To Rulama – this one goes to you. Congrats on connecting the dots and many many thank yous for the wonderful company. Now enjoy how it plays out!
Fifth Avenue, New York
She was trembling with excitement as she rushed from the elevators and down the hall. “Arnav!” Khushi called out as she stepped through the door.
In answer, she found herself slammed against the smooth mahogany, his mouth on hers.
That wicked tongue flicked against the seam of her lips, demanding entrance. She gave it to him, losing herself in the wet heat. This first taste of him after hours apart … delicious.
Pulling back with reluctance, she smiled up into his eyes. “I can’t wait to tell you about today!”
“But, you won’t believe what happened!”
Arnav stepped closer, pressing his arousal firmly against her, “Is it better than this?”
Her arms immediately circled his shoulder, rising on tip toe to kiss the sulk from his lips. “No. Nothing is better than this.”
He grunted with approval as she contoured her body into his bare chest, sliding a hand into her hair, holding her as he took what he needed.
“Arnav,” Khushi breathed as she felt the impatient tug of the zipper. “You ruined three dresses this week.”
“I’ll buy you more.”
Khushi had quickly discovered that dresses dominated the clothes he’d purchased. They varied in fabric, color, and style, but every single one included a zippered back. It had become an anticipated ritual between them for him to zip up her dress as they prepared for work, and more often than not, tearing if off her at first opportunity.
She laughed, dancing away from him. “Just give me a second.”
“You have five before I take over.”
She made the mistake of looking at him as she tried to wiggle out of the soft jersey. In less than half of the time he’d allowed, the dress pooled at her feet, a little worse for wear.
His eyes flared with appreciation as they traced over the satin red bra and the matching hiphuggers. If there was one color that Arnav Singh Raizada responded to visibly, it was the color red. She had been prolific with the passionate hue as she shopped for undergarment with the girls. What had Robbie said? Right, when a man had a fetish.
His hands made a greedy worship of her curves as he unclasped the bra, dropping it carelessly to meet the same fate as her dress. Another laugh bubbled in her throat as he lifted her, his feet carrying them with single-minded focus towards the bedroom.
“At this rate, you’ll be spending a fortune on dresses and lingerie, Mr. Raizada. What do you have to say to that?”
“That I’m expecting my money’s worth.” With that he pushed open the doors. Entering the bedroom he tossed her, yes tossed her, on the bed. Another woman may have voiced a complaint at this roughness from a lover, but Khushi welcomed it.
That they were tied together emotionally was something she cherished, but it was the intense physical intimacy they shared that made her feel every inch a woman. To be wanted as Arnav wanted her was a feeling beyond compare.
He took a moment to survey her paleness against the sheets. Then, pressing a knee into the mattress, he began his tender onslaught. His head bent to deliver crushing kisses spiked with erotic promise.
“Open for me,” Arnav demanded, his mouth leaving hers to explore the line of her jaw.
Khushi cried out as his knuckles stroked. He played until she arched up against him, offering herself for his possession. His hand glided along her arm before clasping her much smaller one. He laced their fingers as he joined their bodies, a single thrust that narrowed her world to only him. Where all that existed was the feel of silk sheets under her skin and all that mattered was the movements of his powerful body within her own. Skin to skin. Khushi and Arnav.
When he growled her name impatiently, she knew what he wanted. Her legs tightened around him while she softly chanted words of love against his throat.
Arnav’s control slipped as her free hand raked lightly down his back. She destroyed him. It was only right that he returned the favor. He rocked into her, closer and closer, until they were no longer two bodies, but halves of one. Moments later they found it together, arriving at the peak with twin shouts of pleasure.
In a boneless state of tangled limbs and a unique exhaustion that had nothing to do with fatigue and everything to do with getting one’s money’s worth, they held each other.
Khushi sighed with contentment. This was what he gave her. Every single night. They’d ticked off six blissful days together since she’d officially moved in. Coffee and a special ritual in the mornings, snatches of phone calls throughout the day whenever he could manage it, and nights that belonged only to them.
She hadn’t known how Arnav would react when HP Daniels, despite the threat of being permanently blacklisted, went and released all the ugliness he dug up in Lucknow. While salacious headlines had briefly dominated business news outlet and gossip pages, the entire Raizada family closed rank.
Devyani Raizada personally issued a single press release about welcoming Lavanya into the family. Meanwhile, Arnav and Aman had pointedly ignored the sly questionings during interviews and sent a slew of legal suits against Daniels for invasion of personal privacy. Their relentless response encouraged other journalists and their editors to drop the issue and pursue stories what weren’t potentially career damaging.
Her businessman was ruthless in protection of those in his care, but he had an unwavering adherence to truth. Once that was behind them, life had never been more beautiful. Even better she knew it was the same for Arnav.
He reached to pull the covers over them, giving her a lazy, satiated expression as he settled her back against him. “Now tell me how you put the old boys in their place at Gupta & Co. today.”
“Did NK tell you?”
“Aman. He enjoyed the show.”
“Arnav, I think I completely offended half the Board.”
“Good,” he replied, “They need shaking up.”
“That’s what NK said,” she giggled, then proceeded to tell him about the Board meeting.
Hours later, Arnav smiled to himself as Khushi’s body weight settled into his arms. It pleased him that even in an unconscious state she sought to get closer. Curving his arm around her waist, he focused on the steady cadence of her breathing until it lulled him to sleep.
Chelsea, New York
She blinked at the crystal decanter. Where had all the liquid gone? It had been full an hour ago. Now, a mere third of the amber remained.
She eyes shifted to the package that had arrived this evening. Anger stirred. That rotten bastard. He’d cleared out her office. No doubt to make room for his precious Khushi. Six years of her life had been packed neatly into a cardboard box, something you tossed unwanted things into before calling Salvation Army.
With an unsteady hand, she pulled out the executive name plate. For a moment the words swam before his eyes, gradually coming into focus as her fingers moved to trace the engraving.
Payal Gupta Matthews, CEO.
That’s right. She was Payal Gupta Matthews.
Wait… no… no. She wasn’t. Not anymore.
She was Payal Gupta again.
Her body jerked at the shrill ringing of the phone and her fingers lost its grip on the glass. It tumbled towards the porcelain floors, shattering upon contact.
Goddamn Trent. Why wouldn’t he leave her alone? She had spent the years of their marriage waiting for phone calls that never came. Now that they were divorced, he called every day; all because she had given in to a moment of weakness.
The contrition she’d seen in his eyes as he’d said it put her on edge. She could handle anything but not this … pity. His last words had gone around and around in her mind for days, they echoed in her ears as if just spoken.
You don’t hate Khushi, Payal. You hate Shashi Gupta.
You don’t hate Khushi, Payal. You hate Shashi Gupta.
Hate. Yes, she hated. But who did she hate?
Her attention went back to the decanter. She shuddered with distaste even as she reached for the cap. Trent would understand this wouldn’t he? After all, it was his favorite mode of coping. Strong and biting, the concentrated whiskey burned as it slid down her throat. She welcomed the feeling, the blessed seconds that took the edge off the cold that seems to be a permanent part of her.
The ringing of the phone reached a feverish pitch in her head.
“What the fuck do you want?” she snapped into the receiver.
There was a disapproving sniff before her mother’s voice flowed through. “Really, Payal, you shouldn’t answer the phone when you’re inebriated. What would people think?” Garima sighed. “Anyways, I’m calling to let you know I’ll be staying with friends tonight. Don’t go out in your state. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Something ruptured within Payal. Always it was ‘What would people think?’ What people? Why did it matter so fucking much what they thought? Why couldn’t this woman ask her, just once, what she thought? What she felt?
She would have screamed had she been able to draw enough breath. Instead, she removed the phone from her ear, placing it gently onto the counter. She focused on floor. Her feet took her there before the thought fully formed. Barefoot, she walked over the broken pieces of the name plate, until a spray of crimson colored the shards. Payal’s eyes followed the little rivets that ran from the multiple cuts piercing the soles of her feet.
Blood. Why did every fucking thing go back to that?
She ran out of the house, desperate for air, unmindful of the splattered footprints she left behind. At the threshold, her foot snagged, sending her careening down the icy steps.
Cold. It was so fucking cold.
A bolt of pain shot through her. Little red rivers seeped into the snow. From her feet? From her head? She wasn’t sure. What she did know was no one was coming. No one gave a damn. A sense of calm, a stillness she’d never felt stole over her. Payal closed her eyes and gave herself over to it.
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
“What is it?” Robbie muttered sleepily.
“Go back to sleep, I’ll be back soon.”
“Handsome, if you think you can slip into my bed at ten and skip out at two in the morning, we’re going to have one of those conversations.”
“Babydoll, even if there was the desire for it, which to be clear there isn’t, you don’t leave me with enough energy for another woman.”
She snorted inelegantly, “Tell your mistress that he needs to read up on the definition of business hours.”
NK grinned at the thought of relaying the message to Arnav, until he recalled the reason he had to leave his woman’s bed. Knowing how prickly Robbie can get when she’s left in the dark, he quickly shared as he pulled on his clothes, “It’s Payal.”
Robbie jerked up in bed as sleep left her. “What about her?”
“We’ve been keeping an eye on her. My men just reported that they had to call an ambulance. She ran out of the house and slipped. Head injury.”
“Shit! Have you called, Arnav?”
“Just got off the phone with him.”
“I’m coming with you,” Robbie announced as she swung her legs to the side of the bed.
NK leaned down, caging her in place with his arms. His face dipped until they were nose to nose. “Robbie, I told you because I know how you feel about secrets. However, you’re not to move from this bed.”
His voice was firm, in fact, it flirted a bit with edgy. Robbie didn’t even try to curb her response.
“The hell I am not!” she flared, “Do you think Khushi is going to stay back at their place? However it is between her and Payal, Khushi never turns her back on family.”
“Payal’s undergoing surgery. Garima’s been notified. Things will be messy. I prefer to have one less person to worry about it.”
She ignored him. In a deft move that would have impressed him if he was in the mood to be charmed, she slipped under his arms. Moving to the closet she jerked out a pair of jeans. “With you if you’re reasonable, without if you decide to be bullheaded about this.”
She threw a look over her shoulders. “Noah.”
That was it. Just his name, but damned if it didn’t go straight to his dick. Fuck him, her stubbornness was infuriating, but it was one of the things he admired most about her.
NK emitted a long sigh to the ceiling. “Car. Two minutes.”
Knowing the importance of showing gratitude when claiming a victory against your man, Robbie moved to him, locking her fingers behind his neck. No words, just the pressing of her lips against his. It took a good ten seconds, but his arms went around her and squeezed.
“We’re here to see Payal Gupta.”
“Ms. Gupta is currently in ICU. Visiting is restricted to immediate family members only.”
“I’m her sister. Please tell me, how is she?”
Seeing the worry on the young woman’s face, the nurse softened. “They just took her out of surgery. She lost so much blood, we’ll need another transfusion. This time of year, our blood bank is low, especially for AB negative. But don’t you worry; we’ve already contacted local hospitals to see what they can send over.”
“May I make a directed blood donation?”
“Khushi,” Arnav said warningly from behind her.
“You’re a good sister sweetheart, but it’s not permitted for emergency cases. Every unit needs to be tested before it can be used for a blood transfusion. Now, you wait in the lounge with your young man and we’ll make sure we get what your Payal needs.”
Khushi nodded her thanks and followed Arnav to the rows of plastic chairs in the waiting room. Something about the conversation niggled at her. She took another step before stopping abruptly, the nurse’s words suddenly ringing loudly in her ear.
Blood. AB negative. The nurse had said Payal was AB negative.
It couldn’t be. Both her father and Garima were O positive.
A shock of realization ripped through Khushi.
Her eyes flickered open slowly and winced at the bright glare of light. For a moment they were unfocused, confused, before they came to rest on the two figures sleeping against each other at the foot of the bed. She must be hallucinating or this was some twisted version of hell. How else to explain the presence of Khushi and Robbie in her room?
Her gaze drifted from the unnerving sight to take in her surroundings, seeking an explanation to this strange awakening. Stark white walls and harsh fluorescent greeted her.
At the sound of the door knob turning she tried to twist her head. A throb of pain shot upward with a relentless fury that brought tears to her eyes. The awareness brought into focus other discomforts. There was a slight burning on her feet as they rubbed against some kind of gauze and her back held a dull ache that seems to extend to the rest of her body.
The door opened, effectively distracting her from the pain as she reeled from seeing Arnav walk through, accompanied by an older man garbed in a white lab coat.
“Good, you’re awake. Do you know where you are, Ms. Gupta?”
She ignored the kind eyes hovering above her. Instead she followed Arnav’s small trek to the end of the bed. He gave Robbie’s shoulder a light affectionate tap. When the blond head lifted from Khushi’s shoulder, he jerked his chin towards Payal. She became the focus of narrowed eyes, each holding their own set of warning.
The princess’s protectors, which meant she was the villain. Payal had the strange urge to laugh, until she saw the dark head bent towards Khushi. No lust, no passion, just a tender press of lips. Damn him.
She ripped her gaze away as Khushi stirred, focusing on the doctor.
“The hospital,” She croaked.
“Very good. You gave us a scare last night.”
Her hands went up to touch the bandage wrapped tightly around her head. “Hurts.”
He nodded in sympathy. With a polite “May I?” he moved in to check her pupil responses.
“We had to remove the blood clot; luckily you were brought in before it could cut off circulation to the brain. I’m sure your body is feeling the fall and you’ve got a hell of a bump back there. However, as long as you take it slow for the next few weeks, I’m optimistic on a full recovery. I’m going to prescribe something for the pain and we’ll keep monitor for another night. After that you’re free to go.” He nodded at the room in general, walking briskly out to see to the next patient.
“Payal, are you feeling alright?” Payal flinched from the sympathy, hating her current helplessness.
Khushi’s eyes clouded. “We notified her, but…” she trailed off.
Payal’s lips twisted, even as another kind of pain draped itself over her bruised body.
Khushi stood up and shifted to the side of the bed, “You lost a lot of blood last night.”
Blood. It was always blood where things counted. It was then that she picked up on the inflection in Khushi’s voice. A tiny catch. She finally lifted her eyes and starred into the sea-green orbs she’d hated for over a decade. She knew. Somehow her secret was no longer hers alone. Humiliation speared Payal. Did they all know?
“Get out,” she hissed.
“Payal, please talk to me.”
“What is there to say? Just leave me alone.”
“Payal,” The soft sound of her name grated on already frayed nerves.
“Shut up! Shut up! Why can’t you leave me be? Why didn’t you just let me die?”
She saw Khushi’s body jolt, as if it’d just sustained a blow. Why? Why did she care? Beyond her shoulders she could see Arnav’s brows knit with anger, but it was Robbie’s darkening face that drew her attention.
“You selfish little bitch!” she snapped, “I have a lot of words for you. And I don’t give a rat’s ass that you’re going to hear them, flat on your back, on a hospital bed.”
“Robbie,” Khushi interjected.
Payal lifted her chin, “Say it. As long as all of you leave after, say it. Your words don’t mean anything to me.”
“You heard the doctor didn’t you? You were lucky to be brought in on time. Want to know how that little miracle happened? Because he,” her hand flew to indicate Arnav, “was concern about Khushi’s safety. Because NK acted fast, knowing what it would do to Khushi if something happened to you. And we all spent an uncomfortable night watching over a woman we don’t give a damn about, for Khushi.”
“I didn’t ask for it!” Payal threw back furiously, ignoring the raw scrapping against her throat as she raised her voice to match the other woman’s.
“Yeah you didn’t and you sure as hell don’t deserve it. Take a good look around you and note who’s here. So don’t you dare take that tone to the one person who does give a fuck!”
Khushi glanced at Arnav. His eyebrows arched in question. At her firm nod he grimaced, but he moved to take hold of a simmering Robbie. “Come, let’s get you some coffee.”
“We’ll be on the other side,” he called over his shoulders, a non-too subtle reminder to the remaining inhabitants in the room that the walls will have ears.
Payal squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, when she opened them again Khushi had stepped back to lean against the adjacent wall. Across the small distance they starred at each other.
“You know,” she said tonelessly.
“So you decided to be a noble idiot and offered your blood last night.” Not a question, but a statement.
A hesitation, then a quiet confirmation. “Yes.”
“What do you want from me?”
“The truth. Just the truth. You owe it to me.”
Truth. How foreign it sounded.
Khushi took a step closer. “Payal, please, talk to me. How can you not be…? I don’t understand.”
How long had she wanted to shed this burden? How much had she wished for someone to share it with? But no one asked. That’s the thing. No one ever asked. Except this woman.
“Garima’s infertile,” Payal said baldly.
Khushi tensed. While she had nursed the thought since last night, the shock of having her suspicion confirmed reverberated through her entire body.
“Can you imagine? The perfect Kishore heiress. Boarding school educated, raised from birth to be the indulged trophy wife of a wealthy executive. Unfortunately, the picture of perfection has a flaw. Her womb can’t produce the required heir.”
Khushi bit her lips at Payal’s sneering recital, yet she didn’t interrupt.
“The Kishores were careful to keep this from being public knowledge, and Shashi made an expensive purchase without knowing of the defect. Two years into their marriage he made it clear he wanted a child. So she faked it. She faked a pregnancy, and then faked an illness that took her to the opposite side of the country. There she used her family’s money to obtain the biggest fraud of all. A newly orphaned baby left on the steps of Maryvale mere days after birth.” Impassive eyes lifted to gage the effect of her declaration. Something strange moved within her as green eyes filled.
“Don’t you dare give me your pity.” The words trembled, then firmed as Payal refused to allow that weakness in herself.
Khushi swallowed the words of comfort she wanted to offer, but knowing they would be rebuffed, she asked the question she was afraid of the answer to, “Did Papa know?”
“He didn’t build an empire by being an idiot. He had her followed and when her lies were exposed, he left. She refused the petition for a divorce, so they lived out a year of separation. She left him to it, hoping that he will eventually cool down and be persuaded. Her parents had never denied her anything, why shouldn’t it be the same with her husband? But she’d misread the depths of his anger. When she finally lowered herself to go to him, there was a Laramie.”
Khushi fought the tears, for she knew what was coming.
“You guessed didn’t you? They made a deal. To the world he is still her husband and I his daughter. In exchange she would turn a blind eye to Laramie. It worked until a pregnancy rocked the arrangement.”
“Payal, when did… how did you find out?”
Payal winced as she was hurtled back to the night her world had come crashing down. She’d loved Shashi Gupta. Her father, her hero. If Garima was distant and cold, his warm adoration made up for it. She’s held it to her heart like a ray of sunshine, not knowing the difference between love and kindness.
“She told me. Right before you came to live with us. The bitch wanted to spread her misery.” Payal laughed. “She didn’t hate your mother for claiming Shashi’s heart, she just envied her ability to give birth. You and I are constant reminders of her failure.”
“Oh, Payal. Why didn’t you ever say anything?” At a loss, Khushi reached for her hand, but Payal quickly snatched it out of reach.
“Do you think I was proud of it? I wasn’t hers, but I didn’t care about that. That didn’t hurt, but it hurt that I wasn’t his. It hurt that he only tolerated me, so he could keep the family he really wanted.”
They watched each other, both pale and trembling. Khushi wondered if her heart would ever stop throbbing.
“Papa loved you,” she said quietly, but with fierce conviction.
“He gave me the scraps of affection. I was just too young and too stupid to recognize the difference.”
Khushi’s voice grew stronger, “How can you not see, Payal? He gave you everything he could. His warmth, his home, his… name.”
Several expressions chased over Payal’s face before it settled into bitterness. “Yes, his name. Does it bother you? I can tell you that it doesn’t carry much weight. I’m his legal heir, yet you’re the daughter of his heart. He gave me throwaway shares and named me the beneficiary to the house he hated living in, so much so he was rarely there before you came. And you? He wanted his beloved prodigy for you. He may have agreed to Garima’s demand to keep you from the company and Arnav, but he was simply waiting for you to turn eighteen. Your wedding gift would have been controlling shares of Gupta & Co.”
“How-” Khushi started.
“You were wrapped in your grief, then wrapped up in being the perfect daughter, you never heard the fights. The arguments barely concealed behind closed doors. Everything was for you, because you were his.” Payal’s face contorted, “Trent also gave me his name, but your virgin blood mattered more. So don’t you tell me it doesn’t matter, because it’s the only thing that does. ”
Her words were black and ugly, her tone soaked in venom. It was then that Khushi finally acknowledged to herself that the woman before her enjoyed her prison. She’d made it her religion, worshiping devoutly at its altar.
For the first time, anger flared in the pit of her stomach, but she tamped it down. Anger wouldn’t reach Payal, it would only give her a sense of justification.
“I have never thought of you as anything but my sister, even when you hurt me. I don’t love you, saying that I do would be a lie. But I wanted to. I wanted to love you, Payal. I wanted to support you. And I would have, had you given me the chance. You didn’t. You say blood is the only thing that matters and once I would have agreed.” Khushi wrapped her arms around her middle, “Luckily I discovered that isn’t true. I don’t share a drop of blood with the people just beyond these doors. Yet, they dropped everything to be here last night, and they did it for me. You see Payal, it’s not some strands of DNA that binds us, but the willingness to open your heart. You want to protect yourself by not allowing yourself to care for anyone? That’s fine, it’s your choice. To me that’s existing, not living.”
That got Payal’s attention, but before she could interrupt, Khushi rushed forward. The flow of words, so long bottled inside, refused to wait another second.
“If you’re going to decide to live a wasted life, I’m going to leave you to it. Before I do, I want to say thank you. Thank you for making me stronger. Thank you for teaching me how to protect my heart. And thank you finally for giving me this truth, even if your only intent is to spread that misery. You may not be his biologically, but if you allow yourself to look beyond blind hate, you’ll see that he claimed you. His name may mean nothing to you, but it is still a gift. Make of it what you will. You’re right. I do pity you. Because you have become the very woman you hate.”
It cost her to veil her eyes. It cost her to move to the doors and walk through them without looking back. Steeling herself, she did it. In the hall, it was to Robbie that she went to. Her arms flung over the comforting shoulders and held.
“You have a family, Khushi.” Robbie whispered.
“I know,” Khushi said, feeling heavy and aching with grief. Yet, something held the tears at bay. They clung to each other for a long time, reaffirming a bond borne of shared laughter and tears. When she finally looked up, her eyes met Arnav’s. The burn between her eyes increased, but her face remained dry.
Robbie gave her a fierce hug, before urging. “Go. Let him take care of you. NK and I will handle things here. And I promise I won’t strangle her.”
“Robbie.” Her name was said in thanks and appreciation.
When Arnav held out his arms, she ran into them. He was warm, real, beautiful.
“Take me home, Arnav.”
Fifth Avenue, New York
It was in the shower that the dam of tears broke loose.
It began as a trickle, escaping from the corners of flooded eyes. As the pressure persisted, control ruptured and she lost the fight. Helpless, Khushi buried her face against Arnav and gave into harsh, ugly sobs that wracked her small frame.
Arnav gathered her deeper within his arms, willfully determined to stand between her and pain. He stood with stoic silence that belied his own turmoil and rocked her gently. His hand moved up to her hair, stroking the wet strands as she clung tightly to him.
His chest muffled what the running water could not, providing a wall of privacy that safeguarded her vulnerable state. She cried until she was emptied, she cried until her bones grew hollowed from the outpour of all that was dark, messy, and hurtful.
Only then did he pull back, brushing a thumb lightly against her lashes before he turned off the water. What followed was an opus of movements that exposed their growing fluency in each other.
Stepping from the steam, she made no attempt to shield herself from him. Arnav in turn grabbed hold of the towel, tucking the extra fold securely against her breasts once he’d wrapped the Egyptian cotton around her. Uncaring of his own dripping bareness he followed her out.
He settled himself against the headboard as Khushi slipped out of the bedroom. She came back moments later, a tumbler in hand. Since she’d moved in, he rarely drank. Yet, tonight, Arnav took the glass from her with gratitude. Swirling the mix, he tossed it back before setting it carelessly on the nightstand.
The room was illuminated by a single wall lamp, leaving much of the large space in shadows. He searched for her within them, eyes darkening as she replaced the towel with a simple satin nightdress. It had become a personal challenge to find lingerie that matched her eyes. While he’d yet to find wholehearted satisfaction amongst the pricey boutiques, this one came damn close.
She finally came to the bed, close enough for him to read the bruised greens. Her hesitation made him impatient, momentarily forgetting his determination to give her only gentleness; his hands came out and pulled her over him.
His annoyance was quickly swallowed by satisfaction as he caught her small smile before she laid her head trustingly on his shoulders.
“Arnav, what did you think of my father?”
He heard her question, what more, he heard what she was really asking. What kind of man was Shashi Gupta?
Remaining married to a woman he clearly loathed, while loving another in guarded secret. He had the means of breaking free, yet he chose to live the lie. And what of the annual petition for divorce?
How to answer Khushi when he himself couldn’t make heads or tails of the matter?
He decided to answer her with yet another question. “Khushi, how you are with me, is it the same with anyone else?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your body, your secrets, would you share them with another man?”
“Of course not!”
He nearly smiled at her indignant tone. “And do you think I’m like this with other women?”
“No, but Arnav, where are you going with this?”
“This side of you belongs to me. Then, there’s the side you keep for Robbie, and yet another for casual acquaintances. We reserve different faces for difference people, some by choice, others by necessity. Do you understand?”
Khushi looked up at him, struck anew by how insightful he can be. People did have the tendency to show different sides of themselves to different people. It was not a lie, merely a small facet that together formed the whole. She mulled over this line of thought, and decided to accept the wisdom.
Whatever had governed her father’s actions, it had been taken with him to the grave. And perhaps it was better this way. Some truths were too painful under the unforgiving light, best to leave them cloaked and undisturbed.
“Yes. Although I do think I hate him, just a little.” She averted her gaze from his scrutiny, starring out toward the balcony, “His choices affected so many lives, Arnav.”
“Hate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t consume you.” he replied candidly. “Now, explain to me your tears.”
Such an arrogant demand, did there exist another Arnav Singh Raizada who can utter them with ease? It was obvious from his insistent tone that he fully intended to get his explanation. Always quick to pick up on his tactics, she used a question to answer his.
“Does it make me selfish to feel such … relief that Payal isn’t my sister?”
“No. It makes you human.”
“You heard everything?”
At his nod, she ignored the emotional lump forming in her throat to continue. “I’ve spent years wondering if my mother was the kind of woman to break a home. It was such an ugly thought, Arnav. I was so ashamed, of her, of myself. I’ve reconciled myself to never knowing, but I’m so relieved. So relieved to know that she isn’t …that she isn’t like the woman … who hurt you.”
This surprised him. Enough so that he knifed up and flooded the room with lights by running an impatient hand across the switches.
“What the hell, Khushi. I thought we were over that. Haven’t we seen enough wreckage these last few weeks to let go of grudges that were never our burden to carry?”
Reaching up, she threaded her fingers through the lock of hair that had fallen over his pensive brow. “I know. Logically, I know it. But that is separate from how I felt. To have this knowledge makes a difference – to me. To know that I can be with you without guilt, without shame. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed it, until Payal gave it to me.”
Reeling, Arnav could only stare at her. It took a second, maybe two or three; then like lightening he flipped their position, staring intently down at the woman beneath him. She was completely certifiable and he’ll be damned if he ever allowed her out of the prison of his arms.
His mouth crashed down over hers. There was no curbing of strength, no restraint of movements. The need to physically respond to her emotional admission was simply too sharp.
So he used the oldest language to print his feelings onto her flesh. With his lips and hands, he gave her the poetry the businessman couldn’t articulate.
And it was within this moment of raw nakedness, of both body and soul, that Khushi felt life’s ultimate blessing. Him. Deep within her body, seeped into her marrow, he filled the broken cracks.
When she was whole, and utterly his, she announced it to him on a cry. “Arnav!”
Five weeks later
Montauk Yacht Club Resort & Marina, New York
Aman starred at his reflection in the full length mirror. Fuck. This was it. In less than two hours, he was going to be Aman Singh Raizada, comma, married man.
Down the hall, just six rooms away, was his bride to be, surrounded by their family and friends as she prepared for their wedding day and their wedding night. He couldn’t wait. As in the Ihaven’thadsexinawholefuckingyear kind of couldn’t wait. If they had gone with an American wedding, his balls could’ve served as her something blue. On that train of thought, Aman shifted in his trousers, but the one that followed gave him pause. What were a virgin’s expectations? And why the hell hadn’t it occur him to cross-examine Anjali on this critical matter?
Preoccupied with putting said examination on his to-do during their reception, he hardly noticed NK’s march into the room, a bulky paper shredder in hand.
“Jesus Aman, what the hell is the hold up?” NK demanded as he plopped it to the floor and himself onto the long couch.
“One’s wedding warrants more care than a board meeting!” Aman snapped.
“You’re in a fucking Brioni, what else do you need?”
“It’s a custom-fitted suit, and it needs…wait, what the hell is that doing here?” His eyes narrowed, “If Arnav brought fucking work to my wedding, I’m going to- ”
“Someone’s tense,” Arnav observed as he walked into the room, a faint smile lingering on his face.
Aman’s eyes tore to Arnav, but the sarcastic quip was abruptly swallowed as he noted just how pleased his brother looked. It was a look he wore well, and lately, often. No need to guess on the source of that particular happiness.
Aman turned his attention back to his reflection. The suit was perfect. “A man has a lot on his mind as he stands on the brink of holy frigging matrimony.”
Arnav exchanged a knowing glance with NK, “Not so cocksure today, brother?”
Oh you ass.
“Absolutely no dick jokes today! Otherwise, your ladies will be waking up to headlines of AR’s CEO’s special relationship with his PA.”
A gleam entered NK eyes and he shot back without hesitation, “He’s just asking to be cockblocked isn’t he?”
Aman glowered at him.
Arnav smirked, “Must be performance anxieties.”
“That’s it! Out!” Aman screeched. That’s right; he’s been reduced to this. Which shortsighted bastard introduced the idea of chastity anyway? Couldn’t he foresee the burden it would impose several centuries down the line?
“Sure? I didn’t come empty handed.” Making good of his word, Arnav tossed a legal sized package at Aman.
Aman blinked. “Say again?”
“Just open it.”
As Aman broke the seal, NK gave a chin lift towards the unit he’d just plugged in, “Figured you’ll want to do the honors.”
For a moment he was dumbfounded as he pulled out a shelf of paper. Skimming the first few lines of fine print, his face cleared, then broke with hearty laughter. Grinning at Arnav, he took the prenup Anjali had signed months ago and gleefully fed it to the shredder.
After the last satisfying crackle, Aman moved towards the silver bar cart laden with a generous breakfast spread. Bypassing the dishes, he reached for three flutes. It was a moment to celebrate and hell he could use the drink. Distributing the glasses, he raised a toast, “To our better halves.”
Amused, Arnav held up his own, “To women who can arouse a man’s intellect as well as his loins.”*
“Let’s be real here,” NK declared, “to sweet fucking cherries.”
They touched rims with ringing clinks.
Montauk Harbor, New York
A clear-top marquee covered in swathes of ivory silk sat at the cusp of the harbor, silver chandeliers interspersed with thousands of fairy lights, and masses and masses of spring flowers. A perfect foil for the evocation of all that was holy matrimony, yet, it paled in comparison to the glowing groom as he spun his bride in circles under a canopy of stars. Occasionally he would pull her close, whispering things that brought forth a scandalized flush that only enhanced the picture they made.
Magic. Today, even a cynic would believe.
With the husky strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” pulsing through his ears, he looked down at the woman in his arms. In a floor skimming emerald sheath dress of cascading silk, she looked like a creature hewn of fairytales and moonlight. It was a good thing he was no prince, for he had no intention of letting her run off at the stroke of midnight.
He found himself drawing her closer for no reason other than to enjoy her scent. Even through his crisp tuxedo he could feel her heart beating in tandem with his own. Raising one hand to gently move her dark hair off her shoulders, he leaned down and placed a kiss on her shoulders. His dark gaze sharpened at her little gasp. Good.
It was the first time they danced together, but he could almost swear they’d done so before. Her body was so attuned to his; it wasn’t two bodies moving through the spins and dips, but one. He wondered if she realized the fluid movements mimicked a far more intimate dance between a man and woman.
Tonight, he had plans to engage her in that carnal union of bodies until dawn. At the moment, he was content to simply have her in his arms.
“Arnav? Am I dreaming?”
“Why do you ask?”
“How can this much happiness be possible?”
Her eyes shone up at him with such joy, it would not be an exaggeration to say she took his breath away. He touched his forehead to her and allowed his thoughts to drift over the day’s events.
It had not been a conventional wedding to say the least. Aman had eschewed a horse in favor of a speedboat. Why not he had reasoned, it’ll serve a dual purpose of being his getaway vehicle, to whisk his bride off to the Jalpari, tucked just beyond the harbor.
NK had done the honors, delivering the groom from the waters to the dock with understated flair. While the five minute trip had been punctured with lighthearted teasing, he knew it was something none of them would ever forget.
Today marked the end of an exclusive codependency they had relied upon for years. Another was joining their inner circle, and while it was a joyous event, there was a tinge of regret to know that things will never be the same again.
At the end of the pier, Aman welcomed his bride. She came adorned in centuries of tradition, passed from one woman to the next. Her body wrapped in Mulberry silk of crimson and gold, a diamond jewel nestled at the center of her forehead, both wrist were encased in rings of silver and red while earthy swirls of intricate henna ran from her lower arms to the tips of each finger.
They had come as themselves, both willing to meet halfway as they trothed their lives to each other. Anjali had refused to have bridal attendants, choosing instead to walk the winding aisle to the gold mandap hand in hand with the man who was going to make her his in the eyes of God, their friends and family, and the fine state of New York.
There were raised eyebrows and frowns on several guests at the deviations from tradition, but it was quickly suppressed when it became clear Devyani Raizada could care less. What was more sacred then a couple gracing a mandap with a blended look of adoration and trust?
Under a dusky evening sky bordering the idyllic Montauk Harbor, the Raizadas welcomed a new family member. With rare solemnness, Aman led Anjali around the sacred fire. Seven circles, seven blessings and seven lifetimes were secured.
Aman Singh Raizada became a husband.
Arnav Singh Raizada became a believer.
Montauk Yacht Club Resort & Marina, New York
“Just how much did you have to drink tonight?”
She giggled as she weaved down the hallway, humming the wedding march without a care to tune.
All the wedding guests were spending the night at the Yacht Club. They’d been given an adjourned room, and she’d found it hilarious when Anjali Jha had actually winked at her as she handed over the keycards. Aman was in for a surprise tonight!
A rug appeared out of nowhere and would have sent her tumbling had NK not caught her shoulders and pulled her back against his chest.
“Doll, how much did you drink tonight?”
“Mmmmm, just enough,” she replied smugly. “I want to have drunk sex with you.”
NK grinned. Fuck. She was drunk and sexy as hell. He was going to enjoy playing with her, especially with those four inch spiked heels that made her tanned legs look a mile long. But first.
He moved until he had her against the door, waiting for the impact of those blues to hit him, “What was ma’s other advice?”
She starred at him blankly, “What?”
“Months ago, you told me that ma gave you two bits of advice before you left Indiana. One was judging a man by the company he keeps. What’s the other?”
Robbie couldn’t identify the feeling that moved through her. It was oddly thrilling and deeply frightening at the same time. “You … remembered that?”
She swallowed, suddenly wishing she was thoroughly drunk. “Then, you’ll also remember I told you that ma’s advice has to be earned.”
“So tell me how to earn it.”
Straightforward, no bullshit. Totally real. Completely NK. She wanted to grab onto him and never let go. She also wanted to run down the hallway as fast as the damn heels would allow.
As if sensing her urge for flight, his arms moved up on either side, his eyes honing on her face. For a moment she closed them. NK had a way of seeing that others rarely took the time to see.
It was quickly masked, but he caught the fleeting look of panic on her face. He wasn’t there yet. Fuck him. He thought he was, but Robbie’s protective shell was much harder than he’d originally thought. Annoyed, but undeterred, NK swooped down and caught her lips. It was hot, it was heated and damn it to hell it had heart.
Pulling back he glared at her, but the angry words found a quick death as he caught the rare vulnerability she was so careful to hide.
What the hell am I gonna do with you Robbie Sinclair?
Robbie risked a glance at NK, sure she was about to be the recipient of another of his lessons. To her surprise, his eyes turned lazy.
“Okay, we’ll do it your way.”
She knew it…wait. What? Okay? That’s it?!
NK hid a grin as Robbie fumed. He wasn’t there yet, but he was damn fucking close. Besides, nothing he enjoyed more than a good challenge. Particularly since he’d already had a good taste of the reward.
“Unless you want an audience, better open that door behind you.”
“We’ll talk later. Now I’m going to have you in those heels on the opposite side of this door.”
She should be ashamed of the whimper of need that shot through her at the hot delivery of those words against her throat, but all she managed was a soft moan.
“I’m good with this side of the door too,” NK whispered, his tongue darting out with wicked intent, “so hurry.”
Robbie twisted desperately at the door knob, why didn’t the thing open? “Keycard,” she panted.
Biting off an oath, he let go of her long enough to swipe the keycard and shoved her inside. Seconds later the door slammed behind them and he was in her. She bucked against him, her hand tangling in his hair. They arched and rose against each other until orgasm ripped away all thoughts.
Much later, when he pulled the covers over them, she curled against him. “Noah,” she whispered. Just his name, but it was enough. For now.
As he held her in the dark he made his plans. Tomorrow he was calling his sisters. God help her then. With a grin, he spared a thought to Aman. There was nothing like finding your rest in the arms of the right woman. Good luck, mate.
The Jalpari, Montauk Harbor, New York
Aman glanced down at the swim trunks in his hand. What the fuck was he- ? Oh right. He was the brilliant idiot who suggested a dip in the pool, all because he suddenly felt like a teenage boy who’d never had a woman.
Karma must be female and this was her revenge for the sisterhood.
Why had it been so easy with other women? Simple, mindless pleasure. Easy. So easy he often couldn’t recall the faces of the women in his bed. Yes, he had a reputation of a man whore, but he was redeemed dammit!
Now he was in the goddamn bathroom on his wedding night, the woman waiting on the other side, and maybe he was terrified. Shit he was fucking terrified, not even an inch for maybe. Because the trust and love he’d seen in her eyes all day left no room for mistakes. It had to be perfect. For her.
Speaking of inches… Aman glanced down. It didn’t share his apprehensions, hell, the bastard was downright eager. He almost doubled over as if from one of those sessions with NK’s one-two combo to groin and gut. She was expecting to be made love to, not attacked by her groom.
No doubt she would share about her first time with Robbie and Khushi on one of their girl nights. The three had grown inseparable. Aman shuddered at the thought of being compared to his brother and best friend. Did women discuss length and girth? Shit that line of thought was not helping.
A light knock put a halt to his mental breakdown.
“Aman? Are you alright?”
Shouldn’t that be his line? “Be right out!”
Anjali moved back to the vanity chair she’d been sitting in and glanced at the mirror. She had changed into the white and gold bikini purchased weeks ago and it was all she could do not to fiddle with the strings.
She hadn’t known what to expect, but Aman disappearing into the bathroom as soon as they boarded The Jalpari hadn’t featured in any of her fantasies of thee night. And yes, to herself, she was willing to admit, she had been fantasizing. Of becoming Aman’s bride, his woman, his wife.
In the last year of dating, his kisses had often left her aching. She knew what it meant and that there was only one way of completely assuaging it. Tonight she was a woman of need. If only her groom would oblige!
She had a fair idea what was twirling in that legal brain. She wasn’t looking for perfection, just the final physical union of their love. Yet, how to communicate that to the man on the other side?
Again her eyes were drawn to the mirror. Robbie had declared the wispy straps would bring him to his knees. That required him actually seeing her in it! Taking a fortifying breath, she marched back to the bathroom.
“Aman Singh Raizada!”
“Anjali, just give me a- “
“If you don’t come out right this minute I’m leaving.”
Anjali allowed herself a tiny smile at the speed of which the door swung open.
“What?! You can’t leave!”
It was then that he got a look of what she was wearing. Or more accurately, what she wasn’t. Before him was a golden goddess in wedding white. The color was the only virginal thing about it. Her curved body was a stunning showcase of feminine beauty. And holy shit she was actually wearing a thong bikini.
Aman swallowed his tongue as their eyes met. Reality was suddenly reduced to this woman and this room and the fierce need to make her his.
There was open desire behind the purity of emotions that radiated from her. Aman saw it and reeled with the impact. What the hell had he been thinking? This was Anjali. His Anjali. It was their long awaited wedding night and he’d stupidly wasted nearly an hour of it.
He held out a hand. When she placed it trustingly in his, he led her to the bed. There he paused, running his fingers through her hair, unravelling the curls as he caressed the silky strands. Before she knew it, Anjali was looking up at her groom as her back met the sheets. Aman’s strong body settled between her legs, instinctively she opened up to him as they continued to maintain eye contact.
“Sorry about earlier. I just … well it’s been awhile and…. are you laughing?! Anjali Jha you do not laugh when a man is in bed with you. Ever!”
“Anjali Raizada,” she corrected softly.
“Anjali Raizada,” Aman echoed, then repeated on a breath, “Anjali Raizada. Fuck, finally.”
“What is it, baby?”
“Please shut up and make me your wife.”
“Not wife, Anjali, that’s for them. A legal title. But here? Between us? You’re my woman,” his eyes darkened to nearly black, “And I’ve been starving for you.”
Her breath hitched, “Then take me. I want to be yours.”
It was the last words she got out, for his lips descended and their bodies took over.
He was gentle, but greedy. She didn’t mind because she equally covetous of him. When she felt him enter her body that first time, there was a slight uncomfortable burn. The intrusive sensation was soon forgotten as he smoothed kisses over her throat and shoulders, murmuring his encouragement for her to meet his thrusts as he cradled her with care.
Her hands had felt useless initially, but they were quick to obey his commands of “touch me.” She did, letting all ten fingers slid over him, gliding over skin and muscle. Her exploration began with hesitancy, growing bolder as curiosity mounted and then with heady female knowledge as she drew out throaty moans.
That night he did give her perfection. The vibration of her name on his lips as he came apart in her arms, was the most magnificent sight she’d ever seen. She closed her eyes, memorizing the scents, the sounds, the sensations. Because Anjali knew, this moment, this complete wholeness of joining, would someday be the last memory she cherished before letting go of this lifetime.
“I love you, Aman.”
He looked down at her and grinned. “That’s a good thing sweetheart, seeing as you’re now irrevocably Anjali Raizada.”
Her hands came up to cup his face, “I love you, Mr. Raizada.”
Fuck, he loved this woman. He bent his head and kissed her. Softly, sweetly, a silent thank you for the gift of her.
“And I love you, Mrs. Raizada.”
So… watcha think?
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*adapted from Coming to America by Eddie Murphy