Lower East Side, Manhattan
To any self-respecting woman, Arnav’s offer to sweep in and take over would be infuriating. An honest woman, however, would admit it was also tempting. It was this temptation that was making her dig her heels in. What she had managed to attain thus far may not be much in comparison to his empire, yet it was proof she was able to piece together a new life from the tattered fabric of an old one. They were lovers, but she would never allow herself to become her mother.
Khushi forced thoughts of Arnav outside her head as she headed in for the interview. She had more practical thoughts to deal with at the moment, like how rent was due in two weeks and her bank balance was heading close to a bleak zero.
She looked up at the sign. No doubt he would have a lot to say if he knew she was interviewing to be a cocktail waitress at a bar on the Lower East Side. However, since she was let go with no reference, there wasn’t much of a choice. Mr. Raizada will just have to deal.
This was a mistake, Khushi recognized immediately upon entering. She’d walked right into a strip club. Shit!
This was the result of not putting her mind on vetting where she was applying. The heavily tattooed man behind the counter was intimidating; the two muscular bouncers by the doors had that look that made her skin crawl. At eleven, the place was also nearly empty.
“Well, what can I do for you beautiful?”
Gulping down her nerves, Khushi offered a polite smile. “Hi, I came for an interview with Mr.Levine.”
“You’re looking at him,” his eyes raked down her body. “You’ll do. When can you start sweetheart?”
She started backing up towards the door, “Well, I was under the impression this was a restaurant bar.”
His eyes narrows, “It is.”
“I mean, I didn’t realize this was a … er gentlemen’s club.”
Mr. Levine sniggered, “Look boys, a judgmental little bitch.”
“No! I only meant I misinterpreted your advertisement. Sorry for wasting your time. I’ll just be on my way.”
“Hold on. Came all the way here for the job didn’t cha, what’s the rush?”
Beefy hands closed around her upper arms.
“You’ll go when I say you can. No little uppity bitch is going slink into my club and throw attitude.”
Khushi was fighting back panic when she heard a voice, with an unmistakable accent, come from the doorway.
“You heard the lady. Let go.”
NK. But it was an NK like she’d never seen. Gone was the easy going manner, the laid back smile. In their place was a grim concentrated countenance of a man who was primed to fight – and win. This was the man Arnav trusted with his life.
“And who the fuck are you?”
“Nobody, unless you fuck with me.”
“No, but she’s under my protection.”
“She’s not yours then it’s none of your fucking business. Missy thinks she’s too good to work for me. Needs a lesson.”
“The only one getting a lesson here today will be you if you don’t let her go.”
“Yeah? Says who?”
Suddenly the bouncer wasn’t next to her but flying across the room. He slammed into the wall with a bone crunching thud.
“Lesson one,” NK clipped. He turned just in time to dodge the punch from the second bouncer. In a span of thirty seconds Khushi stood in frozen shock as NK delivered a series of jarring blows, not taking a single one himself.
He was skilled and speedy, giving him a clear edge. Unable to take another hit, the solid wall of muscle landed on his knees with a howl of pain, hands clutched over his abdomen.
“Lesson two,” NK said as he turned to the now pale-faced owner, “Should I continue?”
The man took several steps back, shaking his head vehemently. At that NK’s hand closed around her arm and without a backward glance, Khushi found herself being dragged out to the sidewalk.
“NK!” she snapped. “Slow down! I can’t keep up.”
He turned around to glare at her. “What the fuck is the matter with you?” he demanded slowly, his voice vibrating with unchecked fury. “A strip club, Khushi? Really?”
“I didn’t know!” He was scaring the hell out of her. “And you’re scaring me.”
“Good,” NK bit out.
“Arnav sent you,” the accusation was stated with an odd mix of defeated anger. “He doesn’t trust me does he?”
“He’s concerned for your safety, and after what just happened back there, he’s right.”
“It was an honest mistake, NK. I’m grateful you were there. It doesn’t mean I appreciate the reason why you were.”
“You matter to him, Khushi. Don’t make this into something it’s not. He wants you taken care of, give him that.”
“He wants control.”
“In Arnav’s vocabulary, they are one and the same. Your problem however is that you’re focusing on the words. With him, you need to look beyond them.”
“I don’t know what you mean!”
“Intent is everything with Arnav. You need to understand the motive behind his words and actions. They are often at cross purpose. Look for the cues that will tell you what he really means.”
“You need to learn that on your own. Once you do, once you understand the language of Arnav Singh Raizada, you’ll realize who’s really in control of the relationship.”
Khushi gave a frustrated sigh. “I need to get to my second interview.”
“You’re not going on another interview, Khushi.”
“NK, I need a job.”
“You’ll be taken care of,” NK rejoined, ushering her towards the waiting cab.
She yanked her arm out of his hold, “Yeah? Is that so? Should I ask him to pay my rent? Leave utility bills on his desk? Lay a palm out for one of his credit cards when I need a new pair of jeans?”
“Why not? He has the money, and he’s made it clear he wants to.”
“Damn you both, I won’t be kept! You may look down on what I choose to do, but it’s my life. Dignity is the only thing I’ve been left with! I won’t allow anyone to take that from me,” to her shame, her voice lost its strength and tremored to an end.
“What, or better yet who, are you running from, Khushi?”
She turned her face away from NK’s leveling stare, “Nothing, I’m sorry for this scene. You didn’t ask for it,” she paused for a calming breath, “Would you mind dropping me home?”
“And where’s home?”
“Fine, I won’t make you say it. But Khushi, in my experience, denial has a nasty way of causing wreckage.”
After dropping Khushi off at the door to Arnav’s penthouse, NK didn’t return to the office. Instead he headed to his own apartment to ensure privacy for what he had to do.
NK didn’t like his conversation with Khushi. She was definitely running from something… more likely someone. It was time to dig.
He scrolled through his contacts until he found Chet, a former associate of his life before AR. Chet specialized in comprehensive background checks, finding what others didn’t want found, and what most aren’t able to dig up.
“I have a job for you,” NK informed him the instant the call went through.
“What is it with you since you started working for Raizada?” Chet’s deep bass voice rumbled in his ear. “You don’t know how to say, ‘Hello’? Even a quick, ‘How ya doin’ mate?’ But, no. It’s always, ‘I need shit done and I need it done yesterday.’”
NK fought for patience. “Hello. How ya doin’ mate? We good? Now, I want you to dig up everything you can on a Khushi Lacene Khumari. Absolute discretion is required.”
“Who is she?”
“Yes or no, Chet.”
“Depends. First, you best remember you’re the one asking for a favor.” He let that sink in.
NK swore. “Sorry, Chet. She’s important.”
“You know, he doesn’t expect payback.”
“I know. The Raizadas, well they overlooked a lot. That’s why I stay and that’s why I’m calling in a favor.”
“They’re lucky to have you. And you are lucky to have me, you little fuck.”
“I know it, as you never fail to remind me.”
“I’ll dig. How deep do you need me to go?”
“All the way.”
“Fuck, she a liability?”
“No, but something in her past might be.”
Business taken care of, he hung up and punched a text to Robbie.
NK: “We need to talk.”
Robbie: “That sounds ominous, Handsome.”
NK: “About Khushi.”
Robbie: “What about her?”
NK: “She has secrets up to her ears and behind those dimples and head of curls, you are the keeper of those secrets.”
Robbie: “Your boss’s paranoia must be rubbing off on you.”
NK: “No, just riding my instincts. I also have the time and several fortunes at my disposal, so if you don’t share I’ll find out anyways.”
NK wasn’t surprised when his phone rang two seconds later.
“Don’t hurt Khushi,” Robbie’s voice was laced with panic.
“I have no intention of doing so, but considering the magnifying glass Arnav lives under, I can’t protect her when I don’t know what I need to protect her from.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Go with your gut feeling. What’s it saying?
“That life is about to change.”
“Do you want the change?”
“For Khushi? Absolutely. My last two birthday wishes has been for her to get the happiness she deserves.”
“And that’s why I think you’re worth it, Robbie Sinclair.”
At the genuine surprise in her tone he decided to lay it out. “Any woman, who uses her own birthday wish for another woman’s happiness, is worth the bullshit games.”
“Don’t say things you don’t mean.”
“Beautiful Robbie, your looks alone could inspire a man to rope the moon for you, why the doubts?”
“Huh. Men always expect payment in kind.”
“Now I think it’s you who need to widen your circle of acquaintance. Anyways, stop distracting me.”
“They’re not my secrets to tell, NK.”
“No, but they’re yours to protect. We’re on the same team, Robbie.”
“What makes you so sure he wants more from Khushi then the others?”
“Who do you think chose Kumar’s Catering for the party?”
Fuck him. How did that slip out?
“You tell me what you mean right this minute, NK!”
“I’ll tell you, if you invite me over this evening.”
There was a challenging silence.
“Fine! My rehearsal runs until five. Come over at six.”
“Oh please, as if you don’t know it.”
“I’ll see you at six, and Robbie?”
“BL is expected.”
“You’re not even at first base.”
“Impatient for a taste of me?”
“No! Just making a point.”
“Noted. Now I’ll make my point. I’m up for bat tonight doll.”
Fifth Ave, New York
As soon as she entered the penthouse, Khushi threw off the knitted sweater she’d been wearing. Feeling suffocated, she paced the living room with pent-up energy.
Who was she angry with? Arnav for his high handedness? Or herself for giving in? Should she view his action as protective or controlling? Was she allowing the worst kind of repetition of a lesson she’d already learnt too well?
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” the malicious reminder slithered through her mind.
No, she wasn’t like her. She couldn’t be like her. To be like her led to heartbreak.
What to do now? Stand her ground and continue as they were, taking each day as it came, and when it was over, leave with a bruised heart, but her dignity intact? Or, did she dare to venture into his world and see if she could make it her own. Could she risk being cut open in pursuit of this happiness?
Khushi came to an abrupt standstill, in a room surrounded by glass, over seventy stories above New York City, she encountered her fork in the road.
Who was it that intoned the irrelevance of reality in favor of perception?
NK’s question came back to her, “And where’s home?”
Where was home? Why hadn’t she protested when NK took her straight to Arnav’s?
Her eyes swept the room. They met with four corners of luxury incarnate, but it was hollow – until he walked through the door and filled it with his presence.
Home to her had never been a place, but rather two arms holding tight. Home was warmth, the warmth of her mother’s embrace. Home was shelter, the shelter of her father’s arms.
Khushi sank onto the sofa, heart racing as she thought of how she felt in the last few nights in the moments just before sleep when Arnav put his arms around her, pulling her into his warm embrace.
Was Arnav home?
Tucked against him, she felt like a lost traveler returning after an unexpectedly long trip. In his arms she felt protected. Cherished.
Her breath stuttered.
She had given him her body, allowed him to take over her dreams. Even her heart beat in tune to his. Could she hand him her complete trust? Such an exchange would be equivalent to signing over her soul to him. Would he want such a burden? Would he understand its fragility and take care?
She had trusted before, only to discover a mirage. That crack would never fully heal, but her soul was untouched and whole.
If Arnav broke her trust, she would break. A shattered mirror without a reflection.
Abruptly, the late nights and lack of sleep caught up with her. Khushi made her way to the bedroom, stopping short at the door. Why couldn’t she enter when he wasn’t there? It somehow felt intrusive.
Laying her head down on the bed in one of his guestrooms, she closed her eyes.
“There is no truth. There is only perception.” Right, Mr. Gustave Flaubert.
She was not her mother. Her beloved mother had not dared to ask for the whole man. Khushi will not settle for anything less.
A smile kissed her lips as she drifted to sleep. The fork in the road had vanished, for she was already walking on her chosen path.
Arnav: Where are you?
NK: Had to take care of business. On my way back.
NK: Safe in your tower.
Arnav: Anything I should know?
NK: Enter your place with caution.
Arnav: What the fuck, NK!
NK: She’s fine, but pissed.
NK: Yeah…there are only 3 things to be done with them.
NK: Love them, suffer for them, or turn them over your knees.
Arnav: You’re mixing your reading material.
NK: Oh please, Henry Miller was a pansy.
Arnav: And Hugh Hefner wasn’t?
NK: One would assume you’ll side with the empire builder.
Arnav: Not when it’s an empire of bunnies.
NK: A valid point.
AR Headquarters, New York
The door to Aman’s office opened and closed.
“I can’t believe you’re ditching our long standing Wednesday nights at Gramercy for a chick. Whatever happened to the bro code you little…Nani!” Aman yelped as he looked up from the screen. “Sorry, thought you were NK.”
“I’m well aware of that,” she rebuked. It surprised her that this grandson will soon be a married man and starting a family of his own. Aman was so childlike in many ways. In ways Arnav never was, in ways he was never allowed to be.
“We weren’t expecting you this week, anything wrong?”
“No, I was nearby and thought I’ll drop in…. Arnav, how is he?”
“Something happened,” Aman stated astutely, making Devyani smile ruefully. Why did she always underestimate the shark-like instincts that existed beside the carefree front?
“Yes, I said something I shouldn’t have. Arnav does not forgive easily.”
“You are family, Nani. One of the few we have. Whatever our differences, Arnav and I can never repay your care and guidance.”
“Any grandmother –” she started, but Aman was quick to interrupt.
“Perhaps, but few grandmothers are entitled to be called Lady Dragon,” he gave her an impish grin, taking the wrinkled hand and placing a light kiss on them. “I’ll talk to, Arnav.”
Her eyes misted for a moment, she gave him a light tap on the cheek before she harrumphed and raised a brow.
“Since I’m here, I want to tell you before approaching Arnav. Your mami has sent a photo of her friend’s daughter from Delhi. She will be coming this summer to study at NYU-”
“Aman, I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth. You know it is my dearest wish to see both of you settled with a good woman by your side. You have found your Anjali, but your brother’s choice in women has me worried.”
“Nani, first you will live a full century. It is the will of the Raizada brothers, who would dare go against it? Second, you promised me three years.”
“Yes, but an entire one has passed by and you haven’t produced a single candidate for consideration!”
“I found her six months ago.”
“What? How? Who?”
Aman laughed, “Thank god you did not have a granddaughter, poor girl would have been married off the minute she turned eighteen.”
“Aman Singh Raizada! Don’t hold me in suspense. You actually found someone?”
“I wouldn’t dare. And yes, she was in our backyard this whole time.”
“Nani, I promise you, both of your grandsons will be well and truly married before the next New Year. She meets every requirement of yours, mine, and NK’s,” he paused thoughtfully, “Arnav’s too for that matter. It’s like someone upstairs crafted her just for us.”
“Who is she? When can I meet her?”
“You’ll meet her at the engagement party. However, you must promise me one thing.”
“You’re beginning to sound like your brother. Not everything is a negotiation you know.”
“It’s too late bemoaning that now, the ship has long sailed.”
“Right. I found her and I’ve placed her in his path. The rest must be up to him.”
“What if he lets her slip through his fingers? You know your brother doesn’t allow anyone in, especially a woman. Not after what happened in Lucknow.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. He’s wrapped up in her so tight; he’s already forsaken his normal modus operandi.”
“Yes, Nani, our Arnav, your chote…does this mean you will be leaving me the lion share in your will?”
Aman winced as the thick HR handbook hit his chest, the Dragon Lady sure had a good arm.
Fifth Ave, New York
As soon as he stepped into the penthouse, his eyes searched for her, experiencing an odd pang when she wasn’t there to greet him. Only a handful of days and he had grown used to seeing her as soon as he returned, anticipating that first touch after hours apart. That unsettling sense of coming home.
It hadn’t escaped his notice that she rarely spent time in the apartment while he was at the office, or how she went back to her place every day for a change of clothes. With any other woman, this attitude would have been appreciated. What was it about this one that changed the entire equation?
He conjured her to mind. He had dated women more beautiful and sophisticated, had slept with far more experienced ones. But none of them, not one, responded to his touch the way she did. He wanted her in a way he didn’t think was possible for a man to want. He wanted to taste that lush mouth, to make those green eyes burn, to watch her body take his with abandon. It was a want that was edging damn close to need.
The thought brought him up short. He—Arnav Singh Raizada—needed no one. Raking his hand through his hair, he twisted his aching neck to ease the mounting tension.
Khushi. Her name alone evoked his proprietorial instincts. She made him feel… something. Despite the extensive scope of his lexicon, he didn’t have the word to put a name to this feeling.
Where was she?
He derided himself for his eagerness even as he strode towards the master bedroom. No Khushi. Panic flared in Arnav’s gut, propelling him to move through the rooms.
He found her in the last guest bedroom. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. The relief upon making out her feminine shape on the bed made a mockery of all his assurances of control. Arnav found himself standing by the bed and looking down. She was on her side, hair spread out across the pillow, hands tucked under one cheek.
His chest constricted as he read the lines of exhaustion on her face. Without conscious thought, he reached out and traced a finger lightly across her face, gently brushing back her silky tresses. Just then she stirred, making him tense. Quickly removing his hand, he stood in statue stillness until she settled. Arnav found his mouth tipping up as her even breathing gave way to a soft snore.
Catching himself the smile faded. He barely knew her, and yet she held power over him, handed to her by his own body. Without intending to do so, he had spent most of the day with her on his mind. It was a first. His jeal- no, possessiveness, was also a first. Her immunity to his wealth, definitely a first!
Arnav realized then it was the sense of navigating through uncharted waters that was upsetting his equilibrium. He was a man hardwired to operate within the premise of terms and conditions, whether it was business or personal. It was time to put an end to this limbo and set the particulars of their arrangement.
However she was getting two concessions he would never tolerate with any other.
The terms will be negotiated in bed. The proposal agreed to verbally.
He didn’t mind the first, looked forward to it in fact. Her keen mind and passionate nature guaranteed an engaging battle. But the latter bothered him. He would prefer a written contract, legal and binding. However, Khushi had too much self-respect and innate romanticism to sign something so cold. It was a compromise, of sorts, but one they could both live with.
Decision made, he went to prepare. A strategist to his core, Arnav recognized how vital it was to set the stage.
An hour later, a discreet knock came. He opened the door to accept the package containing items he had specifically requested from concierge. Finally on familiar grounds, Arnav allowed himself a small smile.
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
He was going to end up falling in lust with her. NK accepted this truth as they went down the produce isle and he caught Robbie eyeing the cucumbers overtly before sneaking a glance at his thighs.
He suppressed the grin before picking the second largest of the cylindrical vegetables and placing it deliberately in the cart. She starred with interest before looking up to meet his eyes. Hers sparkled with humor.
He had barely knocked on the apartment door, when Robbie had torpedoed out and dragged him back to the streets. “Grocery!” was her singular explanation.
After paying for the purchase, his insistence, they’d each grab a bag and headed out. It was a warmer night than usual for a New York winter.
“You want to take a cab or walk?”
“It’s only ten minutes, you can start sharing what you meant earlier today as we walk.”
“Impatient little thing aren’t you.”
“Never call a woman ‘little thing’ when her feet are wrapped in spiked boots.”
“You do have a way of making your point, Doll.”
“I know your name.”
“Then use it.”
“What’s wrong with doll?”
“It’s generic and it tells me you fall back on it when you don’t remember the name of a woman you’re with,” she threw at him.
NK paused mid stride and starred at her back. Oh yes, he was definitely falling.
She spun around to face him, chin tilted in challenge. “What?”
“Anyone ever tell you, you look extremely kissable when pissed?”
“No, but I see you’re about too.”
“I’ve always hated predictability,” with that NK moved towards her, wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her to him. She starred at him and just as her eyes fluttered close in surrender, he grinned. Leaning close, he gave her ear lobe a light nip. “Not yet, I’m going to take my time for a good warm up before I go to bat for you. Because when I do, it’ll be a home run, Robbie.”
Her eyes snapped open, something in him delighted at the fire that blazed in them. “You NK Ryan, are a fucking tease.”
“Yeah, but you like it.”
She blew out a breath, and then with slow deliberateness, swiped her pink tongue across her plump lower lips, awakening all his male senses with the feline action. “Call,” she challenged.
Fuck him, she was all woman, all vixen, all …Robbie.
“Okay, you’ve made your point. Let’s get inside before things freeze down under and render that little show moot.”
He was gratified by her giggle. There was pleasure to be found in coaxing a laugh out of a beautiful woman.
As soon as everything was placed into the small fridge or the tiny cupboards above the gas range, she turned to him. “Kumar’s Catering. Now.”
“They aren’t four stars by any stretch, didn’t you find it strange that such a small company received an exclusive contract to host a Raizada event?”
Robbie’s jaw dropped. “You mean…”
“Aman meets up with old friends in the Lower East Side every month. These friends were from the days when they first came to New York. To make them comfortable, he never chooses the place. Six months ago, they ended up at Kumar’s Diner.”
“That’s where Khushi was busing tables.”
“Yes, the place was packed with male customers thanks to her. Something her boss took full advantage of, but she didn’t seem aware of. That’s what caught Aman’s attention. She was polite, friendly, but immune to the attention.”
“But surely, one meeting…” she trailed off as a memory came to mind, “Ohmigod, don’t tell me you’re trench coat guy!”
NK grinned, “Very good. She left an impression, but he had to be sure. So he sent me.”
“She thought you were homeless!”
“I know,” NK said quietly, “and whenever I’d outstayed my welcome, she paid for my coffee out of her tip.”
“But… why? There’s no shortage of women willing to become Mrs. ASR.”
“Yes, but they weren’t for him. Nani was leaning towards an arranged marriage. Aman and I knew he was close to agreeing. He’d been restless this past year. Mergers and acquisitions were no longer enough. He needed someone, although he would never admit it. So Aman asked Nani for a reprieve, three years for us to find a woman that meets all of our criteria. If we failed, we’ll support her decision.”
“That’s insanity! I’m not sure if you two are the best thing for him or the bane of his existence.”
“We didn’t do anything, only arranged for him to see her.”
“What made you think he would notice her?”
“We’re men, Robbie. She’s not exactly hard on the eyes. I’d like to tell you it was her sparkling personality we took note of but then you would call me out for the bullshit. Anyone on his arms needs to hold her own against the women in his world.”
“Khushi will kill me if I don’t share this with her.”
“And Arnav would turn us into eunuchs without batting an eye if he finds out.”
Robbie giggled, unable to control herself, she laughed until tears of mirth rolled down her cheeks.
“I don’t find any humor in the possibility of losing my manhood.”
“Oh no, I’m not laughing at that.”
“Whenever I wished for Khushi’s fairytale, I never thought her fairy godmother would come in the form of two playboys!”
NK grinned, “Well, looks like we have a little secret.”
“Yeah, looks like.”
“I told you our side, now it’s your turn.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Robbie,” his voice held warning.
“NK, with Khushi, trust is everything. I cannot break her faith in me. It would break our friendship.”
“Things might get ugly.”
“There’s more isn’t there?”
“I’m not sure. Since you refuse to provide insight, I have to connect the dots on my own.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You’re welcome to fill in the blanks.”
“Give me another option.”
“Come to the engagement party.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“She’ll be introduced to Nani and their closest friends. Your presence will help.”
“Am I going as Khushi’s friend?”
“I would invite you as my date, but that’s not your scene.”
“If my friend’s happiness wasn’t in your hands, I would be tempted to toss you out.”
She sighed, “Ok, I’ll go… as your date.”
NK burst into laughter at her pinched expression. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to kiss a frog at the end.”
Fifth Ave, New York
Anticipation curled through him as he walked back to the bedroom, much like the adrenaline rush he used to feel when a lucrative business deal fell through.
He leaned down and brushed her lips with his. Only a whisper of a kiss, but it was enough to wake her.
Khushi blinked and focused on him, “You’re home early, aren’t you?”
Did she realize she called his place home?
“I am. I canceled the last meeting.” He didn’t tell her that it was because he’d been unable to concentrate on anything but her that day.
Arnav smoothed a lock of hair off of her cheek. “I have a present for you.” She sat up on the bed, frowning, one leg tucked under her, and ran a hand through her hair. Before she opened her mouth to protest, he placed a finger over it. “Not what you’re thinking. Come see it first.”
He took her to the master bedroom. Pausing by the dresser he grabbed the afghan throw he’d requested and wrapped it around her. Then with a hand on the small of her back, he guided her to the balcony.
The city glistened in a wondrous symphony of jewel tones below.
Arnav smiled to himself as he watched Khushi’s eyes spark in surprised pleasure. She moved to trace a reverent fingertip over the exquisite lacquer.
He walked up beside her, speaking softly as he closed his hands over hers, guiding them around the equatorial mount.
“They named it the Skylight-Elliott Refractor, for Ernie Elliott. He was a craftsman for one of England’s most prestigious telescope makers after World War II. In the 1980’s, he was commissioned to recreate a special edition of the 80mm Victorian brass refractor. A batch of twenty four were made, a few were sold immediately. However, due to a change in priorities of the company and a shortage of tripods, the remaining telescopes were encased and placed into their vaults. Unexpectedly, it took thirty years for the company to recall and revisit this particular edition. They married the telescope with a handmade oiled oak tripod by Richard Day. Most like this one bear minor marks caused by long term storage, but its value comes from retaining the authentic original patina on the brass lacquer.”
“Arnav, it’s magnificent!”
“Yes, it embodies a rare glimpse into the past even as we use it to look towards the future,” he replied, turning her around to face him.
“Why?” she asked simply.
“You won’t accept gifts, however, you said nothing of sharing an experience. I thought this would appeal to you.”
“It’s perfect. I don’t’ know what to say.”
“Say nothing. Enjoy it with me.”
He spent the next half hour showing her how to adjust the settings, moving the ascension axis to track the Canis Major until they found Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Her enthusiasm made him realize he’d given her less than any woman he’d taken to bed, when he wanted to give her so much more.
He would, Arnav decided. For he has discovered he wanted to hoard these moments, with her next to him, eyes alight with pleasure he was responsible for.
She turned to him; lips curved in a smile of wonder and said, “A thank you isn’t sufficient, so I will not utter it. Instead I just want you to know that I have lived this moment to the fullest and will always cherish it.”
Her words touched an unstrung cord in his heart, yet he willed it to quiet. It was time to move forward with tonight’s agenda. “This is only a small taste of what I can give you, Khushi.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s time we talk about our arrangement.”
“Arrangement,” her smile dimmed as she tasted the word tentatively as one would something foreign.
“Yes. I don’t think it’s wise to move forward without clear expectations from both parties.”
“We are in the bedroom, not your boardroom. And this is a relationship, Arnav, not a business contract!”
“In every interaction, it is best to outline the term and conditions. That way there are no disappointments.”
His words splattered like black paint across her bright canvas of joy.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked as she turned and walked back into the room. The words chilled her flesh when she’d been immune to the icy sting of winter air just moments before.
“Because you are everywhere I look. In my head, in my blood, like a goddamn fever. I’ve never felt this way and I don’t like it!” he snapped from behind her.
Then something elemental exploded through Khushi. She couldn’t handle the way he blew hot and cold. Give her the stars one moment then yanked her back down without warning. She stepped forward until she was within inches of Arnav’s chest.
She poked him with a finger, forcing him to move back slightly. “Actually, I’m not sorry. Why? Because I never asked for this! I never asked for this attraction between us. I never asked for you to take me to bed. I never asked to spill my guts. I never asked to fall in lo… I’ve had enough of Mr. CEO so jaded he places commercial value on human connections, Mr. Control who doesn’t even know what he wants—“
“What the hell are you saying, Khushi?” Arnav demanded incredulously.
Khushi was past caring—beyond awareness of what she was saying. Truly the man works her up like no others. He stopped backing away and Khushi looked up, at a complete loss for words. The air cracked around them.
With a sudden movement, Arnav reached for her, pulled the afghan away and yanked open her blouse and bra, so she was bared to him from the waist up. She gasped in shocked outrage, but just as swiftly Arnav drew her close, taking both of her hands with one of his and anchoring them behind her back.
Words of protest were silenced as his mouth came down on hers and a fierce explosion of need flared in her belly and between her legs. When he felt her lips yield, Arnav lifted his head and looked directly into her eyes, “You’re wrong, Khushi. I know exactly what I want, and she’s right here in my arms.”
She attempted to free her hands, but he was stronger. His other hand slid down her back, skimming to her front, and then with a few brief flicks of his fingers undid her jeans, pulling them down over her calves until she stood before him in only her panties.
Straightening, Arnav coaxed her against him. She could feel the evidence of his desire through the trouser’s heavy fabric. The friction against her own sensitized body was making her tremble. And then his hand moved up over her waist and higher, around the front, over her belly to the swell of one breast. Khushi was dizzy with needs that clamored through her body like waves pounding against the shore.
When his hand closed around that breast, and his mouth left hers to make a carnal passage downwards, her legs couldn’t hold her up any more. She would have sunk to the floor if not for Arnav’s arm supporting her.
“Please…Arnav…please…” she begged, hating the weakness in her voice.
“Please…let me go…”
“I think that is no longer an option for you,” he told her seriously.
“What do you want from me?”
“A verbal contract defining our expectations of each other.”
“Why?” she whispered.
“It’s …necessary to me.”
“And the terms?”
“You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine, then we negotiate.”
She looked at him and took a deep breath for fortification. “Let me go first.”
“No. I like this position.”
Her eyes spit fire at him. Then she closed them, shutting him out. NK’s words from earlier in the day came to her. Look beyond his words and actions. Find the cues.
Why did he feel the need to label their relationship? To box it within the parameters of detached terms like arrangement and contract? What was his intent in sharing the night sky with her? Something she felt certain he had never done before with another woman. His actions were inconsistent; some might even characterize it as irrational. The root cause of irrationality was fear. But what did he fear?
And then she understood. Hadn’t she faced her own fork in the road just hours ago? It was the time for courage.
Opening her eyes, she encountered his shuttered face and tense jawline. Cues, how did she miss them before?
“I have one term, if you can’t meet it, the negotiation is over.”
She felt Arnav exhale in guarded relief, “Think carefully, Khushi. It may be verbal, but I plan to bind you with it.”
She looked straight into his eyes, “All of me for all of you.”
Khushi watched in fascination as his eyes flared, the hardness melting from his features, leaving only the man and an expression that made her insides curl with longing.
“You ask for a lot.”
“You have a choice, but I won’t accept anything else.”
“And if I say no?”
The prospect alone created a gaping ache in her heart, but she ignored it to reply, “Then I walk.”
“Yes. I don’t deny that it won’t hurt, but Arnav this isn’t an ultimatum. This is me offering you everything I am.”
“We’ve known each other for six nights.”
“Why does it feel so much longer?”
He captured her wrist, laying a finger over the pulse. Again he was struck by how delicate her wrists were, almost fragile, as if they were to be handled with the utmost care. He studied her. Why this woman? This woman who asked for so little, yet wanted everything. If he gave it to her, would she be able to handle the burden?
“You may not want everything I am, have you thought of that?”
She answered with a question, “Why do you do that?”
“Take my pulse when we talk.”
“Your lips may lie, but your pulse will tell me what I need to know.”
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“An omission is also a lie, Khushi. And you are quite apt at omitting.”
“To protect myself, because outside of Robbie, no one has ever stood by my side.”
Arnav froze, her words clearing the cobwebs of his own clouded thoughts. Wasn’t that what he himself had done? Hardening himself, because there was no one there to take the blow in his place? Guarding his heart because he feared another betrayal? A betrayal that had left an aftertaste so bitter, it still lingered on his senses? Could he trust her? Trust her to take care?
He felt her hands running down his back, sending shivers of heated desire through him.
“Let me in,” she murmured against his throat, “I won’t hurt you, Arnav.”
But you have the power to.
He crushed the thought, but he could no longer rein back the need for her. Pulling her closer, his head bent to take her lips with his, moving over them with unabated hunger.
He finally released her hands, but only long enough to lift her onto the bed, easing the panties down her thighs and striping off his clothes with indecent haste.
Khushi’s mouth went dry as he stood before her, a tall, lean bronzed specimen of masculinity. All she could think was for this moment he was hers. She opened her arms to him and he fell on her, molding her softness against his stark arousal. Lost in each other, they kissed and touched, stroked and writhed, breath intermingling, short and rapid.
Abruptly Arnav pulled back and stared at her, “Yes. All of me for all of you, Khushi.”
The words ripped through her, opened her heart, held it wide for him to tumble in. Her eyes filled as he slipped into her, bracing on his arms to watch her face.
“It’s different,” she whispered, swallowing a sob as he moved deeper.
“It’s different,” he repeated, and then the need for words evaporated as their body took over communication.
Khushi’s body arched up to Arnav’s as her legs wrapped around his waist, drawing him deeper into an urgent spiral of potent need.
Arnav looked down into her face, saw how her cheeks were wild with color, how she bit her lip to keep her moans back. He kissed her lips to stop the biting, unconscious of the tender nature of his gesture.
Not long after, he felt her bite his shoulder in response to the way her body clenched around him until he could feel every spasm, urging him on to an intense orgasm. When it came, he blacked out for an indefinite time before the world came into focus again, body still pulsing.
Reluctantly, he pulled back, only to shift her close into his chest, gently urging her head into the crook of his neck and shoulder. A perfect fit.
With her skin against his, Arnav closed his eyes. His hands ran up and down her arms as he settled himself beside her. She was searing herself upon his soul and he just realized, he wanted her there.
Chelsea, New York
Trent walked through the door only to freeze at the scene before him. His wife was lounging naked on the sofa.
“What is this?”
“We haven’t shared a bed in months, I want my husband to fuck me.”
“I’m not in the mood for your games, Payal.”
“Why? Because you’re anxious to see the little slut?”
“Watch your tongue!”
“Or what?” she goaded.
“If you’re going to be a bitch – take it elsewhere.”
She rose from the sofa, not a hint of modesty towards her undressed state, and walked to him. Her hands swung out, posed to deliver a slap, but she clenched them tightly before it met with his face.
A smile twisted her lips as she ran her nails down the lapels of his jacket. She tilted her head back to observe him, “She’s probably in his bed right now.”
“What are talking about?” Trent demanded angrily.
“Khushi. She’s likely in bed with Arnav, moaning while he fucks her. Maybe I should follow her lead and find myself a real man,” Payal drawled mockingly.
She heard the savage hiss as he expelled the air from his lungs. From his expression she could tell that her barb had found its mark.
She felt sick, hating herself for allowing her feelings to betray her into such an acid comment. Yet, seeing that photo of Khushi had unleashed something within her. Her mind consumed by it. And Trent, her fucking husband’s lust was only fueling the burn.
“What’s happened to you, Payal?” he asked quietly.
“I’m still the same, Trent. You just never bothered to see me.”
“I married you.”
“Do you even know why?” At his silence, she turned away, making her way upstairs. “Good night, husband. Sweet dreams.”
Trent stood rooted in place until he heard the slam of the bedroom door. The bedroom they no longer shared.
He made his way to the downstairs guestroom, locking it behind him. Not bothering to remove his clothes, he fell across the mattress with heavy weariness, trying to block out the images Payal’s words evoked.
Does she still…?
He’ll have his answers soon.
Fifth Ave, New York
Khushi stretched her arms up. Cool air caressed her skin as the sheets fell around her. Her mind conjured the memory of how Arnav had caressed that skin, roughly demanding one moment, then with aching tenderness the next. He had so many moods, so many needs, she was looking forward to exploring them. The sound of the bathroom door opening drew her gaze.
Arnav’s eyes grew warm as he walked out of the steaming bath and saw Khushi propped on the bed. She looked sexy as hell with the sheets falling around her, doing a spectacular job framing her curves.
His gaze roamed over her appreciatively until he encountered the faint purple bruises on her upper arm. He was instantly horrified.
“Was I too rough?”
He moved to the bed, touching the marks with his thumb.
She looked down, seeing the dark marks, “Oh no, this wasn’t you.”
Arnav’s eyes narrowed, “Who the fuck touched you?”
“Arnav, it’s nothing.”
“Your arms are bruised, it’s not nothing.”
“NK took care of it.”
“In a roundabout way, it is your fault.”
“I didn’t vet my job application carefully… I thought it was a restaurant bar, when in fact it was.. umm.. a strip club,” the last two words were said in a rush.
“The rest of it,” Arnav demanded.
“I told them it was a mistake, tried to leave… the owner thought otherwise, so he had someone detain me. NK came took care of the matter. That’s all of it. Actually, since we’re on the subject, we need to talk about this secret bodyguard business.”
“I understand your need for independence. However, women’s lib needs to take a backseat when we’re talking about safety. I need to know you’re safe. That is non-negotiable.”
“I take care of what’s mine, Khushi. Even before last night, you gave yourself to me.”
“I’ve lived twenty three years without your protection.”
“What would you have done if NK hadn’t showed up yesterday?” he fired at her.
“I was about to pull out my wasp spray and –”
“A bit of spray is hardly sufficient defense!”
“It’s actually very effective. I’m well aware of the dangers of living in the city, Arnav. I’ve encountered them. We can debate what-if scenarios all day, but I won’t let that stop me from living my life.”
“It would drive me crazy if something were to happen to you,” he admitted. “This isn’t just about the average city criminals, Khushi. I’ve made enemies over the years, some who wouldn’t have a single scruple in using a woman as leverage. Our photo has been everywhere, there can’t be any doubt that you’re under my protection. Give this to me.”
“Will you be upfront about it?”
“Above board. They will be discreet, but you’ll be made aware of your security details.”
He was conceding a lot. While the thought of being followed around made her extremely uncomfortable, she recognized it was a necessity in his world.
“I want to work, that isn’t negotiable.”
“Fine, then come work for me.”
“I can’t have you in my office it’ll be too distracting, but NK has enough on his plate now he needs an assistant.”
“You can’t just give me a job, it wouldn’t be fair.”
Arnav shook his head ruefully even as he experienced a rush of pride. Her fierce self-respect and innate sense of fair play was a rarity among his circle of acquaintance.
“Then apply. Look up the entry level positions.”
“I don’t have a formal degree.”
He laughed at that, “Neither do I.”
“What? But, Harvard?”
“An honorary degree presented when I was a keynote speaker at one of their graduations. I side with Jim Rohn on this.”
“It would be safe to call him the godfather of the self-help industry. He left us with this – ‘formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.’”
She hesitated, old fears lingering in her eyes.
Arnav watched her intently. “Trust me?”
Khushi nodded slowly, “Will you give me until after this weekend? I know you have questions, and I promise I won’t evade. It’s just, so much happened this week, you… it’s all a bit overwhelming.”
“Am I overwhelming?”
“Very much so.”
“Good, I like whelming you.”
“You are terribly arrogant.”
“It’s a respected trait in business.”
“Hmmm,. better hurry then or you’ll be late. If you lose your business, all that arrogance will go to waste,” she gave him a saucy grin.
Arnav looked down at her, his lips tilted at the corners, “Come to AR on Monday, then. I can even promise a personal tour from the CEO.”
“Doesn’t the CEO have to … work?”
“Of course, he’ll be recruiting fresh talent for the company.”
“He’s a very attentive CEO,” she smiled up at him. “I promise to think on it. Robbie and I have a planned lunch today. We were planning to ask you and NK to join us, but I would like some girl time with her. See you for dinner?”
“Are you going to gossip about me?”
“Arrogant and conceited,” she mocked lightly.
“Give her an update of our scoreboard,” he teased as he nuzzled into her neck.
“I’m not the one intent on keeping scores.”
“I’ve lost count,” she admitted on a blush.
Arnav smirked, “I’m pretty sure I’m on the losing end. We’ll need to balance it out…tonight.”
“A keen man,” he corrected her.
“Yeah, your lover.”
He shared her smile by capturing it with his lips.
Upper West Side, New York
He took a sip of rich coffee, as he watch her enter Jean-Georges. Exactly five minutes late. How typical and uninspiring. His eyes traveled sardonically down the carefully displayed flesh as she glided across the restaurant towards him. She had the body of a goddess and a face to match it. He cursed quietly for not feeling even the slightest stirrings.
The rising star of New York’s modeling circuit.
Why would Arnav, a man who had an eye for beauty and profit, convince the board to turn her down? It was a puzzle. One Shyam was intent on cracking.
She folded herself gracefully into the seat, crossing one long golden leg over the other with purposeful sensuality. Too bad it was wasted.
Not a man inclined to waste the precious commodity of time, he dispensed with all pleasantries.
“Who are you to Arnav?”
Her body stiffened, no doubt she had been expecting another proposition from a wealthy man he thought jeeringly.
“Why did you request this meeting?” she countered.
“To quench a curiosity. Now humor me. Why would the CEO of a global fashion conglomerate turn down the newly minted runway darling? It doesn’t add up.”
“Then start subtracting,” she snapped.
“You’ve been seeking opportunities for a private meeting, why?”
“You’re awfully obsessive; does he know you spy on him?”
“I’m a major shareholder of AR Corps, it’s normal to keep tabs on my investments.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t have them.”
“Mysterious women are out of vogue you know.”
His eyes flickered over her face. She remained completely still beneath his perusal, her expression calm and impassive.
“Very well. Why don’t we approach this differently? There’s a certain event next Saturday I’m sure you’re aware of. I need a date.”
Triumph swept through him as he saw her eyes flashed with interest. Although it was quickly masked, he knew he had her.
He slid a business card across the table. “The Peninsula, six o’clock, I’ll meet you at the door.”
So… watcha think?
New Readers – Welcome aboard the FWN train.
If you’ve enjoyed the update, please let us know below. Your questions and comments helps us shape the story and also improve as writers. Thank you!