Sunday, February 2, 2014

Baby Hold On 15-20

Baby Hold On Updated: Part 12
Desert Heat Pending. 
It's a mahaupdate so taking me some time.
Also, if you read this blog often and it means something to you, let me know. Because as much as I love my blog, ever since I've started posting here, I've noticed fewer comments on IF. So let me know once in awhile because I am considering updating here after a delay instead of simultaneously. Not sure.. Shout out to those who regularly leave feedback.

**NO COPYING, SHARING, ALTERING OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT 2014 BY TINA!**
Part 15--Mahaupdate (04/02/2014)

Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 15: Birthday Surprise
But I knew him well. I could tell he was lying, though I never pressed him about it. We'd been both counting down the days till my birthday with such impatience and excitement.
My eyes closed as I recalled the lost, stunned look in his eyes as my aunt handed me the train ticket.  I'm sorry, Raizada. If only Buaji had asked me first.
But she hadn't. It had been a complete surprise. Last year on my birthday, Buaji had accidentally dyed her hair an alarming shade of orange and I'd canceled the trip to Lucknow to stay home and help her fix it. She'd been too embarrassed to even go to Bumble's salon.
I stared down at the train ticket in my hands. A year ago, I'd wanted this so badly, but this year, it felt like nothing more than a heavy burden. The only bright side was that I'd get to see Sheena again.
Surveying the bedroom one last time to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything, I hoisted up the suitcase, closing the door behind me. A question I'd been fighting to ignore till now crashed into me: How would I ever say goodbye to Mr. Sexy?
Even though I would be gone only for five days, the pang of separation hit me hard. Arnav and I had spent the last few months always together. We'd never once been apart since the fateful morning he'd walked into my house as the new paying guest.
My heart squeezed as I walked into the living room and saw him in deep conversation with my aunt over something. I hoped it wasn't the blonde confusion as usual. He paused mid-sentence as he noticed me, smiling.
My aunt glanced over her shoulder at me. "There you are, Sanka Devi. You're going to miss your train if you dillydally any more."
I didn't reply, my breathing uneven as Arnav took my suitcase. His hand brushed mine and I knew the touch was deliberate.
"Thanks, Raizada."
He just nodded, staring into my eyes. "I'll be outside."
As he walked out the main door, taking my purse too, I turned to my aunt, hugging her. "Take care of yourself, Buaji, and please don't try any new experiments till I return, especially face packs or hair dye. I'll miss you."
"Happy birthday in advance, Sanka Devi." She patted my cheek. "You're happy, aren't you?" I managed a nod for her and she smiled. "Give Sheena all my love and do try to stay out of trouble." She said it as if it was an impossible task, inevitable almost.
My throat felt too sore to argue. "I will. Is the taxi here?"
Buaji shook her head. "Arnav dear said he would drop you. Isn't that sweet? Go on, Sanka Devi. Don't keep him waiting."
I hugged her one more time before stepping outside. It was a cool, pleasant evening and the sky was darkening overhead. My aunt, though, had been wrong. Mr. Sexy was not waiting for me. He was in fact nowhere to be seen.
The lights were glowing brightly inside Bumble's Beauty Boutique across the street, but Happyji's car garage was shutting down for the day. He waved as he spotted me. "Leaving, Khushiji? Hope you have a great birthday in Lucknow!"
I didn't ask how he knew. Everyone knew everyone's business in Laxmi Nagar. News here spread faster than peanut butter on bread.
It was quite remarkable that no one had discovered my secret romance with Arnav yet. I suspected it was because everyone assumed I was basically engaged to Shyamji and also something to do with me being such a typical good girl--completely unlike the bad boy vibe Arnav sported.
No one expected something between us, simply put. But how anyone had not noticed the spark between the two of us was beyond me. It was always there: heady and palpable. I was madly attracted to the man and my heart seemed like a lost cause too.
"Raizada?"
Buaji stuck her head out the window, making me jump. "He's not there?"
I motioned toward the empty, dusty lane. "Unless he's a superhero and can become invisible, no Buaji."
She narrowed her eyes at me, but there was a tiny grin on her face. "Just wait a few more minutes. I'm sure he'll show up. He's the one who suggested taking you, after all."
As she went back inside (her favorite soap was about to come on), I leaned against the veranda's railing, wondering how on earth Mr. Sexy would drop me to the train station. He didn't have a car here, though he'd mentioned owning one in Mumbai.
The answer came with the sound of a loud rumble. My mouth fell open as I saw him: heading my way on top of a shiny, black motorcycle, his eyes hidden behind tinted aviators and his broad shoulders covered by his familiar leather jacket.
"Ready, baby?"
I blinked at him, then at the bike, and back again. "Where did you get this?"
"Rented it," he replied, as if it was no big deal.
"Just to drop me?"
He smirked. "Partly. I also needed a way to get to Lucknow. I was hoping to go on the same train as you, but the tickets are sold out."
"You're going to come to Lucknow on this motorcycle?" I asked incredulously.
Mr. Sexy nodded. "It'll be slower than the train, but you're going to be busy with your friends till your birthday anyway. I thought it would be a fun way to use up my time. Plus, Lucknow's not that far."
I sighed as he helped me sit on the mammoth bike. "You're still planning on coming?"
He flicked a finger over my nose. "Nothing can stop me."
"You don't know Sheena's mom, Arnav! I swear she has eyes on the back of her head! She won't allow it."
"I've tackled worse than your friend's mother. Relax, Khushi. I'll be there. Now, stop frowning and put your arms around me."
I frowned all the more as I curled my arms around his waist. "You are the most stubborn man I've ever met."
He chuckled. "Most determined man--not stubborn. Baby, hold on."
The engine roared to life and then we were breezing past Laxmi Nagar's crowded lanes and colorful shops, weaving in and out of the traffic. Raizada handled the bike really well and my worry about him coming all the way to Lucknow on this monster bike lessened greatly.
I pressed my cheek against the back of his leather jacket, holding him as tight as I could. If only I could go with him to Lucknow like this, but my aunt had already spoken to Sheena's mom. They'd be waiting for me at the station and if I didn't step off that train, there would be hell to pay.
"Khushi..."
"Hmm?" I felt warm and comfortable and more than a little drowsy. A few more minutes and I might have even fallen asleep.
Arnav squeezed my hand, his thumb stroking my fingers. "We're here."
My eyes flew open. But it was no mistake. We were in the middle of an endless stream of traffic, chaos and noise all around us. To think I'd been about to nap. Perhaps I did share some similarities with Buaji after all, I thought, recalling her daily nap schedule.
Mr. Sexy parked across the street, taking my suitcase in one hand and my hand in the other. I leaned against him as we walked toward the station, my heart squeezing more and more with every step.
I didn't want to leave him--even if it was only for five days. I also didn't want to cry in front of him like a child. Blinking back tears, I clung to his hand.
We found my train easily enough. It was on time, scheduled to depart in ten minutes at exactly 8:00 PM. People were rushing to board it, but I felt very, very reluctant, glancing down at our joined hands.
As countless passersby stepped around us and last-minute announcements blared from the speakers, Mr. Sexy sighed, tipping up my face and pressing a lingering kiss to my forehead. "Khushi, I'll be there. You said you trusted me, right?"
I nodded, and to my horror, a big, fat tear leaked past my eyes, slipping across my cheek before I could stop it. I started to brush it away, but Arnav beat me to it.
He drew in a deep breath as he wiped it away, his gaze suddenly very turbulent. I don't know who reached for the other first, but the next second, I was in his arms, holding him as tightly as I could. He embraced me just as hard, murmuring my name again and again.
"Khushi... Khushi, I promise you I'll be there. It's just for a few days."
The train horn sounded and it took everything in me to step away from him. My throat felt sorer than it had all day. "I'll miss you. Every moment."
"Me too, baby." We hugged one more time, his lips grazing my temple. And then he helped me onto the train, our hands entwined till the last possible moment.
I hurried to find my seat, rushing to the window. He was standing right outside and though the thick glass that separated us, I laid my hands against his.
Mr. Sexy went through his instructions again. "Have fun with your friends, Khushi, and don't worry about anything. Don't have too many jalebis--no matter how delicious they may be. Your stomach always aches afterwards. And call me everyday."
"Every hour, more like it," I said, being completely truthful.
He smiled. "I'll be waiting. And baby?" The train was moving now and he had to jog to keep up. "I won't say happy birthday to you now because I will be there. Khushi, I'll be there!"
I tried to smile at him but I'm sure he saw right through it. Our gazes locked one last time as the train rounded a bend and I lost sight of him. I fell back against the seat, and cried like a baby.
A question that I often wondered about sprang into my mind: How do you know when you're in love with someone and when you're falling in love?
I now felt the answer no longer mattered. What I felt for Arnav was so intense, so deep that I was quite sure I may have been on my way to Lucknow, but my heart remained in Delhi--with him.
"Tickets!" called a booming voice several rows ahead. "Tickets out, everyone!"
I reached for my purse and that's when I realized it. I had forgotten something after all. Not my ticket, but my phone.
*****
Early the next morning, when the train chugged into Lucknow's bustling platform, I was still kicking myself for my forgetfulness. The eight-hour journey had given me plenty of time to think and ponder--not that it really helped matters. I had figured out exactly where my phone was: in Delhi on my bedroom dresser.
And the worst thing was, I couldn't call Arnav from any other phone. I didn't know his number by heart. I was just so used to clicking "Mr. Sexy" in my contact list, I'd never thought twice about it before. Now, I couldn't help but curse technology. Outside my own number, I didn't remember any other.
"Khushi!" A tall, slender girl with chin-length, curly hair was calling my name and waving frantically. As our eyes met, I darted forward.
"Sheena!" She met me half way, and we hugged just as we had when we were kids. "I didn't recognize you for a second! Your hair... It's so different."
She smiled, running her hand through the curls. "Do you like it? My parents hate it, but it's growing on me. I always wanted it short, but Ronn--" Her eyes darkened. "He preferred it long."
I squeezed her hand. "You look beautiful. It really suits you. Not everyone can pull it off, you know. But you look--"
"--dreadful," broke in an annoyed, masculine voice.
My smile widened. "Hello, aunty. I missed you!"
I started to hug Sheena's mom but she batted me away. "Khushi Kumari Gupta! Desist! You know how I feel about that."
I did; she wasn't exactly a hugging-type person. Winking at Sheena, I tried to hug her all the more. Her mother jumped backward, holding her phone aloft. "Here, talk to your to aunt. Madhumatiji, here's your niece. On schedule at exactly 0400 hours."
I took the phone with a raised brow. Sheena was trying not to laugh. "Buaji?"
"Khushi," came my aunt's groggy voice. "Everything okay there? You didn't have any trouble on the train, did you?"
"No, Buaji. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm okay, time for my nap, you know."
I steeled myself, clutching the phone hard. "And... and Raizada?"
Buaji yawned. "Arnav dear? He left soon after you, said he had to meet someone important in Mumbai. I assume his editor."
So Mr. Sexy was already on his way to Lucknow. I started to ask Buaji for his phone number but before I could come up with some innocent excuse, Sheena's mother snatched the phone back from me.
"Khushi will call you later, Madhumatji. We have a tight schedule the next three days."
It was too loud for me to hear Buaji's reply. Aunty slipped the phone into her armband and then turned on her heel. "Let's go, girls."
I looped my arm around Sheena's as we followed after her mother at a far less brisk pace. "How are you now? I murmured. "I was so worried."
Sheena sighed. "I knew you would worry. I almost didn't tell you about it, but I couldn't share it with anyone else. I'm not completely okay, but I know I will be, Khushi. I refuse to waste another second crying over or even thinking about that man."
"Don't ever hesitate to tell me anything. We're best friends," I said. " You know I don't hate many people in the world, but I hate that jerk. He's going to regret it one day. And you'll marry someone so much better. I just know it."
"Do you really think so? I'm starting to think all men are untrustworthy."
I thought of Mr. Sexy and my eyes grew dreamy. "No, not all of them..."
Sheena paused to stare at me and I was thankful that her mother blew her familiar, red whistle just then. "Girls!"
We laughed as we ran to catch up.
Before heading to the farmhouse, we stopped at a familiar corner of Lucknow. Payal jiji unfortunately had an important exam coming up, so I'd be the only Gupta going on the trip. But I did have breakfast with her and the rest of the family before piling in with Sheena and ten of her friends into a large bus her parents had rented. They wanted their daughter to celebrate her birthday in grand style this year and I found the gesture very endearing.
"The farmhouse is approximately two hours outside the city," said aunty, blowing her whistle. "Seats are alphabetically labeled with nametags. Sit at your assigned seat, please."
No one listened. I sat beside Sheena though my seat was a few rows back. Her friends were a fun, crazy bunch, requesting the driver to turn up the music as soon as we were off.
I thought Sheena's mother would protest but she simply frowned, grumbling under her breath as she sat up front. She had her sister for company--a middle-aged woman who looked just as hawk-like as her.
The next three days passed slowly, but steadily. The farmhouse was nestled in a beautiful, hilly area, a good distance from the main highway. Our days were scheduled down to the minute: breakfast at the crack of dawn, morning jog at 0600, volleyball/basketball at 0900, lunch at 1200, afternoon shopping trip, dinner/bonfire and then a midnight hike.
While Sheena's mother and aunt had been given spacious suites on the second floor, us twelve girls were sharing the downstairs hall.
Some slept on the sofas, others on cots. Like Sheena, I picked one of the sleeping bags instead. The floor was a bit uncomfortable but we were so exhausted at the end of every day, we could have been sleeping on boulders and we wouldn't have noticed.
Every night, I would hug Arnie the hippo and fall asleep at once, lost in vivid dreams which starred the sinfully handsome man the stuffed animal was named after. And then every morning, the whistle would blow, startling me like a sudden crackling of thunder.
I was used to aunty's military ways, but the other girls really struggled with the 5am wake up calls, saying it was more a boot camp than a birthday trip.
Out of protest, most had taken the nametags from the bus and taped the wrong ones to their clothes. This made it extra confusing not just for aunty, but also for me. I couldn't keep track of their real names. Leena's tag was Pinky, Pinky's was Lana, Lana's was Farha, Farha's was Khushi, and so on. Whenever I thought I had it figured out, they'd swap the nametags. So I'd given up and begun to avoid using any names in general.
On the night before the big day, Sheena managed to talk her mother into letting us watch a movie instead of the usual midnight hike. The twelve of us sat around the TV, eating popcorn and pizza, giving each other manicures and pedicures and watching a very cheesy romcom. It was sheer heaven after the past few days.
"So when are you going to tell me?" murmured Sheena as the actor on screen revved his motorcycle. It reminded me of Mr. Sexy so badly my heart ached.
I hadn't talked to him in over three days and missed him terribly. I felt all the more horrible when I pictured him waiting for me to call. Every hour, I'd said. I could only hope he wasn't too angry. What if he thought I'd forgotten about him and he decided not to show up at all? My heart throbbed in my chest.
"Khushi?" Sheena waved a hand over my face.
"Sorry, what were you saying?"
"I asked when are you planning on telling me?"
"Telling you what?"
"That you're in love."
It was so unexpected, I almost choked on the kernels of popcorn I'd been in the process of swallowing. "In love?" I spluttered.
Sheena nodded, looking at me with knowing eyes. "Don't hide it. I've known you since we were two years old. I noticed your dreamy expression right from the train station. And I haven't missed how you hug that men's shirt when you sleep and how you sneak off and stare at a photo in your suitcase. And don't get me started on that blue hippo. You're in love, Khushi. Aren't you?"
I twisted my hands in my lap. I couldn't deny it anymore. Sheena was right. It was as obvious as the sky being blue and the grass being green outside. "Yes," I confessed, feeling slightly dazed and light-headed by the realization.
Sheena squeezed my hand. "Why didn't you tell me? Because of what happened with me?"
I shook my head at once. "I haven't been sure of it myself until now. But being away from him, it's so clear to me. I'm in love with him and have been for a long time. I've just been too scared to admit it--even to myself." It felt good to finally say what my heart had known all along. "In the beginning, I thought he was just a flirt, a temporary paying guest. I mean what are the chances of Prince Charming entering my ordinary and often boring life and actually deciding he wants to stay? I tried to keep away, but we share this crazy connection. I can't describe it, but it's unlike anything I've ever felt, Sheena. I can't stop thinking about him. And when he kisses me, I want it to never end. I don't even care if we're not married yet, I already consider him mine. That can't be normal, can it?"
"When you're in love, it's very normal, Khushi."
I took a deep breath, grateful to have someone to finally discuss my doubts and questions with. "You know, for the longest time I worried that he'd break my heart. I think that's why I hesitated to admit how much I love him. But now I trust him completely, Sheena. I can't live without him."
She hugged me. "I'm happy for you, Khushi. So happy. I just hope and pray he's truly one of those good men out there."
"He is," I said right away. "He's wonderful, Sheena. He takes care of not just me, but also Buaji. And he's always supporting me whenever I need him. We've become really good friends."
"And he's also very sexy."
I stared at Sheena with wide-eyed surprise. "How do you know that?"
"Because you still talk in your sleep. I've heard you say "Mr. Sexy" several times now."
My face turned tomato red. "He is very sexy--and funny, smart, naughty and just incredible. OMG, Sheena, I'm so in love with Arnav Singh Raizada. I miss him so much!"
She laughed at my craziness. "He must be missing you too, Khushi. Especially with your birthday being tomorrow."
I just blurted it out: "He's crashing the party."
Her smile slipped. "What? Khushi, you can't be serious! My mom--"
"I know. I told him not to come several times, but he's so stubborn. He calls it determination, but it is stubbornness. He's planning on coming to the party tomorrow night."
Sheena, to my surprise, was on Mr. Sexy's team. "Then we'll have to help him get in."
My eyes shone. "Really? Sheena, you're the best! I love you!"
"Tell Mr. Sexy that. He needs to know, Khushi."
I nodded, smiling as I pulled her up on her feet. The movie was nearing its climax, a loud song had just begun. Joining the others, I danced like I'd never danced before.
*****
The night of the birthday party, I was a bundle of nerves. Dressed in a glittery purple and magenta dress, my hair pulled up in soft ringlets, I twirled in front of the mirror. I had to admit that I looked pretty. I wondered what Arnav would think.
I don't know when I'd gone from hoping he would not show up to praying that he would. Even the wrath of Sheena's mother didn't scare me anymore. It felt like it had been ages since I'd seen Arnav.
Walking down the main staircase, my eyes searched for him. But my heart sank as I didn't see his tall, lean form anywhere. The other girls rushed toward me, complimenting my dress and wishing me happy birthday again.
I thanked them, hoping my smile wasn't too strained. They started to pull me to the dance floor, but I declined, standing off to the side.
"Raizada, where are you?"
A large hand fell on my wrist and my eyes widened as I glimpsed the bright red nail polish on each finger. "OMG, you came dressed as a woman after all!" My eyes bulged even more as I glanced up, shrinking back.
"How else am I supposed to dress, Khushi?" Sheena's mother asked, her hand falling away. She was wearing her favorite saree: a forest green, camouflage print.
"A general?" I murmured.
She didn't find my joke funny. "Since the party is about to start, I just wanted to remind you that the jalebis are for everyone so do not horde them all as you always do. I will find out."
"Yes, ma'am." I saluted her and her mouth pursed.
She was about to reprimand me--perhaps tell me to do fifty push-ups or run ten laps around the dance floor---when she suddenly sniffed the air and then grabbed the whistle around her neck, blowing it hard as she marched away. Feeling a bit curious and having nothing better to do, I followed after her.
I was surprised to see Sheena motioning in a line of waiters from the kitchen, all of them dressed in formal, black and white tuxes. I strained my neck to see if Arnav was among them but the disco lights were too distracting. I couldn't spot those familiar, twinkling, chocolate-brown eyes.
"Who allowed these men inside?" aunty bellowed. "I strictly said no men."
Sheena and I clapped our hands over our ears as the whistle blew again and again like a foghorn.
"Ma, they're just waiters."
"I do not care if they're waiters or space cadets. Gentlemen, round about and march back to where you came from. You girls can serve yourselves." Sheena started to argue, but I shook my head at her. It was no use.
Aunty herded us toward the center of the room where Sheena and I cut a lovely, three-tiered cake amid a rowdy and off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday." I managed a smile for the cameras, but my mind was somewhere else... on someone else...
Later, Sheena joined me on one of the small, round tables that had been decorated with balloons and glitter.
"Sorry about my mom, Khushi. I really tried."
"It's okay, Sheena." Despite the strict warning, I bit into my tenth or eleventh jalebi. I'd lost count.
"He can still show up," insisted Sheena. "My mom and aunt have gone to their rooms for the night. It's past 2100--their bedtime. Now that the waiters have been chased off, I think they'll both leave us alone for the night."
What did it matter now? I wondered, dejectedly. Without Arnav, my birthday felt incomplete.
One of the girls (her nametag read Sheena) suddenly stood, tapping a fork to her glass. She looked unsteady on her feet and my eyes narrowed. Was she drunk? But how had she gotten alcohol past aunty's vigilance?
"And now," said the girl in a slurred and very loud voice. "Time for my gift to the birthday girls: a performance by a hot-new, local Spanish band! Enjoy, Khushi and Sheena!"
"Spanish band?" I murmured as we all clapped.
"No idea," replied Sheena, looking just as puzzled as me.
"I snuck them in from the bathroom window," I heard the girl with Sheena's nametag declare as she sat on the round table near us. "Boys, the coast is clear! The general is gone!"
And then as everyone laughed and the lights dimmed and the curtain I'd failed to notice till now slid away, I slouched in my chair, eyeing the band with idle curiosity. They were little more than tall shadows, though I spotted one holding a guitar.
As the one on drums struck a fast beat, a single spotlight shone and then the man in the center spun our way.
I gasped, the jalebi in my hand tumbling down. Chocolate-brown, twinkling eyes--check. Wavy, dark hair--check. Sexy smirk--double check.
Arnav wrapped his hands around the microphone, smiling right at me. "Surprised?" he asked.
I nodded, too flabbergasted to say anything. It was the best birthday surprise I'd ever gotten. Dressed in black pants and a loose, white shirt, left unbuttoned till the middle of his chest with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he looked effortlessly charming and way too hot.
He winked at me, ignoring the claps and hoots of the girls. "This one is for the birthday girls. A classic song from one of my favorite Mexican rock bands, Mana... 1...2...3..."
And then to my shock and awe, Mr. Sexy began to sing--in perfect Spanish! On the giant projection screen behind him, the lyrics scrolled past, the English translations in parentheses:
"Rayando el sol (Reaching for the sun)
Rayando por ti (Reaching for you)
Esta pena, me duele, me quema sin tu amor (I'm hurting without your love)
No me has llamado, estoy desesperado (You haven't called me, I'm growing desperate)
Son muchas lunas las que te he llorado. (It's been so long that I've been crying for you)."
My heart was pounding as he crossed the dance floor, coming to a stand right before Sheena and me. He was close enough to touch, temptation in the very flesh. I ached to run into his arms.
Holding my gaze captive, he sang on, his voice deep and hauntingly beautiful. I hadn't known he could sing, much less in Spanish. I didn't know the language, but it didn't seem to matter. All that mattered was that he was singing for me. That he'd come for me. Tears gathered in my eyes as he sang, each word so meaningful.
"Rayando el sol (Reaching for the sun)
Desesperacion (Desperation)
Es mas facil llegar al sol que a tu corazon (It's easier to touch the sun than your heart)
Me muero por ti--oh eh oh--viviendo sin ti (It's killing me to live without you)
y no aguanto, me duele tanto estar asi (I can't take it anymore)
Rayando el sol (Reaching for the sun)."
He extended his hand to me and for a moment, I just gawked at him, lost in those striking, dark eyes and warm smile.
"Go, Khushi," Sheena said, pushing me gently. She didn't have to be told who this was. "Go to him."
Swallowing, I laid my hand on Arnav's. Our fingers entwined as he pulled me up, bringing me against him. He raised my hand to his lips, pressing a firm kiss there. I felt that touch down to my toes.
"I missed you, beautiful," he whispered for my ears alone, drawing me flat against him as he raised the microphone again.
"A tu casa yo fui (I went to your house)
y no te encontr (but I didn't meet you)
en el parque, en la plaza, en el cine te busque (I searched for you in the park, the plaza, and theatre)
te tengo atrapada entre mi piel y mi alma (You're trapped between my skin and my soul)
mas ya no puedo tanto y quiero estar junto a ti. (It's too much for me. I just want to be with you)."
He spun me on the dance floor and in that breathless moment, I forgot everything and everyone except the two of us. I felt like a princess as he slow danced with me, one arm curved possessively around my waist. Was this truly real? It felt like a fairy tale, a dream come true. My smile was wide as the man I loved tugged me into his arms, singing:
"Rayando el sol (Reaching for the sun)
Desesperacion (Desperation)
Es mas facil llegar al sol que a tu corazon (It's easier to touch the sun than your heart)
Me muero por ti oh eh oh viviendo sin ti (It's killing me to live without you)
y no aguanto, me duele tanto estar asi (I can't take it anymore)
Rayando el sol (Reaching for the sun)."
As the last note faded and raucous applause rang out, I embraced Arnav with all my might, trembling. His arms rose around me, his grip unyielding.
"Happy birthday, baby," he murmured in my ear, his warm breath fanning my ear. "Did you like the surprise?"
"Loved it, Raizada, and you know it." Tightening my grip on him, I kissed him on the cheek. I ignored all the curious glances being thrown our way, focused entirely on him. "I can't believe you're here! I've missed you every moment. I left my phone at home, on my dresser of all places. I was so hoping you'd show up tonight. But aunty sent off the waiters and I thought it wouldn't happen. And then you showed up! And you sang! You're an amazing singer, baby. I had no idea. You could be a rockstar, you know. A writer and a rockstar."
I knew I was rambling but I couldn't stop it. Arnav kissed my forehead. "I just want to be yours."
My heart was thundering as I gazed up at him. "You already are."
His eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled, crushing me to him. "Would you mind if we left this party? I want to celebrate alone with you."
I couldn't stop smiling. "You don't need to ask. Let me just tell, Sheena."
But she was already coming toward us, extending her hand. "So you're Arnav Singh Raizada."
He nodded. "And you must be Sheena, Khushi's best friend."
I interrupted their introductions, tugging on her hand. "Sheena, Arnav has planned something private for my birthday. Tonight." I didn't have to explain much else to her. She'd always understood me.
Pulling me aside, she whispered. "Are you sure about this, Khushi?"
"Very." I was dying to go with Arnav. As soon as I'd stepped away, the other girls had swarmed him, requesting pictures and even autographs. Our eyes met through the crowd, the warmth in his gaze curling around me like a winter blanket.
Sheena was weighing the options. "I'll tell my mother tomorrow morning that you left a few hours before. She won't be happy, but it'll buy you some time. Just get back to Delhi by tomorrow night otherwise your Buaji won't be too happy."
I yelped as I hugged her. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Rushing to Arnav, I said, "Two minutes, baby. Let me just get my things."
He brushed a wayward strand of hair from my forehead. "Take your time. I'll be right outside."
The next few minutes were total chaos. Sheena's friends were waiting for some explanation so I just told them: "He's my boyfriend."
They squealed, jumping to hug me and help me pack up my suitcase.
"I knew it!" yelled the shortest one, before lowering her voice as someone elbowed her, reminding us all of the general sleeping upstairs. "Sorry. I mean I knew you two were madly in love just by the way you danced with one another. You make perfect couple."
"This is so romantic," murmured another. I think her name was Nita, but I couldn't be 100% sure. "You're eloping, Khushi!"
I laughed. "No, not yet. He has planned something special for my birthday. Just the two of us."
The group ooh'd and aah'd again. I hugged each one--whatever their names were. At the end of the line was Sheena and I hugged her the longest. Tears pricked my eyes. "I'll call you soon. I'm sorry if aunty troubles you a lot because of me."
"I have years of experience handling my mother, don't worry. I just hope you get every happiness, Khushi." Before I could reply, she pulled on my hand. "Come on, Mr. Sexy must be waiting."
I was smiling as the whole group escorted me outside. Mr. Sexy was waiting near his motorcycle, his back to me as he talked with the other band members.
"Thanks for all your help," I heard him say.
"No problemo, ASR. No one understands amor like us musicians."
I wondered what "amor" meant, but didn't have time to ask, the girls were literally pushing me towards him. I gasped as I collided with his leather jacket. He spun to catch me, his eyes lighting up.
"Ready, Sushi?"
"Yes." My voice was astonishingly steady though my heart was beating like a drum.
Arnav kissed me on the forehead before fastening my stuff to the back of the bike. He then sat and I curled up behind him, my arms winding around his waist. I waved at the girls and the band members as he revved the motorcycle.
"Baby, hold on."
Tightening my grip on him, I nestled closer. The sound of laughter and shouts echoed in our ears we cruised down the dusty trail, the wind ruffling our hair. And then we were alone, blissfully alone.

Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 16: Tonight
I pinched his chest in response. "You're going to have to make up for this, you know, Raizada."
"Damn right," he threw over his shoulder, his lopsided grin lighting up his too handsome face. "I'm looking forward to it."
Something about his tone made my pulse hammer and a rosy blush rise to my cheeks. I felt jumpy with excitement, and not even the beautiful scenery could catch my attention as we whizzed by.
It was so dark I couldn't quite read the time on my watch. I squinted at the dial several times, angling it this way and that. Surely, fourteen minutes had passed by now. "Are we there yet?"
"Ten more minutes."
"What! Are you sure?"
Arnav nodded, grinning at my obvious impatience. "I timed it on my way to the farmhouse." And then after a pause, he added, "Several times."
My mouth fell open. "Several times?"
He sounded a bit sheepish. "The drive from Delhi didn't take all that long. I got here the day before yesterday and rented this place."
My mind was already skipping ahead, working through all the possibilities. "So you came to see me more than once?"
"Yeah, and I did see you."
I blinked stupidly. "You did? When?"
"At a bonfire two nights ago. You were eating marshmallows and burning some pieces of paper. I couldn't get close enough. I tried to catch you on the hike later on too."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He'd been there all along? At the midnight hike and at the impromptu bonfire where I'd joined a few of the other girls and burned some nametags? To think that entire time, I'd been pining away for him, missing him so much it had been a physical ache, and he'd been nearby!
"Why didn't you tell me? Do you have any idea how much I wanted to see you too?"
He sighed at my grumpy tone. "I know, baby, and I tried--several times. But you were surrounded by the other girls and your friend's mom was always on patrol. By the way, you were right about her, she really is tough to get around. So I thought it would be best to wait till your birthday rather than have her catch me and ruin everything."
As the silence stretched, he suddenly braked the motorcycle, bringing it to a jerking halt.
I fell against him. "Raizada! What are you--"
He swerved around, his chocolate brown gaze intent on my face. "I don't want you to be upset on your birthday. Trust me, I would have met you if there had been even a slim chance. But there just wasn't. And honestly, baby, it was torture to see you from far and not be able to talk to you. Sheer torture."
His gorgeous eyes fell on my lips and I felt my body clench. Reaching for his hand, I threaded our fingers together, smiling up at him. "I'm trying really hard not to be mad at you, Raizada. I know you must have tried everything. And in the end, you gave me the best birthday surprise--just by coming tonight. I missed you so much."
Arnav smiled as he leaned forward, his warm breath washing over my face. "It killed me not being able to meet you... hold you... kiss you..."
I quivered at that husky confession, my eyes flashing to his. "You can kiss me now."
"Finally." His teeth flashed white and the next instant, his mouth was on mine, warm and smooth. I curled my arms around his neck, meeting him stroke for stroke, a strange, but intensely hot urgency building inside of me. I couldn't get enough of him. But the kiss was fleeting, ending so quickly I frowned with confusion.
"Let's wait till we reach the cabin," Mr. Sexy explained, his thumb rubbing over my reddened lips. "It looks like it's going to rain."
I realized I had been so lost in him, I hadn't noticed the wind pick up speed, sending tree branches flying. Dark, ominous-looking clouds were gathering overhead. But I shrugged it all off, grinning at him.
"Oh, so we're going to a cabin. Thanks for the clue, baby."
Arnav seemed a bit startled by the slip and then he shrugged. "You know I can't resist you. We're almost there. Seven minutes more." I pecked his unshaved cheek, holding him tightly as he revved the motorcycle.
Sure enough, exactly seven minutes later, we arrived at the cabin he'd rented. Against the towering pines and evergreens, it appeared small, but cozy--something you'd see in storybooks or on the back of postcards. I was instantly charmed.
A light drizzle began to fall, and as Arnav helped me off the bike, I impulsively caught his hand. "Dance with me."
He hesitated for the space of a heartbeat and then tugged me to him, twirling me in a wide circle. I ended up flat against him: our chests crushed together. As the rain poured down, showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, my gaze swept over his chiseled, ruggedly masculine features, drawn time and again to the straight, elegant line of his mouth.
As his hands skimmed down to my hip and clamped firmly, I felt myself sway. My fingers clenched on his broad shoulders.
We slow danced indecently close, far more intimately than we had at the farmhouse. I could make out the desire pooling in Mr. Sexy's eyes, could even feel his arousal, but it didn't scare me anymore. My body was responding to him as intuitively as it always did. The friction of his wet leather jacket against my sensitive skin further heightened that pull.
"Arnav," I whispered, trembling.
He pulled me hard against him, his gaze deep and intense as raindrops streaked across his face, clinging to his eyelashes. "I love you, Khushi."
For a moment, I wondered if I'd dreamt it up. Had he really said--
"I love you," he repeated, as if he knew I needed to hear it again. "I've loved you for so long now, baby."
I felt my knees weaken and he dipped his head, his mouth brandingly hot. I framed his face in my palms, taking a deep, shuddering breath.
"Do you really mean it?"
He nodded with absolute seriousness, the corner of his mouth curving. "I didn't come to Delhi looking for love, but I found you, Khushi. And I fell in love with you."
It was all I needed to hear. My heartbeat blocked all else as I leaned up to kiss him, winding my arms around his neck. As we parted, I told him what I'd till now been too hesitant to admit--even to myself.
"When we met, I had no idea you'd come to mean so much to me. I wasn't even looking for love. I still don't know how it happened or when. But being apart from you these past few days has shown me that I can't runaway from this. It's never going away--and I never want it to. I love you, Arnav Singh Raizada, my Mr. Sexy."
For the first time, Arnav was speechless and then he caught my mouth in a swift, fierce kiss. "Say it again, baby."
I laughed, feeling all the worry and uncertainty fade away. "I. Love. You," I said, punctuating each word with a soft kiss.
Arnav's smile was wider that I'd ever seen it and we both reached for each other at the same time. I threw myself against his muscled chest, embracing him as hard as I could. His arms closed around me like iron vices and he buried his face in the crease of my neck, dropping a string of kisses.
I don't how long we stood like that in the rain, but thunder suddenly crackled above us, and Mr. Sexy drew back.
"Come on." Stopping only to grab my suitcase and purse, he took my hand and together, we ran for the door.
We were laughing as we entered the cabin, wet down to the skin. My heart shook as I felt his eyes move over me, the shine in them unmistakable. I was suddenly very much aware that the cabin was practically empty, except for a mammoth-sized bed that took up most of the space. A shiver racked me.
"Cold?" Arnav murmured, stepping closer.
Swallowing, I shook my head. It had nothing to do with the rain and everything to do with him.
"You can change into this," Mr. Sexy said, handing me a gift-wrapped box I'd failed to notice till now. Happy birthday, Khushi, he'd written on the corner.
Inside was a lacy, white nightgown and matching satin robe. To my surprise, I recognized it. "This is the same one I saw in Buaji's magazine, isn't it?"
Arnav nodded. "I noticed you looking at it several times. Do you like it?"
"Love it, baby!" I nibbled on my bottom lip. "But isn't it very expensive?"
He silenced me with a firm kiss. "Don't worry about that. Go try it on. I want to see you in it."
I couldn't refuse him. Rising up on my tiptoes to peck his cheek, I thanked him profusely and then hurried toward the door he pointed to.
"Hey, birthday girl!"
I paused at the threshold of the bathroom, beaming at him. "Yes?"
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "I love you."
I blew him a kiss, feeling insanely, madly in love. "I love you too." It felt so unbelievably wonderful to say the words out loud.
I was still smiling as I closed the door behind me, leaning back against the scratchy pine. This was real, I told myself. A fairytale come true. Mr. Sexy loved me! Me! I spun in a circle, dancing as I once had on top of Buaji's bed.
Giggling, I changed out of my drenched clothes and into the white lace. The dress fluttered over my skin like the smoothest of silk, unfurling around my ankles. It was long, but unlike anything I'd worn before, it had a plunging neckline and straps so thin they were practically nonexistent.
I considered my reflection for a long moment. I didn't look nor feel like a "stick-thin schoolgirl," as my aunt often referred to me as.
Standing before the oval mirror, I felt every inch a woman. A woman who knew what--or rather who--she wanted.  Needed. Maybe it was the effect of the nightgown, but I'd never felt more feminine and well, sexy.
The fabric clung to my shape, accentuating my curves, and the glow on my face worked more wonders than any amount of makeup ever could. My hair was damp, but as I ran my fingers through the tangles, there was no denying that that too fit.
My eyes settled on the matching white robe, but I did not put it on, my heart pounding as I realized what that meant.
Warning bells buzzed in my mind, in the exact tone and tenor of my aunt: What are you doing, Khushi Kumari Gupta? This is highly inappropriate! What will he think? And--
I shook my head as if to clear the pesky questions. Tonight, I wouldn't let anything stop me. Tonight, I wanted to be with him, the man I loved so intensely, in every way. Not even all the jalebis in the world could keep me away. Steeling myself, I turned the doorknob.
Arnav was standing with his muscled back to me on top of a crate, doing something with the ceiling. He was--breathe, Khushi, breathe--shirtless, his sopping wet T-shirt and leather jacket drying over the back of one of the chairs. I gasped as I glimpsed the table beyond it: there was an assortment of candles, a two-tiered chocolate cake, jalebis, and all my favorite foods.
"Raizada, you did all this? For me?"
"Who else, baby. I--" He froze as he caught his first good look at me, blinking several times.
I fidgeted, glancing away. "Do I have it on backwards or something?"
His smile was dazzling. "No... It's on exactly right. I could look at you all day." The glint in his eyes indicated that he wanted to do much more than look at me--a lot more.
Blushing and hoping against hope I did not look as red as a ripe tomato, I raised my hand toward him. "Are you going to just stare at me from up there? What are you doing anyway?"
Arnav sighed, making a face at the logs over our heads. "The damn roof is leaking."
My brow furrowed as I gazed around the room. It was true: rain was falling between the cracks in several places, making a pitter-patter noise on the floorboards.
How had I missed that? Was I so attuned to Mr. Sexy that I was overlooking everything else? Apparently.
"It's okay," I told him, catching his hand. "You know I love the rain." And I wasn't lying to make him feel better. Truly, I couldn't have asked for a more romantic, more perfect birthday.
He climbed down with panther-like grace, two of his fingers settling on my chin. Gently, he forced me to meet his eyes. "You seriously look beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It's going to take everything in me to keep my hands off of you tonight."
I held his gaze, doing my best not to appear nervous. My voice was remarkably steady when I spoke. "What if I don't want you to keep your hands off of me?"
He groaned at that bold question. "Khushi, don't." Seizing my hand, he tugged me to the candle-lit table. "Come on, cut the cake. I know you didn't eat anything except jalebis at the farmhouse."
I didn't ask how he knew. Maybe he'd seen me refuse my dinner from backstage. Truth was, I'd been missing him so much, I hadn't been able to eat much else. But now, my stomach was rumbling.
We cut the cake together, taking turns to feed each other.
"Happy birthday," Arnav whispered in my ear, his voice unquestionably husky and way too sexy.
"Arnav..."
"I love how you say my name," he murmured absently, weaving our fingers together. "Let's first eat and then we'll talk."
I knew he wouldn't budge so I ate as quickly as I could. It was finger-licking good.
"There," I said. "All done. Now can we talk?"
But he surprised me again. "Read this first."
I took the piece of paper, scanning it with wide-eyed amazement. "A poem?"
He nodded, pressing a kiss to my forehead. "I wrote it for you."
I recalled Buaji hastily introducing me to him a few months back: "This is Arnav Singh Raizada: writer, poet, and our new paying guest."
I'd forgotten about the poetry--till now. Holding the paper to the candlelight, I read each line slowly, cherishing each word. The title was my name:
Khushi
Yeh jheel jaisi aankhein jo dekhein ek tak
Those deep, peneterating eyes staring at me
Bin bolein kardein bayaan yeh sab
Revealing it all without saying anything
Bheeni si muskurahat karein isharein
The radiant smile adoring your lips
Zulfein jaisi kaali ghata bikhrein chehre par tumhare
The tendrils of your lustrous hair flickering at every bit
Shikwe shikayatoin ke beech woh pyaara sa ehsaas
Amidst all those teasings and fights that unnamed emotion resides
Jo har pal deta hai tumhari dhadkoin ko agaaz
Pulling the strings of your heart
Yeh baat jo thehri hai tere mere darmiyaan
Feelings that still remain unspoken
Lavsoin mein dhal bhi naa paayi to kya
Will it matter if not voiced out aloud
Is dil ne toh jaane kabse doondh liya apna mukaam
This heart found its destination long ago
Reh gaya to bas tumhara mera hona ek naam
All that remains is us being two bodies and one soul.
--A
"This is... baby, this is so beautiful." My watery eyes rose to his and immediately widened.
Arnav was no longer sitting opposite me. He was kneeling at my side, a sparkling diamond ring in his hand. I realized then that this was what he'd been planning all along. My hands clapped over my mouth. OH MY--
"I love you, Khushi Kumari Gupta," he said, his gaze bright and smoldering. "I love everything about you. The way you smile and blush so easily. The sound of your laughter. How you challenge me and drive me crazy. How you care about me as no one else ever has.  I don't know either when I fell in love with you, but I do know that I can't live without you. I want you with me. Always. Will you be my wife, baby?"
I fell to my knees beside him, shaking so badly I could hardly get the words out. "Yes! YES!"
We kissed hungrily, crazily, neither able to get close enough. I felt him slip the ring on my left hand and sitting on his lap, I admired it for a long while, resisting the urge to pinch myself.
"Happy?" Arnav murmured, nuzzling my nape.
I turned to face him, my smile widening even more if that was possible. "I've never been happier than this moment."
"Me either." His hands dove into my hair, pulling me for a deep, passion-oozing kiss.  He started to back away, but I tightened my grip on him.
"Don't stop. Not tonight."
He shuddered at that. "Khushi, baby, do you know what you're asking for?"
My heart was hammering in my chest, but I did not back down. "Yes... I want you to make love to me."
His eyes glittered like burning coals. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Are you sure?"
Kneeling before him, I pressed my mouth to his, outlining his lips with my tongue. "Is that answer enough?"
He growled, hauling me to him. "Then tonight, nothing can keep us apart."
"Nothing. Tonight, make me yours."
His lips seized mine in a fierce, intense kiss, the kind that made my head spin and my stomach swoop. To think I'd once believed that sensation to be nothing more than a bad case of food poisoning.
But I knew now that it was the most intense desire. An attraction so deep I felt engulfed by it, consumed by it. Cupping his cheeks, I returned his kiss with equal fervor.
Arnav lifted me in his arms, setting me on the bed with heartstopping tenderness. As he stepped back, his hands going to his pants, my breath hitched.
The raw, earthy smell of the cabin, the softness of the bedsheets, the glistening curtain of the rain falling about us, the candlelight and most of all: Mr. Sexy, gloriously handsome and sinfully bare, swamped my senses.
My mouth went dry as he walked toward me, no longer covered by a magazine cover. He was more handsome than any centerfold and as he caught my hand, setting it on his chest, I was overwhelmed by how much I loved him.
There was a bit of anxiety. I didn't really know what I was doing and there was no ignoring that part of his anatomy. Raizada though knew exactly how to make me comfortable.
"What did you call me outside?" he murmured casually.
I was having a hard time breathing, let alone making intelligent responses. It was so hard to concentrate when his hand was still holding mine, moving it lower and lower across his chest. As my palm skimmed over his belly button, I wet my lips.
"What?" I asked stupidly.
Arnav grinned, his gaze warm and honey-like. "You called me something. Mr. Something."
My eyes whipped to his and quickly glanced away. "I did not."
"Liar," he purred, leaning forward to kiss me. "I heard you. What was it? Mr..."
"Mr. Know-it-all," I snapped. "Or maybe Mr. Attitude."
I could tell he was trying not to laugh. "I really don't think that was it," he drawled. "From what I remember, it started with an S."
Swallowing, I struggled to come up with some excuse--anything!  "Mr... Mr..." Like my heart, my brain was clearly on his side too, debating: Mr. Sensual? Mr. Sinful? Mr. Seductive? Mr. Steamy? Mr. Smoochy?
"Take your time, baby. Just don't move your hand."
Whatever did that mean--OMG! My eyes rounded like saucers as I saw where my palm rested. Blushing to the roots of my hair, I tried to shift my hand away.
But Raizada wouldn't allow that, an insufferable smirk on his face. "What did you call me, baby?"
I gulped, my hand instinctively smoothing over his length. It wasn't all that scary I learned. In fact, it felt good--way too good. "Mr. Sexy," I finally admitted, gaining confidence as he pushed his pelvis forward. "My Mr. Sexy."
"I thought that was it." And then his mouth was on mine, tender and yet branding. My back slammed against the mattress and I drew him down on me, my hands curving over the toned muscles of his back and dipping low. My nails bit into his flesh.
He moaned something in Spanish against my mouth, and then slid downwards, trailing kisses over my neck. He sucked extra hard on his favorite spot, the suction leaving me as breathless as it always did. But this time, he didn't stop there, grinding himself against the juncture of my thighs just as he had once while sleeping.
"Arnav!" My hands fisted in his wavy hair.
I could feel his smile against my neck. "You have too many clothes on Mrs. Sexy."
I found myself smiling back, though my heartbeat was escalating as he tugged down the straps of the nightgown. "I'm not Mrs. Sexy yet."
"You are for me."
And just like that, I was lost in him again, in his every loving word, caress, and kiss. "I love you," I could only manage. "I love you so much."
"And I love you."
When the white lace finally slid from my skin, leaving me completely exposed, I didn't feel as awkward or as embarrassed as I'd imagined I'd be. Instead, nestled in his warm, protective embrace, his heart beating against me, and that look of pure, unconcealed desire in his eyes, I'd never felt more beautiful. More loved.
"So damn beautiful," he whispered, his gaze tracing over me and pausing at a few key places. "I want to touch you so badly. Kiss every inch your skin."
I shivered, entwining our fingers together. "Then do it, Raizada. Tonight is ours."
He groaned and then descended on me, his passion more than matching mine. We kissed and rolled on the sheets, mouths and hands fighting to get closer.
He was insatiable, pressing lingering kisses down my neck and lower still. When his mouth closed over my fullness, I sprang off the bed, shouting his name. How could something so scandalous feel so amazing? I wondered.
Arching my back, I gripped his shoulders, preventing him from shifting away, though he clearly had no such plans. He kissed, and nipped, stroked and suckled, his tongue flicking over my sensitive skin. As he turned to its twin, one of his hands slipped down to where I most ached. I whimpered, my head thrashing side to side.
I didn't think it could get more intense, more wildly out-of-control, but suddenly his hand was gone and his mouth was there, the feel of his lips and tongue catching me off guard. Everything became a haze around me, a thick, passion-charged fog. As the rain fell in silvery rivulets around the bed, I hollered his name, clutching him closer.
Arnav gazed up at me, closely observing me: my flushed face, the fine sheen of sweat that covered me, and my bottom lip caught in my teeth. One of his hands slid toward mine and as our fingers tightly laced together, his mouth moved harder, faster. I felt myself splintering apart.
We rolled again and suddenly I was on top of him, straddling his hips. I did not hesitate, touching him as my heart demanded I do.
Kissing his gorgeous mouth, I boldly licked his lips, his roughened jaw line, and then his Adam's apple. As he groaned my name, I glided down over his abs, and further still, kissing him just as intimately as he'd kissed me.
My heart was pounding in my chest and when he abruptly flipped me on my back, kissing me hotly and murmuring something that sounded like French, I parted my legs.
"Arnav! I need you!"
"Are you sure?" His eyes were as dark as molten chocolate and moisture clung to his lips.
I simply nodded, returning his hand to where I most needed him. He must have read something in my gaze because he shifted sideways. I clenched myself around him, needing him so desperately, I couldn't bear even a slight distance.
But he returned almost at once, and I heard a foil being torn. Pressing an open-mouthed kiss to my lips, he lowered himself.
"I love you, baby."
"I love you too," I managed to say.
And then the next second, he was within me, buried deeper than I could have ever imagined.
"It'll get better," he reassured as he felt me sharply inhale and stiffen. An achingly tender kiss was pressed to my lips, and one of his hands slid between us.
But the pain was already fading and all that remained was pleasure. Pleasure so intense and powerful I could only hold on, bucking beneath him.
As he shifted above me, moving with mind-numbing purpose, I cried out, his name on my lips.
His face was lined with concern, not knowing what to make of my shout. "Khushi, look at me."
I clung to him, my hands slipping over his back to his taut backside. "Arnav... don't stop."
It was all he needed to hear and then he was moving, thrusting and slamming into me. I arched upward to meet him, heedless of anything except him, my Mr. Sexy. It was far beyond any of my fantasies, shocking and overwhelming me with its rawness and sheer beauty. Tightening my grip on him, I turned my head sideways to find his mouth.
As I felt the world shatter around us, I could only give in. I'd never known love could be this powerful, this intense. As it crashed over me, I screamed his name: "Arnav!"
And he followed after me, his voice hoarse and almost unrecognizable.  We fell in a sweaty heap on the bed and I clutched him to me, my heartbeat out of control and my breathing ragged.
After several long minutes, Mr. Sexy lifted his head from the space between my breasts, his face still flushed. "Khushi? You okay?"
I didn't know how to say it, so I just blurted it out: "Can we do that again?"
He laughed, the sound washing over me like warm molasses as he hugged me tight. "Yeah, we most definitely can."
And then his mouth was on mine, and nothing else seemed to matter. Winding my arms and legs around him, I met his kiss with eagerness, the diamond ring on my ring finger shimmering against the candlelight.
"Baby, hold on," Arnav huskily whispered against my lips. And once more, we went up in flames.
Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 17: Deadline
He'd said he wanted to kiss every inch of me and that mission of his had been a complete and utter success.
On the hilarious side, I found out that he was quite ticklish along his ribs, which I thought was adorable while he--of course!--did not. More importantly, I learned he was just as awestruck by me as I was by him, savoring the red-hot passion between us. He didn't even mind my nails digging into his back, and when I tried to apologize, he wouldn't let me.
Sitting cross-legged on top of his butt, I chewed on my lower lip with uncertainty. Despite his denials, some of the crescent-shaped indentations certainly looked painful.
"Are you sure it doesn't hurt?" I asked, bending low to kiss each nail marking.
He groaned into the pillow. "It feels good, baby. So damn good. I love your uninhibited response."
Letting my instincts guide me, I lapped my tongue over his back and slid lower, kissing and loving every part of him. His skin was tanned and smooth, and as he murmured my name in a roughened, guttural tone, I grew bolder.
Arnav moved restlessly against me. "Damn...I need you."
I smiled against his skin, my teeth nipping lightly. "Then take me--again. You know I want you too."
He growled, glancing over his glistening shoulder at me. "Don't tempt me. It's your first time and you're going to be sore tomorrow."
He said it as if he was reminding himself more than me. My chin rose, a rebellious glint in my eyes. "I don't care if I'm sore. You'll just have to give me a massage then. You're amazingly good at that too."
He didn't look completely convinced, so I used my foolproof way of getting him to agree with anything: tilting my head sideways, tousling my hair, and for the finishing touch: pouting.
As usual, it worked like a charm. Not even trying to resist any longer, Mr. Sexy yanked me to him, his mouth slanting over mine like a thunderclap. He kissed me like he was starving, sucking on my bottom lip in a manner that made my toes curl and my heart swoon. I wound my arms around his neck, plastering my heaving chest to his.
He suddenly flipped me over onto my stomach. "Don't hold back, baby," he whispered in my ear, and the next instant, he thrust deep. I felt myself break apart at the sheer intensity of it, my head falling backward. He held me in an unyielding grip, his breath hot against my nape.
"Your pleasure means everything to me, Khushi. I love it and I want it all. Don't hold back."
His words relaxed me, but truthfully, I doubted I could have leashed in my reaction to him no matter what. I was wild in his arms, and as he surged within me, hard and fast, stretching me in a fantastically stimulating way, I could care less what was proper or not. Encased in his arms, I felt fulfilled, the love between us a warm blanket that seemed to cocoon us from the rest of the world. I held nothing back and neither did he, which only intensified the passion raging between us.
Sometime during that magical night, I discovered Arnav had a birthmark along his left inner thigh, roughly the size of my thumb. I lavished my love on that particular spot with extra care. He guided my head just slightly center and well, one thing led to another--not that I was complaining.
After yet another brilliantly intense bout of lovemaking, he suggested we sleep. Feeling brazen but unashamedly insatiable, I pouted at him.
"Don't you even try that again," he murmured, chuckling. "It won't work this time."
I sighed, running my hand down his chest and lower still, my hand covering him as once a magazine had. "Are you sure, Mr. Sexy?" My bottom lip jutted out.
He groaned, his face contorting. "Damn, I've created a wildcat."
I tightened my grip on him, grinning all the more as he jerked, his breathing decidedly uneven. "Are you complaining?"
"Hell no." Lifting my hand, he pressed an open-mouthed kiss to my palm. His smile lit up his entire face as he snuggled closer, rubbing his oh-so-sexy mouth over mine.
"I'd love to keep this going, Sushi, but you're going to be sore already and I don't want to make that any worse. Sleep, wildcat. It's almost morning. We have the rest of our lives to make love and I plan on us doing it often. Very, very often."
We'd completely shared our hearts and bodies--several times!--but I found myself blushing at his soft murmur.
His lips grazed over my temple. "Good night, love."
Good night? It was the best night of my life! Honestly, I wondered if I'd even manage to fall asleep. "Night," I whispered as he yawned, pulling me flush to him. "I love you."
We grinned at one another, arms and legs entwined so closely, I didn't know where he ended and I began.
As I had predicted, Arnav fell asleep first. In his sleep, he was sinfully attractive: his hair disheveled, a peaceful glow on the sharp contours of his face, and his outrageously long eyelashes fanning across his cheekbones.
I watched him for a long time, unable to stop smiling. My heart kept doing somersaults.
He was mine. My lover. My fiance. Raising my left hand, I kissed the diamond ring that I still couldn't believe belonged to me.
It was then that I learned something else about Arnav Singh Raizada. I'd had my suspicions, but now there was no denying it: he talked in his sleep.
"Khu...Khu..."
Trying not to laugh out loud, I hugged him tight. "Khu is right here."
He frowned in his sleep, his voice getting fainter. "Khu... don't..."
Intrigued, I leaned closer. "Don't what?"
He didn't answer for a long moment and then cuddled closer, his eyebrows bent as if he was fighting someone off. "Don't...go..."
My heart turned over. Ever so gently, I brushed my lips over his, smoothing my hand down his bristly cheek. "I'm not going anywhere, baby. Never."
His grin was child-like and I knew that Raizada would never be caught smiling like that if he'd been awake.
"Luv ooo."
I giggled. "Love you too."
The besotted, boyish look on his face lasted a few seconds more and then he was out cold, using my chest as his pillow. Combing my fingers through his hair and ruffling it all the more, I closed my eyes, feeling as if I was truly one of those fairytale princesses, lucky enough to find my happily-ever-after.
Of course, the tale of Mr. Sexy and Sushi did not end there, and morning came all too soon, the pitter-patter of the falling rain giving way to warm sunshine. I woke up completely disoriented.
For a few moments, I truly thought I was back in Laxmi Nagar, having woken up from yet another scandalous dream about a certain Raizada with nothing to look forward to except a long list of chores and a few stolen minutes in the cleaning cupboard with Arnav--if I got lucky.
But a scorching and very pleasant sensation jolted me awake, proving that it was indeed no dream. Because underneath the blankets and situated right between my thighs, was Mr. Sexy's head, undoubtedly real.
"Oh!" I moaned as he did something incredible and downright wicked with his lips, teeth, and tongue.
My hips lifted off the bed and my hands fisted on the sheets. "Arnav..."
He lowered the blanket off his head, grinning lazily at me. "Morning, baby. Did I wake you?"
I licked my lips, taking deep, heaving breaths. "Yes, actually you did."
He trailed kisses down my inner thighs. "How can I make it up you?"
My thighs tightened on either side of his head. "By promising to wake me up just like this all the time."
He pressed a lingering kiss to where my entire being seemed centered. "Promise. Now lie back, and let me finish massaging you."
"Oh, is that what you're doing?"
His smirk was lopsided, and it struck me right in the heart. "Of course."
A massage with his mouth--leave it to Raizada to come up with something like that. But as he dipped low again, kissing me intimately and driving me absolutely wild, I could only hold on, shouting his name as everything became a blur, except for him: my Mr. Sexy.
I fell on the bed out of breath and wonderfully sated--for now. Clenching my hands in his hair, I told him how much I loved him.
He kissed my hand, but I was drawn to something else. "You took a bath?" I asked, returning my fingers to the damp locks.
He nodded, laying his head on my stomach. "I woke up an hour ago. You looked exhausted so I left you alone and let you sleep. But after the shower, I couldn't stay away a second longer. That's when I decided to wake you up."
"You should write a book on that. How to Wake up your Fiance and Drive them Crazy: 101 techniques by Arnav Singh Raizada. It'll be an international bestseller."
"101? More like 1001," he said with a playful wink. "Or maybe even more. You really inspire me, Khushi."
I laughed, shifting beneath him. "I'm glad, but let me up now. I should go shower too."
He rolled off with obvious reluctance, his eyes in slits as he observed me step out of the bed and stretch my arms and back.
"Sore?" he asked.
I knew what he was referring to and trying my hardest not to blush, I shook my head, wrapping one of the sheets around me toga-style. "Not much. Perhaps your "massage" really did work."
"Of course it did," he asserted with supreme confidence.
Rolling my eyes, I reached for my suitcase, taking out a few items and heading to the bathroom. "I'll be right back, baby."
I was rounding the corner of the bed when he reached out, grabbing the end of the sheet.
"Arnav..."
He tugged more. "There's no need for this anymore. I've seen and kissed every inch of your beautiful body. Don't hide from me, love."
Awed by the blazing heat and seriousness in his gaze, I swallowed. Keeping my eyes fixed on him, I loosened the bedsheet, letting it fall to the floor.
"Happy?" My heartbeat was pounding.
His chocolaty gaze roved over me from head to toe, missing nothing. "Absolutely. Now go before I lose control and take you back to bed."
"Is that a promise?"
He laughed. "Go, wildcat."
I was still smiling as I entered the bathroom. The last time I'd been here, I'd been a bundle of nerves, fretting over what to do and whether or not to wear the matching satin robe.
But now, everything had changed. I was parading around naked before Mr. Sexy as if it was no big deal. I grinned at my reflection, hardly recognizing the glowing, twinkle-eyed woman gazing back at me--except for the hair. The tangled nest on my head was definitely familiar.
I'd just stepped under the warm spray of the shower when a knock sounded.
"Khushi? Baby, do you need anything?"
I smiled at the sound of his voice, the perfect plan taking form in my head. "Yeah, actually I do."
Arnav opened the door just slightly, sticking his head in. "What? Towel? Shampoo?"
Sliding back the shower curtain, I fully revealed myself to his searching gaze. "No, not that."
I put my right hand on my hip, striking a pose that was hopefully sensual and sexy--though I felt more awkward than anything else. But it seemed to be working.
He visibly gulped as the water cascaded over me. "Then what?"
I extended my hand toward him. "I just need you."
His smile made me all breathless and the very next second, he was beside me, pressing me against the gleaming tiles.
"Do you have any idea what you do to me?" he mumbled against my lips, lifting me up. "Damn, I love you."
I wrapped my legs around his waist, bracing myself against his hard, sleek muscles. "And I love you."
Steam curled into the air as we took turns washing each other, hands and lips fused.
"Raizada?" I managed as his mouth glided to my neck, pressing flat to the hickeys he'd made the night before. "What does..."
"Hmm?" He was busy lathering his hands again and as they settled on my breasts, clamping snugly, I completely lost my train of thought. I grabbed onto him, arching my back in blatant offering. He more than happily accepted, rinsing off the soap and taking one erect peak into the searing cavern of his mouth.
"ARNAV!"
He was much more controlled than me, murmuring between hungry suckles: "What were you asking?"
I quivered in his arms. Let me tell you, it took some doing to concentrate. "What does...What does 'mi amor' mean? You--OH!--kept saying it... last night."
He grinned against my skin, his tongue sweeping back and forth in teasing strokes. "It means my love in Spanish."
"And..." My eyes scrunched tightly as his hips began to move rhythmically. "And what... what about 'mon ange'?"
"It's French for my angel."
My legs felt increasingly like jelly and if not for his hold on me, I would have likely swayed. Because he was again whispering those same enticing words, his free hand sliding to the apex of my legs as his mouth returned to my heaving chest.
"Mi amor... mon ange... my everything..."
And then, when I was incoherent and pleading, did he finally give in, plunging deep--again and again. We came together like oil and water, fighting to get closer, our passion explosive and frenzied.
When I eventually crumpled in his arms, he turned off the water, drying me off with a towel before lifting me back up.
Burying my face against the side of his neck, I breathed in his amazing scent. "Arnav... Can we stay here today too? I don't want to leave."
He leaned his head against mine. "Me either, but we have a deadline. You know how Maddy Bua will react if we don't reach home by tonight."
He had a very valid point, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed. Of course, he noticed.
"Cheer up, baby. We'll come back here for our honeymoon. How does that sound?"
My smile returned at once. "Really?"
He kissed my forehead. "Yes, really."
The next hour was total madness, with lots of flirting and making out involved. But we managed to keep our hands off each other so that we had just enough time to pack our things, clean up the room, and scarf down a quick breakfast of leftover birthday cake and cold milk.
Glancing around the room one last time, I tried to commit every detail to memory. Arnav was standing right outside the door, watching me fondly. I ran into his open arms.
"We'll be back, baby," he murmured, holding me in a tight, possessive grip. "Trust me."
I smiled into his gorgeous eyes. "I do. Completely."
We kissed once more and before I knew it, we were back on the motorcycle, and the cabin was far behind us.
We--well, mostly me--used the long drive to sort through a lot of pending matters. We planned how we'd break the news to Buaji (Right away with complete sincerity), where we'd have our wedding (At Lover's Park), and what all we'd do on our honeymoon (Make love, eat, make love, sleep, make love and basically not step out of the bed unless it was absolutely necessary). Arnav especially enjoyed that conversation. Okay, fine, I admit I did too.
"You'll have to call your sister and family in Australia," I reminded, trying to steer his thoughts out of the bedroom. "They'll need time to get here."
He nodded. "I'll call her later today or tomorrow morning. I hope they can all come, but if they can't, we're not delaying the wedding. I want to make you my wife as soon as possible. More than anything else, that's what matters to me."
I nuzzled my face against his soft tee, nestling closer. "Me too. I can't wait to be Mrs. Raizada."
My mind was racing. There was so much to discuss and plan. "We've never talked about kids," I mused out loud, chewing on my bottom lip.
I guess it was a good sign that the bike did not suddenly swerve and crash into a passing tree. Arnav was remarkably unfazed by the change of topic, asking in his usual drawl: "Do you want them?"
I didn't have to ponder too much. Mr. Sexy's baby growing within me, a tangible sign of our love... an adorable, button-nosed, swaddled newborn being placed in my arms, while Raizada sweated it out at my bedside, beaming with joy... Of course, I wanted that. So much so it caught me by surprise.
"Very much," I confessed. "And you?" Please say yes, please say yes.
The corner of his mouth lifted. "I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought about it."
My mouth fell open. "You mean you have?"
He nodded. "Baby, I proposed to you after weeks of planning. Of course, I thought about the future. I knew you'd want kids eventually."
I pressed my lips to his back. "I do, but what do you want? This is about both of us."
Arnav was quiet for a moment. "Before I met you, I never thought about being a father, of having my own family. But honestly, the idea of you pregnant, our baby... It sounds so good. More than good actually. But there's just one problem."
My brow bent. "What?"
His grin widened. "I've heard pregnant woman have insane late-night cravings and mood swings and you're already crazy as it is. The pregnant version of you is scary to imagine."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Is it? If you want, I can scare you right now. Why wait nine months?" I tweaked his chest. "Be serious, Raizada! This is important."
"I am serious. There's a reason Maddy Bua calls you Sanka Devi. I can totally picture you sending me out in the middle of the night to find jalebis, or better yet, make them for you."
I tried not to laugh. "Probably. So is that a yes?"
"It's a hell yes," Mr. Sexy threw over his shoulder. "Let's have a houseful of kids, like eight or nine. Maddy Bua will be so damn preoccupied, we might actually get some time alone."
Eight or nine? My jaw dropped at that. I whacked his chest again. "I think two or three is good enough, and four at the very most. Not one more past that, Raizada."
He grinned wickedly, steering the motorcycle past a rumbling truck. "We'll see, Sushi."
I rolled my eyes, tightening my hold on him. "By the way, like I once told butterball, you'll have to treat me like a princess once we're married. I want massages, shopping trips, jalebis, and all meals cooked and dishes washed. I won't be lifting a finger." I leaned closer. "Am I scaring you now?"
He laughed, recalling my disastrous date with Shyamji at the Fu King Restaurant all too well. "I'm the one who told you to say all that. It scared him off, but it won't work on me. I agree to all your demands."
I blinked at him with surprise. "Really? You agree?" I'd meant it as a joke, but Arnav appeared genuinely serious.
"You see, baby, I've already given you a massage this morning and since I love doing that, that won't be a problem. I think I can handle the shopping trips and jalebis too. And a dishwasher will solve one matter completely."
"What about the cooking?" I countered.
He smirked. "Well once you taste what I can cook, I'm sure you'll volunteer to cook. But otherwise, you'll be my princess, baby. You always have been."
A cool breeze whipped over our faces and as he maneuvered the motorcycle toward the signs pointing toward Delhi, I hugged him tight, my throat constricting.
"Raizada...when we're married will we still be like this?"
He knew exactly what I meant. "Friendship brought us together and that won't change once we're husband and wife. Don't worry."
I nibbled on my bottom lip. "But we'll fight eventually, won't we? All married couples fight at some point."
"True. That's bound to happen."
I didn't like thinking about that. "Well then let's make a promise that whenever you're mad at me or I'm mad at you, we'll talk it out like reasonable adults and say jalebis."
I could tell he didn't understand the last bit. "Say jalebis?"
I nodded matter-of-factly. "No one can say jalebis in an angry tone. It's impossible."
He laughed. "Really? Let me try." Schooling his expression, he roared: "JALEBIS!"
I tried it too. "JALEBISSS!"
"JALEBBIIIESS!" Our laughter echoed as the bike rounded a scenic curve, the competition still on.
******
By the time we reached Delhi and the familiar, bustling corner of Laxmi Nagar, the sun was setting. I was smiling, but Arnav looked a bit more tense than normal. He'd speeded during the last hour of the trip, but we'd still arrived slightly off schedule.
"Don't worry," I told him. "Buaji wouldn't have called the army after us quite yet." His smile was faint.
We parked right outside the main gate. He wouldn't let me carry anything except my purse so I walked ahead, rushing toward the veranda.
Surprisingly, the house was locked and appeared quiet. Too quiet. One of the windows was unlatched, but I couldn't hear the shrill cries and shrieks of Buaji's favorite daily soap. It normally aired around this time.
"Is she home? Maddy Bua?" Arnav knocked several times.
My eyes picked up on a piece of paper jammed halfway under the door. "Baby, look."
My aunt had written in her loopy handwriting: Gone to Bumble's, Sanka Devi. Will be late. Dinner in the oven, just heat it up. Lots of love (LOL).  The note included the date and time along with her signature.
"Well, at least she didn't write down her bank account number," pointed out Arnav. "Or draw a map of where the spare key is."
I wasn't at all surprised that my aunt had ignored my warning and headed off to Bumble's spa and salon. What did surprise me was that she'd lasted so long. According to the note, she'd left exactly fifteen minutes ago. I could only hope she wouldn't return with another facemask or makeover gone terribly wrong.
I raised an eyebrow at Arnav. "See, I told you there was no deadline to worry about. Buaji isn't even home! And as for the spare key, she would have mentioned it--if there was one."
"There isn't?" He eyed the clunky, old lock.
"No, but don't panic, my man Bobby to the rescue."
Mr. Sexy's jaw went slack. "Who the hell is Bobby? And what do you mean by "my man"? I'm your man, Khushi! Your only man. So whoever this damn Bobby is can go shove it because--"
I cut short his furious tirade by drawing out a bobby pin from my hair and holding it up. "Relax, Mr. Jealous. I meant this."
He looked startled and slightly sheepish. "I'm not jealous of a damn hair pin."
"You were five seconds ago."
"Because I assumed it was a man!"
"Well, you should have known better. Like you said, you're my only man." I knelt before the door, fiddling with the lock. Approximately thirty-odd seconds later, it sprang open.
"Where did you learn how to do that?"
I shrugged, dusting off my hands as I stood. "Taught myself when I was seven or eight. Buaji knows about it; that's why we never needed an extra key."
Raizada appeared impressed and followed after me, lugging in our bags. The house was exactly as I remembered, and though I was glad to see it, I couldn't help but miss the secluded cabin.
"I wish we were still at the cabin."
Arnav hushed me with a firm kiss, his arms curling around my waist. "We'll be back there before you know it, Mrs. Sexy."
He started to step away, but I wasn't ready to let go. "Where are you going?"
"I have to return the bike. I'll be back soon. Lock the door behind me."
"Hurry up," I pouted. "I miss you already."
His kiss was fierce and wildly possessive. "Don't tempt me, wildcat."
We parted with one last, lingering kiss and then I fell back on the sofa, crossing my arms behind my head and beaming stupidly at the ceiling. Everything was perfect. We'd confessed we were in love. We'd gotten engaged. We'd made love--several times! We'd discussed everything from kids to our honeymoon.
All that remained to be tackled was Buaji, but I wasn't overly worried. I knew she'd agree without too much trouble. Once I told her how much I loved Arnav and how I couldn't stand Butterball, she was sure to give us her nod of approval. Besides, our resident writer/poet/singer/paying guest had charmed her too.
I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for Mr. Sexy to return. He didn't though and realizing he was probably busy, I forced myself to get up and unpack.
It didn't take too long. I found my phone just where I'd left it in the bedroom, the battery completely dead. Charging it, the first name to flash was Arnav's. He'd left about 40 missed calls and texts. If only I'd taken the phone along, I lamented.
The last received message was from Sheena: Did you reach home yet? I've been a bit worried for you.
I texted her back: Sheena! I have so much to tell you. Will call you later tonight. Unpacking right now. But let's just say, it was the best night of my life! I added a string of hearts and various yellow smiley faces.
I'd just pressed send when a call came through. "Hello?"
"It's me." Arnav's voice sounded ultra-sexy on the phone. "Just wanted to say that you were right."
Smiling, I reclined back on the bed. After "I love you," if there were any three words that sounded so good, it had to be those. "Say that again?"
He sighed. "You were right. Only you can make me jealous of a damn bobby pin!"
I bit back a laugh. "You really don't have any reason to be jealous. I'm so in love with you, I don't even notice other men. They might as well be flies or frogs."
"I know...You're stuck with me now." There was a pause and I could envision him smirking. "Baby?"
"Hmm?"
"I love you."
My smile was wide and goofy. It felt so good to hear him say that. "In your words, Mr. Sexy, I luv ooo!"
"My words?"
I nodded my head, laughing. "You talk in your sleep. It's so adorable!"
"I do not!"
"I think I'd know," I retorted. "And stop talking to me while you're driving! It's unsafe."
"It would be if I were driving. But I'm not. I'm stuck in a traffic jam and wishing I was with you."
My skin heated and my heart did strange flip-flops. "Me too. I'm waiting." He didn't reply right away and my brow furrowed. "Raizada? Are you there?"
"Yeah, but the traffic is finally moving now. I'll see you in about twenty minutes."
Twenty MORE minutes! I sighed, reminding him to take care and not to speed.
That done, I set aside the phone and drew out Arnie the hippo from my suitcase, placing him on the dresser. The last remaining item was Arnav's shirt--the one I'd sneaked into my bag.
It was time to return it. Now that I had the real deal, the shirt wasn't necessary. Hugging it to my chest, I walked down the hall to my old room--his now and hopefully ours very soon.
His closet was much more tidier than mine with everything organized in neat, precisely aligned stacks. I put the shirt with the others, smoothing it once over. I was about to close the closet door when something caught my eye.
I smiled as I reached for his cologne. It was a high-end, cylindrical can I'd noticed in the men's section but never really cared to inspect closely. Until now.
"So this is Mr. Sexy's secret. How he smells so amazing all the time." With an impish smile, I pushed down on the nozzle, wanting nothing more than another whiff of that unique scent.
Nothing came out and I tried a few more times, shaking the can hard. No success though. A bit annoyed now, I twisted off the cap.
I'd expected it be almost empty or perhaps clogged but it was not. My eyes widened with disbelief as I looked inside. Something shiny and metallic glinted up at me. Barely breathing, I pulled it out, my eyes rounding all the more.
There was something else stuffed in the can too: an official ID. I gazed down at the picture of an unsmiling, uniformed Arnav, his name clearly printed in large block letters and then at the badge again, blinking several times.
But it was not my imagination. This was real. Too real. I felt the ground beneath my feet slide. "Arnav...is a cop?"
Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 18: Truth
And unwillingly, an old memory resurfaced, from those bright, colorful days when Arnav Singh Raizada had first entered my life, changing everything. Shyamji and Arnav had been talking, and at one point Butterball had said: "You know, you must loan me some copies. I've never read any of your work."
I could clearly recall Arnav's reply: "Not surprised. You don't look like the reading type... I mean you must not get time to read."
Back then, I'd thought that remark was nothing but a clever insult and my admiration for our new paying guest had gone up a notch. But now, looking back, I saw that moment in a whole new light.
What if his aim hadn't been to insult Shyamji? What if he hadn't been jealous of my sort of fiance? What if he'd simply been dodging a question he did not want to answer?
"No, Khushi. Stop this!" I told myself. "Remember that fan of his at the fair? Remember his phone calls with his editor? His talks of sci fi books and manuscripts? That has to be real. It has to be!"
But then what was this badge? This ID? Both felt heavy in my hands. Why had he hid these in a cologne bottle? How could one man possibly be both a writer and a police officer?
He can't be, my mind retorted. He's lied to you! He must have used you!
I swayed as I stood, my fingers trembling as I grabbed my phone, opened the internet window, and slowly typed: Arnav Singh Raizada, sci fi author.
My hands shook. I couldn't go past that last word. For a long, endless moment, I stared at the enter key, feeling more guilty than ever. It pained me to doubt him. I'd never thought I would. But here I was, doing just that. Snooping on him.
But didn't I have a right to know? Shouldn't I have done this long back? But I'd been too caught up in the sensuality and overwhelming charisma of Arnav Singh Raizada to think twice. I'd fallen for him head first. He'd consumed my thoughts, crept into my dreams and captured my heart.
Memories flashed past my eyes, all of them involving him. The first time we'd met and I'd drenched him with milk. How he'd thrown my red bra at me, smirking haughtily as he turned on his heel. How he'd cornered me in the kitchen, telling me I was single. Our pact in the garden. The beginning of our friendship. The time he insisted I kiss him first. Our stolen moments of passion away from Buaji's watchful gaze. His surprise appearance on my birthday. And finally, last night, when his body had covered mine, his hands and mouth branding my most intimate places, his touch unraveling my every hesitation as we joined as one.
I fell on the bed, staring down at the screen. The enter button blinked up at me. My gaze shifted to the dazzling diamond on my ring finger. It reminded me of our love. His promise. My trust in him. My faith.
It was all on the line. Everything.
Tears clouded my vision. "For the sake of this love, please let me be wrong. Please, let me be sorry for ever doubting him. Please..." Brushing the tears aside, I took a deep breath and steeling myself, pressed enter.
A gray circle spun, and results loaded extra slowly. Any moment now, books would pop up and all this confusion would end, I told myself. Perhaps the badge was fake, a child's toy.
Why the need to hide it then?
I couldn't answer that question. My eyes narrowed on the screen. A single message had appeared: No results available for your search. Try again.'
I reread the line, willing it to be wrong and go away, but it remained there, in plain, black and white letters.
No results. Nothing on Arnav Singh Raizada, the writer. Nothing at all.
And that's when it dawned on me how foolish I'd been. I'd seriously believed my life had turned into a fairy tale, that Mr. Sexy was the Prince Charming I'd always dreamed of but never expected to be real.
Is he real? Is his love real? It had to be!
My heart shook as I heard the main door open. His voice pierced me.
"Khushi! Baby, where are you?"
Wiping away tears, I stood. It was time for the truth. The whole truth and nothing, but the truth.
*****
My eyes searched for Khushi. I'd been expecting her to be waiting for me, a gorgeous smile on her face as she launched herself into my arms, our mouths meeting hotly. But she was nowhere to be seen. Even the kitchen was empty.
"Baby?"
"Coming."
Smiling at the sound of her voice, I filled a glass with water and took a large swallow. Absently, my fingers rose to my temple, brushed away beads of sweat. The humidity in Delhi had soared today and I wasn't quite used to it yet.
The telltale chime of anklets signaled Khushi's arrival. I grinned as I turned toward her, setting the half-empty glass down on the counter. "Hello, beautiful."
Khushi didn't reply. Didn't smile. Her face was no longer rosy and glowing. If anything, her complexion looked ashen. And her eyes appeared strangely lost and disturbed.
I crossed to her in one stride. Thrusting my fingers into her hair, I tilted her face up, forcing her to meet my gaze. "Baby? Baby, what is it? Are you okay?"
She twisted out of my grasp, her gaze bright and fiery suddenly. "Where were you?"
I frowned. It wasn't like Khushi to question me, to move out of my arms so abruptly. "I had to return the bike. I told you, remember?"
"It took you that long?"
I'd learned long ago how to diffuse situations fast. I used that training now. "There was a traffic jam," I explained with a tired smile.
"Your publishers and editors must be worried too. You haven't been in touch with them the last few days." The words were said with a frostiness that was unlike her. I tried to reach for her hand, but she backed away. "Please! Just answer me first."
My frown deepened as I considered her. "I'll handle them. They're very understanding. Now, come here and kiss me already. I missed you, baby."
Khushi swallowed visibly as she stared at my outstretched hand, but did not move to clasp it. "What are their names?"
My eyebrow bent. "Whose names?"
"Your publishers...your editors...anyone connected to your work."
I faked a laugh, though my heart was uneasy. Her behavior, these questions, it all pointed to one thing, but it couldn't be true. Khushi couldn't have discovered my secret. It was highly unlikely. "They're all a very boring group. Trust me, you don't want to know about them."
"Trust?" She threw out that word like a taunt. "How dare you speak of trust? Do you have any conscience? Or is lying all you know?"
Everything changed in that split second. I grabbed her by the shoulders, ignoring her squeal of protest as I pulled her flat against me. "What the hell are you talking about? I've never lied--"
"LIAR!" Khushi slammed me backwards, her eyes wild. "How many more lies will you tell? I know, Arnav Singh Raizada! I know everything!"
My jaw tightened. "What do you think you know?"
Khushi tossed something on the floor. "THIS!"
The badge made a clanging noise and the ID fell near the tip of my left shoe, my photograph facing up. I stared down at both with surprise and then back at the woman I loved so damn much.
She looked furious. Enraged. But more than that, I knew what tormented her most. Not my lies, but the truth of who I really was. Khushi was hurt and had good reason to be.
"I can explain," I began in a calming tone.
Her anger spilled forth unchecked. "THEN EXPLAIN! EXPLAIN WHY YOU LIED TO ME! WHY YOU KEPT LYING TO ME RIGHT FROM THE START!" Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and I started to go to her, but she batted my hands away. "Don't come near me, Arnav Singh Raizada! If that's your name! Don't touch me! Not till you explain this. Don't even think about it."
"Fine." I held up my hands as if in surrender. "But, please, sit down. I'll tell you everything. Just sit down, baby." She was shaking so badly I truly feared she might collapse.
Her fiery gaze warred with mine. "I'd rather stand."
My voice rose. "Sit down, Khushi or so help me, I will pick you up and set you down on the sofa myself."
She considered me carefully for a moment, and seeing how dead serious I was, sighed loudly. With a glare in my direction, she sat down without further protest, her mouth tightly pursed. I dragged one of the armchairs over so I faced her head-on. The air between us was thick with tension, a tension that had till now never been a part of our relationship.
"I thought we agreed to say jalebis when we got mad at one another. To talk with one another and work out every problem together."
"That was before I learned you're a fraud. A liar." Underneath all the anger, there was quiet sorrow in Khushi's hazel eyes. The kind that bit into me, urging me to take her into my arms and sooth away every pain and worry. If only she'd let me.
But I knew she wouldn't allow that. Not right now. Her posture was tense and achingly reserved, and her eyes were glazed over with angry tears. Though she was within hand's reach, there was an unwelcome distance between us. I sighed. "I didn't lie to you. I just hid certain things from you."
"You hid everything! You said you were a writer! But you're not, are you?"
The hopeful note in her voice hit me hard. "No," I admitted after a pause. "I'm not."
Her hands fisted on her lap so tightly the knuckles stood out white. "Who are you then?"
I set my badge and ID card on the coffee table between us. "You already know. I'm a cop."
"And you didn't tell me?" Her eyes flashed. "You said you loved me! You proposed! You made love to me! And not once during all of that did you think about telling me? How could you?"
"Khushi, baby, you have no idea how many times I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't." My eyes were grim as they met hers. "I'm bound by certain rules. I'm not here in Laxmi Nagar to write a novel. I'm here undercover."
"Undercover?" Her gaze filled with disbelief. "Why?"
I observed her quietly, debating how much to tell her. She was already so upset, and the true shocker had not yet come.
"Arnav... answer me."
I met her eyes with the aloofness the academy had instilled in me long ago, but it wasn't completely possible. This was not some random suspect or witness sitting before me. This was Khushi. My Khushi.
"First, hear me out. I was recruited directly out of college. I'm not a run-of-the-mill police officer, the branch I'm involved with is much broader."
"What do you mean?"
I stared into those eyes I loved so much. Those eyes that had held me spellbound from the moment we'd collided on Laxmi Nagar's busy crosswalk. Those eyes that held the power to make me forget what I really was. Who I really was.
"I don't solve minor crimes or hand out speeding tickets, Khushi. My focus for years now has been to disband drug cartels and crime networks. Globally. I've traveled around the world because of my work."
"Globally?" Her eyes widened as something clicked. "That Spanish song you sang...those words in French..."
I slowly nodded. "I was stationed in Costa Rica for over two years, a year in Quebec before that, as well as several other countries. I'm fluent in ten languages and--"
"Have you...killed someone?"
Of course, she jumped to that question. Here, I'd been trying to calm her down, and now it wouldn't even matter. "Yes," I bit out, stating the obvious.
Her fingers tightened on the edge of the sofa. "How many?"
I swore under my breath, running a hand threw my hair. "Honestly, I'm not sure. A lot, I guess. But they were all bad people. And it was always done to save someone. Either innocent human beings, my partners, or--"
"But you said you were a writer!" Khushi cried. "You spoke about publishers! And there was that girl at the fair. The one who was your fan."
Shaking my head, I explained, "There are no publishers. The story about me being a writer was just an assigned cover. And as for Lavanya, I had no idea she'd do that. She surprised me too that day."
I could almost see Khushi connect the dots. "So that girl...Lavanya...she's a part of whatever you do, isn't she?"
I nodded. "Lavanya wasn't giving me her phone number that day as you assumed. It was a number-lock key I needed. And I didn't give her my autograph. I wrote down a coded message on the inside of that book. We were worried my cell had been hacked and were securing new lines."
Khushi stared at me as if seeing me for the first time. "So everything was a lie? You took me to the fair just so you could meet her?"
"No!" I was quick to deny that. "I took you to the fair because I genuinely wanted a proper date with you. Because I wanted some time alone with you.  I didn't know Lavanya would act like my fan and show up like that. I've never worked with her before. It's usually me and Aman."
Khushi didn't seem to be listening. "I don't understand one thing. You're this big, important cop, traveling the world. Then why are you here in Laxmi Nagar? Why are you pretending to be a writer and living in my small house for?"
"You're right," I conceded. "Normally, I'd never be here. But my last mission went wrong. Really wrong. The source I trusted switched sides at the last moment." My mouth tightened as I recalled the narrow escape in northern Africa. I'd been lucky to get out alive and Aman had taken a bullet in his left shoulder. "The higher ups weren't too happy. They thought I could have better assessed the situation. So I was sent back home and put on this small job. My partner, Aman, insisted on coming along too. Lavanya was assigned to help us. Coming here to Laxmi Nagar was my punishment." My eyes softened as they rested on her. "But I never expected to find you. I never expected to fall in love with you."
Khushi glanced away, breathing hard. "That still doesn't explain what you're doing here. Why are you undercover?"
I met her confused gaze evenly. "To track someone involved in some very serious crimes."
"Who?"
I answered after a slight gap. "Your aunt."
Khushi reacted at once, her eyes widening. "Buaji? You can't be serious! Are you out of your mind?"
"Listen to me, baby," I said, leaning forward. "That was our initial lead. All we had to go on was that some very suspicious mail arrives and leaves this address on a regular basis. Maddy Bua was the one I was told to check up on. She's the owner of this property. Going undercover as her new paying guest seemed the best way to find out more information. But then, of course I met her and quickly realized that all she cared about are her face packs, kitty parties, and you--nothing else.
"I was on the phone constantly trying to explain the situation to the higher ups and resolve the confusion. But the mail didn't stop. During my first week here, I realized that we'd been targeting the wrong person. The real mastermind behind it all is not Maddy Bua, but Jha."
"Shyamji?" Khushi stared at me wide-eyed. "I know he's highly annoying, but a criminal? The man wears mismatched shirts and polka dots! He slobbers butter all over himself. I can't see him handling an international drug cartel. He can barely handle himself!"
I felt a twinge of jealousy as she defended the toad. My jaw hardened. "One of the first things I learned on this job is that appearances are deceiving. Don't take Jha at face value. We have good reason to believe he provides all sorts of legal advice and unlawful contracts to some of the worst cartels. When I met you and realized you were his fiance, I had little to go on, but I tried everything to break you two up. I knew at once that you were too good for him. Way too good."
Khushi looked startled and I hastened to add, "He works directly for them. Why else do you think he's gone all the time? For weeks at a time? I've been going through his stuff here too, baby. Do you remember when you met me in the kitchen my second night here? I wasn't there to drink milk or anything. I was actually searching the house for anything on Jha and heard you. Since then, I've gathered considerable evidence. I have solid proof to arrest him."
"Then why haven't you?" Khushi retorted.
"That's what I'm waiting to do. As soon as Jha shows his face here, he's done for. But that toad is clever. He's purposely staying away. I don't think he suspects me, but he's fearful about getting caught. Aman and Lavanya are working on finding him wherever he is and I've been ordered to wait around here in case he shows up."
"You went to Lucknow for my birthday," she pointed out. "How was that allowed?"
"I arranged a short-term cover for me. He was watching the house 24/7. I told him I'd be back by this afternoon."
Her eyes narrowed on that last word. "So that's why you were in such a hurry to get here. The deadline wasn't for Buaji, was it? It was for your work."
I nodded and Khushi's eyes gleamed with renewed fire. "Was everything a lie then? Was everything you told me a part of this cover up?"
I kneeled before her, grabbing her hands. She tried to pull away, but I held on. "Baby, look at me. I love you. I lied about being a writer, but I never lied about anything else."
She tugged her hands free, her eyes pain-filled. "If you loved me, you'd have told me the truth. When were you planning on telling me who you really are? After you married me? After we had kids? Or not even then?"
My silence seemed to confirm her worst suspicions and she twisted away, her lips trembling. I threw my arms around her waist, pressing my face to her nape and breathing in her honeysuckle scent. "Khushi, please. I love you. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but my hands were tied."
"You shouldn't have laid a hand on me then! You shouldn't have lied to me again and again!" She suddenly froze, whirling around. Her face was too pale; her voice shook. "You were here for Shyamji from the start. You were doing everything to gather information on him... Right?"
I nodded, not knowing what made her ask me those same questions again.
Khushi covered her mouth with one hand. "What a fool I've been. What an absolute fool! You used me to get information on Jha. That's all it was, wasn't it?"
"What?" I wondered for a moment if I'd heard her right. "That's not true--"
Khushi was talking to herself, looking as if an ugly truth had finally dawned on her. But it wasn't the truth. I'd fallen for her truly. "I've been so blind," she murmured as if all was lost.
My lips thinned. "Khushi, look at me. I DID NOT pretend to be in love with you to get information on Jha. I know it looks bad, but--"
"LOOKS BAD?" She was furious again. "Everything is in question now! Everything! I don't know what was real and what was not. When were you acting and when were you genuine? I don't know anything more. I feel like I don't even know you."
I drew her to me, crushing her mouth with mine. My tongue swept past her lips, delving deep. "You do know me," I said between hungry kisses, curving my hands over her possessively. "You love me."
She broke away, her eyes wild. "You've lied to me from the start. You didn't even stop when I lay bare in your bed, giving you everything. I trusted you! I loved you with everything in me! But you...you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth. Not once!"
"That's not true, dammit! I--"
"Sanka Devi?" called a too loud voice.
I swore at the interruption and Khushi brushed back tears just as the main door opened and her aunt appeared between us, looking completely different. I felt Khushi freeze beside me. It was so strangely unexpected--especially now--I stiffened too.
Her aunt though was all nonchalant. "Sorry, I got late. How was your trip, Sanka Devi? How's Sheena now? And how was your visit to your editor, Arnav dear?"
We were too speechless to answer, though Khushi frowned at the mention of my nonexistent editor. I gazed at her apologetically and she pointedly glanced away.
Maddy Bua giggled, running a hand through her cropped hair. "How do you like it, dears? According to Bumble, it's apparently the hairstyle to have this summer."
Her thick fingers smoothed over her hair again. The long braid she normally wound around her neck lasso-style was gone. Her hair was now shorter than mine, the ends gelled up in tiny spikes. It reminded me of a crested porcupine I'd once seen in Italy, but Maddy Bua carried it well.
"Do you both like it?" she asked again, more self-consciously this time.
"It's lovely." Khushi crossed the room to hug her.
"It really suits you," I agreed.
Her aunt smiled and then frowned, staring down at the top of Khushi's head. "Sanka Devi, I missed you too, but why are you crying? Are you all right?"
She clearly wasn't, but Khushi nodded, holding on to her. "I just really missed you, Buaji."
"Aww." Maddy Bua brushed away her tears. "Cheer up. We're together now. Now smile for me. Tears have no place on such a pretty face like yours." Khushi managed a weak smile.
"That's better," clucked her aunt, marching toward the kitchen. "I'll heat up dinner. You two must be starving."
As her footsteps padded away, I strode to Khushi's side with purpose. "Baby, listen to me. I never meant to--"
"You did!" she snapped. "You chose to keep me in the dark all along. I should have guessed. The way you behaved during that date at the Chinese Restaurant--teaching me self-defense, having a microphone so conveniently lying around--I should have known. You even talked in your sleep..."
My patience was in tatters by now. "I didn't tell you about my real job, but that doesn't mean that I don't love you."
"Doesn't it?" Her eyes flashed like the brightest of flames. "Tell me the final truth, Raizada. It's quite obvious now. Weren't you simply acting all along just so you could find out about Shyamji from me? It was a very clever plan, I've got to say."
I pulled her hard against me, not caring that her aunt was in the kitchen just steps away. "It was no plan, dammit! I truly fell in love with you!"
She met my turbulent gaze with remarkable calm. "If you care for me at all, tell me the truth. Did you ever come close to me hoping I'd tell you something about Shyamji? Something that would help you in your secret mission?"
I tensed. "Only at the beginning, but--" Khushi wrenched her arm free, shoving past me.
"Dammit, Khushi. Listen," I rushed to explain. "It may have started out like that, but almost as soon as we started talking, especially that night on the bench outside when you told me no one understood you, I found myself falling for you. Everything that has happened between us since then, every kiss, touch, and conversation, was real. Every damn thing."
"Let go of me, Raizada!"
I did no such thing, tightening my grip on her instead. My mind was consumed with one aim: to make her understand. "I love you! I love you so damn much. I even thought about breaking protocol and telling you, but--"
"But you didn't." Tears clung to her eyelashes. "I wish I could believe you, Arnav. I wish I could. But trust matters to me. I can't marry someone I don't trust."
A sinking sensation engulfed me. The words were hard to get out. "What are you trying to say?"
Her chin wobbled. "That I don't trust you anymore. I don't know what to believe anymore."
"Trust me, dammit!" I whispered furiously. "Trust my love for you!"
"It wasn't love, was it? It was all an act to get information from me and perhaps my virginity too in the bargain."
My eyes burned like coals into her. "Is that what you think of me? After all we've been through?"
Khushi glanced aside, breathing hard. "You've left me no choice. Like you said, appearances can be deceiving. And I fell for your sugar-coated lies hook, line, and sinker."
"I'm not lying to you now!"
"You expect me to believe you? You expect me to forget everything and go back to trusting you?" She shook her head and then in a move that stunned me, drew off the diamond-encrusted band from her ring finger. "This no longer feels like mine. You feel like a stranger to me."
I cupped her cheeks, bringing our faces close. "I'm yours! Your Mr. Sexy! I'm sorry if you're hurt, but it was never my intention. I swear, it wasn't."
A fresh pool of tears filled her eyes. "A sorry isn't enough. It'll never be enough. The man I love wouldn't have lied to me, wouldn't have led me on like this. I don't trust you."
There it was again. Those words I'd feared for so long to hear. "So that's it? You're walking away from me? From our love?"
A wave of pain washed over her beautiful features. "You're the one who left me in the dark. Not me." As she stumbled away, a sob broke out. The ring slipped from her fingers, striking the floor.
I stared down at the glinting diamond and scooping it up, chased after her, my heart thundering in my chest. Part of me couldn't believe what had just happened. It didn't seem real.
All I knew was that I couldn't lose her. Not now, not ever. "Khushi, dammit! Listen to me!"
Maddy Bua stuck her head out of the kitchen just in time to see the door slam on my face. The lock inside turned and bolted.
"Are you both fighting again? I thought things had gotten better between you two. You seemed to be getting along."
We'd more than gotten along. We'd fallen in love and shared our hearts, souls, and bodies with one another. But now wasn't the time to explain all that to Maddy Bua. Ignoring her, I struck my fists on the door. "Khushi! Khushi, open up!"
I could hear her crying in there, the sound something I'd never been able to bear. "KHUSHI!"
"Go away, Raizada! Just go!"
"I'm not going anywhere! Open up!"
I heard her phone ring inside and there was another loud sob as she answered it. "Sheena! Oh God, Sheena!"
Maddy Bua gently pulled on my sleeve. "You better leave her alone for some time, dear. I think that would be best."
"But--"
"Go on. I'm sure all will be well in the morning."
I wanted to tell her that nothing would be okay so fast. Khushi would not forgive me easily. Hell, knowing her, she might not ever forgive me.
I stomped to my room, slammed the door behind me and crashed on the bed. The badge in my pocket jabbed into my side and I pulled it out, glaring at it. If only I'd told her the truth early on. If only...
I might have spent the whole night cursing myself and how badly I'd messed everything up, but I'd always been pragmatic. A problem-solver. And just like my missions, I tackled this problem with a plan.
There were two courses of actions as far as I was considered: do nothing or do everything to win her back. The choice was simple. Nothing short of regaining Khushi's full and complete trust and love would do.
That sorted, the next task was to decide what exactly to do next. Khushi seemed so bloody furious with me, and I wondered if anything would be enough. But then again, she'd fallen for me once. Couldn't I make her love me again? Didn't some part of her heart love me even now?
I'd have to find out. Make her admit how incomplete we both were without the other. I couldn't imagine breathing, much less living without her. She'd weaved her way into my life and heart. I couldn't lose her. I couldn't...
I also realized that I had to apologize. Though I had tried, the attempts had been miserable failures. I thought about calling my sister in Australia. Maybe she'd be able to give me some advice.
But I quickly decided against it. Di would go on to ask a million other questions and by the end of it all, she'd probably be screaming at me too for not telling Khushi the truth. Lavanya also seemed a bad option. If I asked her, the entire department would know and it would probably become nothing but the newest office joke.
Swearing, I grabbed the laptop. It wasn't technically mine. I'd been given it strictly as an aid to back up my "writer" cover and make it seem more real.
Pulling up the internet browser, I typed out the first thing that came to me--illogical and nonsensical though it was: How to apologize.
The results were varied. Everything from self-help books to blogs to newspaper articles. I read for some time, but no one was really addressing what I was looking for. How do you apologize to a girl with a heart of gold with trust issues after you'd made a huge mess of things?
I almost gave up and flung the computer aside when something unusual jumped out at me. It was linked to a chat room.
"Redemption track?" I read aloud. What in the name of jalebis was that?
Intrigued, I read through the posts. It took some doing to make sense of it all, but by the end, I sort of understood. It turned out they were all talking about some famous TV show. A daily soap about the fine line between love and hate. I'd never watched much TV except news and sports, but what they were discussing seemed to be exactly what I'd been searching for.
Against my better judgment, I made a post, regretting the username I'd chosen almost instantly. But it was too late and besides, what did it matter anyway? It was not like anyone would ever know it was me asking for relationship advice from strangers at 2 AM.
Mr. Sexy: So if nothing is good enough, how is a guy supposed to apologize AND mean it? How do you regain someone's trust again?
The replies came almost at once:
RubawaySoapDuds: Mr. Sexy?  Lol interesting name :P
AlmostKisser: Almost as good as mine, gotta admit.
IPKKNDnumeroUno: Are you really sexy? Prove it!
I almost gave up and shut off the computer after that comment, but another person wrote just then.
GoatsOverSnakes: Shush u all. Mr. Sexy ru serious? Do u really want to know?
Mr. Sexy: Yes dammit!
IPKKNDnumeroUno: Uff dammit :') I like him already.
AlmostKisser: He's clearly an arhi fan
Mr. Sexy: A what fan? Never mind, can anyone here help me or not?
RubawaySoapDuds: Of course we can. Lemme guess, Mrs. Sexy not so happy with you right now?
She's fuming mad and then some, I wanted to say, but I toned it slightly down.
Mr. Sexy: ...something like that
IPKKNDnumeroUno: Aww just like episode 298. Well, relax Mr. Sexy, you've come to the right place. We're the experts in redemption tracks.
Mr. Sexy: I have no idea what the hell that means. I've said sorry to her, but it's not good enough.
RedSariForever: Duh. You can't just say sorry, you have to show her you're sorry.
AlmostKisser: Exactly! You have to prove it. Demonstrate it.
Mr. Sexy: But how???
IPKKNDnumeroUno: By doing everything and anything that requires. Sweep her off her feet, talk to her, discuss with her your feelings, grovel if you have to, show her how much you love her, how much you care, how remorseful you are, etc.
For the first time all night, I felt in control. I knew what to do now. A game plan was taking shape in my head, a checklist of sorts. Win back Khushi with this "redemption track". Make her love me again. Trust me again. Return the ring where it belonged. Marry her. Honeymoon. Work on those 8-9 kids. Happily ever after and beyond.
Mission Redemption was on. Kissing the diamond ring, I slipped it into my pocket and typed one last message before climbing out of bed. There was so much to plan. Khushi had seen Mr. Sexy, but now she'd see Mr. Romeo.
Mr. Sexy: Thank you ladies, ipkkndians, snakes and goats.
GoatsOverSnakes: What the?! I'm a guy, excuse me -_-


Baby Hold On by TINA!
Part 19: Redemption & Tension
Tears slipped from my eyes and splotched the lined pages of my diary. The only time I ever wrote in it was when something or the other went wrong. Really wrong.
My last entry was from six months ago, detailing one of the few full-blown arguments I'd ever had with my aunt. She'd been convincing me to get engaged to Shyamji, but I'd refused outright. Though I hadn't told her, there had been some crazy ideas floating around in my head that I'd only marry for love if I ever did. And I was most definitely not in love with Butterball.
Buaji had wrung her hands, exasperated. "Do you realize who you're passing up? Shyam is perfect for you! He's a lawyer. You'll have a wonderful life with him. All my friends are trying to snatch him up for their daughters or nieces, you know. But thankfully, he's crazy about you only--even though you pay him no attention whatsoever! You can't stay unmarried your whole life, Sanka Devi."
"Why can't I? A lot of women do these days. Marriage isn't everything, Buaji."
She had looked flabbergasted. "So that's it? You refuse? What will you do then? Just stay here with me?"
I'd shrugged. "Why not?"
A vein had throbbed on her temple. "You can't! Why don't you understand? You must marry! How much longer will I have to take care of you? Do you realize what a burden that is and--" Her voice had broken off as she'd realized what she'd said in her fury, her eyes widening almost immediately with apology. "I didn't mean that."
But it was too late. She had said it. Called me what I was. A burden. I'd run out of the room and the very next morning, agreed to marry Shyam Manohar Jha.
The first entry in my diary was from many years before that, when my parents had died in an awful car accident and I'd unfortunately survived. It shouldn't really be called a diary. It was Khushi Kumari Gupta's collection of pain, I thought wryly. Taking a hiccupping breath, I bent over it.
August 2nd
Everything hurts right now. To hold this pen in my hand, to think about all those lies, to breathe... How could he do this to me? I gave him everything. My heart, my soul, my body, and he lied! He lied and lied and lied! He even admitted that he came close to me just to get information.
I've been such a complete idiot. Part of me knew such happiness couldn't possibly be mine. How can anything ever go right for Khushi Ordinary Gupta? I am no princess and Prince Charming does not just walk into my life and sweep me off my feet without some ulterior motive. I should have known.
Why did I have to fall for him? How stupid he must think I am. How silly. Falling in love while he spewed his lies. Falling into his bed without asking any questions, trusting him without any proof.
I should have guessed that he couldn't be so perfect. Maybe then it wouldn't hurt so much right now. I should just accept that I'm not going to get a fairy-tale happily ever after. That only happens in books and movies--not in real life.
Everything is so painful right now. It almost makes me wish he'd never stepped foot into my life. I can't believe I actually thought he loved me. That he was here for ME.
I should get used to being alone. That's how it's always been and always will be. Getting close to anyone leads only to one thing, I've realized. Pain, pain, and more pain. And yet despite all that, I still care for him. My foolish heart still loves him. How do I stop loving him? Can I? Is it even possible? I'm not sure. Not sure about anything--
A loud knock came then, three taps on my locked bedroom door. I frowned at it, snapping my diary close.
"Go away, Raizada! I don't want to see your face!"
There was a pause and then someone who was clearly not Arnav cleared her throat. "Sanka Devi, it's only me. How much longer will you hole yourself in there? It's almost ten in the morning now."
10 AM? I stared at the clock on my desk, a bit bewildered. Usually I was up around five or six, cleaning the house and getting breakfast ready.
"Sanka Devi?"
"One minute." Brushing my tears with the back of my hand, I stood. Though my heart felt utterly crushed, mangled beyond repair, the fact was it was just another day for the rest of the world. My grief came second. Buaji needed me. I couldn't let her know what had kept me up all night long.
Opening the door, I smiled at her, keeping my eyes focused elsewhere so she wouldn't notice how red and swollen they were.
"Good morning, Buaji."
"Good morning indeed." She closed the door behind her, lowering her voice. "I didn't bother you last night, but I want to know what happened between you and Arnav dear yesterday. Why were you both fighting?"
I swung around, tying up my hair in a high ponytail. "It's nothing like that. You know how we are. Total opposites. Sometimes, we just get into arguments. It was nothing important."
Her eyebrows puckered as if she was trying to solve a highly confusing mathematical equation. "I could have sworn it was something serious this time."
My throat constricted. I wished with all my heart it wasn't serious. Just another one of our silly squabbles. But it wasn't. Not this time.
To my aunt, I tried to appear nonchalant, but it took some doing. I'd never been a good liar. "Everything is fine, Buaji. Please stop worrying."
"Really?" Her eyes narrowed in such a way that I knew whatever was coming next would not be good. "If it is all "fine" between you two, then you won't mind coming out of this room and facing him, would you?"
I balked at that. Face him? So soon? I didn't feel ready for that, not by a long shot, but I had no choice as Buaji pulled me by the elbow out of the room.
"Go wash up and then we'll all have breakfast together."
I managed a nod, keeping an eye out for Arnav. There was no sign of him anywhere and I'd just exhaled when a voice sounded. His voice.
"Maddy Bua? Is Khushi up yet? Breakfast is ready."
I darted to the bathroom before he could round the corner, ignoring Buaji's gasp of surprise. I'd deal with her later. Right now, I just needed a moment alone.
But even in the too tiny bathroom, far from his heady, torturous presence, Arnav Singh Raizada would not leave me alone. His voice echoed in my ears. My name, ordinary and quite plain though it was, seemed so different when he said it. With that huskiness...that---
No, Khushi! No! Control yourself. He is not your Mr. Sexy. He is Mr. Liar! Don't you dare make a fool of yourself twice.
I stayed in the bathroom long after the water had gone cold, fighting against the memories of a bubble bath I'd once shared with Arnav in this very space.
The moment I stepped out of the bathroom, wringing my hair dry with the towel, Buaji appeared before me, hands on her hips and her mouth bent in a disapproving scowl. I gazed beyond her to the living room. It was empty, but my worry didn't fade. He had to be here somewhere. My house was no lavish mansion and sooner or later, I knew I'd have to face him.
"What took you so long?" my aunt complained, leading me by the elbow again. "You missed breakfast."
I plopped down on my usual chair at the dining table, my eyes widening. I'd expected it to be almost empty, no more than a pitcher of milk and a small pile of dry, inedible slices of toast. But it was instead laden with food: croissants, an assortment of jams, the most delicious looking pastries, hot parathas, a fluffy, thin pancake-looking dish, and a huge fruit basket.
My stomach growled, reminding me I'd skipped dinner the night before. Buaji was busy filling my plate.
"You've gotten so thin! Soon you'll be nothing but skin and bones," she groused, shaking her head.
I was so used to her morning tirade about my stick-thin, schoolgirl figure that I didn't even try to argue. My mind was spinning with other things. Three letters actually. A.S.R.
"Morning, Sushi."
Speak of the devil! My breath hitched as I gazed up at him. Arnav was standing directly across from me, dressed in a simple, white button-down shirt and jeans. The clothes fit his lean frame as if stitched just for him, stretching taut across his muscles. To me, he appeared as if he'd just stepped out of a commercial on TV. Most startling of all: he was grinning at me, his chocolaty eyes soulful and deep as if trying to tell me something.
I'd never been able to resist those smiles of his, but this time I forced myself to glance pointedly away, taking a sip of milk and pretending that my heart was not pounding like a jackhammer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my aunt gaze at him with silent apology for what she no doubt thought was my rude behavior. As she began to step away, I grabbed her hand.
"Where are you going?"
"Out back to hang up the laundry."
I stared at her with alarm. It was one thing to face Arnav again, but something else entirely to be left alone with him.
"But what about breakfast?" I said, grappling for some excuse to make her stay.
"I already ate and you took so long. It's almost noon now."
"But--"
"No buts." She piled on more food onto my plate. "Sit here and finish this."
I felt like a child being reprimanded. Despite her frown at me, Buaji smiled as she turned toward the man I was doing my best to ignore.
"Now will you eat, dear?" Leaning toward me, Buaji explained, "You know, he's been waiting for you. He's been up all morning--since five or six. I told him to eat, but he wouldn't listen. Said he'd eat only when you did." She looked at him fondly.
My eyes flashed to him. Raizada was watching me, his eyes filled with warmth as he lifted a brimming tray toward me.
"Try this. Strawberry crepes. You'll love them."
Swallowing, I shook my head. "I don't want--"
"Of course, you do," my aunt jumped to say. "She'll have three."
"Buaji!"
"Okay, two." She smiled as I gave in, taking a bite of the crepe. It was delicious. Rich and light and smeared with Strawberry goodness. I almost moaned out loud.
"Told you, she'd like it, Arnav dear. You were worrying for no reason. How can Khushi not like something you made with your own hands?" Buaji popped a grape into her mouth as she spoke.
I went from almost moaning to almost chocking. "You...you..."
Arnav nodded, grinning handsomely. "I'm no match to your culinary skills, but I tried. Do you like it?"
I more than liked it, but I was not going to admit that. My heart threatened to melt, but I reminded myself what a huge liar he was. Did he think he could win me over with food? That all would be well after a few crepes? Crepes he probably learned how to make on some secret mission to France or something.
I put down my fork. "I'm not hungry."
The change on his face was immediate. His smile slipped, his jaw hardened and his eyes narrowed on my face. We glared at one another, neither backing down.
"What is wrong with you two?" Buaji threw her hands up, fed up. "I thought you were growing close. That you were falling in love."
I stared at my aunt as if seeing her for the first time. "Love?" My fiery gaze swerved to Arnav. "With him? Buaji, you've been watching too many of those silly soap operas. I'm not in love with him. Arnav Singh Raizada is the last man on this earth I'd want to be in love with!" Standing up, I fled to my room.
"Sanka Devi!"
I slammed the door behind me, locking it. My aunt knocked urgently. "Khushi. Khushi, open the door. I just want to talk to you. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you out there, but I truly thought you had feelings for him."
"Well, I don't!" I lied. "Leave me alone!" I fell to the ground, hugging my bent knees. "Just leave me alone, please."
Buaji sighed and I heard her footsteps fade. Only then, when I was sure I was alone, did I give into the tears.
*****
Eventually, I realized I could not stay in my room forever. It was almost 4 PM now. No one had disturbed me, but I knew the longer I stayed like this, the more questions my aunt would have. Questions I wouldn't know how to answer.
The hours had given me time to figure things out. I'd made up mind that I would tell Arnav to stay away from me. I needed time, time to figure out what my crazy heart exactly wanted. And until then, keeping away from him seemed the only logical step. It would probably kill me, but I had to ignore him.
Unlocking the door, I stepped out cautiously. The house was dark. "Buaji?"
A hand caught my wrist, pulling me hard. I gasped as I found myself plastered to Arnav's front. Outraged, I pushed against him.
"How dare you! Let go of me! Buaji!"
"Buaji is not home and right now you will answer me. No more running away." He tipped up my chin with his fingers, forcing me to meet his fiery gaze. "So I'm the last man you'd want to be in love with? Really?"
I glowered at him with defiance. "You heard me."
"And you don't love me?"
It took some doing, but I nodded. "No, I don't love you. Understand?"
His hold tightened and he brought his mouth alarmingly close to mine, our lips a hairsbreadth away. "Now who's lying?"
"I'm not lying," I insisted. "I don't love you! I hate you!"
"Really?" His eyes smoldered. "You don't care at all about me? You don't give a damn if I live or die? You don't love when I touch you?" His hands slipped to my bottom, bringing me flush against his length.
I gasped as I felt him against my lower stomach, a broken moan escaping my lips. Images of the cabin filled my senses: Arnav grasping my hand and setting it on his most intimate spot. Arnav peeling the nightgown away and replacing it with his hands and mouth. Arnav lifting me in the shower, thrusting deep.
"You didn't love it when we made love in the cabin--again and again and again?" His hips surged relentlessly against me, not giving me a chance to catch my breath. "You didn't love all those dreams we shared? All those plans we made for the future? Our future?"
I struggled against the powerful feelings he stirred in me, enveloped in his hard embrace. "I...I don't love you."
"Liar!" And then before I could call him the real liar, his mouth swung down, capturing my lips.
I froze and he took instant advantage, his tongue probing between my parted lips and sweeping across me. One of his hands raised my top, sliding under my bra and clamping over my breast with blatant possession.
"Tell me you don't love this, baby," he taunted between hungry kisses, his fingers squeezing and tugging on my nipple. He lowered his head, taking it whole into his mouth in long, consuming suckles. "Tell me you don't love this desire we share. This friendship. This love. Tell me."
I shoved him away, lowering my top. "I don't want to love you!"
I thought I saw hurt in his eyes, but he shielded his emotions quickly, making me wonder if I'd just imagined it.
"You may not want to love me, Khushi, but you do. Isn't that it? And me, well I'm hopelessly in love with you. Always have been. Always will be." I froze, my gaze startled as it locked with his. His eyes softened. "Baby, I love you so damn much. Please, give me another ch---"
"Khushi! Arnav dear!"
Raizada swore as my aunt entered the house, flipping on the lights. I scampered away from him, breathing hard.
Buaji smiled as she spotted us. "So you're back to being friends again? I'm so glad you both sorted it all out."
I didn't say anything, taking the grocery bags from her. There were several as well as some heavy parcels from the restaurant around the corner. Arnav came to my rescue, taking everything. Our hands met and his words rang in my ears. Baby, I love you so damn much. I instantly moved my fingers aside, swallowing.
"Isn't this too much food, Buaji?" My voice was remarkably steady.
"It's our turn for the kitty party again. I've been trying to tell you all morning. Usually you make everything, Sanka Devi, but since you...were a bit upset, I got it from outside. But can you make that potato dish you always do? My friends just love that."
I nodded. "I'll go start on it right now." As I walked away, I felt his eyes on me the entire time.
There was a giant pile of potatoes waiting for me in the kitchen. I sat down, peeling the first, lost in thought about a certain Raizada.
I heard his footsteps before I saw him. Keeping my eyes glued to the potato, I tried to ignore him as he set the rest of the bags on the counter and put the catering boxes in the refrigerator. I expected him to leave then, but to my surprise, he sat down across from me, stretching out his long legs.
"What are you doing?"
He shrugged, picking up a potato. "Helping you."
"I don't need your help."
His eyes twinkled. "I know, but I want to."
I was close to swearing. "Why don't you understand? I don't want to talk to you. I don't even want to see you. Just leave me alone!"
"I'd do anything for you, Khushi, but I can't leave you. Not when I know that you need me just as much as I need you. We love each other, dammit."
There it was. The one fact that I could not seem to erase no matter what. "I'll tell Buaji you're bothering me," I threatened.
"And have her think we're fighting again? She thinks we're back to being friends. Do you really want to tell her you've been lying all morning?"
Dammit, he was right. "Just peel the potatoes and leave me alone. Understood? Don't even try talking to me."
His smile widened. "As you wish, baby."
"Stop calling me that too!"
He said nothing, and after a few seconds, I glanced his way. He was actually peeling potatoes, his wavy hair falling over his forehead. I tore my gaze away. Buaji stepped into the kitchen and seeing us not at each other's throats but actually working together, she smiled like a proud mother hen. Her phone rang and she answered it with a loud "HELLO," yapping away with a friend about the party.
Raizada murmured something then, and I frowned at him, whispering, "Can you not keep quiet? Is that so impossible for you?"
"Sometimes, it is impossible. Like in bed, if you recall." He winked wickedly. "Although I'm not as loud as you are. You were shouting and moaning, remember?"
I could not believe he was talking about that with my aunt in the same room! "Stop talking to me," I ground out through my teeth.
"I wasn't talking to you though. You're the one who started talking to me," he pointed out. "I was actually talking to myself. I was saying that you have..." His voice trailed off.
I glanced up from the half-peeled potato in my hands. "I have what?"
"Dulhan jaisi aankhein...bride-like eyes. They glow, you know. Especially when you're so furious with me. I think I should write a poem on it."
Keeping an eye on Buaji, I murmured in a hushed tone, "Oh, so you do write poetry? I thought that was a lie too."
"I didn't lie about everything."
"No, just the importance stuff, like your identity!"
Buaji glanced our way and I faked a smile for her. I waited till she turned back around before telling Raizada, "Here's a poem for you too: Roses are red, violets are blue, see this potato? I want to throw it at you!"
He had the gall to laugh at that.
"I'm serious," I told him, my lips thinning.
He could not seem to stop smiling. "I know you are."
Buaji thankfully stepped in then.  "Arnav dear, could you please help me outside? I want to put some lights up. It'll make it different, don't you think?"
"Better than all the other parties," he said, knowing what she was really after.
She laughed with glee. "That's just my plan. This party should be the talk of Laxmi Nagar for a good week!"
I shook my head as the two walked away, but a throat cleared then and I saw that Arnav had returned. I started to scold him when he stretched out his hand, an envelope in his grasp.
"I know you're really angry. I don't blame you. But just read this once.  Please."
I took it and dumped it into the trash pile, along with some potato skins. "Is that answer enough for you?"
His mouth opened to argue but my aunt called his name, and with a sigh, he walked away. My eyes wandered to the letter. It had one word written on its front side: Baby.
*****
As daylight faded outside my bedroom window and night set in, I frowned at my reflection in the mirror.
I didn't feel like celebrating or going to any party, but I didn't have much of a choice. With so many guests arriving any minute, I had to be present. Otherwise, Buaji would be swamped under a deluge of questions and needless gossip.
Smoothing my hand down the soft ruby red fabric of my sari, I twisted my hands backward to tie on the blouse. It was easier said than done.
"Buaji? I need some help!" I struggled with the flimsy strings.
Fingertips glided along my back and I immediately froze, gasping as I gazed up at the mirror. Behind me stood Arnav, dressed in all black, his eyes dark and bottomless.
I jumped away. "How dare you walk in here! I called for Buaji! Not you!"
"She's busy," he said simply. "Now stop fussing and turn around." I shook my head and he raised an eyebrow. "Should I tell Maddy Bua we're fighting again then?"
My eyes spit fire at him. "I hate you," I murmured but I swerved around, presenting my bare back to him.
"Do you?" His fingers ghosted down my spine, making my heartbeat escalate. "Because I don't think you do."
I met his gaze in the mirror. "Don't be so over-confident, Raizada."
"I've always been confident." His lips caressed my nape, feather light. My chest rose and fell under his ministrations. "And how can I not be? If you truly hated me, you'd have realized several seconds ago that I've already tied your blouse."
My eyes snapped open as I spun around. Sure enough, the blasted blouse was fastened. Arnav's eyes shone as they settled on me. I started to make up some excuse, but his words stopped me.
"I want to speak to you. Alone."
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
He wouldn't be refused. "Tonight, baby, we are going to talk. We're going to figure out this mess once and for all. And you know what's going to happen then?" He stepped closer, just barely touching me. "We're going to make up and you're going to kiss me. And then we're going to make love until you can't remember any name in the world except for mine."
I wanted to ask him if he'd lost his mind, but I guessed my dumbfounded expression was enough.
"It will happen," he said with supreme confidence. Leaning forward, he kissed the corner of my mouth before I could stop him. "You look beautiful, by the way."
As he walked away, leaving me more confused than ever, I wondered how I was going to keep away from him tonight.
A few pep-talks later, I walked outside. Buaji's friends were already there, glued to yet another Meryl Streep movie.
My aunt smiled as she spotted me. "All your friends and the other kids have gone out in the backyard. Unless you'd rather stay here..."
It was a tough choice. If I stayed here, her friends would hound me with questions about my engagement and Shyamji. And if I went outside, there would be Raizada to face.
Since when are you afraid of anything? You can face him, Khushi, I told myself. Try to enjoy yourself and show him that he has no effect on you.
Mind made up, I waved to Buaji's friends and headed to the well-lit backyard. My friends swarmed me instantly.
"Look who else is here?" said one in my ear, inclining her head sideways.
My eyes as always went straight to Arnav. He was leaning against a tree, a bit aloof from the rest, his eyes on me. My face warmed.
"Not your paying guest," murmured my friend. "He was here last time too. But look at the other side. It's Nick!" She squealed the name with barely contained awe and disbelief.
I was surprised to see a pack of guys at my aunt's ladies' night. She had a strict no-men-allowed policy, but there they were, gathered in a circle. The leader of the group was someone I recalled from my school days.
Nikhil Arora a.k.a. Nick had been the most popular boy in my class for as long back as I could remember. Practically every girl in the school had longed for a single glance for him or a hello--including me. He'd never paid me any attention though and my silly crush had faded with time.
He was still attractive, but I found him a bit immature looking now. Not like Arnav. Nick noticed me too, his eyes widening. My dislike peaked as he made his way over to me in all his too cool, pompous style, his friends following after him. "Khushi. God, look at you. It's been so long." Out of the blue, he wrapped his arms around me.
Over his shoulder, I could see Arnav straighten, a murderous expression on his face. I started to move away, but then thought twice. Smiling at Nick extra wide, I hugged him back. "How are you?"
"Good now that you're here." He gazed at me with all his boyish charm. Too bad, it had no effect. "You know your aunt almost didn't let us in. But then my grandmother told her that if he--" He pointed to Arnav. "--is allowed, then so should we."
"I'm glad you're here," I said, hoping my voice carried over to a certain Raizada. By the way his hands clenched at his sides, it definitely did.
"This party is so boring," complained Nick. "Can we turn the music up?"
"I don't think so. My aunt and not to mention the neighbors wouldn't like it."
Nick cursed and then one of his friends suggested, "How about that game we played at yesterday's party? The questions one. That was fun."
Everyone seemed to agree. I, on the other hand, didn't even know what game they were going on about. "Come here, Khushi," said Nick, pulling me down on a blanket next to him. "It's more comfortable."
I sat uneasily, wondering why he was paying me so much attention. My teenage self would have been ecstatic to be beside him, but I found myself bored by his talks. It was all about one person: him.
"I just love this game, don't you? I mean, how can you not? Anyone with as good taste as me would."
I nodded absently. Time seemed to crawl by. My friend called out my name, and I glanced up with surprise.
"It's your turn," she said again.
"Umm... I wasn't listening. What was the question?"
"Have you ever kissed a guy first or always waited for him to make the first move?"
I didn't know where to look as every eye turned my way, including Arnav's. "I've kissed first," I said with an air of confidence. "It's no big deal."
My friends looked amazed. "Shyamji is a lucky man," laughed one.
The image of Butterball's mouth anywhere near me made me feel sick to my stomach and then some, but I didn't correct them. The man whom I had kissed--the only one actually--looked more agitated than ever and I could have sworn I heard him grumble about a "stupid toad." I tried not to smile.
"Hey, paying guest guy!" screamed one of Nick's friends. "Your turn."
"The name is Arnav Singh Raizada and no thanks, I'm not interested in your juvenile game."
"Oh, come on, man. We'll give you an easy one. What's your favorite hobby?"
Arnav's eyes sizzled as they fixed on me. "Let's just say it's something rated R."
The group laughed and my face burned. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice.
"Nikhil, question for you: who's the sexiest girl here?"
To my shock, he turned to me. "I'd say Khushi. She's really blossomed."
Blossomed? I found his choice of words downright bizarre. But as he offered me his hand and murmured, "This party is so lame. How about a walk?" I found myself agreeing.
Arnav's face hardened like granite as we walked by and I knew there would be hell to pay later. I laughed at something stupid Nick said, tossing my hair over my shoulder.
Ten minutes later, I was realizing that in the process of making Raizada jealous, I'd ended up somewhere I did not want to be. I covered my yawn with the back of my hand as I walked beside Nick, not saying anything much. Not that he noticed, he was busy going on and on about all the problems in his life--his mother's controlling ways, his hard time finding a job, his trouble with girls.
"But you...you're so different, Khushi."
I froze as he turned to me, gazing at our surroundings with a start. I thought we'd been taking a shortcut back to the house, but that had taken us right to the middle of Lover's Park. It was a bit chilly and I rubbed my arms for warmth, glancing at the dark trees around us.
"We should head back. Buaji will be wondering where I am."
His hand caught mine, his grip firm. "Let her wonder. Who cares?"
"I care," I told him, more than a bit annoyed now. "Let go."
I tugged on my hand, but he held on fast, his nails biting into my skin. "You really are the sexiest girl in Laxmi Nagar now. I want you."
I shoved him hard. "Well, I don't want you."
He gazed at me as if he'd never heard those words before, which was probably true and then his gaze hardened, turning into something I'd never seen before.
"We'll see if you don't want me after this." He suddenly pushed me against a tree. I shouted, punching and kicking him as he drew closer still.
"Get off of me! HELP! ARNAV!"
My elbow connected with his gut and he grunted, his eyes turning ugly once more. "You're going to pay for that, b****!"
To avoid his kiss, I turned my head aside and he pulled on my hair so hard, tears came to my eyes. And then suddenly, he was gone, wrenched off me as a roar exploded:
"HOW DARE YOU COME NEAR HER?" Arnav slammed his fist into Nikhil's face.
"Hell!" He grasped his bleeding mouth. "She led me on the whole night, man. You saw, didn't you?"
"I saw her tell you to get away from her!" Arnav's fist connected with his face so hard, the other man crumpled to the ground, out cold.
I gulped in a breath of air as Arnav rounded toward me. He cupped my face urgently in his palms.
"Are you okay? Did he do anything? Did he hurt you?"
I shook my head, tears streaking my too pale face. "I just want to go home--" My voice broke and Arnav crushed me to him, holding me as I cried. I held onto him, feeling safe again. He murmured endearments in my ears and kissed my tears away. I let him, arching into his familiar touch. He paused at my lips, silently asking me for permission.
I found myself leaning up, slanting my mouth over his. We went up like the hottest of flames, lips fusing, stroking, aligning. I don't know how long we stood like that, making out madly, but eventually he drew back, his lips moist from our kisses.
"What about..." My gaze wandered to the still limp body on the dirt a good distance away. "He's not dead, is he?"
"No, unfortunately he's not." Arnav turned on his phone. "Yeah, Aman, it's me. Can you get to Lover's Park, northwest to the pond? You're going to find an unconscious body there. I'm in the process of handcuffing him. Could you arrest him and put him in the closest cell? I'll handle the rest." They must be really thick friends I realized because Aman didn't ask any more questions. I'd have asked a hundred by now. Arnav straightened up and then reached for me, lifting me up in his arms. I burrowed my face against the side of his neck, needing him in a way I couldn't explain.
The party was still going on and as we neared the loud music, I made Arnav lower me down, eyeing the lights and guests uneasily.
"If you don't want to go back, you don't have to," he said in my ear.
"I think I do."
Arnav shook his head, leading me from shadow to shadow to my bedroom. As one of Buaji's friends passed too close for comfort, he pulled me behind a billowing sheet of laundry, hugging me tight. I curled into his arms, snuggling closer. We held our breaths and when all was clear, Arnav murmured, "Now."
I felt like one of those spies they show in movies, ducking and darting from one spot to the next. Eventually, we managed to reach my bedroom window. He lifted me up on the ledge, helping me in. "I'll tell Maddy Bua you slept early."
I didn't know what to say to him. "Thank y--"
"Don't you dare thank me, Sushi. Now go and sleep. You look exhausted." His hand curved over the side of my face, caressing.
"What about everything you wanted to do tonight?"
"You mean talking it out?"
I felt my face turn a shade redder. "That and the kissing and... making love..."
He pecked me on the tip of my nose. "Later tonight, I'll find you. Go and rest for now, baby."
"Where are you going?"
"I have some work," he said vaguely.
I wondered if he'd ever tell me the truth about anything or if I'd always be kept in the dark. My doubts must have been visible on my face because Arnav sighed.
"Khushi, if I could tell you, I would."
"You can't or you don't want to?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "It's a bit of both. I don't want you involved in this and it's classified."
"I already know though. And if it involves me, I have a right to know."
"Fine. You want to know? Well, word is that the toad might be in Europe. I'm working on tracking him down."
"Europe? You're not leaving, are you?" I hoped against hope he didn't hear the note of panic in my question.
"No, of course not," he reassured. "Now, sleep. We'll talk later. I love you." And then with one last, heart-melting look, he was gone.
I slouched down on my bed and pulled out a wrinkled envelope from under my pillow. I'd taken it out of the garbage almost immediately. As I opened it now, I was astonished to see that it contained not just a letter, but also a diamond ring. My diamond ring.
Baby,
If you're reading this then thank you for even that. I know I don't deserve it.
I'm sorry, Khushi. I'm so damn sorry. But I swear on our love, it was never my intention to hurt you. That has what I was hoping to avoid actually. It kills me to see tears in your eyes. I can face all the guns, knives, and death in the world, but I can't face your hatred.
You have every reason to hate me. I know you do. But baby, please just listen to me once. I didn't realize I was falling for you until it had already happened. And by that time, I didn't want to lose you. Also, my hands were tied. My field of work does not allow me to disclose everything--even if that's all I want to do.
But trust me, Khushi, I love you. My love for you is the most genuine emotion I've ever felt. I wasn't looking for love, but you came into my life. And you changed everything.
I need you in my life, baby. Your sunshine, your laughter, your love--I can't live without that. And I hope under all your anger and hurt, you still love me too. I want to share that future with you, Khushi. The one we envisioned together. Marriage, a honeymoon in the cabin, our pack of kids...
Just give me one more chance and I promise you I won't let you down this time. I want to earn your trust and forgiveness. Your love... What we share is too rare and magical to ever forget or walk away from and I think we both know that. Just talk to me, baby. Just talk to me once.
Your Mr. Sexy,
A.S.R.
I clutched the letter to my heart, not realizing I was crying till I felt the wetness on my face. I recalled all that he'd done for me today, right from breakfast to the comforting, protective embrace in Lover's Park. Falling back on the bed, I read his words again and again.
He was right. The love between us could not be erased or forgotten. Arnav was a part of me and how long could someone survive without their heart? I'd gone a day and it had felt like an eternity.
That night, I stayed up late, waiting for him to return. I daydreamed about how he'd react when I'd tell him I was ready to forgive him. To give him and this love another chance. Would he take me into his arms and kiss me senseless?
Probably.
Would he notice that the diamond ring was back on my finger?
Eventually.
Would he lower me down on the bed and make wild love to me?
Most definitely.
I smiled, kissing the diamond as I yawned. The next time I opened my eyes, sunlight was pouring out of the window and the loud music and laughter of the previous night was glaringly absent.
I frowned at the time. 6 AM. Why hadn't Arnav come in yet? Had he been detained at the police station? That had to be it, I reasoned. Tying up my hair in a loose bun, I pushed open the door.
Buaji was sitting at the dining table, her head bent over the newspaper. For once, Arnav wasn't next to her, teasing her and making her laugh and blush.
"Buaji? Good morning. Have you see Raizada? Is he sleeping still?"
My aunt gazed up and I knew immediately that something was wrong. I rushed to her side. "Buaji, what is it? Why are you crying?"
She sniffled. "Arnav dear... He left last night."
"Left?" I shook my head. It couldn't be. No way. "Buaji, what are you saying?"
She stood up, grasping my shoulders. "He's gone, Sanka Devi! After the party, he helped me clean up and then he got some call. He said he had to leave right away. He packed his bags and paid the rest of his rent. I refused to take it, but he left it there."
My heart dropped as I glanced to where she pointed. I picked up the check. It was his signature, the same one from his ID badge.
"When did he say he's coming back? Next week?"
My aunt shook her head. "Look at the amount. Don't you see, Sanka Devi? He's not planning on coming back. He said so himself."
I felt my world sway and dim. No... No, it couldn't be! He couldn't have done this to me. He'd said in his letter, Just give me one more chance and I promise you I won't let you down this time. I want to earn your trust and forgiveness. Your love...
How could the man who wrote that walk away with not so much a word? He couldn't.
But as I ran to my old bedroom and threw open the closet doors, I saw that my aunt was right. All his things were long gone. There was not any evidence that Arnav Singh Raizada had stayed here. That he'd lived here for months and made me fall in love with him.
He was truly gone.
Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 20: Three Months Later
3 months later...
Coast of Sithonia, Greece
Incessant waves surged and crashed against the aged stone cliffs as men unloaded heavy cargo, their work boots crunching on the sands. Under the dim glow of moonlight, they worked fast, knowing well that if anyone discovered what these shipments contained, there would be severe consequences.
A man with ruffled hair, dressed in a polka-dotted shirt and dark pants stood off to the side, his gaze focused on his phone. Sea mist and the smell of fish curled about him, but his mind was elsewhere, far beyond the picturesque peninsula...
With careful fingers, Shyam stroked the picture he'd taken of Khushi nearly a year ago without her knowledge. It showed her coming out of the shower, a pink towel draped over her shoulder and beads of water clinging to her radiant face.
Sweeping his thumb up her swan-like neck to her frozen features, he wished he were with her, actually touching her softness. An odd glint shone in his yellowy eyes.
"How much I miss you, Khushiji! Do you miss me too? It feels as if it has been forever since we've been apart, though it's been just mere months." His gaze hardened as he recalled the reason for the separation.
Never in his wildest dreams would he have suspected the new paying guest to turn out to be an elite undercover cop, but his employer had sources everywhere. They'd linked ASR to a major drug raid that had happened in northern Africa just the year before. One of his boss's chief business partners had lost everything because of that ASR's interference.
And now, thanks to the same man, Shyam could not return to Laxmi Nagar and the woman he loved. He'd be arrested on the spot if he tried. A shiver assailed him. Though Khushi meant everything to him, he could not take such risks to meet her. A sudden thought came to him. His breathing sped...
"You!" he shouted to two of the largest Greek workers. They resembled giants, sweat-faced from hours of hard labor. "You and your friend, come here!"
The men exchanged a confused glance, but did as he asked. Shyam pulled out his checkbook, writing a generous figure. "See this? I'll give you this and triple the Euros if you do something for me."
The workers analyzed the check with beady eyes. "What would we have to do?"
Shyam smiled. "It is very simple. There's a woman in Delhi--that's in India. You just have to bring her here...at all costs." His tone hinted that force would be perhaps required.
The men suddenly looked uncomfortable, murmuring amongst themselves.
"AKOUSTE ME!" Shyam yelled. "Listen to me! It will be very easy. I will give you the address and arrange a private plane to take you there and back." He scribbled down the address of Laxmi Nagar, his thoughts running wild. "Only two women live in this house. The other woman is quite old, and she's always busy with her kitty parties, face packs, and keeping a braid wound around her neck. So there will be no trouble. Bring the other one to me. Simple."
The men slowly nodded, taking the check. "You promise us triple this?"
"I'll pay you as soon as you get her here." Shyam's voice lowered. "And make sure she's unharmed. If anything happens to her, I promise you Boss will hear about it. And you know how close I am to him."
"We will bring the woman, Jha."
Shyam grinned as they walked away, pressing his slobbering lips to the picture of Khushi as if it was a stick of his favorite brand of butter.
"Khushiji, we will be reunited very soon...And then you will be my beautiful bride. Don't worry."
*****
Delhi, India
You know that awful feeling when everything seems to crash down and you begin to seriously wonder if you have the strength to face the world the next day? This was it. Except worse. Much, much worse.
The first few hours after I realized Arnav had left--actually left me and gone who knows where--my body seemed to shut down. I don't recall it too well, the details are fuzzy now, but Buaji says she found me crumpled on the floor, my face pale and my body unmoving.
Frightened, she'd picked me up, rocking me back and forth in her arms. "Khushi," she kept repeating. "Sanka Devi, say something. Say something, please..."
A broken sob had escaped my lips. "Buaji...Arnav--" I'd hugged her as tight as I could, sobbing uncontrollably.
She'd let me cry my heart out, not uttering a word. It didn't need to be said, but she must have realized after that how very much I did love Arnav. How he'd sneaked past all my guards and stolen my heart.
That breakdown scared both of us. I'd never wanted my aunt to see me in that state. So that night, I promised myself that no matter what happened, I'd be strong--for her sake at least. If I had to cry, I'd do it privately. If I had to yell and scream, I'd wait till Buaji had gone out.
But alone or with my aunt, the same questions plagued me: where was Arnav? And why had he left without telling me? What could have possibly happened?
As heartbreak consumed me, other emotions began to surface, primarily fear and panic. I recalled Arnav mentioning something about Shyamji being in Europe. Had he been called away to catch him? Was he okay?
I had no way of knowing. His phone had been disconnected and his email account had been removed. At one point that first week, I actually packed the suitcase I'd taken not too long ago to Sheena's birthday party and decided to head to the airport, but Buaji stopped me.
"Where will you go?" she exclaimed. "Khushi, think calmly for a moment."
I shook my head mutinously. "I don't care if you find this crazy, but I have to look for him. And I will find him."
"Sanka Devi--"
"I LOVE HIM, BUAJI!" I shouted, without meaning to. "I can't live like this. Without knowing what happened to him. I have to find him. Why don't you understand that?"
She quieted after seeing the tears in my eyes, her gaze growing solemn. "Where will you search? Do you realize how big Europe is? How will you find him? He could be anywhere!"
Her words had made far too much sense, but my stubborn heart was heedless to such logic. It was only when I reached the airport and saw the flight listings heading to every corner of Europe that it hit me how impossible this truly was. There were endless possibilities, and I didn't have nearly enough money to search each city. Even with all my savings put together, I didn't have enough money for a single flight.
Eventually, I returned back home to Laxmi Nagar, lugging in my bags. Buaji said nothing as I entered and I was grateful for that.
"I have to earn money," I told her as I sat down. "And fast."
"But how? You left college midway to help me and it's so tough to find a good job these days."
I shrugged, hugging my bent knees. "I'll do anything. Anything at all."
I tried looking for a job the very next day, but like Buaji had foreseen, my options were very limited. Out of frustration, I started making jalebis, just as I always did when things went haywire in my life. The only difference was I no longer felt like eating them, my appetite long gone.
As I gazed at the towering pile of jalebis, I realized the only option was to give them away. And then it hit me, that maybe I could do something after all. I could sell jalebis. And that is how A&K Sweets was born.
Three months have passed and though business has steadily grown, money is tight. I haven't saved nearly as much as I hoped I would by now and more expenses loom before me.
Buaji has been very supportive and the neighborhood--everyone from my friends to Bumble and Happy Singh--has tried to spread the word about my new catering business.
Standing over the hot fumes of piping oil and simmering jalebis, the days are long and exhausting, but I'm grateful for it. It keeps my mind off Mr. Sexy and gives me something to do.
The nights though are plain horrible. There's no other way to put it. Almost every night, I toss and turn, dreaming of Arnav being snatched from me. I reach out to him with mounting desperation each time, screaming his name, but it's like our hands never meet. As if there's something blocking us from coming close.
"It's all your imagination," my aunt is quick to add the next morning. "Just your worst fears."
She might have a point, but I'm convinced otherwise. Why does my heart say that something terrible must have happened to keep Arnav away from me for so long? That he would never hurt me intentionally, just as he'd said in the letter?
I've memorized that letter by heart by now. It's always nearby, just as the diamond ring is always on my finger. Everyone in Laxmi Nagar has assumed it's from Shyamji and I've never bothered to correct them. Buaji, on the other hand, knows everything.
"What if he never returns?" she asked me for the umpteenth time today, throwing up her hands. "How long will you keep working like this? Have you looked at yourself lately? You're so weak. You're pushing yourself much too hard."
"I'm fine, Buaji," I insisted.
She grumbled something under her breath. "I used to adore that ASR, but not anymore. He better have a good reason for not calling you. It's been three long months now!"
As if I could ever forget. Every day carried a weight. "He must have his reasons."
"Listen to you! Defending him as always. How can you love him as you do, Sanka Devi?" she asked with a mix of baffled exasperation and marvel. "I don't understand it."
My eyes flashed to the window beyond her. "I don't understand it either. Trust me, I've tried figuring that out too. It's just that I love him. And now that I have fallen for him, I can't stop. There's no on and off switch for love, Buaji. Arnav Singh Raizada is my soul, my heartbeat..."
My aunt opened her mouth, probably to argue and call me a lovesick fool, so I quickly rose. "It's starting to rain. I'll bring the laundry inside. I hung it out to dry this morning."
"Khushi! Have you been listening to me at all? You need to stop working and relax. The laundry can wait."
But I wouldn't listen. Why didn't she understand? If I kept busy, it didn't hurt nearly as much. Oh, Arnav... Where are you, baby?
As I pushed open the back door, letting the rain sweep over me, what I didn't know was that beyond the gates, two men had stepped out of a black, unmarked van, their gazes focused on my small house. They spoke in Greek:
"This is it?"
"The address matches. Now where is this woman? I want my money."
Buaji stepped out of the main door then, taking in some sheets hung out to dry. Her eyes narrowed on the unfamiliar men standing near the gate.
"Yes? May I help you?"
Their eyes fastened on her.
"What did Jha say?" asked the boxier looking one. "Not the woman with a braid?"
His friend nodded, eyeing Buaji's short pixie haircut. "That means..." With a friendly smile, he approached the older woman, a single sheet of paper clenched in his taut grip. "We are new here and looking for this address.  Could you help us please?"
Putting down the sheets, Buaji held out her hand. "Where are you heading, dears?" Her eyes froze on the paper. "Wait...this is my address..."
The smile on the man's face morphed into something dark. "Exactly." He suddenly swooped and picked her up in his arms, racing toward the open van.
"What are you doing?" shouted Buaji, whacking his head several times. "PUT ME DOWN! SANKA DEVI! SOMEONE HELP ME!"
*****
"SANKA DEVI!"
I almost ignored Buaji's shout but it sounded more panic-filled than normal. Not like yesterday, when the TV had momentarily stopped working and she'd almost missed her favorite daily soap. This time, I sensed it was something more serious than that.
Dropping the laundry, I ran to her, reaching the front door just in time to see her being tossed inside a van. A tall, brown-haired man slipped into the driver's seat.
"STOP!" I screamed. "SOMEONE STOP THEM! THEY HAVE MY AUNT!"
The man did not pause or glance back, stomping on the brakes instead. Water streaked into the air as the car sped off. I ran after it, yelling, fear and confusion coiling in my stomach like a hard knot.
"BUAJI!"
Bumble spotted me and raced down the stairs of her salon, catching my arm. "Khushi? Bitiya, what is it?"
Through my panting, I managed: "Some men...they took Buaji..."
"What?" Startled, she yelled for her assistant, telling her to call the police.
I put a hand on my temple, my heart beating wildly. "I don't understand. Why would someone do this? Who was that man? Where have they taken Buaji?"
Bumble, like me, had no answers. She led me back to the house, making me sit down and have some water. The local police officer arrived soon after that.
"Now, go over everything you saw, Ms. Gupta. What did the man look like? Did you write down the license plate?"
I shook my head. "The van had gone too far by then. I saw them push her inside and drive off. They were tall men, European I think, dressed in black. I didn't see their faces."
The man's mouth bent, his bushy eyebrows puckering. "That isn't very much to go on, but we will try our best."
"What does that mean?" I cried, not quieting down despite Bumble's look of warning in my direction. "You have to find my Buaji. You must!"
"Like I said, we will do our best, Ms. Gupta, but kidnappings are difficult cases." He sounded more bored than anything, as if he'd given this same explanation to countless hysterical females before this. I didn't detect any concern or assurance in his words.
"I need you to find her!" I screamed, launching myself up on my feet. "If you won't, then I will!"
"Khushi!" Bumble started to stand, but I darted past her, not bothering about anything or anyone.
Raindrops mixed with my tears as I raced down the steps, not seeing where I was going. All I knew was, I couldn't lose Buaji too. She was the only family I had.
Sobbing, I sprinted toward the gate and almost in the same breath, ran head first into someone. My hands rose automatically, my heart skipping a beat as I realized my fingers were pressed against a familiar leather jacket. It couldn't be...
I was almost too afraid to look up, but as I did, I felt everything freeze. My breathing came to a jerking halt. I might have fallen if not for the shock of it, the need to confirm what I saw was truly real.
"Arnav..."
His mouth tightened at my voice and his eyes pierced me with their familiar fire. It was him! my heart screamed. My Arnav! My Mr. Sexy!He was actually standing before me, his hands braced on my shoulders.
"Khushi, I--"
"Ms. Gupta?" The pesky police officer came down the steps, his eyebrows furrowing more as he considered my close proximity to Arnav and the way he held me. "And who is this? Is he threatening you?"
I was too shocked to move, much less answer, my eyes moist as I stared at the man I had longed for months now.
Arnav's hands tightened on my shoulders briefly and then drawing me away, he frowned at the officer, pulling out a metal badge I recognized well.
"I'm Arnav Singh Raizada and I'm now in charge of this case. You can leave."
I didn't know who was more surprised, the flabbergasted cop or me.
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6 comments:

  1. Heya!
    Sorry for such long overdue response but my keyboard went awry and then my comp followed suit
    I typed the whole long comment on previous parts TWICE and it all vanished! POOF!
    Then I got so irritated that I din bother typing it again
    Even now something is wrong
    Short comment:BHO
    I loved it
    Freaking loved every bit of it
    cant wait for more updates

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. argh i hate when that happens! Glad you liked the update though :)

      Delete
  2. BHO ch. 12:
    I loved the update...
    I like your blog more and i find it easy to check...
    Plz i request that update on blog first...
    Plz plz plz...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right now I'm updating simultaneously on blog and IF. no worries.

      Delete
  3. Loved the update!!! Its been written beautifully. I love this side of Arnav. And Khushi is mindblowing. Update next soon..

    ReplyDelete
  4. hi tina im hannah i love all your fanfic abt arshi .i want them back on screen dear realy miss them .

    ReplyDelete

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