S & I would like to dedicate this Night to Raila – For stumbling upon our rabbit hole, making yourself at home, and a shared appreciation for feisty women and the men who loves them.
She was alone. Surrounded by currents of twilight blue. Not thunderous nor stormy, but purring and frolicking as it wrapped sensually around her body. A sea embrace.
She knew she was dreaming. That was the best part. If given the choice, she would have stayed there, forever. It would be so easy to keep her eyes closed and cling to the utter peace.
Something shifted. The waves offered a final caress before bowing to the wind. She felt herself gently ushered towards the shore. She fought the separation, wanting to stay and explore the water’s depths. But the choice wasn’t hers.
Lying on beads of pale gold, her salty tears seeped from their green prison to become one with the ocean.
She woke up under heavy blankets, eyes wide as she took in the unfamiliar room lighted by the faint rays of early morning. Turning to her sides, she rubbed a hand over the sheet. Finding them cool she wondered how long he’d been gone.
A sigh escaped her lips as she reached towards the single velvet bloom on the pillow that still held the indent of his head. Even as she brought the rose up to her nose, it was the lingering scent of spice and man that evoked the ache of longing in the pit of her stomach.
Tracing her finger lightly over blush red petals, her mind drifted over the past week. Her memory of the two night stay in the ER was blurred snippets of consciousness where Robbie and Anjali had played both guards and companions.
On the morning of her discharge, Khushi had been stunned to find herself in the company of Devyani Raizada. The doctor was confident in her release, but private care was highly recommended for a full recovery. Mrs. Raizada had insisted that recovery be made at Shantivan.
Ardent protests had fallen on deaf ears. After years without, Khushi was quickly reminded of the steely strength of maternal power. So she had given in, and within the hour a helicopter had flown them out of Bronx to land directly on the estate’s helipad. Settled into one of Shantivan’s lavish guest rooms- the suitcase she’d left at Arnav’s penthouse had mysteriously been delivered overnight- she had been pampered and indulged from head and toe. It was disconcerting, but she couldn’t deny the warmth that suffused her.
There was only one dark cloud hindering her recovery. Through it all, she never caught sight of Arnav.
She could recall the cemetery, the storm, and the cold. But the memory of being held in his arms was hazy at best. Had she dreamed it? Robbie had filled in much of the blanks, with emphasized details on Arnav’s reaction upon finding her. Yet, for reasons unknown, he had chosen to withhold his presence in her waking hours.
She knew he slipped into her bed every night. He hadn’t made a secret of it. She had woken each morning to see a new rose from his greenhouse on the pillow next to her, nestled within the dent that attested to his visit.
As she had done with the two sister roses, she ran the velvet across her cheek, knowing he intended the caress in lieu of his lips. Khushi’s expression turned thoughtful as she considered how to respond to his silence.
She had found the lack of words both soothing and smothering, recognizing the need for the mental break the last few days had accorded to them. However, who can guess where Arnav’s brain would take him during a prolonged period?
It was time to face each other.
She was furious as she pounded the door. No, she was beyond furious.
“NK Ryan, open the damn door!”
She knew he was home, their date was in less than half an hour. On a theory she tried the knob. It turned without protest. Unbelievable. This must be the only unlocked door in the state of New York. Did the man believe he was still in the Outbacks?
She peeked through the crack, where was he? Normally she would be horrified for even contemplating such an intrusion; however, her current grievance with him had just enough momentum to carry her pass the threshold uninvited.
The sound of running water explained his non-response. Robbie tapped her heels on the hardwood, debating her options. Just as she reached the bathroom, the door was pulled opened, releasing a cloud of steam. As it cleared, her eyes fell on wet male.
He wasn’t truly handsome, Robbie decided. His features were too bold for the term. He was miles away from model fit. Those well-honed muscles held tales of a disciplined boxer, one who without doubt practiced his art in some dingy all-male gym. NK had the aura of a man completely at ease in his own skin. A woman had the choice to take him as is, or not all at. It was that devil may care attitude that made him so mouthwatering.
It took all her willpower not to close the distance between them and lay her mouth on him. Just what kind of lover would NK be? The question had been constantly on her mind after each date. They had gone on two this week, each one ending in a mindless torrent of hot kisses that left her aching for that ultimate connection. Robbie licked her parched lips, feeling her heart pick up speed as his eyes zeroed in on the movement.
A smirk hovered on those full lips as he took her in. “What couldn’t wait, Doll?”
The knowingness of that smirk jerked her out of her thoughts. “Stop bragging and throw on a towel,” Robbie said on a toss of her head, “I have a bone to pick with you.” She cringed slightly at the poor choice of word when his smirk deepened into a full blown grin.
Because he wanted to see just how far he could push her, NK walked deliberately into the living room, giving her an unobstructed view of his body.
No virginal blush or outraged gasp, instead she gave him a long measuring survey, lingering with boldness at his proud display of manhood. NK had to force down the desire to laugh. This woman gave as good as she got, even better, she had no idea what a fucking turn on it was for him.
Everything about her turned him on, NK amended. From those golden curls to her heel encased feet. It was all too easy to imagine them crossed behind his back.
Knowing full well why she was in a rage, he turned towards the bath, nabbed a towel off the rack and casually wrapped it around his waist. Leaning against the door frame, NK aimed his entire focus on Robbie, “Well?”
Robbie waved her phone at him, “Are you responsible for this?”
“You going to clarify that or am I supposed to take shots in the dark?”
“I just got a message from my agent. Apparently Victoria’s Secret reached out for a personal audition,” her eyes narrowed, “Did you have anything to do with it?”
Having already decided that honesty was the best policy in dealing with Robbie, NK didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Robbie’s jaw dropped at his casual confirmation. Anticipating her anger, NK moved until his body was inches from hers. Just a taste he decided before swooping down, effectively sealing her indignation with his lips.
Robbie reeled. Each taste of this man lived up to every secret fantasy she’d ever indulged in. Hot, wild, demanding, his mouth slanted over hers, exploring the unique dips and curves with shameless enjoyment.
She was going to stop this in about ten seconds. She was, Robbie assured herself. But when NK demanded entry, she gave it to him. That sensuous slide of his tongue against hers ignited a fire only he could douse. This wasn’t a kiss, it was a full-out assault.
Resistance was as futile as holding on tight to a ledge miles above ground when you knew a fall was inevitable. But damn if she didn’t try. Her ten seconds were definitely up. Way past up. Mentally bracing, she yanked herself out of his arms, her chest moving rapidly in and out.
“Dammit NK! You’re out of your mind if you think you can kiss your way out of this!”
“You’re doing a fine job driving me out of my mind,” NK muttered. Sighing he eased back. “Before you fly into feminine outrage, hear me out. You’re beautiful Robbie, fucking gorgeous, but every block on this city is chock full of textbook pretty. Your current jobs are decent, but they’re not enough to take you much further. And we both know how short a model’s career is.”
“NK-” Robbie started, but he placed a finger over her lips.
“I reached out to a colleague, showed him your photo. Yes, it’s a favor, but that’s as far as it goes. The audition is going to be all Robbie. They’re in the business to make money, if they don’t think you can sell bras and swimsuits, you’ll be politely shown the door. I did it for you because I can. Fair or not, it is how the world works. Don’t let something as stupid as pride stop you from grabbing the chance. No one will think less of you for it.”
“I want to make it on my own, NK. To prove to everyone back home that they were wrong.”
“Why do they matter? You’re you that should be enough. I’ll be honest; I’m not exactly looking forward to seeing your ass displayed on one of the world’s most anticipated runways for every dick to jack off to. But it’s your body, dollface, you need to decide. Now, are you going in for the audition or do I make a call?”
Exhaling, Robbie tilted her head back to look at him, feeling her anger fade away. Why did he have to sound so reasonable? “I’ll audition, but you need to know your caveman tendencies aren’t always going to fly, Handsome.”
“Yeah, they are, because it turns you on.”
Clamping her lips shut because he was stating a truth she glared at him, causing NK to roar with laughter.
A reluctant smile formed on her lips. “NK?”
“We done with this scene?”
He reached out and pulled her to him, “Is steak on the menu for dinner?”
Robbie bit her lips. “No.”
NK slid his hand to the back of her head, leaning in until the sultry scent of her wrapped around him, “You on the menu?”
Robbie’s nerve endings sizzled as his hot words sent her straight into a lust-induced fog. Oh how she wanted this man. In a hungry, shameless, uninhibited way that should frighten her. But there was no fear, only need. She took a deep breath before giving him a jerky nod.
Robbie gasped as NK maneuvered her against the wall. He pulled open her coat, those long fingered hands making quick work of buttons and zippers. When her dress pooled to the ground, he eased back just enough to inspect what he’d unwrapped. He eyed the black laced lingerie and garter belt with approval.
“Am I just lucky or is this meant for me?”
Insufferable bastard, Robbie thought with affection. “I like prints and colors, but ever since an Aussie told me about his little fetish I’ve been wearing black lace…. just in case.”
NK grinned at the bite in her tone, even as the wicked scraps of black over milky skin held his attention. “I hope you’re prepared, Robbie-girl.”
“To be set on fire,” NK murmured before he crushed his lips over hers in a drugging kiss.
“NK… the bedroom,” she whispered urgently.
“It’s too far,” NK muttered, dragging his mouth down to the sweet curve of her neck.
“It’s a few feet behind you!”
“Too far,” NK repeated as he nibbled at her shoulders, giving her bra strap a playful tug with his teeth. “Don’t tell me you’re shy.”
“Well.. it’s umm… been a while.”
He considered her words for a moment before nodding to indicate he understood what she was trying to communicate. He reached for her hands, guiding it to the edge of the towel. Robbie’s hands clenched as her eyes flew up to meet his. Holding that eye contact, he silently urged her to loosen the knot.
“There’s only the two of us here and now” He pressed deeper into her, just enough for her to feel the unmistakable desire she’d aroused in him, “This is all you, Robbie, what do you want to do with it?”
Well, he couldn’t make it any plainer. Robbie looked past NK’s shoulder. The bedroom was far away. Her fingers glided across his abdomen, mapping the planes of his muscles. Refusing to meet his eyes, she whispered, “Here,” then promptly burrowed her face to his chest.
NK burst out laughing. He was a man with a healthy appetite for sex, but laughter had never been part of it. He found the experience strangely erotic.
He hitched her up against the wall so his mouth could close over a lace-covered breast. A moan came from the back of Robbie’s throat as her arms lifted to wrap around his neck. Clinging for balance. Or maybe just for sanity.
His hands slid up her spine, causing flames to lick at her skin along the way. He reached for the clasp, and with a quick practiced motion the bra dropped from her skin.
“Put your hands on me,” NK demanded.
“Anywhere. Everywhere,” he bit out before moving his hands lower. There he paused, “You have any sentimental attachment to this?”
In a daze, Robbie blinked at him. “What?”
“I don’t care, just don’t stop touching me,” she panted.
“Who’s stopping?” NK gave the wispy lace a satisfying tug. Before it hit the floor, he had his mouth back over hers.
“Fuck me, we need to take this to bedroom Robbie. Need protection.”
“Hurry, NK,” she chanted softly in his ears as she rocked against him, her soft hands soothing and tormenting his skin as she touched every inch she was able to reach. He yanked her up in his arms, walking the few agonizing feet until he was able to tumble them down into the bed. Between voracious kisses he tore at the foil package, allowing her to glide it down his length.
“Wait! Wait!” Robbie pushed a hand against NK’s hard chest.
“Are you fucking kidding me, Robbie?!”
“Name,” she demanded.
“Your name, Handsome. You get black lace, I get your full name, remember?”
“Seriously? You want to do this now?!”
“I don’t sleep with strangers.”
“Noah Katlyne,” he bit out.
“My mother insisted on naming me after her mother. Father tried to intervene. They tossed a coin, he lost.” he glared down as he felt her vibrate under him. “You let that laugh escape, there will be consequences.”
“What kind of consequences?”
“Wanting a punishment, Doll?”
“No, I just want you inside me, Noah Katlyne,” Robbie said simply as she lifted to place a kiss on his jaw, her honesty, raw and refreshing.
NK took a moment to study her, taking in the hair rioting in a golden halo across his sheets and the shining eyes holding an interesting swirl of laughter, desire and tenderness. She was exactly where he wanted. This was exactly what he wanted. Fueled by a need to give this woman whatever she desired, he lined their body.
Robbie cried out as he filled her. He was huge and hard, but she was held enthralled by the contrast of the burn in his eyes and the gentle rhythm he set so that her body could adjust to him.
As she scrambled frantically toward the first peak, he drove in completely, pressing hot kisses over her neck and shoulders. Light from the bay window slanted in, cutting across the rumpled bed as two lovers moved from brightness to shadow and back again in an age old dance. It was a passionate wrestling, ripe with purpose and desire.
“Fuck me,” NK bit out between breaths.
“I am,” Robbie returned as she wrapped her legs around him.
“Jesus, you pick your moments to throw sass you know that?”
Robbie threaded her fingers in his hair, “Yeah? What are you going to do about it?”
He grinned. Fuck him, she was all woman, all vixen, all … Robbie.
He leaned his forehead until it touch hers, “Make you scream my name.”
He felt her body tighten around him, the flush stealing over her skin a testament to how close she was. The sight was enough to push him towards the edge, a desperation he communicated to her through the increased speed of his thrusts.
“Come with me,” he urged roughly, burying his face to in the top of her hair as he clutched her tightly to his body.
Robbie felt overheated as she strained against him, meeting greed with greed. Their joining wasn’t an easy exploration; it was all heat and hunger, a warring of strength and passion.
She cried out his name on a gasp of pleasure, arching up to meet him thrust for thrust, and together they embraced the little death.
AR Corps, New York
Arnav stared out the window, fighting the urge to get up and pace. Time was up. He knew this with absolute certainty when he’d woken up beside Khushi this morning.
Her doctor had given the all clear, and had discreetly informed him that she could resume all normal activities. Jesus, spare him the white coats and their euphemisms.
He was buying one more day to cement his plans, buying one more night to simply hold her in her sleep. It had become a necessity to reassure himself every night that the precious pulse still beat within those slender wrists.
Tomorrow night would be their moment of truth.
Being unable to predict the outcome didn’t sit well with him. In fact, it set him on edge. He knew how to outwit a rival, how to outmaneuver an opponent. He sure as hell knew how to fight for what he wanted or intended to have. He’d had to, in order to survive and then to succeed.
Balancing his needs with someone else’s was not something he was accustomed to. But for her he would.
That did not mean, however, that he hadn’t planned to his advantage. He had personally chosen the stage to wage his war with her, for her. The stakes were too high to leave to chance. For a man who had been wary of women all of his life, it was staggering to admit his happiness now depended on one.
East 52nd Street, New York
Aman adjusted the crisp white cuffs before taking a step back to admire the flawless silhouette created by the narrow cuts of the navy pinstripe jacquard two-button suit. It was difficult to rein in the sigh of pleasure.
Brioni. Seventy years of Italian luxury built on the tradition of only the finest fabrics and personalized tailoring executed by hand at the Penne di Pescara factory on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. When a suit takes 186 steps and 18 hours to be crafted, you know it was going to fit right. You should also expect it’ll have a corresponding price tag.
Donato Liguori, Brioni’s master tailor, had outdone himself. Everything they had discussed eight weeks ago had been brought to life with perfection, down to the hidden slit he’d requested on the interior left of the jacket for a small photo of Anjali.
“You can stop preening,” Arnav said dryly from behind him.
“Nice of you to decide to be mentally present for my final fitting,” Aman retorted easily as he looked over to Arnav. His brother had plopped himself down on the boutique’s chair an hour ago and promptly lost himself in thought. Heavy ones.
“Why isn’t NK here? Doesn’t this fall under best man duties?”
“He came along for the ring shopping and the consultation. Apparently I don’t hold the same appeal as a leggy blond. And besides, I wanted you here.”
A look of surprise flashed across Arnav’s face. Aman barely suppressed an eye roll. Truly, how did they come from the same womb?
“Arnav, NK may be my best friend, but you’re still big brother. These are the key male bonding moments. Try to keep up. Now, should I go with the striped Herringbone tie in charcoal or the striped Chambray silk in light blue?”
Arnav shook his head ruefully. It was still a challenge to reconcile the image of the mischievous boy with scraped knees and ripped jeans with the grown man in his formal wedding attire. There had never been the luxury of time as teenagers for the normal bonding that other brothers shared.
He’d missed out on soccer matches, too many birthdays to count, and hell, even half of Aman’s high school graduation. Had NK not entered their lives, he likely would’ve allowed them to become strangers. Arnav felt a pang of loss, but just as quickly the sense of gratitude overrode it. Life hadn’t forsaken him, even when he had carelessly shunned her gifts.
Aman watched as Arnav moved over to the glass display, riffling through silk ties and pocket squares with intense focus. He took in a deep gulp of breath before blurting out, “I found her for you.”
“Found who?” Arnav asked, his focus still on the rows of fabric.
Arnav’s dark eyes rose to clash with identical orbs, they narrowed in focus. “The rest of it.”
“Nani was angling for an arranged marriage, and hell Arnav, you were in the frame of mind of agree with her. It was a preventable tragedy. Thus, I prevented.”
Tension built in the drawn out silence until Arnav spoke, “By interfering.”
“If well-meaning intervention is a crime, then yes, I’m fucking guilty!”
“Does NK kno- of course he does.” Arnav looked thoughtful for a moment, “What would you have done if I’d ignored her?”
“I’ll take the Fifth on that.”
“Did you plant the photo?”
“Fuck no! We figured you’ll see her and chemistry will take care of the rest. We didn’t expect it to happen so publicly.”
Aman backed away when Arnav casually picked up the Herringbone tie along with a geometric silk pocket square and headed towards him.
“You’re not going to strangle me in a silk noose are you? I won’t deny that it’ll make a dramatic statement, but it’s inadvisable in criminal law.”
In a move that surprised both of them, Arnav flipped the collar on Aman’s shirt, looping the silk around before skillfully setting it to a Windsor knot. He gave Aman a leveled look before tightening the knot carefully and drawing it up to the collar with heavy handed pressure.
“Looks better than any of your half-ass attempts,” Aranv said calmly as he folded the pocket square into place before taking a step back to admire his work.
Aman blinked, “Should I have NK schedule a MRI? Because seriously, who the hell are you?”
“Oh, you deserve a beating, but your timing is impeccable. I have too much respect for the work that went into that suit to deck you in it. Besides, I think I prefer for you to stew a bit.”
“Arnav, we were desperate,” Aman said sincerely, causing Arnav to slant his gaze over to him.
His lips twitched, “Was I so unbearable?”
“No. Just restless. The kind that makes a man dangerous, and those close to him uneasy.”
“You took quite a gamble, little brother.”
“Big risk, big rewards. You taught me that.”
“And apparently your future wife taught you something else,” Arnav paused, “that little speech on the night of your engagement?”
“I did wish for you to meet a woman who ties you up so badly, you can’t think straight. Although, I’m rather stunned by the universe’s ability to deliver,” Aman replied on a rich laugh.
Arnav’s expression darkened, “That shouldn’t be wished on any man.”
“Arnav, the way you are when you’re with her? A fucking miracle. Yeah, you two have shit to go over, but with two experienced men to provide you with sound advice and a Dragon Lady fiercely playing gatekeeper? Battle’s half won.”
“I’m surprised NK didn’t look into her.”
“He spent months hanging out at the diner, we ran a basic check, but I asked him not to dig further.”
“I wanted no bias towards her, because she was going to give you what you needed. All my life, you shouldered the burden and took all the risks for me, Arnav.”
“I wasn’t looking for payback, Aman. We’re family.”
“Yeah we are and it was about damn time both of us realized it. We’re not alone anymore, Arnav. There’s Nani, an NK, three incredible women reckless enough to choose us, and… Lavanya.”
“You’re feeling brave after my suit comment aren’t you?”
“Gave you time, Arnav, we can’t go back to pretending she doesn’t exist.”
Arnav nodded slowly. “I need to clear things with Khushi. Then we’ll figure out how to approach Lavanya.”
Aman took in their reflection in the mirror. They were standing shoulder to shoulder. Equals. Finally.
He tilted his head back and smirked as he met Arnav’s raised brow, “I think I’m an inch taller than you.”
Arnav turned to give him a derisive look. “The hell you are. I know those shoes have inserts!”
Master Liguori halted before the door in shock. In all of his years of tailoring for the Raizada brothers he had never personally heard such a sound coming from the private suite. Laughter. He shook his head, Merda! it was true, amore could change even the most taciturn of men. His expression turned thoughtful. It would be the ultimate coup for any design house to dress both Raizada grooms. He needed to make discreet inquires, after all, love may feed the heart, but the stomach needed a different kind of substance.
Robbie starred at the ceiling. Sunlight was rapidly retreating, plunging the room into shadows.
She glanced over at NK. A smile tugged at her lips as she took in the spiky lashes lightly touching his hewn face. Noah Katlyne. She gently pulled out the rest of the sheets, inching off the bed. Robbie gave out a shocked yelp as his arm snaked out, nabbed her around the waist and rolled her beneath him. She swallowed as NK propped himself up on his elbows and kept her pinned there with his body.
“Where the hell are you going?”
She looked up to him in confusion, “Home.”
“You have something against this bed?”
“Is this bullshit games, Robbie, or do you honestly don’t get me?”
“Maybe if you quit the caveman speech, I’ll get you.” Robbie snapped as she pushed at his chest, jerking herself from the bed.
He studied the way she held stiffly to the sheet, “Apparently Khushi wasn’t the only one who had shit taste in men.”
“We’re not going to go there, Robbie. First, I find it a pointless exercise. Second, whoever came before didn’t matter enough to stick around. That goes for both of us. Now you have two choices.”
“Nice to know I’m being given options.”
His eyes narrowed. “You can go put on your armor, head out the door and we’ll consider this a one off. I’m getting to an age where I’m no longer interested in fuck buddies. Or you lose the attitude and the sheet so we can explore whatever the hell this is.”
They starred at each other across the bed.
NK, however, wasn’t done, “You’re a romantic in a city that sells the shell of it at a premium price. I don’t peddle fantasies, but I won’t lie to you either. You want love letters? Then write them with your nails on my back and I’ll return them with my tongue between your thighs. When you’ve orgasm out you can fall asleep on top of me.”*
Robbie’s entire body locked as his words rained over her. She’d been given words of romance and dreams, only to wake up to find them false and empty. This man wasn’t offering that. He was handing her real. The kind of real she had started to believe wasn’t in the cards for her.
“Stay,” the word in his husky voice sent butterflies swooping through her stomach. A woman would willingly give up everything to hear that every night.
It took all her strength, and more courage than she’d known she had, to expose herself to him, inch by inch, this time of her own volition. NK didn’t make it hard for her. When the sheets fell to the carpet, he opened his arms, and she went straight into the hard embrace.
“Sorry. I just find it easier –”
“To do the leaving, rather than being left?”
“It isn’t fair that you understand the female brain so well,” Robbie huffed under her breath.
“Got four sisters, babydoll, a man learns a thing or two from being around that much estrogen.”
She turned in his arms, “Four?! Where are they?”
“Back in Australia with Mum and the old man. All married with their own miniature brats now.”
“Mum and Dad!”
“Why are you so shocked? I didn’t hatch from an egg in the Outbacks you know.” He flashed her a grin.
“It’s just …. I figured you were a lone wolf. You know, with a shady past and all.”
“I see you read a healthy amount of romance with your fairy tales.”
“They make for better entertainment than those stuffy critically acclaimed hardbacks.”
NK chuckled as he traced a light bruise on the delicate skin, “I was rough with you.”
“Did I forget to thank you for it?”
NK lifted his head and smirked. “I guess screaming my name five or six times was thanks enough.”
Robbie laughed, allowing it to expel the last of her fears. She reached out tentatively, running her fingers lightly over his upper arm, pausing when her exploration met with a jagged scar. “What’s this from?”
“Fell off the horse on the ranch when I was nine, didn’t see the rake.”
Her fingers traced to another on the side of his chest, “And this?”
“A little accident while rock climbing.”
“So reckless,” she sighed. “Don’t you realize you’re mortal?”
“We’re all going to die,” NK responded easily, “I just want to feel alive while I’m still amongst the living.”
“Let’s make a deal.”
“I think Arnav is rubbing off on you. He can be a charmer when he puts effort into it.”
“Hmm, no it’ll be an elusive one between Noah and Robbie.”
“You’re not going to go around using that are you?”
“I won’t’ wear it out, just special occasions.”
“This a special occasion?”
“Ok, let’s hear it.”
“You keep me on the edge of wild, and I’ll keep you on the right side of safe.”
“Works for me,” NK laughed freely before dragging her on top of him, “Now, let’s get you to that edge of wild.”
Manhattan, New York
Shyam Jha seldom allowed the taste of regret to settle upon his tongue. It was there now, ashy and bitter.
He sat across from a portly HP Daniels, who was virtually vibrating out of his skin as he eagerly presented his discoveries in Lucknow.
He had contacted the man on a whim, funding his trip out of curiosity and the desire to gain an upper hand on Arnav. The skeletons that fell out of the closet weren’t scandals, they were secrets. Terrible ones.
His gaze slid over to the mantle where members of the Jha family featured prominently in gilded frames. It settled over the photo of a young Anjali, one he had personally taken. Her eyes were pleading, carrying a look that use to make him incapable of refusing her requests. That was before-
He turned back to Daniels. Making a motion towards the documents spread over his desk, Shyam questioned, “Is this the only copy?”
“What are you talking about?”
“How much do you want for them?”
“Are you saying you aren’t willing to go public with this?” HP laughed incredulously, “I came to you first because you set this in motion. No one is going to bury this. Arnav Singh Raizada deserves to be taken down a notch or two.”
“Say yourself the time and breath. I’m getting these printed.”
“That asshole deserves everything coming to him. What do you care?”
“My sister is marrying into the family, so watch yourself, Daniels.”
“What’s your angle in this, Jha? That’s the only thing I can’t figure out. Anyways if you wanted a lap dog you contracted with the wrong guy. I’ll pay you back for the expenses once I get my check for this.”
“Get the fuck off my property.”
“You should keep in mind that I make a bad enemy. I have a nose for sniffing out the dirtiest secrets people like to keep hidden. I don’t think you want me turning that particular skill on you.” He gathered the documents and slammed out of the office.
Shyam walked towards the mirror above the mantle, carefully avoiding Anjali’s photo. He moved until he was inches from his reflection.
For long moments he stared, eyes intent on the scornful curl of his mirrored visage. He fisted his right hand before drawing back, slamming it repeatedly at the image, until glass shards and blood filled his vision.
Upper West Side, New York
Khushi glanced over at Devyani Raizada as they made their way around the estate’s private grounds. They had quickly fallen into a routine of a late evening stroll, when the sun lit up for one last mêlée of colors before seeking its nightly companion in the Hudson.
Khushi wasn’t sure what to make of the Raizada’s matriarch. That she was a woman of formidable presence goes without saying. Her words held wisdom, her steps carried grace. She ruled those within her orbit with a firm gentle hand, with precious little escaping those keen eyes. She was a woman of virtue, one who held herself and those around her to the highest regard.
Khushi didn’t know what to make of the invitation to stay in her home nor her careful silence on Arnav’s nighttime visits. For surely the man did not spare a thought to decorum!
“What do you think of Shantivan, Khushi?”
Pulled from her reveries, Khushi took her time taking in the luminescent property. There was grandeur, but something else. A tenderness in every critical detail, guided by a force stronger than that of aesthetics. Spending time within the pristine marble walls only cemented her first impression – Shantivan was an exquisite jewel box.
“I once overheard my father saying to a friend that a home is life’s dressing room, from which we may privately rehearse for the social stage. At the time I had no idea what he meant. I do believe you have a stunning dressing room, Mrs. Raizada.”
Upon the deep pause after her comment, Khushi winced, “I hope I haven’t offended you.”
Joyous laughter bubbled forth as Devyani eyed the young woman with appreciation. “I do believe that is the most honest compliment Shantivan has ever received.”
Khushi’s face eased into a smile of relief, “A lot of love must have gone into building it.”
“Yes, a lot of love and much hope that happiness would reside in it.” Devyani’s expression turned thoughtful, “Khushi, has Arnav spoken about his angel investor to you?”
“He mentioned him briefly. A good friend and a good man was what he told me, and that his passing was a heavy loss.”
“It was. The Raizadas owe much of our success to him, and it seems he has decided to give us one final blessing. He was a rare breed amongst businessmen, a true romantic. He built this home, oversaw every stage of its design and construction. A labor of love that regrettably did not end in the way he’d hoped. He passed on that hope to Arnav when he sold this property right before his death. His wish was that someday, my grandson will bring Happiness to Shantivan… Last Saturday, he finally did.”
Khushi’s heart skipped a painful beat, surely …
“Shashi Gupta built Shantivan for Laramie, Khushi.”
Her breath caught, “Shashi, my father?”
“Yes, your father.”
“How do you…”
“If anyone told me they pulled a background check on me I would be furious. You have every right to call him out for it. Nonetheless I ask for your pardon this one time. Those boys are highly protective of each other; their intent was to protect not pry.”
Bewildered, Khushi found herself on the garden’s stone bench, her mind racing as she connected the dots.
Devyani eased down beside her, saying nothing as she allowed the information to soak through. She has had many conversations with Arnav during Khushi’s recovery, overdue ones that finally opened the locked doors between them.
“Shashi loved you. He had a fine ability to speak in allusions. In retrospect the many times he spoke of Happiness he was referring to you.”
Khushi turned to face Devyani, “You don’t find my presence offensive? I’m just like,” she bit her lips.
“You can say it, child. The days of sweeping things under the rug are firmly behind us. You are and you aren’t Lavanya. Life has a way of challenging our beliefs, of testing our strengths. There is no true right or wrong, only circumstances and how we react to them. That boy’s endured a lot,” she continued quietly. “Do not judge him too harshly for how life shaped him to be. What I saw of him with you – I was beginning to despair that Arnav could ever be like that. Not with anyone.”
Khushi swallowed, “He’s avoiding me.”
Devyani shook her head on a smile, “He’s preparing.”
Her voice grew firmer and more insistent, “You lost your mother at a very young age. I’m sorry to hear that. You will discover that for a relationship to last, the woman needs to be stronger. Men like to believe they are the shelter, and we won’t take that notion from them, but a woman is the rock that ensures it stays in place.”
But the elder Raizada wasn’t done, “Do you love my grandson?”
Khushi swallowed, “I… I…”
“You cannot force love, nor can you shut it out. My grandsons are not saints, but they are good men. Don’t play with his heart, taking bits and pieces when it suits you. Too many women are eager to wreck such havoc. Either take all of it or leave it alone.”
Khushi hesitated before saying honestly, “I barely know him.”
Devyani’s eyes went distant before they focused. “Colpo di fulmine. The thunderbolt, as Italians call it. When love strikes someone like lightning, so powerful and intense it can’t be denied. It’ll crack your soul open, spilling out secret contents for the world to see. It’s a raw kind of beauty that will turn you inside out, but once the thunderbolt hits, you are irrevocably changed.* That was how it was for me the first time I met my husband. Do not bother with what conventions tell you, listen to your gut instincts, it’ll serve you better.”
“He left this for you this morning,” Devyani said, handing over a monogrammed card.
As Khushi reached for the note, her hands where taken in a gentle hold.
“The door to your bedroom has a lock from the inside, Khushi.” Devyani ignored the flush that tinged her cheeks, “Ask yourself why you leave it unlocked for him.”
Khushi glanced down, unconsciously tracing his initials as she read the message.
Tomorrow night, 7. Dress warmly.
“I want one thing before I die, to know that my daughter’s kangans are on the hands of women who can teach my boys the value of a woman’s heart. It’s selfish, but he set his sight on you, and that means I will do my best to make sure he gets you. I didn’t fight for my daughter’s happiness, I will not make the same mistake with my grandson. You won’t be up against one Raizada, Khushi, but all of us.”
Khushi felt tears stinging the backs of her eyes. “Mrs. Raizada.” But she suddenly found herself being drawn into a gentle embrace.
When Devyani moved back she asked solemnly, “Will you promise me, Khushi? When he comes to you with his past, his secrets, will you promise to listen to what he has to say with an open heart?”
Khushi felt something unfurl in a quiet corner of her being, an amber glow of warmth that was slowly driving out the cold that had resided within her for so long, “I promise.”
Chelsea, New York
“How are the stock markets this morning, husband?”
Trent looked up from his perusal of the Wall Street Journal on his tablet to stare at his wife. She was smiling. A genuine smile rarely graced Payal’s face. In the past year, he could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen it, and not once had it been directed at him. An uneasy foreboding slid through him.
“NASDAQ is down two percent,” he replied carefully.
She clucked her tongue, “Well, don’t let that affect you.”
It was then he noticed the file in her hands. She walked over to him and placed it next to his coffee.
“Your heart’s desire – hand delivered divorce papers.”
Trent’s eyes narrowed. “What games are you playing, Payal?
“It’s what you wanted isn’t it?”
Ignoring his question, she took a look around the house, the finest Chelsea real estate had to offer. And yet, despite her efforts, it had never turned into a home. “I’m moving back with Amma. Give the papers to the attorney once you sign.”
She left without looking back, and he let her go without a word. The soft click of the door shutting behind her served as a loud and final death knell to their marriage.
Trent reached out a cautious hand for the papers. She had even made tabs for the pages that required his signature. Trent’s laugh was self-mocking as he reached the page that stated her grounds for filing.
The stark row of black letters leaped at him.
And suddenly he understood. Once again, Payal was forcing him to make a choice.
His freedom or Khushi’s honor.
Upper West Side, New York
Her heartbeats were a crescendo of staccato notes as she descended the spiraled steps. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she froze. Unable to do anything, but drink in the sight of the man standing in wait for her.
He looked tired, but his eyes were just as hungry as they raked down her outfit. The thick black jersey maxi fitted her like a glove. It was the reason Robbie had insisted on buying it for her last birthday and bringing it over from their apartment this morning. Now, as his eyes traced the lines the dress both concealed and highlighted, she was glad.
Khushi was surrounded by warm wool before she even realized he’d thrown a coat over her.
“Mine,” was all he said as he tightened the waist belt. Her eyes lifted to his. Was he referring to the coat or her?
Was she ready? Since receiving his note, she had felt the weight of tonight’s conversation settle like jagged rocks at the pit of her stomach. She had spent the day mentally preparing, as deliberately as a general on the eve of battle. It was necessary when one’s opponent was a Raizada.
Taking a steadying breath she nodded, placing her hands in his.
Khushi was surprised when he led her to the estate’s helipad. “We’re flying?”
Arnav said nothing as he lifted her onto the helicopter. As she settled, he reached for the seatbelt, allowing his fingers to linger as he buckled her in.
“You’re cheating.” she accused softly.
The corner of his mouth lifted, “Do you find it so hard to resist?”
“We’re going to talk tonight. Talk, Mr. Raizada.”
“Okay,” Arnav agreed easily. Khushi’s breath hitched as he leaned in until his face was mere inches from her. Khushi closed her eyes. She felt the fluttering touch of his lips on her eyelids before his murmur reached her ears, “The secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that [she] cannot fathom our real intent.”
Arnav grinned as he pulled back, but to his surprise, Khushi had a hand on the lapels of his jacket. She used it to draw him close, just before their lips met, she whispered, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak… You’re not the only one who read The Art of War.”
“I didn’t think Sun Tzu would appeal to you.”
“It’s a classic. Although I think they should change the marketing to target women looking for a good primer on how to deal with alpha males.”
Pride flashed through Arnav. This woman, his woman, was not only a prize but a worthy opponent as well.
“Where are we going?” Khushi asked as he climbed in.
“Arnav, the fact that you chose it, guarantees it won’t be neutral, but advantageous to you.”
His look was solemn as he turned to answer her, “I’ve been a businessman for too long not to evaluate the risks of every venture. This is important to me. I couldn’t afford to leave room for errors.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about being considered one of your business ventures.”
“Not just any venture, Khushi, but the most important one.”
Montauk Yacht Club Resort & Marina, New York
An hour later, Arnav encouraged her to look out the window as the copter began to descend.
At first she couldn’t make out much through the rolling blanket of fog, but as if on cue, the harbor lit up. Before her was an aqua canvas of floating white palaces, lining the docks like ivory keys on a Steinway piano.
It was a majestic showcase, yet Khushi couldn’t help the sense of disappointment that he’d chosen such an empty vessel of wealth for their conversation. It served only to remind her that there was an ocean of distance between them; in lifestyle, in belief. Was it even possible to meet in the middle?
Arnav kept a sharp eye on Khushi as they landed on the helideck of his five deck yacht. Her face was too expressive to mask her thoughts. She saw through the transient trappings of wealth to the emptiness beneath. Thank fuck. He was banking on this very reaction.
Waving off their pilot, who’d been instructed to return tomorrow afternoon, Arnav turned to Khushi. “You’re disappointed.”
Since he put it out as a statement instead of a question, Khushi didn’t hesitate to confirm, “Yes.”
“I didn’t take you out here to show off a toy, Khushi.”
“Then why here, Arnav?”
“You’ll know soon enough, but I need to clear up something right now. I have money. More than one man should. I’ll be lying if I said I don’t appreciate certain privileges it brings. However, you also know that I wasn’t born to it. You’ve made your point that you cannot be bought. I would like my actions to be weighed with something of more value as well. Can you give me that?”
She searched his eyes, and then nodded slowly.
“Good.” Arnav rested his hand lightly on the small of her back, guiding her into the elevator. It bypassed the sun and upper deck, opening with sleek grace onto the main deck. “Too cold tonight for you to explore, we’ll leave that for tomorrow.”
Ignoring the implication of his words, Khushi stepped out of the lift, “Do you entertain here?”
“No. We purchased this four years ago as a getaway vehicle. Other than the crew when we take her out, only NK, Aman, Nani and I have been on The Jalpari.”
Khushi absorbed that quietly as she took in the surrounding luxury. In what she had come to expect of anything owned by the Raizadas, the space was stunning. A fine balance of classic and modern, designed with an elegant fusion of well-chosen wood, leather, marble and metals.
“Who named her?”
“Who do you think?” Arnav asked dryly, “It was supposed to be A.N.A. for our initials, but I was tied up in a meeting and Aman was feeling fanciful.”
“A.N.A. lacks imagination, Arnav.”
“Maybe, but at least it doesn’t evoke thoughts of Disney’s redhead.”
He was rewarded with her warm, earthy laugh. Arnav looked down at her as a surge of hunger tore through him. His arms circled her waist and with one motion brought her colliding with his body as he bent his head to capture the magic of them. It wasn’t soft or gentle, but hard and deep. The force of his mouth opened hers as he held her to him with almost painful pressure. It was a kiss of pent-up longing. And for the first time in days, the world felt overwhelmingly right.
“Sorry,” Arnav said on a harsh breath as he forced himself to pull back, “I just needed a taste of you.”
Khushi’s heart had lunged wildly in her chest the moment their lips touched. The ache that swept through her made her want nothing more than to sink into the passion simmering between them and to hell with any conversation.
“Don’t apologize. I..I needed that too,” she told him honestly.
“Dammit, Khushi! How the hell do you expect me to respond to that?”
“Can you just hold me, Arnav?”
The air around them started to undulate as the words passed through her lips.
“Fuck, Khushi,” Arnav whispered as he reached for her. In a gesture that was incredibly natural to both, she slid into his arms as he tucked her tenderly into him.
They stood like that for long moments, together comforting and being comforted.
“Come with me,” Arnav finally said, as he gave her a final squeeze before letting go.
“To my room.”
At Khushi’s look, his lips twitched. “Not what you’re thinking, there’s something I want you to see.”
“How many cabins are there?” Khushi asked as they made their way down the hall.
“Since it’s meant for our private use, we went with four suites, two on the Upper, and two on the Main.”
As they reached his private quarters, Arnav hesitated before opening the door and urging her in before him.
The first thing Khushi noticed was the stark difference between his penthouse and the room before her. Whereas the former often struck her as cold and devoid of the personal touches that turned four walls into a home, every inch of this space was stamped with Arnav.
Center stage was a queen bed, made up of warm ivory silk and outlined in a classic Greek motif. To the left was a starboard balcony that echoed the design of his bedroom, but here it was furnished with a coffee table and lush armchairs that made it effortless to imagine sharing an intimate meal between sky and sea. The right side was connected to a private study, complete with leather-clad chairs and desktop, but it was the silver photo frames tucked discreetly between volumes of books along the gorgeous cabinetry that warmed her.
This was the inner man he didn’t show the world. And he had just allowed her to walk right in.
Feeling Arnav’s presence behind her, she moved further into the suite. As she turned towards the elliptical panorama windows that framed the views, Khushi was brought to a sharp standstill. On the opposite wall from the bed, connecting the clear glass, hung a painting of a mermaid.
She sat in the arms of the ocean, long black hair cascading down her back, an expression of yearning etched across her face as she gazed out. However, it was the color of the eyes and fishtail that made Khushi catch her breath in stunned wonder, sea-green, a surreal likeness to her own.
She turned to Arnav, eyes wide with shock.
He came up beside her, absentmindedly removing the wool coat.
“Aman had it commissioned when we bought this. Ancient sailors often anointed their ships with occuli to help them find their way across rough seas. Since we couldn’t have that on the yacht, he wanted this to replace the figurehead for luck.” Arnav turned Khushi back to the painting, “The artist visited Shantivan while he was working on this and was inspired by the unusual color of the roof tiles.”
“It’s in your room.”
“It didn’t feel right in the other rooms.”
“Was that why… New Year’s Eve?”
Only three people knew of this painting. Arnav didn’t doubt that this was why Aman was convinced his gamble would pay off. Hell, it was the reason he’d been unable to turn away himself.
“As insane as this may sound, I feel as though everything in my life has led me to you. I searched for her in every woman, and didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t that I never wanted a relationship, it just never felt right. No woman lived up to the fantasy- then came you.”
“Arnav.” She stopped at his name.
“I told myself you couldn’t be real. I wanted to keep you at a distance, yet hold you close. I wanted to give you everything and yet nothing. I want a right to tell every other man to stay the hell away from you. I wanted to tell you my secrets, but I was fucking terrified you’ll walk once you know. But it isn’t about what I want anymore, but what I need. And God help us both Khushi, because I need you.”
“You say you need me, but you’ve been manipulating my emotions all night, Arnav.”
“Don’t ask for fairness, Khushi, because you won’t be getting it. I will however, give you honesty. I warned you when you asked for all of me that you may not want everything I am.”
“You hurt me.”
“Yes,” he admitted, “And I paid for it when I found you damn near frozen in the snow. But you listened in on a private conversation.”
“Arnav, the words you used against Lavanya!”
“I know. They drew blood, but I didn’t leave that night without bleeding myself,” he turned from her, walking out to the balcony to stare into the dark.
“I can offer up dozens of apologies, but they won’t wipe the memory of that night from your mind. So I’m asking you for a chance. I have never explained myself to anyone, never had to balance my needs with another,” Arnav tilted his head back as he looked at her standing in the center of the one place he allowed himself to simply be, “For you, I’ll try. Will you listen to my story, Khushi?”
At her nod, his eyes turned distant as he forced himself to return to a time and place he’d shoved to the furthest reaches of his mind.
“I grew up believing my parent’s marriage was a love match. Our lifestyle was modest, but I never felt it was lacking. As I got older, I started to notice how they rarely spoke to each other unless Aman and I were present. When I asked my mother, she would explain how father worked hard to feed the family and a good wife was to be understanding in face of such noble exhaustion. It excused his ever increasing work hours and the weekend disappearances. I could sense that it wasn’t right, but why would my mother lie to me?… Why would she lie?” Arnav repeated to himself, as if he’d forgotten she was in the room with him.
Khushi remained silent as he shook off his thoughts, continuing in a voice that grew increasingly raspy.
“When I was eleven I heard my parents arguing. It was shocking since they never raised their voices. The walls shook, as if it too was shocked. I snuck into the kitchen and from the doorway I could see my father looking on impassively as my mother screamed at him. Next to him was a woman I’d never seen before, holding a small bundle in her arms. Later, I learned it was a baby – a baby girl.”
“Lavanya,” Arnav confirmed.
“My father backhanded my mother across the face and then he left with that woman. Before she walked out she looked unerringly to where I was and smiled. Triumph in every pore. I never forgot that look. Lavanya is the spitting image of her mother. Logically, I know they are two different women, but it is damn difficult to remember that when I look at her.” Arnav paused, running a hand down his face, “He didn’t come back. I learned a lot of hate in those weeks, Khushi. The man I had been raised to respect had suddenly become a monster. Ma didn’t know I was there that night, and she made all kinds of excuses for him.”
“There’s more isn’t there?”
Bitterness entered his voice, “Lucknow isn’t a small city, but gossip is quick to spread. A reporter came by one afternoon, she was pretty, very pretty and sympathetic. She asked me about my father. In my anger and confusion I told her everything. The next day it was printed in black and white in the Lucknow Journal. Turns out, the woman who ran off with my father was the District Magistrate’s wife. That article made her career while she made my mother out to be the fool.”
“Arnav, you were a child.”
“I was an idiot. I promised myself I would never allow any member of the press to take advantage of me or mine.”
Nor any woman either, Khushi thought to herself. She hesitated before asking, “Your father?
“He disappeared, no one could find him. But the headlines, the scandal, they hounded our steps. My mother couldn’t step foot out of the house without neighbors wagging their tongue at her inability to hold onto her husband.”
Chills of horror trickled down her spine as she recalled their conversation in his walk-in. She knew what was coming. “You … found her.”
Suddenly he was eleven again, barely comprehending what he was seeing, unable to get a response out of the lifeless body he was shaking with all his might. His voice was a hoarse croak as he answered, “Yes. I came into her bedroom when I found out she’d holed herself all day. Two pools of blood greeted me. She’d slit her wrists, choosing to drain herself of life.”
Instinct took over and ruled her actions as she rushed to him, wrapping both arms around Arnav’s waist. He was shaking, Khushi realized. She could feel the tremors as he pulled her into him.
Arnav eyes were stark with savage emotion. He drew a shaky breath, locking his jaw as he fought to regain control. She saw the battle, saw what it cost him to win it, but in seconds his hands were steady and his face blanked.
“Beside her was their wedding photo. When I held her wrist, hoping desperately to find a pulse, I made a wish then. I wanted the man who’d betrayed his family to die.” The words were foul and jagged along his throat. Arnav released her shoulders, letting his hands drop to his sides.
“I got my wish, Khushi. They found him. Murdered. Rumor was the Magistrate sent men to do the job. I didn’t even go to his funeral.”
The grooves around his mouth deepened. “And do you know what’s worst? Nani told me that it wasn’t even true. They never loved each other. My father ran away because he didn’t give a damn. And my mother took her life to escape.”
His eyes were vulnerable as he looked at her, “How can I expect a woman to want to stay, when I wasn’t enough for my mother to keep on living?”
His face was inscrutable as he waited for her answer, eyes dark and watchful, body taut with tension. As if preparing himself for a blow, Khushi realized. Her mind was a chaotic swirl of thoughts, but one thing came through to her with absolute clarity. She couldn’t hurt this man. His pain was hers.
“I grew up promising myself I would never be like him. I succeeded, but the man I did become is no prize. You should walk away, Khushi, run far away from the man who will only taint you.”
Her heart clenched, “If I do, will you let me go like last time?”
She watched fascinated as a pulse beat at the base of his throat, before his eyes lighted with determined fire.
“No,” Arnav admitted, “A fair man would let you go, but my one virtue is being well aware of the depths of my selfishness.”
She looked at him, her eyes grave as she voiced her heart, “I love you, Arnav.”
Arnav didn’t hide the lighting flash of relief in his eyes, “Is that love enough for you to forgive me for hurting you? Enough for you to come back to me?”
She took a step back. “You are right. I should not have listened to a private conversation. But neither of us can change the fact that those words were said and heard. Just the thought of them chill me to my bones, Arnav.”
“Does it make a difference if I tell you I regret them?”
“Why do you regret them?”
“I know what you’re asking. It will not be easy to mend the years of bridge burning with Lavanya. I have promised Aman I will try. Although quite honestly, she may no longer want anything to do with me.”
“Arnav, with family all that is required is acceptance.”
“Something you didn’t get.”
“You know that NK pulled a background check on you for me. I want to tell you that I’m sorry for the invasion of your privacy, but I’m not. The woman I know you to be would rather suffer quietly than burden anyone with your troubles.”
“Arnav, you need to stop relying on reports for things outside of your business ventures. There is a human element to everything. I wasn’t mistreated. Papa did his best and Garima wasn’t cruel, merely… indifferent.”
“And Payal?” he challenged.
“But life gave me a Robbie, Arnav. A sister in every way but one,” she countered him.
“Dammit you were homeless for a year, Khushi! Why? What happened when you turn eighteen? Why the hell did you sign over 15 million dollars’ worth of shares?”
“Garima gave me a choice. If I walked away, she was willing to lay my father down to rest next to mother and my little brother.”
Arnav’s face hardened. “Hell Khushi, that’s making you sign under duress!”
“I’ve never regretted the decision. It was the one thing I could give them,” she said simply.
Something occurred to him then, “Why didn’t I see you at Shashi’s funeral?”
“I couldn’t bear it. There were so many people there, so many well-meaning strangers. When we buried my mother and little brother, they kept on telling me I shouldn’t cry. That they had gone to a better place. But, I wanted to, Arnav. I wanted to wail and throw a tantrum. I wanted to scream and cry. So I waited until the funeral was over… and did just that.”
“Your father was a good man, Khushi. One of the best men I ever met.”
“Has your opinion of him changed, now that you know about me?”
“He spoke so often of your mother, I felt I knew her. What he didn’t elaborate on was when she was part of his life. Somehow I’d always assumed Laramie to be a girl he loved before he was married. As he became a close friend, he would often lament on how he wished he could have given her the happiness she deserved. Three years after I met him, he went through a period of heavy depression. It must have been when he lost your mother,” Arnav paused for a long moment of consideration, “I’ll be lying if I said this doesn’t change how I perceive him. However, his actions brought you into the world. How can I regret that?”
“Arnav, you grew up wishing not to become your father. In truth, I felt the same way about my mother. It was buried so deeply, I didn’t realize it until I heard those thoughts voiced through your words to Lavanya. Until you’ve walked down the same path, it is so easy to cast blame and pass judgment.”
“Then let’s lay it to rest, Khushi. I know your past, you know mine. That threat is gone. Let’s go back to how we were.”
“But I don’t want to go back to how we were.”
He flinched, “I see.”
No, he didn’t, but she had prepared for this. She only needed to gather her courage.
“I love you, but I’m also scared of that love. You have the power to hurt me, a power that I handed to you.”
But she interrupted him, “I grew up carrying judgment in my heart towards the woman who did nothing wrong, but allowed herself to fall in love. She should not have chosen a married man, but with how I feel about you, I cannot say for sure I would be able to stop myself if you weren’t free. As a daughter, I wronged her. But as a woman she should have asked for more. She should have asked for all of the man.”
“What do you want from me, Khushi?”
“When I asked for all of you in exchange for all of me, it wasn’t a fair question. There were too many secrets between us. Your grandmother asked me to listen to what you had to say with an open heart. I have Arnav, and it hurts me that you were burdened with something that should never be placed on a child’s young shoulders. Where others may have allowed themselves to break, you used it to build yourself up. What you’ve made of yourself is something to be proud of. You’re more than your money, Arnav. If that was all, you wouldn’t have the loyalty of your grandmother, Aman and NK.”
She took a fortifyng breath, “In the eyes of the world, we can never we true equals. However, between us, in your eyes, I need to be. Respect is just as important as love. I don’t doubt my father’s love for my mother, but she was not an equal in his eyes. If she was, he would never have given her half a life. I cannot walk away from you, it would be akin to denying myself air.”
“Khushi, come here.”
“I don’t want to change you, Arnav. In bringing me here, in trusting me with your past, you’ve shown that you are willing to compromise. That makes all the difference. Your grandmother asked me not to play with your heart. I won’t. I’m handing you mine. Please, please take care of it.”
“Khushi, come here.” Arnav repeated.
“We need to discuss this, Arnav.”
“We can discuss it with you in my arms.”
She gave him a glimpse of the naked emotions brimming in her, then walked straight into his arms.
“Give me your eyes.” Arnav murmured. When she looked up, he traced a finger down her temple, capturing a tendril of her hair. A deep note of husk entered his voice as he gave her the words, “I love you, Khushi.”
Her lips were trembling. Even when she pressed them hard together, they vibrated under the influence of her roiling emotions. “Make me feel your love, Arnav.”
On an impulse he moved to the bed, lifting her astride his lap so that they were face to face. It was an intensely intimate position for talking, physically and mentally, but it felt right.
He nodded. “I will give you four promises in exchange for one.”
“We need to break your habit of making deals in bed.”
With a solemn smile, he rubbed his jaw against her head and continued steadily, “I will make you an equal, Khushi. I’ll do it by standing before you when you need protection. I’ll do it by standing behind you when you need my support. Inside you when you need my passion, and always, always beside you as your man. In return, promise to stay with me. Because when I touch you, I touch happiness.”
The words, no the vows, slid through her. Past all armors, past flesh and bones, and settled into her heart. Healing wounds and burying him deep. Her doubts were overshadowed, consumed, obliterated by the emotions that suffused her.
“What do you say to that, Khushi? Do we have a deal?”
She answered him by interlocking his lips with her own, softly sealing the promise between them. He slanted his head, deepening their kiss, giving her his hunger as he fed on hers.
She flowed like water under his hands, each hum and whimper of desire that sounded in her throat lit an answering flame within him that ruptured new needs. He fell back into the mattress, rolling them until she was beneath him.
“Let me see you,” he murmured, voice thick with love and lust.
Lightly, gently, mindful of her trembling, he loosened the dress, slipping it above her head. She was warm satin beneath, a delicate feast for eyes and hands. His mermaid, Arnav thought, dazed with the discovery as he bent over her.
She arched to meet him, shuddering with pleasure when his mouth closed over her breast in possession. Every movement conducted with exquisite control, even as his hands slipped sensually over the rest of her body, sending tiny eager pulses soaring.
His tenderness was unexpected, so terribly seductive, Khushi lost herself to his touch. “Tell me what you need, Arnav.”
“Just this,” he answered, as he stripped himself of his own clothes, “Just you.”
This time, when he tore open the foil package, she took the condom from him. “Let me.”
Despite her bold words, a blush tinged those cheeks as she sheathed him. When she finished the intimate task, she looked up at him with eyes that echoed the sea and lit by love. She was his, Arnav realized. His to touch whenever he desired, his to hold when his heart thundered, his to cherish as passion shimmered over her. His.
There was no triumph upon this realization; instead a sense of homecoming flowed through Arnav. Sliding his fingers into the shiny black curtain of her hair, he turned her face up, raining kisses over her face, burning a path down the length of her throat.
She responded by giving his overheated skin a dainty lick before returning to the mouth she could never get enough of. The admittance of love took the needs of their bodies beyond the boundaries she had known before, a new plane of pleasure where nothing existed, but the touch of her lover.
She wasn’t aware of the tears until he chased the salty rivets with his lips. Her breath hitched once, then shattered on a sob as Arnav joined their bodies. She pressed her face into his shoulder, holding tight, to the feeling, to the gift.
In the aftermath of their lovemaking, as he had done since their first night, Arnav folded Khushi into his arms. Undone by the events of the night, she kissed the spot just above his heart, before burying her face in the middle of his chest, “Love you, Arnav.”
Peace. After two decades of restlessness, he had found peace in her arms. Placing a kiss on her crown, he tucked her closer before responding, “I love you, my Khushi.”
With that final exchange, the two slipped into a quiet slumber.
Heart and soul anchored to each other. Home.
So… watcha think?
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*adapted from a Tumblr post with no known credit.
*adapted from Sempre by J.M. Darhower