Pyre sweetheart – this one’s for you! Kya!
[ Love seeing so many new passengers aboard FWN, don’t be shy guys! We don’t bite 😀 – S]
Fifth Ave, New York
He woke reaching for her. In the weakened state between sleep and consciousness his body went seeking her warmth, only to be sharply reminded of her absence when he encountered nothing.
Arnav bolted upright in bed, jaw clenched from the effort not to yell out his frustration. Cursing silently, he kicked at the tangled sheets, raking a hand through disheveled hair as he turned towards the balcony.
New York City. She was dozing, resting up for the day scant hours away, but her energy still pulsed. In the predawn, tall sleek buildings loomed like overlarge shadows over the streets. Anything could be bought, sold, or traded within those shadows; a price point to every facet of lust. She understood this and wasn’t coy about it.
The city offered the chance for victorious triumph alongside the possibility of miserable failure and every shade in between. Here was the place that gave you exactly what you wanted out of it. However, the price demanded in exchange was often too high for most men.
For the first time, he felt the crushing weight of that price. Shoulders rigid, he starred out, exploring the unfamiliar feelings of emptiness. He was a man who lived in his mind, a businessman who shunned messy entanglements in favor of cool logic.
So why the hell did he feel so damn empty?
Because she was gone and he wanted to hold her.
They said it took twenty one days to form a habit. How the hell had he formed an addiction in only half of that time?
He closed his eyes at the onslaught of those words. Two words. With just two words she had upended his world. Damn her. Grim-faced, his honed features starkly etched, Arnav turned away.
Shower. Shave. Suit. Shot of caffeine. The rituals that defined his mornings.
Why did they make him feel so damn empty?
Because she was gone and it was only now that he realized how much he had altered his routine for her.
Walking out the door, he deliberately ignored the file sitting in quiet accusation on the coffee table. It remained unopened since NK had tossed it there four days earlier.
He hesitated at the threshold, turning back for a second glance. Arnav felt something trying to break through, to pierce the numbness that had settled over him, but he shoved it down before slamming the door behind him.
Sunrise was a mere slash of insipid red above the city’s skyline as he entered his office. Work. The one constant in his life he could always depend on.
She had left him. So what? Arnav told himself angrily. The stone in his chest, the way his hands clenched for an unknown fight and his belly coiled with tension, had nothing to do with her. He had a damn company to run. An upcoming fashion show he had been neglecting. Yes. That had to be it. He was worried about the fashion show. Nothing to do with her. Or the way her anguished green eyes had …
He glared at his desk with antagonistic frustration. Dammit it, what was the point of lying to himself. He had no desire for work. He had desire only for one thing and he was afraid that he had just let that one thing slip out of his grasp.
Why was he so empty?
Because she was gone.
And he missed her.
4 days earlier
The Peninsula, New York
Arnav stood rooted in place as Khushi walked away from him. Her words beating like a mantra in his head, coursing through his veins before they settled like a stone in his gut. A fist of panic clutched at his insides as the distance between them widen, but he was incapable of moving as he focused on brutally shoving down the memories that threatened to rise and choke him.
He felt the stab of an intense stare drill between his shoulder blades as a female voice cried from behind him, “Khushi!”
In seconds, Robbie stood before him, fury emancipating from every pore.
“How could you?!” Robbie demanded. “How could you let her go?”
For a split second she thought she saw raw pain flash across Arnav’s face but it was gone so fast she had to have imagined it.
His eyes were chips of ice as he turned to her. “Did you know?”
She gave him a disbelieving look edged with outrage.“You’re unbelievable you know that? Who the hell do you think you are to stand there and judge the rest of us? This is strike two, Raizada!”
Robbie fingers curled into tight balls at her sides as Arnav stood starring at her coldly. She wanted nothing more than to sock sense into the man before her, but Khushi topped her current list of priorities.
Instead she made do with a scathing glare, spinning on her heels to stalk down the sidewalk.
She had barely taken five steps before her upper arm was seized by NK.
She tensed, filled with the urge to lash out. “Let me go.”
“Robbie, calm down.”
“When will men learn that telling a pissed off woman to calm down is like throwing gunpowder over fire?!” she snapped.*
“Fine, then let me take you,”
“I think your boss needs you more than I do.”
NK’s grip was firm as he turned her towards him. His mouth compressed.
“Robbie, you’re not Khushi and I’m not Arnav. Don’t make the mistake I did. We protect who we need to, but you separate it from what’s between us. Get me?”
At her glare, he only pulled her closer, “Tell me you get me, Robbie.”
Robbie sighed, recognizing the wisdom and truth in his words. “I got you, but now I need to be there for Khushi. Go do some head knocking, okay?”
Satisfied, he gave her a reassuring squeeze before letting go.
“Call me, tonight.”
“I’m sorry I ruined your night.”
She stood shivering as he hailed a taxi, rubbing her fingers up and down bare arms, eyes downcast, her entire body a study in defeat.
Aman looked at her. For the first time he allowed himself to study the young woman who shared his blood, but one he knew so little of. The weight of guilt was heavy as it settled on his shoulders.
“It’s not your fault, Lavanya. In fact, you should have been invited.”
Her head jerked up.
“Oh no, I would never expect… I’m… used to it,” she quickly reassured him.
Aman stiffened, his protective instinct surging as he watch her stumble through the words while quickly trampling down that brief flare of hope in her eyes. What the hell have they done to this girl?
Treated her like a dirty secret and ignored her existence for the last twenty years. Right.
He knew Arnav had his reasons, but when will they stop paying for the misdeeds of the past? This girl had grown up devoid of family and dignity; right now he felt only shame for standing by and doing absolutely nothing for so long.
She deserved more care than that. They all deserved more. Certainty settled into his bones. It was time big brother was made to listen to some hard truths.
“This family is capable of handling anything except for what happened in Lucknow, but Arnav isn’t heartless. He just needs to make that realization.”
Lavanya looked at Aman in genuine surprise. This was the first time they exchanged more than a nod across a room. She didn’t know how to react to the gentleness and was afraid to believe what his words hinted at.
“I don’t want to cause trouble, Aman,” His name felt foreign on her lips, but it brought certain warmth. She had been cold for so long. “I just-” Her words were interrupted as a cab pulled up to the curb.
“I know,” he gave her a strained smile, “I’ll be touch, Lavanya. Goodnight.”
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
There was a lump in her throat that threatened to block air to her lungs. Khushi swallowed convulsively as she looked around in surprise. She was back at the old apartment, with no clear memory of getting there. She had simply walked and walked, the chill in her body made her immune to the freezing winds.
The shrill of the landline made her recoil in shock. The high pitch keening assaulted her ears as her knees stiffened before they gave way beneath her. Curling into a tight little ball, she tried forcibly to block thoughts of Arnav from her mind.
In the dark, she searched desperately within herself for the stirring of anger. Why couldn’t she be angry? Anger would lend her strength, strength she needed at the moment. The anger didn’t come, but hurt did. In waves.
She would have screamed if she’d been able to draw enough breath, but all she could do was huddle helplessly on the floor. In that moment when it became nearly unbearable, she felt a pair of arms close around her.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry,” Robbie whispered.
“Just hold me, Robbie, please? No questions just let me cry.”
“Shit! Shit!” Robbie cursed even as she gathered Khushi closer. “I’ve got you. Let it out, Khushi. I’m not going anywhere, okay? Cry it out, sweetheart.”
At those words, Khushi lost the last shred of control over her emotions. She clung to Robbie’s shoulders as her body wracked with sobs.
She cried until her throat was raw and burning, until her eyes became swollen from the strain. It was then that his words cruelly went on replay, battering away at her heart. But she had nothing left to give. Her tears had dried out, leaving only an aching hollow. Khushi closed her eyes to drown it all out and finally exhaustion reached its pinnacle, giving her the oblivion of sleep.
The Peninsula, New York
He made eye contact with the bartender, tersely ordering a drink.
The guests were long gone, leaving behind enough of a mess that it required a full two dozen hotel staffers going rounds with oversized plastic bags and sweepers. His lips curled, only the best for a Jha, no matter the expense.
“What was your intent in bringing her tonight?” Anjali asked quietly as she approached the bar.
“I didn’t know, alright? No one thought to fucking share that the Supermodel was an illegitimate sibling of the saintly Raizada brothers,” Shyam replied curtly.
“Why? Why do you do things like this?”
“Not everyone can live up to the image of perfection, Anjali,” he sneered.
“Why can’t you be honest, Shyam?”
He looked at her disbelievingly. “You’re kidding right? You think our father, Mohit fucking Jha, would accept it?”
“It’s not about him accepting, Shyam. It’s you who needs to stop rejecting yourself!”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about. And I sure as fuck don’t need life lessons from my little sister. Focus on your little wedding and leave me be.”
He slid a hand inside his jacket, producing a slim, leather-covered box. As he flipped the lid back, she caught the flash of rubies and diamonds. With a careless flick, he tossed the necklace at her. “Saw this at Tiffany’s, a fitting engagement gift for the Jha Princess don’t you agree?”
“Shyam, there isn’t any shame in ..” she continued, but she was only talking to his rigid back.
Anjali hands’ clenched around the cold strand of precious stones, her lips pressed together as hurt crawled into her chest. There was a time when they had been so close, when there had been shared secrets and lighthearted teasing.
Now her beloved older brother was a hostile stranger, a shuttered face across the dinner table with the jarring voice whenever he addressed her. She wanted desperately to break down the wall he’d fortified himself with, but how?
Fifth Ave, New York
NK stalked into the living room ahead of Arnav, heading straight to the bar. With economy of movements, he plunked down a row of glass tumblers as if they were cheap plastic instead of fine crystal.
Running a hand through Arnav’s liquor inventory he deliberately pulled out the bottle of Elit by Stolichnaya. Carelessly, he poured the prized vodka across the tumblers. Slamming down the half empty bottle he threw Arnav a look of challenge.
“This is what you need right?”
“Don’t start, NK”
NK’s expression hardened as he held Arnav’s stare. “When will you realize that people can’t read what’s on your mind when you spew shit you don’t mean?”
“Back the fuck off!” Arnav demanded, running an agitated hand through his hair.
“You know what? I’m sick of cleaning up after your mess,”NK rapped out as he tossed a thick file onto the table between them. “That is Khushi’s file. You can man up, read it, then go fix what you broke, or you can drown in these tumblers and let her get away. And let me tell you right now, you let her go – a woman like her? Some fucker with more brains will come along and move right in. Then all you’ll be left with are regrets and empty sex.”
“Are you done?” Arnav snarled.
With unexpected speed NK maneuvered around the furniture, just as he reached Arnav, his arm pulled back, delivering a clean clip to the jaw.
“What the hell, NK!” Arnav shouted as he staggered under the force of the punch.
“A man I hold much admiration for once told me that truth doesn’t establish people, in fact, people establish the truth. What’s your truth, Arnav?”
“I’m trying to help!”
“And I’m telling my employee to leave my property.” Arnav responded quietly in his coldest tone.
“Fucking unbelievable. You think you’re the only who’s suffered? Grow some balls, you dick. We all have baggage, but not everyone carries them around like weapons. And you know what? Consider the punch my resignation letter.”
Arnav blanched as the door slammed behind NK, the sting of remorse moving through him. Swearing he dragged himself off the floor and made his way to the bar.
Reaching for the first shot, he threw it back in one gulp, wincing as the liquid turned to fire down his throat.
Khushi. Lavanya. Khushi. Lavanya. Their names echoed in his head until they melted into a single beat.
In rapid succession he downed the row of vodka, waiting for the the alcohol to make it to his brain. Nothing. It was going to take a lot more tonight. To stop all these damn feelings.
Turning back to the bar he didn’t bother with the glasses this time, taking the entire bottle as he headed towards the sectional. In the dark he drank. Until he was able to bank all thoughts of her, of them. Until the walls that kept the rest of the world at bay slid firmly back into place.
NK: “Still awake?”
Robbie: “Been waiting for you.”
NK: “Nice to know I can still keep a beautiful woman up.”
Robbie: “How did things go with the boss?”
NK: “Let’s just say, the boss part is now past tense.”
Robbie: “What?! The asshole fired you?”
NK: “Clearly, we need to work on your impression of my abilities. I quit, doll. A resignation letter delivered through a knuckle punch. How’s that for professionalism?”
Robbie: “You actually punched him?”
NK: “Clipped him in the jaw.”
Robbie: “You just topped my list of heroes tonight.”
NK: “Yeah? Does it come with a reward?”
NK: “Always. How’s Khushi?”
Robbie: “Asleep… she’s hurting NK.”
NK: “You okay?”
Robbie: “Other than severely high blood pressure and having to fight the urge to commit acts of violence, I’m fine.”
NK: “I meant your hand. That punch made contact with bones.”
Robbie: “Oh please, he had a weak jaw. Are your knuckles carrying manly bruises?”
NK: “Fucker has a steel jaw. I prefer kisses to bandages.”
Robbie: “I’ll keep that in mind.”
NK: “You in bed?”
Robbie: “It’s strange, but I always end up horizontal when I’m talking to you.”
NK: “Shouldn’t have told me that, Robbie-girl.”
Robbie: “I like that.”
Robbie: “Robbie-girl. Somehow it reminds me of the girl from Indiana. I miss her sometimes.”
Robbie quickly pushed the accept button as NK’s name flashed on her screen.
“You’re strange, you know that?”
“Says the man who just punched his boss in face on behalf of the sisterhood,” Robbie retorted.
“Only half the reason, the other fifty was on behalf of the male race.”
She hesitated, “How is Arnav?”
“Is that concern for the enemy?”
“He let her walk away tonight. That kills, NK. And while I wouldn’t hesitate to give him a case of blue balls, I think he’s hurting too,” Robbie’s voice trailed off.
“What are you going to do when we hang up?” NK asked, needing to change the direction of their conversation.
“Try to sleep I guess. Tomorrow promise to be one hell of a day. You?”
“I plan to fall fast asleep so I can dream of a beautiful blond with her flyaway curls and wisps of lace.”
“Mmmm… I think she’ll approve of that dream,” she replied with sultry sweetness.
NK felt himself stir in response. “I hope you’re this brave the next time I get you alone. Got a thing for fighters?”
“No, I think I’ve developed a thing for NK. Just NK.”
“Fuck me, I need to wind down not get riled up woman!”
His heated accusation brought her the first smile of the night, “Stop flirting then!”
“Needed to get my mind off things, you make an ideal distraction, Robbie Sinclair.”
“You’re worried about him aren’t you,” she stated quietly.
NK emitted a long sigh. “The stubborn ass is probably drinking himself to death.”
“What are we going to do with these two, NK?”
He took a fueling breath, steeling himself, “I don’t know the answer to that, Robbie. Just stay close, yeah?”
“I’m here. Go get some sleep.”
“Don’t hang up, tonight.”
“I’ll be on the other end of the line. Good night, Handsome.”
“Sweet dreams, Doll.”
3 days earlier
The Peninsula, New York
Payal headed towards the conference room with smug glee pulsating under her skin. Even Trent’s adamant refusal to come didn’t bother her today. At the threshold she halted, her eyes sweeping over the empty chairs. At the head of the oval table, Devyani Raizada sat with hands folded, a steaming cup of tea on her right.
Reining back her annoyance, Payal forced her lips to curve in greeting. “Good morning, Mrs. Raizada, where’s everyone?”
“Shut the door and take a seat, Payal” Devyani responded mildly.
Payal moved nonchalantly to the chair at the other end of the table, “I’m sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news last night.”
“Are you? It was delivered with such relish I thought you were rather enjoying yourself.”
Payal schooled her features as she studied the composed woman; there was enough bite in the words to send her mind racing. “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“Do you know why the stock in your father’s company continues to decline?” Devyani questioned as she lifted the porcelain cup to her lips, her dark eyes clashing with Payal’s narrowed browns above the rim.
“I didn’t know we are here to speak business.”
“Indulge an old lady.”
“The Board believes, and I agree, that customers are fickle, there’s no sense of loyalty to be had anymore.”
“That is a misguided assumption. Stocks plummet when the CEO squander opportunities. Since you dropped your announcement you had over twelve hours to convince me. Yet, you left last night secured in your claims, whereas my grandson spent the time discrediting you from every possible angle, thus rendering the conjectures ineffectual.”
Payal’s mouth tightened, “Obviously you’ve made up your mind before this meeting. What is this then- a life lesson?”
“No, it’s my respect for an old friend. However, I want to make it clear that this will be the last time you receive such consideration from this family out of regards to your father. Besides, I’m well aware that a question has burned in you for a long time. I felt it was time to clear the air.”
“And what question is that?”
“You must have wondered why I never agreed to a marriage between you and my grandsons. It was the one thing I had to refuse your father. Do you know why?”
“Oh, do enlighten me, Devyani.”
The blatant disrespect needled no response in the older woman as she continued serenely, “Because to you, Payal, either Arnav or Aman would do. They were interchangeable. “
“Do you honestly think Anjali would be with Aman if he wasn’t a Raizada? Or that a girl like Khushi actually wants Arnav for himself? He’s her golden ticket.”
“I’ve lived a long life, child. While age alone does not lend wisdom, it does assist one in shifting through truths and lies. I’m inclined to believe Aman’s version of past events. It does evoke disgust, but not directed at Khushi.”
“You are inviting a snake into your home.”
Nani laughed even as she expression became steely. “That girl wouldn’t know what to do with venom in hand. But you do, don’t you Payal?”
Payal shoved the chair back, “I’m disappointed. My father would turn over in his grave if he knew how you treated me today. You’re choosing to protect a woman who took my happiness. Do not blame me for what happens next.”
“Your father would be ashamed if he was sitting in my position at the moment. His wealth may cushion you, but heed this. While I’m alive, no one hurts my family.”
“You’re an old woman clinging onto the belief that she’s actually in control. Chairwoman of AR’s Board of Directors is a mere title, I’ve wasted my time,” Payal hissed.
Devyani shook her head as she took in the bitter mien of the young woman, “Payal, if nothing else, reflect on this. Holding such resentment close to your heart will only eat you from inside. Hatred isn’t a weapon that you can casually use to attack those you perceive as a threat. It’s a curved blade, and any harm you do, you do it to yourself.”*
Payal’s insolent laughter echoed in the conference room as she yanked open the doors and stormed out.
Devyani exhaled deeply as she took another sip from the tea cup. The herb was especially bitter when cold.
Gramercy Tavern, New York
“What’s the damage?” Aman asked as he met NK on the sidewalk.
NK shoved his hands into his pockets, “I quit.”
Aman snorted at the brusque answer, “NK, there’s not a quitting bone in that giant frame. Besides, this makes it what? The seventeenth time in the last six years?”
“No joke mate, I’m done.”
“He pulled rank didn’t he? Look, it’s not like you don’t know Arnav spews shit when he’s feeling cornered. You taking the girls’ side probably didn’t sit well.”
They walked into the bustling establishment, receiving a warm greeting from the maitre d’ before being led through the arches and straight to Gramercy’s private dining room.
“It’s a magnum night, bring us the Cabernet Franc, Quintarelli, Alzéro to start, sweetheart.” Aman requested with a charming smile for their waitress.
“Excellent choice, Mr. Raizada. Will you also be dining with us tonight?”
“Yes, tell Michael to send out his special, but no need to stop in. Looks like you guys have a full house.”
Aman waited until the staff left to fulfill their orders before turning back to NK.
“Look, take a few days to cool off. I’ll even throw in a raise when you come back.”
“Do I look like a man who can be bought with cheap money?” NK snapped.
“No. You’re a man who comes with a fucking premium price tag, but we’re too lazy to find a replacement.”
“Asshole,” NK retorted, but a grin eased over his stern features.
“Never denied that one,” Aman laughed, “I’ll even cover dinner.”
“Payal, taken care of?”
“The Dragon Lady did us proud this morning, but I’m going to need to you to put some eyes on that one.”
NK nodded, “Woman has more than some crazy in her. I’ll get a pair on her and Matthews.”
“Speaking of, saw him nurse the jaw last night. That you?”
“Can’t take credit for that. Robbie took care of the little prick on her own.”
“Hell, now there’s a fine woman,” Aman responded with genuine appreciation.
“I’ll drink to that,” NK agreed as the wait staff brought in their magnum and an array of house signature appetizers. “What did you tell our Lady Dragon?”
At NK’s skeptical glance, Aman grinned. “No really, complete disclosure. You know she sees straight through the bullshit. We get through this, Nani will demand it anyways, so why hinder the process of acceptance?”
“You’re awfully sure Khushi will want anything to do with Arnav after this disastrous episode.”
“She’s in as deep as he is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter.”
“Why not just give up your day job to play Cupid?”
“Screw the Roman pansy, I’m the Greek Eros. And I recall taking on a consenting partner five months ago.”
“Who also told you we should have looked into the skeletons instead of going in blind.”
“NK, have you ever seen Arnav behave with a woman the way he does with Khushi? Hell, I feel like running down the street belting out Hallelujahs. Besides we knew it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing.”
At NK’s arched brow, Aman continued earnestly, “Think of it like a glass of water. Clear and pristine, but bland as fuck. Squeeze in some lemons, things get murky, but once you combine it with the right amount of sugar, it makes for one hell of a satisfying drink.”
“Did you just give me the lemonade metaphor?”
Aman shrugged, “It’s a classic for a reason.”
“Save yourself the embarrassment next time and don’t create your own convoluted version, yeah?”
“Dick,” Aman retorted, affectionately.
NK exhaled, “What now?”
Aman turned serious, “It’s not just Khushi anymore. Lavanya is part of this, too.”
“Feeling daring are we?”
“She’s blood, NK. Half, whole, what difference does that make? All I know is that the way she wore her defeat last night made me feel about two inches tall.”
“So what’s running around that Princeton brain?”
“I figured we’ll need to let him stew for a few days. He’ll fight it, but I give him a week tops before he goes crawling.”
“Good thing we have your experience with Anjali to call upon. Made my top ten favorite days to see Aman Raizada on his knees for a woman, although I’m betting the Arnav version will be equally memorable.”
“Your day is around the corner, jerk,” Aman muttered darkly, “And I’ve already claimed ringside seating.”
“Arnav,” NK prompted.
“Nani wants the first go. Khushi being Shashi’s daughter and the woman she turned out to be? I don’t think we’ll need heavier artillery. After that, it’ll be up to Khushi. Luckily there’s no challenge a woman loves more than unfucking a man.”
“Jesus, don’t let Robbie hear you.”
“You know that name is dangerously close to having a permanent place in your lexicon.”
“Got a problem?”
Aman grinned as he leaned back into the chair, “Nope, fucking thrilled for you.”
“Most days, you’re my favorite Raziada.”
“Hell, you’re going to order dessert aren’t you?”
2 days earlier
It was time, past time, he told himself.
Nerves roiled in his gut as he punched in her number.
“Khushi? Please don’t hang up, it’s Trent.”
Four Seasons, New York
Payal eased into the hotel’s plush lounge chair, carefully examining the glass of merlot in her hand.
Dark red. Like blood. Every fucking thing went back to that.
She could still feel the burn of humiliation from her encounter with Devyani Raizada. The ungrateful bitch.
Her fingers clenched until the delicate glass shattered, a large fractured piece slicing into her palm.
She watched in fascination as fresh red dripped over the broken shards.
Laughter bubbled in her throat at the sight.
She’ll remind them of their place. Every last fucking one.
AR Corps, New York
“The view doesn’t change when you’re looking from the same place,” Devyani stated as she walked into Arnav’s office. She’d been there long enough to read the lines of tension on her grandson’s shuttered face. It spoke volumes that someone as conscious of his surrounding as Arnav hadn’t even realized he was being observed.
“Nani,” Arnav greeted as he turned from the window.
“I took the liberty of telling your secretary to clear your calendar this morning.”
“Is there something you need?”
“Yes, I would like to have a meeting with my grandson.”
“Aman talked didn’t he?” Arnav demanded on a grimace.
“He’s concerned about you, as any younger brother would be.”
She sniffed disdainfully at the air, “Is that why you’re standing there looking mean and miserable while reeking of alcohol?”
When she received no response, she headed towards the door, “Come.”
“Somewhere that will provide you with a new perspective.”
Arnav raised a brow when they drove up to the pencil-slim silhouette of the 103-story limestone building. “Are you serious?”
“I went through a lot of trouble to clear the building for the next hour, so don’t think you have a choice. By the way, they are expecting a hefty donation at the upcoming fundraiser for the remodel.”
“Of course,” Arnav muttered as they walked through the main lobby. His eyes skimmed over the Art Deco inspired glass panels, lingering for a moment on the 24-karat gold and aluminum leaf mural that paid homage to the machine age.
The two elevator rides up through 86 floors were marked with silence. Less than a minute later, they stepped into the city’s highest open-air observatory. No matter what heights a man reached, the 360-degree view of New York from the Empire State Building was of unparalleled magnificence.
Nani tapped a curved fingernail against the railing. A wistful look entered her eyes as she took in the snow blanketed outlines of Central Park.
“Why are we here, Nani?” Arnav asked at length.
“I think that was my line the last time you dragged me here. Incredible how fast the years just slip on by…. Do you remember what you told me that day, Arnav?”
A wry smile twisted Arnav’s lips as the memory came to him, “Yes. I told you to get use to the view. Arrogant wasn’t it?”
“Absolutely, but I believed you. Only seventeen, but already a man in every way. I’m proud of you, Arnav, so proud to call you my own. But somewhere between that visit and now, I think you’ve lost your way a bit,” she paused, “Lavanya.”
Arnav stiffened. “We’re not talking about her.”
“We are,” she countered sternly.
She took Arnav’s hand into her own, understanding the flare of surprise in his eyes. This was something they had silently agreed to never bring up.
Because of her own selfishness, Devyani acknowledged. Because speaking of it would bring up deeply painful memories. So she had buried it, and in doing so, made terrible mistakes. It will sting to try and fix them, but it was only just.
“Fourteen years ago at this very spot you gave an old woman new dreams, Arnav. Something solid to cling on to, but it came at the cost of your youth.”
“Nani-” Arnav interrupted.
“Oh hush and let me finish. I’ve been a selfish woman, Arnav. Losing your grandfather then your mother … my world collapsed. Suddenly, at forty seven I was solely responsible for raising two young boys. And I was scared out of my mind. So terrified I had to lock up everything that happened in Lucknow to find the courage to move on. At first because it hurt too much and then it just became a habit. But now I see what I did robbed you and Aman of the truth,” she continued in an unsteady voice.
“It was an arranged marriage between your parents.” Devyani braced as Arnav turned to look at her in surprise. “She always wanted you to believe it was a love match, but in truth the Raizadas and Mallicks were neighbors for decades, we never considered another option. They tried to be happy, but when two different people are forced to share a life, it’s not easy. Your mother came to me within a year of marriage wanting a divorce, but in my day it was unheard of. So I told her a child would solve the problem,” she paused then to let go of his hands.
“Your arrival brought much joy into our lives, Arnav. Never doubt that. And for a time, things steadied between your parents. Aman’s birth kept up the appearance for several more years. Yet happiness eluded your mother and eventually your father turned to other women. I blamed him for her death, and he deserved it, but he wasn’t the only one responsible.”
As he absorbed her words, a myriad of questions sprang to Arnav’s mind. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“The two things your mother cherished from her marriage were her boys. Seeing you like this would break her heart. Children shouldn’t bear the consequences of their parent’s actions. I’m sorry, deeply sorry for every time I carelessly used the Mallick name against you. I made you deny a part of yourself because I couldn’t acknowledge the role I played in pushing my own daughter to seek escape from life. You are undeniably a Mallick, Arnav, but every inch is also stamped with Raizada.”
They stood in silence, unaware of the biting briskness of the wind.
“Can you forgive me, Arnav? For keeping this from you?” Devyani’s voice broke as he turned away. Her sin, Devyani recognized, was one of cowardice. If the penance was her grandson’s rejection, it was deserved.
Arnav starred out at the skyline as he sucked in a breath. This changed so much, but he needed time to process. However, he recognized one truth. The woman who was humbling herself before him was hurting deeply. When had he turned so blind?
She startled as he twirled back to her, taking her shaking hands in his. “Nani, how can you even ask that? Everything I am today, you had a hand in shaping. I’m sorry you had to carry the burden alone for so long.”
Tears spilled over unchecked as she starred up at him. The crushing weight of her secrets was given momentary respite. She should have had more faith in her boys.
“These words have been in my heart for so long, Arnav. I just didn’t have the courage to allow them an outlet. However, last Saturday, I was given hope as one grandson slipped a pair of kangans onto the woman he loved and the other brought me his heart.”
Arnav flinched at the reminder of Khushi.
“Am I wrong?”
He could have denied it. It was on the tip of his tongue to do so, when he realized it would be a lie. There had already been too many, so he countered, “How do you know for sure?”
She found her smile through the tears at his wistful uncertainty. “Your first waking thought upon daybreak, is it of her? The final image you hold in your heart before sleep claims you, is it of her? That’s how you know, Arnav. It’s rarer than most would have you believe. But when you find it and if you have the courage to withstand the trials that keeps you from being together, you will not taste anything sweeter than the fruit of that love.”
“She’s Shashi Gupta’s daughter,” he stated quietly.
“Yes. We live in very connected world, hmm? Make peace with the past, Arnav. We have so little family left, we can’t afford to lose another member. I lost something I’d thought I would have forever. It hurt something terrible to lose your grandfather, but you know what would have been worst? To not even have the memories of those golden years together. There is no hell on earth worst then regret.”
“What if it’s too late?”
“What do you want from her?”
Just the thought of her made him weak and senseless and stupid. It terrified him, but to not have her? It would be far worst, Arnav acknowledged.
“Everything,” he answered truthfully, “I want everything.”
Humor came into her eyes, “Then let me remind you. You’re Arnav Singh Raizada. When have you ever allowed anything to stand in the way of what you want?”
Fifth Ave, New York
Twenty years was a long time. It was a long time for resentment to fester. It was a long time for walls to be fortified with righteous anger.
Robbed of the certainty he’d clung onto for two decades, Arnav’s mind scrambled to make sense of Nani’s revelations. In some ways it changed nothing and he almost wished the truth had not passed into his hearing. But life didn’t work that way. Each new piece of the puzzle had a place, revising the picture it presented to the world.
Arnav was conflicted as he reached for the dense file on his coffee table.
He respected Shashi Gupta. Had often deferred to the guidance of the man he looked to as a father figure. How to reconcile that image with the reality of a husband who dishonored his vows and a father who abandoned his child? He felt cheated to discover that the man he held in such esteem had feet of clay.
Laramie. He had assumed she had been Shashi’s first love. A girl he lost long before marriage. Unwittingly he had dedicated the first collection of his career to a woman who embodied everything he reviled, the same woman who gave birth to Khushi.
Khushi. As her name skated across his thoughts, Arnav’s hand tightened over the file. She had managed to slip past his guard to a place no one had reached. Not even his own family. Neither had it been an underhanded breach. She had demolished the high walls he kept rigid around his heart and she’d done it in broad daylight. A woman who had so very little, yet gave everything.
He wanted that woman, but the past came along with her. With that thought, Arnav flipped opened the file that would expose the life of Khushi Lacene Khumari.
As his brain processed what his eyes captured, the story revealed through the trail of legal documents began to hack at the ice in his chest. A seething anger crackled just beneath his skin as he starred at the blank space on her birth certificate above the line for father.
He hadn’t even given her his name. Khumari had been Shashi’s mother’s maiden name. He hadn’t given her his time. One Sunday afternoon a week had been all the time spared to her.
And when Laramie passed away during child labor, it had taken eight damn months before she was brought to live with him. Even then, she was kept like a dirty secret. He had been a regular guest in the Gupta’s household, and not once had she made an appearance, or even been mentioned.
Shashi’s will bequeathed the majority of his private fortune and five percent of his company stock to his wife. A year before his death, two separate trust funds, each containing twenty five percent of voting stocks in his company had been set up under the name of his daughter, Payal, and his niece, Khushi, to be accessible upon their twenty-first birthday. Equal shares, together they would give the women majority interest in Gupta & Co.
Yet, days after Khushi’s eighteenth birthday, the account was shut down and everything, including the stocks were transferred into Payal’s name.
His Khushi had been fucking homeless for a year. A horror unlike anything he’d ever experienced before slammed through him. It physically hurt to think of her being alone on the streets of New York.
Initially she had tried for office employment, yet every application was mysteriously turned down. After that she had taken jobs at cash paying diners and even several bars. A chill slid down his spine as he read the reports on the places she had worked, places where she would have been preyed upon.
Thank fuck she had met Robbie Sinclair.
Regret flickered into his awareness and then roared through his veins. He’d proved to be no better than the man he was cursing. Guilt, a taste he didn’t care for, quickly followed as his mind supplied the memory of two pairs of anguished eyes. Arnav forcibly shoved it aside, shifting again through the documents as a nagging compulsion consumed him. Something didn’t ring true.
He knew Shashi. Perhaps not as well as he’d thought, but Arnav refused to believe he had misjudged the man so completely. Whatever his reasons for turning to another woman, his loyalty was the first trait that sprang into the minds of acquaintances old and new. There had to be more.
It was then he noticed that a second file had been clipped into the back, labeled simply Shashi Gupta. Fucking NK, Arnav thought ruefully. The man anticipated what he needed before it even occurred to him. Amends had to be made there as well. Arnav rubbed his jaw, figuring he could handle an additional knock- or three.
The file contained annual divorce petitions starting from the date of Khushi’s birth. All of them had been rejected outright by Garima’s lawyer. However it was the final document that knocked the breath from his lungs.
Shantivan’s original deed. Shashi had drafted it in Laramie’s name.
The elusive something that had bothered him the day he brought her to see Nani finally clicked into place. The green tiles of Shantivan’s roof. Of course.They were a near replica of Khushi’s eyes. Her mother’s eyes.
Dread skated over his skin as he recalled a long dismissed conversation from the day he purchased Shantivan. It was four days before Shashi passed away.
“It’s a home meant for Happiness. Sorry… she never saw it. Only one man in this world I could entrust this to. I hope one day you’ll bring Happiness to Shantivan, Arnav. Promise… promise me you’ll try,” he wheezed.
Arnav felt gutted, filled with the sudden urge to go to her. To take Khushi in his arms and just hold her. His body tightened. Dropping the files back onto the tables, he stood up and began to pace the length of his living room. Standing by the window that offered up the unobstructed view of the Brooklyn Bridge, he forced himself to pause and give consideration.
She had suffered so much, would it be fair to bring her into his world? In the days he’d known her what had he given her other than his anger and arrogance?
Personal happiness had never concerned him. He’d been content to focus on building AR Corps, telling himself it was enough. But it wasn’t. Not now when he’d finally had a taste of more. Call him selfish but he couldn’t give her up. He may not be the best man for her, but he was willing to bet his last dollar that no man would ever want her more.
Khushi made her bed when she demanded all of him. The full impact of their promise pierced through him. He was willing to offer all of himself, if she still wanted him.
Arnav froze, momentarily paralyzed by the thought of very possible rejection. He was well aware that beyond his wealth he was no prize. What did he really have to offer a woman but a doubtful mind and a distrusting heart?
But Nani’s reminder rang in his ears. Right. He was Arnav Singh Raizada. He’d never failed to obtain what he wanted. Khushi wasn’t going to be the first. Galvanized, he stormed out of the building, heart banging against his ribs as his mind mapped out his next steps.
AR Corps, New York
Arnav strode down the hall, ignoring the shocked faces of AR employees as they halted midstride upon witnessing the dishevelment of their normally self-possessed boss. He didn’t give one fuck. He pushed into NK’s office door open without knocking.
NK looked up and upon catching sight of Arnav, his face moved into a scowl. “I don’t have anything to say to you. VP just approved of my temporary leave,” he bit out.
“Too bad, the CEO is vetoing it,” Arnav responded.
“I’m compelled to remind you that there’s a specific clause in my contract that-” NK started
“I fucked up,” Arnav interrupted bluntly. Surprise flashed in NK’s eyes as he sat back in his chair. That was as close to an apology any man can expect to get from Arnav.
“Go on,” NK returned tersely.
“You know what’s in those files. Jesus, fuck NK,” Arnav said plainly as he slumped on to the closet chair, rubbing a rough hand over his face.
NK tilted his head to one side taking in the strain bleeding through the man before him. It seems the Dragon Lady had broken through. Still. Giving Arnav a leveling stare, he challenged, “Yeah? And what are you going to do about it?
“I recall my PA’s advisement for rectifying a fuck up is learning to crawl.”
As fury receded, NK made a fascinating discovery. Unless he was hallucinating, Arnav fucking Raizada just found his heart. A closer look revealed something equally unexpected. There was no trace of arrogance on Arnav’s face, in fact there was a hint of never before seen vulnerability mixed in with the exhaustion. And, he reeked of liquor.
He almost felt sorry for the bastard.
Prepared to relent, NK opened his mouth just as he registered the brisk knock on his door. “Come in.”
Pam, his secretary, stuck her head in, “Sir, I have a Robbie Sinclair on the line. She said she tried your cell and that it’s urgent.”
Damn, he must have left it on silent. “Put her through, Pam.”
Arnav’s body locked as Robbie’s frantic voice came through the speakers.
“NK, Khushi’s gone!”
So… watcha think?
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*adapted from The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
*adapted from Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas