Fifth Ave, New York
Hair damp, body tingling from the heady memory of Arnav’s touch, Khushi halted mid stride as her shocked gaze encountered Aman’s open appraisal, NK’s discreet wink, and Arnav’s carefully blanked face.
“Ummm…” she cleared her throat, “What are you guys doing here?”
Three sets of eyes watched as her face heated into a pink flame. Biting back a grin, Arnav’s eyes moved towards the ceiling and froze.
Dammit. How could he have been so careless? Once again he had been so lost in her; his usual self-preservation completely deserted him.
Like all the common areas throughout the hotel, the aerie housed eight cameras that went straight to a live feed where two high level security guards attended to them at all times. Security who had front row seats to the show he had personally provided in the last hour.
Arnav’s jaw flexed as he recalled the flicker of surprised wonder he’d glimpsed on Khushi’s face after he brought her to climax. The thought of some stranger’s gaze on her at such a vulnerable moment bothered him. That look was his.
Unexpectedly, he felt a hand rest on his tense shoulder; he cocked his head towards NK.
“It’s taken care of,” NK said quietly, with a slight head jerk towards the ceiling.
Arnav raised an eyebrow, Aman’s earlier comment about the cherry fully registering.
He opened his mouth to blast them when the corner of his vision caught on Khushi, smiling sweetly as his brother turned the Raizada charm on her. He knew she would be mortified if he brought up the cameras now.
Clamping down on the words, he gave NK a curt nod, and let the matter go.
Waving goodbye to NK and Aman, Arnav led Khushi out to the main lobby.
“Arnav,” she called before they made it to the waiting limo, she made no further comment when he turned back to look directly at her, sharp, piercing.
“What is it?”
Forgetting her original train of thought, she stuttered, “Why… why are you looking at me like that?”
“I like how my name sounds on your lips… it adds an edge of anticipation to tonight when I know it’ll sound even better.” The delivery was crouched in such casualness of tone, she would have been deceived had he not been facing her.
Feeling momentarily robbed of oxygen; Khushi gulped in an extra lungful. “Where are we going?”
“What did you plan on wearing to dinner?”
Khushi frowned, “I have a pair of black pants and a coat. Does it matter so much to you what I wear?”
“To me? No, I prefer you in nothing at all. But to my world? It matters.”
“No money, no gifts remember? You promised me that. I can’t bend on this, Arnav.”
“I can afford it.”
“I know that, but there are certain… principles.”
He exhaled audibly, dismissing the driver. “You’re damned stubborn you know that?”
She bit her lips, clearly agitated. “Pot. Kettle.”
Caught between annoyance at her obstinacy and secret relief, he considered his options. His eyes caught on a billboard and inspiration struck.
“Fine. What’s your stance on borrowed clothes?”
“Don’t you dare look for loopholes! I won’t wear anything from AR.”
“Not a loophole. As hot as that body is Miss Khumari, you’re not built to fit what we have on hand for the models,” he gave her a wicked grin, “I meant my clothes.”
“Your clothes? As in menswear?”
“Yes, as in menswear.”
“Arnav, as you just pointed out so charmingly, I wouldn’t fit the clothes for your model, I definitely wouldn’t fit in your clothes.”
“Khushi,” his tone mocked, “I’m well aware of that. What surprises me is your utter lack of imagination.”
She regarded him with open distrust, “What are the terms?”
“You’re learning,” he replied with approval, “Ok, no gifts, no purchases. I expect every item to be returned by midnight. In exchange you will be my muse for the evening.”
“Your muse? I didn’t realize you took part in the designing and styling.”
“I haven’t, not in a long time, but when AR first started,” he shrugged, “Most women would consider it an honor you know, or at least feel very flattered to be taken under my… hands.”
“I’m not most women.”
“That much is becoming obvious. Well? Do we have a deal, Miss Khumari?”
“We have a deal, Mr. Raizada.”
“Good. Are you familiar with androgynous chic?”
He whisked her straight through his bedroom. Khushi found herself feeling queasy as he ushered her into an elongated walk-in-closet, its size the equivalent of a second master bedroom.
Glass and steel in sleek lines ensured a masculine setting for the row upon row of suits that greeted their master, each carrying a more impressive label than the last. Armani, Domenico Vacca, Savile Row, Kiton and others she’d never heard of but was pretty sure were equally pricey. She could envision him walking in each morning and choosing his ‘weapons’ for the day.
Arnav thumbed impatiently through a collection of white oxfords. Yes, a collection. He favored a streamlined look she noted, with crisp white, muted greys, and monochrome black dominating the color palette of his wardrobe.
In the next hour he had her try on various combinations of her black pants and his shirts. There was a single mindedness to his approach that she found amusing if a bit alarming.
She was starting to tire as he made her put on yet another white shirt. Even Robbie, with her love of labels, didn’t possess this level of concentration towards dressing. Did it really matter if the shirt was three inches higher or lower on her thigh?
“Stop squirming,” he barked as he adjusted the collar.
“Arnav, this is ridiculous. You’ve made me change into six outfits already!”
Arnav stepped back to inspect the full effect of his latest choice.
“We’re going with this one.”
He had found an art gallery white silk dress shirt to pair with her pants. A charcoal silk tie hung loose around her neck and a solid black dinner jacket thrown casually over her shoulders completed the outfit . The oversize silhouette combined with her slimness created a chic effortless look that emphasized her feminine face.
“You may have inspired AR’s next show at New York Fashion Week.”
At her disbelieving look he shook his head. “You, Khushi, are a snob.”
“You find fashion a frivolous pursuit don’t you?”
“I understand that there are many women around the world who devote themselves to it. I can appreciate the beautiful fantasy that comes down a runway. I even like some of the trends that trickle down to the chain stores. And I’m sure you make a sizable profit from it. However, I don’t have the time, the money, or the inclination to indulge in it, so how is it relevant to me?”
“Do you know borrowing from the men aisle is a time-honored tradition in which some of history’s most alluring women have partaken?” he asked suddenly.*
“What do you mean?”
“It was common for Katharine Hepburn to be sighted sporting a Brooks Brothers’ cashmere turtleneck sweater. Marlene Dietrich preferred slinking around in their silk dressing gowns. Coco Chanel built an empire by raiding her companions’ closets, nicking hunting tweeds and cardigans, which later became the foundation of her designs. And then there was Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking from 1966.”
“Yes, 48 years ago in Paris, when he sent the first Le Smoking – the French pronunciation of the British term for tuxedo – down the runway, he broke the last barrier for women.”
“How?” Khushi asked, intrigued.
“He introduced the world to the concept of women in trousers as part of evening wear. By pairing it with a white shirt, a large black bow at the neck, and satin stripes down wide pants, he was playing with a certain gender ambiguity. The style not only marked a shift in fashion, but also in power. His partner Pierre Bergé had it right when he made the statement ‘Chanel gave women their freedom; years later Saint Laurent brought them power’. If it hadn’t been for one man’s love of fashion and the desire to challenge norms, women may still find themselves putting on dresses for a night out. That’s why it is relevant to you, to me, to all of us.”
Khushi was staggered by his knowledge, further surprised by the deep respect resonating in his tone.
“You love it,” she said quietly with dawning realization, “It shouldn’t just be assumed you’re only interested in the profits.”
“I’m interested in profits. Money makes the difference between a good life and no life at all. However, if you have an eye towards success, comprehensive knowledge of your field is a requisite. There are those of us who live for their job. Not because we’re forced to, but because it provides a purpose. It’s not a bad thing. A businessman’s sanctum is his office, while a courtroom should feel like home to a lawyer. And if I ever require the service of a surgeon, only a workaholic is allowed to operate on me.”
“Don’t downplay it. Those weren’t the words of a workaholic; those were words of love. The kind of love a man has for a woman,” she looked at him speculatively, “or that of a child for his mother.”
Khushi saw his body lock, his eyes darkening as wariness replaced warmth.
Aman’s advice ringing in her ears, Khushi drew herself up to meet his gaze squarely.
“What are you talking about?” Arnav demanded sharply. His breathing was too fast, his eyes opaque with suppressed anger.
“Sometimes talking about things makes it a little better,” Khushi said softly, sensing that they were dancing around something at the center of his psyche.
“You can trust me, Arnav.”
“Can I? I’ve heard that promise before,” he sneered.
“But …. it … it wasn’t from me.”
Something burned in his eyes at her words before he turned away abruptly. She took in his imposing back, so stiff with tension she was sure they would feel like granite if she reached out to touch. Her shoulders slumping in defeat, she looked towards the mirror he was facing and their eyes clashed.
His reflection held her eyes for a long time, his internal struggle palpable. Then, with his body still turned away, he shocked her by breaking the silence.
“My mother was a seamstress when we were in India. We didn’t have much, but what we did have was presented in the best way she could manage. She believed that the joy of dressing is an art.* A refined form of expression, a package of how you want to present yourself to the world, but also a glimpse to the person you are beneath. Clothes have history, they tell stories, they..” he stopped abruptly.
“Where is she now, Arnav?” Khushi encouraged quietly.
“She’s dead.” His voice went cold, the wall of ice slammed firmly into place.
Undeterred, her heart aching from the subdued pain she could sense in his words, she pushed.
“Did you start AR because of her?”
He kept silent for so long, she was prepared to let it go, when he spoke again.
“Yes. We named it after her.”
“Really? The media refers to it as an acronym of your name.”
“They assumed and we never corrected them. However, the company’s formation papers are under Anantha Raizada.”
“Anantha,” Khushi repeated, “That’s beautiful.”
“Did you leave India after she …passed away?”
“Yes. It was unbearable to stay.” There was something hidden in that statement, more skeletons. But she instinctively knew he wasn’t ready for that. And perhaps, she wasn’t ready for that.
Instead she asked him, “Why New York?”
“Mahendra Mama sponsored us after Nani wrote to him, he and Mami moved here years ago since most of her family was here. They owned a small textile mill just outside the city.”
“How did you start AR?”
“The mill was doing well, but with extra mouths to feed, things were tough. Aman was too young, so while he went to school, I went with Mama to work at the mill. He’s a good man, but a poor businessman. He gave in too easily during contract negotiations with larger companies. After I learned the ropes, I started taking over. We discovered I had a knack for designing and our clientele changed as I improved.” Arnav shrugged, bypassing years of hard-won battles with ruthless competitors and the burden of caring for his family.
“Arnav, just how old were you?”
“Fourteen when we first came, seventeen when I started the company. Everything changed when we met an angel investor. He was a formidable presence in retail, but he had an eye towards couture. I convinced him to take a chance on us, and AR was formed. He was a good man, and a good friend.”
“He passed away several years ago. It was a loss to the business world, to his family and friends. AR’s first runway collection was dedicated to the most important woman of his life.”
“What did you call it?”
“Laramie, it means”
“Tears of love,” Khushi finished, startled.
“How do you know?”
“It’s my mother’s name.”
“NK mentioned she’s French.”
“Yes, a strange coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Yes, strange,” Arnav finally turned around and despite his own misgivings gave in to ask, “When did you lose her?”
“When I was twelve, she died in childbirth.”
“And your mother…?”
His eyes sliced through her, “She killed herself.”
Khushi recoiled at the blunt delivery of his words. “Oh, Arnav! I’m so sorry.”
“It’s better, actually, that she’s gone.”
“How can you say that?”
“She wasn’t really living before that. Her life with my father…. it broke her.”
Stricken, Khushi searched Arnav’s face for traces of any expression beyond the bleakness, but it was all there was. She didn’t understand what lay behind it, but she knew something had happened to this man, something horrible and ugly enough to force the burden of rigid self-containment onto his shoulders.
Wanting to ease him, she moved until their bodies touched. “You know, my mother named me double happiness.”
“Double happiness?” Khushi felt relief when he didn’t retreat.
“She said her name attracted sadness into her life, she didn’t want the same for me. So she chose the Hindi Khushi for happiness and the French Lacene for cheerful.”
“She sounds like a good mother.”
“She was the most wonderful mother, Arnav.”
“Yes, she must be, she gave the world a Khushi Lacene,” the words would have been flippant, yet his quiet delivery implied genuine intent.
The world faded away for Khushi, contracting until it only comprised of this moment.
“Do you think… she would have been proud of me? Of how I turned out?” she asked him earnestly.
Arnav tilted his head to one side as he studied the woman before him.
She looked stunning. The clothes showed off her figure to perfection, emphasizing her shape, exactly as he had envisioned. And her eyes… sweet eyes that held sensual promise. They made him want to lock the doors, take her and bury himself so deep, she’d never even look at another man again. He was fairly sure she wasn’t referring to all that.
Then he recalled her proud bearing the night they met, her temper when he wronged her, her refusal to accept anything she considered a handout, her grace when conceding a point, and the compassion in her entire body as he spoke of his past. She was all woman. A woman a man would be proud to claim. A daughter any mother would be proud to call her own.
Arnav didn’t tell her any of that.
“Absofuckinglutely,” he replied.*
A small smile broke over her lips, eyes deepening with suspicious moistness; she inched closer to him, laying a tentative hand over his heart.
“The man you are Arnav, the successful public figure the world sees and the glimpse of the private man you just gave me… she would have been proud of you, too.”
For a few taut seconds, she couldn’t read his expression. Then he muttered some curse under his breath she couldn’t quite catch before his arms closed around her. He bent his neck and pressed the side of his head against hers. Khushi suppressed a whimper of rising emotion as her arms wrapped around his waist. It was a hug of compassion, an acknowledgment of their shared loss. And the beauty of it filled her.
She eased his harsh breathing with tender hands, smoothing her fingers over his hair until he finally lifted his head and kissed her. His lips moved in a gentle caress, a balm to soothe the sting of his earlier rejection.
Arnav broke the kiss to nuzzle into the soft space between her neck and inhaled her scent, finding a comfort he hadn’t known he needed. He wished dinner was over.
Lifting his head he watched as Khushi opened her eyes reluctantly and smiled at him. A glint of tears shone in them, yet she didn’t allow any to fall. Taking her in, the promise of her, Arnav felt something shift in him. He wasn’t sure what it was, he only knew it was significant and he may never be the same after this.
“Are we going to stand here all night or are you going to take me to dinner so I can show off your creation?”
To that, he replied, “We stand here much longer, we won’t make it to dinner.”
She laughed then, breaking the spell around them. The sound so sweet he wanted to bottle it up and horde it for his own private pleasure. Since that wasn’t an option, he leaned in and took another kiss, feeling the vibration of her joy against his. Then, before either of them had time to dwell on what just transpired, Arnav took Khushi’s hands and led her out.
10th Avenue, New York
Del Posto sat on a windswept corner of Manhattan. Stepping inside the restaurant, Khushi was overwhelmed by the explosive greeting of Italianate grandeur and opulence. The plush space of reds, browns and creams was dimly lit, making its statement with towering columns and curtained windows. Wrought-iron permeated the decor, including a beautiful grand staircase that served as the centerpiece. Amidst the light chatter of diners, well-played Gershwin tinkled in the background by a live pianist.
Nerves swirled low in Khushi’s stomach as she became acutely aware of the stares directed at them as they crossed the room towards the long dark bar, where NK and Aman were lounging in wait. Arnav took it in stride, his public face set into a slate of untouchable ice. She startled when she felt his hand reach out to take hers. He didn’t pause, nor did he look at her, simply lent his silent support as if he did it every day.
It bolstered her confidence and the stares of strangers lost importance. Lacing her fingers with his, she straighten her back to match his strides.
NK gave a low whistle when he caught sight of Khushi.
“Where did you take her?” Aman asked, his eyes skimming over her outfit with approval.
“My closet,” Arnav replied, as casually as if he had said Barneys.
“I’ll be damned. Khushi, you can definitely pull off androgynous chic, too bad you lack the height for modeling.”
Aman turned to the beautiful woman draped in a pale pink saree next to him.
“Khushi, there’s someone special I would like to introduce you to. She insisted on coming tonight. This is my fiancé, Anjali. Anjali, meet Arnav’s mystery girl, Khushi.”
“Jesus, Aman, you’re worse than a rabid fangirl,” Arnav snapped.
“As VP, I have to keep posted on the public perception of our company, especially of the CEO,” he turned to Anjali for affirmation, “Right, baby?”
She shook her head at him in gentle admonishment, then turned to Khushi, “I’m so happy to meet you, Khushi, I hope your encounters with Aman hasn’t left you with a bad impression.”
“Not at all, and the pleasure is mine,” Khushi stepped closer to take the hand Anjali had extended in greeting. Her body tensed when she saw surprise flash across the other woman’s face before it was masked. She felt an answering tug of recognition, almost certain they have met before. The unsettling thought was disrupted when Robbie strolled up to their group, looking stunning in an electric blue sheath dress she saved for special occasions.
Ignoring the others, her gaze fixated on Arnav.
“You must be Mr. Arrogant Selfish and Rich.”
“And you must be Roommate Sinclair.” Arnav returned lazily, yet his eyes were alert as she gave him a comprehensive once-over.
“That I am. I’m also the best friend who grew up with three brothers and has been taking judo since high school.”
“Are you threatening me, Miss Sinclair?
“No, I’m declaring my intentions to keep a close watch on you, Mr. Raizada. And I have front row-seating!”
“Robbie,” Khushi tried to cut in.
“One more thing, are you familiar with baseball, Mr. Raizada?”
“Doll, he has a dick doesn’t he? Of course he’s familiar with baseball,” NK interrupted.
Ignoring him, Robbie looked at Arnav, her height of 5’ 10” and the added three inches of heels set them at eye level, “Well?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“You see, I’m a fan of baseball, especially of the three strikes you’re out rule. In my book you’re already on strike one.” Robbie glared at him then. So deadly was her look, a lesser man would’ve found himself on his knees.
Arnav, however, was undaunted. Khushi swore his mouth twitched, but it was gone so fast she thought she might have imagined it. “I see. So you like to keep score?”
“Yes. Since she,” Robbie angled her head towards Khushi, “is too naïve for her own good.”
Arnav nodded, giving Robbie the full power of his assessing regard as he said, “Ok, how about this. Khushi 1, Arnav 0.”
Five pairs of eyes flew to him. He wouldn’t, Khushi thought, prayed.
“What score are those?” Robbie asked, suspicion in her voice.
“Orgasm counts,” Arnav deadpanned.
Robbie blinked at him then threw back her head and laughed. As the others joined in, Khushi turned mortified eyes towards Arnav. Not only was he unrepentant, the man had the audacity to give her hand a squeeze!
“Aren’t you full of surprises.” Visibly relaxed, Robbie turned to Khush, a wide grin on her face, “Well, well. You look smashing, Khushi!”
“Le Smoking?” she directed at Arnav, a hint of reluctant admiration in her tone.
“It was an inspiration.”
She beamed, “Damn, I’m not mad anymore. Feed me and we might even graduate to liking.”
NK made quick work of introductions then motioned for the maître d’ who fawned and fussed as he led them up to the semi-private balcony adorned with flickering tea-lights. A white tablecloth, gold dinnerware, and gleaming glasses sat elegantly on the long table in invitation.
Arnav pulled open the end chair for Khushi, the ladies ended up on one side, while the men took the opposite seats. No menus were offered but a wine list, one closer to a leather bound novel, was discreetly provided. They were given several minutes to soak in the atmosphere before the head chef, sommelier, and two servers came out to greet them. Apparently, dining with the Raizada brothers conferred special status.
Robbie let out an inelegant snort.
“What’s so amusing?” NK asked.
She lifted her shoulders lightly. “Nothing…I’m just enjoying the spectacle of all the minions tripping over themselves to impress Mr. ASR… that has a certain ring to it doesn’t it?”
“Buona sera Signores! Signorinas! It’s a pleasure to have you dine with us.”
“Thanks for taking a last minute reservation, Marco.” Aman responded. “We’ve brought two uninitiated tonight.”
“Eccellente! We shall go with the tradizionale this evening then,” he turned to address Khushi and Robbie, “You will love it. Eight-courses to introduce you to the length and breadth of Italiano cuisine, from my hometown of Sicily to the Alto Adige. You brought your stomach?”
Robbie grinned, “Oh, we have definitely brought our stomach.”
“Buono. Buono. It’s an evening for champagne and conversation. I go to prepare, please enjoy yourselves.” he gave a lavish bow and left with quiet flair.
“What shall it be this evening, sir?” the house sommelier addressed Arnav.
After conferring with Aman and NK, he ordered a bottle of champagne to start their evening and a 1990 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva to complement their meal. Khushi was positive both must cost a small fortune since the sommelier gave a brief, but genuine smile of approval before he walked briskly towards the wine cellar.
Anjali asked for a gin and tonic, while Khushi opted for an Amaretto. She had the feeling it would be needed for later, the fact was confirmed when she met Arnav’s knowing eyes.
The table turned to Robbie, who hesitated for all of two seconds before giving NK a challenging smirk.
“I’ll have a martini,” she said sweetly.
“Gin or vodka, Signorina?”
“Vodka, up, no ice…. it wouldn’t be a bother to have the glass chilled, would it?”
At the server’s head shake, she added, “Olives, no onions,” Robbie paused in deliberation before completing the order. “two of them, on a toothpick… please.”
The minute the dazed server walked away to fulfill their drinks order, all three men burst into laughter.
NK turned to her, “You this particular in bed?”
She awarded him with one of her mischievous grins. “Depends, does it turn you on or off?”
“On, babydoll, definitely on.”
Six sparkling flutes of Perrier-Jouët Brut Blanc de Blancs Belle Epoque arrived with fanfare.
“What shall we toast to?” Anjali asked.
“To midnight kisses and flying fruits!” NK tossed out.
“To morning swims and cherry bikinis!” Aman exclaimed.
Robbie hid a grin as Khushi blushed in the way only she was capable of, while Arnav’s face darkened with an ominous pledge of retribution.
Anjal, who had been quietly watchful, raised her glass and simply said, “To new beginnings.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Arnav responded quickly.
“To new beginnings,” Khushi repeated. Touching the rim of her glass lightly against his before the group joined in.
As the others drowned their flutes, Arnav couldn’t tear his eyes off Khushi as she fought off displaying surprise and pleasure as the taste of the champagne settled on her tongue. He was looking forward to tonight when the taste of her settled on his. His fingers tightened on the glass flute in a reflex action, to stop himself from reaching out and hauling her across the table and crushing that kissable mouth under his.
He hadn’t missed the male attention she’d garnered when they entered the restaurant. It took control not to snarl. Taking her hands in his had sent a message, but when she responded by lacing his fingers with her own, he had felt suddenly grounded. As if he finally found the center to balance his off-kilter existence. A dangerous woman.
Conversation flowed easily with the help of NK and Aman’s quick wit coupled with Robbie’s flirty responses. Anjali was quieter, but as the meal progressed, Khushi noticed how she had a talent for filling gaps with lighthearted anecdotes. More than once she caught the elegant woman looking at her, her perusal discreet, but undeterred.
After taking a final bite of the Lobster alla Cesare, Aman set his utensils down and sighed dramatically. “It’s absolutely unfair for women to claim that guys only want one thing. Besides sex, we also want good food.”*
“What’s unfair is how you don’t have a potbelly considering the high level of fat you regularly feed it.” NK retorted.
“I’m told I have the body of a god,” Aman responded with smugness.
“A hot Greek god or one of those Egyptian ones with the jackal heads?” Robbie asked innocently.
At Aman’s gap, she grinned, “Next time a woman tells you that, ask her to specify.”
“Do you run?” Khushi asked Aman.
“He only runs when there’s an incentive,” NK replied with a smirk. “About a year ago we had a shoot with a snake theme, a friend of Arnav’s loaned us his pythons.”
“Don’t you dare, NK!”
NK was undeterred, “One of the python escaped and ended up in Aman’s office. Next thing you know, he’s running down fifteen flights of stairs shrieking the entire way.”
“It was not a fucking shriek!” Aman snapped, “It was a masculine cry of terror.”
“Your bromance is making some of us uncomfortable.” Arnav joined in drily.
“It’s lovely,” Khushi said, then added softly, “The love of man to woman is a thing common and of course, and at first partakes more of instinct and passion than of choice; but true friendship between man and man is infinite and immortal.”
“Who the fuck said that?” Aman demanded.
“Plato,” she muttered, a bit embarrassed as the group’s attention focused on her.
She looked across the table and caught the smile hovering on Arnav’s lips. She had been exquisitely attuned to him all evening while the others bantered. She barely noticed the courses being delivered. She must have eaten, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember what. She found herself sneaking glances, delighting over the shifting nuances. The way his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners when he smiled, that unruly lock across her forehead that made her hand itch run a hand through it. The man was dangerous to her senses.
From the moment he sat down, Arnav had discreetly caught her hands under the table, negating her every attempt to pull free. As they ate, he would slowly stroke a thumb across her wrist, rewarding her with a sensual smile when he felt her pulse jump in response to his touch. If his intent was to drive her out of her mind before dinner was over, he had succeeded spectacularly. Every touch was added kindle the fire he ignited in her upon their first kiss, a scorching blaze that needed to be burned out before she went senseless with need. Unfortunately, Khushi knew her deliverance was in the hands of her tormentor.
A sudden commotion from the stairs drew their attention. Khushi turned to see Supermodel Lavanya Kashyap walk up the balcony. She wore a figure hugging dress in simple white, veered from innocence by a highly dramatic plunging V-neck. Her body was coveted by both men and women, but it was the striking face, so blatantly sensual it evokes images of a pagan goddess, that had shot her to international stardom.
She halted abruptly when she caught sight of their table. Tension coiled inside Khushi when she saw bleak pain fill Lavanya features, stark as spilled ink on paper.
Khushi whipped back to Arnav when he abruptly dropped her hand. His eyes had gone from soft warmth to hard ice. He was furious. It was visibly etched in the taut line of his jaw and tightly pressed lips. Even his body changed, tensing into unyielding stiffness. Next to him, NK and Aman carried similar looks of unease.
Lavanya recovered her bearing, and without a word she walked past them to her dinner companion. Robbie took in the vibe, a frown marring her features.
“Is she an ex-girlfriend?” she asked bluntly to the table at large.
“No,” Arnav clipped.
She was about to push, when she felt NK’s hand squeeze her knee.
She looked up and he shook his head. “Later” he mouthed silently.
Not liking the mood, she muttered, “I need to go touch up, Khushi you coming?”
Anjali stood up, “I’ll join you.”
“One thing I can never understand. Why do women go to the ladies room in groups?” NK asked, in a clear attempt to lighten the stifling atmosphere.
“To exchange secrets, big guy. Now talk business or something, we’ll be a while.” Robbie retorted.
She grabbed her clutch and headed in search of the ladies’ room, Anjali and Khushi falling into steps behind her, unaware or ignoring the number of heads that turned as they progressed across the dining room.
As soon as they stepped through, Robbie turned to Anjali expectantly, “Is Lavanya Arnav’s ex-girlfriend?
“It’s Arnav and Aman’s story to share, not mine,” Anjali responded softly, but with underling firmness.
“Arnav and Aman’s?”
Perceiving Anjali’s discomfort, Khushi intervened, “Robbie, let it be. You’re putting Anjali on the spot.”
“Don’t you want to know?” At Khushi’s pointed look, she backed down, “Fine. Too many skeletons in the Raizadas closet, yeesh.”
Digging into her purse, Robbie paused long enough to reapply a fresh coat of fire engine red lipstick, “I’m guessing you came along because you wanted a moment alone with, Khushi.”
Surprise fused Anjali’s features, but she nodded. “If you don’t mind, then yes.”
Robbie shrugged, “I could use some fresh air – see you.”
“Have we met?” Khushi asked Anjali once Robbie left.
“Yes. … I’m not surprised you don’t remember; you were so distraught at the time. But your eyes, I’ve never forgotten them.”
“Yes, it was a little over two years ago….in the middle of December at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx.”
Khushi trembled involuntarily as the words conjured an old memory. “…Red umbrella, that was you?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes! Red umbrella.”
“I always wanted to say thank you, but you left before I even realized…”
“I think fate was at play that day.”
“What do you mean?”
Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
2 years and 5 months earlier
The cemetery was suitably bleak, and there were no flowers to cheer the snow covered gravestones. The silence of the cemetery was deafening, as if somehow even the usually bustling ol’ New York knew better then to encroach on these sacred grounds.
She turned twenty-one today. Would they be proud of the woman she’d become? She didn’t have any answers, or anyone to ask. They’d been gone from her life for so many years now- memories of them, especially of her mother were dimmed- formed mostly from lingering wisps of snowy mornings, wiped tears and goodnight kisses.
Silent tears slid unheeded down her frozen cheeks as she huddled against cold stones, despairing and yearning for connection.
Anjali Jha was on her way out of the cemetery when she saw a lone figure shivering violently on the snow blanketed grounds between two graves. She had presumed she was the only one there on such a frosty morning. Umbrella in hand, she moved closer, only to see a young woman with too thin arms wrapped around herself, as if fending off a blow.
She reached out and gently nudged a quivering arm half covered by the snowfall. When she opened her eyes Anjali was gutted by the raw pain emancipating from the sea-green orbs, the most stunning pair she had ever seen. It was the heart sick kind of agony she once felt when she lost her first love.
“Are you okay?”
Anjali watched as those arresting eyes glazed over, body shrinking inward as she kept her silent vigil.
The driver came up behind her, “Miss Jha, we need to return to the car before the snow gets any heavier.”
Anjali hesitated, feeling it was wrong to simply leave. Unable to get a response, she finally placed her red umbrella in the snow, angling it to shield the fragile figure from the gusty flakes as best she could.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the words of condolence were whispered sincerely before she turned and walked away.
Not knowing that a few minutes later the still body jerked out of its stupor and feet scrambled towards the gates.
10th Ave., New York
“I ran out not five minutes after, but you were gone.”
“We only made it three blocks before the car was caught in a patch of ice. I ended up at the local hotel that day.
“Who were you there for?”
“Yes, my high school sweetheart. He died in a car crash,” Anjali shared softly.
“I was …celebrating my twenty first with my parents.”
Sympathy colored Anjali’s eyes. “Over the years, I’ve always wished to run into you again. I came back to the cemetery so many times, but never saw you.”
“I also came that day to say goodbye. Life was too difficult in Bronx. I moved to Brooklyn and after that visits were limited to once every few months. But why did you want to see me?”
“I’m not sure, but it always felt like a missed opportunity. Besides, I wanted to thank you.”
“Because of that chance encounter with you, I’ve come to understand that while life is under no obligation to give us what we desire, it has a way of giving you what you need, just not in the form you expect. Do you know who I ran into at the hotel that day? Aman. He was there for only a night to check on management for Arnav since AR was considering the purchase of the hotel.”
Khushi eyes rounded as she grasped Anjali’s meaning. “Yes, a strange turn of events isn’t it? If I hadn’t seen you, I would have left earlier and may never have met Aman.”
“To be honest, it’s hard to see Aman as a soon to be married man.”
Anjali laughed, “He was quite the player then. That first year, I didn’t trust a word out of his mouth. But one thing you’ll learn, the Raizada men are incredibly determined. He simply wore me down. And along the way I discovered a genuine heart under the flash and charm.”
“Yes, did he tell you about the note he wrote to me?”
“Deep down, he’s a romantic. If there’s one person he loves more than me, it’s Arnav. They made many sacrifices for AR and for each other, whoever is lucky enough to stand beside either brother will really be taking on both.”
Anjali looked at Khushi with keen speculation, but she was wise enough not to pry further into the current state of their relationship. Instead she said, “When I reflect back on our brief encounter and the events that happened following it, I realized that you had to accept that the loss would always stay with you, but there were still opportunities for happiness, even joy. I thought I would never be able to open my heart again, but I learned I was wrong. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but”
“But you learn to dance with the limp.”Khushi finished for her.*
“Thank you for your umbrella, that token of kindness got me through the winter,” Khushi said as tears gathered behind her lids.
“Thank you for giving me a second chance at love.” Anjali replied, her own eyes misting as she leaned in to give Khushi a tight hug. “And now we’re here. It’s a small and wonderful world isn’t it?”
“What the fuck!” Arnav clipped when he took in their puffy eyes.
Aman shot out of his seat, going straight to Anjali. “You okay, baby?” he asked softly, his voice so at odds with his usual flirtatiousness, Khushi blinked.
Anjali mouthed one word, a name “Varun” and his eyes glinted oddly before he folded her into his arms. The action so natural and so sweet, it made Khushi ache a little even as she smiled at them. Her gaze went to Arnav, seeking contact as their meeting played over in her mind like a merry-go-round. How strange, how wonderful, it was to be alive.
Of their own volition, her feet took her to his side, and completely oblivious to all others; she bent to kiss the corner of his jaw. He kept silent, but his chin dipped and his eyes caught fire.
Glancing towards Robbie, she saw her friend observing Aman and Anjali with amazed delight.
NK, catching the soft sigh she couldn’t withhold, leaned over to whisper “Redeemed playboy makes the best husbands you know.”
“You have an uncanny ability to read minds, Handsome.”
Anjali extracted from Aman and went to put an arm around Khushi, she beamed at Arnav, “I’m expecting her at my engagement party, Arnav.”
“Jesus, what kind of conversations do women have in restrooms that turn them from strangers to fucking sworn sisters?” Aman muttered.
At Arnav’s brief nod, they finally settled down. Khushi stole a look to the side of the restaurant only to realize that Lavanya had left sometime during her interlude with Anjali. The beautiful woman’s pain bothered her, but judging by Arnav’s reaction, it was something best left alone.
The rest of dinner passed uneventfully, a whirl of delicious food and light conversation. Khushi was kept from relaxing in the enjoyable company by the merciless onslaught of Arnav’s sensual stares, arousing her own desire to a feverish pitch.
It was nearly ten when their evening came to a close. Khushi, with mounting nerves, had sucked back her entire Amaretto and was starting to feel the effects of alcohol combined with the emotional high.
“She’s a bit smashed.” Robbie declared to their table. Her tone was nonchalant, but Arnav sensed she was throwing down a gauntlet of some kind – at him.
“What kind of a drunk is she?” NK asked.
“An… interesting one,” Robbie replied, mischief sprinkled across her face.
NK and Aman exchanged uneasy looks. Arnav was a man who held his liquor well and did not tolerate a bad drunk. “Maybe Khushi should go home with…” NK started.
“No,” Arnav cut in. He turned to Robbie, “I promise I won’t hurt her in any way. Will you trust that?”
Her cat eyes ran over his tall frame, the chiseled face. He really was too handsome for his own good. However, before she approached the group at the bar, she had witnessed how Arnav took Khushi’s hand in his when he noted her distress. She also hadn’t missed how both ate dinner with only one hand. Before her was a man besotted.
She smirked at the knowledge, wondering how long it would take him to realize it, and more, to admit it. Robbie was a woman who believed in following one’s instincts. Observing him through dinner, she was inclined to believe this man was exactly who she dreamed of for her girl. So he was little edgy, a little cold, full of mysteries and too damn rich. Yet, weren’t the greatest love stories ever told riddled with trials and tribulations? Yes, yes, yes, her romantic heart encouraged.
If Robbie knew one thing as fact, she knew Khushi’s inherent warmth was capable of melting the iciest of hearts. And when she broke through, the universe had to deliver on the promise of happily ever after, right? She giggled at the thought, wouldn’t ASR run a mile if he knew what she was thinking. Shit, what did he ask? Oh right, did she trust him with Khushi?
“She’s happy, I’m happy. It’s as simple as that.” Robbie took a breath, then gave it to him, “Take care of her, Arnav.”
Arnav checked his urge to smile at the small victory; she had called him by name. Who knew her friend’s approval would hold such weight? He nodded solemnly, giving the proper acknowledgement her concession warranted.
They understood each other. Good.
He angled towards NK who winked, “Don’t worry, I’ll take Robbie home.”
Aman, wrapped up in Anjali, gave a casual wave. Although knowing his brother, tomorrow he expected a full dose of ribbing.
“An interesting evening, Miss Sinclair, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh, its Robbie now, otherwise I would feel inclined to call you Mr. ASR.”
“Alright, Robbie it is. NK, I expect you first thing tomorrow morning. Good night, everyone.”
He stood easily and held out a hand. Khushi allowed him to pull her up, a little unsteady until he slipped an arm around her waist and together they walked out. Khushi assumed she said her goodbyes, but with Arnav’s potent scent so distracting she couldn’t be sure. She had to stop herself from turning into his chest and inhaling the intoxicating mix of spiced aftershave and man.
Guiding her into the limo, Arnav didn’t know what to expect for the remainder of the night. As a rule, he didn’t take care of drunken women. As a rule, he sent them packing. Yet, when presented with the opportunity to do so just now, he had rebuffed it.
If he was honest, he was simply incapable of letting her go – tonight.
“Some privacy, Thomas,” Arnav said curtly to his driver.
Another concession to her, Arnav thought. When he had asked his driver for his first name earlier, the poor man had nearly gone into shock. There was a definite edge of power to the element of surprise, he mused. Khushi with her strange ways would make a formidable businesswoman.
Once the black partition slid into place, ensuring privacy, he turned to her, his eyes glowing. In the dim light, he looked slightly wild, Khushi thought, her breathing hitched as it mixed with the staccato of her heartbeat.
“Come here,” he instructed throatily. It was time to test just how drunk she was.
With deceptive laziness, Arnav reached for her, sliding her along the black leather seat until their thighs were touching. Then, as if he suddenly couldn’t wait another second, he jerked her forward and slanted his mouth across hers.
Desire. She burned with it. Tiny flames licked across the sensitize skin he had teased all evening. It thickened her blood, pumped through her body, pooling low between her thighs.
She was incapable of concentrating on anything beyond the hot slide of his mouth against hers. Her hands curled into his shirt unconsciously when he touched his tongue to hers. She was falling, and he was her only lifeline.
One of Arnav’s hands glided down to her back and hauled her into him, making her arch against him. The kiss grew hotter, more carnal as his tongue danced with hers.
Blood roared in her ears. She was drunk. Intoxicated. Not from the alcohol, but by the man. The way he held her, the way he kissed her, the way he made her feel. Drunk, totally.
Khushi whimpered when his mouth left hers, only to sigh softly as she felt him trail hot kisses across her jaw. When he reached her neck he pressed his mouth firmly against her throat, until her pulse beat wildly against his tongue in heightened pleasure.
They were in a cocoon. Khushi wasn’t even aware of the bright lights as they glided through the city. She was only achingly aware of herself as a woman, with Arnav as her masculine counterpart.
She saw Arnav’s head dip down, felt his hot breath feather over her sensitized nipple before his mouth closed around it. Khushi sank back against the seat, the bones in her body melting at the carnal connection.
At her moan, he pulled back. “Say my name,” Arnav demanded.
“Do you know what you’re doing? And with who?”
She gave him a slow blink, her mind still in a haze. How could he have any doubt? She opened her mouth to set him straight when she was interrupted by a hiccup. Her hands flew to her mouth and her eyes widened as she starred at him.
If he wasn’t so painfully aroused Arnav would have found that wide eyed stare fucking cute.
Grinning, he gently pried her fingers away, but the next words that came out of her mouth was something he didn’t anticipate.
“You’re Arnav. And you’re trouble.” She declared.
“You know how fitting it is that your name means the ocean? Because of you I’m not just in a mess of trouble, I’m beyond trouble. I’m in so deep, I’m over my head. But… but the water feel so warm, so…lovely and comforting, I’m beginning to wonder if I mind drowning… in the ocean… in you… in Arnav.”
His name was accompanied by her doing a face plant into his chest.
Her words touched a place he had buried so deeply, he was sure his own blood wasn’t able to reach it.
Suddenly he knew why Robbie had declared her an interesting drunk. Alcohol loosened her careful control over herself, she was completely uninhibited and unfiltered, doing and saying what came naturally. Ever a pragmatic, he filed the information away for later use.
“You want my participation or is this a one-sided conversation?” he asked.
“You input isn’t required at this juncture,” she muttered into his shirt, her haughty tone making him roar with laughter even as his arms slid around her.
Khushi felt the vibration against her cheek, the masculine arms anchoring her, and smiled – content.
NK turned to Robbie, “Ready?”
“Can we walk?”
“Are you up for it?”
“Please, the lightweight left with your boss. A fifteen-minute walk should clear all the alcohol out of my system.”
“Ok, then” saying goodbye to Aman and Anjali they made their way out.
It was dark outside, the temperature hovered right around the low thirties. The chilly wind was an icy sting that could easily bring tears to one’s eyes, but NK barely noticed as he followed Robbie down a sidewalk. She seemed fascinated as they took in the lit skyline of Manhattan – a rare creature still enchanted with the city.
Seeing Robbie hug her arms to her chest, he offered her his overcoat. She surprised him by actually accepting it.
NK had a plan for the remainder of the evening, a plan with one crucial element: that he absolutely not kiss Robbie. He suspected she was expecting him to try, and he wanted to keep her guessing.
“Did you enjoy the evening?”
“It was… enlightening,” she smiled, but made no attempt to elaborate.
Fine, onwards. “Why New York? A move from a family farm in Indiana to the big city must have been a culture shock.”
“Yes. As shocking as the transition from the Outback to America I imagine.”
He grinned at her. Right.
“I couldn’t find what I wanted in Indiana.”
“And that is….”
“Lights, labels…. love,” the last said wistfully.*
“And out of those which have you found?”
“Lights I found on day one,” she grinned. “Labels are a little out of my reach at the moment, but they’re getting to be within touching distance.”
“Too many men who like to sell fairy tales in this city. But once you buy in, believing the extravagant promises….. poof,” she snapped her fingers, “you discover you just purchased a common pumpkin instead of the gold carriage.”
“Still believe in fairy tales?”
“No!” at his arched brows she conceded, “Okay, maybe, but a little less each day. Not everyone gets everything they wish for.”
He fell silent, acknowledging the truth of her words.
“Although, some wishes are easier to grant than others,” she grinned impishly at him, “I’m wearing them you know.”
“Something black and lacy.”
He gave a startled laugh. “Do I get to see?”
“That part falls under wishes to be left unfulfilled.”
NK’s body tightened, damn if he didn’t love a challenge.
“I don’t peddle fairytales. I deal with facts. And fact is you’re going to cave eventually.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“I think the odds are in my favors – shall we shake on it?”
He extended a hand, palm up. She starred at it, and then with a careless toss of curls, took it with a firm shake.
“What does NK stand for anyway?”
“The day I see you in black lace, in only black lace – I’ll let you know.”
“Your head clear?”
“I’ll take you home.”
“I’m a big girl, NK, I can get myself home.”
He considered her for a moment, “Fine. Allow me to get you a cab at least.”
They walked back to the main thoroughfare and NK easily flagged down a taxi. Once Robbie slid in, he handed the cabbie three crisp hundred dollar bills. “I want her home safe.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
Despite his earlier resolve, NK leaned in to touch his mouth to hers, “Sweet dreams dollface, I expect a starring role in them tonight.”
He shut the door before she could respond, with words or with a slap. With Robbie, who knew?
The windows rolled down, “NK?”
“My ma gave me two piece of advice before I left Indiana, one of them was, ‘You can judge a man by the company he keeps’. You keep good company, Handsome.”
“What’s the other advice?”
“Oh no, ma’s advice needs to be earned. No freebies.”
He grinned, remaining at the curb until he saw the taxi disappear into the ongoing traffic.
“Well, fuck me.”
Fifth Ave, New York
Arnav guided Khushi to his room and sat her down on the bed. He had been strangely silent during the rest of the ride. She reclined against headboard as he moved around the room. Under her watchful gaze he headed to the bathroom, coming out a moment later with a wet towel in hand. What was he doing?
The bed dipped as he sat down beside her. To her shock, he moved the cloth towards her face and gently wiped away her makeup. A taut stillness entered the air around them as he performed the intimate task. Something she had always thought only a husband would do.
“You hardly wear any makeup,” Arnav noted absently.
Once he was satisfied, he dropped the towel next to the night stand and brought his hands to Khushi’s face, his thumbs brushing back and forth against her cheeks. She was barely breathing now, hypnotized by the glitter of his eyes, by the heady sense of expectation in the air. She could see his jaw clench as if he was exerting control of himself and inwardly she trembled to think that he had to exert it because of her.
She expected him to kiss her then, could almost taste it. Instead, he reached towards her, smoothly removing her dinner jacket before urging her head down onto the pillow.
“What are you doing?” she asked, confused by his behavior.
He got up to remove his own, stripping off his shoes, socks, shirt and slacks in short order, until he was in nothing but a pair of black briefs. He went to flick off the lights then slid onto the other side of the bed, lying on his back on top of the covers.
“Taking care of you,” he said mildly. “I told Robbie that I would. You’re full of champagne and amaretto; I’m not taking advantage of that. So for now, we’ll sleep it off.”
There it was again. Sweet.
She wasn’t even tipsy, his kisses coupled with the brisk wind on her face as they made their way from the curb to his suite had ensured it. Yet, she didn’t want to rebuff his consideration. Such a complex man, what would it take to reach his depths?
“Go to sleep,” Arnav told her, his voice strained.
“Will you… hold me? Like the other night?”
His arms immediately closed around her, as if they had been waiting in the wings for her cue. They pulled her deeply into his chest, until there was no telling where one of them began or the other end.
It gave her the courage to whisper, “I missed you… last night.”
“You haven’t known me long enough,” he responded warily.
“Shows how much you know,” Khushi scoffed, sliding downward and snuggling deeper. “I couldn’t even fall asleep.”
She bit down on her lips, unsure of his reception to the revealing confession. In typical Arnav fashion, he tightened his arms around her in acknowledgement, and then bossed, “Sleep, Khushi.”
The vibration of Arnav’s cellphone against the nightstand jolted Khushi from sleep. A glance at the clock showed it was twenty minutes to midnight. She had nodded off for only an hour, yet she had never slept so deeply, her body felt fully recharged.
Energized, she eased out from Arnav’s arm, heading to the bathroom to freshen up. She examined her reflection in the mirror, still seeing a pale face stare back, but something was different. Her eyes were dancing, her skin ….glowed? Hmmm, either the skin care regiment Robbie kept her on was finally kicking in or she was in lo…
Her knees wobbled, her hands shot out to grab hold of the vanity for balance. No. That wasn’t possible. It was too much, too fast. The man was too far out of her reach.
Yet when she slept next to him, it didn’t feel too much, or too fast. Out of her reach? Perhaps, but what if he was willing to meet her halfway? Didn’t he already prove he could do so? He had given her a beautiful day and even though he had extracted the promise from her – again he hadn’t taken.
No longer able to support her shaky limbs, Khushi moved and plopped herself down on the bench seat of the Jacuzzi tub.
Breathe, she reminded herself as she tried to make sense of jumbled thoughts. It was the conversation with Anjali earlier that calmed the chaos. She could recall the love her parents shared despite their brief time together. Life was too short and full of danger. Her road to meeting this man had been filled with a lot of disappointment and heartache. Now that he was right in front of her, was she going to be a coward or boldly take a step forward?
She was the one who came to him this morning wasn’t she? And wasn’t it she, just plain Khushi, the one who found a little window into his guarded heart this afternoon? And wasn’t she the same woman who had worn an outfit meant to empower women and break the final gender barrier in fashion norms?
What was stopping her now?
Khushi believed in fate. She was meant to spend this night, if only this one night, with Arnav. To learn what it was that made women give their hearts to men, to know what made her mother sacrifice everything for a piece of paradise.
She wanted to belong to the man lying in that bed. She wanted to know what it would be like to be his.
Tonight was his, hers. Theirs.
She jumped to her feet, nervous excitement racing through her as she remembered the terms of their deal. Mr. Raizada may have decided not to collect, but Khushi Lacene Khumari was a woman of her word. She had promised to return every article of clothing before midnight, and she would damn well deliver on it.
Arnav woke up to the feel of heated kisses along his jaw.
What the –
His stunned eyes caught sight of Khushi’s glowing one just before she leaned in and kissed him. Deep.
Arnav let her touch him, remaining silent and still until she ran her hands lightly up his chest, causing chill bumps to break over his skin as desire raced through him.
“What are you doing?”
Her palm settled over his heart, now pounding against his ribcage. Her lips curved, a movement both mysterious and sensual- a woman’s smile, “Don’t you remember our deal?”
“You wanted your clothes back by midnight. It’s 11:58 now. How fast can you undress a woman?”
Arnav’s body went from drowsy to sharp arousal at her challenging words. Fuck if this was the alcohol talking she was out of luck because he was done reining himself in.
“Do you know what you’re inviting, Khushi?”
He gave her a wicked smile as he sat up, yanked her into his lap and whispered hotly into her ears, “Baby, it won’t take a minute.”
His hands traveled up her silk clad back, and without a thought to what he’d paid for the shirt, tore it off her.
Arnav felt incredible satisfaction as her eyes, rounded in shock, flew to his. Before she could recover, he made quick work of her pants, stripping away her practical bra and panties, until there was only Khushi. He eased her down on his sheets, the stark black enhanced the rich creaminess of her skin, in turn making her eyes glow like magical lamps in the dark. Did she say she was drowning? Why then, did he feel he was the one lost at sea? Lured by her siren call…. his own mermaid.
“In about five seconds . . .” He starred at her lips. “I’m not going to give a damn if you’re drunk or sober.”
“I’m not drunk, Arnav.”
“Give me your eyes.” His fingers slid into her hair, tilting her face to meet his gaze. Khushi leaned into his touch. Drawn to it. Craving it. Through the arousal she saw gentle concern, and it nearly undid her. She didn’t care what tomorrow held, not when the need to be touched overtook all other desire. His hard body hummed with life above hers, and even the few inches of separation felt too far.
Khushi raised herself up, “Arnav,” she murmured, finding his mouth, “I want to make love with you.”
They both tensed at the request. Filtered moonlight and the dim light from the balcony cast enough of a glow to watch each other. Really see each other for the first time.
All sense of caution fell away, his mind, his being intent on one thing. Make her his. Arnav bent down, took her face in his hands and kissed her, exulting when her hands crept around his back and she kissed him back with equal fervor. It wasn’t hot. It was scorching.
He held her firmly, anchoring her against the hard framework of his body, showing her what it was to burn while still craving the heat. This time his kisses were longer, so consuming she could barely catch her breath. She molded her body against him until there wasn’t a millimeter of space between them.
“Khushi…you’re beautiful…so fucking beautiful…” she felt his ragged murmurs. His lips dragged hotly over the slopes of her breast, opened over the peak and taking it inside the wet heat of his mouth.
She closed her eyes, luxuriating in the taste of him and the slow kisses that explored and demanded. Arnav moved to cradle the side of her face, closing his hand in the heavy mass of her hair, he held it aside and kissed the column of her throat.
“You’re mine.” He declared his possession baldly.
“Yes, yours.” She confirmed, although he hadn’t asked a question.
Their eyes locked, hers misty green, his like black embers, then he reached towards his dresser, pulling out a small package. Khushi’s face flamed as she recognized what it was. How did lovers get over the awkwardness of such a moment? But she also felt grateful he had the mind to protect them.
“Khushi, look at me.” Arnav demanded gently. “In this bed, it’s you and me. No embarrassment, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered.
Then to her shock, he took her hands and with unbelievable patience and sensuality, taught her how to roll the protection over him. She starred in fascination, he was…
“You keep starring like that, I’m going to come,” he told her, voice laced with wry amusement.
Her eyes jerked up, she caught the lip twitch and relaxed. She wanted this, and she had never felt safer …or so turned on. Her heart was pounding so roughly, it felt like it might exit her chest. He had been pushing her past her breaking point all night. But she wanted more. Wanted to be Arnav’s reason for losing control.
As if he sensed her thoughts, he slanted his mouth over hers, driving her mindless as he guided himself to her core, surging forth to join them. The sharp movement impaled her on Arnav, seating him to the hilt, the hot gloving igniting their bodies towards a roaring heat.
Her thighs tightened around his waist as her hands fisted in his hair in an effort to hold on. She gave another hitched breath, this one for a different reason as Arnav moved. It seemed he was everywhere, she felt his lips, his tongue, his hands. Still moving, he reached up towards where her hands tangled. He pulled one away from his head, slid it down onto the sheets, and laced their fingers. Holding tight, like he’d never let go.
He held her safely, her heaving body locked in his arms as he thrust into her softness, giving her all the pleasure he could. She felt him hit her center her and screamed into his mouth as nerves detonated. He had been relentless, holding back his own pleasure until he felt her shatter.
Then it was she who held him, clasping him to her body, arms tight as he cried out her name, a deep, hoarse sound, blind and insensible to everything but the force of his pleasure. Here was the magic she’d once dreamed of, and all the bright, beautiful colors the fairy tales had promised. Here was everything a woman who’d handed over her heart could ask in exchange.
The aftermath was a quaking silence interrupted only by the rapid harshness of their breathing. She’d never experienced anything that felt so right, not in all her twenty-three years. She felt reborn—raw, exposed . . . and incredibly alive. How could she have doubted? How could she have questioned being with this man? She belonged here in his arms and nowhere else.
Arnav was stunned, feeling unhinged by the intensity of what had just occurred. That wasn’t sex. Sex was pleasure, soft or rough; a basic appetite, insistent but easily fulfilled. What he’d just had with Khushi was as potent and inescapable as an avalanche, a fire that left him scorched yet eager to feel the flame again.
No woman had ever made love to him. They chased him, played games of cat and mouse, they flirted, they lied, they allowed him to take their bodies – often in exchange for something they wanted more. They didn’t wake him with kisses, they didn’t ask to make love and they sure as fuck didn’t blush as he entered …. the experience had been so erotic, he wanted it again and again.
He needed what she could give him, with her lip, with her touch, with the movement of her body against his. His home had never seemed empty until she’d appeared. Now that she was here he didn’t want to think about being alone again. How did he ever think one night would be enough?
Arnav felt Khushi press against him. Her lips were velvet, warm and silky, as soothing as it was arousing. She gave generously with her touch rather than take with any greed. In that moment, he could almost believe in her magic. Wanted to believe it.
“Stay with me,” he urged, voice roughly tender and coaxing. Khushi’s body gave an almost imperceptible jerk as she tilted her head back to meet his gaze.
“Another night?” Khushi whispered back, those mermaid eyes adorably bewildered.
“Yes.” He lifted a hand and captured a tendril of her hair lying slightly dampen at her neck.
He twisted it around his finger and felt its softness. “So I can come home to you, and do this again,” he replied quietly.
It was then that Arnav realized she wasn’t breathing. Something about her reaction made him recognize he was in total control of her. Here in his bed, she was simply his. The knowledge shook him.
After he spoke, without hesitation she responded, “Okay.”
He released her hair, running his hand across the sensitive spot where her delicate jaw met her neck. Her lips trembled.
“Okay, what?” Armav demanded.
“I’ll stay another night,” she replied softly.
He smiled into her eyes and Khushi let out a sigh.
Then, just like their first night, he pulled her back against his chest, wrapped his arm tightly around her waist and buried his face in her hair.
Khushi smiled to herself, before she fell into a deep sleep, tucked tenderly in her lover’s arms.
So… watcha think?
New Readers – Welcome aboard the FWN train.
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*adapted from WSJ Women’s Fashion by Alexa Brazilian
*adapted from John Galliano
*tribute to Mr. Big, Sex and the City
* adapted from $3.33 by Jarod Kintz
*adapted from Anne Lamott
*tribute to Carrie, Sex and the City