Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Khushi: I’m staying here tonight.
Arnav: What?! Why?
Khushi: We’re having a girl’s night.
Arnav: What about me?
Khushi: What about you?
Arnav: Stay as late as you want, then come back.
Lips curved as his message flashed on the screen.
Khushi: Are you pouting? You’re going to have to learn how to share.
It took less than ten seconds for the phone to ring. She placed it to her ear with a grin.
“You’re very daring Ms. Sinclair, now hand the phone to Khushi.”
“The pout gave it away didn’t it? I’ll take better care next time. And the answer is no. She’s mine tonight.”
“I don’t share.”
“It’s time you learn. She’ll be returned to your glass tower tomorrow.”
“It’s inadvisable to stand between me and something I want,” Arnav warned.
“When want becomes something more essential, you’ll be given consideration. Now, if you require company, I’m sure Raizada Jr. and your Girl Friday are available. Goodnight!” With a devious chuckle she ended the call.
“Robbie, I don’t like these games,” Khushi stated with a frown.
“You’ve never tried, so how would you know?”
“Do you need to play with fire to know it burns?”
“Is that how you see it?” a note of hurt crept into Robbie’s question.
“It’s not a judgment on you. Never that, but it’s not me.”
“Okay, should we call him back?”
Khushi shook her head, then grinned. “No, the sisterhood needs a united front. I’ll explain to him tomorrow.”
“The sisterhood thanks you. Now, back to last night, you really said that?”
“All of me for all of you?”
“Do you think it’s too much?”
“Are you kidding? I’m so proud of you. I’ll bet that threw him off his game!”
“It’s not easy with him, but I think this,” she placed a fist against her heart, “already chose him.”
“Would you prefer otherwise?”
“No, but I wouldn’t mind slowing down long enough so I could at least catch my breath. Or give him enough time to catch up.”
“He’s been matching your every step, Khushi.”
“I know and I feel his honesty. But he still keeps himself one step back. That step, the cold deliberateness of it, stops it all just short of …trust.”
“Honey, what he gave you wasn’t a baby step, but a giant leap.”
Khushi nodded slowly, lacing her hands together as she leaned back against the sofa. They had returned to the apartment after a light meal at the corner deli. Despite only a handful of days, entering it now felt foreign to her senses. There was no touch of streamlined masculinity to meet her eyes, no lingering scent of spicy aftershave to inhale with every breath. It was a space that held no piece of Arnav and her body ached with want upon noting the absence.
“I know. But I also sense that something happened, something devastating to make him so distrusting. And I’m afraid. I’m terrified of that dark hidden place.”
“His past or yours?”
“We all have one, Khushi. A past we cannot change. But is it such a bad thing? It’s what gives us an identity.”
“But it holds power, Robbie, power that can hurt. And what’s the use of running away, when it’s only too happy to chase you?”
“Then don’t run. Confront it head on.”
“Just like that?”
“Why not? Lucky you, your prince have the funds and the means to face any dragon. Why fight it alone? You threw out the challenge, he accepted. Give all yourself and ask the same from him. Give the lonely hearts something to believe in, Khushi. Give me a fairytale come true.”
Khushi hugged Robbie, “You know you’re always just what I need, when I need it?”
“Good. Then you’ll also know it works both ways. Princes come from all walks of life, but a modern fairytale start with a date.”
“One step ahead of you.”
“Next Saturday. You’ll even get to witness it.”
“Aman and Anjali’s engagement party?”
“Yes. It seems we should gear up for Act II of our group dinner.”
“Oh, Robbie, I’m so happy for you!”
“It could lead to nothing.”
“True, but you see I have this wonderful friend who told me that I deserve happiness. Her support gave me the courage to reach for it. I want the same for her.”
“If he wants you, your company, your body – enjoy it – who knows where it’ll lead?”
“Did you write down that little speech?”
“Yes, I tucked it safe in my heart.”
Robbie’s eyes brightened with suspicious moistness. “Damn. I can’t ignore my own advice can I?”
“It would take away the sincerity of them,” Khushi said softly.
“I learned from the best.”
“Alright. You’re on. Never let it be said, that a man scared the pants off Robbie Sinclair.”
“I thought that was the idea,” Khushi responded with a giggle.
“I’m going to have a chat with Raizada on his corruption of innocence.”
“Do you plan on trading secrets?”
Rich feminine laughter flowed from the tiny apartment, carrying notes of bliss into the hearts of those who paused to listen and understood its melody.
Fifth Avenue, New York
“Nice to know we only rate an invite when you get ditched.” Aman accused as he helped himself to a generous splash of aged Scotch.
“Did you just conveniently wipe away the last two years of dating Anjali?” NK responded drily.
With a grin, Aman asked, “And what of the very delectable Robbie? Progress?”
“I’ll hit the home run before you do.”
NK laughed openly as Aman’s face darkened into a scowl. “Shut the fuck up.”
He turned to Arnav, “By the way, I expect my request for a month leave to be approved.”
“No one needs a month long honeymoon.” Arnav refuted.
“When a man has suffered a year-long dry spell, he’s entitled! And don’t you two dare laugh!” Aman exclaimed upon receiving twin smirks from Arnav and NK, “I have plenty of juicy stories I’m sure would be of interest to Khushi and Robbie.”
“You can take it up to the Board at the next meeting.”
“Dammit, what good is having a brother as CEO if certain things can’t skirt by the fucking Board? Did you forget her brother sits in one of those chairs?”
NK sniggered, “Aren’t you always complaining about nepotism? Shine by example, little man.”
“The only thing little in the room will be your …”
“That’s enough, Aman,” Arnav interrupted, “set aside your hormones and I’ll approve the leave tomorrow. NK, do you have it?”
“Yes, it makes for interesting reading.”
“Matthews came from a relatively upper middle class family. They owned several auto dealerships in Chicago, and acquired a sizable portfolio of properties in Bronx. He dated Payal in high school, but broke up with her right after graduation. No contact for the next two years. They started dating again after his family declared personal bankruptcy. Guess when he proposed marriage?”
“Yes, the year she came into her trust funds.”
“Asshole,” Arnav replied with feeling.
“Who’s Matthews?” Aman demanded.
Arnav briefly outlined the story, including his suspicion that Payal Gupta was Khushi’s cousin.
“Fuck. That shit is whacked,” Aman muttered, “What now?”
“Depends, although what is Payal’s angle? As the only heir to the Gupta’s empire, why enter into marriage with an obvious gold digger?”
“There are not enough good men to go around,” Aman lamented, “she probably loves the little shit.”
“NK, what has your associate been able to pull up regarding Khushi’s connection?”
“Chet will be in touch in a couple days.” NK studied Arnav with narrowed eyes, “You’re not going to warn her are you.”
“I’ll be right by her side to handle them. But I need to know.”
“Her natural reaction when confronted with him.”
“I’ll tell you something that you should be well aware of. Women do not like surprises, especially in the form of an ex-lover.”
Arnav’s jaw tightened. “Sleeping together one time does not make them lovers,” he bit out.
“Jesus fuck, Arnav, you really are a piece of work you know that? You’re jealous, and because you don’t know how to handle it you’re going to fuck things up.” Aman exploded.
“I need to know, dammit!” Arnav hurled back.
“Then ask her. Upfront. You told me to man up, well big brother it’s your turn. Someone finally pierced the impenetrable, shaken the unshakable, stop measuring everyone by a past you cannot change!”
“Did I ask for your advice?”
“No, but you damn well need it! And it’s because I care.” It was said with the simplicity of truth. “It isn’t often that those who love you see you act human, Arnav. I’m grateful as hell that a girl like Khushi came into our lives. I say ours because it’s not just you. And it’s time you recognize that.”
“Aman’s right,” NK added quietly, “We don’t share blood, but hell these last few years, we’ve shared more than many blood brothers. Your restlessness has endured a long while. Be honest with yourself and figure out why. Put your past and future on a scale to determine its present weight. It’s time to live your life, Arnav.”
NK placed the phone to his ears, “Well?”
“All public records on Khushi Lacene Khumari go back five years. I hit a solid wall after that.”
“Means witness protection or money. This tight of a seal, I’m guessing lots of money.”
“What do you need?”
“A family connection would help. Can you confirm her last place employment?”
“Kumar’s Catering on the Lower East Side.” Going with his instincts, NK added. “Try Gupta.”
“Gupta…” Chet mused, “As in Shashi Gupta?”
“Yeah. And mate, I need you to move faster on this.”
“You know, when men exert this kind of-”
Fifth Avenue, New York
Khushi stepped into the penthouse with anticipation.
She deflated when she realized he wasn’t there. She allowed herself a moment to take in the unique scent that she will forever link with Arnav. Laughing at herself, she headed down the hall towards the bedrooms. She hesitated before the closed master bedroom.
Courage Khushi, she reminded herself, If you dared to claim the man, surely this private space must too be conquered.
Walking in she saw the unmade bed, there seems to be a tale in the rumpled folds. Had he also missed her?
Combating the yearning of her body, she’d spent another night at the apartment with Robbie. Latching on to the flimsy excuses of needing to take care of the laundry and doing her share of the cleaning.
For all her bravery before Robbie, she’d needed a respite from the whirlwind that was Arnav Raizada and the havoc he was wrecking as he carved a home for himself at the center of her chest. Stepping into his world, sleeping within the protective embrace of his arms has been so easy it was terrifying in its simplicity. However, despite her best efforts, the already difficult task of keeping her feet on the ground was made herculean when he determined to keep her among the stars.
Khushi looked at the wheeled carry-on at her feet ruefully. Playing offense was patently among Arnav’s strong suit of ingenuity. At the real threat of an entire personalized wardrobe to be purchased on her behalf, she’d given into his request of more- more nights, more of herself. The possessive demand in his words had kept her in a sensual thrall as she’d packed her clothes and toiletries under Robbie’s gleeful supervision.
Her eyes swept across the room. Two glossy packages stacked neatly on the dresser with her name printed across a monogrammed card snagged her attention. Before a frown could form she caught the feminine script across the bottom.
Please accept this as you would had it been a gift from an older sister and wear it tomorrow. Thank me by creating beautiful memories in it.
A reluctant smile tugged at her lips. It would seem she had surrounded herself by people who didn’t hesitate to use emotional blackmail. Opening the larger box, Khushi gasped as she saw the exquisite creation of crimson with light touches of gold nestled against cream tissue paper. There was an embellished sleeveless blouse with a square neckline and a full pleated skirt with golden applique stitched skillfully along the edges. Finally she pulled out a delicately embroidered netted dupatta that added drama to the modernized lehenga saree.
She set aside the gorgeous outfit to hesitantly open the second box. A pair of strappy Jimmy Choos swirling with wicked red and elegant gold greeted her, along with a second note.
This is a bride’s request, you can’t say no! And remember this bit of wisdom from your older sister – good shoes will take you to good places.
Khushi bit her lips. Anjali was too generous; however showing up in anything else at the party tomorrow would now be an insult. She lightly ran a hand over the rich fabric, then with a smile gathered up the outfit and headed towards the bathroom.
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
The abrupt knock at a quarter to six startled her, company was not expected. Likely the persistent body builder from the second floor, Robbie decided as she headed towards the door. This time she will have to be firm. But when she checked the peephole, she didn’t see the excessively muscled body with leering eyes, but rather a mouthwatering if impatient NK.
She opened the door, leaned against it. “Something you want, Handsome?”
For a big man, he sure moved fast she mused as she shut the door and headed back into the small kitchen after he eased right past her.
“Cooking?” he asked in mild surprise.
“Yes, Minestrone Soup and there’s not enough for two,” she responded pointedly. “Wanna tell me why you showed up unannounced?”
NK’s eyes did a quick sweep, taking in her silk clad curves in the oversized sleep shirt that barely came to her thighs. “Maybe I wanted to see how you look without the armor.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You have five minutes before I throw you out.”
“I would love for you to try.”
She flashed him a smile, one that offered a close semblance to a bearing of teeth, “It’s foolish to underestimate an opponent base on outer appearance.”
NK rocked back on his toes to study her. Model thin, but not of fragile build, he acknowledged. She was taller than most women, something he liked since it shortened the distance he had to cross to reach those pouty lips. Her face was far more vulnerable than she probably realized, but there was a sense of purpose that radiated from her pores. In all, Robbie was her own woman, capable of dealing with whatever life handed her. It would be interesting to test out how much she really learned from those judo lessons, but right now he had a more demanding agenda.
She stood still and a little wary as he approached. A faint smile touched the corners of his lips as lifted her onto the countertop before laying his mouth on hers. Startled, she flattened her hands on his chest and pushed, with a total lack of results.
NK lifted his mouth, a mere fraction of an inch, his cool breath wafted over her face as he demanded in a low, harsh voice, “Gupta, does that ring a bell to you?”
“What?” Robbie asked distractedly.
NK knew he shouldn’t be doing this. He hadn’t come over for this, but damn she tasted good and his body demanded more. He wrapped one hand under her knees to keep her steady while he slid the other around her waist, pulling her body against him as he pressed forward.
Robbie moaned aloud as he locked her in place, a shiver shot down her spine in recognition of his strength.
He bent for another kiss and she automatically lifted her mouth to meet his. She was unable to repress the little murmur of delight as NK urged her closer. He gave her bottom lips a light nip before thrusting his tongue into her mouth. Robbie’s hands clenched fistfuls of his shirt as she opened to him, curling her own tongue upward to stroke his.
NK lifted his mouth from hers again, his breathing ragged, but he banked down on the need long enough to rasp, “Gupta… does that mean anything to you?”
Robbie shook her head to clear it, sending rich curls dancing over her face.
He studied her closely, reading every nuance of expression. Not even a flicker. She didn’t know. Damn.
The haze of passion cleared and Robbie shoved him away. “Did you … did you come here and kiss me so you can get information for your boss?”
Robbie jumped off the counter, quickly putting distance between them. Shouldn’t she know better? When had a man every wanted her for just herself? Fury and something she refused to acknowledge as hurt blasted through her system, effectively dousing the fire that had burned brightly just moments before.
There was a lump in her throat that felt as if it were choking her. Forcing her voice past it, she hissed, “Get out.”
He had miscalculated, terribly. The current situation required for him to proceed with caution. With another woman he would have smoothed over the incident with a glib lie, but something told him only truth would absolve him now.
“Yes, I came here for answers, but I kissed you for myself,” he answered truthfully.
Robbie tilted her head back, “Your loyalty to him is commendable. Would you go as far as sleep with a woman to obtain information, NK?”
“You know it’s not like that.”
“Actually, I’m not sure if I know anything, other than the fact I want you to leave.”
“Robbie,” NK made to move towards her, “This is a unique situation and I handled it poorly.”
“Step back,” she demanded, “you’re right. You handled it poorly. Do you have any idea how many men see models as a small step up from a prostitute? How they expect little favors in exchange for …?” her voice gave out.
“Robbie, I’m not one of those men.”
She gave him a dry laugh, “There are many ways to make a woman feel like a whore, extracting information from her while using her body is one.”
NK winced. He had somehow probed an unhealed wound, one carefully hidden, and must now bear the consequences of reopening it.
“I’m sorry,” he told her with straightforward candor. “Tell me what I need to do to make you believe that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Robbie returned dismally, “Just tell me honestly what you want, NK.”
“It matters, Robbie. But you’re not in the frame of mind to listen, so we’ll let it go, for now.”
“Your five minutes are long over. What the hell do you want?” she snapped.
NK exhaled roughly, but recognizing the wisdom of a strategic withdrawal, he pushed it from his mind to focus on the situation at hand. “Does the name Gupta mean anything to you?”
“I hope it means nothing to you and to Khushi.” “What does it have to do with Khushi?”
Trust had to start from somewhere NK decided. He had fumbled this badly enough. No more half-truths.
“Trent and Payal Matthews will be at the engagement party.”
Fifth Avenue, New York
Arnav pushed open the door and halted midstride as he caught sight of Khushi, bathed in a halo of light of evening sun. Trite words like stunning, gorgeous, came into his head, but really didn’t do her justice.
All he could see at first was bare back encased in acres of red silk. The classic design accentuated her beauty, the luxurious folds hinting at the luscious curves beneath.
His hand gripped the doorknob as the vision in bridal red turned to meet his gaze. A taut cord of tension thrummed with awareness between them. Fierce arousal gripped him, so sharp it edged of pain.
“Did you pack?” he bit out, forcing casualness into his tone and a safe distance between them.
“Yes,” Khushi managed as her eyes searched his across the room. Why was he so far away? And why were his hands balled into fists?
“Arnav, is something wrong?” Khushi asked.
Arnav stiffened. He was beginning to accept he needed her. Yet last night, tossing and turning alone in bed, was an uncomfortable reminder of the scope of his need. Would she run if she knew how close she was to being ravaged?
Dammit, she had asked for all of him, she should know that dark came with light. A path of retreat was no longer available to either of them. Decision made he went to her.
Gently, yet with unmistakable remorselessness, he pulled her towards him. Their breaths mingled as his firm mouth touched hers and she was lost in a heady world of sensation that obliterated all other thought. Soft, lush, long and deep.
Arnav. His name circled in her head before slipping pass her lips. “Arnav.”
Again, that elusive something stirred inside him. He drew back, hoping he’d see what it was, what it meant, in her face. He wanted confirmation, but Khushi’s eyes were clouded, green smoke blurring whatever was behind them. The thoughts quieted when he captured her lips for another kiss, both hard and tender. “I want to make love with you.”
Twin hearts stopped for an infinitesimal moment as the words slipped unconsciously through his lips.
Khushi raised shining eyes up to his. Seeing the glow in them, he couldn’t find regret in his words. So what if they made him vulnerable to her? He could no longer think beyond the passionate promise of her attire. The coupling of modern woman in traditional garb held a seduction he had never understood until this moment.
With care, he turned her around so that her back was to his chest. Her breath hitched as she felt him take hold of the decorated end of the dupatta and removed it from her neck. Air caressed her skin as the low cut bodice was revealed, until his knuckles glided over her, sparking a trail of fireworks upon each point of contact.
He pulled her hair over one side and pressed a kiss to the place where her shoulder met her neck and she realized that he was undoing the tiny fastenings holding her blouse together. It was loose in seconds and he pushed it apart to bare her back completely.
Khushi couldn’t and didn’t want to stop him when from behind her he unfastened her skirts with deft fingers, pushing it down until it fell to the floor to meet with the same fate as the dupatta.
When Arnav lifted her up into his arms, the romance of it made her heart ache. She felt like . . . a bride. A treasured one.
Khushi pressed her lips to the side of his throat, breathing deep. In that moment she was granted a wish she hadn’t known slept inside her – heat and heart from one man.
She could almost smell the fragrant scent of fresh tuberoses and as Arnav paused just before placing her down, she thought he must have sensed it as well. Such moments were made of magic.
Music whispered in her head as he laid her against the sheets. Her eyes were no longer clouded; instead they shone with a pure brilliance. Seeing her there, all curves, peaks and dark dips and hollows, he had to curb an age old instinct to brand this woman as his in man’s most basic way.
When he touched a hand to her cheek, she instinctively lifted her face to him. Time was stripped of importance as familiar lips mated in a new dance. Arnav brushed his lips over her, once, twice, savoring that delicacy of flavor.
The feelings inside her heart made her selfless without shame or fear, wanting only to share the beauty he inspired in her. Khushi gently stopped his exploration, encouraging him to ease back to the bed so she could rise over him. Her hands skimmed the rough textures of male muscles, delighting when they tautened at her languid strokes.
She linked their hands as she took him into her body. He filled, she surrounded. He surged up to meet her, holding her close as he pressed salty kisses at the hollow of her throat. And it was there, bodies tightly entwined that they let go of everything to sink under the surface, and toward the heart, together.
Arnav watched as her eyes closed, her head tipped back, her body bowed. Nothing he’d ever seen was more beautiful than in those moments when she lost herself to him.
In the aftermath she laid cradled in the crook of his arm happy and satiated.
“Arnav, not that I’m complaining, but what just happened?”
He raised himself up on his elbow and smiled down at her ruefully.
“It’s all your fault,” he accused, smoothing a tangle of dark hair away from her face.
“How is it my fault?”
“When you’re near, I get hard,” Arnav said reasonably.
“But… I didn’t do anything!”
“You’re breathing aren’t you? Evidently that’s enough.” He collapsed back on the bed and pulled her to his side. “Part of it’s the way you smell” he muttered, “and that damn dress was like a red flag.”
Startled, Khushi lifted her head to stare at him. “I love the way you smell,” she confessed. Then, to hide the red flush running across her cheeks, she tucked her head back into the hollow of his shoulder, inhaling the delicious scent responsible for her confession. Khushi closed her eyes on a smile, luxuriating in the feel of his body against her own.
Arnav kept her close as he held an internal debate. It was on the tip of his tongue to mention Trent Matthews. Both Aman and NK’s advice vied for an outlet, yet, the words refused to edge past his throat. After what had just occurred, he needed more than ever to see her reaction, to confirm that she was heart whole. Then he would honor his promise to her – all of him for all of her.
Arnav jerked as his cellphone vibrated and and Khushi’s rang from the nightstand. Reluctant to separate from Khushi, he stretched to grab both devices, frowning as he glanced at Caller ID.
“Who is it?” Khushi asked.
“NK and Robbie.”
“What are you doing?” Khushi asked with surprise as Arnav rejected both calls and turned off the alert for good measure.
“They’ve intruded enough; we’ll see them tomorrow anyways. Whatever it is can wait. Just us tonight, okay?”
Khushi bit her lip, thinking of what she had to tell him, and soon. But the temptation of what he offered was too much for her to resist. Something significant had happened between them and she wanted to indulge in the freedom of being with him wholeheartedly. Just this weekend. Then, she would open Pandora’s box. Whatever darkness lurked in his past or hers, as long as there is acceptance, they will be able to cross the bridge together.
She nodded and slid deeper into his embrace, pushing all thoughts of the world outside as their bodies melded.
That was how they passed the night, catching brief snatches of sleep in between making love and murmuring drowsily to each other afterward. If the lovemaking was passionately heated, it was in the pillow talk that a deeper kind of intimacy was born, a quiet sharing of self that they had never given to another soul.
It was a night of magic. It was a night of love.
Upper West Side, New York
“Arnav, where are we going? I thought the party wasn’t until six?”
“We’ve been summoned,” he responded wryly.
“What do you mean summoned? By who?”
“You’ll know soon enough.”
Twenty five minutes later, the car turned down a private lane and joined the line of limousines on the driveway.
Before them was a three story French Renaissance mansion of white marble, unusual green roof tiles and copper cornices overlooking the Hudson. Even in the pale winter sunlight, it beckoned like an exquisite jewel box.
Butterflies began to multiply by a hundredfold in her stomach as Arnav held the door out for her. “Arnav, where…?”
Khushi’s turned shocked eyes to him, “Nani… as in your grandmother?!”
“I don’t make a habit of calling random women Nani, so yes, my grandmother. She wants to meet you without half of New York in attendance.”
“Arnav! How can I meet her now? I haven’t had time to prepare! Why didn’t you say anything last night?”
“You knew you’ll be introduced to her at the party, what difference does it make that we’re moving it up by a few hours? As for last night… well, I had other things on the mind.”
Arnav’s eyes danced with amusement as two pink flags flashed on her cheeks. He wasn’t a man who had much patience for modesty, but damn if he didn’t find pleasure in Khushi’s blushes. However he could also read the tension in her eyes and it became imperative to ease her anxiety.
Taking her hands in his, he bought her closer, “Relax, Aman and Anjali are also here. They may call her the Dragon Lady, but she hasn’t eaten anyone yet.”
“But she can strip the skin off you with some well-chosen words,” a strong voice rang from behind them. “Thank you for the introduction, now are you coming in or not?”
Arnav kept his eyes on Khushi’s. “She doesn’t want to come in,” he called back.
“That’s not it,” she whispered, mortified. “You should have warned me so I could’ve…oh, never mind.”
She brushed past him to take the couple of steps necessary to bring her to the grand entrance.
“Namaste, Mrs. Raizada,” she gave a traditional greeting, with a slight bow and hands pressed together in a sign of respect, thereby missing the silent exchange between Arnav and his grandmother.
Khushi looked up and reeled in surprise. Arnav had his Nani’s eyes, although hers was a shade lighter, it was equally penetrating, sharp. Khushi felt vulnerable as they took in everything about her in one experienced sweep, while giving nothing away.
Something flashed in those astute orbs as Arnav came up behind her and placed a hand on the small of her back, but before she could discern the significance, she was given a regal nod.
“Welcome to Shantivan, Khushi.”
Fifth Ave, New York
“Hurry!” NK urged as he and Robbie rushed through ARNY’s lobby, clutching the newly printed file from Chet’s encrypted email. They were sitting on a land mine; there wasn’t a moment to spare.
But despite his best efforts, it was already ten minutes pass noon. All attempts of reaching Arnav and Khushi via phone lines had failed.
NK paused impatiently before the elevators, “Evans,” he greeted the hotel’s manager.
“If you’re here for Mr. Raizada I’m afraid you missed him. He left at nine this morning, but gave me this in case you came.”
He held out a phone.
“It’s Khushi’s,” Robbie identified.
NK snatched the phone from his hands, took Robbie by the arm and rushed out to hail a taxi
“Head to the Peninsula,” he told the cabbie as he powered up the phone.
A text popped up on the screen.
Nani requested a meeting with Khushi before the party. We’ll go straight to the Peninsula from there. Tell Miss Sinclair, she’s mine today. Don’t bother calling.
“Unbelievable!… Does he always hold such a grudge?” Robbie cried.
“To be fair, I think we have horned in on them one too many times. He’s not a man who responds well to interference.”
“But expects others to jump at his command?”
“How many eighteen year-olds can carry the weight of being a CEO?” NK countered, “It’s a conditioned reflex now.”
“This is important, NK!”
“I know, but as long as he’s by her side, Arnav wouldn’t allow anything to harm her.”
“I’m more concerned that he will do damage.”
“He’s just wants to be sure of her.”
“And men say we are the unreasonable one. Is he deaf and blind? She’s in his bed every night and practically gave him an open declaration in response to his absurd notions of a contract. Does your Mr. Raizada demand a proposal as well?”
“She has more of him than any woman before her. Trust is earned, Robbie. But I can guarantee one thing- he will tell her about Matthews.”
Robbie stared out the side window as the taxi navigated through the dense traffic. She’d only read the first page of that report, not wanting to infringe further on Khushi’s privacy, but it was enough to fill her with dread.
“With his trust issues, what makes you so sure?” she asked NK quietly, her voice laced with apprehension.
NK reached over and stilled the fluttering of her hands by holding it in his, “Because despite being ruthless and cunning in his business dealings, he is an honorable man. Trust me on that.”
Upper West Side, New York
Devyani Raizada felt the coiled tension within her ease as she observed her grandsons and the women by their side. They made a picture, modern suits besides traditional dresses, sharply contrasting, yet seamlessly harmonized.
Khushi did not appear the grasping gold digger she had feared. She had not missed the earnest embrace Anjali gave the younger girl, nor the approving warmth of Aman’s eyes. But it was Arnav’s behavior throughout the formal brunch that gave her hope where there had been none. He loved.
She looked down at the plain jewel box in her hand. It had traveled with her across an ocean and miles of concrete pavement.
Her daughter had spent a decade saving up for this gift, one she regrettably will not be able to personally give. Devyani knew how much this day would have meant to her daughter and a bittersweet pang filled her as she opened the box to gaze upon the two identical sets of gold kangans nestled against faded white silk.
Lifting up the first pair, she beckoned to Aman.
“Your mother bought these when Arnav turned ten; it was her wish to see it adorn the wrist of her future daughter-in-laws.” The words were spoken plainly, but as she placed the weight of his mother’s love into his palm, Aman saw something he had never seen in his grandmother’s eyes. Not once. Not through the grief he was too young to remember clearly, not through the years of hardship as they built AR.
Tears. They shone with vulnerability in her eyes, yet she had never appeared more majestic.
He leaned down to kiss the side of her cheeks while making a silent vow to fulfill her dearest wish. They will have a family again and Shantivan will someday ring with the carefree laughter of the innocent.
He turned to the woman responsible for altering the course of his life. He glanced down at the gold bracelets he hadn’t known existed, rubbing a thumb over the engraved “A” at the center. With a slight shake, he slipped them onto his future bride’s wrists. A perfect fit.
A tiding of joy washed out the melancholic memories as she saw the bracelet on Anjali. Devyani brushed away the tear she had been unable to hold back. Today was a day for joy; all other sentiments must take a back seat.
She turned to Arnav just in time to see him take hold of Khushi’s hand, running a light finger over her wrist. Her heart shook as she recognized the look. Yes, she knew what it was. Something, only understood by lovers, and despite the passing years, she had never forgotten how it had felt to be the recipient of her husband’s tender regard.
A girl named happiness, for a boy who had experienced very little of it. There was a beautiful poetic justice in that.
She took one final look at the remaining pair of kangans before closing the lid. Soon, she promised her daughter.
“Thank you,” Aman said sincerely to Anjali as soon as the door closed on the limo.
She turned to him in surprise, “What for?”
“For spending the morning of our engagement party easing the way for Arnav instead of being pampered as you deserve. And for making Khushi your equal in Nani’s eyes. The dress was perfect. I’ll bet the Dragon Lady is already in a wedding state of mind. A lesser woman would not have chanced being outshined by another.”
“You give me too much credit, Aman, I worry that I will fail in your expectations of me.”
“Never. You are Anjali, my Anjali, and that will always be enough.”
“Today is our Sagai and engagement party. Thank you for agreeing to adhere to all the traditions. I know you must hate it.”
“Ah, but I expect to be compensated. Arnav has approved our month long honeymoon,” he told her with a wiggle of brows.
She shook her head at his outrageousness before asking earnestly, “Do you resent me, for making such a request?”
“Are you doing it to torture me?”
“Of course not! You know it is part of my-”
“Belief,” he finished for her. “How can I ask you give that up? We are linking our lives, not melting two into one. There will still be a you and I in our us, Anjali, didn’t I promise you that?”
“I love you, Aman Singh Raizada,” she told him as she laid a cheek against his shoulder.
“Of course you do, I’m very lovable,” he informed her while facing a soft kiss on the crown of her hair.
A glow of joy suffused Anjali’s heart as she touched the kangans he had lovingly placed on her and quietly gave thanks to the mother-in-law who had blessed her world with this man. She could not wait to belong to him- heart, soul, and body.
Arnav paused at the steps as he felt another vibration. NK would not be this persistent if it wasn’t of urgency. Frowning he pulled out his phone and scrolled through the seven missed calls and eleven text messages consisting of two words, “Tell her.”
He cast a glance at the woman by his side. What would she think if he told her she was the first woman he had brought to Shantivan? He knew the significance of it had not been lost on Nani, although, she was keeping her thoughts on the matter close to her chest. Genuine approval would not come easily, but Aman and Anjali are owed his gratitude for setting the stage.
His eyes came to rest on her wrist once again. They had appeared too bare the moment Aman slipped their mother’s kangans onto Anjali. He had an unnerving vision of those cuffs surrounding Khushi’s delicate wrist, a circle of gold protecting her pulse.
He wanted it, Arnav admitted to himself. He wanted her. All of her.
There was a heightened intimacy between them since last night. Moving him closer to giving a name on what he felt for her. The last few days have been the best of his life. Outwardly, he was same man from a week ago, yet she had incited a fundamental shift in a part of him he’d vowed would always be untouchable.
And he wanted to keep her there.
Arnav took hold of Khushi’s hand to stop her from heading to the remaining limo. What he needed to disclose required privacy, something they will not have at the party’s venue. Besides, they had a good three hours before the official ceremony began.
She looked at him, a question in her eyes. He was struck again by their unique color. Somewhere locked in memory he sensed a piece of the puzzle linked to Khushi, something he should remember, but it remained stubbornly elusive.
He led her back inside.
“Arnav, this is your Nani’s house, it doesn’t feel right to come in while she’s not here.”
“It’s mine actually.”
“But your penthouse…?”
“Shantivan is a family home. When I bought it I never thought I’ll live here,” was his cryptic reply, “Come, there’s no time for a tour, but there’s something I want to show you.”
He led her out the French doors at the back, turning down a covered path until they reached a glass house with a vaulted roof. Snowdrifts surrounded the windows, but she could see rich foliage peeking through.
He motioned her up the steps, and as soon as she walked through, the thick perfume of roses enveloped her senses. Everywhere she looked were vibrant colored blooms set against leafy shrubs of jade. There had to be at least three dozen variants.
“Arnav! These are glorious. Did you grandmother plant them?”
She looked up in surprise. They were his she realized. A greenhouse of roses growing under the care of a shrewd businessman was somehow utterly delicious. There were so many layers to Arnav she wondered if she’ll ever peel back enough to reach the core of the man.
“They are beautiful,” she told him with sincere appreciation, leaning in to sniff at a crimson bud, “How do you find the time to care for them?”
He shrugged noncommittally. “There’s a local nursery ran by the Prakash brothers. I contract with them to come by for the upkeep.”
She flitted like a butterfly between his plants, unconscious of the sight she made to the man tracking her every movement with hungry eyes. So engrossed was she that it took her a while to realize it was completely silent. When she turned towards him, Khushi felt her breath hitch as her heart kicked up.
He was watching her as any romance serial hero would watch the heroine. With one shoulder leaned against the doorframe and his arms crossed on his chest.
He said nothing. There was a strange mixture of grim determination and fierce desire on his face. She exulted in the latter, but was puzzled by his forbidding countenance.
“Arnav… is something wrong?”
“Matthews will at the party tonight.”
“Trent Matthews.” He dropped the name between them, eyes intent on her face.
She seemed at a loss for a moment, shock robbing her of thought.
“Trent? How do you know?”
“I had NK look into him. We found out he married a woman named Payal. Connecting the dots, I think it was safe to assume it’s your Trent.”
There was a telling emphasis on your Trent, that verbalized much more than his words. Trent had married Payal… it was news to her, but not unsurprising. However, she didn’t have the time to sort out those thoughts now.
“How long have you known?” she asked quietly.
Arnav dropped his hands to move away from the door. His expression was unreadable, but as he stopped before her she would see his lean body poised tensely, as if expecting a blow.
A suspicion swirled through her, “You weren’t going to tell me, were you?”
“No,” he confirmed.
Arnav moved like lightening then, his hands seized her upper arms with biting force as his dark eyes speared her with their intensity, “Because for the first time in my life, I feel alive and connected to someone dammit!”
Khushi felt her heart slam against her ribs as his meaning penetrated, taking away much of her doubts and fears. This man, did he even recognize the feelings behind his words?
“Are you… jealous?” Khushi watched in fascination as the muscle in Arnav’s jaw flexed.
“Yes.” He surprised them both by answering with bald honesty.
“You have no reason to be,” she responded simply.
“Arnav, when I met Trent… I was lonely. He was handsome, charming and attentive. But whatever there was between us, it died the day he kept silent and did nothing… as…as,” she struggled briefly, but powered through, “I can’t say he meant nothing, but he has no hold on me now.”
His grip on her eased, but the tension remained, “It will never be easy with me, Khushi. I feel like I’m doing you a disservice, but I can’t let you go.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere, Arnav.”
“There are things we will have to talk about.”
“Yes,” she agreed readily, “but the past can’t hurt us if we are able to share and accept it. Like it or not, it shaped who are.”
“Are you angry that I waited until now to tell you?”
“It would be a lie to say no, but what matters is that you told me. Thank you, Arnav.”
“You should thank NK,” he responded with a grimace, “He’s determined to keep me from screwing things up.”
“Then I owe him a favor, and you owe him a raise.”
“Any more raises, he’ll be making more than I do,” Arnav muttered. He studied Khushi, perturbed by her lack of reaction. They were talking about the man who took her virginity with callousness and the spiteful woman who engineered the damn episode, how was she so calm?
“I would understand if you rather not attend the engagement, I can drop you off -”
She placed a light hand over his mouth, shaking her head at him.
“You were expecting a different reaction weren’t you?”
Arnav inclined his head.
She gave him a thoughtful look, “I don’t know what my reaction will be, but I can promise, I won’t hide it from you. Promise to be there with me?”
He nodded solemnly.
Khushi rewarded him with a smile, “Then I’ll be okay.”
Something Arnav recognized as triumph mingled liberally with relief washed over him.
His took her hand from his mouth, using it to pull her into his chest. His arms closed around her and he leaned down to brush her lips with his, a kiss of promise amidst the flower of love.
The Peninsula, New York
“NK, where are they?!” Robbie cried in mounting frustration, “Do you see the Matthews?”
“No, in this damn crush it’s hard to see anybody.”
“Why are there so many people?”
“Mohit Jha rarely gives up the chance to network,” he informed her grimly, “Fuck, finally! I see Aman.” He took her hand, nudging people none too gently out of the way.
“Where the hell is, Arnav?” NK demanded as soon as they reached Aman.
“They’re on their way from Shantivan. Why?”
NK’s tense shoulders relaxed at the news. “That rotten bastard, apparently you aren’t’ the only Raizada who likes theatrics.”
“Did I miss something?”
“Only the first act of a near breakdown. If this doesn’t work out with Khushi, I will personally bury your brother. Alive.”
“I’m honestly amazed it took you this long to develop homicidal tendencies.”
“Aman, Anjali!” Mrs. Jha rushed over, “Hurry, it’s almost the auspicious time, we need to get you both ready.”
“I’ll join you right after this,” Aman called over his shoulders as he dutifully followed the Jha ladies.
NK turned to Robbie, “Come, I need a fucking drink.”
“But, Khushi-” Robbie protested.
“He told her,” NK assured her firmly.
Robbie looked at him doubtfully, “How do you know?”
“When this is over, remind me to tell you about Shantivan.”
“We should still look for Trent and Payal.”
“Robbie, it’s been one hell of a day and it’s not even over. Right now I can’t even fight my way out of a damn wet paper bag. I need a drink. After that, I’ll make it my mission to be agreeable to you, okay?”
Robbie gave him a sheepish smile, “Sorry. We’ve relied only on each other these last two years, I can’t react any other way until I’m sure nothing will hurt her.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. You and I have that in common. I told you Arnav will tell her, now trust me when I tell you, Khushi will be fine, okay?”
Robbie looked up at the gorgeously disheveled man before her. He looked every inch the Aussie bad boy despite ditching his uniform of jeans and a dress shirt for an understated formal suit in classic black. It was that wicked pony tail she decided.
He was a man who was willing to do just about anything for the Raizada brothers, particularly Arnav. She still felt the burn from the personal experience, yet, it was that very quality that made him so relatable.
When had their simple world morphed into this web of complex relationships? There were so many crisscrossed threads between them now, if one snapped, how would it affect the rest?
The unknown lurked like a foreboding shadow in her mind, but Robbie Sinclair wasn’t a woman who allowed regret to root in her heart. Sometimes the only way forward is through a leap of faith. Reining back her reservations, she gave into the urge to touch his five o’clock shadow.
“Okay, Handsome. Let’s quench that thirst.”
“Oh the bride-to-be looks as if she’d stepped from the pages of Vogue!” an overeager guest gushed.
Payal plastered an indulgent smile on her face as she looked towards the ornately decorated stage of silken swathes of fuchsias, oranges, and turquoises with gold accents. The air was laden with the cloying scent of burning incense.
The entire venue was something lifted straight from an Eastern palace and placed at the center of the Peninsula’s posh ballroom. With the combined wealth of Raizadas and Jhas, it wasn’t far off from reality.
Under a canopy of white orchids and gleaming crystal was a woman in an ivory net chikankari saree with crushed red velvet and gold embroidery. It was undoubtedly a Manish Malhotra creation. Traditional bordering on archaic Payal thought with a sneer. Of course, it was only fitting for Anjali Jha.
Angelic Anjali, Flawless Anjali, Virginal Anjali.
There were times she had been terribly tempted to tear down the rose colored lens that tinted the other girl’s world while they attended Barnard together. Yet, she knew it would have been social suicide. As a Jha, she was positioned at the highest echelons of their circle. As the future Mrs. Aman Raizada she would be untouchable.
The thought brought an acrid taste of poison to her mouth.
How the hell did she ever catch the eye of a playboy like Aman? A man she had credited with a strong sexual appetite.
Let’s see how long you can keep from him straying, dear Anjali.
Payal giggled to herself at the thought, imagining with glee how the sheltered girl would handle an unfaithful husband.
As the formal ceremony commenced Payal kept one eye on the double door entrance. She was sure Khushi wasn’t there; she had positioned herself in the far corner all evening, ensuring she wouldn’t miss the anticipated moment.
Khushi. Her thoughts grew darker. The name was an omen, sucking the happiness out of others.
As Aman slipped a diamond solitaire onto a teary-eyed Anjali, Payal caught sight of the woman she hadn’t laid eyes on in five years entering on the arms of New York’s most eligible bachelor.
Arnav Singh Raizada. The nobody who’d risen from the streets into a household name in the fashion industry. A name whispered in awe, a presence well heeded, a power greatly feared. And he owed it all to her father.
She, Payal Gupta, should’ve been next to one of the Raizada brothers.
It stung that both had bypassed her, favoring a woman she loathed for her saccharine perfection and one she hated down to her last blood cell. It was a clear betrayal. How could they treat the daughter of their benefactor so?
She looked towards the open bar where her husband had been nursing his Perfect Pour all evening. Yes, look at your little slut on the arms of another man, even at a distance, she was fucking glowing.
Before clearing the entrance, she saw Arnav pull Khushi close, kissing her lips in a heated declaration of possessiveness. A twisted smile touched her lips as she saw Trent pale upon witnessing the intimacy. If the attention was not on the stage, it would have rocked this crowd to see a public display of affection from the eldest Raizada brother.
Her eyes narrowed with interest as she saw another couple intercept them. Shyam Jha and was that… Lavanya Kashyap?
She gave up on keeping an eye on the ceremony, giving the tableau her full attention. She could visibly see Arnav’s body tensing. Was the supermodel an ex-girlfriend? Surely not. Over the years she had kept tabs on both Raizadas and the revolving door of women who occupied their bed, however brief.
But clearly she was somebody to him. There was a rapid exchange of words between the men, before Arnav turned to Khushi. He leaned over to whisper in her ears then turned on his heels to storm away from the ballroom, a meek Lavanya dodging his footstep.
Payal grinned, whoever she was to him, someone was headed for slaughter.
She had planned to confront Khushi before Arnav, but after that little scene, an adjustment was required. A man being led by his dick would not provide her with an open ear. She needed a different target.
Her eyes went back to the stage, settling on the Dragon Lady. Of course, why target the arms when going for the jugular would be much more effective? Besides it was one more score to settle. It was that woman who had turned down her father’s hint of a marriage to unite their families.
Payal ran her tongue over her teeth before setting her face into serene composure.
The night was ripe for justice.
Khushi eyed the man before her warily, their first encounter fresh in her mind.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. Arnav had asked for her to wait for him, turning away before she could voice her concern.
She could hear the clamor in the ballroom and felt guilty for missing the ring ceremony. Wishing to at least extend her congratulations she attempted to edge past Shyam, but found herself completely blocked by the solid wall of menacing male.
Looking up she encountered hard eyes, filled with condescending brutality.
“Eager to be the next Raizada bride aren’t you?” he mocked.
Before she could answer, he grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the view of the crowd.
Khushi shivered. This was the type of man you would not want as an enemy. She yanked her arm away from his grasp. “What do you want?”
“He’ll never marry a common girl like you. Not when supermodels like Lavanya are so eager to jump into his bed.”
“Why do you hate me?” she asked him with genuine confusion.
“I don’t hate you. To do so would give you too much importance. I simply want you to go back to whichever little hole you crawled from. You don’t belong here.” Shyam replied scathingly.
“Do you know what happens to people like you? You live and die alone,” she told him quietly.
Shyam came closer, invading her personal space. Alarmed, she instinctively backed away.
His voice with edged with cold amusement as he jeered at her, “Men like me will never be alone, little Khushi. Not when there are so many eager sluts like you willing to spread her legs for the promise of payment.”
Khushi flinched from the crudeness of his words, but she refused to be cowered by this man’s unexplainable spite.
“You have a filthy mind Mr. Jha, I won’t subject myself to it further.”
She turned on her heels, giving him her back as she walked away with determined steps.
“Go see what he’s up to or are you too afraid you’ll catch a passionate embrace?” he taunted.
Against her will, Shyam’s words cast a gray shadow of doubt. Khushi found her feet heading in the direction Arnav had gone earlier.
She flagged down the attendant charged with escorting guests into the ballroom, “Excuse me. Have you seen, Mr. Raizada?”
“I saw him head towards the terrace, madam. If you go straight down the corridor, there will be a flight of stairs on your left.”
Approaching the bottom steps, Khushi paused as she fought with herself. Why couldn’t she ignore Shyam’s words? What was Lavanya to Arnav? Nerves spiraled through her body as the possibilities crowded her mind. She licked her dry lips and began to ascend the stairs.
“Ohmigod, it’s him!” Robbie cried, grabbing hold of NK’s hand.
“The bastard Trent, that’s who. He’s at the end of the bar.” Fury filled her at the sight of the man responsible for so much of her friend’s lack of confidence in herself.
“You sure it’s him?”
“I’ve starred at that photo from your report all morning, of course I’m sure!”
NK’s eyes skipped over the faces, landing on the man Robbie indicated, confirming it was Trent Matthews.
He was a fair man, one willing to give every person a chance until they proved beyond a reasonable doubt they were a lost cause. Reading the reports on the man in his sight placed him firmly in the category of men who lived up to the label of first class bastards. Spoiled, weak, and mercenary. He had zero tolerance for such deadbeats.
“How dare he show up! Considering how photos of Arnav and Khushi have been splashed on every news outlet, he must know she’ll be here. You’re not to stop me as I go and give him what he deserves.”
NK looked down at the agitated woman before him and grinned. She was always gorgeous, but anger added fire to her eyes in a way that turned her into a man’s wet dream. He’ll take a shot at a show of black lace tonight, after making it up to her for his massive screw-up.
But first, Matthews. “And what does he deserve?”
“A bloody pummeling, but to start, a punch in the face,” Robbie muttered.
“You’re a blood thirsty wench aren’t you?”
“What he did to her, NK!”
“I’m not stopping you, but save the bloody pummeling until after we get away from the witnesses, yeah?”
NK followed closely behind Robbie as she marched towards Matthews. He figured he could get them out of the ballroom fast enough after she’d had her shot, no one would be the wiser.
Robbie tapped impatiently on the navy dinner jacket, “Excuse me, Trent Matthews?”
He turned to her, a smile formed on his lips, one a man gives a woman he finds attractive, “Yes?”
Up close he was good looking, she acknowledged grudgingly. If one went for the clean cut All-American type. Thank god Khushi’s taste in men have improved.
“Is there some– ”
Trent’s head snapped back as a firm fist connected with his jaw.
“What the fuck!” he clipped as he toppled back from the unexpected attack.
Satisfaction poured through Robbie as he landed on his ass. Thankfully those who were taking full advantage of the open bar were mostly too drunk to take notice of what was happening in their corner. She had wanted to deliver that punch since the day she knew about this man’s existence. It made every judo lesson she panted over worthwhile.
She felt NK’s solid presence behind her as he leaned into her ears, “I’ll never piss you off again, dollface. That was one hell of a punch!”
She have him a grin, “Good, now you can show me what you’re made of. Let’s get him out of here. It’ll be good for everyone if Khushi doesn’t have to lay eyes on him ever again.”
As the guests descended on the engaged couple, Payal took the opportunity to slither up to Devyani Raizada.
“Namaste, Mrs. Raizada.”
The older woman turned to her in surprise. “Payal! It’s lovely to see you child. I didn’t know you would be here. Did your mother come as well?”
“I came on Anjali’s invitation. We attended Barnard together. Unfortunately, Amma couldn’t make it, but she sends her regards. You know how she avoids crowds ever since…” Payal allowed her voice to trail off regretfully.
“Of course,” Devyani replied sympathetically, “Please send her my greetings and tell her our doors are always open to her.”
“Of course, I will. Thank you, Mrs. Raizada.”
“Well, I’m sure you want to catch up with Anjali. Thank you for stopping by to greet this old woman.”
“Actually, I wanted to have a word with you. I’m not sure how to say this, but I can’t stand by and allow you to be deceived. Especially since Father has always considered you as part of our family. ”
“What are you talking about, Payal?”
Payal lowered her eyes, “I caught the media coverage on Arnav…with that woman.”
Devyani stiffened, “You are acquainted with Khushi?”
Sensing victory, Payal went for the kill. “Yes, Mrs. Raizada, I am. You see, she had an affair with my husband.”
“What do you want?” Arnav bit out coldly.
“I’ve told you, a chance.”
“And I’ve given you my answer, what makes you think I will change my mind?” Anger rose up in him, directed at her for showing up and invading his newfound happiness. Why did his past refuse to stay where it belonged?
“Arnav, I’m your sis– ”
“Don’t you fucking dare! You are only the unfortunate result of my father’s depraved lust with an equally corrupt woman!”
That hurt. Cutting deeply as he had meant for it to.
“Arnav, Amma already passed away,” she moved closer taking hold of his lapels as she pleaded with him, “Can’t we lay old ghosts to rest? You’re the only family I have now.”
“But she really isn’t is she? She lives on in you. Like mother, like daughter,” he threw out harshly. “How many men have you seduced and lived off of? Before you start, I do not keep tabs on you. It’s hard to ignore when your little affairs are splashed across the tabloids for the world to see. You’re beautiful just like she was and every bit of it is surface. Women like you are nothing but characterless parasites!”
Lavanya flinched under the sting of his words, her hands dropping to her sides as color leached from her face.
“Why don’t we skip to the truth? Are your sugar daddies not giving you enough? How much do you want from me to stay the hell out of my life? Just name your price and I’ll pay. Any amount as long as it keeps you from my family.”
Arnav watched her with eyes like flint, ignoring the anguish etching itself across her face. She looked terribly young and vulnerable in that moment, but all he wanted was to drive this woman away. Just looking at her caused him physical pain. If only she didn’t look so much like her damned mother.
Khushi felt something inside her curled up as Arnav’s words fell like splintered glass over her skin. She had nearly called out to him when she saw Lavanya grab hold of his suit. The two on the terrace were so involved they had not heard the door from the stairway open. Now, she wished desperately to turn back the clock, to erase the words eating at her like acid.
Where was the man who brought her the stars? Who kissed her tenderly in a greenhouse of roses just hours ago? Where was the lover who woke her with heated kisses and pulled her into his deep embrace in sleep? She didn’t know this cold stranger. With eyes that contained only ice of deep arctic chill. Yet they shared the same face.
She froze as those icy orbs swept contemptuously over Lavanya, watched as his lip curled back derisively after the insulting perusal.
His punishing words evoked a memory of another conversation of similar cruel accusations. Characterless. Parasite. She shuddered as the words beat cruelly in her ears.
“I’m not like my mother,” she heard Lavanya whisper.
Khushi turned away, unable to bear another moment. She rushed blindly down the steps as she fought the hurt that threatened to explode from her pores.
Her feet burned, but she couldn’t stop. Demons of the past chased her thoughts as she rushed down the hallway, running straight into a hard chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she whispered. Not hearing the brokenness of her voice.
“What the hell, Khushi!”
Her head jerked up as Robbie’s voice penetrated the fog, and looked straight up into the eyes of Trent Matthews.
Her body lurched as if she’d been shot. Not now. She couldn’t handle this now. She pushed away from him, nearly losing her balance as she staggered back.The distance allowed her to see just beyond his shoulders.
Standing next to her was a grim faced Mrs. Raizada.
Like a deer in headlights she stood rooted to the spot. Chaotic emotions swirled inside her, threatening to erupt in tears or screams. It was like being in a waking nightmare. Her dress suddenly felt too constricting, adding to the sense of cloying claustrophobia.
She couldn’t breathe. She had to get away. From him. From them. Now.
The thought gave her just enough strength to move. Ignoring Robbie’s distressed call, she made for the glass doors, struggling to open them and escape. Khushi tried gasping for air, but no matter how much entered her lungs, she felt unable breathe.
Frantic eyes scanned the streets for a taxi, but she could barely see past the film of wetness burning for release.
Robbie was about to chase after Khushi when she saw an angry Arnav striding towards them.
“What did you do to her?” she demanded.
“What are you talking about?”
“Khushi! She just ran out of here as if hell hounds were chasing her. What the fuck did you do to her, Raizada?!”
A frown marred Arnav’s forehead. He though he had heard the door open on the terrace- had it been Khushi? Granted it wasn’t a scene he wanted her to walk in on, but why would she run?
It didn’t matter, he had to get to her and deal with the rest later. He exchanged a glance with NK, who gave him a brief nod. Without another word, he rushed out the doors.
“What the hell is going on,” Aman demanded as he joined the group in the hall. His eyes narrowed on the man being held hostage by NK and a smirking Payal next to his grandmother. Before he could open his mouth, he caught sight of teary Lavanya heading towards them. Fucking hell.
Devyani’s gaze swept over the scene, her wise eyes cataloging the individual expressions of those before her. There were too many pieces to the puzzle and much of it unknown. Regardless of the truth, she knew the situation had to be handled with care.
She held up a hand as Aman reached her. “Not now, Aman. See to our guests, we will speak after. NK, please request the hotel staff to prepare a conference room for us at nine sharp. I want all of you to be there,” she turned to her right, “you too, Payal.”
She paused just long enough to receive their confirmation before reentering the ballroom.
Weariness weighted heavily in her bones at the thought of what was to come, but she didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the matter.
Right now she needed to be Devyani Raizada, the Chairwoman of AR with a ballroom full of guests with a voracious appetite for gossip. She will not feed it to them.
Shit! Shit! Shit! She couldn’t face him right now. Where were the damn taxis?
“Khushi!” Arnav came up behind her, turning her stiff body into his arms, “Why are you leaving?”
“Let go of me,” she whispered.
“Tell me what’s going on,” he insisted.
She wrenched her arms from his hold, making a frustrated sound when he pulled her back to him.
“Give me your eyes,” Arnav demanded.
“I said, let go! You’re hurting me,” she cried out.
Her eyes lifted to his and their gaze locked. The grief in them disturbed him. What the hell happened?
“Khushi, did someone say something to hurt you? Tell me and I’ll take care of it.”
As the words left him, it suddenly it clicked. In his rush, he hadn’t given much thought to the man standing beside NK and Robbie.
“Is it Matthews? Was he the man with Robbie and NK?” Arnav’s hand cupped her jaw as his face dipped close, “Oh baby, I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you ran into him.”
Khushi’s heart clenched. The gentleness of his voice made the hurt worse. She could feel the strength of his arms surrounding her, but heat from his body seem to mock her. She couldn’t handle being this close to him. Not now.
“I’ll tell you, but let me go, and step back.”
His hands flexed on her arms, a knee-jerk reaction. Arnav nodded before slowly releasing her.
Khushi quickly moved back, adding to the space between them. Her nails scored her palms, but she didn’t notice.
“We’re done Arnav.” She told him, surprising herself when the words came out steady and flat.
“Because of him?” Arnav demanded in sharp fury.
“No, because tonight I realized we are completely wrong for each other.”
“Do you still love him?”
“No! This has nothing to do with him. It’s you!” She choked.
“What the hell did I do? What the fuck happened?”
“I’m Lavanaya,” she repeated. “The unfortunate result of a man’s affair with a characterless woman, isn’t that what you said? An illegitimate daughter of a married man. That’s me, Arnav.”
Arnav reared back in shock as she repeated his words to Lavanya. They held a fierce bite coming from her devastated voice.
“My mother was my father’s mistress,” she fired at him, driving the point home as she watched his face closed down. No other reaction. That stung. They stared at each other, a few feet between them, but it could’ve easily been miles.
Say something she pleaded with him silently. Please, say something.
But Arnav only stared at her with a curiously blank expression. She’d gambled everything—and lost, but she hadn’t known the odds stacked against her, had she? Then Khushi did what life had taught her to do. She straightened her spine and pulled herself together.
With one last look at Arnav, she turned and walked away.
This time, he let her go.
So… watcha think?
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