Saturday, 3 October 2015

233. Os 12. A Delicious Theft (Part 10)

Link to my new short story: Taking Care of You

“I thought I was dreaming when I first saw you," he said.

 “How did you know it was me?” she asked. “I could have been anybody. A thief even.”

He smiled wearily. “I don’t know many thieves who would look at me with anxious eyes and then cry because I was sick,” he mumbled.

Is it possible for love to bloom, sight unseen? Juhi and Abhay are strangers who know each other better than they know themselves. One night changes the equation and the even tenor of their lives and puts all their doubts and fears to rest.

Link to my first e-novel; A Home for Meenakshi

"I love the way you love, Meenu," he whispered, his eyes on hers. "Such loyalty, such passion..."

Meenakshi Sharma, an orphan, lives in Varanasi with her uncle, a chronic bachelor who wants her to become a professional musician. She unwillingly relocates to Delhi to study under a renowned musician for eight months. Staying for rent in the outhouse of the Agrawals, she meets Aditya Agrawal, an attractive young man brooding over the memories of his horrendous past. Pulled between her uncle's expectations of her and Aditya's love for her, Meenakshi struggles with her feelings. How can she disappoint her uncle who had devoted his entire life to her upbringing? How can she pretend to be blind to Aditya's feelings for her? A romance that moves between the alleys of the holy city of Varanasi and the modern city of Delhi.

A blog for my VMs:

Part 10

Arnav Singh Raizada stared at her, feeling lost, terrified, trapped.

She sat down by him, her chin on the palm of one hand, her eyes on his. It had been two terrible weeks without seeing him. Her eyes ran all over him, trying to absorb him into her being.

He had to tell her the truth. Nothing else would do, he realised. And he had to be very careful not to spook her. He had been given a second chance. If he botched this, there wouldn’t be a third one.

“I knew you wouldn’t take the job if you knew I was offering it,” he admitted, his voice low.

 He looked at her for a reaction.

 Her face was expressionless.

 He carried the battle gently into the enemy camp.

“But you did. You took the job, knowing this is my company. You signed the contract. Why?” he asked.

“Why was it so important for you to get me here?” she countered. “A new kitchen modelled to our specifications, an expense of lakhs of rupees on us, an unbelievably generous contract, Amanji’s personal interest in us.... Why?”

They stared at each other, the two life-changing questions hanging in the air between them.

Arnav Singh Raizada swallowed hard. If he didn’t answer, she would walk out of his life, contract or no contract.

She leaned back in her chair, her eyes directly on his. Her heart ached, her body felt weak. But this had to be done. She was done pussyfooting around. Did he want a future with her or was he playing with her like a cat with a mouse?

And at that moment he realised a few hard facts. That there was no way to tie another person to oneself.

That there was no contract, no rope, no chain that could bind Khushi to him if she didn’t want to be with him.

That he didn’t want her to be with him because of a piece of paper.

That he wanted her body and soul, wanted her close to him, so close that she was a part of him and nothing could separate them.

That he couldn’t bear to live in a world in which he didn’t have her with him, in him, by him.

That he had to begin by being honest to her and himself. That he had to reveal himself to her, lay down arms and shatter his public facade so that she could understand where he was coming from and what she was taking on, if she was so minded.

He swallowed hard.

Khushi watched the muscles of his throat move and felt her pulse flutter.

“You are from Lucknow, aren’t you?” he asked softly.

“Yes,” Khushi replied. What had Lucknow to do with his offering her the contract? she wondered.

“I am from Lucknow too,” he admitted, feeling shaky. He was going to talk about nightmares that woke him up at night regularly.

“Acha?” she asked, her eyes wide in amazement.

He nodded jerkily.

“Do you know Sheesh Mahal?” he asked.

“Who doesn’t know the huge white building in the centre of the city?” Khushi asked. “It stands on acres of land. It is very grand, but I don’t like it.”

Arnav looked at her, waiting for her to explain.

“Three years back, my babuji was asked to cater for a party at Sheesh Mahal. He was given a small advance before the function. When he sent the bill after the event, that Avinash Mallik refused to pay. My babuji was so upset, not because of the money but because of the dishonesty,” Khushi said, shaking her head in disgust. “That Mallik is little more than a crook.”

“Not just a crook, but also a cruel and heartless man,” Arnav said softly.

Khushi frowned at him. “How do you know?” she asked. “Did he refuse to pay your bill too?” she asked.

Arnav heaved a pain-filled sigh.

“He is not there now,” Khushi comforted him. “He left two years back. No one knows where he is now. The building is locked up.”

“I know,” Arnav said. “I threw him out.”

Khushi gaped at him.

“He was neck-deep in debt. I bought the house and kicked him out,” Arnav said, his serious eyes on hers.

Khushi frowned. “Why did you buy it?” she asked. “You live in Delhi. What are you going to do with an old house and acres of overgrown gardens in Lucknow?”

“Di was born there. I was born there. We spent our childhood there. It is—was our ancestral house,” he confessed.

Khushi stared at him in shocked silence for a moment and then asked, “Why did you leave Sheesh Mahal?”

“Avinash Mallik threw Di and me out of the house when she was eighteen and I fourteen years old,” Arnav replied.

Khushi sat up straight, all fired up and indignant. “How could he throw you and your sister out of your own house?” she asked, outraged.

Arnav drew in a deep breath. Telling her that he was related to the crook would do more damage than good to his cause, but he had to be truthful. Anything less than that was unacceptable. “Because Avinash Mallik is my uncle, my father’s brother,” he confessed.

Khushi almost fell off her chair.

“That—that lowlife, that worm?” she asked, unable to believe her ears.

“Yes,” Arnav said.

“Where were your parents when this—this despicable man threw you and your sister out?” Khushi asked, ready to fight for a chota ASR and choti Anjali’s rights.

“Dead,” he said, his reply sending shockwaves down Khushi’s spine. “They died the day before Avinash Mallik threw us out.”

Khushi frowned, trying to make sense of the tragedy. “They died together? Were they in an accident?” she asked. How else could two people die together?

“Yes, they were in an accident,” Arnav murmured. “That accident was called a marriage.”

Khushi looked at him, bewilderment writ large on her face. Maybe she had heard him wrong, she thought. She asked, “A carriage? A carriage accident?”

“No, a marriage accident,” Arnav stressed quietly.

Khushi gazed at him, perplexed. Then her innocent mind came up with an answer. “Oh, they were going to attend a marriage and had an accident on the way?” she asked.

Arnav smiled bitterly, his sad eyes meeting her guileless ones.

“I wish,” he replied. “They were trapped in a marriage that was no less disastrous than an accident.”

Khushi gulped, knowing that something distasteful was coming up.

“My father was an adulterer,” Arnav said simply.

“Uuhhh?” Khushi asked.

“He was having an affair with some lady. Mama found out,” Arnav said.

Khushi fought to keep her eyes on his ravaged countenance and his pain-filled eyes. She had the haunting suspicion that this was just the beginning of a horror story.

“She took his hunting rifle and shot herself,” Arnav said, hearing the sound of the shot as if it were happening before him.

Khushi was very glad she was sitting down. Her whole body trembled, her eyes filled with tears.

“I don’t know why, maybe it was guilt,” Arnav said conversationally, “My father killed himself two hours later.”

Khushi was appalled, too aghast to even respond to the statement.

“The next day chacha showed us the door,” Arnav said.

Khushi buried her head in her hands. “How did you live through this? How could you bear this? You were so young!” she cried. “Poor Anjaliji.”

“Yes, poor Anjaliji,” Arnav said softly. “Especially as all this happened on her wedding day.”

“Kya?” Khushi gasped.

“The wedding didn’t happen, of course,” Arnav smiled bitterly. “Who wants to marry into a scandal-ridden family or adopt two homeless and poverty-stricken people?”

Khushi looked at him in silence. There didn’t seem anything to say to comfort him. His loss was more than words could express or solve.

“I spent my entire life working to make up for all that my parents and chacha took away from us,” he said. “I don’t know when I became ASR and stopped being Arnav Singh Mallik. Raizada is my mother’s family. I took their name when we came to live with nani.” Arnav looked at the wall, his sharp eyes intent on boring a hole through it.

Khushi’s heart wept for the boy who had lost his childhood in such  a cruel and sudden manner.

“I raked up the past not to make you cry or gain your sympathy,” Arnav said quietly. “I just want you to understand who I am , why I am so, what my life has been, why my family is hyper about everything.”

She nodded slowly and then asked, “Why do you want me to know you?”

Arnav drew in a deep breath. She had signed the contract knowing that he was behind it. Taking courage from this single and unquestionable fact, he admitted, “I want to know you better, want you to know me better. I—I have never—it never struck me that I too could—marriage never seemed a possibility till I met you. I—I probably went about it the wrong way, but I meant well. Khushi, I—we...”

She put him out of his misery. “Are you serious about wanting to marry me?” she asked bluntly, saving him the trouble.

“Yes,” he replied immediately.

“You are not playing with me?” she asked.

“Not in this matter,” he clarified.

Peace filled her heart. “You are sure you want this Lucknow chef for wife?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Yes,” he said, a small smile blooming on his lips. “Only you,” he said. “And Khushi, I worked for all this—my business, my wealth, my house. I didn’t steal anything,” he clarified.

She nodded slowly. “I can’t believe that you are so good a boy,” she said doubtfully to tease him out of the doldrums. “You may not have stolen the business, lekin your eyes look like Bikky’s when you look at me.”

He couldn’t stop his smile. “You are different,” he qualified. “All my morals, my common sense, my decency, my gentlemanly upbringing, my sense of fair play—all go out of the window when you come in through the door.”

“I never believed you were a gentleman. So I am not surprised,” Khushi said, her nose in the air. But she couldn’t maintain her arrogance for long. She burst out laughing, clutching her tummy.

“What is it, Khushi?” he asked, a smile playing on his lips.
“Poor Amanji,” she chuckled. “Poor, poor Amanji. Having to get me for you because you didn’t have the guts to appear before me. You are a very shy boy,” she guffawed.

His shoulders shook with laughter.

“I am better than you,” she said. “Devi Maiyya asked me to be a sherni and to get hold of you. What if I too had hidden in the kitchen?” she asked reasonably. “You would have done aahein bharna in the office and I would have done the same in the kitchen. Then what would have happened to our love story?”

He had to nod.

“Waise,” she began, the laughter falling away from her face.

“Yes?” he asked.

“As we are talking of the past and marriage, there are a few things you need to know about me,” Khushi said.

“Yes, Khushi?” he asked.

“You may change your mind after hearing them,” Khushi warned.

“Are you married?’ he asked.

“No,” Khushi said, outraged.

“Engaged?” he asked.

“Of course not,” Khushi grumbled.

“Then nothing can change my mind,” ASR claimed.

“I am an orphan,” Khushi claimed proudly. ‘There. Deal with it,’ she thought.

“What?” he asked, perplexed.

“An orphan. That is a person whose parents are dead,” she explained.

“But your babuji, buaji, amma,” ASR stuttered. “Your khandani pesha, your father’s father’s father...”

Khushi nodded.

“My mother was Jiji’s mother’s sister,” she explained quietly. “When my parents died in an accident when I was eight, my aunt adopted me. I call her and my uncle my amma and babuji. Jiji is my cousin, not my sister. Aur jahan tak chef hone ka sawal he, my amma’s father was a halwai too.”

Arnav stared at her in silence, moved to tears.

Khushi averted her eyes from his or she would start crying again and she hated, hated to cry over her past.

“Khushi, shall I ask nani and the others to visit your house in Laxmi Nagar with a proposal?” he asked softly.

Khushi hesitated. “Can we—can we make it official later?” she asked. “Let’s know each other for a while before getting married.”

“How many days do you need to know me, Khushi?” he asked seriously.

Khushi smiled. “One month,” she said. “I have to see how good a thief you are before agreeing to marry you.”

“Khushi,” he protested, wanting to speed up the knowing process.

“Amma and babuji will visit Delhi next month. I want to wait till they are here before you propose,” she explained. “That will give us time.”

He leaned forward and took hold of her hand. “One month, Khushi,” he agreed.

Khushi jumped up. “I have to go,” she said shyly.

“So my Lucknowi chef knows how to be shy too?” he teased.

Khushi blushed as she tried to free her hand from his.

He kissed her palm lingeringly. Khushi shivered at the feel of his stubble and hard lips against her soft palm. He stood up and made to move towards her.

She ran laughing to the door. “I will see you tomorrow,” she laughed as she opened the door.

“Khushi,” he called.

She raised her brow.

“Tomorrow. Here. Let’s have lunch together daily,” he suggested.

Khushi nodded, her face pink.

“I need the time to prove I am a thief par excellence,” he claimed.

Khushi blushed before leaving.

Arnav stood smiling, lost in dreams till Aman came looking for him.

“Sir, this is the schedule for today,” he said apologetically. “The next meeting begins in ten minutes.”

ASR nodded.

“Sir, how was lunch?” Aman asked. “The employees were lost for words to praise it.”

“Delicious,” he replied.

“Shall I call bhabiji and give her the great news?” Aman asked.

“No, I will,” ASR said.

Aman’s eyes widened. “But she will find out that you own AR Designs,” he warned.

“She knows. She knew when she signed the contract,” ASR said with a soft smile.

Aman’s jaw hit the plush carpeted floor.

“Aman, get ready to plan a wedding. Khushi’s family will get here next month. Clear my schedule for two weeks after our wedding and book us a villa on an island far away from here. I want to take Khushi for a long honeymoon,” he said.

Aman, thrown by the barrage of orders, held on to the door for support like a weak plant being battered by rain.

Part 11