her.
“I left Indiana because it wasn’t exciting enough. I told my mother I wanted to find something that would burn the lips and engulf the soul. Now I know why she shook her head at me. She knew it was crazy talk!”
“What do you think you want now?”
“Normal. Steady. Lukewarm is good. It’s consumable. And you know what else? Maybe Shakespeare was right to caution us with Romeo and Juliet. A pair of star-crossed lovers would have set the world on fire!”
NK laughed, quietly at first, then with more feeling. “I’ll be damned,” he murmured as he captured her fluttering hands in his, curling his fingers over hers to steady them.
“We’re going to find, Khushi. I promise.”
Robbie exhaled deeply, “Arnav was right. I shouldn’t have left her alone.”
“Robbie, your concern for Khushi? It’s beautiful, but she’s a grown woman. You can’t spend your life hovering over her and allowing guilt to eat at you when something goes wrong. We pulled in a favor with NYPD’s Chief, he’s got patrols searching every corner of the city for her.”
“NK, I can’t just sit here and wait. I’m going to go crazy with all these bad thoughts.”
“Then let me give you something else to think about,” NK said as he yanked her towards him. “First, lukewarm anything? Shit. You, Robbie girl, got a spark inside you so damn bright, it’s impossible to ignore. And I’m going to take you to bed and light you up.”
“First, timing! And that’s a very big assumption there, Handsome.”
He let go of her hand, moving his own up to cup her jaw, stroking it lightly with the rough pad of his thumb. “I’m not a man who sits on what I want, Doll. There are just too many possibilities for regret when you wait. Laying it out for you. I want you. I want that body in my bed, all that hair on my pillow. But it isn’t all I want. How much, how deep? Balls in your court.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“My girl goes missing, I threatened one of the richest man in New York City, and right now I’m turned on as hell by what is essentially caveman speak.”
“Turned on enough to stop playing bullshit games and take a chance?”
“What am I taking a chance on?” she asked cautiously.
“That I might be the guy who can give you that something that’ll burn your lips and engulf your soul.”
Robbie closed her eyes as shock and something fluttery stirred inside her.
“Please be real,” she whispered.
NK’s face softened, “You’re standing in my arms, Robbie.”
She drew in a deep breath, focused on the flutter as she slowly opened her eyes, watching in wonder as his face broke out into a grin. That smile fed a hunger she’d ignored for a long time. Words weren’t necessarily, he’d read the answer in her eyes.
Before NK could do anything about it, he caught the sound of footsteps.
“I think we can call off the hunt,” Anjali announced as she came out of the bedroom, just as Aman and Arnav walked through the door.
She looked down at the red umbrella in her hands. “I know where Khushi went.”
Bronx, New York
Khushi winced as she starred at the blank screen of her cellphone. She had been so distracted after the phone call last night; she’d forgotten to charge it. She bit her lips, the convenience of technology also meant she had never made a conscious attempt to remember her friends phone number. Shit! Robbie was going to kill her, first for going off alone, second for being unreachable.
Slipping the device and her chapped hands into the pocket of her coat, Khushi glanced up at the dusty grey of the afternoon. If she hurried, she’ll make the one and half mile walk to and from the cemetery in time to catch the evening metro home.
As she headed past the station, a spray of cream-colored blossoms sitting in isolated loneliness in a bucket caught her attention. Pausing by the floral street vendor she eyed the white tulips. Against the vibrant blooms of roses and carnations, they looked both noble and sad.
“The flowers of forgiveness,” said the older woman as she followed Khushi’s gaze, “Nothing more sincere when you need to apologize.”
“Who have you wronged?”
“The most important woman in my life.”
A knowing smile eased over the vendor’s face as she handed the flowers to Khushi, “A mother’s heart is a deep abyss of which you will always find forgiveness, child.”*
“Please, I can’t just take it,” Khushi said as she tried to press a ten dollar bill into the woman’s hand.
She shook her head, tilting her head to indicate the flowers behind her. “You see those bouquet of roses? They’ll be gone by this evening because men in the throes of passion are willing to pay for the pleasure. Those tulips? They will likely end up in that bin six feet from where you’re standing because pride prevents most of us from offering up a sincere apology. Take them to your mother.”
“There’s a heavy chill in the air, hurry home.”
When she left the apartment this morning, it had been snowing lightly. During her train ride the temperature had dropped noticeably but Khushi was only semi-aware of the treacherous weather as she headed down the snow covered sidewalk, the flowers tucked close, her thoughts directed inward.
The last four days had been among the most complicated, confusing ones she could remember. Arnav’s words to Lavanya had played on an endless loop in her head. When the tears stopped, she had been too exhausted to think with any clarity, yet a niggling heaviness persisted in the back of her mind.
It wasn’t until a voice from the past paid her a visit last night, that she was finally able to read her Book of Revelation. Thoughts buried so deep, she had hidden them even from herself.
Her strong reaction to Arnav’s words, the subsequent clawing pain they brought as her mind drenched in them, revealed something more complicated than a sense of rejection. It wasn’t his rejection she feared the most. While she couldn’t deny it hurt coming from him, he had been a mere catalyst in bringing out something far worst.
Holding the phone up to her ear, hearing shockingly intimate words delivered with earnest passion from the wrong man, she finally woke up from her inertia.
As Trent spoke of divorce and legacies, she hadn’t registered any of it, simply because he didn’t matter. In the course of mere days, Arnav had completely wiped out the poison the other man had left in her system. His words were inconsequential, coming six years and one man too late.
Because she’d already fallen. Head over heels. In love with Arnav Singh Raizada.
His words had pierced because he mattered and they had ripped the veil from her hidden secret.
Shame. She was ashamed. Of herself. Of what her existence represented.
Of the woman who had given birth to that existence. Her mother.
By the time Khushi passed the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery her body felt half frozen. In the spring the grounds would be lush with greens and well cared for blooms. In the midst of winter however, the trees were denuded of leaves, the bare branches rattling against the brisk wind, while a heavy blanket of white covered most of the gravestones.
She made the familiar trek to the quiet corner on the east lot, brushing the snow from the graves until she could clearly see the engravings. Reaching out, her finger traced over the ‘Laramie’ as love and regret filled her. Bringing the tulips up to her lips, she gave them a tender kiss before laying them over the stone.
She had woken compelled to come here, relieved when Robbie had been called away. She needed to confess, to seek forgiveness. Easing herself onto the ground, she looked at the graves. Her family. She’d given up much for them to be buried here, side by side, but today she was fiercely glad for the sacrifice.
You know don’t you, Mama? My secret?
I’m sorry. So sorry.
You forgive me right?
For thinking so badly of you?
For looking at you with the same eyes as the rest of the world?
I understand now.
Do you know that my heart isn’t my own anymore?
I hurt, Mama.
You told me love was beautiful, but how can something beautiful hurt so much?
Where did you find the strength to love so fearlessly?
Do you know what a burden you have given me in naming me Khushi Lacene?
It is so hard to find a smile, when all I want to do is cry.
… and Papa, you sent him to me didn’t you?
What made you send a man who sees the world in black and white, when I’m born from the gray he doesn’t acknowledge?
He’s bossy, cynical, stubborn-
…. but he makes me feel alive
Is that why?
Why you risked everything for each other?
Was your love worth it?
Worth the pain you suffered?
Worth the pain you …caused?
Is love worth it?
Khushi rested her head against the cold stone as silence answered her. A furious blast of wind threw snow into her face, sending a wracking chill over her body. She knew she should get up. The cold was seeping through her clothes. Yet she felt too exhausted to move.
He hadn’t come for me, Mama.
Robbie said he would.
But it’s been so many days.
I’m tired, so tired.
Let me sleep here.
Just for a little while?
Huddling closer, her eyes fluttered closed.
“How big is this fucking place?”
“Khu- oh fuck!”
“Guys over here!”
Khushi wake up. He’s here for you darling, wake up!
“Fuck me! She’s unconscious.”
“Call for an ambulance. Now!”
She heard them, familiar voices rumbling in the distance, yet her eyes refused to open.
“Give her to me.”
Him. Upon hearing his voice, her heart thrummed in her chest.
Dhak. Dhak. Could he hear it?
She was plucked none too gently from the ground, why was it shaking? The question lost significance as she felt familiar arms close around her, a hand shifted through her hair as the other tightened around her waist to the point of pain.
Arnav swore under his breath as he cradled Khushi’s trembling form possessively against his chest. Jesus, she was ice cold. Her clothing was no barrier to the extreme chill. Anger exploded.
“I’m going to tie you to the goddamn bed after this,” Arnav muttered.
“Save your new kink for later, we need to warm her up as much as possible until the ambulance gets here,” Aman interjected.
“They said to check her head for signs of injury in case there was a fall before moving her,” NK added. “The roads are icy, thank fuck the nearest hospital is only ten minutes out.”
“Here, let me,” Robbie said as she moved to Arnav’s other side.
A hundred scenarios passed through Arnav’s brain as Robbie gingerly ran her fingers through Khushi’s scalp, checking for bumps or signs of injury. Had Anjali not made the connection, another hour in the snow would have meant…
It was enough to cause his heart to constrict with outright terror. He hadn’t realized how much of his inner turmoil was being broadcasted until Robbie laid a hand over his clenched fist. Arnav’s eyes flew up and met with understanding blues.
“We found her, Arnav. She’s going to be okay.”
Something began to happen— a gentle bonding of two completely opposite beings as they acknowledge that they each had something very special to offer the other.
Arnav gave Robbie a nod before tightening his hold on Khushi, focusing on the feel of her in his arms, lending the heat of his body to warm her cold skin. Anger diffused as he anchored himself with his precious cargo within the protective circle of their friends.
Anjali watched the tableau with a soft smile. Slipping her hands into Aman’s she leaned up to whisper into his ears. “You did good, Aman.”
He gave her an answering grin. “You too, baby.”
Aman turned back towards his brother, “If there’s no head injury, we need to get her into the car and as warm as possible as we wait.”
Khushi tried to force her eyes to open. She could sense his tension, but her lids refused to heed her command. She briefly felt the wind against her back as she was lifted. There was some jostling, followed by the sounds of car doors opening and slamming shut.
Something thick and heavy was placed over her chest. Then another and another, until her body was completely covered. At first she was confused, until the unique scents reached her. She could feel his heat at her back, cocooned by jackets and scarves, Khushi felt the warmth penetrate.
Family. It didn’t always require blood.
Giving into the sense of safety, she drifted back into slumber.
In the distance the sound of sirens wailed.
“The staff is giving us the eye,” Robbie whispered to NK.
“They’re going to need to give him a sedative if someone doesn’t come out with good news. And soon,” NK responded with a grimace.
Robbie was in agreement. It’s been nearly an hour since Khushi’s been admitted into ER. An hour punctured minutely by Arnav’s pacing. If they didn’t hear anything soon, the man was likely to come out of his skin.
Adjusting herself in the uncomfortable waiting room chair, Robbie recalled the expression she had witnessed on Arnav’s face when Aman had called out in the cemetery.
The stark terror that lined his features wouldn’t be leaving her memory anytime soon. Any lingering animosity she had harbored had found instant death in that moment. She had a feeling she would be very much Team Arnav moving forth. Damn.
The ticking of the damn clock was going to drive him mad. His eyes lid to the door, but he didn’t see it. The vision of Khushi lying frozen in the snow was burned into his sockets. Before Khushi he didn’t think of himself as particularly imaginative, but his current state of mind could compete with the best of Hollywood’s horror screenwriters.
“Arnav, you’re starting to look deranged. Sit your ass down before one of those nurses call security. The one starring at you looks trigger happy,” Aman called out in a loud whisper.
“What the hell is taking them so long?” Arnav bit out.
“Could Khushi be pregnant?” Four pairs of eyes turned to Anjali. She flushed as she met Aman’s amused eyes.
Robbie turned her gaze to Arnav. “Well?” she demanded.
“Is it a possibility?”
“Jesus. We are not having this conversation right now.”
“Condoms do break you know” NK drawled.
“Especially from usage errors,” Aman added helpfully.
“She’s not fucking pregnant!” Arnav snapped, loud enough to capture the attention of the entire ER waiting room.
Anjali looked at Arnav apologetically. “Sorry, that just … slipped.”
Aman wrapped an arm over her shoulders, “If you’re curious baby, all you need to do is ask the expert.”
“That comment just placed you on a slippery slope, baby.” Anjali replied with the smallest of emphasis.
Robbie fought a grin. She had wondered how someone as sweet and gentle as Anjali was able to handle Aman. Now she knew, sweet and gentle didn’t equate with naïve nor pushover.
Aman cleared his throat, “An expert from research not practice, love.”
They immediately sobered when the ER door opened for a man in scrubs to walk through.
He scanned the room and asked, “Khushi Khumari?”
Arnav walked into the room as the doctor’s words echoed disjointedly in his head.
Distressed. Hypothermia. Critical. Malnourished. Shock.
They were only allowing one visitor at a time. He knew it cost her, but Robbie had graciously nodded when he’d turned to her, eyes imploring. They moved now towards the bed. Seeing the slight form attached to an IV drip and monitors, he felt something rip through him. Relief and dread fought for supremacy.
She looked like an angel against the sterile white. He hated the image. He wanted the woman, flushed with life, not the glowing paleness that threatened his hold on her.
The chair squeaked as he pulled it closer to her bedside. He reached out, cupping her face with his palm, needing to touch her even in so small a way.
“I didn’t know, Khushi. I didn’t know,” Arnav whispered, as he lightly traced her brow, “Let me make it up to you. Give me the chance. I don’t deserve it, but I promise you, I won’t treat you so carelessly this time.”
Bothered by her stillness, needing confirmation, Arnav got up from the chair. Careful not to disturb the IV, he eased onto the bed, gathering her close. He slid a hand down her arm until he reached hers. He traced over the oval nails, skimming the knuckles before running his thumb over the delicate veins of her wrist. There his fingers stayed until he could feel the steady pulse. For the first time in days, Arnav took a real breath.
Bending his frame he kissed her softly on the forehead, before burrowing his face into the side of her neck and closing his eyes.
You came for me?
I’ll always come for you.
I missed you.
Do not ever leave me like that again.
You let me go.
So what? Promise me.
Bossy…. I promise.
Good. Now go to sleep, Khushi. Your body needs to recover.
You won’t leave?
Not even if you tell me to.
I love you, Arnav.
I love you, Khushi.
Somewhere in New York
Text from HP Daniels:
Found what we were looking for. Coming back to New York on the next flight. When can we meet?
So… watcha think?
New Readers – Welcome aboard the FWN train.
If you’ve enjoyed the update, please let us know below. Your questions and comments helps us shape the story and also improve as writers. Thank you!
Sorry we couldn’t resist. Safe sex is definitely not a joking matter. Please be responsible. However, that little jab was at every other Mills and Boon in existence. If you ever picked up one you KNOW the heroine would be pregnant at this point 😛
*adapted from Cruel City by Yoo Seong-yeol
*adapated from Honore de Balzac