Saturday, May 31, 2014

Secret Passion Part 25-29

Secret Passion Updated!
A reader mentioned after the last chapter that SP is like a layered soap opera. And that's kind of the idea if you read the teaser. It's what IPKKND could be like if it was a HBO show, more mature and edgy. If you notice, even the chapters are called "Episodes."
More soon hopefully.
--Tina



**NO COPYING, SHARING, ALTERING OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT 2013-2014 BY TINA! If you see this material on any other site or account (other than under TINA! on IF) plz inform me ASAP. Action will be taken.** 
Summary:
How had her life come to this? wondered Khushi Kumari Gupta. How had Arnav Singh Raizada taken over everything so completely?
She could not escape his pull. His aura clung to her... his smoldering gaze plagued her every thought... She had vowed to hate him. But how could she when he was not just her boss but so much more...
Would this secret passion change her forever?
Secret Passion by TINA! and Satina
Episode 25: Entrepreneur of the Year
Saturday morning dawned on Delhi with overcast skies and the high likelihood of storms later in the day, though the sun peeked out every now and then. The streets began to crowd early: shop owners scurried to open their doors, laying out their goods; mailmen gathered parcels and bins teeming with envelopes, while others headed off for work or errands, scarfing down breakfast.
In Shantivan, Payal had not been able to sleep all night. Try as she might, she could not seem to forget Arnav's cold dismissal the previous day. It hadn't been a rejection per se; the poor man hadn't realized what she'd been offering so readily. He'd been completely oblivious, his thoughts dominated by her so-called sister, Khushi.
Her hands fisted on her lap at the reminder of the girl whom she hated with every fiber of her being. The hate was black and thick, flowing in her veins like the most potent of venoms. It was enough to drive her to murder.
Payal felt no guilt for her malicious thoughts and plans. Khushi was the delusional one--not her! She was the one who believed they were sisters, though the fact was they shared not a drop of the same blood. In her eyes, Khushi was simply the unwanted guest who'd entered her life long ago and never left. And it hadn't stopped there. Khushi had steadily worked her way into her circle of friends, her room, even herfamily's hearts!
Gnashing her teeth together, Payal forced herself to take a calming breath. She just had to be patient. In the end, all would be hers, she told herself. Everything. And as for Khushi...well she wished her nothing short of the worst possible pain and unhappiness. Only her destruction would satisfy Payal--along with ASR in her bed.
Keeping one eye on her sleeping husband, she pulled up AR Group's main website on her laptop, gazing at the picture of the sinfully handsome and charming CEO. Winner of the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, read the headline.
She drew one nail across his frozen features, down his well-muscled chest and lower still, her heart pounding as if she was truly caressing him intimately, fulfilling his every desire. If only this was real, she reflected, feeling her blood heat at the thought. If only she truly held him in her palms, her mouth tracing across his smooth, rock-hard skin.
Payal was quite confident that after a night with her, Arnav would surely abandon his wife. He'd drop Khushi straight into the trash bin like yesterday's news and instead--
"Payal?"
Her loser of a husband blinked at her owlishly from the bed, blind as a bat without his glasses. "Where are you?"
"Here," she murmured, rolling her eyes at him.
Akash smiled as he spotted her across the room. "Come back to bed."
She knew well what that smile meant. He was hardly ever home, but every once in a while Akash's pint-sized brain would remember he had a wife. A wife with needs and desires.
Turning off the laptop with one last glance at Arnav's photograph--though it wasn't necessary, she'd already memorized his every feature except for the unsightly scar near his left eye. In her mind, he was perfection.
Her hands went to the tie of her robe and it fell about her ankles with a silent flutter. She was bare beneath it, just as she had been for Arnav though he hadn't noticed. Her pulse picked up as she recalled his manly scent, the feel of his muscled back against her breasts. She'd been careless perhaps to get so close to him, but that one, fleeting point of contact had been worth every risk.
Akash pulled her down and draped himself over her. She let him do as he liked though she avoided his kiss as always. He was used to that by now and didn't even try to set his lips near hers.
Her fingers clenched on his thinning hair. Like this, with his face hidden against her neck, he could almost pass for his older cousin. Almost.
But there would always be a difference between the two--one she'd never be able to ignore. Her husband sorely lacked Arnav Singh Raizada's steely strength, his skill, his persona, that powerful air of command. She was very sure that authority carried over into the bedroom too and that knowledge excited her like nothing else.
"ASR," she moaned, imagining him on her. His hands. His mouth.
Akash stiffened. "ASR?"
She managed a sugary sweet smile for the twit. "Have you forgotten your own name? Akash Singh Raizada. A. S. R."
Her husband chuckled, burrowing his head against her again. Closing her eyes, Payal pictured the real ASR on her. In her...
Her shout was loud and guttural. "ASR!"
*****
On the opposite corner of Delhi, Khushi woke with a breathy sigh, stretching languorously on the bed. She'd stayed up extra late last night waiting for Arnav to return. Though they'd come home together after a long day at work, Aman had unexpectedly called him for an emergency meeting around 11 PM.
"You should sleep," Arnav had told her as they'd walked out to the driveway hand in hand. "Don't wait up for me."
She'd pouted, leaning her head on his shoulder. "You know I can't sleep without you."
"Dammit, Khushi." He spun to face her, his tone reminding her of the too strict boss he'd once been, though there was a gentleness in his eyes that had been absent back then. "You're pregnant. You need to rest. Is that understood?"
"But--"
His mouth cut her off, his tongue delving deep. She was breathing hard by the time he drew back, her lips trembling.
"No excuses." Arnav rubbed his thumb over the slight moistness coating her bottom lip. "I want to see you in bed when I get back."
She met his gaze with marked exasperation. "But why is Aman calling you now anyway? It's the middle of the night!"
"Not in Toronto. It's an important contract and I need to be there personally for the video conference."
Khushi had known by experience that meant it had to be truly urgent. Besides, Aman would never call him away without a good reason.
"Drive safely," she murmured, hugging her arms around herself as her husband sat inside the jeep, turning on the ignition.
"I will. Lock the door and don't forget to turn on the security system."
"Is that really necessary still?"
Raising an eyebrow, Arnav pulled her to him through the jeep's open window. She lowered her head slightly and cupping her cheeks in his palms, he looked at her steadily. "Yes, it is necessary. Because it's about your safety. The babies' safety. I'm not taking any chances where the three of you are concerned."
Her heart squeezed at the warmth in his eyes and she found herself unable to look away. "You love me that much?" Her voice wavered slightly.
He kissed her in answer, hard and long. "Do you need to ask?"
"No." Khushi smiled, stepping back with one last peck. "I know. You don't need to say it."
Arnav caught her hand again. "But for the record, Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada, I love you more than anything. More than anyone. Now, go and sleep. That's an order."
Tears rose in her eyes and she blinked them away, blaming her surging hormones for the sudden rush of emotions. "Head to bed. Got it, Mr. Raizada."
Smirking, Arnav began reversing the jeep and then a sudden thought dawned on him. He braked, causing Khushi to stare at him curiously. He cocked his head out the window, his eyes bright and shining. "By the way, though you look highly edible and way too damn sexy in that nightgown you're wearing, if I find you later in our bed without it...Well, let's just say, I won't be complaining."
Khushi giggled. "Oh, I know you won't be. We'll see, husband."
"Yeah, we will." His gaze shone with promise. A promise that made her quiver and burn anew. He felt it too, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. "Good night, love. Try to sleep."
She'd blown him a kiss and then with one last reminder to not wait up, he was gone, the jeep's taillights disappearing in the darkness. Time had ticked by slowly after that. Khushi had tried her hardest to stay awake, but once 2 AM had rolled by, she'd dozed off, hugging his pillow tight. Her husband's scent clung to the fabric.
Arnav had no doubt returned home sometime after that. He should have been by all rights completely exhausted and out cold. But instead, he was already up and busy--not with work, but pleasure that is.
She shivered as he worked his way down her pliant body, his mouth and tongue sweeping over her in a relentless, branding manner that made it impossible for her to concentrate. He was warm and bare, the tantalizing friction between them leaving her breathless. Today was an important day, she recalled. There was so much to do, but Arnav clearly had other plans in mind first.
The rasp of his stubble scratched her inner thighs and she shifted slightly, draping her legs over his broad shoulders.
"You need to shave, love."
He grinned as he looked up at her, bending low to kiss her stomach. "Good morning to you too."
"How was the meeting? When did you get back?"
"A few hours ago. Everything went smoothly, but I don't want to talk about work right now."
Her heartbeat picked up. She was sure he could hear it too. "No?"
"No." His fingers traced over her breasts and navel with blatant possession. "So you did sleep as I requested after all."
Her cheeks warmed and then a gasp tore from her throat as he dipped his head again, his mouth caressing her intimately. "Baby..." she moaned. Her hands fisted on the tousled bedding. "We have to get ready...the awards..."
"I don't give a damn about any of that right now," he snapped. "There's hours for that still."
Turning sideways, Khushi glanced at the clock on the nightstand. "It's almost eight! We have to be there at 10 AM!" She struggled to untangle herself from him, gathering the bed sheet around her chest and tying it in a secure knot.
Arnav swore, running a hand through his hair with obvious agitation. "Who the hell scheduled these awards on a Saturday morning anyway?" Reaching for her hand, he yanked her to him. "Come here. We can at least--"
"Arnav, no. We're already so late." She bit back a smile at his irritated expression. He was extra attractive when he was so frustrated. "I'll get ready in the bathroom here. You can use the one down the hall. It'll be faster that way."
His mouth parted with surprise and then clamped into a thin, disapproving line. His eyes flashed like twin embers--hot and almost angry. "So we can't shower together either? Dammit, Khushi, there are a good two hours still!"
"We have to be there earlier," she reminded, setting the pillows back in position. As always, during the night, they'd somehow ended up scattered on the floorboards--along with their clothes. Gathering her hair up in a loose ponytail, Khushi tried to keep her focus on the looming award ceremony and not on how sexy her husband looked, especially with that 5 o'clock shadow darkening his cheeks and that brooding, sulky expression on his face. "We should leave in an hour," she told herself as well as him. "Who knows what the traffic will be like?"
Arnav appeared far from pleased and then he stood, not bothering to tie a sheet around his waist or reach for his pants. A smirk curved the corner of his mouth. Khushi's breath hitched as he approached her with a single-mindedness that indicated one thing and one thing alone: he intended to get his way.
"Are you sure you don't want to shower with me?" he asked in a silky, smooth voice--the one she always had the hardest time resisting.
Her gaze washed over him and as it settled on the part of him that proved just how much he wanted her, she backed away, gulping. He was temptation in the flesh and the worst part was, he knew exactly how much he affected her. There was no hiding it, though she did try.
"Arnav! Baby, we're getting late!"
"You didn't answer my question," he purred. "Don't you want me, wife?"
A squeak of surprise escaped her lips as her back connected with the wall behind her. She might have made a break for the door, which stood wide open, but his arms, tanned and corded with muscle, enclosed on either side of her head.
Bracing himself against the wall, Arnav stared down at her with a wicked glint in his eyes, his gaze washing over her with palpable heat
Shivering, Khushi glanced away, keeping her gaze glued to the floor. "Baby, stop this. We need to..." She moistening her dry lips as she glimpsed his right foot inch closer. "We...we need..." What had she been saying? He was making it downright impossible for her to focus on anything except him. "We need to... to get dressed."
His mouth tipped up and with masculine, panther-like grace, he stepped closer still, his body nearly covering hers.
"Arnav--"
He pressed himself flush to her, pinning her to the wall. Khushi moaned, arching upward, straining to get closer. He felt amazing against her, his smooth skin and muscles radiating with mind-numbing heat.
"Does that moan mean a yes?" He lowered his head to press a line of lazy, open-mouthed kisses across her collarbone. His teeth nipped at the crease of her neck, his mouth sucking hard.
She was on the verge of surrendering completely, but her gaze fell on the clock again. 8:15 AM. On any other morning, she'd have thrown her arms around him and followed him back down on the still warm sheets as she ached to, but today was different. It was important. They had to be out of the house in just forty-five minutes!
"Oh!" she whimpered. "My stomach--"
Arnav stepped back at once and Khushi made a sprint toward the bathroom door.
"Khushi! Are you okay?"
She stuck her head out the door, smiling widely. "The twins and I are just fine. That was just so you'd let me go. Sorry," she added.
Arnav's mouth fell open and with a gleam in his eyes, he pounced toward her. Khushi locked the door just in time, laughing out loud. "Go get dressed, Raizada!"
"Open the door! I want you!"
"I want you too," she replied, padding over to the sink. "But we just don't have time."
"We'll make time," he ground out. "Just open the damn door."
"Stop it, baby. Go shower. We'll make up for it later."
"This isn't the end of it, Khushi!"
Her grin widened. "I think it is," she hollered, unwinding the sheet and letting it pool to the ground.
Arnav groaned as he heard the shower turn on. He could clearly picture what was going on inside. Most mornings he was with her in the spacious shower or the marble tub, washing her, loving her.
The rational part of him knew that she had a point about today. The awards were important. But after a tiring night when office work had kept him away and he'd returned home to find his beautiful wife already fast asleep, her body deliciously bare, he wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms. He needed that fulfillment.
Though he'd once hated the term "marriage" and anything to do with it, being married, he'd realized, was something else entirely. He and Khushi were not his mother and father. Though they did have their silly squabbles every now and then (mostly about who was the more stubborn one out of the two), there was never the depressing, stifling atmosphere that had plagued his childhood.
There was instead calmness, a sense of normalcy and mutual understanding that he found he'd been missing his whole life. When things went to hell at work, coming home to his wife was all that got him through the day. Khushi, simply put, kept him sane and happy. Ridiculously happy. More than he thought he deserved honestly.
Marriage had taken their love and intimacy to new heights. Living together day in and day out had made him well-versed with all his wife's habits. He knew exactly how she'd gingerly step inside the shower, how she'd bend to check the temperature using two fingers, the soft sound of her sigh as she'd sensually stretch her back into the warm spray. The enticing image of Khushi with water cascading in glistening rivulets down her lithe form was burned into his retinas. His body reacted instantly.
But picturing that perfection wasn't good enough. It never would be. He wanted to hold her. Touch her. Possess her. He needed to. Arnav frowned at the locked bathroom door as if it was his greatest enemy.
Inside, Khushi sighed as she raised her hands to her hair, rinsing slowly. The water felt amazing, relaxing muscles she hadn't realized were sore. There was suddenly a loud booming noise. And then before she could quite react, the shower door swung open and her husband loomed before her, his eyes bright and intense.
"Good morning--again."
She stared past him to the door. It stood askew, one of the hinges snapped off cleanly.
"You broke the door?" she sputtered, mouth agape.
He stepped inside, grabbing her by the waist. "Yeah, just now."
"Arnav!" She whacked his chest. "You can't just break down doors like that. We'll be late now and--"
He stopped all her protests with a deep, savage kiss, his tongue coaxing hers to respond. Khushi tried to resist but a loud moan escaped her as he lifted her up in his arms, his mouth leaving hers to latch onto her heaving chest. His free hand surged between them, cupping her intimately. A familiar smirk appeared.
"See, Khushi, you want me so much."
She couldn't deny it, moving restlessly against him. "But the awards--"
His kiss was firm and almost bruising. "Enough. If you'd just stop arguing so much we'd already have made love twice by now."
She laughed. "Twice?"
His gaze narrowed on her face. "Is that a challenge?"
Her eyes widened. "No, I was just kidding--" Before Khushi could get another word out, he was lifting her under the showerhead, thrusting deep--again and again. Her shout echoed off the walls and yanking on his wet hair, she angled her mouth over his as passion overwhelmed them and tendrils of steam curled over their heads toward the vaulted ceiling.
*****
In the rolling hills of Nainital, Sumitra Raizada gazed at her surroundings with unrestrained dislike. She'd been given the largest, cleanest room in the ashram, but it was sparse, lacking the luxurious amenities of Shantivan she desired, like a pool and fireplace.
"You are so lucky," said the group of old women crowding around her and coming much too close for her liking. "Your room even has a TV."
"It's not a flat screen," she snapped.
They looked taken aback and with a severe frown, she herded them out the door. "I'm tired. I'll see you all later."
"Have a pleasant day. There's--"
She slammed the door shut, bolting it for good measure. The squawk of a too-loud bird suddenly sounded and with a gasp, she swerved around, digging through her purse. Technically, the ashram did not allow nor encourage using phones unless it was an emergency. Days were to be spent in community service, prayer, meditation, and other things she had absolutely no interest in.
Reaching for her phone, she pushed a button. The bird ringtone immediately ceased. "Hello?" she whispered.
"Dadi! It's me, Anjali."
"I know. The only other person who calls me Dadi is Arnav and he's not speaking to me at the moment." Her frown deepened.
Anjali sighed. "I'll speak to Chote about that as soon as I can. I'll tell him to bring you back home. I'm sure he will listen." Despite her words, her tone sounded distinctly unsure. After all, Arnav hadn't spoken to her either since the ill-fated tea party.
"I doubt it," Sumitra grumbled. "That wife of his controls his every move these days."
"I'm beginning to hate her, Dadi," Anjali confessed. "I never wanted to, but everything she does makes me question if she is right for our Chote. Sheetal or even that supermodel would have been better. Our family has grown so divided ever since he married Khushi. I even overheard NK saying Chote fought with Shyamji yesterday! Can you believe it?"
Sumitra's mouth pursed. "Of course, I can. And you should quit being so surprised. She's changed Arnav completely." She breathed harshly, rubbing her temples. "I don't want to discuss that middle-class girl anymore. One day, she'll know her true place. How is your husband?"
Anjali's smile could be sensed. "Shyamji bought me a new dress. It's so beautiful. I feel like a princess when I wear it."
"You are the princess of the Raizada family. Your brother may have forgotten that, but I have not." Though Arnav had always been her favorite out of the two grandchildren, she couldn't help but worry for Anjali. The girl was naive and much too trusting.
"I'm missing you terribly, Dadi. Shyamji is with me, but it's not the same."
"I miss you too. Did you cry very much after I left?"
Anjali nodded, clutching the phone. "I did, but Payal diverted my mind. She's not like her sister, you know. She's actually very kind and sweet. We watched those old childhood videos of Chote and me at the estate in New York. No one ever likes to join me, but Payal really loves those and I'm always happy to tell her all about it."
Her grandmother's lips compressed. "I don't like either of these Gupta girls, but at least Akash's wife knows her place. That Khushi is another story. You know...that New York property belongs to her now."
"What? But it's Uncle's house!"
Frowning with displeasure, Sumitra shook her head, even though Anjali was not before her, but far in the comforts of Shantivan. "Not anymore, according to our family accountant. Apparently it was given to Arnav and that girl as a wedding present and Arnav soon afterwards transferred it entirely on her name."
Angry tears filled Anjali's eyes. "HOW COULD CHOTE DO THAT? IF ANYONE HAS A RIGHT TO THAT HOUSE IT'S ME AND HIM! How could he just give away our childhood memories? He didn't even tell me!"
"Haven't I told you? He's changed. Don't forget, he's under that witch's spell."
There was commotion on Anjali's end. "Dadi, I have to go. Shyamji needs me. But please call me if you have any problems. I told them to give you the best room and a TV too. Did you get it?"
Sumitra frowned at the dusty TV set that looked older than her. "Yes, it's here, but can you send me a flat screen? This isn't the same. And an AC too."
Anjali didn't have to think twice. Thanks to her sizable share in AR's company holdings and stocks, money would never be a concern. Perhaps, her brother had neglected his responsibility towards her lately, but in terms of finances, he'd always looked out for her. "I'll have it arranged, but make sure you watch one of the business channels at 10 AM today."
"Whatever for?"
"It's important, Dadi. I'll message you about it. Take care." The call cut abruptly.
Turning on the ceiling fan, Sumitra settled on the ghastly looking sofa, grabbing the remote. She didn't have to wonder too much about why Anjali had been so adamant she watch the news today. The coverage was already underway.
"The first invitees of the 39th annual Asian Business Awards are just arriving," the announcer was saying as the camera zoomed over the red carpet. "This year, the awards are being held right here at home. And not just that--the most prestigious honor has been given to the enigmatic CEO of one of Delhi's leading fashion houses, Arnav Singh Raizada. As soon as we spot him, viewers, we will take you directly there."
His co-host nodded eagerly. "ASR's reputation as a lady's man is well-known and he has reportedly dated everyone from well-known actresses to Nicole James, the supermodel, to Sheetal Malik, daughter of the owner of Malik Industries. The question is: which lucky girl will accompany him this year? Stay tuned."
*****
"Khushi!"
"Coming!"
Shaking his head, Arnav stared up the staircase at the closed bedroom door. His wife had been so set on arriving on time and now she was running late. Go figure. Gazing at the mammoth mirror mounted on the foyer's main wall, he adjusted his silk tie, smoothing his hands over his hair. "We're going to be late and--"
"Ready."
Arnav glanced up at the top of stairs and promptly forgot what he'd been about to say. His wife stood with her hand on the railing, dressed in a bewitching mix of pink and sapphire blue. The lehenga was one he'd never seen before; it glittered and molded to her body in a manner that accentuated every gorgeous curve. It also left much of her waist exposed and he suddenly had a burning desire to cover that skin with his hands and mouth. Diamonds glinted on her ears and neck. Bangles clinked at her dainty wrists. Her hair--as he preferred-had been left open, loosely curled at the ends.
Khushi paused at the last step, her hands crossing over her chest. She was busy admiring him too. "You always look incredibly attractive in suits, but in a tux...well, it's something else."
"I'll wear them more often then." He crossed to her with a handsome smile, taking her hand and lowering his head to press his lips there. "You know what I want to do?"
"What?"
He leaned closer, his warm breath washing over her ear. "Take you back upstairs and undress you."
She pushed at his chest. "Arnav!"
"What? It's the truth. You look so damn beautiful. Stunning. I'd kiss you, but I'd mess up your makeup."
Khushi grinned, looping her arms around his neck. "When has that ever stopped you? But you know, Mr. Raizada, I brought my lipstick along this time. I can touch it up in the car."
"You sure?"
"Very." Rising on her toes, Khushi covered his mouth with hers. Her husband pulled her flush against him, his tongue stroking over her lips and sliding within. She kissed him back with the same fervor.
One of his hands slid down to her waist. There was a very slight swell there, but because he knew her body as well as he did, he felt it. His mouth softened against hers. "Soon you won't be flat here anymore."
Khushi smiled back at him. "That's why I thought I'd wear this tonight. Soon I won't be able to."
"True. You know, I--" His voice cut off abruptly. With furrowed brows, Khushi turned his head her way.
"You what?"
Arnav glanced at her, his eyes hard to read. "You're going to think I'm insane, but after the first time we made love, I thought about this... I envisioned you pregnant. It shocked me how much I wanted it. To see you with my child growing inside of you. I'd never felt that way before and it made no sense either. You didn't like me very much back then. Even though you enjoyed the lovemaking, you were guilty over it, and crying in my arms afterwards and there I was, imagining this moment."
Khushi swallowed, covering his hand where it rested on her abdomen. "That night you truly dreamed of me pregnant?" At his nod, she caressed his cheekbones, finding his lips again. "It took me the longest time to accept my love for you. I'm sorry for that, baby, but I'd been so sure I couldn't possibly love you that when I started having these feelings for you, I fought against them. But this love is unstoppable. When you shared your heart with me, your vulnerabilities, your fears, I found myself falling more and more for you."
His eyes were dark and turbulent. "Don't ever stop loving me, Khushi. I can't live without you."
She threw herself into his embrace, rubbing her hands through his hair. "I couldn't stop if I tried. I will always love you. You and only you."
He held her tight for a long moment, drawing strength from her promise and then stepped back, keeping one hand pressed flat to the side of her waist. "We should go. It's almost ten."
Khushi let him lead her to the door, watching him carefully. "Baby? What brought that on?"
Arnav sighed, knowing exactly what she was referring to. "It's just that sometimes I still can't believe this is real. That you love me. That you're happy with me."
Laying her head on his shoulder, Khushi clung to his hand. "I've never been happier. You've brought every joy into my life."
His eyes shone at that and he brought her closer, pressing a lingering kiss to her temple as they stepped outside. A cool breeze whipped over them, sunlight breaking past the gray clouds. A large brown package, thick as a dictionary, sat waiting on the front step.
Khushi frowned as she picked it up. "Another phone book? We got two last week."
"You shouldn't be lifting heavy things," admonished Arnav, taking it from her hands. "I'll handle it."
Khushi rolled her eyes, murmuring under her breath about him "fretting like an anxious husband." But she was smiling as they arrived at the driveway--until something unusual brought her to a jerking halt.
Their white jeep was parked in the back. In its place, stood a sleek, black limousine. "Arnav?"
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "Why are you surprised? Didn't you say to show everyone, especially Lavanya Kashyap, what relationship we really share? I think that should start with a proper entrance, don't you?"
Khushi grinned up at him. "Absolutely. But a limo? I've never been in one before."
"You'll like it, come on."
As they approached, a uniformed driver Khushi had failed to notice appeared, opening the door for them. Holding onto her husband's hand, Khushi slipped inside, adjusting the skirt of her lehenga around her. The limo was somewhat similar to what she imagined a stretched out car to be. The seats were black leather and the side paneling a shiny mahogany. It was also private and ultra comfortable. Arnav instructed the driver to get rid of the phone book in the recycle bin and then he climbed in next to her, sliding an arm around her waist and drawing her close. He spent several minutes showing her the limo's features--the TV, the music settings, the disco lights that appeared with the touch of a button.
He pressed another button on the side and spoke to the driver up front. "Has everything I requested been done?"
"Yes, it's all in the mini fridge, Sir."
"Great. Thanks."
"Anything else, Sir?"
"No, that's it for now."
Arnav clicked off the intercom, bending low to get something. Khushi made a face as he straightened and she saw what he'd personally requested.
"Milk and juice?"
"You're pregnant," he reminded as if that explained it all.
"But you already made me eat a huge breakfast," Khushi pouted.
"That was over an hour ago. Plus, you're eating for not just you, but two more. So what will it be: juice or milk?"
Khushi knew he wouldn't be dissuaded. "Juice," she grumbled, taking the glass. She took a small sip from the straw. It was actually delicious. Her husband gave her an I-told-you-so look, taking a glass himself.
"Cheers, babe. Ready to shock everyone?"
She found herself grinning, clinking her glass against his. "More than ready. Let's do this."
*****
Khushi had seen red carpets on TV, but the actual experience was something far beyond what she'd imagined. First of all, it was actually quite a feat just to reach the venue. The traffic was terrible and amid a bevy of the latest designer cars, jeeps and limos, it took them what seemed like forever to reach the front of the line.
"When we get out, there will be a small open area where cameras are not allowed," Arnav explained. "But past the main gate, all hell will break lose. Just stick close to me. Aman has arranged a few bodyguards to handle the rest. You just remember to always--"
"--hold onto your hand. Got it, baby. I'll be fine."
Arnav didn't look too convinced, but before he could run through his warnings yet again, the driver's voice sounded: "Mr. and Mrs. Raizada, we're here."
Her husband caught her hand and as the door opened, Khushi followed him out. This was it. Time to show Lavanya and the rest of the world exactly what relationship they shared.
Outside, it was loud and noisy. Other guests were exiting their cars, fixing their makeup and hair last minute as staff members with yellow-colored badges ran about with an air of barely held control, guiding people.
"They're figuring out the order each person will make their official entry," Arnav murmured in her ear. "It's tricky because there are a lot of egos to balance."
"So people don't just appear suddenly like they show on TV?"
Arnav shook his head. "It's all staged, like a well-rehearsed theater performance. People appear friendly on the carpet, congratulating one another, but in reality, most probably can't even stand one another. It's all for the cameras."
Khushi processed that information with a frown. It was all so different from the world she was used to. But she had to do this. She wanted to be known as Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada and this was the best way to proclaim that once and for all. Taking a deep breath, she strode forward.
But her husband's touch stopped her. He had a serious expression on his face as he pulled her back to him.
"Baby?" She peered up at him. "What is it?"
Many of the other invitees were looking at them curiously, trying to figure out which millionaire's daughter she was, but Khushi and Arnav only had eyes for one another.
"Something is missing," Arnav whispered.
"Missing? What?"
Shielding her from the stares with his body, Arnav motioned to the driver. The man handed him a tiny box, backing away just as discreetly. Pinching his thumb and forefinger together, Arnav drew out a bit of bright crimson. Khushi felt herself go still, her gaze disbelieving.
"This was missing," he murmured, applying a light dusting of sindoor to her parting. "Now, it's perfect."
"You know what I want to do right now?" Khushi asked, using the same words he'd used not too long ago.
"What?"
"Go back home and undress you," she smiled.
He kissed her on the forehead. "As soon as we're done here, that's next on my list too."
"What about the two rounds in the shower this morning? Wasn't that enough?"
Arnav smirked, shaking his head. "Not by a long shot. And I'll prove that to you later." He adjusted her hair so the sindoor was relatively covered for the time being. "We'll reveal it at the right moment."
Khushi nodded. "Remember when you hated sindoor?"
"Did I?" he said in a too-innocent tone, his gaze playful. "You can remind me all about it later, but right now, we need to go. We're next."
Khushi had been a tad bit nervous about facing the press, but she found that all disappear as she took her place next to Arnav at the main entrance.
"Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada," a woman with a clipboard yelled as the music changed, "That's your cue!"
He glanced at his wife. "Ready?"
She wove her arm through this. "Let's rock and shock, baby."
Grinning, they stepped through some very thick curtains and right onto the red carpet. Immediately, there were shouts, cameras turned their way and bright, blinding lights flashed from what appeared to be almost every direction.
Arnav paused for a moment and then stode forward, keeping his fingers weaved with Khushi's. Reporters waved frantically from the sidelines, shouting questions.
"Mr. Raizada! How does it feel to be honored with the most prestigious award today?"
"Who is your lovely date?"
"We haven't seen you before," murmured one near Khushi, shoving a microphone at her. "Are you an upcoming model or actress? How long have you been dating ASR? Where did you meet him?"
Khushi didn't know what to answer, but she didn't have to worry about it, Arnav was leading her further down, utterly cool and unaffected with the press going mad around them.
A couple of people in designer suits were posing at the center of the carpet and he paused to shake their hands. Khushi nodded politely, keeping her hand firmly in her husband's grasp. In the chaos and commotion surrounding them, he was the one person keeping her from feeling dizzy and totally lost.
"Are you okay?" he murmured, gazing at her with concern.
She squeezed his hand. "Yes. Do you see Lavanya? I really wanted her to see us."
He motioned to the doors of the auditorium up ahead. "She's probably inside. I guess we did get a bit late after all."
"A bit?" Khushi raised her brow.
A grin curved his mouth. "Fine, more than a bit. But it was worth it, wasn't it?"
Khushi found her skin warming as she recalled their heated lovemaking.
"Smile for the cameras, babe," her husband murmured, pulling her close to his side. "We're going to be featured on every newspaper printed in the city tomorrow."
Encircling his waist with her hand, Khushi smiled up at him, not caring who screamed what or how many lights and cameras flashed. She was exactly where she wanted to be. With him.
*****
The telecast in Nainital was lagging by a few seconds. The reporter was in the middle of interviewing supermodel, Nicole James, when he broke off, pressing a hand to his right ear.
"I hate to interrupt you, Miss James, but we've just gotten word that this year's Entrepreneur of the Year winner, Mr. ASR, has finally arrived. Fashionably late if I may say so. Let's go live there."
The scene shifted and Sumitra's eyes bulged as she glimpsed her grandson with that girl wrapped in his arms. Both were smiling and murmuring things in one another's ears, looking every inch like newlyweds.
The reporter was almost giddy with excitement. Behind him, Nicole's face had stiffened under her several layers of makeup and with a furious glance over her shoulder, she marched off, her five-inch heels stabbing into the carpet.
"Viewers at home, you might be wondering who is that nameless beauty with ASR this year. We can confirm to you that she is not from the movie industry or the runaway. Word is that she works for ASR's company. As soon as we get more details, we will bring them to you. But I think my co-host would have to agree that we've never seen ASR quite like this before."
"Very true," his partner agreed. "Usually he is brooding and distant, many would say even arrogant, but this year, something has definitely changed. He is actually posing for the cameras and smiling! They make quite the couple, wouldn't you agree?"
"Absolutely. It seems along with the latest in fashion, romance has been brewing at AR Designs. ASR and his unknown companion seem very much in love."
Sumitra muted the TV, her expression distinctly sour as she reached for her phone. Anjali picked up after several rings.
"Dadi?"
"He brought her along! Can you believe it?"
Anjali frowned, pressing her phone to her ear. "Believe what? Dadi, I can't hear you very well. Can you speak up?"
"ARNAV!" she screeched. "He brought that girl to the awards. You should see her! She's posing like a hussy on the red carpet with him!"
"Brought who? I'm sorry, Dadi, but I can't hear you at all. I'll talk to you once I get home." Clicking off the phone, she slipped it back inside her wristlet.
"Everything okay, Di?"
Anjali smiled at Payal. Along with the rest of the Raizadas, they were seated in the tenth row from the stage. Arnav had not invited them, but the Asian Business Awards had extended an official invitation since Anjali was technically a co-owner of AR Group.
"It was Dadi. She was probably just missing me. I must speak to Chote about getting her back home."
Payal adjusted the almost nonexistent strap of her blouse. The maroon and gold sari was more revealing than those she usually wore, but so far, no one outside of her mother had made mention of that fact. She'd silenced her with a frown, stating in a clipped tone that it was from AR's latest collection and she had to support family, didn't she?
"You're going to catch a cold in that," Garima muttered for the third time so far. "Here, bitiya, take my shawl."
Payal pushed her offering aside. "Please, Amma, it'll ruin my entire look." Her teeth grated as she noticed her stepmother's startled expression out of the corner of her eye.
"Since when do you care about your looks, bitiya?"
Counting to ten, Payal tried to leash in her growing temper. It was all her loser of a husband's fault. He was off somewhere in the auditorium networking and he'd left her to deal with her family. He no doubt thought he was being an upstanding husband and son-in-law by inviting her family along.
"Garima, leave her be." Buaji smiled at her briefly, her eyes moving back to the crowd. "Do any of you see Khushi? She should be here too somewhere..."
Payal leaned toward her parents and aunt, speaking in a hushed tone. "You all are forgetting that Arnavji has never accepted her publicly. No one knows about the two of them. She may think she's his wife, but for the world, she's a nobody. Even if someone saw them, everyone would assume she's his girlfriend...or worse..."
Garima's complexion paled. A vein throbbed on Buaji's temple. "Payal! How can you speak about your own sister in such a way?"
"It's the truth, Buaji. Don't forget that she left everything and everyone for him. She chose him over all of you. And she's not some innocent child. She knew very well what she was choosing."
"Payal?" Anjali frowned from her other side, trying to hear what they were discussing. "Is everything all right?"
She nodded, sitting back in her chair with a tight-lipped smile. Anjali, wearing an appalling, bubble gum pink dress Shyam had bought her, kept going on and on about her dear Chote. How much she missed him, loved him...
Do I love him too? Payal wondered with a start. She shook her head dismissively. No, this was strictly about lust and possession, a need to attain the unattainable. And more importantly, it all came down to revenge.
Revenge against the woman who'd ruined her life. Who'd snatched her hopes, her dreams, even her family. Her fingers clenched in her lap. Khushi would have to pay for all she'd done. The ultimate price. Death.
"Khushi?"
Payal sat up as Buaji suddenly pointed toward the entrance. She had to blink several times, but the vision refused to fade. It was indeed Khushi, laughing and smiling, her arm tightly curled around Arnav's.
"It's Khushi!" Buaji cried, as if a royal princess had entered their midst. "Our Khushi! See, Payal, I told you he'd bring her along."
"Perhaps we've misjudged him," Garima whispered softly. "Maybe Arnav isn't as bad as we thought."
Payal ground her teeth together. The only good thing about Khushi's marriage was the distance it had created between them all. She'd added fuel to the fire, telling her family all she'd heard from Anjali about Arnav's various affairs.
"Don't get so happy, Buaji," she murmured in a low voice, feeling her temper come close to exploding. "You know what tomorrow's headlines will say: ASR Arrives with his New Mistress!"
"Payal!"
"What? Amma, that--hard as it is to hear--is the truth. Nothing can change it. We have to accept that. And you know, Khushi will probably like all the attention. She won't mind being called Arnavji's you-know-what. She's gone blind. Head over heels in love." Her gaze narrowed on the pair with thinly veiled loathing as they took their seats in the front row.
*****
"Are you sure you're okay?" Arnav asked, brushing back tendrils of her hair from her temple. "I know it was a circus out there."
Khushi patted his hand, laying her head on his shoulder. "It was, but you were with me the entire time and that made it bearable. Besides, all I had to do was pose for the cameras."
"I hate red carpets," Arnav said as organizers and cameramen ran through last minute checks, testing the lights and speakers. "But you know, it was actually sort of amusing this time. We had the press eating out of the palms of our hands."
"We did, didn't we?" laughed Khushi.
He'd just turned to kiss her cheek when Aman walked up to them, looking a bit hassled as always. "Are you both okay?"
"I think that's my line," murmured Arnav.
Khushi giggled. "We're fine, Aman."
He nodded, holding up a paper in his hands. "I just got the final schedule. Your award is the first of the night."
Arnav looked upbeat by that news. "So we can leave right afterwards?"
"If you want." Aman dug into his pocket. "Oh and these keys...to the Jaguar... I can't accept this. It's too much."
"It's yours," Arnav insisted.
"But--"
"You can donate it if you don't want it, but we're not discussing this again. As far as I'm concerned, it's yours."
Khushi glanced at Aman with understanding. "I wouldn't argue with him. He never backs down." For her husband's ears, she murmured, "Case in point, the broken bathroom door at home."
His hand tightened on her thigh. "She's right. I don't take gifts back."
Aman looked at a loss of what to say, but another arrival rescued him. "I can take the Jaguar out of your hands if you don't want it, son."
Arnav and Khushi gazed up with surprise, standing up quickly.
"Uncle!"
"What are you doing here? I thought you were in Paris for your seminar."
Uncle smiled warmly at the pair, dressed eccentrically as ever in a dark purple suit, a silver cane with an eagle engraving in his left hand. "I took the red eye. How could I miss this? I'm so proud of you. Your mother would have been thrilled." An uncharacteristic seriousness washed over his eyes, and he blinked several times, smiling at Aman. "I was just kidding by the way, son. The car is yours."
Aman shook hands with him. "It's nice to see you again, sir. I'll be back stage if you need anything, ASR."
Arnav nodded as he walked off, looking at his father's oldest friend with amazement. "How are you? How is everything in Paris?"
"Wonderful. It's the city of love and certainly lives up to that name. You two should visit sometime. But tell me first, how you two are." His voice lowered. "What happened to that stalker? Was he caught?"
Arnav and Khushi exchanged a glance. "Not exactly," Arnav finally said, explaining about the hired man's death and Khushi's formal retraction of her complaint.
Uncle looked startled. "And you let her do that? I know Khushi may think she's trying to save you some heartache by withdrawing her complaint, but good God, Arnav, you should know better. Could you live with something--God forbid--happening to your wife?"
Arnav's entire body hardened. His voice turned to steel. "Nothing will happen. I won't allow it to."
Khushi took his hand in hers, nodding. "You should see how careful he is with me, Uncle. There's a security system in place too. I don't think there's any reason to worry anymore. We've put that all behind us."
The grimness in the older man's eyes didn't lessen. "For both your sakes, I hope you're right."
"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. One minute till we go live."
"I should get to my seat before they chase me off," laughed Uncle. "Congratulations again, son."
Arnav embraced him, but there was a strange worry in his heart. Had he made a mistake? Was there someone after his wife still? Someone they didn't suspect? Had his actions inadvertently put Khushi and their unborn children at risk? He wouldn't be able to live with himself if that was true.
His wife picked up on his unease as they took their seats. "Baby, Uncle was just concerned for us. There's no reason to stress. Everything is absolutely fine. There's no one out there trying to get to me."
Arnav's hand tightened on hers almost like a vice. His eyes were dark as the lights overhead dimmed. "I'll keep you safe. All three of you." The words were a vow, as real to him as their marriage vows. Under no circumstance would he let any darkness touch his family. He'd destroy anyone who tried. Anyone at all.
Khushi stared at him worriedly, chewing on her bottom lip. He was too quiet, his face hard to read in the blackness. "Baby?"
He raised her hand to his mouth. "I'm fine."
She didn't look completely convinced but just then, the massive burgundy curtains parted and the hosts of the ceremony, stepped forward to the sound of ringing applause. Cameras followed their every move.
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 39th annual Asian Business Awards, live from Delhi. These awards have a long history and it is only the most deserving that are selected every year. CEOs, business tycoons, inventors, and entrepreneurs, everyone in business strives to reach the pinnacle of success, but few do."
His co-host smiled, her teeth shining as brightly as the white silk of her dress. "Our first awardee though accomplished all that and more. A self-made and very successful CEO, he heads the largest fashion company in Delhi, now expanding to the markets of New York, London, and Toronto to name a few."
Khushi beamed with pride, squeezing Arnav's hand. He looked almost bored, while she was ecstatic.
"To him we present the prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Please join me, ladies and gentlemen, in welcoming Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada on stage."
Applause enveloped them; a spotlight shone. On the giant screen, their picture appeared. Khushi ignored all the cameras, hugging her husband tightly. "I love you," she murmured in his ear.
His grip tightened, and he brushed his lips lightly across her temple. And then he was walking away, shaking hands as he went. Smiling, Khushi took her seat, trying her best to ignore the lenses being aimed in her direction.
"Congratulations," the presenters said, handing Arnav a sleek crystal trophy, engraved with his name.
"Thanks," he murmured, stepping past them to the podium.
The crowd hushed--except for one. Lavanya gasped as she saw the camera zoom on Khushi. How could this be? It was one thing to be hot and heavy in an elevator, but something else for ASR to bring Gupta to these awards--awards that were being televised across Asia as well as streamed online! That meant it was serious. But how serious? Lavanya wondered, feeling for the first time uneasy. Had Gupta done what no other woman had managed? It couldn't be... could it?
Ten rows down from her, Payal moistened her dry lips. Standing on the stage, with the entire auditorium waiting for his words, Arnav had never appeared more appealing to her. This was the husband she'd always dreamed of: strong, powerful, and enigmatic. But Khushi had snatched him for herself, leaving her with someone weak and unsuccessful instead. Her nose wrinkled as she studied Akash, the man she was unfortunately saddled with. He was blowing into his handkerchief and then examining it closely. She made a face in his direction.
Next to her, her parents and aunt looked on curiously. They hadn't missed how close and happy Khushi and Arnav appeared. How very much in love. How could they? Khushi had been all over Arnav, thought Payal with spite. She'd left no opportunity to hug him, kiss his cheek, grab his hand.
Silently, Payal fumed. She'd known bringing her family along would turn out to be a mistake, but she hadn't imagined it would ever go this badly. Her gaze drifted to her cousin's image on the overhead screen. Khushi was leaning forward in her plush seat in the VIP section, her joy and pride irrepressible. Seeing her so bloody happy bit into Payal like the sharpest of needles. She hated her! Hated her!
On stage, Arnav cleared his throat, his hands braced on the podium. "Thank you, everyone. I have several people I need to mention. First, thanks to the Asian Business Awards for recognizing my work and my company's success. It's been an uphill climb and to be lauded--well, who the hell wouldn't like it? Second, to all those who are a part of AR. I know I don't say this often enough, but I'm grateful to all those who work so diligently and professionally every single day. I mean that. And last but not least, to the woman who means everything to me..."
Anjali sat up straighter in her seat, completely missing how her brother's gaze was aimed at his wife and not her. She was so sure he was talking about her, she didn't once consider any other possibility.
Arnav smiled at Khushi, the action so natural he couldn't stop it even if he tried. "She's the one who changed everything in my life for the better, who made my house a home and who made me realize there's a life outside of numbers, contracts, and profits. A life I'd gone without for far too long now. And that remarkable woman is my wife, Khushi Arnav Singh Raizada."
There was silence for a heartbeat, expressions of stunned surprise apparent on many faces. "NO!" howled Lavanya, running off toward the exit. "NO!"
Anjali hiccupped, tears rolling down her cheeks, while Payal bit down on her lip so hard she tasted blood. Her parents and aunt, in contrast, were smiling.
"He accepted her!"
"Maybe he's not so bad after all."
"Hush, Garima," said her husband. "He's saying something else."
Arnav grinned at Khushi. Every camera except the main one was now pointed right at her, but she was handling the attention like a pro. On the screen, they were showing him and a side-by-side image of her, tears in her eyes.
"Khushi, I wouldn't be standing here without you. You know how much you mean to me. I know I don't need to say it, but I want to." His gaze softened. "Khushi, you make me want to be the best. To be all I can be. You make everything right in my world. This award is for you, baby. Thank you for coming into my life and being my wife. I love you."
Applause rang out and Khushi brushed aside her tears, standing up as her husband came down the steps and straight to her. She wasn't sure who reached for the other first, but the next second, she was in his arms, pressed to his warmth, his heartbeat echoing in her ears.
"I love you," she whispered weakly, not knowing how else to express what she felt for this man.
He didn't need to hear anything else, smoothing back her hair so the sindoor stood out, vivid and undeniable. Cameras flashed around them.
"Congratulations," said several of the other VIPs.
"Thanks," Arnav replied, keeping an arm around his wife. They sat down and as the hosts cut to a commercial, he pulled her up just as quickly.
"Where are we going, baby?"
"Something urgent has come up."
"What?"
The corner of his mouth corked up. "Me. I want to be alone with you. Right now."
"Right now? But how? Where?"
He winked at her over his shoulder. "L-I-M-O."
Blushing like a newly married bride, Khushi followed after him, clutching his hand. They didn't stop for anyone, heading toward the back entrance at a fast clip. Arnav clicked on his phone.
"Aman? Is everything set? Where's the limo?"
"It'll be pulling up momentarily."
"Great." Arnav slipped the phone back in his pocket, pushing open the last door. Cool air washed over Khushi as she stepped out. She inhaled, watching her husband shut the heavy door behind them. As he turned her way, her breath suspended.
They'd done it. The secret was out.
With a yelp of glee, she ran to him. He lifted her up in his arm, beaming at her. Khushi ran her hands through his wavy hair, lowering her head to brush kisses all over his face. She kissed his forehead, his cheekbones, and her favorite spot: the thin scar over his left eyebrow.
Their lips were just about to meet when Arnav's gaze drifted to the corner. He froze, setting Khushi back down.
"Baby? What--"
His hands rose to her shoulders, spinning her about. Khushi's eyes widened. All the Raizadas, as well as her parents, aunt and sister stood before them, staring at them with wide-eyed shock and surprise.
*****
A slight distance away, an old garbage truck was making its way down a winding alley.
"Watch it!" screamed a man on a bicycle as the truck suddenly swerved, narrowly missing him.
The driver cursed, lowering the beer can from his mouth. "Watch yourself, idiot!"
He pounded on his horn as he made the next turn, but his hands were clumsy, and his vision distinctly blurry. He didn't notice the parked bus till it was much too late, rear-ending it to the sound of scraping metal and shattered glass.
The bus was thankfully empty and the driver unharmed, but as the two collided, garbage and litter flew into the air.
One was a brown package, the size of a dictionary, with Arnav and Khushi's address neatly typed on its front. As it struck the ground, it seemed to splinter apart, hundreds of loose sheets flying in all directions.
It wasn't another phone book as Khushi had assumed. This was something else. A message, written in large, block letters:
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!
HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!

Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
Episode 26: Club Indigo
The black limo rolled to a smooth stop and the driver started to step out, but Arnav stopped him with a single glance.
"We'll be right back. Wait here."
Threading his fingers with his wife's in a firm grip, he strode toward where there families stood appalled, judging by the dumbfounded expressions on their faces. He felt as if he'd been caught doing something wrong, but that was absolutely ridiculous.
So what if he'd had Khushi in his arms in broad daylight, their mouths about to meet? They were husband and wife, dammit! He had every right to claim what was his. Arnav found himself wishing he had kissed her in front of them. Then their shock would have been so much more amusing.
The sound of Khushi's indrawn breath tore his thoughts away. She looked paler than usual and yet beneath all that worry, there was the radiant glow of optimism in her eyes. He squeezed her hand, hoping for her sake, her family would at least talk to her this time. And if they hurt her again--well, then there would be hell to pay.
As they came to a stop before the Raizadas and Guptas, there was pin drop silence for a moment. And then his sister darted forward, flinging her arms around his middle.
"Chote! I've missed you so much! I'm so happy for you. You deserve everything. Every award. Every happiness."
He didn't hug her back, his gaze sliding to his wife. She didn't look the least bit upset, though she had every right to be. And Arnav was once more struck by the fact that she was far more forgiving than he'd ever be.
"Khushi!" Tears slipped from Garima's cheeks as she stepped toward her, Buaji at her heels. They paused before her and lifting a hand to her cheek, embraced her. "We're so sorry, bitiya. So sorry about everything."
Khushi stood rigid, glancing over to her husband. Anjali had pulled him toward Akash and NK and her family had taken to her to the opposite side.
Guptas and Raizadas. Two separate families. Two, very different worlds. It hit her hard that if not for an accidental meeting in Lucknow, she and Arnav would have probably never met. She'd probably have married someone her parents approved of, like that spineless Karan, while he'd probably still be dating yet another supermodel, struggling with the demons of the past.
Her eyes teared up for some reason and she blinked the moistness away. Over her mother's shoulder, her gaze found Arnav's. Though they were standing within reach, they were on opposing sides, the chasm between them suddenly seeming too great.
 I need you, her heart screamed. I want to be with you, baby. Take me away.
He seemed to sense how badly she needed him near. Stepping away from his family without so much as a word, he held out his hand to her. Khushi pulled away from Garima, reaching for his hand.
That first touch settled her restlessness. She buried her face against his chest, taking a hiccupping breath as his hands smoothed up and down her back.
His voice when he was spoke was razor-sharp and directed toward their families. "A lot of things have happened between us all that frankly, should never have happened. I will not tolerate my wife or our marriage being insulted by anyone. Is that understood?"
Garima dabbed at her eyes with the end of her sari. "We made a mistake. A terrible mistake...disowning her as we did."
Stiffening, Arnav held his wife tighter, feeling her tremble. "Because she married me." It was a fact, and he said it bluntly, not bothering about formalities.
Her mother struggled to explain. "We were..." It took her a moment to find the right words. "...concerned for our daughter's well being as any parents would be. We didn't realize how truly you both cared for one another until today. All we kept hearing were those awful stories and gossip..."
Khushi's mouth bent as she considered her. "Most of that is made up or exaggerated by the tabloids and press. It has no meaning. What does matter is that I love him, Amma. I've told you that from the start. I've tried so many times to tell you how wonderful Arnav is, but you've never believed me."
Buaji looked utterly remorseful. "We should have listened. We see that now, don't we?" she asked her brother beside her, who nodded.
The muscle at Arnav's jawline tightened. "I just want to ask you one thing, Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, and I hope you answer me with complete honesty."
"Of course," her father hastened to say. "You can ask us anything, son."
Arnav looked him in the eye. "If it had been Payal who'd secretly married me, would you have disowned her too? Or did you react that way only because Khushi is not your real daughter, but adopted?"
Khushi stilled against him. They'd discussed this before, but she hadn't expected him to actually ask that question.
"It would have been the same," Garima insisted, appearing taken aback. "There's no difference between Khushi and Payal for us. Both are our daughters."
Standing behind her, Payal resisted the urge to scream. There was a difference. How could her family not see that? How dare they love Khushi as much as her and perhaps more? Khushi was a nobody. Just an annoying, overly cheerful orphan who never should have entered their lives in the first place!
The steeliness in Arnav's gaze didn't lessen. "I hope you keep that in mind in the future as well. I won't have my wife under any added stress." His eyes flitted over the group before settling on Khushi. A serene sense of calm washed over his features. "She's pregnant, you see. We're having twins."
"Truly?" Buaji rushed to embrace Khushi. "My Sanka Devi, a mother?"
Khushi nodded, tears in her eyes. "I'm three months along almost."
NK and Akash congratulated Arnav while Anjali and her husband stood amazed. "My Chote...a father?" She smiled at her husband. "If it's a girl, I bet you he'll name her Anjali."
Shyam rolled his eyes and Payal beside him, forced herself to smile, saying in a breathy, meek voice, "Congratulations again, Khushi and Arnavji."
"You knew?" The Guptas looked startled.
Khushi was quick to defend her. "Don't be angry at Jiji. She was the first person I told and I made her promise not to tell anyone."
Garima nodded slowly, her eyes anxious and distinctly apologetic as she raised them toward Arnav. "We've been very wrong about you. I hope you forgive us with time. But I think we should try to start fresh again. Would you both please come over for lunch tomorrow? It would be so nice to talk to Khushi again."
Arnav's gaze slid to his wife. He was not ready to forgive anyone, not by a long shot, but he also knew just how much Khushi missed her family. She tried to hide it from him, but he knew her too well. The distance had taken a heavy toll. And so, only for her sake, did he slowly nod. "We won't be able to come tomorrow, but maybe sometime next week..."
The Guptas smiled, looking relieved. Arnav pulled on Khushi's hand. "We need to go."
She nodded, embracing her parents, aunt and sister again. "I'll see you all soon."
Their families stood with the same air of shock and awe as he helped her into the limo, slamming the door close.
"Take the long route home," Arnav ordered the driver, pushing down on the intercom.
"Yes, sir."
No sooner had the car launched forward that Arnav caught Khushi's hand, drawing her into his arms. His mouth slanted over hers like a thunderclap, hot and unrelenting.
His touch unraveled her and with a gasp, she parted her lips, entwining her tongue with his in familiar intimacy. Despite the fact that their mouths had met countless times before this, their breaths mingling, their lips meshing, it felt as startling and toe-curling as their first kiss. There was also a heightened sense of urgency in the cloaked privacy of the limousine, and they both more than felt it.
Between hungry kisses, Arnav was busy undressing her. Khushi helped him, raising her arms high as he pulled her midriff-revealing top over her head, tossing it aside. There was the sound of fabric ripping apart as he grabbed the front of her bra, tearing it into two.
Khushi gasped, shifting restlessly on his lap. "Arnav."
"I need you right now." His mouth enclosed over a rigid nipple, his tongue sweeping back and forth in urgent strokes. "You taste so damn good."
Her head fell back, the action causing her breasts to spill toward him in unashamed offering. He groaned, his hands sliding under the voluminous lehenga. Grasping her slim thighs, his mouth continued to suckle and tease as if he'd never be satisfied.
Khushi was vaguely aware of the city whizzing by, but the black tinted windows of the limo gave the illusion that they were alone, enclosed in darkness.
As the limo turned, Arnav braced one hand on the window, the other rising to the small of her back in a protective gesture. "You okay?"
She kissed him in answer, her mouth working down the length of his throat and Adam's apple as her fingers fiddled with the buttons of his tux. With marked impatience, Arnav drew her hands apart, sending buttons flying.
Khushi rubbed her palms across his smooth chest, dipping her head to lavish her love on his flat, male nipples.
Swearing, he wrenched her up for a heady kiss. Khushi kissed him back just as heatedly, and then drew his head back to where she needed him, moaning as his wet mouth enveloped a swollen peak. One of her hands clamped over the front of his pants. The suction of his mouth immediately increased, turning hot and demanding.
"Mr. and Mrs. Raizada, we're back at your residence." Both froze as the limo came to a halt and the driver's voice intruded from the speakers.
Khushi blinked at the familiar driveway. Rain was coming down now, the pellets striking the roof and window in a soft pitter patter.
Arnav still had his face buried between her breasts. "Leave the key in the ignition and see yourself out. Make sure the gate locks behind you."
"Don't..." Khushi swallowed as he went back to suckling. "Don't you need to pay him?"
"Aman took care of it. Now, shush and let me love you."
Nothing more needed to be said. Their mouths collided in a kiss that was one of pure domination. Khushi arched into him as she felt him shove down her skirt, his urgency enflaming her senses. It suddenly dawned on her that she was left in practically nothing while he remained almost completely dressed. Even his cufflinks were still on.
She tugged at his belt and he helped her, pressing open-mouthed kisses to her lips, her cheek, the crease of her neck and collarbone. Turned her head sideways to meet his kiss, Khushi lowered herself on her knees before him, unzipping him.
"Hell," he ground out as her mouth closed over him, pleasuring him as he'd taught her himself. His hands clenched on her hair. "Khushi..." His broken groan made her bolder.
"Like that?" She licked his saltiness.
His growl was low and savage sounding. Dragging her back up, he kissed her mouth and tugged on her panties, ripping them off. Even as his hand slid between her legs, he was finding her mouth again, thrusting his tongue deep in a highly carnal manner that stimulated what he truly throbbed for. As he drew her to mind-numbing ecstasy with expertise, Arnav pulled his wife across his lap, her thighs straddling him.
"Arnav!" His name tumbled from her lips again and again, a sweaty flush covering her skin as his hands swept over her, his mouth possessing every intimate spot. "Arnav, please--baby, please."
Only when she was pleading with him, lost in a thick fog of unquenchable desire did he pull her beneath him, throwing her legs high as he pushed to the hilt.
Her shout was so loud she wondered if the soundproof interior of the limo would be enough to contain it.
Her fingers slid beneath his unbuttoned shirt, her nails marking his back as her hips rose, meeting him stroke for stroke. There was a rawness in his touch, an untamed roughness that hinted to how much he wanted her. Khushi arched upwards into his kiss, her legs locking over his back as his pace increased even more, driving her absolutely wild.
"ARNAV!"
When passion crashed into her a second time, she met his mouth eagerly, whispering her love in mindless, broken words. He growled and with one last, hard thrust, slumped against her, his groan echoing in her ears like the sweetest music.
Reclining back on the sleek black leather of the limo, Khushi threaded her fingers through her husband's sweaty hair, drawing his head down to her breast as their heartbeats slowed.
The rain outside had slowed down too. It was the perfect time to make a quick run to the house. But Khushi did no such thing. She instead clutched her husband closer, smoothing her hands over the chiseled lines and angles of his face.
"Baby..."
"Hmm?" He sounded sleepy, nuzzling closer.
"Will it always be like this between us? This same intense passion?"
He laughed--a husky, sexy laugh that fueled her desires all over again. "Do you need to ask me that? Isn't it obvious?" He traced a hand down the length of her body, cupping her most intimate spot.
She shuddered, her eyes fluttering close. "What I mean is...We make love...very frequently, even for newlyweds."
"Damn right." His eyebrow arched up as he considered her. "And technically, we're not even newlyweds. I married you in Lucknow last year."
She nodded. "And since then we've been intimate so much..."
"Khushi, what are you trying to say? That we make love a lot? So? We have every right to." His mouth closed over a nipple with possession. "This is mine." The hand at the apex of her legs tightened. "This is mine. Your love is mine."
"All yours... but, well..." It took some doing to concentrate with his hands and mouth on her, but she finally managed to ask the question that had plagued her many times. She said it in a breathless rush. "Will you ever tire of me?"
Arnav froze against her, and then gazing at her with unconcealed amazement, he laughed a second time.
"Seriously? That's what you've been worrying about?" Shaking his head, he kissed her long and hard, as if trying to make all his love palpable in that one touch. They were both breathing hard when their lips parted, but he went back to kissing her almost immediately, one of his hands sliding down to her abdomen.
"Don't you feel it? Don't you know? You are a part of me, Khushi Arnav Singh Raizada. You're my wife, my love, the mother of my children... I will never tire of you. Never." He punctuated his words with demanding kisses, licking her lips. "Every day with you, every night, is something I never thought I'd have. How can I possibly ever get enough of you? Besides--" The corner of his mouth cocked up. "You might have noticed, but I'm quite insatiable where you're concerned."
"Oh, I've noticed." She smiled back at him, feeling utterly cherished and a bit silly for asking the question in the first place. He was right, she should have known. But it felt incredible to hear the confirmation from his mouth. "What we share is not just sex. Every time we make love, I feel like you take a bit of my soul."
His expression grew serious, his amber brown eyes narrowing on her flushed face. "I want it all, Khushi. Your entire soul..."
She opened her arms in reply and with a groan, he lowered himself on her, spreading her thighs wide as their mouths met again, eager and insatiable as ever. Arnav rolled her on top of him, and bracing the muscles of his shoulders, Khushi lowered herself on him, her gaze heavy and twinkling. "I love you," she whispered as everything seemed to fade and something hot and burning blazed between them all over again. "I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!"
*****
That night, they ordered takeout, feeding each other Chinese as they settled on the comfy sofa before the fireplace.
"You think the award coverage is still on?" Arnav flipped through the channels.
Khushi shrugged, poking a finger into his abs. "I wouldn't know. Someone was in such a hurry to leave, I only saw the first award being given."
"And you should thank me for that." Drawing up her hand, he kissed her palm. "It's such a snooze fest. Most people leave right after they get their award."
Khushi's eyes wandered to the TV. "Look, baby, the awards are still on, and--" Her voice trailed off and her eyes rounded as the camera flashed to the audience and they showed Arnav and her whispering in each other's ear. In big, bold letters it said "LIVE" in the corner, but it clearly wasn't. She was no longer anywhere near the venue, but instead back home, dressed in a thigh high, black silk and lace negligee her husband had selected, her face scrubbed clean of makeup.
"It's highly edited," Arnav explained, absently rubbing his hand over her exposed thigh. "To make it seem like we're still there."
That made sense, but Khushi found it extremely bizarre as they showed her smiling and clapping for people on stage she'd never even seen before.
"You look so damn beautiful," her husband commented, raising chopsticks to his mouth. "You could easily be a model or actress, you know."
She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Me and model? No, thank you. The only time I did that, I made an utter fool of myself on stage and fell!"
"Right into my arms," he reminded.
"I was lucky then." She kissed his unshaved cheek. "Very lucky."
The corner of his mouth curved upwards. He started to kiss her but his phone buzzed between them just then. "If that's Aman, I'm going to kill him."
Khushi giggled, snuggling closer. It was, as it turned out, not his assistant, but one of his business partners from Germany.
"He's hosting a party to celebrate my award tomorrow night," Arnav explained as soon as the call cut.
"Really? That's wonderful, baby. We must go." She smiled at him, but he wasn't smiling--far from it actually. "What is it?" Khushi murmured, cupping his chin. "You don't want to go?"
"Not really, but like you said, we have to go. It's at Indigo."
"I've never heard of it."
Arnav set aside the phone, frowning still. "It's a very popular club within the business circle. Very exclusive. Lavanya invited me once to go with her, but I turned her down."
"Good." She rolled her eyes as he took a bite of noodles from her plate. "Have you been there before? To Indigo?"
He nodded, chewing slowly. "Lots of times actually. Before I met you, there was no real direction in my life, except for work. As soon as I left the office, I'd go party and try to forget about what was really bothering me. I'm not proud of all I've done, but I was completely lost back then." His eyes were thoughtful as he recalled his wild days before Khushi had entered his life, the mindless parties, the clubs and string of high profile girlfriends. "I was surrounded by people, by the ultra rich and powerful, by all these famous women the world desired, and I felt completely alone. There was no one I could talk to. No one I trusted." His eyes flicked over her with smoldering warmth. "Until you."
Kneeling beside him, Khushi embraced him. "I'm with you now. I'll always be with you, love."
His grip hardened and he burrowed his face against the warm side of her neck, breathing her in. "Thank you."
She leaned back, her eyes wide and soft in the dim light. "For what, baby?"
Arnav drew his fingertips down her face, his thumb sweeping over the softness of her bottom lip. "For loving me... For saving me..."
Khushi threw her arms around him, holding him with all her strength. Tears came to her eyes. "You don't need to thank me. Never. Because the truth is, you saved me too. Saved me from a loveless marriage and life in Lucknow I once thought I actually wanted! I see now that I'd never be happy with that. Being married to someone like Karan, someone I could never love, would have killed me inside."
"We were meant to be," he said simply, kissing away her tears. "Not that damn Karan, not our families, not even the world could have kept us apart. Now, please stop crying, love." Catching her lips in a gentle kiss, he smoothed her hair back, his gaze growing light. "You know, for the party, you'll need a dress."
"A dress? Can't I wear a saree?"
Arnav looked doubtful. "You could, but most don't. Indigo is very different, as you'll see soon."
"Very soon. It's almost 1 AM now. We should sleep." Tugging him up on his feet, she clicked off the TV, where the coverage had now shifted to highlights of the Asian Business Awards and their pictures were being zoomed and analyzed from every angle.
BREAKING NEWS: ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR, ASR ANNOUNCES SECRET MARRIAGE, UNVIELS WIFE read the scroll at the bottom.
As Arnav and Khushi dozed off, holding onto one another, the TV remained on in Shantivaan. Angry eyes focused on Arnav and Khushi posing and smiling for the cameras.
"LIES! ALL LIES! HE IS MINE! HE IS MINE!"
Glass shattered and sparks flickered as a long edged blade was thrown, striking Khushi's image right in the heart.
*****
"Try this on next," Arnav murmured, handing her a hanger. His eyes seemed to glow when Khushi didn't even attempt to argue, her fingers sliding over his. She started to step away, but he whipped her around, pulling her into his arms.
She made a soft noise of surprise as his arms coiled around her hips, their chests smashed together. One of his hands rose to her cleavage, tracing slowly. "And Khushi, leave off the bra this time. These dresses aren't made for that." Unsnapping her bra, he tugged it out from under the dress with seasoned expertise, his long fingers fisting on the silk.
By the time she made it out of the changing room, her heartbeat had slowed--slightly. But as soon as she saw her husband, sitting in a leather, winged back chair, one leg crossed over his knee, his eyes tracing over her with interest, she felt it ricochet right back up. She hoped her face wasn't as red as the dress she was wearing, but the mirrors on all sides of her proved that it almost was.
"Turn in a circle," Arnav bid. "Slowly."
She did as he asked, feeling a bit ridiculous in the high heels and barely there halter dress. She'd never worn such clothes before. It felt as if she was entirely exposed, though the crucial bits remained covered.
The dress was flaming red and it clung to her body like a second skin, accentuating the slight bump at her midline. It had a demure slit till the knee but the neckline dipped quite low, revealing the tops of her breasts. Khushi gasped as she felt Arnav's hand settle on her waist. He'd crossed to her so quietly, she hadn't even noticed. His eyes met hers in the mirror.
"Do you have any idea how hot you look in this?"
She swallowed under the intensity of his gaze, shaking her head. "I've never worn a dress like this before."
He rocked her back against him, staring at their shared reflection with brooding intensity. "I know, but I wanted to see you in this. My favorite color..."
Khushi trembled as she felt his hands go to the zipper, tugging it down leisurely. Her breathing grew uneven. "Arnav...baby, someone might walk in..."
"Trust me, they won't. I'm paying a hell of a lot money to keep all the employees and other customers out of here. Plus, I know the owners."
"Is that why we're the only ones here? You rented the fitting room?" She'd never known it was even possible to do that.
He nodded, occupied with nuzzling and kissing the delicate skin of her neck. His mouth suckled, leaving a reddening mark. "What did you think?"
"That it was private."
"Everything comes at a cost, love. Now, how about the emerald green dress? I want to see you in that."
"You want to see me in every revealing dress here."
His laughter washed over her, making her heart swell and her body ache anew.
"Damn right."
"We're supposed to be finding a dress for the party, not...you know what."
Her husband appeared amused. "But this is more fun, wouldn't you agree?" His hands slipped under the front of the half-opened dress, his palms clamping over her breasts. Moaning, Khushi gazed at their reflection in the mirror, mesmerized as his fingers worked under the flimsy fabric. It was highly erotic and all she suddenly wanted was to kick off the damn dress and forget all about the party. But the reminder that there was a party to go to--in just a few hours--had her spinning around. Her husband's eyebrow arched.
Khushi held firm. "Do you truly like this dress?"
His eyes trailed down to the ruby red number. "Hell yes."
"Do you want everyone to see me in this at the party? Your friends and business partners?"
The response was instantaneous. His nostrils flared. His jaw hardened. Grasping her by the hips, he yanked her against him. "Hell no. This is only for me to see."
Khushi brushed her lips over his. "Exactly, baby. Then can we please stop trying on all these dresses that would never work? I need a dress for tonight. The party is in just three hours." She walked back to the rack of designer wear, pulling out a light pink sari. "How about this?"
Arnav shrugged. "It's nice. Like I said, you can wear whatever you want."
"But you want me to wear a dress." It was a statement more than a question.
Her husband sighed, sitting back down. "Did I say that? I just told you most women at Indigo don't wear sarees. That's it."
Nibbling on her lower lip, Khushi wondered what to do. She wanted to look amazing tonight, but she also wanted to be comfortable in her own skin.
"How about this black dress?" Arnav pointed toward a mannequin.
The dress was long and sleeveless, the neckline quite demure. But the back more than made up for the simplicity of the front. It glittered with silver jewels, crisscrossing several times. Khushi felt herself smile as she studied it. "This could work, don't you think? I could wear a wrap with it." She picked out her size and headed to the changing stall. A sudden thought stopped her. Grinning impishly, she turned back to him. "Help me with the zipper? I think I need you. Actually--" She wet her lips. "--I know I do."
Her husband's eyes burned into her as he stood, following after her and closing the thick curtain behind them. "It would be my pleasure."
Khushi's pulse raced at the low huskiness of his tone. And then he was pressing her against the changing room's cushioned wall, his mouth hard and hot as it mated with hers. The red dress fell to the carpet in a quiet rustle, pooling around her ankles.
Thirty minutes later, Arnav and Khushi walked out of the boutique, talking over their plans for tonight. Coal black eyes watched as Arnav kept one arm around his wife's waist, clutching their shopping bags in his other hand.
"What a gorgeous couple," said one of the teenage girls standing near Payal across the street. "Are they celebrities?"
"Nah," said her friend. "At least I don't think so. They must be filthy rich though. Stella's costs a fortune, I've heard. You need an appointment just to enter."
"Seriously?"
Their laughter grated on Payal's ears. To her, it sounded like they were mocking her, though the rational part of her mind knew that couldn't possibly be true. These girls had no idea how envious she was of Khushi or even what relationship they shared. They didn't know that last night, she'd followed after Arnav and Khushi just as she had today.
They couldn't know how much it had twisted her gut to see them not step out of the limo until it was quite late. The rocking of the limo had given away what was going on inside, thought she'd have guessed regardless. The thought of Arnav and Khushi making wild, intense love while she was relegated to a passionless marriage with Akash had hurt--a lot. She'd closed her eyes and imagined that it was her inside the limo, her bare body spread over the cushions, taking the one thing Khushi loved above all else: Arnav Singh Raizada.
But Khushi had ruined that fantasy too, the sound of her laughter shattering her thoughts. Payal had opened her eyes just in time to see Arnav step out of the limo with Khushi in his arms. Both had looked distinctly disheveled and from the dimly lit street corner of their fine mansion just beyond the main gate, Payal couldn't help but note how Khushi was only dressed in her husband's tux jacket, her legs left bare as they rushed for the front door.
If only her parents and Buaji had seen this, Payal had lamented. If they had, then they'd have realized that the angelic, obedient daughter whom they doted on was actually far from innocent. Payal laughed out loud.
The teenagers shot an odd look in her direction and she quickly turned away. Waiting till Arnav and Khushi were out of sight, she crossed to the boutique. Pausing at the door to adjust her chin-length wig and sunglasses, she pushed it open.
"I'm sorry," said the woman behind the counter, dressed in a flamboyant, aqua blue pantsuit, her hair dyed platinum blond. "You must have an appointment to--"
Payal set down a bundle of cash. Stella picked it up, flipping through it. "Right this way," she smiled. "You can try on--"
"I don't want to try on anything," cut in Payal.
"Then what do you want?"
Something ugly glinted in her eyes. "The exact same dress the woman who was just here bought."
Stella looked confused. "You mean Mrs. ASR?"
The name bit into her, but she hid it well. "Yes."
Within a handful of minutes, Payal slipped out of the boutique, a black, slinky dress with silver crystals in her hands. As soon as she got home, she tried it on, turning this way and that. It was a perfect fit.
The plan was in motion. Tonight, she thought, grinning, she'd finally be where she desired to be. In ASR's bed.
*****
"Stop fidgeting," Arnav told Khushi as she tugged for the third time on the thin strap of her dress, adjusting the beaded wrap around her shoulders. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he caught her hand in his, lacing their fingers together. "You look beautiful and very sexy."
Despite the jeep's AC washing over her, sending her hair flying, Khushi felt her face warm. "Really?"
Stopping at a red light, his eyes wandered over her again, taking in the soft curls, the black dress, and minimal makeup. The only accessories she wore were the emerald and diamond necklace and chandelier earrings he'd given her on Valentine's Day, as well as sindoor.
"So sexy all I want to do is drive back home and take you back to bed," he admitted, hiding nothing.
She squeezed his hand, feeling her heartbeat speed up. "I wish the same...Would you mind if we left the party early tonight?"
"Why the hell would I mind? I've been planning exactly that. We'll show up, stay like thirty minutes and slip out as discreetly as possible."
It sounded like the perfect plan. Khushi felt restless to get back home. She hadn't told him, but she'd bought the ultra revealing red dress he'd been so fond of at Stella's. It would be delivered tonight and she intended to surprise her husband. There was also something else arriving today, she vaguely recalled. "Oh and we need to stop on our way home for paint."
Arnav's eyebrows scrunched. "Paint?"
"For the babies' nursery. I ordered it last week, but the exact yellow shade I wanted wasn't in stock."
He nodded. "You know what else we need to decide on? Baby names." He said it like it was a herculean task awaiting them. Which it was. They had very different tastes. He preferred modern, English-sounding names, while Khushi had always loved the traditional.
"We have six months," she reminded him. "That's plenty of time to make up our minds."
"I guess." The jeep turned right. "That's Indigo up ahead. The black building." He pulled up to the front, and handing the keys to the valet, helped her out. A few people were standing near the entrance in small groups, and as their curious eyes drifted over to them, Khushi shifted self-consciously.
"Relax, love," Arnav murmured in her ear. "And stick close to me. It's going to be packed inside."
Stepping closer to him, Khushi held onto his hand. The loud beats of the music playing inside were already discernable and as soon as they entered, heading to the VIP lounge, the smell of smoke enveloped her. Khushi coughed, her eyes drawn to the plush private booths lining the walls and the main floor where a mass of people was dancing and jumping to the music with uncontrolled exuberance.
"ASR!" A tall man with blond hair and a layered accent spotted them. Shaking Arnav's hand, his sea-blue eyes shifted to Khushi, widening noticeably. "And this must be your beautiful, new wife. No wonder you married her. You were always lucky, ASR. Not fair."
Bristling at the obvious longing in the other man's eyes, Arnav nodded stiffly, his hold on Khushi hardening. "Thanks for the party. You really shouldn't have."
"Oh, don't be so formal. Tonight is yours. Congratulations again and party hard."
Khushi stuck close to Arnav as he greeted other business partners and socialites, introducing her as his wife each time with visible pride. A few men tried asking her for a dance, but one icy glare from Arnav had them scurrying away, mumbling apologies.
"Some women over there are waving at you," Khushi whispered in his ear. "I think they want you to come over to their table."
"I noticed that right when we walked in. Don't look over there. Pretend you're talking to me."
She rolled her eyes, waving off a waiter with a tray full of amber-colored drinks in his hand. "I am talking to you, baby."
"Good." Grinning, he tugged on her hand. "Now, before yet another loser decides to ask you for a dance, let's go."
"Go where?"
He gestured to the center of the room. "I want to dance with you."
Blinking with surprise, Khushi followed after him. Her feet hesitated at the edge of the dance floor as she eyed the throng of dancers with uncertainty. The music was loud, almost deafening.
"Come on," Arnav yelled over the din.
Taking a deep breath, Khushi grasped his hand and stepped into the madness. Her husband's arms rose around her possessively, drawing her flat against him. As beams of lights swept over their heads, changing colors in time with the music, his hands dipped low, cupping her bottom.
Gasping, Khushi stared up at him with wide-eyed surprise. "Baby--"
"Hush, it's so dark no one can really see what we're doing anyway. Relax." He moved against her a slow, tantalizing rhythm, making her eyes close and her chest heave. Looping her arms around his neck, Khushi matched his movements, gyrating to the fast beat of the music.
"If my parents or Buaji ever saw us dancing like this..." Khushi laughed. "Just imagine their reaction."
Arnav ran his hands up and down her back, nuzzling the side of her neck. He dipped her low, his eyes darkening a few shades. "You know what would really shock them?"
"What?"
"If I did this." His head suddenly lowered and his mouth pushed against hers, his tongue sweeping over her lips and sliding within. Khushi held onto his shirtfront for dear life, rising up on her tiptoes. By the time he moved away, her lipstick was gone and her eyes were glazed. She looked like she had just been very thoroughly kissed--which she had. Smirking, Arnav pecked her cheek and the corner of her mouth. "That was hot. I want more."
Khushi blushed, eyeing the crowd around them. No one seemed to be paying them attention, lost in the music. "I can't believe we just did that. If anyone saw us..."
"If they did, then they'd either want to be in my shoes or yours. Hush, beautiful, no one saw."
Khushi whacked his chest. "Let me guess, you've ruined my lipstick."
"I wouldn't say ruined exactly." His eyes softened as they traced over her face. "More like it's no longer there."
"Arnav!"
"What? Don't tell me you didn't want that because we both know you did. And as far as the lipstick is concerned, you can fix it. Come on." Keeping one arm curled about her waist, he led her to the opposite side of the club to the women's restrooms. "I'll wait out here. You go do whatever you have to do and then we can misbehave some more."
 "Deal. I won't be long." Brushing a quick kiss to his unshaved cheek, she walked in. It was empty inside and pausing at the vanity to touch up her hair and makeup, Khushi smiled, thinking about the way her husband had pulled her onto the dance floor and into his arms. Their dance had oozed passion and sensuality. Her skin heated as she thought of the night ahead...the red dress waiting back home...
Let's misbehave some more, he'd said. That's exactly what she intended to do tonight: to misbehave and drive her husband absolutely wild.
Making up her mind to tell Arnav she'd had enough of Indigo and wanted to leave, Khushi had just stepped away from the mirror when someone pushed her from behind with considerable force--right into a cleaning closet. Whirling around, she tried to fight back, but the door was already closing. All she saw was a flash of jet-black hair. Her hands pulled on the doorknob, her face paling as she realized it had been locked.
"Who's there? OPEN THE DOOR! ARNAV!"
Adjusting her wig--she'd had it carefully designed so it looked just like Khushi's hair--Payal grinned, listening to the shouts and pounding within. The closest was small, with barely enough room to stand. Maybe she'd get lucky and Khushi would suffocate to death, she thought with glee. If only...
Smoothing her hands down the black dress, she admired her reflection. She preferred the dress with the back uncovered, but her "sister" had not worn it as such. Sighing, she grabbed the beaded wrap Khushi had dropped. It lay on the slate gray tiles, shimmering up at her. Adjusting it about her shoulders as she'd seen Khushi do, Payal stepped toward the exit, being careful to keep her face in the shadows.
Several laughing women were entering, but she stopped them, pointing to the sign she'd hung up herself. "Sorry, but it's closed for cleaning. You can try the one near the main entrance."
They thanked her, turning away and Payal's smile grew. No one would be rescuing Khushi this time.
Pausing at the threshold, she eyed her sister's husband. ASR was standing off to the side, arms crossed over his chest. He looked so incredibly attractive with a slight stubble darkening his cheeks and a pair of tailored black pants and maroon shirt encasing his toned form, all she wanted to do was to run into his arms and beg him to dance with her as he'd danced with Khushi--his hands running over her body, his mouth fusing with hers hungrily as his hips grinded into hers with promise of what was to come.
She ached for that chance. To prove to him how much better she was than the orphan girl he claimed to love so much. But, it would take time, Payal knew. Khushi had somehow managed to ensnare the Raizada heir and trap him with some stupid nonsense about undying love and marriage.
There was another hurdle. Even with the wig and exact same dress, ASR would be hard to fool Payal knew. He'd slept with Khushi so much, he was sure to know the difference between them if she got too close. The thought of their intimacy made her face twist with malice. Her hands fisted at her sides. It should have been her in his bed--not Khushi!
Breathing hard, she forced herself to stick to the plan. Taking out her phone, she dialed the number of the waiter she'd spoken earlier to.
"Go now," she instructed. "He's alone."
"And my money? You promised me--"
"You'll get your damn money! First, get the job done!"
The man weighed his options and then agreed, ending the call. Keeping to the shadows, Payal watched him approach Arnav, her eyes shining extra brightly.
"Sir, would you like a drink?"
Arnav frowned at the waiter. "No, thanks. I don't drink."
"It's not all alcohol. There's also club soda, coke, and I have some freshly squeezed juice as well, orange and apple."
The last word had the desired effect. Arnav nodded, taking two glasses--just as Payal had known he would. How could he refuse Khushi's favorite juice?
He suddenly gazed at the doorway, almost directly to where she stood, his eyes a bit confused. Payal took a hurried step backward. After a few seconds, she edged closer again, sneaking a peek. Arnav was no longer looking her way. His eyes were instead on the small glasses in his hands.
"Drink it," she whispered as if he could hear her. "Drink it."
Arnav glanced at the restrooms again. What was taking Khushi so long? Did her lipstick have to be absolutely perfect? He was going to end up removing it sooner or later anyway. As soon she reached him, he'd insist they leave, he decided. The music was starting to give him a headache and he craved the quiet of their home. His eyes warmed as he imagined the night awaiting them. They'd grab the paint for the nursery, eat dinner out on the patio, maybe with some candlelight and then he'd make love to her slowly, taking his time even if it bloody killed him. Tipping one of the glasses back, Arnav swallowed it whole.
His mouth instantly reacted. His throat burned. Throwing the glass to the floor, he grabbed the waiter who'd offered him the drink by the collar. "What the hell was in that? What the hell did you do?"
The man gulped nervously. "I don't know what you're talking about, sir. You sound drunk. I didn't give you anything."
"THE HELL YOU DIDN'T!" Arnav roared. "There was alcohol in that!" He may not have drunk a drop before on principle, but he'd smelled it countless times during his childhood. His father had reeked of it every time he'd lost control. Arnav shoved the waiter backward. Hands pulled him backward before he could do more damage.
"ASR," cut in his business associate. "Calm down. It was probably just a mistake."
Arnav narrowed his eyes on the white-faced waiter. "I don't think it was." He tried to reach for him again, but his aim was off. Everything seemed far more hazy than normal, as if the walls were spinning and closing in around him. Only one thing mattered: finding his wife and getting the hell out of here.
"Khushi..." Pushing back everyone, he stumbled toward where he'd seen her last. But before he could reach the restrooms, he saw her hurry out, the diamonds of the black dress sparkling in the dim light.
"KHUSHI!"
She didn't seem to hear him, weaving through the crowd. He followed after her, trying to keep his focus.
"KHUSHI!"
Cool air swept over his features as he staggerd out of Indigo. A few men were standing about, smoking cigarettes. "My wife...did you see her?"
"Around the corner, I think--"
He heard no more, running now. As he rounded the edge of the building, his feet slowed. The alcohol made his vision blurry and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the alley. But once they did, all he saw was red.
A red haze of the deepest rage he'd ever felt. It gutted his soul, tore his heart apart in ways he'd never imagined.
Because standing at the other end of the alley was an unfamiliar, brown haired man and...his wife, her back gleaming from the crystal jewels. But it couldn't be... His Khushi would never be standing so close to another man. She'd never allow another man to kiss her as he was doing, looking as if he was eating off her face. And she definitely would not be kissing him back, her fingers clenched in his hair as they both moaned, rubbing against one another feverishly.
The noise of their lusty kisses broke all his control. His roar emerged from deep within him, almost unrecognizable. "KHUSHI!"
She didn't seem to hear, kissing the man just as passionately, perhaps more. The brown-haired man did pause, his eyes rounding as he noticed Arnav charge toward them.
"KHUSHI!"
"Arnav?"
Her voice, so unexpected, brought him to a jerking halt. It was coming from behind him, around the corner.
"Arnav? Baby?"
With his eyes widening and his heartbeat raging wildly, Arnav swerved around, jogging back. His wife stood just outside of Indigo's main door, rubbing her bare arms for warmth.
The moment she glimpsed him, she ran into his arms, trembling violently. "Someone locked me in the cleaning closet!  I couldn't get out. I couldn't breathe. I was so afraid the babies would be harmed," she said between hiccupping breaths, crying. "So afraid."
He stood shock still and then grabbed her shoulders. "Someone locked you in? When?"
She shrugged, her eyes panic-filled. "I think it was twenty minutes ago, but it felt so much longer than that. A janitor came by and got me out thankfully."
Arnav's head was spinning, but beneath all that, there was relief. Relief that his faith had proven true. "I saw you...saw you run out of the club...but I knew it couldn't be you. I knew it."
"What are you saying, love?"
Cupping her face in his palms, he told her about the woman in the black dress, about the kiss he'd witnessed. Khushi's face whitened several shades.
"What?"
He nodded. "She had on the same dress. Even her hair was like yours."
Khushi froze, reminded of the flash of jet black hair she'd seen. It had looked vaguely familiar and now she knew why. It had been exactly like hers. "Why would someone do this?" she asked brokenly. "I don't understand."
He didn't either. "I saw them in this alley." Grasping her hand, Arnav led her to it. It stood vacant now, the entwined couple no longer there. "They were here just seconds ago. I saw them over there." He pointed to a brick wall near the trashcans.
A shiver went up Khushi's spine. She pulled on his hand. "Let's just go home, baby. Please." He wrapped his arms around her, hailing a passing taxi.
"What about the jeep?"
"I don't think I can drive..." With a quiet murmur, he told her about the spiked juice.
Khushi sat still, trying to piece it all together. "None of this makes sense. Who would do this? Who would go through all this trouble to create a misunderstanding between us?" Could it be one of his jealous ex-girlfriends? she wondered. Someone like Nicole James?
Arnav pressed a hand to his throbbing temple. "I don't know, but I'm going to find out. That woman ran by me just when she knew I'd see her. It was no coincidence. So one thing is for sure: whoever it is wants to separate us. Badly."
Khushi pressed a kiss to his forehead, working her fingers in slow, soothing circles. "That'll never happen. But this is serious. We can't take this lightly. Whoever it was attacked just not me, but our children and you. Who could it possibly be?"
Arnav's jaw hardened and he drew his wife into his arms, reassuring her that he'd catch whoever it had been. As the taxi weaved through Delhi's traffic, hazy memories resurfaced: of the height and shape of the woman in the alley. She'd been petite and the sound of her moans had sounded somewhat familiar. There had been an odd breathiness to her voice--one he could have sworn he'd heard before.
His mind flew back for some reason to the last time he'd been in Shantivan, his heart torn over the hurt caused by his sister's childish prank and his anxiety for his wife's well being. A breathy voice had interrupted him then, he recalled:
"Arnavji!" She'd stepped out of her bedroom, wringing her hands. "Is everything all right? I heard shouting."
His eyes flew open and almost at once, he shook his head dismissively. How could he suspect Payal of all people? Was it the alcohol in his system that sent him so off course? Payal was meek and quiet and moreover, she loved Khushi. She had no reason to harm her sister.
She couldn't be the woman in the black dress... Could she?
*****
Bitter tears rolled down Payal's cheeks as she pressed her back to the dirty brick wall of the alley. A howl of pain and frustration escaped her lips. She'd lost...again... "NO!"
Wiping the tears away with force, she took out her phone, her eyes red and enraged as she stabbed the keypad almost violently.
It wasn't too difficult to find the city's largest newspaper's anonymous tipping number. "How much do you pay for stories?" she asked the man who picked up.
"It depends," he said vaguely, quoting her an abysmally low rate.
"How much would you pay for exclusive footage of ASR and his new wife in a compromised position?"
The man changed his tone instantly. "What exactly are we talking about here?"
"I have a clip of them dancing suggestively and kissing at Indigo. Give me how much I want, otherwise I'll talk to your competitor."
She didn't have to say a word more. The deal was struck. Ending the call, Payal managed a weak smile. Perhaps she hadn't succeeded tonight but she would humiliate her so-called sister regardless. Would her parents love her so much even when they saw Ms. Perfect behaving like a s*** on the dance floor? She doubted it. Tomorrow morning, Khushi would wake up to a new reality. Payal could hardly wait.


Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
Episode 27: Lunch with the Guptas
Khushi didn't know what woke her, but she found herself blinking awake. The bedroom was cast in shadows, only a faint glimmer of moonlight spilling inside through the closed curtains. She'd never like the darkness. It was so cold... so lonely...
Rolling onto her side, she reached for Arnav, wanting nothing more than to be encased by his searing body heat. To lose herself in his steely masculinity. Her palm instinctively smoothed over her husband's side of the bed.
It was empty. And cold to the touch. As if he hadn't been there for a very long time; maybe all night long. Although she was absolutely drained from the hellish twist of events at Indigo, all thoughts of sleep left Khushi at that jarring realization.
Besides, without him, falling back asleep would be impossible. She'd gotten so used to sleeping with Arnav's arms enveloping her and crushing her to him that she knew it was pointless to even try. Worry gnawed at her insides. Where was he?
Rising up on her elbows, she clasped the rumpled bed sheet to her chest. "Baby?"
No answer. The clock on the nightstand told her what she'd suspected. It was the middle of the night. 2:54 AM. A crease lined Khushi's forehead as she gingerly stepped out of the bed, shivering.
The weather was turning chilly and as her husband preferred, she'd slept without a stitch of clothing covering her. Arnav always wanted her within easy reach and most nights, she'd wake up to find his mouth and hands on her, stirring her out of the depths of sleep in the most delicious, toe-curling manner.
"But I've never slept like this before," she'd told him the first time he'd tossed her nightclothes aside and pulled her down beside him. It had been at the old apartment, the night after he'd taken her virginity.
Her cheeks had burned at the look in his eyes. Sure, boys had admired her before, but Arnav Singh Raizada was clearly no boy. He was all man. Unbidden, her eyes traced over his beautiful, bare body, her breathing shaky as she studied the part of him that had been actually inside of her last night, joined as intimately with her as two people could possibly be. Her cheeks had flushed crimson and she'd averted her gaze, thankful for the dim light.
He'd angled her head back toward him and she'd once more been struck by how he was the handsomest, most unattainable, and coldest man she'd ever come across.
But in bed, he was so different. So warm, especially when he was gazing at her as he was now, with that mind-numbing intensity and raw hunger darkening his pupils. As if all he wanted in the world was her. It had made absolutely no sense to her during those days.
"From now on, you will sleep just like this. I want you to be accessible to me at all times. Clothes will only come in the way."
"But...I could wear something afterwards..."
He'd trailed a lazy finger down the length of her neck, going to her raging heartbeat. His thumb and forefinger had lightly pinched her nipple. A blaze of heat had shot through her. It had bewildered her back then. Her body's own traitorous response to this man.
"I'm going to want you a lot," Arnav had told her, dipping his head to lave her breast with his tongue. "And whenever that happens, I want you to be ready for me. Like you are now. It can be any time of the night..."
Her mouth had felt unusually dry. "Any time?"
He'd kissed her hard and long, making her gasp and quiver as his fingers discovered her wetness. "Anytime."
"But it feels so strange...and I might get cold..."
His smirk had been downright wolfish. He'd rolled her beneath him and spread her legs wide, settling on top. "Don't worry. I'll keep you warm."
Just the memory of those sinful embraces had her pulse pounding. Last night though, he hadn't reached for her. Not once. Instead, he'd placed a chaste kiss on her lips and held her in his arms till she'd dozed off.
Khushi had assumed it was because he was tired too, but as she thought over it now, her brow furrowed. When had he ever been so tired before? The answer was never. Stopping at the closest, she grabbed the first thing she saw. It happened to be a white silk robe, nearly sheer and delicately feminine, its hemline bordered with lace. Tying the sash in a loose knot, Khushi pushed open the bedroom door.
"Arnav?" Her voice trembled.
He didn't reply again and her concern mounted. She'd known he was upset--furious actually--but still, it wasn't like him to leave their bed. To leave her alone.
Khushi eventually found him. He was not in the house, but outside by the pool, pacing back and forth. She almost didn't notice him, he was just a huge, dark shadow in the dim light, but then she saw the glowing end of something amber.
"Baby?"
He halted at her voice, his gaze tracing over her willowy form. His mouth compressed in a thin line as he ground out the cigarette. "You shouldn't be out here. It's late. Go back to sleep."
"Without you?" She shook her head, marching right up to him and taking his hands in hers. Her eyes wandered to the ashtray, but she didn't ask any questions, keeping their fingers laced. "You know that's impossible."
Her husband was silent, his eyes locked on her face with a bewildering mix of longing and heart-wrenching agony. It made her sharply inhale, her hands rising to either side of his face.
"Love, please. I know you're upset about tonight--I am too--but please come back to bed. It's late and--"
"Do you think I don't know that?" he snapped, looking more irate than ever as he pulled out her arms, his body rigid with tension. When he spoke, his voice was noticeably strained. "I can't sleep, Khushi. I'm so damn angry with myself."
That gave her pause. Her eyebrows bent as she considered him. "With yourself?" He didn't answer and she stepped beside him, grasping his wrist and turning him her way. "Arnav, tell me... Please..."
His eyes were wild, tormented. His hold on her shoulders tightened almost painfully. "You really want to know? Do you think you'll be able to bear it?"
Her chest heaved against him. It was not a choice she had to think about. If it concerned the man she loved, she wanted to know. Even if it would be painful. "Yes."
His grip slackened, his jaw worked several times. Taking a deep breath, Arnav steeled himself. His voice was rough, as if the words had been wrenched from his very soul. "Tonight... not only did I fail to keep you and our unborn children safe, but when I saw that woman pretending to be you...with that damn man, I almost lost it. All I knew was that I wanted to kill him. With my bare hands. I knew nothing past that rage."
"You've always been possessive about me. It's nothing new, baby. And you were forced into that situation. It wasn't you."
"The hell it wasn't!" His tone rose sharply. "Don't you see, Khushi? For a moment, a brief, horrible second, I thought... I thought that woman was you. Even though I told myself it couldn't be, that it was impossible, I still doubted you. I still f****** suspected you!"
Her lips parted and at the same moment, Arnav slammed his hand into the brick wall behind them, his face stoic though there was a shrill, gut-twisting cry of anguish. Khushi realized it had come from her lips.
"ARNAV!"
She tried to take his hand in hers, but he pulled away, trying to further injure himself. His wrist made another awful sound as the bones connected with the wall.
"STOP!" she screamed, grabbing his arm. "Stop it! You're bleeding!"
He shrugged her off, his eyes wild and bright. "I deserve much worse. Hell, I actually doubted you. I doubted the one person who's ever truly loved me. Who's ever cared a damn about me!" His fist rose again, crimson blood dripping between them and staining the poolside's glistening tiles.
Khushi acted without thinking, flattening herself in the small gap between him and the wall.
Her husband's nostrils flared. "Get out of the way, Khushi."
Her hair swung as she shook her head, trying to restrain him. "Please stop. Just stop and listen to me. Anyone would have suspected for a second. Anyone."
He didn't seem to be listening. "I SAID GET OUT OF MY F****** WAY!"
"NO!"
"KHUSHI, MOVE! MOVE NOW BEFORE I DO IT MYSELF!"
Standing before her, his features contorted with fury, he reminded her of a wild, out of control animal. He was shaking, but it was his eyes that struck her right in the heart. They were dark and lined with pain and self-loathing. It shook her to the core.
Khushi didn't how to control him. As he drew back his hand again, intent on hurting himself, she struggled to hold onto him, stopping his rage in the only way she knew how.
With love. Their love. Rising up on her toes, she fisted her hands in his thick, wavy hair and slanted her mouth over his.
Arnav froze with surprise. Shock still, for a moment, he let his wife kiss him, his raised fist slowly lowering.
Khushi traced his mouth with her tongue. His lips were warm and smooth against hers, but he wasn't responding. Not like she wanted him to. "I love you," she said simply, again and again, pressing her mouth to his. "I love you so much..."
He was hard as stone against her and just as immobile. She thought he was on the brink of surrendering, but then with a curse, he swerved away, leaving her gasping for breath. Khushi sagged against the brick wall as she observed him sit down on one of the lounge chairs circling the pool with his head in his hands.
"I hate myself," she heard him whisper. "I don't deserve you. I never have and I never will."
Frowning anew, she marched up to him and pulled his chin up towards her. "Stop it. Stop being so hard on yourself. Please. It hurts me."
He stared at her for a long, hard moment and then swung up his legs on the recliner, closing his eyes. "Go back to the room, Khushi. Leave me alone tonight."
"Leave you? Your hand--"
He made a face at his bleeding hand, flexing it slowly. "It's fine. I deserve worse."
Khushi's frown intensified as she watched him reach for the pack of cigarettes on the table. Before he could take one out, she wrenched it from his hands. He glanced up at her with a look of marked irritation.
"Khushi. Give it back."
She shook her head at him. "Since when do you smoke?"
"Since college," came the terse reply. "Now give it to me."
Her eyes never left his face. "I've known you for a year almost and you've never once touched a cigarette. Why now?"
His smirk was cold and derisive. "Actually I have. Several times actually. I just do it when I'm alone. See, you think you know me, but I'm actually far from that ideal husband you envision me as. Sorry to ruin your fantasy, baby. You should have married someone like that Karan after all, don't you think?"
Those mocking words were the last straw. "Stop it!" Khushi cried, flinging the cigarettes into the pool behind her. "Stop making yourself out to be some horrible person which we both know you're not. Why don't you understand? I love you! Only you."
His eyes were pained. "I feel sorry for you. You're bound to be disappointed by me one day."
"I don't think so. Actually, I know that will never happen."
His jaw clenched and he looked away. Khushi sat beside him, taking a shuddering breath. For a few, long minutes, they were quiet, lost in their own thoughts.
"Does your hand hurt very much?"
"No...not much..." he admitted in a low voice.
Khushi dipped the end of her robe in the pool water and carefully cleaned his wound. He let her this time, staring down at her bent head with an unreadable look. The muscle at his jaw flexed. His tone was more gruff than he intended.
"It's fine. Go and sleep."
She said nothing as he snatched his hand away. Her eyes drifted to the pack of cigarettes in the middle of the pool floor.
"You're lying about smoking all the time, aren't you? I would have smelled it if that was true. But I haven't. Not once."
Arnav sighed. "I don't smoke all the damn time. Only when--"
"Only when what?"
"When I'm upset," he ground out, massaging his temples. "I haven't had any desire to smoke for months now. And then with the news of your pregnancy, I thought I'd quit. But you can see for yourself how successful I was with that." His laugh was harsh and hollow-sounding.
Khushi took his hand in hers. "I know it's hard to quit, but what's important is that you don't give up. That you keep trying."
Arnav glanced away. "Can we drop this topic already? I've heard enough lectures on smoking, trust me." Khushi said nothing and his gaze shifted to her face again. "Why are you out here still? It's the middle of the Goddamn night. Go and sleep, dammit."
"You think I can?" She stared at him with her heart in her eyes. "I need you with me. But you're set on blaming yourself for what happened tonight. None of it was your fault, baby."
He swore, running a hand through his hair. "Just go. Please. Before I do or say something I'll regret, just go. I want to be alone."
She rose slowly, hating to leave him. Her feet felt frozen. She couldn't walk away from him, she knew. Not like this. When he was so lost...so disillusioned... But how could she reach out to him? He looked utterly unapproachable, the same harsh man who'd once kept all his emotions to himself, who'd never shared his pain and sorrows with anyone.
Her heart answered the question for her. Perhaps he wasn't ready to believe he had no fault in the strange twist of events at Club Indigo. Perhaps he didn't want to hear any more "lectures" as he called it, but she could show him her love, her trust, couldn't she? Her heartbeat quickened even as her hands slowly inched up toward the knot on her robe.
Arnav's eyes swerved in her direction as he heard the faint rustle of the silk robe striking the gleaming tiles. His throat went dry as his gaze settled on his wife, bathed in nothing but moonlight. Her breasts were full and lush, calling out to him and her waist was starting to swell with the twins. His children. His jaw tightened as his gaze traced over the rest of her, desire stirring in his veins as he eyed the junction between her endless-appearing legs. Her beauty and innocence struck him as it always did--straight in the gut like a bodily slam. His body instantly reacted.
Breathing hard, he fought for control. His eyes narrowed on her rosy face. "What the hell are you doing? I told you to sleep."
Khushi pushed him back against the chair and straddled his hips, setting a finger over his mouth. "Hush, love. No more lectures, right?"
He didn't reply. He couldn't--her lips were tugging and sucking on his, her hands pulling out his shirt from the waistband of his jeans.
Arnav tried his best to resist her but as her hand wandered inside his pants, taking him by hand boldly, his eyes shot open, his gaze so heated and intense Khushi felt it pierce her.
His hand rose to fist in her hair, dragging her down for a much more ravenous, all-consuming kiss. His tongue thrust deep, plunging in and out in a maddening manner. Moaning, Khushi began moving on top of him, restless to be joined with him. He watched her with hooded eyes, his mouth hot and possessive even as his hands clamped on her hips, urging her on. One of his hand slid between her legs, clamping hard. Khushi could feel her control spiraling apart and before ecstasy could claim them both, she managed to slip out of his hold, darting backward.
Arnav cursed. "Khushi...Dammit, get back here."
She smirked at him and then, setting her forearms against the brick stones, presented her bare back to him, gazing at him with unconcealed longing as she tilted her hips back. "Come here."
He took his time undressing, seeming to enjoy her provocative position. And then he was there, as warm and ready as ever. With finesse, he stroked a hand down the slim slope of her back, kneading the soft flesh of her buttocks.
"Is this what you want?"
She nodded, straining to be closer to him. Her tongue wet her suddenly dry lips. "I want more. All of you..."
Her husband's eyes gleamed in the darkness. His hands rose to cover her swollen breasts, his fingers lightly pinching the erect tips. His voice in her ear was hoarse and rough-sounding. "More?"
Khushi yelled out as his fingers slid to where her entire being seemed centered, delving deep. "Love! Please!" Her own hand moved to grasp his thickness.
Arnav swore and within the next moment, he had her by the hips, his mouth scorching hot as he bit down on her nape, thrusting deep at the same time.
Khushi heard herself shout, the loud, mewing noises coming out of her throat beyond her control. "Harder," she managed, panting for breath. "Harder, love."
His gaze turned midnight black and latching his palms on her full breasts, he slammed into her, going so deep she cried out.
The sweet torment continued on and on and Khushi could only react, meeting her husband's passion with matching fervor. Mid stroke, he suddenly caught her by the hips and turned her to face him, lifting her in his arms as he did so. She met his kiss eagerly, barely aware he was taking her into the pool until the water was lapping against them from all sides.
"Put your legs around me," he ordered, his voice nothing but a low growl.
Khushi did as he said, angling up for a heady kiss even as he braced himself against the pool tiles, his pace relentless. Khushi felt herself splinter apart, his name on her lips as passion exploded like raging thunder. Her hands clenched on the smooth, taut skin of his back, sliding lower still.
Arnav's gaze remained trained on her face as she shattered in his arms. This vulnerable, beautiful moment was something no one would ever see but him and he cherished it. More than he could ever say.
Khushi clung to her husband's slick shoulders, wet and out of breath. But he was not done, not even close, his body surging in and out of her even now.
"Again," he told her.
Her eyes blinked open, widening as she saw how serious he was. "Again?"
He nodded, raising her breasts out of the pool's cool water and suckling on them as if he was starving for her taste. "You heard me."
Her eyes fluttered close under his ministrations. "But..."
"No buts, Khushi." And then before she could comprehend it, he'd lowered himself on his knees, his head underwater as he grabbed her by the hips, kissing her intimately.
Her shout pierced the night air. Her hands fisted on his gorgeous head of hair, her legs spreading apart as his tongue continued its sweet torture.
"Arnav...please..."
Beads of water flicked all over her as he rose up, his eyes bright and shiny. They reached for each other in the same breath, mouths meeting with untapped urgency even as he filled her again, groaning deep in his throat. This time as passion washed over her, Khushi kept her eyes open, meeting his gaze head-on. He was watching again, observing and feeling every little detail of her response.
"Beautiful," he mumbled as she came apart in his arms.  Only then did he allow himself the same pleasure.
They stood entwined in the pool for a long time afterwards, their bodies still intimately joined. And then Arnav said something completely unexpected.
"I'm sorry."
Khushi had been lazily raining kisses all over his chest, but at that, she felt herself still. Her astonished gaze flew to him. "For what, baby?"
Sighing, he rubbed his thumb over her swollen lips. "For tonight. I shouldn't have behaved with you like that. It was out of line."
Khushi kissed his wandering finger, lavishing her love on it as his eyes darkened all the more. "When will you stop being so hard on yourself? Why can't you see yourself as I see you? As the most amazing, most caring husband, lover, and soon to be father."
His smile was sad and faint. "Listen to you. I told you that I doubted you tonight, and you're telling me how wonderful I am. What have I done to you?" He sounded disgusted with himself.
She coiled her arms around his waist, keeping them pressed skin to skin. "You've made me see how beautiful love is...how brilliant passion is... I had no idea before I met you." She bent her head to kiss his flat, male nipple and he swore, yanking her head up, his eyes wild.
"You must be hurt. I know you must be. I suspected you tonight."
"You didn't," came her quick retort.
"Khushi." He sounded exasperated. "I would know, wouldn't I?"
"Actually you wouldn't. You're always too hard on yourself. Tell me what you were truly thinking the moment you saw that woman in the alley. What was the first thought that crossed your mind?"
He didn't have to think about it, the words tumbled out: "That it was impossible. That my Khushi would never be that way with another man. I knew it wasn't you."
She smiled triumphantly. "See. I knew it. Then why are you blaming yourself for, love?"
"Because the next moment, I thought if it turned out to be true, I couldn't blame you. You deserve someone far better than me. I don't understand how you love me like you do. Your mother is right; you're an angel married to a monster...a man who's horribly flawed and scarred."
"Amma doesn't know you! She made that judgment based on what others said. No one knows you as I do. And I love you, Arnav Singh Raizada. I know better than anyone how incredible you are. I know how much you care, how much you love me and our babies..."
"Still, that doesn't erase the fact that I have a horrific past, a terrible temper, and just those two things would be enough to send most women running away. But you haven't." His eyes settled on her face with a mix of wonder and confusion. "Not even in those initial few weeks when you had every reason to." His grip on her hips tightened. "I never feared anything before I met you, Khushi, but now I do. I'm afraid that one day you're going to realize how right the world is about me. You're going to regret ever falling into my bed...my life... And then, you're going to leave me."
Khushi felt an icy chill wash over her. It pained her that he still harbored these thoughts and worries. "How can you even think that? Don't you see by now how much I love you? Don't you feel my love for you every time you make me yours? I can't breathe, much less live, without you. I'd die without you--"
His mouth caught her lips, stopping her mid-sentence. "Hush, love. Don't. Don't talk about death. Never." He crushed her in his arms. Just the thought of anything happening to her was enough to send him to his knees. It amazed him how much love had changed him. He, who'd never believed in love, who'd sneered at it, was now the first to admit that his life was now firmly tethered to another's. Khushi was his world. Without her, his life would be nothing but suffocating darkness...an endless day with no light...
"I love you so goddamn much."
She shuddered in his arms, hugging him to her.  "Never doubt my love, baby." Their lips met in a fierce kiss, the kind that made it difficult to focus on anything except each other.
"I'll try not to," he mumbled against her mouth. "But it's going to take me time to see myself as you do. To accept that you loving me isn't as impossible as it once seemed."
She smiled, looping her arms around his neck as she rose on her toes for another kiss. "And I'll show you...every moment of every day until you're forced to accept it. My love for you is permanent. It's never going away. You're my world, Arnav."
Her words were such an exact match to his own thoughts about her that he shuddered, kissing her wildly, heatedly. His mouth and hands missed nothing as they stroked over her. This time as he plunged deep within her, the pool's water crashing around them, his mouth caught her cry.
Words weren't necessary. Their love was like a warm blanket, cocooning them, enfolding them in a bond that was palpable.
"I'm never going to let you go," he said as passion washed over her, his thrusts untamed and forceful. "Never! I don't care how selfish it is, I need you."
She gazed up at him, threading her fingers through his damp hair. Her eyes twinkled in the darkness like the stars above. "It's not selfish. It's right. We belong together. We always have."
"We always will," he echoed as the world seemed to splinter apart. He pulled her for another hard, deep kiss, pressing himself to the hilt.
"Arnav!"
"Khushi... my Khushi..." In her arms, he came undone, every vulnerability laid bare and he didn't even mind. Hell, he relished it. It was oddly freeing.
*****
The glow of the morning sun reflected on the shiny windows of Shantivaan, making it appear as if they were glittering. Frowning, Payal pulled down the blinds, rubbing her temples.
She felt absolutely awful. She hadn't slept much, replaying the events at Indigo time and time again. Each time, she felt the same sting of bitter defeat. She'd been so close.
"Good morning, Payal."
Her husband gave her a soft, boyish smile as he came out of the bathroom, his hair wet and a towel wound around his neck. If she didn't know any better, she'd have thought he was almost blushing.
It made her want to roll her eyes. Last night, it had been one of those rare occasions when she'd turned toward him, taking charge in bed. He'd been surprised and more than a little shocked, but he'd seemed to enjoy everything they'd shared.
Payal, on the other hand, regretted that too. She'd only allowed it because she'd needed a distraction. Straddling Akash, she'd closed her eyes, imagining the real ASR beneath her. Arnav Singh Raizada.
But those fantasies were quickly losing their charm. She didn't want to pretend any longer. She wanted the real thing. To feel ASR's warmth, his touch, his hardness...
"Did you sleep well?" Akash asked as he buttoned his shirt, clueless as always.
She nodded stiffly and then noticing his look of confusion, forced herself to smile. "Of course, Akashji. How could I not? I'm just afraid you will think badly of me after how I behaved last night... I just wanted you so much..."
He took her hand in his, shaking his head. "What are you saying? Last night...it was more than I could ever have imagined. Maybe like Bhai and Khushiji, we'll be expecting soon too."
The effort to smile and nod was considerable. Payal didn't want to be reminded of the awards ceremony. Didn't want to recall how proudly Arnav had told them all Khushi was pregnant with twins. His face had shone and his eyes had been full of such love that even her parents who'd doubted his intentions with their beloved daughter from the very start had been charmed. It had been a happily ever after moment like in all those stupid, family-type movies Payal refused to watch.
"I hope so..."
Akash kissed her forehead as he stood. Payal's hand descended to her flat stomach. She imagined it swollen with the Raizada family's heir. Imagined all the wealth and prestige being transferred to her child.
But that too was another fantasy. It was Khushi who was pregnant with twins--not her. Even there, her so-called sister had beaten her. She was younger than her by several years, and yet she'd be a mother first. Payal bit down on her lip. So far, she'd been indifferent to the news of Khushi's pregnancy, but now, she felt nothing but the thickest of hate for not just her sister, but the twins too. She hated them! Hated them just as much as their mother!
The shrill sound of the phone ringing cut into her increasingly darker and darker thoughts.
"Hello?" Akash answered. "Oh, Namaste, Amma... Yes, Payal is here. One minute."
"Good morning, Amma," Payal said into the phone, her voice not quite normal. "What is it?"
Her husband eyed her with confusion again at her brusque tone, but Garima overlooked it. "Bitiya, could you and Akash both come over for lunch today?"
Payal began to decline. She had no wish to step foot into that tiny, crammed, middle-class home in Laxmi Nagar. The only good thing about being married to Akash was being given all the luxuries of Shantivaan.
"I don't think so, Amma. We unfortunately have plans and--"
"But you must be there! Khushi is coming home after so long."
Until then, Payal had forgotten about her parent's request for a lunch with all of them together. "With her husband?"
"Of course! And there's so much work to be done. Can you come early to help me prepare everything? I want to properly welcome her husband this time. As our son-in-law."
"I'll be there soon."
"Bring Akash too."
She had no choice but to agree. Standing up with a smile to her husband, she wandered to the walk-in closet, her voice lowering. "Okay, Amma, but I still think this is a bad idea. Arnavji can't keep our Khushi happy for long."
Garima sighed. "They both love each other and there's nothing else to be said, I think. Her husband has promised us he'll take care of her and so far, he hasn't hurt her. She's very happy, bitiya. I know you love Khushi more than anyone, but you needn't worry so much."
Payal's lips compressed. "I wish I could stop worrying, but like you said, I'm the closest to Khushi. I just want to see her happy always."And preferably dead.
"She is happy being Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada. I've never seen her so happy."
"Really?" Payal said mockingly. "Have you turned on the news today or checked the morning paper?"
"What? No...I've been too busy preparing lunch. We all have been. Has something happened?"
"Turn on the TV," Payal suggested tartly. "You'll see for yourself how wrong that man is for our Khushi."
As the call disconnected, Garima frowned down at it. Her sister-in-law wandered into the kitchen with a large tray of vegetables. "All cut just as you wanted it. I dare you to find one imperfection." But one look at her face, and Buaji immediately grasped her hand. "Garima? Are you all right? You look so pale."
"The news channel..." she whispered, stumbling away.
"Garima?" Buaji followed after her, exchanging a look with her brother on the sofa. He looked just as confused as his wife picked up the remote.
"And the scandalous news of the hour..." the host was saying with a too bright smile. "Business tycoon Arnav Singh Raizada caught in a secret romantic moment. Oops..."
Footage was shown of some club called Indigo. "Indigo is quite popular with the rich and powerful of Delhi," the reporter explained, "But sometimes these very same people forget that with fame comes extra scrutiny. Here's the video in question, showing ASR and his lady in black locked in a passionate embrace--right on the dance floor!"
"Locked in what?" sputtered Buaji. Her voice trailed off as a video of a packed dance floor was shown. The camera suddenly swerved right, zooming on two figures wrapped so tightly in one another's arms, they might as well have been one.
There was no mistaking the man. Arnav's handsome features filled the camera as he grinned, his hands sliding scandalously low over his partner. And then suddenly, he was dipping her, kissing her with such force and intensity, that Garima covered her eyes.
"What is this?"  her husband cried. "Change the channel."
Buaji tried to do just that, but her fingers fumbled and instead of the channel changing, the volume increased. "Now the question is," the host said to a seated panel, "Who is this sexy woman Mr. ASR is kissing so enthusiastically? For a man who announced his marriage just days ago, this seems quite a turnaround, wouldn't you say? Has ASR fallen back into his playboy ways already? And how is Mrs. Raizada reacting to this news of infidelity? Let's turn first to fashion and gossip columnist, Miss--"
Buaji shut the TV off with a punch of one finger. "What is this nonsense?"
Her brother didn't answer, but his wife was muttering to herself. "We thought he was changing, but he hasn't. Not at all. Sarita was right. What are we going to do? He's coming for lunch in just a few hours!" The others didn't know what to say either, their faces drawn as they processed the news.
In Shantivaan, Payal had finally seen the coverage too. Akash had left for another meeting, promising to be back early for the lunch at her parent's house. She was blissfully alone in her bedroom, free to rage at the man she'd called anonymously the previous night.
"I gave you that video so your channel could defame Khushi Raizada! What is this?"
The man sighed impatiently. "We simply paid you for the footage. What we choose to show is none of your concern frankly. Our editors decided that ASR's supposed infidelity would be much spicier news than what you provided. A husband and wife making out on a dance floor is no news, darling. You should be thanking me. I got you a really good deal."
"I don't care about the money!" Payal snapped. "I have more than enough!" Which was entirely true. Despite his failing business, Akash still wasn't careful with his finances. It was the second good thing about being married to him. She didn't even have to try very hard to take money on the sly. The idiot never noticed when money went missing. He blamed it on his failing career, never once looking deeper into it.
"What I wanted was to see Khushi defamed publicly!" Payal cried. "But you've very cleverly not revealed her face. Only ASR is shown on the video."
"Like I said, the footage belongs to us now. We can show whatever we like. Please don't call here again unless you have something new and juicier to sell." The man hung up and Payal cursed. Khushi had gotten lucky again.
But luck had to run out sooner or later. It was only a matter of time...
*****
"Arnav..." Khushi tried to tug her arm out of her husband's grip. "Baby, what is it? I left the stove on and there's so much to do in the kitchen."
"It can wait. You need to see this." He pulled her down on the sofa and turned on the TV. Khushi's mouth fell open as footage of their dance at Indigo was shown.
"Who is this sexy woman Mr. ASR is kissing so enthusiastically?" the voice over asked. "For a man who announced his marriage just days ago, this seems quite a turnaround, wouldn't you say? Has ASR fallen back into his playboy ways already? And how is Mrs. Raizada reacting to this news of infidelity?"
Khushi stared at the TV about ten seconds more then to her husband, who stood rigid, waiting for her reaction, and then dissolved into giggles.
Arnav stared at her in shock. "Khushi?"
"What?" she said, smiling up at him. "You have to admit this is funny, love. You're having an affair with your own wife!"
The corner of his mouth turned up and then he too smiled. "Aren't you at all upset that someone taped us? Because I sure as hell am. I think it was that woman. The same one in the alley."
Khushi sobered at that. "It would make sense. She was watching us all night." A shiver rocked her.
Arnav curled an arm around her waist, setting his chin on the top of her head. He chose his next words carefully. "Khushi...what if the person after us...what if that woman is someone we know?"
She met his gaze with confusion. "What do you mean?"
His expression was grim. "Do you remember what the police told us? The man who took our photos in New York, right before he died, he mentioned the word Sister.' What if it's someone like that? Someone close to us?"
His wife looked startled. "From our family? Baby, that's impossible! They love us too much to ever hurt us that way. It can't be. It just can't..."
Arnav said nothing, holding onto her. He'd known it would be next to impossible for Khushi to suspect her own family. For someone as good and genuine as her, imagining such a betrayal would be quite the stretch.
But he was different. He'd lived a much darker childhood and life. He wished he could tell her his suspicions, but it would only upset her. Besides, he had nothing to go on, just a strange hunch in his gut. That Payal Gupta Raizada was not what she appeared. He couldn't shake the feeling. Maybe he was wrong, but the thought would not leave him be.
"Do you really think it could be someone we know?" Khushi's voice was soft and weary, her face lined with tension under the glow of pregnancy.
He kissed her forehead. "I don't know. I hope it's not, but I'll find out whoever it is. Don't worry, love, I will keep your and our children protected."
"I know you will." She pecked him on the lips and then jerked away, eyes wide. "The stove! My potatoes!"
He shook his head as he watched her dart out of the room. "Khushi, be careful! You're pregnant, dammit!"
"The potatoes are fine," came her voice a few seconds later. "And I am too. Don't worry."
Don't worry... How could he not? Someone had acted with malicious intent against them last night, doing their best to create a misunderstanding. And by the TV coverage today, the person still hadn't stopped his or her attack.
Telling his wife he'd be right down for breakfast, Arnav took the stairs to their bedroom. His wife's purse was easy to find. It was on the dresser, the zipper half undone. He dug into it, his fingers searching. As they closed around a small rectangle, he froze for a second before drawing it out. The business card was just as he vaguely recalled from that day months ago...
"Mrs. Raizada! Wait!"
The junior officer jogged to them, holding out a business card. "I know you've made up your mind, but if you ever reconsider your decision, please get in touch. And never let your guard down. Because the reality is, you are in danger. By someone very close to you."
"I think my wife has heard enough," Arnav had said back then, both his tone and gaze as cold as ice. "Khushi, get in the car."
Even as the memory flashed past his eyes, Arnav was dialing the number listed on the card.
The officer picked up on the second ring. "Hello, Inspector Khan here."
"This is Arnav Singh Raizada. I hope you remember me."
The man paused for a moment before speaking. "Of course, sir. I hope you and your wife are well."
"We are, but I'm beginning to realize that you might have been right all those months ago when you said the danger was from someone close to us...our own families."
The officer nodded. "Our suspicion went to your sister, Anjali Raizada."
"That's where I disagree with you. I can see why any outsider would suspect her first, but no one knows my sister as I do. She's...damaged by our past." Just like me he almost added. "She craves love and she'll do anything to get it, but she's not conniving enough or too careful. The person who's after my wife is very smart. He or she has thought out each plan in detail."
"You suspect someone," said Officer Khan. It was a statement, not a question.
"Something like that. I already have a team of private investigators and bodyguards that watches my wife every time she steps out of the house without me. I've told them to stay a strict distance away. I don't want Khushi to know about this. She wouldn't see the need for protection, though I think she's beginning too. Still, I don't want any added stress on her, especially in her state."
"What do you need me to do?"
Arnav gripped the phone to his ear. "I want you to work with the team I've hired. To lead them. And I want you to investigate something else for me--something no one else must know about."
The officer nodded, jotting down information. "And what is that, Mr. Raizada?"
Arnav's eyes glinted like flames. "I want you to monitor Payal Gupta Raizada. I want to know everything about her. If she does anything strange, I want to be the first to know."
"Payal...your wife's sister, correct?"
"Yes. It shouldn't be too hard to track her and I'll pay you well. But no one must know about this. It stays between us."
"Not even your wife?"
"For now, yes. Until we find something on Payal, I don't want my wife to know anything about this. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good, my assistant, Aman Mehra, will be in touch with you soon." As the call cut, Arnav closed his eyes.
"Baby?"
He jerked at his wife's voice and as she padded over to him, a frown marring her forehead, he forced himself to relax.
"What are you doing up here?" Khushi asked. "I've been calling your name forever. Breakfast is ready."
To tell her what--or rather whom--he was suspecting was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't. Khushi would never suspect her own sister without reason he knew. He had to find out who was after them--and fast. Guilt weighed on his shoulders as he stared at his wife's angelic face. She had no idea the secrets he was keeping from her. That he was actively investigating her own sister!
"Baby?" she murmured, trying to read his eyes.
He fought to forget about the lies and the darkness, focusing solely on her and their love. Without a word, he swung her up in his arms, kissing her hotly.
She made a squeak of surprise, her hands fisting on his shirt. "What was that for?"
He smirked at her. "Since when do I need a reason to kiss you, Mrs. Raizada?"
She smiled, cupping his bristly cheeks. "Never." Their mouths met again, soft and urgent.
As her back connected with the bed, Khushi's eyes widened. "Arnav! But what about breakfast?"
He was unbuckling his belt. "It can wait. I'm not hungry..." His eyes traced over her upturned face, her tumbled hair. "Not for food at least."
"You're insatiable," she laughed as he settled on top of her, burying his head in the hollow between her neck and shoulder.
"For you, yes. Don't forget we have to go to your parent's house in a few hours. I'm not going to get a change to love you till late tonight probably."
"Poor baby. You're not even going to get a kiss until then."
He raised himself up on his elbows, staring down at her with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Who says I won't get a kiss? I'll get that there for sure."
She was so startled by his words that she didn't even notice him whip her clothes over her head till they were already gone. "What? Baby, you can't be serious! Not at my parent's house!"
He rolled her nipples between his thumb and forefinger. Her body reacted at once, her breasts swelling and blazing heat washing over her, making her writhe and ache.
"So? I won't kiss you in front of them if you don't want me to, but I will get my kiss. That's a promise."
She fixed her fiery glare on him. "You can't! What will everyone think if they found out?"
Arnav shrugged, rolling her on top of him so her thighs slipped to either side of his waist. "I don't care what anyone thinks and neither should you. You will kiss me there, end of discussion." He yanked her down for a heady kiss.
"Arnav!" she moaned, her face flushing. "Please, be serious. We can't kiss there."
"We've made love there before," he reminded. "You weren't complaining that night I snuck into your room. Remember?"
A blush stained Khushi's cheeks. "That was different. We were missing each other so badly and I couldn't keep away from you. But this time, we're together. There's no reason to...you know what there."
He smiled at her innocence. "Argue with me all you want, but you know I always get my way. I will get my kiss."
Her mouth opened--likely to argue--and he hushed her with a glance. "Say another word and I'll make it far more than a kiss."
Khushi's eyes sparked with fire at his arrogant tone. "I don't know whether to hit you or kiss you."
"Mmm," His mouth latched onto her breasts, his hand slipping between her legs. "You know which one I'd prefer, don't you, wife?"
The movements of his hands and mouth were having the desired effect as always. She was powerless as he played her like a fine instrument. Shaking her head at his wicked streak, Khushi moved against him, making him moan aloud.
"I prefer this, Mr. ASR."
His eyes sizzled as he watched her take him deep within her. "Me too," he murmured, his hips arching off the bed. And then words no longer seemed to matter, theirs hands lacing together as they took turns teasing one another.
A few hours later, the bed had been remade and their clothes were back in order. Dressed in a simple pink salwar kameez, her hair left loose, Khushi slipped on the emerald studs Arnav had given her on Valentine's day.
"You are so damn beautiful." Her husband's gruff voice made her shiver. He came up behind her, staring at her reflection with such intensity it was as if he was memorizing her every feature.
Khushi's eyes were drawn to him. In a charcoal-gray suit, a crisp blue shirt peeked out from underneath and a tie he'd for once let her select, he took her breath away.
"So are you." She bit her tongue as his eyes swerved to hers with twinkling mischief. "I mean handsome."
His arms curled about her waist, his mouth pressing against the side of her neck. "I have to look good today. Not only do I have to impress the in-laws, I have to seduce my own wife for a kiss."
"Is that what you have in mind? Seduction?"
"All the time. What did you think?"
She grinned at him. "Lunch maybe?"
He sighed, but there was a distinct playfulness in his gaze. "You and food. I swear sometimes I wonder if you love me or jalebis more."
She laughed as she spun to face him. "You, of course but jalebis are a close second. They make me moan and drool just by thinking about them." She licked her lips as she imagined the sugary goodness. Her pregnancy had only increased the craving.
Arnav's eyes narrowed on her face. "I make you moan too. Actually I make you scream and shout and scratch my back in about a hundred places as well."
"Arnav!"
"What? You know it's true. Who was it yelling earlier today: More, baby. More! I love you so much...Yes!'"
Khushi whacked his chest as he did a terrible imitation of her, but she was still smiling as they made their way downstairs arm in arm, locking the main door behind them.
"I wonder what Amma made," she murmured as the ivory jeep turned onto a busy intersection. "I hope there are jalebis."
He frowned at the mention of his nemesis and Khushi laughed again, squeezing his free hand. "Stop being so grumpy."
"I'm not being grumpy."  At the pointed look she aimed his way, he sighed. "Okay, I might be. But you're not the one who has to suffer through lunch with people who don't particularly like you, and think you're totally wrong for their angel-like daughter."
"My parents will love you. Don't worry."
"Again, easy for you to say. I doubt they'll ever love me, but I thought at least after today, they might accept me. But after that video made headlines, I'm sure they must think the worst of me."
Khushi's hands flew to her mouth. "I forgot about that. Oh no..." She tried not to smile, but the laughter bubbled inside of her.
"Khushi! This is not funny!"
"It sort of is. You've tackled so many problems, so many difficult situations at work, but nothing like this. How will you ever explain to my parents that the woman in the video, making out with you just as passionately, is their own daughter?" She giggled. "Poor ASR, what a dilemma!"
His mouth pursed at her. "I'll handle it."
"How though?"
"You'll see."
"True...we're almost there. It's the next light."
"I know, baby. The last time we were here, remember the fight? You left everyone behind for me and that stupid Karan was following after you till the gate, trying to convince you to marry him instead even though you were already a married woman. My wife!" Arnav cursed under his breath.
Khushi tightened her grip on his hand. "Karan won't be there today."
"He better not be. I'm not responsible for what happens if he tries his same old tricks again. How anyone expects me not to react when some other man is making puppy dog eyes at you is beyond me. That man is seriously infatuated with you."
"Can we stop discussing him? He was nice when we were younger, but he's become as good as a stranger now. I don't even recognize him. He's so bitter."
"And damn annoying." Arnav's eyes shifted briefly off the road ahead to her. "But you know...I'm a bit envious of him."
"What?" Khushi turned to stare at him with disbelieving eyes. "Whatever for? You have no reason in the universe to be jealous of that jerk!"
Her indignation and the love for him in her eyes made Arnav smile. "I know, but I am. You've known him since childhood. You must have shared so many moments with him, moments I can only dream about. I wished I'd met you when we were younger. That it had been us who'd shared a childhood--not you and him."
Khushi was thoughtful as she considered meeting him at that age. "Were you like this as a child too? Brooding and mysterious?"
He considered her with a wry grin. "Is that how you see me? I was different than other kids my age. There was so much pent-up inside of me. So much turmoil and resentment. I hated seeing my parents fight. Hated seeing my mother bruised and tearful all the time. I was envious of those who had seemingly perfect families, parents who smiled when they looked at one another. Even as a kid, I hated the world. Hated how unfair and cold it was."
"And I never knew that side," whispered Khushi. "My parents' accident brought my childhood to a halt, but I had Buaji, Amma, Babuji and Jiji of course. I told myself that my parents would be upset seeing me so unhappy and somehow, I learned to smile again. To chase away the darkness with light."
His grip on her hand strengthened. "We both went through things no child should have to face, but we tackled them so differently. You embraced love and hope, and I shut everything out that threatened to hurt me. I retreated from everyone...until I met you."
Khushi raised his hand to her lips. "I wish I'd met you sooner. I wish I could have been there for you right from childhood."
"Me too..." His mouth turned up in the corner. "We would have fought non-stop, I bet."
"You would have probably started it," she said with a soft smile.
Arnav didn't deny it. "Probably. You're extra hot when you're angry with me."
"Is that why you insist on arguing with me all the time? Like on what dress to wear and other silly things?"
His lips corked up as he nodded. "Yeah, it's always fun to rile you up. And then there's always the intense makeup sex, don't forget."
As if she could. Her face warmed as she recalled the ferocity with which they'd made love in the pool last night and all throughout the night. Erotic images of fused mouths and entwined limbs swarmed her mind and she groaned inwardly. She was seeing her parents in just a few minutes for crying out loud. She should not be thinking about how much she wanted to fall into husband's embrace all over again.
"We're here. Lunch with the Guptas." His voice lacked any enthusiasm and Khushi found herself struggling to be her usual cheerful self. Truth was, she wanted to be alone with her husband. Especially after all that had happened last night. The lunch couldn't have planned at a worse time, she thought.
"Ready?" He opened the door for her, holding out his hand.
Her palm slid across his, their fingers weaving together. As they walked to the door, Khushi leaned her head against his shoulder. "Arnav?"
"Hmm?" His free hand adjusted his tie and then rose to smooth his hair back. Khushi found those small signs of nervousness heart-warming.
"We might not have shared a childhood, but we will share the rest of our lives with each other. And don't forget we'll see our babies' childhood very soon." Her hand settled on her abdomen and his hand covered hers.
"And that I wouldn't change for the world." He bent his head to kiss her, and Khushi ducked, gazing about with wide eyes. She completely missed the woman watching them from the balcony above, her face twisted with spite.
Payal's hands tightened on the railing as she watched Arnav and Khushi. They looked so damn happy! So in love! It should have been you, her mind whispered. You deserve this, not her.
"Baby!" Khushi's glossy hair rippled and shone in the sunlight as she tried to dodge her husband. "I told you, not here."
His smirk made her entire body tingle. "Fine, not here, but very soon, I will kiss you. Don't think I've forgotten."
Khushi was still trying to talk him out of his dare as she stepped up on the porch. She wanted to tell him that there was no need for him to seduce her, he'd already succeeded long ago, but there was no time. Because before they could even knock, the door swung open and Buaji smiled at them--well mostly her. Garima was at her heels, wiping her hands on an apron.
"Khushi! Bitiya, come in." The wide smile on her mother's face dimmed as her eyes moved to Arnav. She immediately glanced away.
"The video," Arnav whispered in his wife's ear.
She squeezed his hand. "I'll tell them it was me."
"No, don't. It's not a big deal. I'll just ignore it."
Khushi nibbled on her lips as she watched him sit down on the sofa. Her father shook his hand, but there was no joy on his face as he did so. It appeared as if he was being forced to. Khushi's gaze remained fastened on her husband as tea and snacks were served. Her mother and aunt filled her plate with samosas and jalebies, forcing her to eat and going on and on about the twins and pregnancy. Neither seemed to care that Arnav had not yet even been offered a plate.
Khushi declined the snacks too, her appetite nonexistent. Maybe her husband could overlook being treated in such a way, but she could not. It throbbed her insides to see anyone behave so coldly with him. Her lips parted to tell her family the truth, but Arnav shook his head.
"It's fine," he mouthed. Their eyes clashed and fought and she was on the cusp of admitting everything when Akash and Payal came down the stairs.
"Bhai! It's so good to see you again."
Arnav rose to greet his cousin, clasping him for a moment. His eyes shifted to the thin woman behind him. Payal smiled timidly, her glance flickering over him and then to the floor.
"Hello, Arnavji. It's nice to see you and Khushi here again."
He didn't reply, wondering again if his gut instinct was correct. Could there be another face to this meek-appearing woman? Something she kept hidden? He tried to remain objective as he watched her embrace his wife. He didn't sense any malicious intent but as he'd learned as a child, not everyone was how he'd appeared. His father had been so kind and wonderful in front of others, but behind closed doors, he'd been cruel and violent.
"Some tea, dear?" Khushi's mother offered Akash, ignoring him again.
Khushi looked downright outraged and Arnav crossed to her, taking the empty corner seat beside her. His hand took hold of hers. She was so angry that she allowed him to do that in front of her family, not once pulling away.
"Amma, you haven't asked Arnav yet."
Her mother looked at a loss, and he jumped to intervene. "It's okay, Mrs. Gupta. I don't drink that much tea. I'll just share a cup with Khushi." Even as he said so, he took the cup in his wife's hand, tipping it back for a tentative sip. It burned his mouth, not that he minded. This lunch was already turning out to be a disaster. He should have known.
Arnav felt like leaving, but it was his wife's presence that stopped him. This lunch might not matter to him, but he knew it did to her. For her sake, he could get through anything, and this was just one damn lunch.
It made him smile as he noted how furious Khushi seemed by the way her parents and aunt were talking only to Akash and not to him. Like she was a tigress standing up for her mate.
"How was business, son?" her father asked his cousin.
Akash sighed. "It's difficult, but things hopefully will turn around soon." His smile was rueful as he gazed at his older cousin. "I guess not everyone has your touch, Bhai, when it comes to business."
"I've told you to rejoin AR. The offer is always open."
"I know, and I appreciate that, but I want to make my own way in the world. And I still think I can."
"I'm a call away," Arnav said, accepting the teacup back from Khushi. Their fingers brushed and he smiled at her. "Thanks, love."
She smiled, leaning against him as she talked with Akash, Payal and the rest of the family. Arnav kept a hold of her hand, not caring a damn what the others thought of that. His gaze was drawn time and time again to Khushi's face. She was so beautiful when she smiled and the sound of her laugh was something he could never get enough of. As she pressed against him to take the cup back, he swore he felt himself harden. Great, he was sitting surrounded by her whole damn family, and all he could think about was how to get his wife alone and preferably naked.
Khushi, meanwhile, seemed not to realize what effect she was having on him. As her lips connected to the cup, just where his had been, desire stirred in his veins.
"Don't you agree, Bhai?"
"Huh?" His gaze was unfocused as it slid to his cousin. "With what?" Honestly, he had no idea what they'd all been discussing. He'd been so focused on her.
"About how beautiful the Gupta girls are," Akash explained in a whine-like tone.
"Oh..." His eyes swung to Khushi, deliberately ignoring the Guptas' other daughter. "Well I've always said, Khushi is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. No one comes close to her."
She laughed, curling her arm through his. "Oh please! You're just biased where I'm concerned."
"I don't think so," he said with all seriousness. "You don't realize how damn attractive you are, and that makes you all the more beautiful."
Khushi grinned up at him, waiting till the others were busy in yet another conversation before leaning up to whisper in his ear: "Are you okay? We can leave early if you want."
He squeezed her thigh. "Relax. I'm fine." And it was the truth. Being ignored by her family was nothing compared to the stuff he'd faced in the past. He could do this.
Payal had had enough of Arnav and Khushi's secret murmurings in one another's ears and constant focus on solely each other. "Khushi," she said a bit too loudly, drawing every eye in the room on her. "Could you help me and Amma in the kitchen? We wanted to make that dessert we all love. The one we always make together..."
Khushi hesitated, hating to leave her husband's side. Arnav hated it too--for more reason than one. But he told himself he was being ridiculous. The kitchen was just steps away and Khushi would be safe with her mother around. Still, as she left with the others, he switched seats so he could see into the kitchen. His wife smiled at him, secretly blowing him a kiss. He winked at her and her smile widened.
Akash, Buaji, and Khushi's father were discussing the rising vegetable prices in Laxmi Nagar. Arnav couldn't have added anything to the conversation even if they were including him. He had no idea about onions or potatoes except that his Khushi loved potatoes. He smiled as he thought about her. Where was she? Why was it taking so long for three people to make one damn dessert? Didn't she know how bored out of his mind he was without her?
Sighing, he flipped through the photos on his phone.
99% were of his wife. Many included the two of them, but most were of her. Khushi sleeping with her arms and legs thrown across him, looking insanely young and so beautiful, his need for her intensified to the point of painful. Crossing his leg, he moved through the next couple of photos. They showed Khushi with dustings of flour coating her hair and cheeks as she cooked his favorite pasta, her eyes tired but smiling. He paused at the one with Khushi modeling for him in a too tight, hot red dress that looked as if it had been painted on her body. Despite their very frequent and rather explosive intimacy, she'd been embarrassed, tugging on the tiny straps, while he'd battled with desire and lost, crushing her mouth with his.
The next few showed her around the house. Smiling, posing in his shirts, leaning up to kiss him as he raised the camera high. His favorite was the one he'd taken a few weeks ago as she'd chased after him through the house. All he'd done was tell her she'd been eating too many jalebis lately. She'd--of course--been outraged.
"Are you saying I'm getting fat?" she'd quipped, poking a finger into his chest. "Because let me tell you, Mr. Raizada, if I'm in this crazy, binging state, it's all your doing! I'm pregnant, thanks to you!"
"Oh, so you had nothing to do with it?" He'd smiled into her eyes, enjoying the blush that had tinged her cheeks. "From what I recall, you were very happy as I made you mine...again and again..."
"Okay, fine, yes, I enjoyed all of that. Very much. But still, you can't call me fat."
"When did I?"
"Indirectly, just now."
He rolled his eyes. "I think the hormones are making you extra sensitive, babe. And for the record, if you did get fat--which I have a hard time imagining--I think you'd look cute."
"Cute? What wife wants to look cute for her husband? I want to be sexy." Tears had suddenly filled her eyes, bewildering both of them. "But now I'm not going to be sexy! Within a few months, I'm going to be huge!" she wailed.
Arnav had laughed, he couldn't help it, she looked so adorable--not that he'd tell her that. Adorable, he guessed, was probably just as good as cute in her eyes.
He'd kissed her tears away, smoothing her hair back. "You'll still be sexy, baby. A very sexy watermelon," he murmured, laughing as he pinched her bottom.
Her mouth had dropped open and with an oath, she'd chased after him, throwing pillows his way.
Her kisses...her hugs...her laughs... the pictures captured it all, but he wanted more. Where the hell was she?
Almost as soon as he'd voiced that thought, something heavy fell on his lap. Khushi smiled at him. "You wanted to see me as a child, didn't you? It's our old album."
Akash sat down beside him and Arnav glared at him. Did he not know whose spot that was? His cousin was truly clueless sometimes.
"Are there pictures of Payal too?"
"Of course. I wish I could show you, but--" She glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen. "--we're still not done with dessert. Buaji, can you help them?"
"Of course, bititya."
Khushi smiled, leaning down to clasp her husband's hand. "I'll be back soon. We're almost done."
He said one word: "Hurry."
She pecked his cheek as she stood, scurrying off. Buaji hadn't missed the kiss, though she'd pretended to. It made her frown to see her dear niece so lovingly care for and dote on a man who clearly did not deserve it. He was all wrong for her Sanka Devi. But her hands were tied. Until Khushi saw Arnav Singh Raizada for the womanizer he was, they would all have to tolerate him. Sighing, she flipped open the album to the first picture. It showed a group of girls and boys in a dusty playground. They couldn't have been more than five or six years old.
"This, Akash dear, is Payal. The one making the sandcastle. See how proper and pretty she was, even at that age?"
Akash smiled. "And Khushiji?"
Before Buaji could show which child was Khushi, Arnav pointed to a smiling girl on the swings, her hair floating behind her in twin braids. "This one."
Buaji found herself feeling oddly impressed. "How did you know?" she asked. "Has Sanka Devi shown you this photo before?"
Arnav shook his head, taking out his phone to zoom on the picture of a much younger Khushi. "I just know. It's hard to explain." It was mostly her features, especially the eyes. They sparkled back then just as they did now, revealing every shifting emotion.
"Hmm, well can you guess who this is?"
Arnav frowned at the young boy on the adjacent swing beside Khushi. His head was turned toward her so only his side profile was visible.
"This is Karan," Buaji said with a toothy smile. "He and Khushi were inseparable as children. See, just look at all these pictures. We had to pry the two of them apart every day. I always thought they'd marry, but..." Her voice trailed off as her eyes flickered briefly to Arnav. "Well, no one can guess what the future might bring."
Arnav did his best to ignore her. What did it matter if Khushi had been so close to that blasted Karan once upon a time? Fact was, she washis wife now. The mother of his children. Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada. And she loved him, dammit--only him!
Still, even as he tried to ignore the annoying face that seemed to pop up with Khushi in nearly every picture and focus solely on his wife, by the time they reached the last page, he'd be lying if he said he wasn't feeling ill-tempered and more than a little moody. It had been those last pictures, those of the two of them during high school that had pulled at his control the most.
Because as much as he did not want to admit it, it did appear in some of those photos that Khushi had once harbored a crush for that idiot. In quite a few pictures, her admiring gaze had been focused exclusively on Karan.
"Lunch is ready," came Garima's voice.
Khushi smiled as she came to his side, taking him by hand to the dining table. He let her, but he couldn't smile back. She must have sensed his turbulent emotions because her brow puckered.
"Are you okay, love?"
He stiffly nodded, sitting beside her. The table was filled with food, so much so it seemed to groan under all the weight.
"All your favorites, bitiya," Garima told Khushi, leaning forward to pat her cheek. "Now, have the first bite. And you better finish this whole plate."
Khushi groaned as she glanced at her laden plate. "Amma, please. I can't eat all this. It's enough for four people at least."
"Since when do you refuse your favorite potatoes? And don't forget that you're eating not just for you, but for two angels too. Now, open your mouth."
Payal made a face as she watched her mother feed Khushi a bite. She felt Arnav's narrowed gaze settle on her and she instantly smiled, joining the others. Arnav's eyes eventually slid away and Payal sighed with relief. That had been close. But another question rose to her mind. Did ASR suspect her? She shook her head dismissively. No one could suspect her. It was impossible.
"Khushi, you're not eating nearly enough," complained Buaji, clucking her tongue with disapproval. "Here, have some more rice."
Khushi wanted to tell them that it was not just her they needed to be concerned about. Arnav had barely eaten three bites, his body hard and rigid beside hers. She tried to reach for his hand, but he shifted it aside, picking up the glass of water instead.
Khushi frowned as she studied him. What was bothering him? Because something definitely was. The next moment, she felt like kicking herself for even wondering. He had good reason to be upset. Her family had been treating him horribly from the moment they'd arrived. Of course, that would upset him. Who wouldn't be affected by such rudeness?
"The woman in the video was me," she declared out of the blue.
Everyone had been busy discussing the food, but at that, they all seemed to freeze, their eyes rounding. Arnav stiffened beside her, his gaze whipping to hers. She squeezed his thigh, her eyes on her family.
"Bitiya, what are you saying?" Garima was convinced she must have heard her wrong. There was no way--
"That it was me in the black dress," Khushi said again. "I was dancing with Arnav and someone decided to record us. We had no idea it would be blown into such a big spectacle."
"That...that was you?" Garima struggled with the words..
Khushi tightened her grip on her husband's wrist, needing to touch him. "Yes, Amma. And I don't think I did anything wrong. Arnav and I are married."
"Yes, but to publicly..." Her aunt shook her head. "We've taught you better than that."
"I don't regret it, Buaji. And neither am I ashamed of it. It was a private moment. Like I said, we didn't know we were being filmed. If anyone should be ashamed, it should be that sick person with nothing better to do than tape a husband and wife."
Payal's hands fisted under the table, her nails biting into her palms.
Arnav suddenly stood. "Khushi. I need to speak to you. Alone."
"Now?" She blinked up at him.
"Yes, now." Gripping her elbow, he pulled her up, taking her to her old bedroom. It had become a storeroom, Khushi realized as he drew her in. Boxes and dusty furniture littered the space. Her focus though was solely on her husband. "Baby, what is it?"
He locked the door and then pressed her against it, covering her with his length. "I told you not to tell them. There was no need for you to explain. Why did you, dammit?"
"Because you were upset," she said simply. "And I couldn't see them treating you like that a moment longer."
His stance relaxed slightly at her words. "I wasn't upset by that."
Khushi didn't know what she'd been expecting him to say, but certainly not that! "You weren't?" He shook his head and her confusion mounted. "Then what?"
Arnav sighed, his breath washing over her face as he set his forehead against hers. "Those pictures of you and that irritating Karan. I didn't mind the childhood ones, but when you were teenagers, I swear you looked as if you cared for that b******. Did you?" His eyes rose to her face. "Did you have a crush on him? You can tell me the truth. I won't be upset. I just want to know."
"Why?"
His hand slammed into the door behind her. "I just do! Now will you answer me or not?"
Khushi frowned at him. "You know how I feel about Karan."
"Yeah, you hate him now, but I'm asking about the past. Did you ever have feelings for him?"
Khushi crossed her arms over her chest. "I cared about him as a friend. That's it."
"Really?" His eyes narrowed on her face. "Because Buaji said you even went to prom with him."
"Prom? My school didn't even have one! It was his school and he begged me to come along."
"So he's never kissed you?"
Khushi's mouth thinned. "The only man I've ever been intimate with is you and you know that." She started to turn away but Arnav caught her hand, whirling her back into his arms. Her fiery gaze clashed with his.
"I'm not questioning that, Khushi. I'm asking who was your first kiss. Was it him?"
"Why do you want to know this so badly?" she cried. "It all happened years ago."
"Because it concerns you, dammit. You know everything about me. I've never hid anything from you about my past, have I?"
"Yes, I know about Nicole James and all those other supermodels and actresses. How do you think I feel about that? I've never asked you for details, have I?"
"No and neither am I. I just want to know who was your first kiss. Why aren't you answering me, dammit?" His eyes gleamed even as something tight and painful knotted in his gut. What the hell was she hiding? It wasn't like her to keep something from him. Tension coiled his every muscle. "Answer me!"
"Keep your voice down, Raizada! My family--"
"I don't care about them! Answer my goddamn question first!"
"I don't think so." She pulled out of his embrace. "I'll discuss this with you when you're being reasonable and not crazy with jealousy."
"I'm being perfectly reasonable, dammit! It's you who's not answering one simple question. I just want a name. Why can't you tell me? Who was your first kiss, Khushi? WHO?"
"YOU!" she shouted, shoving him backwards, her hair tumbling around her in disarray. "Happy, now?" Crossing to the door, she struggled with the lock, tears blurring her vision. She flailed in his embrace as his arms rose to draw her back. "Let me go!"
"Hush. Hush, baby," he murmured the words again and again, rubbing her arms. "I'm sorry I upset you. It's just that when Buaji kept telling me about how you and Karan belonged together, how perfect you two were, it annoyed the hell out of me. And then when I saw that prom pic, I drove myself crazy wondering if you'd both kissed that night. You looked so beautiful in that pink tulle dress and I wanted that man nowhere near you. Least of all kissing you. You could have said any name in the world--any name at all--and it wouldn't have hurt as much. But not his name. I've hated him since the moment I saw him."
"I know you hate him. I can't stand him either anymore. But in those days, he was my friend. Only my friend."
"I know, love. I know." He twisted her around and seeing the sheen of tears in her eyes, pulled her into his arms. "Hell, baby. I'm sorry. I overreacted. But I couldn't help it. Where you're concerned, I lose control. Easily."
She inhaled, staring up at him. "You're the first and only man I've ever kissed."
He looked more than a little amazed. "But how is that possible? You're so damn beautiful. Don't tell me no man before me didn't notice that. It's impossible."
She shrugged. "Some admired me, but I never cared about them. It never felt right. But the night you kissed me...it felt like the most natural thing in the world."
Sliding his hands into her hair, he drew her close. "That kiss felt like my first. You were crying and I was upset, we were both drenched to our skin from the rain, but as soon as our lips met, everything seemed to fade. I'd never felt passion that way before."
"Me either..." She wiped her tears as she considered him, her lips curving slightly.  "Now are you done being jealous of someone who's never even mattered to me? Can we go and finish eating now?"
"Not yet."
"Arnav..." she groaned. "What now?"
He draped his body over hers, drawing her backward so her back met the hardness of the wall. Pining her hands above her head, he grinned. "I haven't seduced you yet. And judging by how angry you're with me, it's going to take a long time for me to win you over this time."
"Baby, please! Everyone else must be wondering what we're doing in here."
"Let them wonder. I don't give a damn and neither should you."
"But--"
He swallowed her protests with his mouth, his tongue thrusting deep. Khushi tried to resist, but he was persistent, angling her head for more access and knowing just how to unravel her. She started to respond, but he pulled back abruptly, his lips moist from their kiss.
"Arnav..." Her voice was pleading and slurred with desire.
But her husband would not be deterred. "That night when I first kissed you, I had no idea it was your first kiss. It would have been different if I'd known." His eyes traced over her face. "I want to give you that kiss now. Your first kiss...our first kiss..."
Khushi felt her pulse escalate at the look in his eyes. "Baby..."
"Hush," he murmured, pressing his lips to her forehead. "Let me cherish you this time. Make it special for you..."
"It was special that time though. It was the most magical moment of my life."
He grinned down at her. "Mine too. But it was the kiss of a man who was afraid to love, to open his heart to you. But now, things have changed. We've both changed. We love each other."
She smiled back at him. "Insanely."
"Insanely." He pecked the tip of her nose. "Let me kiss you, Khushi. Like it's our first time."
She stared into the dark depths of his eyes and slowly nodded. He smiled, raising her hands to his mouth. At his touch, her eyes threatened to close but she couldn't look away from him, her breath uneven as his hands cupped her cheeks, tilting her upward.
His lips brushed over hers, soft and feather-light and then the pressure increased. His mouth molded to hers, his lips coaxing her to surrender. As she exhaled, his tongue probed deep, tasting her. Feasting on her. Khushi's hands fisted on his shirt as their mouths and tongues entwined. It felt just as it had been that night long ago...as if she belonged nowhere else except here, in this most unlikely man's arms. She gasped as his hands slid down her bottom, his pelvis arching against her in a tantalizing manner. The feel of his mounting desire made her moan and she found herself rubbing against that hardness, fighting to be closer still.
"I love you, Khushi," he murmured against her mouth. "Love you so damn much."
She embraced him as if she'd never get enough. "And I love you, baby." Their mouths met again, the sense of urgency palpable, almost volatile. His hand slipped under her neckline, seizing her breast.
There was suddenly a knock at the door, followed by a cough. "Khushi," came Payal's soft voice. "Amma is calling you and Arnavji."
Khushi froze, her eyes flying to her husband. He was glowering at the door, his hold on her unyielding. Slipping out of his arms, she set her trembling fingers against her lips.
"We'll be right there, Jiji."
"Hurry," said her sister, her footsteps fading.
Khushi ran her fingers through her hair. "For a moment, I forgot where we were. I can't believe we've kept everyone waiting for so long."
Arnav hadn't yet stopped frowning. "She chose a brilliant moment to interrupt us, don't you think?"
It took Khushi a second to realize whom he was so mad at. "Arnav! Baby, stop being so grumpy. Jiji was probably horribly embarrassed to have to disturb us. I just hope she didn't hear anything." He didn't reply, his gaze hooded and Khushi turned him her way. "Well, do I look okay?"
He gazed at her tousled hair, the slightly askew clothes and swollen lips. "You look as if you've just been kissed," he said with a small, satisfied, and very male grin. "Very thoroughly in fact."
"It's all your doing!" With a toss of her hair, she started to head to the door, but Arnav's voice stopped her in her tracks.
"You might want to cover up that hickey on your neck. Dead giveaway, you know."
Her hand flew to the side of her neck. "Hickey?"
"Yeah." He stalked toward her, his lips half-curved. "From this morning. I noticed it when I was kissing you. It's sexy, don't you think?"
"We're at my parent's house," she reminded. "For lunch. We shouldn't even be having this discussion here."
"Why not? We've been making out crazily for the last ten minutes, I don't think talking about a hickey is more scandalous than that."
She narrowed her eyes at him as she opened the door. "You got your kiss, Mr. Raizada and much more than that too. No more till we get home."
 "One last one." Striding toward her, he kissed her quickly, but firmly. It left her breathless. Trying to appear as if she'd not been making out like mad with her husband, Khushi followed after him, clutching his hand. He paused at the threshold and she looked at him with a brow raised.
"Why didn't you want to tell me I was your first kiss?"
Khushi bit back a smile. "Mostly because I found it a bit embarrassing and also because I was secretly enjoying your...umm very jealous behavior. I always do. It's really hot in a strange sort of way. A huge turn on."
His hand squeezed her bottom, not caring that her family was just steps away. "Is that right?"
She nodded, her eyes falling to his mouth. He hissed. "Hell. Can we leave already? I'm not hungry."
"After dessert," she cajoled. "Please." Groaning, he let her lead him back to her family, wondering how much longer he had to suffer. He wanted his wife. So bad, it was a physical ache. So bad, he couldn't think of nothing and no one else. As if she knew, Khushi's hand tightened around his.
Thankfully, the others said nothing too much as they rejoined them on the table. No one asked what they'd been doing and the video wasn't mentioned. Khushi was grateful for that. She didn't know what she'd have answered if anyone had asked what they'd been up to in her old bedroom for so long.
Getting my first kiss again' didn't sound like a viable option. No one would understand it, she knew. Except for him. Her face shone as she studied her husband. He winked at her ever so slyly from the corner of his eye, taking a bite of the sugar-free dessert she'd made just for him.
After lunch, Arnav thought they'd finally leave, but Khushi had other ideas. "We can't leave yet," she murmured in his ear as everyone stood. "I need to help them clean up. Plus, Amma wouldn't let us leave so soon anyway. One more hour, love."
He sighed with frustration. "One hour. I'm timing you."
"And if I'm late?"
His mouth corked. "Let's just say there will be consequences if that happens," he murmured huskily into her ear. "In our bed tonight."
Her skin warmed. "Maybe I should be late then," she teased.
"I wouldn't recommend it, love. You know how I can be."
Yes, she did know. He'd most likely drive her crazy by going extra slow and then some.
"Khushi?" Payal's voice came from the kitchen. "Amma's calling you."
Khushi smiled as she stood. "See you in an hour, husband."
"59 minutes," he corrected.
Rolling her eyes, Khushi forced herself to leave his side. After her confession that it had been her in the video and not another woman, her family seemed to be warming up to Arnav. She smiled as she glanced out of the kitchen, watching him in deep conversation with her father and Buaji.
"Are you sure you girls don't mind helping out?" Garima asked, eyeing them worriedly.
Khushi hugged her from the side. "Amma, stop being so formal. Just because Jiji and I are both married now, doesn't change anything. We'll wash the dishes. You go on and relax."
Their mother smiled as she walked away and Khushi and Payal fell back into their old pattern. They'd always taken turns washing dishes and tonight was no different.
"Would you mind washing these too?" Payal told her, giving her a stack of plates. "I just got my nails done."
"No problem, Jiji." Khushi smiled at her as she cleaned the plates, spoons and forks. "How is everything at Shantivaan?"
"It's quieter without Dadiji. Anjali Di really misses her you know."
"And blames me for it, no doubt," murmured Khushi, her gaze thoughtful.
Everyone hates you, Payal wanted to say. No one as much as me though. Her eyes fell on the stack of kitchen knives. Her hands itched to grasp one and plunge it into Khushi's back. She'd never guess who the attacker was till it was too late. Her eyes would be filled with accusation and shock as she'd turn to gaze at her.
"Jiji?" she'd say, her eyes wide with fright. "It was you? All along?"
And Payal would laugh, stepping into the growing pool of blood with the knife raised high. "It was always me. I hate you, Khushi. From the moment you stepped into my life, I've hated you."
"Jiji?"
Payal gazed up, startled as Khushi called her name.
"Are you alright?"
She forced herself to smile. "You know how I am. Always daydreaming."
"True," said Khushi with a warm smile. "Remember when--" The knife in her hand slipped, blood trickling from her palm. "Oh no," she whispered, holding it under the faucet.
"Amma!" Payal called, not wanting to get her own hands dirty by helping her. "Can you come here please!"
Garima appeared in the doorway with a frown and then seeing Khushi's bleeding hand, her eyes rounded. "Bitiya! What have you done?"
"It just slipped," Khushi mumbled. "I don't know how..." Her gaze wandered to where her husband was. More than anyone else, she suddenly wanted him with her.
Payal had had enough of Khushi's drama. She was as always snatching all the attention. Well, two could play this game. With a grimace, she picked up a knife and slyly made a shallow cut on her ring finger. Blood instantly oozed out.
"Amma, look. I'm bleeding too. I don't know even how it happened."
"You too, Jiji?" Khushi gazed at her a bit perplexed.
Their mother put her hand to her forehead. "I told you both to be careful and now just look."
"We're fine, Amma."
"No, you're not, Khushi. Follow me, both of you. The medicine box is in the other room."
Buaji looked up as the three of them stepped out. "What happened?"
Payal answered. "Oh nothing, Buaji. We just accidently cut ourselves while washing the dishes. It's just a scratch."
Akash relaxed at that, but Arnav sprang up, going directly to Khushi. He breathed in sharply as he took her hand in both of his, frowning down at the cut. "Does it hurt a lot?"
"Not very much," she lied.
He saw right through it, leading her to the door. "Come on."
"Where?"
"I'm taking you to the hospital."
"Hospital? Love, it's just a scratch like Jiji said. I'm fine. Truly."
He didn't look convinced, but Buaji rose to agree with her. "Relax, dear. Sanka Devi isn't badly hurt. Such things happen."
Arnav's mouth compressed. "Is there a bandage?"
"Right here." Garima appeared with a small box of supplies. Arnav took it, carefully cleaning Khushi's injury while Garima did the same for Payal.
Payal silently fumed. Her husband hadn't even cared to ask how her hand was and ASR had yet to let go of Khushi's hand.
"Does it burn, babe?" he was asking, dabbing the blood away.
"Not very much." A moment later, Khushi winced as the bandage was applied, a whimper escaping her lips.
Arnav's jaw tightened in response. "Almost done." As he tied the bandage in place, he set his lips against it. His warm gaze locked with hers. "Ready to go home?"
Not caring for what anyone might think, Khushi embraced him, nodding against his shirt. "Please. Let's go."
Payal watched bitterly from the corner as the two spoke to her parents and aunt for a few more minutes and then left, hand in hand. Arnav was still behaving as if his wife had suffered some grave injury, not a minor cut.
"I've never seen Bhai like this," murmured Akash beside her in quiet wonder. "He really loves Khushiji. Doesn't he?"
Payal didn't reply, her entire body stiff. ASR did certainly care very much for his wife. He would be devastated by her death, she reflected. Her lips twisted in an odd grin.
You won't always be able to save her, ASR. One day, it won't be just a small cut, but something far more deadly. You'll cradle Khushi's limp body in your arms, crying bitterly while I'll laugh in the shadows. And then I'll feign some tears, step forward and it will be in my arms and in my body that you'll find your solace. You will be mine, Mr. Raizada...You will
Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
Episode 28: Mood Swings
A few weeks later...
Nestling closer to her husband's side, Khushi traced her hand down the smooth, broad expanse of his chest. This was her favorite time of day. These stolen moments just before falling asleep, both of them blissfully warm and bare beneath the fur-lined blankets. With an impish smile, she dipped her hand lower still, caressing her husband boldly.
Arnav caught her wandering hand in his, his eyes whipping to her. "Khushi..." he said in a warning tone. "What do you think you're doing?"
Shrugging, she struggled to free her hand, but he held on firm. With a pout, she considered his dark, glinting gaze. "Isn't it obvious?" She moistened her dry lips. "I want you."
Once, admitting to such desires would have been nothing short of impossible. From the moment they'd met, fought and subsequently entered into a secret contract, she'd vowed to feel nothing except the most intense hatred for him. If someone would have come up to her during those days and said that one year later, she'd be madly in love with Arnav Singh Raizada, happily married to him and expecting twins, she'd have never believed it. Would have instead fought tooth and nail to prove how ridiculous the mere suggestion was.
But time had changed everything. Love had eclipsed all their petty differences. And she'd come to slowly understand and fall in love with the man behind the daunting image of A.S.R. The one who was vulnerable, who had risen from a broken past all on his own, who longed for family despite everything, and who had the capacity to love like no one else.
He wasn't Mr. Perfect, but he was hers. Her husband. Lover. The father of her children. Her closest friend. The man she was insanely in love with. And whom right now, she desired more than anything else.
Snuggling closer, Khushi pressed her lips to his nipple. "I want you so much..."
His eyes flashed and his hand tightened around her wrist to the point of almost painful. "We can't."
Her brow furrowed. "Why not?"
Arnav appeared amused. "Because we just made love approximately five minutes ago and I need a bit more time to keep up with you." Drawing her into his arms, he grazed her palm with his lips. The mark there was fading, the cut from the glass completely healed, but for Arnav, the reminder of his wife's pain still stung.
"Oh." Blushing, Khushi reclined back in his strong embrace, laying her head over his heartbeat. "I didn't even think about that. It doesn't feel like just minutes ago--more like it's been ages. Doesn't it? "
This time there was no denying Arnav's amusement. "We've been making love all day, Khushi. We've only stepped out of this bed to shower and get food from the kitchen. Hell, you must be sore." His eyes grew stormy with concern.
"But I'm not," she was quick to deny. "And besides, it's all your fault I want you so much."
His eyebrow arched. "My fault?"
Khushi bit back a grin, nodding. "Well, I'm pregnant because of you! And partly because of all these hormones, I can't seem to get enough of you tonight. Can we please spend every Sunday in bed like this?"
He laughed and Khushi found herself smiling. There was nothing quite like the rich sound of his laughter. And he looked so young when he was relaxed like this, utterly stress-free.
As if to remind her that the outside world still mattered--darn it--the phone on the side table suddenly rang. Arnav clicked it on, clasping her flat against his side with his free hand.
"ASR speaking."
The voice on the other hand was vaguely familiar. "Mr. Raizada, it's Inspec--"
"Can I call you back?" Arnav cut in, giving no hint of the sudden tension that flared within him. "Give me five minutes."
Khushi watched with a small frown as he slid out of the warm bed, tugging on his familiar, black silk robe. In the dim light, his eyes were unreadable.
"Who was it? Is it about the new deal?" Though she wasn't directly involved, Khushi knew that AR was on the verge of a major contract with one of Asia's largest retail companies.
Arnav's mouth compressed and he nodded only just. "I'll be back in awhile. You should try to sleep."
"But I don't want to sleep. I want--- Well, you know what." Her smile was radiant as she stretched on the rumpled bed sheets, holding her arms aloft towards him. As she did so, the sheet around her chest slipped, revealing a smattering of red marks along the slope of her neck and breasts.
Arnav breathed in sharply, bending low to touch one especially prominent bruise. His fingers wavered. "Dammit, I was too rough, wasn't I?"
Khushi's eyes closed as his hand stroked over her, the mind-numbing heat of his mouth descending to cover each mark. "It doesn't hurt, love."
His lips compressed. "Don't lie to me. I should have been more careful." He looked beyond furious with himself.
Khushi reached for his hand, squeezing reassuringly. "I'm not lying. I would have stopped you if it had been painful. But it wasn't. And you know how easily my skin bruises. It's mostly just due to your stubble. You need to shave, Mr. Raizada."
Arnav crossed his arms as he observed her teasing smile, fighting back his own desires. His wife had no idea how unbelievably tempting she looked on the sheets. Or perhaps she did, and simply enjoyed driving him out of his mind. As if to remind himself and her, he told her, "And you need to rest. You're pregnant."
Arnav began to step away, but Khushi grabbed his wrist. A weary sigh escaped him. "Khushi... Baby, I need to make this call. It's important."
Khushi's gaze narrowed on the phone in his hand. "I'll let you go on one condition." Her hazel eyes twinkled up at him. "Jalebis."
"What?" He was so startled by that request, he couldn't hide his surprise. Though it wasn't all that unexpected. Khushi had been craving jalebis for weeks now. "I thought you'd ask for another Sunday like today."
"I don't need to ask for that," she said matter-of-factly. "Knowing you, I'll get that again tomorrow anyway."
He rolled his eyes but didn't disagree as he crossed to the door. His wife's voice stopped him at the threshold.
"Baby? What about--"
"Your jalebis will be sent up momentarily, Mrs. Raizada. Don't worry."
Khushi eased back under the covers. "Love you."
A slight smirk curved the corner of his mouth as he glanced at her over his shoulder. His eyebrow rose. "Really? Me or jalebis?"
Khushi pretended to think hard and her husband's mouth thinned in response. What had begun as a joke was suddenly one no longer. He practically growled her name. "Khushi..."
"Give me a moment to think. It's a difficult choice." She grinned as she considered his sour expression. She decided not to tease him too much. This once. "You. Always you. And you know that."
The love looming in her shining eyes stunned him. Humbled him. Within seconds, he was beside her, yanking her into his arms and ravaging her mouth with his. The kiss was not the least bit gentle, though he made every conscious effort for it to be. But as always, all his noble plans crumbled the moment their lips aligned. They went up in flames, straining to get closer as their mouths met in a kiss that could only be described as hard, hot and demanding.
Arching upward, Khushi met him stroke for stroke, her fingers clenching on the silk robe. "Please come back soon... I need you."
He traced her full lips with his tongue. "Trust me, nothing in the world can keep me away from you for too long. I need you just as much, if not more."
It was only several lusty kisses later that they managed to break away. Arnav headed downstairs to the kitchen first. Though calling back the inspector was important, his wife came first. The call would have to wait.
The jalebi batter was at the very front of the refrigerator in a large, sealed container. He ordered it from a high-end bakery every couple of days. Once Khushi's cravings had started, he'd quickly realized that heading out for jalebis at the oddest hours of the day was not at all feasible.
He hated having his wife out of his sight unless it was absolutely necessary. Even at the office, he insisted she stay in his cabin. Khushi had been reluctant at first, but he hadn't budged, telling her that he didn't give a damn what the other employees might say or think, but she was staying with him. End of discussion.
The oil sizzled and crackled as he made the first few jalebis. It had taken several botched attempts and Khushi's tutoring to perfect, but he could now proudly say that he could make jalebis better than most. And the Queen of Jalebis certainly approved. Every time, she'd lick her fingers clean and he'd just watch her, wondering how on earth someone with such a petite frame as her could devour that many jalebis in one go.
Once he had a towering stack made, Arnav took the stairs to their bedroom. He entered with a flourish, announcing with a good amount of sarcasm: "Your dessert's finally ready, Princess. I hope it's--" He broke off midsentence. Khushi lay fast asleep, her chest rising and falling rhythmically.
Mood swings, Arnav lamented. One minute his wife wanted nothing more than for him to make love to her and then passion was replaced by sudden hunger and now it was apparently sleep which consumed her.
And she had no idea how much havoc she was wrecking within him. How much her innocent antics were making him thirst for things far from innocent. Setting the plate on the nightstand, he traced a forefinger slowly down her cheekbone and then across the fullness of her bottom lip, his gaze softening.
Khushi clearly had no clue at all what she was doing to him most of the time. How much she affected him. At least she had mood swings and hormones to blame, but what was his excuse?
When she'd asked for another Sunday like today, his first thought had been to give her a whole month of nothing but lovemaking and intimate conversation, free from everything. A second honeymoon felt like just what they needed. But there was AR to consider, the new deal, and the upcoming bridal show. He couldn't take off work right now, no matter how much he wished to.
Khushi mumbled something in her sleep then, turning onto her side. "Arn...Arnav..."
This time he heard her. "I'm here, love." he whispered, smoothing his palm across her warm cheek. "Sleep." Something tugged at his heartstrings as he watched her relax at the sound of his voice. Against the black sheets, she looked very young and too beautiful to be real.
But she was real. And she was his, he reminded himself. His wife. Would her love ever cease to amaze him? he wondered. He didn't know the answer to that, but he did know that their love was the most genuine and powerful thing he'd ever felt in his life. It was no wonder that where his wife was concerned, he felt extra protective, cautious, and wildly territorial. The knowledge that there was a threat against her only heightened that feeling.
Though Arnav knew that he should be getting up and calling back the officer, he couldn't seem to leave Khushi's side. More than anything, he ached to slip in beside her, to hold her as she slept and then make love to her all over again, not stopping till she was clawing at his back and screaming his name in ecstasy.
That he was insatiable for her was something he'd never even attempt to deny, but damn if she didn't make it very difficult for him to keep his hands off of her. As if to prove his point, Khushi suddenly rolled onto her back, kicking off the blanket as she did so. His breath suspended. His eyes swept over her, ever so slowly, missing nothing.
She was quite easily the sexiest woman he'd ever seen--always had been--but seeing her swollen with his children made her all the more alluring. His jaw tightened with the effort to keep his hands and mouth off of her. Standing, Arnav reached for the blanket, draping it carefully over her again and smoothing her hair back. "I love you," he whispered, bending low to kiss her forehead.
Khushi couldn't have possibly heard him, but he could have sworn she smiled in her sleep at his words. Keeping the door slightly ajar, Arnav crossed to the room directly across their bedroom before desire and temptation completely clouded his judgment.
His study was cast in shadows. Unlike the rest of the house, it had been designed strictly according to his tastes. Which explained why it was very much like his office at AR Designs. Sleek, modern, and almost sterile appearing though there was a distinctly more homely feel compared to his cabin at work. Large, black and white photographs of Khushi framed the walls. He'd taken them himself. And the twin's first ultrasound picture held a place of prominence on the dark mahogany desk.
Taking a seat, Arnav called back the first number on his missed call list. Inspector Khan must have been waiting because he picked up at the first ring.
"What is it?" Arnav asked, his grip tightening.
"It's about the job you gave me. About your wife's sister."
Arnav's mouth thinned at the mention of Payal. "What about her? Have you found something?"
"I think so. I've been following her for the past few weeks and usually she stays within Shantivaan, goes shopping at the nearby mall or to her parent's house in Laxmi Nagar. But this afternoon, the pattern changed. I followed her to a little known club called DL. It's apparently very exclusive. Only members are allowed to enter. I was stopped at the door."
"Did you tell them you're a cop?"
"I didn't want to tip off your wife's sister so I didn't force the issue, but I can go back tomorrow morning to check on it."
"There's no need for that," Arnav cut in. "I'll handle it from here. Just call me the moment she heads in the direction of that club again."
He sensed the officer's hesitation. "Are you sure, Mr. Raizada?"
"Very," Arnav's eyes glinted like hard steel. "I want to catch her in the act myself. She'll never expect it and that mask she wears so skillfully will fall away... Just inform me. I don't care what time of day or night it is."
Ending the call with a few more instructions, he threw the phone aside, running a hand through his hair. DL. It was one of the seediest places the rich and powerful of Delhi retreated to and thus, known for its strict privacy. It was no wonder Inspector Khan hadn't known anything about the club--very few people did.
But unlike the officer, Arnav had in his past wandered into the dark underground clubs of Delhi. He'd only gone to DL once and that one time had been enough. He'd never returned.
Payal in such a place? His suspicions strengthened and bile rose in his throat. There was now no doubt in his mind that Payal Raizada nee Gupta was not the dutiful, demure woman she appeared to be. This confirmed it. Turning on his computer, he searched for DL, reading through their history.
"Arnav?"
His wife's soft voice startled him. He shut the laptop so fast, Khushi gazed at him with a confused frown. She stood at the door, one hand braced against the frame.
"I thought you were sleeping." His voice was a bit more gruff than was necessary.
"I can't sleep. Not without you." With a yawn, Khushi crossed to him and Arnav swallowed. Not an inch of clothing covered her.
He began to scold her on the inappropriateness of her lack of dress on such a chilly night, but then realized it had been him who'd insisted she sleep like this. His tone roughened. "I'll be there soon. Go back to bed."
"No," she pouted, not seeming to notice how disgruntled he appeared. She plopped down on his lap in an utterly carefree manner, looping her arms around his neck. "I'll wait for you."
He couldn't refuse her, not when she was gazing at him with those huge, innocent eyes. He'd never been able to. Sighing, he cradled her on his lap.  "You should try to sleep though."
"Why are you being so stubborn?"
"Me? It's you who always refuses to listen to me."
"For good reason. Have you checked the time? You need to sleep too. It's so late."
Arnav pressed his lips to her temple. "I know. Give me ten more minutes and I'll be there. Promise."
Khushi stared into his dark gaze, wondering why it felt as if something was troubling him. But what? "Is everything all right?"
He glanced away. "Of course it is." It killed him to lie to her.
Turning him back her way, Khushi kissed away the line marring his forehead. "You're forgetting how well I know you by now. I know something's bothering you so don't even think about hiding anything from me. Is everything really okay?"
He didn't answer immediately and the anxiety in Khushi's heart intensified. Every second rattled her. What could it be? Work? Their families? His health? "Arnav..." Her voice trembled.
He relented with a deep breath, realizing he couldn't keep this from her--not completely. Drawing her closer on his lap, he admitted in a low voice: "There is something. A tension... But it's nothing you need to worry about. It'll be all over very soon." And damn if that wasn't the truth. He would get to the bottom of this mess. Nothing and no one could stop him from protecting his wife and children.
Khushi's brow bent as she felt him stiffen, the tension coiling his body impossible to ignore. "If something is worrying you--whatever it is--then it concerns me too. Love, what is it? You know you can share anything with me, don't you?"
Arnav managed a nod, willing himself to relax. "I know that. But I need you to trust me this once. I'm handling it just fine. There's nothing to worry about."
"Do you promise?"
He kissed her full on the lips. "Yes."
She tightened her grip on him for a breathless moment and then in one quick move straddled his waist.
"Khushi," he groaned, his head falling backward as she spread open his robe, running her hands down his chest.
"Still not going to tell me?" she murmured with a mix of innocent mischief and blatant seduction that always left him spellbound. "Is it work related? I know there's that new deal you've been working on so much lately..."
Her husband's eyes glinted in the darkness and he nodded only just, not quite a confirmation nor a denial but it was enough for Khushi to relax. He handled AR impeccably and she knew he would this time too. He was probably stressing for no reason at all. She knew just how to relax him.
"Arnav?"
"What now?"
"Make love to me." Her eyes softened as they met his astounded gaze. "And don't even try to refuse this time. I can tell how much you need me too." As if to prove her point, her hand clenched over his arousal.
The glint in his eyes blazed like molten fire and then he was lifting her in his arms, lowering his head to catch her breast in the searing heat of his mouth even as his fingers deftly parted her legs. Khushi cried out, kissing him as if her life depended on it. And all the while he continued to unravel her, his caresses making her burn and quiver.
Shivering, she whispered words of love against his mouth, begging him with her every touch to end the foreplay. She wanted him. Now. He seemed to know exactly how she was feeling because suddenly he was lifting her upwards and then hauling her back down on his lap. Khushi shouted as he impaled her, thrusting deep.
It was the most intense, indescribable sensation. Pleasure so potent she felt consumed by it. A love so palpable she felt enveloped by it.
"Arnav," she whimpered as his thrusts slowed. He was so deep within her, filling her completely and then some. Her body trembled almost violently. His teeth grazed her nipple and the trembling became a full-blown shudder.
Fisting her hands in his thick hair, she let passion reign over her. Welcomed it as if she'd never be satisfied. Arnav groaned as she lowered herself forcefully onto him and Khushi smiled in response.
His jaw tightened as he watched her, letting her be entirely in control. But there was only so much he could take. As her movements slowed, he threaded his fingers in her loose hair, drawing her to him.
"Enough, Khushi. I'm trying to be gentle for once and you're..." His eyes closed as she deliberately shifted on him again. "You're making that impossible for me."
"Don't hold back." Smoothing her hands down his cheeks, she kissed the roughened line of his chin. "Please, don't."
He looked as if he was on the verge of arguing with her, but then he shook his head. "I can't hold back anymore even if I wanted to. I need to make you mine." His mouth clapped over hers in a furious kiss as his pace quickened, his touch hardening. It was sure to leave a few bruises, but Khushi didn't care.
He, of course, did. "Am I hurting you?"
Khushi swung her head to deny it, clutching him breathlessly. "Don't..."
"Don't what?"
"Don't stop."
His eyes jerked to her face, narrowing on her mouth. Her lips were wet from his kiss. They come together again wordlessly, wildly, out of control as he surged deep within her once more. Skin met skin, mouths aligned and tongues entwined. And then everything seemed to shatter, washing over them like a powerful tide. Their only anchor was one another.
Khushi fell against her husband, sweaty and out of breath and utterly content. A moment later, he cried out her name, shaking against her. She drew him into her arms, massaging the firm muscles at his back.
For a long time, Arnav just held her on his lap, his heartbeat slowing. "You okay?" he mumbled, his warm breath caressing her ear. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Shaking her head, she grinned up at him. "Of course not, love. Me and the babies are just fine."
His hands molded over the expanding curve of her abdomen with feather-light gentleness as he pecked her smiling lips. "Ready to finally go to sleep?"
"You're coming with me, right? I won't go without you. I swear I won't."
Arnav stood up with her in his arms, the corner of his mouth tipping up as he noted the determination blazing in her eyes.  It didn't surprise him. Not at all. "Do I have a choice?"
She gave him a very wifey look, shaking her head as if to say "hell no."
"I thought so." He lifted her higher in his arms. "So hush, I'm coming with you." Their gazes remained locked as he crossed to the bedroom beyond and lowered her on the mattress. He'd just slipped in beside her when Khushi sat up.
Arnav's brow furrowed. "What is it now?"
"Nothing." She stroked her throat. "I'm just feeling a bit thirsty."
"I'll go get you some water." He started to rise, but Khushi caught his forearm.
"Relax. I'm pregnant--not gravely sick. I can get water by myself."
Arnav didn't look too happy, but even he seemed to realize how overprotective he was being. "Turn on the lights. I don't want you to accidently trip or stumble." That was one of his worst fears--something that gave him constant nightmares.
Khushi squeezed his hand. "Don't worry so much, baby. I'll be back in two minutes."
"Just be careful."
She nodded, leaving with one last lingering glance at him. Warmth enveloped her as she observed him get comfortable under the blankets. In his designer suits, he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen, but outside of them, he took her breath away. And she knew he wasn't even trying to be sexy. He just was.
"Are you going to stand there and watch me all night?" he asked, peering at her with amusement from beneath half-closed lids. "Hurry up."
"Yes, sir," she said sarcastically. "I know how much you hate delays." Her words reminded them both of another time, another memory...
For Khushi, it felt as if it had been ages ago that she'd walked into his office during the noon lunch break, nervous and yet restless for what was to come.
"You're late," he told her, his lips twisting into a frown.
As she remained silent, refusing to answer, his frown deepened. His burning gaze never left her as he pressed a button on the wood desk. Thick, gray curtains at once slid across the glass windows, sealing them in darkness. Another push of a small button and the door automatically locked behind her, clicking into place. That faint sound bit into her, but he never paused. "You know how much I hate delays, don't you?"
She nodded. She had learned a lot about ASR's likes and dislikes over the course of the month. Things she had never imagined...
A smirk played on his lips. "Good."
His low, husky voice had the desired effect. A quivering took over her. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around her waist, her eyes fluttering close. What was happening to her? But she didn't have even a moment to think. Because just then his lips crashed down on hers, taking kiss after kiss.
Now, those same lips were smiling and those icy cold eyes were filled with such love it felt unreal. She started to tell him so, but he pointed to the door.
"Go. Now. Before I change my mind."
Khushi sighed, murmuring under her breath about how he was just as bossy as ever.
"I heard that." Despite his gruff tone, his smile mirrored her own. He glanced at the clock. "Go get your water. You have exactly five minutes, Khushi."
Anticipation curled within in her at his marked impatience. "And then?"
His lips curled. "And then I'm not letting you take a step out of this bed till noon tomorrow."
She knew him well enough to know that he meant it. He was dead serious as he met her startled gaze. "But the office--"
"That's for Aman to worry about, not you. Just hurry up, dammit."
She couldn't stop smiling as she stepped away. It took some doing. The hallway outside was dark and Khushi flicked on the lights, blinking several times at the sudden brightness.
True to her word, she went to the closest refrigerator. It happened to be the one in her husband's study. It was mini-sized and filled with outrageously expensive bottles of mineral water and several types of fruit juice. She smiled as she noticed a plate full of jalebis labeled "For emergency mood swings" in Arnav's unmistakable, slanty handwriting.
Taking one of the water bottles, Khushi turned to leave when her eyes fell on the neat desktop. There was a small green light blinking from the closed laptop.
"He must have forgotten to turn it off," she murmured under her breath. "He was too busy doing all those wicked things to me, he didn't realize--" Her voice broke off as she got her first good look at the screen. Her face drained of all color. It suddenly felt difficult to breathe...
The screen was filled with images of a club. Most were disturbing. A woman gagged and bound with nothing but corded rope. A fearsome looking man holding a whip in his hands. Another playing with flames. Strange, black masks hid their faces, but their eyes looked out, hard and frightfully vacant.
DL, it said at the top of the page, 'An exclusive club where pleasure is pain and pain is pleasure.'
"What is this?" Khushi whispered, clutching the leather chair. Her knuckles stood out white. "And why was Arnav looking at this?" The black emptiness surrounding her provided no answers.
*****
"Wake up, beautiful." A familiar hand glided down her cheek. Warm lips pressed to hers briefly. "We're going to be late. It's almost noon."
That last word had Khushi blinking awake. "Noon?" She glanced at the clock to be sure, but it was true. She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept in so much.
Arnav crossed his arms across his chest as he considered her. Khushi was startled to see that unlike her, he was completely dressed. A black designer suit hugged his lean frame and the white crispness of his shirt underneath was the perfect contrast to the maroon tie he'd selected today. He'd even listened to her and shaved, keeping the stubble to a minimal. As he cocked his head sideways, his hair glistened, still faintly wet from the shower. To say the least, he looked sinfully attractive and her body instantly reacted.
"You know," he murmured, buttoning his coat. "When I said last night I'd keep you in bed till noon, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Sorry," Khushi said feebly, disarmed by the way he was staring at her. Some part of her worried that he'd be able to read her every secret. That he'd realize how fitfully she'd slept, her thoughts plagued by images and letters that made no sense. DL.
"Why are you saying sorry for?" He tipped up her chin, his brow furrowed. "I was just teasing. You can sleep in all day if you want."
"No, the office... I need to be there." Which was entirely true. Even Arnav couldn't deny it, though he appeared anything but pleased.
"Sometimes I think I shouldn't have made you in charge of the annual bridal show." At her look of bewildered indignation, he hastened to add, "What I mean is not this year. Not when you're in this state."
"What state?" Khushi stepped out of the bed, enjoying the flash of desire she glimpsed in her husband's eyes as the blankets slid away. "I'm just pregnant, love. It's nothing I can't handle." She met his gaze evenly, daring him to argue.
He didn't. Instead, he scooped her up in his arms, taking her into the adjacent master bathroom before she could even manage a protest. "I know that. I trust you to handle everything, just as you trust me. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea. The bridal show is a ton of work."
"Oh, trust me I realize that now."
"Finally." His grin was wry as he set her down on the tiles. "Last year, you turned all my months of planning upside down with your surprise entry."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you complaining?"
"Hell no." Lowering his head, he pecked her lips. "That was the best moment of my life. It just took me some time to see it as such."
"For me as well... I never thought back then we'd end up together. That you'd love me."
His hands were gentle as he cupped her face. "How could I not love you? You are the most amazing, at times exasperating, and loving woman I've ever met. You mean everything to me, Khushi. Everything."
As Khushi embraced him, tears rose in her eyes. How could she have suspected him for even a second? He would never hurt her. Would never willingly inflict any pain on her.
Besides, a man like him would never enjoy anything about a place like DL, she knew. He'd in fact hate it. His childhood had been scarred by abuse and those memories still haunted him. Even now, some nights she'd wake to find him lost in terrible nightmares, crying out against demons that no longer existed.
How could she have possibly assumed her husband would go anywhere near a place like DL? Khushi berated herself. She knew him better than anyone. The website on his computer had to be one of those annoying pop-up ads, nothing more.
"Khushi... love, you're trembling. Are you okay?"
She nodded her head weakly against his coat, clutching the lapels. Arnav stared down at the top of her head with a puzzled frown and then before she could realize what he meant to do, he tilted her face up.
Teary, hazel eyes met his. He breathed in harshly, his heartbeat pounding. "Khushi, what is it? Why are you crying?" At her silence, his grip on her hardened. "Answer me," he practically growled.
Khushi shook her head wearily. "I can't."
He suddenly looked very angry with her. " What do you mean you can't? What's wrong? Are you not feeling well? It's not the twins, is it?" His worried gaze dropped to her burgeoning waist.
Khushi reached for his hands. A sense of peace blanketed her as their fingers entwined. "Everything is fine," she insisted.
His nostrils flared. "The hell it is! I want you to tell me what's bothering you. Right now!" he demanded.
"Nothing is bothering me...not any more. I swear... I guess it must be mood swings."
"Mood swings?" Her husband looked doubtful.
She barely managed a nod. Arnav stared at her with that same penetrating gaze and Khushi guessed he would not drop the topic so easily, but to her surprise, he slowly nodded. "Fine. This one time I'm letting it go. But if it's anything more than "mood swings," you better tell me. Is that understood?"
"Always so bossy." A soft smile played on her lips.
"Khushi." The muscle at his jaw flexed. "Promise me."
Staring into his eyes, she gave him what he wanted, though the words hurt her throat for some strange reason. "I promise."
"Good." His hands settled on her shoulders, drawing her near. "And are you absolutely sure there's nothing you want to tell me?"
She glanced down, biting her lower lip. "Are you happy with me?"
"What?" The question was so unexpected, he wondered for a moment if he'd heard her right.
Meeting his confounded stare with a resigned look, Khushi asked the same question again, more slowly this time. "Are you happy with me? I mean... is there anything you want changed?"
"You're not making any sense. Of course, I'm happy with you. There's no one else in this whole damn world I'd rather want to be with. You know that."
She nodded, staring into his eyes. "I know, baby, but you'd tell me if there was something else you wanted or needed, right?"
His brow bent. "Something else? Babe, I'm trying to follow you--I really am--but I just can't. What are you talking about? Tell me clearly."
"About us," she exclaimed, her cheeks reddening slightly. "About us in bed... Is there anything more you want? Are you satisfied with everything as it is?"
Arnav was for once struck speechless. He stared at her unblinkingly for a long moment and then caught her by the shoulders. "Of course, I am! What kind of question is that? If things were any better between us, I think it might be the end of me--no joke. Do I need to make love to you again and show you how much I ache for you? Hell, Khushi, what is going on with you today?"
"Nothing," she insisted, glancing away. "I was just wondering about it..."
"You and your mood swings," Arnav murmured under his breath, shaking his head as he considered her lost expression. Tipping up her chin again, he kissed her firmly on the forehead. "I love you, Khushi Raizada. And you satisfy me in every way. I'm very, very happy with you. With everything. Happier than I ever thought I'd be. Does that answer your question?"
His words and the glow in his eyes made her smile. Nodding, she hugged him close, too emotional to say anything. Instead, she burrowed her face against the side of his neck, holding him as tight as she could. It felt so good to just stand here, clasped in the steely strength of his arms. A sense of peace blanketed her.
The phone rang then and Arnav cursed, staring down at the flashing screen with a frown. "It's Aman. I need to take this. I'll be downstairs. Take your time."
As he left her alone then with a final, lingering kiss, Khushi sagged against the newly installed bathroom door. She'd spent the night tossing and turning for no reason. Everything was absolutely fine in her marriage. Closing her eyes, she wished with all her heart that they would always remain so happy and that she would never break her promise to her husband.
*****
By 4 PM that day, Khushi had for the most part forgotten all about DL and the confusing images of bondage and pain she'd seen on her husband's laptop. She sat across from him in his cabin going over some tentative sketches for the bridal show.
"What do you think of this look?"
He barely glanced her way, his eyes glued to his computer screen. "It's fine. Like I said, you can do whatever you want. I trust you."
"But I've never organized a fashion show before," Khushi said with exasperation. "Especially one of this scale. I want it to be perfect." For you.
The note of anxiety in her voice made him pause. Khushi looked far more stressed than she needed to be.  Pushing the laptop aside, he took her hands in his.
"First of all, it will be perfect because you have great fashion sense. Second--"
"Me?" she broke in with a huff. "Please, love, I know I'm no Nicole James. I'm not even as fashionable as Lavanya." She tried to tug her hands free, but her husband had other plans.
Holding onto her, he gazed at her sternly. "See, this is your problem. You don't give yourself enough credit. Have you ever looked at yourself carefully? You're so damn beautiful. Yes, your taste is simpler and more traditional than Nicole or Lavanya, but that doesn't mean it's less fashionable or not as sexy. Do you remember that red sari you wore after I made you wear a bikini? That one gave me so many sleepless nights. And the emerald green one in New York? Even what you have on now suits you." His admiring gaze swept over the pink outfit she'd chosen today.
"You notice what I wear?" She was genuinely astonished. "I didn't think you did. You've never mentioned it before."
"I notice everything about you, Khushi. I always have."
She found herself smiling as he raised one of her hands to his mouth. The branding warmth of his lips against the inside of her wrist made her eyes flutter close. "Arnav... we're at the office..."
"So?" he smirked. "That's never stopped us before. But if you'd like to go to the private conference room, I'd be happy to arrange it."
The offer was tempting, but Khushi forced herself to shake her head. "The bridal show..."
"I don't want to discuss that," he replied in a clipped tone. "Not right now."
Khushi had a hard time concentrating as he pressed his lips to the pads of each of her fingers, ever so firmly. "But..." She breathed in deeply. "It's important, love. I was thinking the theme should be international like the company is now. Brides around the world..."
More kisses were placed on her hand. "Great idea. I agree with you. Anything more to discuss?"
Khushi narrowed her eyes at him and then pretended to think hard. "Actually there is something else... When can I return to my old cubicle?"
His mouth froze against her fingers. His eyes flashed. "Dammit, we've been over this. You're staying with me here."
"But love, it's inappropriate and not only that, it's so hard for both of us to concentrate. You know that's the truth."
His jaw flexed. "I don't care. You're working here in my cabin. That's it."
Khushi raised her chin defiantly. "And if I refuse?"
He didn't think twice. "I'll temporarily shut down the company."
"What?" Khushi's mouth fell open. "How can you even think of doing that? Be serious--"
His hand curled around hers. "I'm not one to joke. So trust me, I'm completely serious. If you don't stay here with me, I'll shut down AR till further notice. That's a promise."
"You're so impossible sometimes!"
He winked at her. "And yet, you love me."
She couldn't refute that, though her eyes flashed with annoyance. Before either of them could get another word in, a knock sounded.
"Who is it?" Arnav hadn't stopped kissing her hand, though Khushi was trying to stop him, her eyes wide. The door wasn't even locked--not that he cared.
"It's me. Aman."
Khushi tugged her hand free finally. "Come in," called her husband, the glint in his gaze telling her that their conversation was far from over. She shook her head at him warningly.
Aman was so engrossed in the sheets of paper he was holding, he never noticed Arnav reach across the desk and grasp Khushi's hand again. She was staring at him with open-mouthed surprise.
"Sir, there's an urgent fax from Thailand. They received your message that you will not be attending the business summit, but they'd like to strongly encourage you to rethink your decision. In their words, attending the meeting would be highly beneficial for the future of AR."
"I've already declined. Tell them I won't be changing my mind."
"Summit?" Khushi pulled her hand free, taking the papers from Aman and skimming through them. Her baffled gaze flew to her husband. "This is about the deal you've been so worried about and you're not even attending? Arnav, you must."
Aman nodded. "I've been trying to convince him the same for days now. We must go to Thailand. There will be huge consequences if that doesn't happen and--"
"To hell with the consequences," Arnav growled. "I said I'm not going and that's it. End of discussion."
"Not this time." Turning sideways, Khushi murmured, "Aman, could you please leave us alone for two minutes? I need to speak to my husband."
The assistant looked unreservedly relieved as he hurried out. "Good luck," he mouthed.
As the door snapped close behind him with a faint click, Khushi crossed her arms across her chest, turning to face Arnav. He sat relaxed, utterly unaffected. "I don't understand you," she told him. "This is the deal that you've been working so hard for. You were so worried about it last night that you were up till two in the morning. Why aren't you going?"
"I've already said all I had to say on the topic. Drop it, Khushi."
His words carried an unmistakable note of warning, but Khushi saw right through them. Her eyes widened as she met his turbulence gaze. Her heart dropped. "It's because of me, isn't it? You don't want to leave me." He didn't reply and Khushi knew she'd guessed correctly. "Baby, why? I'll be fine."
He smacked his palm against the desk. "THE HELL YOU WILL! There's some psycho woman after you! Or have you forgotten?"
Khushi flinched at his harsh tone, and Arnav suddenly felt like the biggest jerk on the planet. He hadn't meant to yell at her. Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to calm down. "Look, Khushi, I've thought this through. I can't leave you and go and you can't come with me either to Thailand due to the damn bridal show. So I'm not going. It's okay. If the deal falls through, so be it. It doesn't even matter to me."
"But it does to me." Khushi rose and crossed over to him, sitting on the edge of the desk. Tenderly, she cupped his face in her hands. "Baby, I know you're worried about me, but I'll be fine. I can go stay with Amma and Babuji for a few days. They've been pestering me to visit them again after that lunch."
"Khushi, the summit is five days long. Five."
She met his gaze evenly, trying desperately to hide her anxiousness. "I know. I'll miss you tons, but I know how important this is. Please, for me, you have to go." His mouth thinned, but Khushi was already calling Aman back inside. "It's decided. He'll go. Is everything ready?"
Aman nodded at once. "It is, but because it's very last minute, we'd have to leave right away. The summit's first event starts in just a few hours."
Khushi pulled Arnav up by the hand. "Bring the car to the front entrance, Aman. We'll be right down."
Nodding, he scurried off. As the door closed behind him, Arnav turned toward Khushi with an agonized look. "Do I have any say in this? Any at all?"
Khushi felt her throat constrict. "No... not this time."
"I don't want to leave you."
His quiet words pierced her. Before her resolve could crumble, Khushi led him to the door. "I'll see you soon. It's only for five days."
"Exactly. Five days."
Khushi squeezed his hand, not caring if the other employees were watching. Most weren't, but as they descended the main staircase, she noted a familiar pair of ink-black eyes glaring at their joined hands. Lavanya did not look at all pleased.
Ignoring her, Khushi stared worriedly at Arnav. "Promise me, you'll take care of yourself over there. Just focus on the meeting, nothing else. I'll truly be okay here. Amma, Babuji, and Buaji will pamper me like anything, you know."
He paused mid-step. "I know. Promise me, you'll never leave their side. I want one of them near you at all times."
Her brow wrinkled. "But why?"
He kept his face impassive as they walked past the guards and through the gleaming glass doors. The main entrance was empty at this time of day. "Just promise me. Otherwise, I won't go."
"You really are impossible sometimes."
His smile was slight and sad. "And yet, you love me."
Khushi rose on her tiptoes, hugging him tight. "More than anything. Anyone..."
Framing her face in his palms, Arnav kissed her thoroughly. She didn't back away, but met his kiss eagerly, tears stinging her eyes. Only the knowledge that he would not go if he saw her crying kept her from falling apart completely. Saying goodbye to the man she loved was quite easily one of the hardest things she'd ever done.
"I'll call you as soon as I land," he whispered against her lips.
She managed to smile at him as they broke apart. "You better, Mr. Raizada."
They stood pressed together for a moment, foreheads touching, hands entwined. Neither could seem to tear their eyes of the other. The sound of a limousine braking beside them came as a start. Khushi swallowed. Was it time for him to leave already? But it seemed to be because from behind them, Aman suddenly appeared with two black leather suitcases in tow. "I kept your bags packed just in case."
Arnav rolled his eyes, keeping his arm wound around Khushi's waist. "How did you know I'd end up going after all?"
"I didn't." Aman smiled. "But I had a feeling your wife would succeed in convincing you."
"She always does." His eyes shone as he studied her.
Khushi was finding it more and more difficult to keep her expression schooled. "You should be going. I don't want you to be late."
"Hush love, don't worry, I won't be. Now, as soon as I leave, I want you to go with the driver back home, grab your things and then go straight to Laxmi Nagar. You remember your promise to me?"
Khushi nodded. "To stay near Amma and Buaji at all times."
"Exactly." He kissed her forehead. "And if anything happens, anything at all, I want you to call me. I'll be there, okay?"
Khushi blinked back tears, but Arnav couldn't help notice how her lips trembled. His gaze was pained as he drew her to him. "Khushi, I don't have to go."
She embraced him again, hard as she could. "But you should."
"How can I leave you when you're crying? I can't, love. It hurts too much."
"I'll be fine. It's just..."
"Just what?"
Khushi smiled up at him. "Mood swings. Now go, please. And remember to call me right away."
He kissed her softly on the mouth, his fingers tenderly stroking over her abdomen. "I love you."
"Love you, baby. Hurry back home to me and good luck with everything."
Even as he sat in the limo and the door shut between them, their hands remained entwined through the open window.
"Five days," she whispered.
"Five days," he echoed in a strained voice. He pressed a kiss to her wrist and Khushi somehow managed to step away. She waved at him with what she hoped was a bright smile.
Arnav didn't smile back. His eyes were hard and brooding as they traced over her, as if trying to memorize her every detail. Khushi watched him swallow. "Driver," he said. "We should go."
Their eyes met for one last time as the limo surged forward. Khushi stared after the car long after it had gone, wiping her tears away. Five days, she reminded herself. Five days.
Inside the limo, Arnav sat feeling as if someone had snatched his heart out of his chest. It was an unsettling feeling, and worry gnawed at his insides. Though the knowledge that Khushi would not be alone soothed his concerns somewhat, it wasn't enough. Not by a long shot. Taking out his phone, he dialed a number.
Akash took his time in picking up. "Bhai?" he asked as if it was the wrong number.
"Who else? Listen Akash, I know you want to do everything on your own, but we're still cousins. As good as brothers, aren't we?"
"Of course."
"So if I tell you to do something for your own betterment, you won't refuse will you?"
He could sense Akash's confusion. "What do you mean, Bhai?"
"There's a finance group in Nainital looking to associate themselves with a new design company. I've discussed you with them and they'd like to hear your proposals. So it's not a direct yes. If they decide to back you, it would be entirely your own doing. I wouldn't have any hand in it."
Akash took his time in answering. "Thank you, Bhai. This actually sounds like just what I need to be honest."
"Can you make the next flight to Nainital? Those people can't wait and I don't want anyone else to be chosen besides you."
"It's no problem, Bhai. I'll leave right away."
"Great. Go and understand those people and what they're looking for. I suggest you stay a week or two."
"A week? Isn't that too long?"
"Not at all, Akash. On the contrary, it'll show how interested and serious you are. I say you should take Payal along with you too. It'll be nice for the two of you to get away, don't you think?"
"That's a great idea, Bhai. Payal always says I never take her anywhere. We can even visit Dadiji while we're there. I'll have the tickets booked by--"
"There's no need. Take one of my private planes."
"But...well, you've already done so much for us and now this too?"
"Oh, come on, Akash," Arnav sighed, leaning back against the limo's leather upholstery. "Stop being so formal. Aman will have it all arranged. Just leave at once, okay."
"Okay, Bhai. Thanks again."
As the call disconnected and Arnav slipped the phone back in his pocket, Aman raised an eyebrow. "You know, if you weren't such a successful businessman, you could be a very good actor. Because as far as I know, there is no company in Nainital seeking a brand new company, especially a failing one like Akash's."
Arnav didn't react, gazing out the window. "True, there isn't one at the moment, but there will be. One of our old associates is there, remember? Give him a call. Arrange for them to meet with Akash, but make sure you tell them not to agree to anything for at least one week."
"But boss, they're not going to agree to anything without some incentive."
Arnav kept his eyes trained on the passing scenery, though he was truthfully, barely paying attention to where they were going. His mind was filled with images of Khushi. She'd looked so distressed as they'd said goodbye. On the verge of weeping. God, he hoped she was all right.
"Boss?"
"Pay them whatever amount they name. Actually, double it."
If Aman was confused why Arnav was suddenly being so concerned about Akash, he didn't express it.  Closing his eyes, Arnav made another call.
"Baby?" Khushi's soft voice came on the line with quiet wonder. "I was just thinking of calling you, you know. I've been staring at my phone for the longest time, trying to decide whether or not to disturb you."
"Are you okay?" he managed.
"Yes. No tears, promise... Are you okay?"
"As well as I can be without you. Where are you? At home?"
"Yes, I was just leaving for Laxmi Nagar."
"Good. I'm about to board the plane. Text me the moment you get to your parent's house."
"Okay, baby. I will. Take care."
As the call disconnected, Arnav glanced out the window again. They were on the tarmac, a sleek, white plane ready and waiting. The driver started to open his door, but Arnav stopped him. "Not yet."
Khushi's text came exactly thirty-nine minutes later.  Sexy, Stubborn Wife: I've just reached Laxmi Nagar. Traffic was horrible. All the best at the summit, baby. I know you will do amazingly over there.  Love you. ps. You better remember to call!
Aman started to open the door then, but Arnav shook his head. "Not yet."
His assistant appeared more than a little bewildered. "But, we're going to be late. What else are you waiting for? Is there anything I can do?"
"No, someone else is taking care of it."
Someone else? Aman was both puzzled and taken aback. He'd always done everything for his boss. From the smallest of errands to multimillion business mergers. Who was this someone else? he wondered.
The message Arnav had been waiting for came almost two hours after he had kissed Khushi goodbye outside of AR.
Inspector Khan: Payal and her husband have boarded a plane for Nainital. Will let you know when they return, just as you instructed.
Finally relaxing, Arnav reached for the door handle. "We can leave now."
*****
The next couple of days passed, as expected, excruciatingly slowly for Khushi. Every day, she arrive at AR at sharply 8 AM, working on the plans for the bridal show. Though there was a sizeable team working under her, she was in charge and the position carried more responsibility than she was used to. With expectations weighing heavily on her, she'd spend the day brainstorming, planning, editing and then brainstorming some more in what seemed to be an endless loop.
Typically around 5 in the afternoon, she'd head back to her parent's house. In between, Arnav would call her, but his schedule was packed and time was limited. Those brief moments of conversation were the highlight of both their days. He'd tell her all that was happening at the summit, and she'd tell him how Amma and Buaji were making her eat so much she'd gone up a dress size.
"In three days? Are you sure they're to blame?" he asked.
"Oh fine, you are too. I'm pregnant thanks to you."
"Are you complaining?" he teased.
Khushi shook her head, gazing down at her abdomen with a warm smile. "Not at all. I love our twins as much as I love their daddy. I can't wait to hold them in my arms. To kiss them. To see them. I wonder if they look more like me or you..."
She could sense his smile. "We'll know in close to five months, love. But the suspense is killing me too. I've never been patient as you know." Khushi heard someone call his name. Arnav sighed. "Love, I have to go. I'll call you back when I can. Take care."
"You too. Don't forget to eat your lunch!" she hastened to tell him. "I know you're busy, but you need to take care of yourself."
"And you better finish all your meals too. Your aunt reports back to me, you know. I'll find out if you don't."
"What?"
He chuckled. "You heard me. I'll call you later."
"I'll be waiting." The moment the call ended, Khushi felt the sting of loneliness hit her all over again. She missed him so much it was a bodily ache. When would these five days ever end? she wondered. Though she was never alone, she certainly felt alone--especially here. The glass cabin felt cold and lifeless without him there to argue with her or smirk at her or make love to her.
And the nights were no better. She slept fitfully, trying to get comfortable on her old bed. But it was strange, the bed no longer felt like hers. She longed for the one in her own home. The black sheets, the warm blankets, and most of all, Arnav, spooning her as they slept.
Her family couldn't help but notice how lost she appeared, though they tried to keep her busy. "Tonight, Sarita has arranged a small dinner party at her house," Garima informed her over breakfast the next morning. "Karan's gotten a new job you know." It was actually a step down from his previous position, but she was too polite to point that out.
They were sitting around the dining table, and Khushi had been staring at the chair where just a handful of weeks ago, her husband had sat. At her mother's words, she stiffened. "Amma, you know how I feel about Karan. You and Buaji can go, but I won't be going."
"But, bitiya, it will look so rude. Everyone knows you're here for a few days."
She shrugged, taking a bite of honey-laced oatmeal. "I don't care if it is rude or not, but I'm not going. Besides, Arnav won't like it." That was an understatement. He'd be livid if he knew.
Her mother wrinkled her nose. "Does that man control your every move now? You'd just be going with your family to your childhood friend's home. What's wrong in that?"
Khushi set down her spoon, no longer feeling the least bit hungry. "Amma, why do you insist on calling him "that man?" He has a name. Arnav Singh Raizada. And if I know something would upset him, why would I ever do that? It's not about him controlling me, it's about the two of us deciding to always put our marriage first."
"He should trust you, that's all," grumbled her mother.
"He does!"
Buaji tried to diffuse the increasingly volatile situation. "But what will you do all alone, Sanka Devi? Even Payal's not here. She's in Nainital till next week."
"I'll find something to do. Don't worry, Buaji."
Her mother sighed. "You truly are the most stubborn girl I've ever met."
Khushi's smile confused them all. "My husband would agree with you. He's always calling me stubborn."
Garima's gaze softened marginally as she noted the bright, glowing smile on her daughter's face. There was no question in her mind anymore how much Khushi loved ASR. But did that man deserve such affection? She wasn't sure. Though she was still skeptical of his character, Garima could only pray he and Khushi always remained as they were now: happy, together, and very much in love.
"Fine, you can stay home with your father today. But tomorrow, you must come with me to the new shop that's opened down the street. It's your last day with us."
Buaji nodded. "The days have flown by, haven't they? Now see, tomorrow is the 17th already."
Khushi almost choked on the water she'd been drinking. "What did you say?" she said in between coughing.
"That the time has flown by," muttered Buaji, whacking her back lightly. "What's the matter with you, Khushi? You need to be more careful. Drink slowly."
Khushi didn't seem to be listening. "No, not that. After that. Did you say the 17th? Oh God, you did say that, Buaji, didn't you?" She clutched her head. "Oh no. What have I done?"
Her mother and aunt exchanged a puzzled look. "This is why I call her Sanka Devi," her aunt muttered, fighting back a grin. "Now, Khushi, what is the matter?"
But she didn't answer. She couldn't, too caught up in recalling her last conversation with Arnav before he'd left:
"I'll see you soon," she'd said. "It's only for five days."
"Exactly. Five days." Emphasis on five.
"Oh, no," she moaned aloud. "Oh, no, no."
"Sanka Devi? Will you explain? We can't help you if you don't tell us."
"You can't help me, Buaji. No one can," she said miserably. "I can't believe I forgot it's the seventeeth this week."
Buaji glanced at the calendar. "Is there something important on that date?"
"Very important!" exclaimed Khushi. "It's Arnav's birthday! And what kind of wife am I? I forgot completely. I instead sent him off to Thailand! He tried to tell me you know, but I was so caught up in getting him to agree, I didn't think about it. I can't believe it!"
Garima chewed on her bottom lip worriedly. "Will he be very angry with you now?"
"No, of course not, Amma. Arnav's not like that. He'll probably say he doesn't care about birthdays, but see, I know it does matter to him. He doesn't want a fancy party or anything, but of course he'd want for us to spend the day together. And what did I do? I forgot!" Shaking her head, she jumped up on her feet.
Her family gazed at her startled. "What are you planning now?"
Khushi was already rushing to the corner bedroom. "I need to pack."
"Whatever for?"
"For Thailand. I'm not about to let my husband celebrate his birthday alone if I can help it. I have to go."
"But you're pregnant. You shouldn't be traveling."
"I'm only 16 weeks pregnant though and the flight isn't that long. I'll be fine."
They shook their heads, but didn't try to make her stay. There was no use in trying they knew. Nothing could stop Khushi once her mind was made up.
Inside the room, Khushi froze amid frantic packing, a sudden question hitting her hard. She couldn't go to Thailand empty-handed. What would she give Arnav on his birthday? It had to be something special. Something that he'd love.
But what? she debated. What do you give to a man who has everything?
Twenty minutes later, she was still pondering that question as she left Laxmi Nagar, instructing the driver to take her back home. Though she had a few sets of clothes and her basic toiletries, she needed to grab her passport and a few other things. The drive felt unbearably slow and Khushi frowned at the traffic ahead. She closed her eyes.Baby, I'm coming. I'm on my way...
The moment they arrived at the gates, she jumped out, rushing inside. Khushi knew Arnav kept all their important files in his study, but she couldn't seem to find her passport. Kneeling before the desk, she searched through the drawers, finding nothing and instead, only making a huge mess.
Where was the passport, dammit? And why was it that you never found anything when you really needed it? Pulling open the lowermost drawer, she stilled. There it was. In plain sight. "Thank goodness."
Hurrying, Khushi crammed all the papers and files she'd removed back into the drawers. One of the files made her pause. It was a large, manilla folder with only two letters listed on it: DL.
Khushi froze. No, it couldn't be... But as she opened the folder and skimmed through its contents, she realized she'd been right all along. Arnav was interested in DL. Otherwise why would he have this folder filled with information and pictures of that notorious club in his desk?
Why had he lied to her? she wondered with a sharp pang. What was it about this club that he couldn't share with her? Frowning, she stared down at the folder, feeling her heart sink.
*****
Thailand
11 PM on the night of the 16th
Arnav exited a sleek, black SUV to a flurry of flashing cameras. The business agreement had just been signed by both parties and reporters were anxious to know more about what was being touted as the "deal that would revolutionize the face of Asian fashion."
He should have been by all rights elated. And he was. He'd achieved what he'd come here to do. A year ago, on an occasion such as this, he would have partied all night long--mostly with people he didn't know too well and didn't really care about. But time had changed things.
Aman came to his side, whispering in his ear as the crowd around them screamed for interviews and more photos. "I have a few last files to prepare. I'll see you in the morning. Congratulations again."
Arnav shook his hand. "You too. Let me know if you need anything." Brushing past the reporters, he hurried inside the five star hotel. They weren't allowed in here and he sighed, soaking in the quiet calm of the marble-tiled lobby. He was making his way to the elevator when an unfamiliar voice called his name.
"ASR!"
A pretty, twenty-something woman with curly brown hair and glasses balanced precariously on the bridge of her nose rushed toward him. He recalled her vaguely from the round of meetings he'd gone to. She'd been one of his new partner's secretaries. He'd only noticed her because she'd spent most of the time focused on him rather than her work. He'd pointedly ignored her after that brief assessment.
"What is it?" he asked in curt tone. She didn't reply at once and he glanced at his watch, his teeth gnashing together. "Are you going to say anything or not? I don't have all day."
As if coming out of stupor, she shook awake. "You forgot this at the meeting." She handed him a folder.
Arnav fingered through the papers before passing them back to her. Her eyes hadn't once moved off his face. "This isn't mine. I never forget anything. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go."
She caught his wrist. "No, wait."
At the foreboding tightening of his mouth, she dropped his hand. "Sorry... It's just that I'm such a huge fan of yours. I've followed your career from the start, you know." She blushed, staring up at him with unconcealed awe. "Gosh, I'm rambling. What I mean is, you really inspire me."
Arnav crossed his hands across his chest. "I didn't know I had any fans."
"Of trust me, you do," she nodded emphatically. "Who wouldn't admire a man like yourself? You're perfect!"
"Actually, I'm not. You don't know me well, that's why you assume I'm perfect."
The girl's face fell. "But I do know you. I follow everything about you. Every article, every clipping. I wanted to tell you that I understand you must be upset about your marriage falling apart, but you shouldn't be, ASR. There are countless better women out there."
"Excuse me?" His words were laced with frosty, dangerous undertones, but his "fan" didn't seem to be paying attention.
She gazed at him with remorse. "I saw the video of you with a woman who wasn't your wife at Indigo. I don't blame you. That Khushi must be a witch who drove you to--"
"Enough! Stop right there." His mouth twisted as he pointed his finger at her. "First of all, you know nothing about me, my marriage, or my wife. Second, don't ever insult Khushi again. She's much, much better than I can ever hope to be, you get that? And for your information, the woman at the club was my wife. I was kissing her on the dance floor--no one else."
The girl traced her hand up his sleeve. "There's no reason to be so defensive. It's okay if you don't want to tell me the truth. You don't have to. I just want to comfort you. And something tells me, you need me too." She stepped close to him, leaving no doubt on his mind what she was after.
The vein on Arnav's temple throbbed. He bodily moved out of her reach. "Get out."
"What?" She looked stunned. "But ASR--"
"Did you not hear me? GET OUT!"
Several people in the hotel lobby gazed toward them with curious eyes. The girl's cheeks reddened. Tears rose in her eyes. "I still love you, ASR. Remember that."
Before she could say another word, Arnav turned away, stabbing the elevator key. He'd been in such a good mood, and now, he felt on the cusp of a major headache. Rubbing his temples, he took the elevator to his suite on the topmost floor.
Someone--probably the hotel management--had left several bouquets outside his room. Arnav stomped past the flowers. He didn't want them. What he wanted--correction needed--was to be home. To be with his wife.
But could he go home? Not yet. As he'd feared, he'd be stuck spending his birthday signing a few last remaining files and going to yet another boring luncheon. He didn't know why it mattered so much to him that Khushi would not be with him on his birthday. Birthdays were absolutely silly and childish as far as he was concerned.
But dammit, this year would have been his first with his wife present. And he'd be lying if he said he hadn't made some plans for the day during the past few weeks.
But Khushi hadn't remembered. He didn't blame her for it. She was a bit more forgetful these days. It was probably another side effect of her "mood swings," he thought with a faint smile.
Stepping inside his darkly lit suite, he threw his coat somewhere in the general direction of the sofa and then reached for the pack of unopened cigarettes on the coffee table.
"Don't even think about it," came a very familiar voice behind him.
He froze and then sighed. "Great, now I'm hallucinating about her."
Khushi laughed behind him. "I'm real, baby. Come and see."
The lights flipped on and Arnav's eyes widened. There were rose petals on the floors and bed that hadn't been there before and standing directly across from him, wearing nothing except his black silk robe, was his wife!
"Khushi?" His lips parted with wonder. The next moment, he was before her, hauling her into his arms. She moaned as he took hold of her, throwing her arms around him. Rising on her toes, she pressed kisses to every part of him that she could reach. His cheeks, his forehead, his chin, his mouth...
"I've missed you so much!"
"I can't believe you're here." He kissed her once, twice, thrice. "Are you really here?"
Khushi laughed as his mouth slanted over hers. "I'm really here, baby. I had to be. It's your birthday."
His smile was gorgeous. "So you did remember..."
She stroked her hands through his wavy hair, unable to stop touching him. "It took me some time, but I did. I don't know what's wrong with me lately. I'm so sorry I forgot."
"Hush. You're here now, nothing else matters. Let me kiss you. I've been dying to kiss you."
"Me too." Their mouths aligned with urgency. Khushi shivered as his tongue swept past her lips, delving deep. By the time they broke apart, she was breathless and her face was flushed. "And you got the deal! I heard the news on the way here. I knew you would." She beamed with pride. "Congrats, love."
Arnav clasped her to him. "It wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for you. I wasn't even planning on attending the summit."
"I knew you're get the contract. I just knew it. I'm so happy today."
"Not as much as I am to have you in my arms again. These last couple of days have felt never-ending."
She massaged his back. "I know. I've been dreaming of this moment. And it's here now. Pinch me."
His fingers nipped her bottom and she tweaked his chest. "Arnav!"
"What?" he smirked. "You asked for it." Lowering his head, he murmured in a low, husky voice that made her tremble and sway, "Please tell me you're not wearing anything underneath this robe."
She kissed the corner of his mouth. "Only one way of finding out."
He groaned her name, tugging on her earlobe with his teeth. "I need you," he rasped in her ear. "Need you so badly."
She rose up on her toes for his kiss and then just as suddenly, stepped away. "I need you too. But I want to give you something first."
His brow furrowed. "What?"
"Your birthday present. I can't wait. And it is almost midnight technically."
"You didn't have to get me anything."
Khushi wrung her hands. "But I wanted to. I just hope you like it."
"Only one way of finding out," he teased. "So where's my gift?"
Ever so slowly, she extended her hand to him. "This."
Arnav stared at her empty palm, confused. "Umm, babe..."
"I mean this," Khushi clarified, raising the sleeve of the robe. Arnav froze as he glimpsed her slim wrist. Arnav's Khushi, it said on the pale flesh.
"You got a tattoo?" His eyes flashed to her face with unconcealed shock as he studied the words.
She nodded nervously. "Do you like it?"
"It must have hurt you, dammit. The needle--" His voice broke off at the word.
Khushi squeezed his hand. "It didn't hurt too much. Just a little sting. I wanted to give you something that came somewhat close to explaining how I feel about you. How much you mean to me. Happy birthday, love."
He kissed her hotly, with unrestrained urgency, and then raising her hand, set his mouth against the inked words. "I think every morning that I can't possibly love you any more than I already do, but every day, I find myself falling more and more in love with you. Thank you, love. Thank you for the best gift I've ever received." He smiled at the words on her wrist. "My Khushi."
"Yours," she breathed.
His kiss deepened and he began leading her toward the rose-strewn bed, but Khushi moved out of his arms again.
Arnav growled her name. "Khushi, get back here."
"No, there's one more present."
"Another?" His brow wrinkled. "Baby, that one was more than enough. I don't want anything else."
"But I want to give you it." She handed him a plain, white box, tied off with a red ribbon.
"What is this?" he asked, perplexed.
"Open it and see." She was suddenly far more nervous than when she'd revealed the tattoo to him.
Arnav didn't know what he'd been expecting, but he could have never in his wildest dreams thought the box would contain this. "What the hell is this?" he asked, lifting a thick, corded rope.
Khushi had a hard time meeting his bewildered gaze. She spoke fast, wanting the conversation to be over with. "This is what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, the night before you left, remember I went to get water from your study? Well, your laptop was on," she explained. "I thought you must have forgotten to turn it off so I did...and I saw..."
It suddenly all connected. The rope, her questions about satisfying him in bed, her fitful sleep that night. "You saw images of DL," he whispered, horrified.
Khushi nodded, meeting his gaze with quiet apology. "I wanted to ask you that very moment about it, but I didn't want you to think I was snooping or that I didn't trust you. I honestly at that time thought it was just a pop-up. Because I didn't think you were interested in that."
"But..."
Khushi swallowed. "But then I found the folder in your study. It said you'd requested it. And I thought..." Her gaze wandered to the rope. "Arnav, truthfully, this all scares me a bit. I don't see how pain can be pleasure. I mean I like touching you, I like participating in our lovemaking. I don't know how I'd feel being bound up like that. Being entirely submissive." She closed her eyes, breathing in. "But if that's what you want, I'll...I'll try it."
"Why?" he bit out.
"Because I love you. I can do anything for you. Anything at all... And if this is what you're interested in then I want to understand why. I don't want you to go to DL or any other place like that." His expression darkened and Khushi felt her insides quiver. "Not like that, love. I know you'd never be with another woman, but I read the...umm brochures... it said many people like to watch and not directly participate..."
Arnav caught her by the shoulders, his face hard as stone. "Is that what you think? That I'd hurt you? That I would take pleasure in watching you or any other woman suffer?"
Khushi flinched. "It said there's pleasure in pain. That it's erotic..."
"In some cases it might be. For some people, it might be," he conceded. "But DL is far beyond any BDSM club out there. It's dangerous. Horrific. The things they do in the name of pain is beyond what you can ever imagine. They'd laugh at this rope you've brought, you know. Would find it utterly childish."
"How do you know so much about it?"
"Doesn't matter how I know," Arnav snarled. "What matters is that you think I'm interested in that. That I'd willingly hurt you."
Khushi shivered. Had she made a huge mistake? "Baby, I--"
"Enough!" Taking hold of her hand, he pulled her to the bed. "Take off the robe and lie in the center of the mattress."
His voice was hard and ice cold. Khushi tried to touch him, but he backed away. "Did you not hear me? You wanted this right? Take off the damn robe."
Her fingers trembled as she undid the sash. It pooled about her ankles, leaving her utterly bare before him. Arnav's jaw clenched but he gave no other outward reaction.
"Lie down."
Khushi did as he said. "What now?"
"You haven't done enough research on DL, Khushi," he said with marked sarcasm. "You don't get to ask any questions. Now, part your legs for me."
Blushing slightly, Khushi slowly parted her legs.
"Wider."
She raised her head off the mattress. "Baby, please. I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"I said wider."
Closing her eyes, Khushi did as he commanded, feeling completely exposed. Her ankles dangled off of either side of the bed.
His mouth descended, making her cry out as he caught her by the hips, kissing her intimately. But he was gone almost at once, leaving her wanting.
"Now time to use this rope...I mean my birthday present."
Khushi cringed as he took hold of her wrist. She turned her head away, waiting for the rope to be wound. It would chafe she imagined, maybe even burn.
But the sting never came. Instead of the rope, his lips drifted across her wrist, smooth and feather light as they traced right over the tattoo.
Turning to face him, Khushi felt her heart constrict. His eyes were moist. "How could you?" he whispered brokenly. "How could you think for a moment I'd ever hurt you? That I'd enjoy that? Maybe some men find it a turn on, but I don't. I know sometimes I get a bit too rough with you, and maybe that's why you assumed I wanted this." He sighed, closing his eyes. "I wasn't looking at DL for myself. I was researching it for another reason."
"What reason?" she breathed.


Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
Episode 29: His Birthday
Khushi's question hung in the still air between them, seeming to breathe a life of its own: what reason?
Such a simple question, Arnav thought. If only he could give her an equally straightforward answer. But he couldn't. Not yet.
Staring into his wife's huge, caramel brown eyes, her mascara faintly smudged, he knew instinctively that she would never believe anything against Payal without concrete evidence--and maybe not even then. His jaw hardened at the realization.
"Baby?" she breathed beneath him, her lithe body arching up and brushing ever so softly against his.
He steeled himself, his gaze trained on her upturned features.  "A sister of my close friend frequents DL. I'm trying to help resolve the situation--that's it."
It wasn't a complete lie, more like a paler, far less grim version of reality, but he knew at once how much it affected his wife. Hell, he could feel it.  Beneath him, her body had gone deathly still and her eyes had widened.
 "Oh God," she gasped brokenly. "I'm so sorry. I was just so sure--"
"That I was interested in something like that." His voice, heavy with accusation, cut into Khushi, but much worse were his eyes, turbulent and veiled by dark shadows. He seemed very distant suddenly.
Her hands settled atop his. She needed him to understand. Needed him to know that she'd never intended to hurt him, though she could plainly see she had. Her chin trembled as she met his gaze. "I didn't mean it. Arnav, I--" He rolled off of her in one smooth move, towering over her like a giant shadow. A very angry shadow.
"Arnav, please..." Kneeling on the bed, Khushi arched toward him.
Their embrace for the first time was not graceful or fluid, but rather awkward. Try as she might, Khushi could not ignore how tense and stiff her husband was against her, how he'd yet to even touch her. And then his hands slowly descended to the tops of her bare shoulders, his warmth seeping into her skin like the most soothing of balms. She was so sure that he would hug her back at that moment, so confident but to her dismay, he bodily shifted her away instead, his eyes unreadable.
"I can't do this."
Her heart lurched at that. "What do you mean?"
He drew back, deeper into the shadows, his footsteps barely discernable on the luxurious, thick carpet covering the floors. "That you should have known better. You should have known me better. I was so damn sure you did. But I was wrong, wasn't I?"
His words, uttered in low, accusing tones, were much worse than any shouts or screams. Khushi almost wished he would scream at her. But she could see that he was reacting much as he always did, bottling away his hurt and anger and offering her just a glimpse of his true pain. To her, it felt as if he was slipping away. As if she was losing him... That thought scared her like nothing else and jumping out of the canopy bed, she grabbed a hold of his arm.
"Don't say that. Please, don't."
He flung her arm away, stalking up to her so they stood nose-to-nose. His furious glare fixed on her face as he grasped her by the hips, drawing her flat against him.
"What do you want me to say then? Do you want me to forget that tonight you not only questioned my faithfulness to you and our marriage, but my very character? It's not the first time someone's done that to me, Khushi. It happens all the time. Hell, I'm used to it. I get it from everyone--the media, my business rivals, your family... but not you!" His dark eyes swung to her ashen face, desperate for her to understand even as his hands clamped on her hips in a taut grip. "You're my wife, Khushi," he ground out. "And I thought you at least would trust me. But you clearly don't."
Tears threatened to slip past Khushi's lashes as she considered his dear features, bent now in volatile fury, but she willed herself not to fall apart. Not now when everything felt at stake. "What are you saying? You know how much I trust you. How much you mean to me... I left everyone behind for you. Only for you! My family. My friends. My whole life in Lucknow."
His head cocked sideways. "So you're blaming me now?"
"Of course not. I chose all of that and I'm glad I did. I don't regret anything. But it wasn't easy, Arnav. Nothing was easy for either one of us. Because of this passion between us, this love, our marriage, we've dealt with so many obstacles and never once backed down. Us versus the world, remember? Please don't do something now that I know you'll regret later."
But her husband was in no mood to listen. His mouth tightened all the more at her pleas. "But I haven't done anything. Not yet. It's you who did. You who brought this..." His lips contorted as he held up the rope."...lovely present for me."
Khushi managed not to flinch this time. "I did it for you. To please you."
"Please me?" He shook his head. "See that's what really amazes me. What has happened to you lately?"
"What do you mean?"
He tossed the rope to the ground and it lay there between them, drawing their gazes time and time again no matter how much both wished it would simply cease to exist. Arnav was the first to look away, his jaw set.
"The Khushi I know and love would never do something she doesn't believe in. She'd have fought tooth and nail for me to understand her point of view--not suppressed her own thoughts and desires! If I'd wanted a wife who nodded at everything I said or agreed to whatever I wanted, I would have married Sheetal or Nicole or countless other women. But I chose you, Khushi. I fell in love with you!" He held her by the shoulders again, his expression pained. "And you know why? Because you're unlike anyone else I've ever known. You're genuinely good, honest, not just another pretty face, but beautiful inside and out. And most unbelievable of all, you make me want to be a better man. A better human being."
Khushi couldn't tear her gaze off of him. "Arnav, I--"
He stopped her with a singeing glance. "No more excuses and explanations. Not tonight. I think we both need some time to think..." He paused for the briefest of seconds before adding, "...on our own. I'll see you in the morning."
Jarred and shaken, she watched him retreat once more. "Where are you going? Are you really leaving the hotel?"
He didn't turn around, but she watched him pause midstride, the muscles of his back bunching beneath the white of his formal shirt. "I'll be out on the balcony," he said simply.
Before she could stop him, he was gone. Holding back a sob with the palm of her hand, Khushi stumbled to the bed, falling onto the crisp sheets. She tried to control her tears--she really did--but there was no stopping it. Her husband's words echoed in her mind, the look of disappointment and hurt on his face kept flashing past her eyes.
Somewhere outside, church bells rang in midnight and her heart tugged even harder. How special today was for her... for them... and yet, even though finally reunited, they remained for all purposes, separated still. Now more than ever.
"Happy birthday, love," she whispered, wishing he were beside her, that it was in his arms she rested, against his strong heartbeat. Most of all, Khushi found herself wishing that tonight, so many things could have gone differently.
If only...
*****
A giggle came from the doorway and Shyam Jha halted midstroke, hoping his mind was simply playing tricks again. But it came again. A soft, bubbly, and in his opinion, highly annoying laugh. He tossed the paintbrush aside, drawing a sheet over the canvas.
"Anjali," he said grumpily, not bothering to hide his displeasure, "What do you want now?"
Her curious face appeared beside the easel, her lips pursed into a child-like pout. "How did you know it was me? I was being so quiet. Just like you said."
"I need to buy you a dictionary, darling," he murmured absently. Or better yet, that brother of yours needs to buy you one. Better his money wasted than mine.
"A dictionary?" Her brow furrowed. "But why?"
"So you can learn the meaning of the word quiet."
His words were uttered with an underlying threat to them, but Anjali only laughed once more. "You are so hilarious, Shyamji. The funniest man I know."
Funny? Now, it was entirely true he'd been called many things in his life, but that particular adjective was one no one had ever used to describe him before. The thought itself was laughable. It took everything in him to force himself to smile.
His sweet, innocent wife took that half-smile as the greatest reward she'd ever been given, blushing greatly, the hope and love in her eyes impossible for him to ignore. He ached to tell her how much he despised her. How smothered he felt by her so-called love and constant doting.
In the first weeks of their marriage, he'd been far more understanding of her peculiar behavior. But the honeymoon glow had worn off fast and he'd come to loathe her. He would have divorced her and married some other rich socialite, but being married to Anjali had certain advantages.
For one, he never had to explain anything. She never questioned him about his long absences, accepting his excuses about "work" no matter how ridiculous his explanation was. She never batted so much as an eyelash as he asked her to sign one blank check after the next. Never did anything but long for a morsel of his affection.
Love, he mused. It was love that made Anjali so pathetic and weak. Love not just for him, but to a far greater degree, for the very institution of marriage. She clung to the broken relationship between them as if it was the most sacred of bonds. But why? Well, Shyam hadn't ever really bothered to find out. As long as Anjali kept out of his affairs and he continued being paid by both sister and brother, he didn't give a damn how oddly she behaved. But that didn't mean she didn't annoy him. She did. More than he could ever explain.
"Why are you even here?" he asked in a tight voice. "It's almost midnight."
She held up her pink-incased phone as if that explained everything. "Dadi called. She sounded quite agitated and I was hoping you'd talk to her. You know how much she adores you...just like me."
He ignored the last bit, having heard enough about her endless devotion to him innumerable times before. "What's happened to your grandmother now?"
Anjali frowned for the first time, her cheerful smile dimming. "It seems Payal and Akash visited her in Nainital, but they refused to bring her back home without Chote's permission. Dadi was saying Arnav probably handed over the business deal to Akash in exchange for his agreement."
"So? She's probably right. Your brother seems to think he can buy whatever he wants with his money."
His wife overlooked his note of resentment, shaking her head vehemently and making one of those rare exceptions to disagree with him. "That's not true. My Chote's not like that. He may appear a bit aloof and some would say even cold and arrogant, but he's actually very emotional underneath it all. Very sensitive."
The look on his face must have revealed his skepticism because his wife nodded all the more. "It's true! Why I remember when we were kids and one summer, NK and Akash went through this bad phase where they would spend all their time shooting down bird nests for whatever silly reason. And you know what Arnav would do?  He'd fight with him and not only that, he'd secretly nurse the poor birds back to health. He thought no one knew, but I always kept an eye on my Chote." Anjali smiled at the memory, but it floundered slightly as her gaze rose beseechingly to her husband. "Why can't you and Chote get along? You both are my two most favorite people in the entire world. I just want to grow old with you on one side and he on the other. The three of us...together forever..."
A chill ran up Shyam's spine at the yearning he detected in her voice. "And what about his wife? That woman...Khushi or whatever her name is..."
Anjali didn't seem as upset by the mention of her sister-in-law as he'd hoped she would be. Rather, she looked resigned, shrugging so casually it was as if her brother's wife held hardly any significance. "Dadi predicts they will be divorced within the next few months and she's never wrong." A smile played on her lips as she studied him. "Not all our marriages can be like ours, Shyamji. Fairy-tale like."
Once, the impassioned look in her eyes would have given him pause, but no longer. He slipped into the role of doting husband quite easily. Nearly four years of marriage had taught him exactly how to pretend she was sane.
"No, my darling, they cannot. But if you want ours to last forever, you must learn to listen to me. What did I tell you about coming into my studio? You're not allowed here." Knowing well her next argument, he hurried to add, "And if you need to reach me, you are supposed to stand quietly outside in the hall and knock. I will come out. But you must keep quiet."
She nodded like an obedient schoolgirl and certainly not like a woman in her mid-thirties. "I was trying to be quiet, I promise you I was. But you left the door ajar tonight and when I saw you standing there, painting, I couldn't help but laugh."
"Why?" he snapped, his temper soaring as she laughed all over again, the sound grating his ears in the most unpleasant way, like ugly, grotesque shaped nails rattling across chalkboard.
"Because you are clearly so misunderstood. I don't know why Chote especially was so angry with you the last time he was here. You are so gentle...so kind...the most talented artist I know."
It was his turn to laugh. "Talented? But you haven't seen any of my work, GG."
Anjali beamed at his endearment for her. Yes, she was his "Good Girl" and always would be, she thought. Her eyes wandered to the countless paintings crowding the messy studio, each obscured by heavy linen cloth. "I know your art must be beautiful. My heart tells me so. You'll show me once they're complete, won't you?"
"Of course. I've promised you several times, haven't I? I swear on your life I will show you one day."
Her fingers nervously played with the ribbons of her frilly, girly robe. "Can't you show me tonight? Please?"
As he studied her pitiful expression, inspiration hit him--and hard. "Have I ever refused you, GG?" My Golden Goose.
She shook her head, not making any move to stop him as he eased the robe off her shoulders. If anything, she was just as eager as him and perhaps even more. "You are the best husband in the whole world, Shyamji."
Shyam grinned, biting his cheek to keep from laughing as he helped her take off the high-necked slip she wore underneath and the last of her clothes.
Taking hold of her hand, he helped her lie on the middle of the paint-streaked floor. He imagined the floor had to be uncomfortable and most likely cold as well, but his wife seemed to not mind in the slightest. She arched up with a loud moan as his paintbrush traveled over her soft skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
"Lovely," he whispered as Anjali, the pest disappeared and Anjali, his newfound canvas took hold of his mind. He painted with vigor, his eyes glazing over as a strange madness sizzled in his veins.
"My eyes," Anjali sobbed with something akin to ecstasy as she stared down at the dark brown pupil he'd painted with detail on her torso. "You're painting me."
He laid his index finger over her parted lips. "Quiet, remember?"
She kissed his fingertip reverently. "I love you, Shyamji."
He stared down at the eye he'd painted. "I love you too."
What neither noticed as the brush lowered once more was the door, which stood slightly ajar just as Anjali had left it. But it was no longer empty. A shadow loomed in the small gap, eyes widening in silent horror as they fixed on the terrible sight of a naked Anjali on the floor, writhing uncontrollably as Shyam painted what could only be described as a bull's eye on her stomach.
*****
Far from Shantivan, the hours seemed to tick by extra slowly in the darkness. Khushi lay on her side, unable to sleep, absently stroking her abdomen. The silence stung. Almost as much as her husband's absence.
Her eyes wandered to the balcony's French doors once more. They remained closed, just as they had been all night, nothing except for the faint glow of moonlight emanating through the floral curtains.
 "What has happened to you lately?" she recalled Arnav asking, his eyes more sad than angry. "The Khushi I know and love would never do something she doesn't believe in. She'd have fought tooth and nail for me to understand her point of view--not suppressed her own thoughts and desires!"
And suddenly, Khushi knew exactly what needed to be done. Rising out of the warm bed, she quickly tied one of the bedsheets around her chest and padded over to the balcony, throwing open the doors.
Her husband lay on a lounge chair, legs crossed, shirt half unbuttoned. The amber glow of his cigarette highlighted the sharp contours of his face and the hawk-like glint of his eyes. Even in the dim light, she couldn't help but notice how tired he looked, how exhausted. As his eyes fixed on her, unblinking with disbelief, Khushi grasped his forearm, drawing him up.
"Come inside. It's late."
Seeming to regain control, he chuckled, a dark, humorless laugh. "I'm honestly surprised you came out here, but little difference it makes. Isaid not tonight. And I mean it, Khushi."
"Well, I mean it too!"
As her eyes flashed at him, both couldn't help but recall the days when they'd been like this 24/7, arguing constantly, finding excuses to rile up the other. In those days, they'd not just been fighting each other, but their own desires as well. But a strange, powerful pull had guided them ever closer, a bond full of attraction, need and bottomless love. As Khushi stood in the balmy night air of Thailand, the wind ruffling her tousled hair, questions and concerns swarmed her mind, but she knew one fact without any inkling of doubt: she did not want them to return to that time of arguments and petty differences.
And so, she forced herself to take a steadying breath before facing her husband. "You said you wanted me not to agree to your every request, but to show you what I really think." He didn't challenge her, standing as rigid as a stonewall before her. Khushi couldn't look away from him, her chest feeling unusually tight. "And that's exactly what I'm doing. So stop your brooding and come inside. Now." Grinding out his cigarette, she started to drag him toward the door, but he managed to pull himself free again.
"And if I refuse?"
Khushi's hands rose to her hips. "You don't want to risk it, Mr. Raizada. Trust me."
She thought she saw him grin, but she couldn't be sure. Because the very next second, he was marching inside and Khushi was too happy with her small victory to focus on much else. Closing the door behind them, she hurried to the bedroom.
"This doesn't change anything, you understand?" Arnav told her, his breath jerking to a halt as she cast the bedsheet aside and slipped under the mosquito netting. "I still stand by everything I said tonight."
She didn't so much as blink, her eyes seeming to glow and twinkle in the soft light. "I know. And you might have had a point about certain things too."
Now that surprised him almost as much as her sudden appearance on the balcony. He hadn't expected her to see his point so quickly. "So you agree with me?"
Khushi slowly nodded. "For the most part. But not completely. Some things you said were dead wrong."
"Really? Like what?"
Khushi closed her eyes, turning onto her side with a yawn. "I'll tell you in the morning. Like you said, we both need some time to think. For now, can we please sleep?"
Arnav bit back an oath as he stared down at the angelic face of his wife. Really, would he ever understand her, he wondered? Quietly, he undressed, gazing at her the entire time. As he slid in beside her, it took everything in him to ignore her heady proximity. For several minutes, both lay unmoving, acutely aware of the other even as a large gap loomed between them.
"Are you awake still?" she murmured after what seemed a long while.
"Unfortunately," came the gruff reply.
 "I can't seem to fall sleep either."
"Well, try to. You need to rest...especially in your state."
Khushi found herself grinning. Sure, Arnav was furious with her right now, but even that didn't stop his over-protectiveness when it came to the pregnancy.
"I am trying, Arnav."
"Not hard enough."
Khushi struggled not to roll her eyes. Beside her, Arnav had gone still. He'd expected her to flip about and tell him wrong he was, how overprotective he was being, but she'd quieted down again. He felt oddly disappointed. A sudden thought struck. "Maybe it would help if I held you like I always do."
Her back stiffened. "I thought you were angry with me."
"I was. Still am. This changes nothing."
For all his harsh words, his touch was heartstoppingly gentle as he tugged her into his arms, spooning her so her back lay flush against his front. Khushi felt her heartbeat quicken as one of his hands settled over her growing belly and his breath caressed her nape. Irrational, silly tears stung her eyes as his solid warmth seeped into her, branding her with his familiar, masculine heat. She chalked it up to her shifting hormones though something told her it was something far more deeper than that. Simply put, she was back where she'd been aching to be. In his arms.
"Arnav..." she began. "I--"
"Dammit, go to sleep, Khushi." His voice softened marginally, "It's late."
Biting back the "I love you," she'd been about to say, Khushi vowed that tomorrow morning, she'd set everything right again--in her own way. They still had some things to discuss, but for the time being, she was content simply being with him.  Cuddling closer, she tried not to giggle as she felt him react to her squirming.
"Good night," she said cheekily. "Sleep well."
Arnav clenched his jaw tight as she angled her bottom to fit snugly against his pelvis and rested her hand over his thigh. Did she really think he'd actually drift off to sleep after that move?
Eyes glinting, he slowly slid his hand upward, past her protruding navel, possessively cupping one swollen breast. She was sensitive in his palm and as he flicked his thumb back and forth, he heard her gasp.
"Good night, Khushi," he all but purred in her ear.
*****
Ten hours later (though it felt more like two)
Khushi couldn't be entirely sure what woke her, but she found herself rolling onto her back, gazing up bleary-eyed at the fine net canopy overhead. Almost immediately, she sensed the emptiness beside her. Though a familiar male cologne still clung to the sheets, the morning light highlighted one glaring detail: Arnav was gone.
Wide-awake now, she sat up, pushing back the tangled mass her hair had become during the course of the night. And what a night... She'd been lucky to have slept at all after her husband's heated caresses.
The memory almost made her smile. Almost. If only he were here now...  Her eyes jerked to the pillow they'd shared during the night. He was surely gone, but he'd left something behind.
Filled with curiosity, she raised the letter he'd clearly written in a great hurry, the writing so awful she had to struggle to make out the words. After a few minutes of great deliberation she was roughly 99% sure he'd written:
KASR, I have an important meeting to go to. There's a luncheon at noon and then several interviews with the media scheduled for this evening. Order room service and take the driver with you if you want to go sightsee. Feel free to contact Aman if you need anything else. I will see you late tonight. We will talk then.
Khushi squinted at the last line. We will talk then or was it, we will take a hen? Grumbling, she set the letter aside, crossing her arms under her chest. What did it matter what the last sentence said? Fact of the matter was, Arnav was basically hell bent on avoiding her.
Her temper soared as she sat there, her gaze drifting to the infuriating note. How dare he leave like this? Didn't the man realize how much they had to discuss? Clearly not! He'd instead thrown himself into work, even today of all days!
She sobered slightly at that realization. It was his birthday. His. And she'd prepared so much for today. Standing, she opened her suitcase, a yawn escaping her as she rifled through the clothes. Each one had been packed for a purpose: the plain red sari from the photo shoot long ago, the emerald green he loved so much, and an assortment of her bright, Lucknowi kurtas.
Her plan for today had been to recreate some of their most romantic moments. To make him happy. See him smile... Chewing on her bottom lip, Khushi realized she could still make use of these things. All she had to do was slightly modify her original plans. It wouldn't all go to waste after all.
Grinning, she slipped into a voluminous bathrobe and opened the balcony doors, gazing out at the colorful, noisy streets of Thailand. The birthday boy would never realize what he had coming.
Her palms glided over her belly. "Your dad can try to avoid us, babies, but we all know how impossible that is. Let him try," she said with an impish twinkle in her eyes. She was quite sure the twins agreed.
*****
In the hotel's posh conference hall on the first floor, Arnav crossed the marble tiles with his team following closely behind. A waiter stepped forth with a tray of champagne glasses brimming with orange juice, but Arnav waved him off, the memory of another waiter with spiked juice still fresh in his mind.
"Mr. Mookjai."
His business partner turned with a polite smile. "Mr. Raizada."
They shook hands. At just shy of seventy-seven years old, Mookjai had a rather regal bearing and friendly, slate gray eyes. Despite his family's insistence he retire, he'd stubbornly refused and hadn't slowed down in the slightest. But there was one thing even he couldn't argue against: his memory wasn't as sharp as it used to be, as indicated by his curious gaze, which veered to the others behind Arnav with obvious confusion.
"You remember my team?" Arnav broke in. "This is Aman, my executive assistant and--"
A slight figure pushed past the others, coming beside Arnav so fast he couldn't quite wrap his head around it. Stretching out her hand, she said with a wide, dazzling smile: "And I'm Khushi Kumari Gupta, Mr. Raizada's secretary."
Arnav blinked as his wife turned toward him, winking ever so slyly. Her sudden entrance startled him--almost as much as her appearance. She looked... different this morning. Yes, that was the word. Different.
Her long hair, normally left undone, lay over one shoulder in a single, thick braid. Her lipstick was several shades brighter than her usual one and her clothes different and yet, vividly familiar. Why in the world was she wearing her old clothes, wondered Arnav, frowning down at the pom-pom adorned, green salwar kameez. Because he could have sworn that when he'd insisted she get a new wardrobe months ago, she'd been more than happy about it. Why else had she never worn these gaudy dresses before him again?
Until today, that is.
"My dear girl, you should not be working in such a state," Mr. Mookjai declared and Arnav's gaze swept over his wife all over again. Her old clothes had been designed for a woman who'd been more a girl than a woman. But Khushi had changed. She was more shapely now, her curves and not to mention protruding stomach stretching past what the fabric seemed to allow. She had to be uncomfortable, he realized.
"Please excuse me, Mr. Mookjai. Aman, prepare the presentation." Ignoring his smiling assistant, he took hold of Khushi's arm, steering her toward an empty corner of the room.
"What are you doing here?" he all but growled. "And dressed like this?"
She raised her chin, looking him square in the eye. "Like I said, I am Khushi Kumari Gupta, your personal secretary and this is how I dress. Don't you remember, sir?"
"Enough. Stop the damn games, Khushi. You are not a Gupta any longer. You are my wife. Khushi Arnav Singh Raizada."
"Not today," came the flippant reply.
His head felt as if it might explode. "What the hell does that mean?"
She shrugged, grabbing a drink from a passing waiter and downing all the juice in one swallow. "That I'm your secretary for the day and you can ask for anything. You are the birthday boy after all."
He struggled to ignore how some of the juice clung to her lower lip, aching to slant his mouth over hers and lick away those droplets. Only the din of the conference hall stopped him.
"Anything? Well, then I ask for you to stop this nonsense right now and go back to the room."
"You can ask for anything except for that. Oops, I might have forgotten to mention that."
"How convenient." He gazed enthralled at her warm smile, those twinkling, caramel brown eyes that looked nothing short of liquid velvet, those full, kissable lips...
"So, Mr. Raizada, what would you like today?" Unlike him, Khushi still had her mind on work. "Is there a memo that needs to be typed? A photo shoot to organize? Or maybe a dictionary you want me to copy from?"
He almost smiled at the reminder of the ridiculous tasks he'd once assigned her. Almost. Before he could reply, Khushi abruptly took hold of his right hand and with not so much as a look to any of the others in the room, led him out an adjacent door.
Arnav suddenly found himself in the hotel's renowned lotus gardens. He had to admit it was nice out here. The breeze was cool and balmy, the scent of blossoms surrounded them, the faint sound of a water fountain came from somewhere amidst the trees, and most of all, there was Khushi. His Khushi. With him. Beside him.
Despite her choice of attire and the weight she'd added on due to the twins, she looked radiant in the morning light. So stunning, he could only follow after her, unable to ignore how soft and creamy her skin looked, how the tight fit of her clothes accentuated her every curve, how her eyes gleamed and shone...
"Khushi, where are we going?"
"You'll see," she said over her shoulder, smiling at him.
They made their way over to a secluded alcove, flanked by pillars. He took a deep breath. It was incredibly difficult to pretend to be so serious and cold when all he yearned to do was make love to his very pregnant wife...again and again. He wanted her so much, he ached and throbbed with need.
His phone chose that particular moment to beep and he frowned at the message he'd received from Aman: Hope I'm not interrupting, but there's only five minutes till the presentation starts. Mook's asking for you.
Arnav resisted the urge to type back: when do you NOT interrupt?Instead, he stuffed the phone back in his pocket, turning to Khushi.
She was frowning--not at him thankfully--but in the general direction of the conference they'd left. He craned his neck to see, but saw nothing except for more flowers and shrubbery.
"Khushi, you need to stop...whatever it is you're up to, needs to stop. Right this minute. Understood? It's--"
"Who was that woman?"
The question was so unexpected, he froze. Clearly, Khushi hadn't been listening to a word he'd been saying. Of course not. Hopelessly, he dropped the pretense of being angry, genuinely puzzled as he asked, "What woman?"
His wife turned to frown at him. "The one who was glaring at me the entire time we were talking in there. I swear she looked like she was going to charge out after us when we left. That woman."
"I have no idea who you're talking about," he replied truthfully.
She threw up her hands. "You men really are really impossible sometimes. Let me correct that, it's actually most of the time. How could you not notice? She was staring at you so possessively, so intensely...as if you were the center of her universe or something." She shuddered. "And she looked at me as if she'd like nothing better than to murder me when I so much as touched your sleeve."
His lips quirked. "So what did you do?"
"I glared back! And then I took your hand in mine and brought us here."
He couldn't quite keep his smile in check. "You were jealous."
Khushi balked at that. "Of course not! I was more furious than anything. How could she stand there, in a room full of people, and literally undress my husband with her eyes?"
"Undress me with her eyes? Khushi, don't you think that's a bit of an exaggeration?"
"You didn't see her though!" she exclaimed. "She looked enraged to see us together. As if she couldn't figure out what in the world you were doing with a girl like me."
Arnav met her gaze evenly. "Did she have curly hair and glasses that looked in danger of slipping off her nose?"
Khushi, who'd been on the brink of charging inside and confronting the woman whom she'd mentally termed "her husband's creepy stalker" froze at that. Her lips parted with surprise. "So you do know her."
"Not exactly. It was just a guess on my part and a correct one apparently."
His wife crossed her arms under her chest, not seeming to notice how the action highlighted her spilling curves all the more. He, of course, did.
"Arnav," she broke in with marked impatience. "Explain."
"There's nothing much to say. I ran into her in the lobby yesterday. She's..." He expelled a breath. "She's my fan."
"Fan?"
He nodded. "Who would have thought, right? But apparently I have fans. She says it's because I inspire her, but I think it's more to do with that playboy image I have in the media than anything else. Just ignore her."
Khushi was silent for a moment and then gave a small nod. "As long as she stays out of my way--and yours."
"Good." He glanced down at his watch. "Now, I really need to go. Aman must be having a panic attack by now. Go on up to the room, okay?"
"But I'm your secretary," she pouted.
He leaned in and did what he'd been aching to do for far too long now: kissed her full on the mouth, his tongue stroking over her soft lips and licking away the last remnants of orange juice. Khushi was so taken aback by the suddenness of his touch, she couldn't move for a moment, but as his tongue coaxed hers to respond, she shivered, clutching his shoulders and meeting him stroke for stroke. A gasp escaped her as their lips parted.
"Arnav..."
He brushed his mouth briefly over hers again, the pull of desire so strong he knew that if he did not leave immediately, he would find himself unable to and Khushi would find herself pressed to the nearest wall or mattress--whatever they happened to encounter first.
"We'll talk later," he muttered, trying to regain control of his senses. "Now go and please change out of these clothes."
"What's wrong with these?" she asked, equally breathless from the passion that had sprung up so rapidly between them. Even now, a heady tension filled the air. Her chest heaved against his.
"They're too...too..."
"Too what?"
He kissed her on the forehead, unable to stop touching her. It seemed his hands and mouth had a mind of their own. "Too...too happy in their world. Not to mention they don't fit you." His palms splayed over her stomach. "You weren't in this state when you walked into my office months ago. So you see, you are only Khushi Raizada now, not Gupta. Head on upstairs. I'll try to be there soon."
"How soon?"
"Around dinner time--if I can get away."
His wife shook her head. "That's not good enough."
Arnav vaguely heard people shouting his name, but for the life of him, he couldn't seem to bring himself to leave. "We'll talk later, Khushi. Promise."
His last image of her was of her standing in the shade of an apple blossom tree, looking very pregnant and very beautiful with her mouth slightly bent, her eyes focused on him, and her hair slightly tousled from the breeze.
Though he'd told her otherwise, Arnav planned on returning to the hotel room much earlier. Right before lunch, in fact. It was that thought that got him through the tedious round of morning meetings.
"Is that it for today?" he asked Aman several hours later.
His chief assistant gave an indefinite nod. "For the meetings. But there's the luncheon in the banquet hall next door in thirty minutes and then the interviews."
Arnav nodded warily. "Fine. I'll see you in half an hour then." Excusing himself, he left the crowded conference room, walking quickly to the hotel lobby, which was surprisingly empty at this time of day.
His gaze returned impatiently to his watch as he waited for the elevator, anticipation unfurling within him. One name haunted his mind, his thoughts: Khushi. God, what would he say to her? He was still very much hurt by her "gift" from the night before, but the hours apart had given him time to think and sort his thoughts.
Fact was, Khushi hadn't deserved such harshness from him last night. Looking back, he regretted losing his temper, but in that moment, he'd felt powerless. Powerless to see anything past the knowledge that she'd actually thought him capable of hurting her. Her. The woman he loved with every fiber of his being.
They had to talk about this, he realized. Running away from it wouldn't help. He had to understand why she'd assumed the worst of him. That stolen moment in the gardens flashed past his eyes and his hands fisted at his sides. That kiss... her soft lips parting beneath his with a faint tremble... her body arching into his...
Breathing hard, he punched the up arrow again. Though there were several serious issues they had to discuss, he couldn't help but dwell on that kiss. He wanted more of that. A hell of a lot more.
"Mr. Raizada?" A finger tapped his shoulder.
He turned to find himself face to face with five men, all dressed in identical black suits and hats.
"Yes?"
"You must come with us."
His frown deepened. "I'll be the one to decide that. Who the hell are you people?"
"Part of Mr. Mookjai's team. He forgot to discuss one last point with you. If you'd please come with us."
Arnav didn't know why, but he felt something was not quite right as he followed them to the main entrance. "But Mook... I mean Mr. Mookjai must be at the lunch at this time."
"No," said the man closest to him, "He's actually on his way out. He has a very busy schedule today. If you'd please follow us. We're almost there."
They walked out to a black SUV and Arnav crossed his arms. "Well, where is he?"
"NOW!" shouted a vaguely familiar voice behind him.
And before he could even begin to react, a black cloth slid over his eyes and the five men shoved him inside the jeep. His head struck something hard, white-hot pain exploding. As the tires screeched and he felt himself lurch forward, Arnav's last thought was: What the hell just happened?
And then there was only blackness and the aching sorrow in his heart that Khushi was likely waiting for him in the hotel room still, not having the faintest clue what kept him away.
*****
"KIDNAPPING!" Buaji shouted, barging inside the bedroom where Garima sat chatting with one of her closest friends and their next-door neighbor, Sarita. "He's been kidnapped!"
Alarmed, her sister-in-law stood. "Who? Who's been kidnapped?"
Buaji motioned toward the living room. "In my favorite soap. The hero was in an airport and then suddenly, he's gone. Can you believe it? His poor wife..."
"Soap opera?" Sarita gazed at the two of them with exaggerated disbelief. "Don't tell me you still watch those. I only watch the news and crime-based shows. Karan loves those."
 "Oh, how is Karan bitwa?" Garima smartly changed the topic of discussion, knowing that if it continued to be anything remotely related to TV, there would soon be a shouting match between her sister-in-law and best friend.
"Karan is doing so well," said his mother proudly, with a slight turn of her lips. "His new boss is the most nicest, kindest young man. Treats me like a mother. I told him too that whenever he's in Delhi, he must come over to our house for dinner."
"That's wonderful," Garima muttered, softly.
"It truly is. But I must say, Garima, I still have one regret in life. Your Khushi should have been my Karan's wife and my daughter-in-law. If she had been, everything would just have been perfect, wouldn't it?"
They'd spoken of this very scenario countless times before; of Khushi and Karan happily married, of their two families becoming one with all that included, like family dinners and holidays together, of being in-laws and eventually grandmothers to the most precious little angels.
But Khushi's brief stay at her parent's home had changed things. Garima found herself shaking her head at her friend. "It's no use anymore. Khushi's very happy where she is...with that man."
Sarita couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What are you saying, Garima? Khushi's simply confused. It's not love, but attraction! And a very misguided one at that. How can you just cast off your daughter to a man like Arnav Singh Raizada? He's a well-known womanizer! Why there was that video in the news just days ago of him at some nightclub. Indigo, I think the name was. Even in public, he has no decency, can you imagine how he must behave behind closed doors? He's positively rakish and--"
"He was with Khushi that night." This time it was Buaji who spoke, striding forth with a mutinous expression on her plump face. "The woman in the black dress was Khushi."
Sarita couldn't have been more startled. "What? Our Khushi? Kissing on a dance floor? How could she have stooped so low?"
Garima could keep quiet no longer. "It's no one's business what Khushi and her husband do. They're married. And in love. The only one who stooped low is the one who taped their private moment."
Her friend gazed at her with growing incredulity. "Are you listening to yourself? Are you actually defending that womanizer? He seduced your daughter and has now clearly corrupted her!" She squeezed her hand, her gaze turning very serious. "Don't worry, we can fix this still. We just need to find a way to separate them. It shouldn't be too hard and then Karan and Khushi can be together, just as we've wanted all along."
Despite her impassioned tone, nothing was further from the truth. Sarita had no intention of making Khushi her daughter-in-law--not after her very public and scandalous marriage to ASR. Karan, she thought inwardly, would marry a decent, demure girl, someone more like Payal than Khushi.
"Garima, it isn't too late. Khushi might listen if we show her how horrible her husband truly is. How he can't be trusted. I will help you and so will Karan--"
Her friend yanked her arm away, standing so quickly, it came as a slight shock. "I do not need nor want your help. Please leave."
"What?" Aghast, Sarita stood too.
"Leave," Garima said again. "I don't want to be friends with someone who would like nothing more than for my daughter's home to be broken, for her marriage to fall apart."
Sarita's mouth compressed and her eyes sparked with barely controlled spite. "Well, it will happen, mark my words. A marriage like theirs cannot last! Khushi will regret choosing that Arnav over my Karan. Mark my words! She will!" With a whip of her saree, she was gone and Garima could only stare at the empty spot with a look of distaste.
Buaji neared her and enveloped her tightly, her face bright. "I don't think I've ever been prouder of anyone. You did well, Garima. Really well. Good riddance to such friends, I say."
But Garima didn't look nearly as pleased. If anything, she looked suddenly very afraid, tears shining in the depths of her eyes. "It won't happen, will it? I don't think Khushi would be able to bear it if her marriage ended. She loves Arnav so very much."
That she'd actually called Khushi's husband by his name and not "that man" didn't go unnoticed by Buaji, who smiled all the more, saying with a snort: "Of course not! Sarita's just jealous her son isn't nearly one percent as successful as our son-in-law."
Garima giggled through her tears. "He is, isn't he? And he loves Khushi. What more could we want?"
"Nothing more. Both Khushi and Payal are happily married. And in the same family too! Even if something should go wrong, they will always have each other. So you see, you need to stop worrying. Now come along, it's almost time for the repeat of the kidnapping episode."
Groaning, Garima followed after her. It was true, she supposed. She had no real reason to worry any longer. She could only pray that both her daughters would remain as they were now: happy and together.
*****
Arnav had no idea how many hours had passed since he'd been unceremoniously stuffed inside a jeep by five, strange men. Who had they been, he wondered? It was true he had his fair share of business rivals, but he couldn't imagine any of them going to such lengths. And where the hell had his security team been?
The questions made his head pound all the more and with a groan, he raised his hand to his temple, struggling to open his eyes. Something cool pressed to his temple and unconsciously, he leaned further into it.
He didn't have the slightest idea where he'd been taken, but even without opening his eyes, he knew that he was no longer in the dark confines of the SUV. Because against his face, a cool breeze was whipping over him, the sound of birds chirping came from what seemed to be all directions and most telling of all, behind his eyelids, the brilliant red glow of the sun shone.
He was outside, he recognized. The realization made his eyes blink open, ideas of escape at the forefront of his thoughts. His eyebrows bent as he gazed overhead. Dense, lush trees surrounded him.
He shot up, his hand going at once to his temple. The headache was thankfully receding, but what his hand encountered made him go shock-still. It was another hand, a cold compress in its grasp. His gaze, wide with incredulity, rose to his captor's. He swore his breath suspended.
"Khushi?" he finally managed, at a complete loss.
But it was no dream. It was truly his wife, swathed in a familiar emerald saree. She'd never looked guiltier as she flashed him a slight, feeble smile. "Hi, baby."
"Hi?" He was suddenly up and standing, drawing her hard against him. A quick sweep of the area showed him that they were entirely alone, no threat nearby. "What the hell do you mean by hi? What are you doing here?"
She shook in his hold. "I'll explain, let me just put this on your head again. It must be hurting you."
He waved aside the ice pack in her hand, looking more ferocious than she'd ever seen him. "I repeat: what are you doing here?"
Khushi realized there was no point in delaying the inevitable. She had to tell him. Gazing at him squarely, she admitted: "I kidnapped you."
Her husband couldn't have been more shocked if she'd told him she was having quadruplets and not twins. "You what?"
As he advanced toward her in his slightly wrinkled business suit, Khushi backed away, licking her lips. "It's your fault. You gave me no choice."
That brought him to stop, his eyebrows shooting skyward. "My fault? You kidnapped me and it's my fault?"
Khushi cringed this time. "Well, when you say it like that it does sound bad, I admit but you see--"
Arnav grabbed her by the shoulders, cutting her off with a sharp glare. "I don't want to bloody see anything! I don't want to understand! I just want to know what the hell am I doing here..." His gaze wandered to their surroundings, taking note of the thatched roof, the wicker furnishings, the shallow stream that snaked its way beneath the trees in the ground below. "In this...this..."
"Treehouse," Khushi chimed in. "I thought you'd like it. Aman gave me lots of options, but I chose this one. It's very beautiful, isn't it? And so private..."
"Aman?" He latched onto that detail. "He was a part of this?"
His wife nodded. "Don't be mad, I asked him to help. And you yourself are to blame for that too. You told me this morning to ask him if I needed anything."
"I did not!" he began, and then paused, recalling the note he'd penned early this morning. He closed his eyes, mentally counting to ten. It should have relaxed him, but it didn't quite seem to. He was more agitated than ever as he told her, "You know very well that this is not the type of help I had in mind."
"Baby, please, stop being so grumpy." Rising on her toes, Khushi kissed him full on the mouth. "Just look around. Isn't it all so lovely? See this is the type of place you should be on your birthday, not stuck in some boring luncheon and business meetings."
"The lunch... Shit. I have to be there. How do we get out of here?"
"The lunch ended hours ago," informed his wife with glee. "And as for leaving... well we can't. Even if I wanted too. The boat doesn't come to pick us up till tomorrow at noon."
"So we're stuck here? Till tomorrow? Dammit, Khushi, how could you have done all this? I have important meetings, interviews--"
She stopped his angry tirade with another swift kiss. "Aman said he'd handle the remainder of the meetings and we'll back in time tomorrow for the interviews with the media. Now will you relax?"
"Relax? Relax after you kidnapped me? And what exactly did you do to my head? It's pounding like hell."
His wife's smile dimmed at that and rising on her toes, she pressed her lips to his temple. He didn't know about his headache, but other parts of him certainly reacted. "I'm so sorry. I was so mad at those men Aman hired. They took their acting like kidnappers a bit too seriously."
"A bit?" he ground out.
She nodded. "Baby, you should have seen them afterwards. Aman at first had to restrain me when I found out they'd hurt you. My plan was to get you inside the car and surprise you, but I instead found you knocked out cold. I was so angry with those men! But they were genuinely very sorry. It seems your head accidentally struck the car door or something..."
"Or something," he echoed, still shocked to find himself far from the city and in a treehouse of all faces. He frowned at the dense jungle surrounded them.
"Where the hell are we?"
"Near Railay Beach."
He processed the information slowly, but his thoughts all turned to mush as Khushi took both his hands in hers, her gaze warm and if he didn't know any better, a bit distressed.
"Arnav, I'm sorry for bringing you out here like this but I knew you wouldn't come any other way. It's your birthday, baby. I know you don't care much about it, but I do. I wanted us to be together today. Every moment."
The love in her eyes unwound him, seeming to pierce his soul. "Khushi..." he breathed, shaken.
She wrapped her arms around his waist, embracing him tightly. "I know you must be angry about last night. You were right about me jumping to conclusions. I should have followed what my heart was telling me along: that you would want nothing to do with a place like DL. But love..." Her teary eyes rose to his. "That doesn't mean I don't trust you. You were very wrong when you said I didn't. I trust you more than anyone. If I didn't, I wouldn't have handed myself over to you like that, along with the rope."
Arnav's eyes closed as it dawned on him how true those words were. She'd come to him last night despite every misgiving and hesitation, giving herself to him with every vulnerability laid bare.
"I love you," she whispered against his shirt, holding him tightly. "I'm sorry I misunderstood you, but that website on your laptop, that file... it all made it appear you were interested in that club. I just wanted to make you happy."
"Hush, baby," he crooned. "Hush." He massaged her back and then with gentle hands, raised her face so he could kiss away her tears. "I'm sorry too. I overreacted. But never, ever doubt me like that again. I can't handle it. Not from you." His gaze softened as his lips slanted over hers, feather-light. "Listen to me carefully, Khushi, and listen well: I frankly don't give a damn what pleasure means for other people out there, but I know what it means for us. I would never hurt you. To see you harmed in any way would destroy me. Kill me."
"I know and it's the same for me. To see you unhappy tears me up inside."
"I've never been happier in my life than I have been with you. You're all that's right in my world, love."
Unable to hold herself back any longer, Khushi threw her arms around him, hugging him as if her life depended on it. Her lips traced over the side of his face to the corner of his mouth before lowering to his roughened jawline.
"Khushi," he moaned as her hands found their way inside his shirt. "Babe, stop. We're going too fast. I want to make this beautiful for you."
"It always is," she whispered against his collarbone. "Love me, Arnav. Love me, please."
He groaned her name and swept her up in his arms, his mouth crashing down on hers. They kissed wildly, slamming into the bamboo railing.
"Bed. That way," Khushi directed, her hands delving into her husband's wavy hair. He smiled against her mouth and then lifted her in his arms, stumbling toward the mosquito covered bedding.
Their mouths and tongues remained occupied the entire time as he lowered her to the floor, covering her with his length. Her green saree and his business suit were gone within minutes, their impatient fingers taking care of the rest.
Khushi rolled on top of her husband, working her way down the toned muscles of his chest and further still.
His shout echoed in the treehouse and then he was flipping her about, his hands and mouth everywhere: her breasts, the side of her neck, her stomach. He missed not a patch of her skin, his lips gliding over the tattoo on her wrist possessively. As the heat of his mouth settled over her breasts and one of his hands slid between her thighs. Khushi didn't think she could bear so much passion, but she was wrong because all too soon his wandering hand was gone, only to be replaced by the mind-numbing heat of his mouth. His touch consumed her senses.
"Baby, please!" she shouted, bucking beneath him, her legs locking over his shoulders. "Please."
But he would not stop the sweet torture. Even when she was out of control beneath him, clawing at his back frantically, he refused to back down, kissing her more intimately still, his hawk-like eyes watching her the entire time. Khushi screamed his name as she came apart in his arms, her heartbeat pounding wildly as red-hot desire overwhelmed her.
Her husband was remarkably calm as he finally raised himself so they were eye-level, though his eyes seemed to burn like hot coals. "You asked me this morning what I wanted. Remember?"
Khushi was finding it impossible to concentrate but she vaguely recalled asking him at the banquet hall: "So, Mr. Raizada, what would you like today? Is there a memo that needs to be typed? A photo shoot to organize? Or maybe a dictionary you want me to copy from?"
"Khushi?" At her silence, he bent his head and suckled on her nipple, rolling the other between his forefinger and thumb.
"Yes," she managed, gasping. "I remember."
"Good." His tongue stroked over, rougher, harder. And just like that, Khushi felt passion storm through her all over again, stealing her very breath.
"I didn't tell you my real answer then," confessed her husband. "All I want for my birthday is this... us together like this. Kissing. Making love. I want you in my bed."
Her chest rose and fell against his mouth as he admitted his deepest desires. Leaning toward him, Khushi slanted her mouth over his, locking her legs around his waist at the same time. "I need you, love."
"I need you too." And then as their mouths aligned once more, he plunged deep. Their cries intermingled and then as her husband loomed over her, his pace never slowing, Khushi arched into his caress, finding his mouth as everything except for him became a dizzying blur.
*****
Afterwards, Khushi remained nestled in Arnav's arms, feeling thoroughly spent, but more than anything else, ridiculously happy and content. Outside, a light rain was beginning to fall, a fine mist making its way inside, not that either of them noticed. They were too busy catching up, having not really properly talked since the fateful day they'd said their goodbyes outside of AR Designs.
 "I didn't know I could miss you so much," Arnav whispered, running his hand down her smooth back. "I almost took a flight back home the moment I landed here."
Setting her lips against his chest, Khushi smiled into his eyes. "I'm glad you didn't. This meeting was important. But no more business trips for a while please."
He nodded in agreement. "Not till the twins are born. Then, we can all travel together if needed...as a family."
"Family. Our family..." breathed Khushi with wonder.
His fingers entwined with hers. "Our family." His mouth lowered to hers and Khushi would have succumbed to his pull if not for something very important.
"The cake!" she recalled, jumping out of the tumbled sheets.
"Khushi," her husband grumbled, his hair mussed from their lovemaking. "Where are you going, love? Come back here."
"Two seconds!" She hurried up the steps to the second floor of the treehouse. Just like the lower level, this one had been designed for relaxation, with comfy sofas and chairs dotting the room and a small kitchen tucked in the back. Rushing past the spectacular views surrounding her, Khushi opened the refrigerator.
A mouthwatering, two-tiered chocolate cake sat waiting. It was slightly leaning to one side from the rocky boat ride, but otherwise, it was nearly perfect. She picked it up carefully, gazing down at the words written in white icing: Happy Birthday, Love.
"That looks good. I hope it's sugar-free."
The sudden intrusion surprised her and she almost dropped the cake. Gazing up, her eyes widened and her face instantly warmed. Her husband stood before her, not a stitch of clothing covering his body. Her mouth went dry and her pulse quickened.
"Baby... I was going to bring the cake upstairs."
"Let's cut it here."
Fighting to look away from him, she set the cake on the counter, her eyes sweeping over him--again. Gosh, he's handsome and way too sexy. Instead of telling him what she was really thinking, Khushi asked in a rather clipped tone: "Where are your clothes?" At least she'd grabbed a sheet to wrap around herself, but Arnav looked entirely too comfortable as he was.
"I don't think it's necessary. I mean you took such pains to find us such a private place to celebrate. Let's make the most of it." He tugged on the end of her sheet.
"Arnav," she warned. "Don't."
"But it's my birthday," he pointed out with a naughty glint in his eyes. "And I get whatever I want. You said so, right baby?"
Leave it to him to use every deal to his advantage. Still, she wasn't exactly complaining as he whipped the sheet away, taking in every inch of her body. Under his very thorough scrutiny, her cheeks heated all over again. Her hands itched to grab the sheet pooled around her ankles and shield herself within its folds.
"I'm huge, aren't I? And it's only the fourth month."
He was beside her within seconds, kissing her so hotly she promptly forgot all about hiding. "You're gorgeous. Can't you feel what you do to me?"
She could, and the knowledge made her smile. Her arms rose to embrace him just as tightly. After a long kiss, she motioned her head toward the table. "Arnav...the cake..."
"Oh, right." He took her hand in his. "You know, it's been years since I've cut a cake on my birthday. Di tried to make me sometimes, but I always refused."
"You won't refuse now, will you?" she asked, lighting a single candle.
He met her gaze with a warm twinkle. "What do you think?" Leaning low, he blew out the candle, his eyes on her the entire time.
The love and passion she glimpsed in his gaze made Khushi's heart and body throb anew. She could only watch as he cut a large slice of the cake, raising it to her lips.
She took a bite and then fed him from the same slice. "Happy birthday, Arnav."
"Thank you," he said, pecking her lips. "Thank you for giving me this birthday I didn't even realize I wanted."
She was about to tell him he didn't need to thank her for anything when he took a handful of cake and smeared it down her neck. "What are you doing, baby?" she managed, watching in disbelief as he smeared her breasts with more of the chocolate.
"Eating my birthday cake," he simply said, lowering his head. And after that, nothing else was said in the treehouse for a very long time.
Later, they returned to the bedroom, only rising for dinner and a midnight swim in the pond, which quickly led to more not-so-innocent activities. Khushi was laughing as she raced over the sand, her husband following close behind.
"Be careful, Khushi," he scolded. "Don't run!"
She began to tell him she was perfectly all right when something stopped her dead in her tracks. Her eyes widened as her gaze lowered.
Arnav almost ran into her in the darkness, catching a hold of her shoulder just in time. "Watch it, babe. I almost didn't see you." Though the moonlight was dim as it streamed past the overhanging tree branches, it was enough for him to see that his wife had suddenly gone very pale and still. Too still.
"Khushi?" Cupping her face in his palms, he observed her with mounting concern. "What is it? Are you okay?"
She took his hand in hers, guiding it to her stomach and his suspicions ricocheted. His heartbeat almost halted. If it was the twins--
"Khushi?" he choked out again.
"Just feel," she whispered.
He set his palm against her abdomen and immediately froze. Against his hand, he could feel something. And then it came again, stronger this time.
"Is that the--"
She nodded with wonder, her eyes shining bright. "The babies...they're kicking."
At the look on her husband's face, one full of awe and delight, Khushi realized that she'd worried about finding him a suitable birthday present for no reason. Because as they stood there, his hand pressed to her swollen stomach, she knew she could have never given him anything more precious than this moment.
*****
The next morning, they were still marveling over the twins beginning to kick.
"You're sure it doesn't hurt you?" Arnav inquired.
"Very." Pressing a lingering, open-mouthed kiss to her husband's flat, very male nipple, Khushi trailed her hand down his toned chest. They were lying on a mammoth hammock on the uppermost level of the treehouse, arms and legs entwined.
Before her hand could venture any lower, a most unexpected sound interrupted them. For a moment, Khushi thought she'd imagined it.
But it was undeniably real. Arnav gave her a small smile of apology as he clicked on the phone. "I have to keep it on. Just in case."
Pouting, Khushi hugged him tight, muttering about how some things would never change. Not even here, far from any hint of modern civilization. Nestling closer, she heard bits and pieces of his conversation with whomever was on the line.
"Hello? ...Yeah, I got your birthday message. Thanks... I'm great. How are things with you?"
Khushi's mouth bent in a frown as she studied her husband. She'd wanted him to relax on his birthday, but Mr. ASR clearly had business and work still on his mind. Deciding to tease him as he loved to tease her, she lowered her head, licking his nipple this time.
"I--" His voice broke off and he almost swore. "Fu--!" Catching himself just in time, Arnav turned to her, his gaze whipped over her with surprise. Khushi grinned in response.
"Get off the phone," she whispered.
Smirking, he shook his head. "That's great," he told the caller. "What about--" His voice cut off again as his wife's hand clamped over his hardness. Firmly. He promptly forgot whatever he'd been about to say.
In Nainital, Akash's brow bent as he stared down at the phone's flashing screen.
"Bhai? You there still?"
Arnav swallowed. "Yeah, Akash. I am."
Akash? Khushi's eyes rounded and she attempted to move her hand, but Arnav caught it easily, keeping it pressed to him. "Don't you dare stop," he mouthed.
"But--"
Turning the phone aside for a moment, he reminded, "What did you say this morning? It's my birthday and I get whatever I want? Well, I want this. Now."
Her cheeks flaming bright red, Khushi followed his command, her hand sliding beneath his waistband and stroking skin.
Gritting his teeth to keep from moaning, Arnav hurried through the rest of his conversation. "That's... that's great news. Look, I'm busy. I'll call you later, okay Akash."
"Bhai, wait."
"What is it?" Arnav couldn't help it if his tone was a bit on the rude side. His control was in tatters and his wife wasn't helping matters, steadily working her way down his body, her delicate fingers rubbing over him with feverish longing.
"Payal wanted to speak to Khushiji."
He paused at the mention of that woman, handing the phone stiffly to his wife. "Your sister."
Moistening her dry lips, Khushi answered in an unsteady voice, "Jiji? How are you?"
"Very bored," came the reply. "I wish we could have gone somewhere exotic too like you and Arnavji."
"You can always go next time, Ji--" Khushi's eyes swerved down to Arnav as he took her breast in his mouth, biting lightly.
"I'm on the phone," she mouthed, incredulous. "With my sister."
"So? End the conversation already, babe." His tongue flicked over the beaded peak.
"Khushi?" Payal had a bad feeling what was happening on the other side of the line. There was an odd breathiness in Khushi's voice, something she could have sworn she'd heard once before, though she couldn't remember the exact instance.
The husky sound of ASR's voice came through. She'd missed him during these endless, hellish days in Nainital and to hear him say her sister's voice with such longing, felt like a bodily slam.
"Khushi, babe, get off the damn phone already. I want you again." Arnav deliberately spoke in such a loud tone that Payal was sure to hear. Ignoring his wife's scandalized look, he lowered his head back down, teasing her with gentle nips of his teeth and tongue.
In Nainital, Akash wondered why his wife seemed suddenly so upset. Her face looked glazed over and she was biting down on her bottom lip so hard, he feared it might bleed. He tried to turn her his way, but she threw off his hand, grasping the phone in a death grip.
"Khushi? Are you there still?" It was all increasingly becoming a game in her mind. Keep Khushi on the phone. Keep her away from Arnav. The man who should have been hers.
"Jiji, I..." Her eyes fluttered close. "I have to go right now. I'll call you later." 
"But Khushi, you haven't heard about Akash's business deal. It went through and--"
"Congrats! I'll call you later. Bye!"
The moment the call ended, Arnav chuckled. Khushi smacked his chest. "This is not funny. Oh God, what must they be thinking of us? I was so rude on the phone, wasn't I? I completely cut her off."
Her husband's smirk intensified as did the movements of his fingers between her thighs. "Good. You're too nice sometimes."
"Too nice?" It was hard to concentrate when his hands were on her but she tried, her chest heaving with each breath. "And how is that a bad thing?"
His gaze grew serious. "It can be bad. If you're too nice, people can take advantage of you, cheat you, hide the truth from you and you never once suspect it."
Her brow furrowed. "Do you really think so?" She shook her head as if to clear it. "It doesn't matter. That was my own sister. And I was so rude to her! I'll have to call and apologize."
Arnav's jaw hardened and his eyes flashed. "The hell you will. You were perfectly civil. End of discussion."
Khushi gave him a stern look. "I think you're carrying this birthday boy thing a little too far. You can't stop me from apologizing."
He fisted his hand in her hair, drawing her up for a deep, very thorough kiss that left her trembling. "Actually I can."
"How?"
Holding her gaze, with one swift bend of his wrist, he chucked the phone over the side of the hammock and far into the trees. 
Khushi's mouth fell open. "I can't believe you did that! You can't keep doing things like that, you know. Breaking down bathroom doors, throwing phones away..."
"Oh, so what should I do?" he teased. "Kidnap you and take you off to some secret hideaway?"
Khushi couldn't help but giggle. "That would be too much like my brilliant idea. You need to seduce in some other creative way."
"Really?" His eyebrow cocked and without warning, his mouth captured hers, leaving her breathless. "I think I'm going to enjoy this," he whispered against her mouth. "Seducing you. All over again."
Khushi quivered as his mouth took hers again, her arms winding around his neck as both of them surrendered to the passion that raged between them.
*****
Hours later, Khushi stood far away from the treehouse, her mouth bent as she considered her reflection in the mirror. They were back at the hotel, their brief, romantic escapade cut short by Arnav's work commitments. Too short, in her opinion.
"Stop frowning." Her husband came up behind her, looking more handsome than ever in a steel gray colored suit. As he wound his arms around her waist, his eyes met hers in the mirror. "We'll be home soon and then we'll have all the time in the world to be together."
Her hands settled atop his, a shiver racking her as his lips grazed her nape. "I know that, but what I don't understand is why you're making me come with you to this interview? Everyone wants to interview you. Why do I need to be there for?"
Arnav turned her to face him. "It wasn't my idea originally. Apparently, there's a lot of interest in the media about our marriage after the announcement I made at the award ceremony in Delhi and then whatever happened at Indigo. According to the PR department, we shouldn't hide from it, but confront the speculations. I agree too. Look, Khushi I won't force you, but I think it's important to do this."
She didn't have to be told, knowing well that his image and that of the company had taken a beating in the media after the video of the now infamous kiss had gone public. It was one thing for the CEO of a company to be portrayed as a player, but another to be cast as a cheating husband. That she was pregnant only added to the gossip and rumors. Even the recent deal with Mr. Mookjai's company had been overshadowed by talk of their marriage being on the rocks.
"I understand everything, Arnav but this feels too sudden. I've never been interviewed before and this one will be televised on who knows how many channels? What am I supposed to even say?"
"Whatever you want," Arnav declared. "Look, I could have hired some very expensive people to teach you what to say, how to behave, etcetera. But I don't think that's a good idea. You're perfect just as you are and everyone is going to see that. Don't worry."
His belief in her filled her with confidence, but still, she couldn't help but worry a tad, thoughts of saying something stupid, of making a fool of not just herself but also her husband and AR Designs making her stomach churn in a most unpleasant way. She could only hope she wouldn't grow even queasier once she was facing the cameras. Vomiting on national TV surely couldn't be good.
"It's going to be just fine," Arnav reassured, squeezing her hand. "I'll be with you the entire time. When you need me to jump in, just squeeze my hand. Just like this. It'll be our secret signal."
Khushi nodded, feeling only marginally better. Her husband picked up on her nervousness, knowing exactly how to divert her mind from the impending interview. "Besides," he murmured, leaving a trail of kisses down the side of her neck, "I think one joint interview is hardly anything compared to being kidnapped and stuffed in the back of a SUV. You'll survive."
"Arnav!" Whacking his chest lightly, she hugged him tightly, wishing the interview were already over and done with. A knock sounded just then and her husband froze against her but otherwise, made no move to draw away, holding her snugly still.
"Who is it?"
"Five minutes," came Aman's voice.
"We'll be out soon," Arnav answered, smoothing his hands up and down his wife's too tense back.
The interview was going to happen in the presidential suite down the hall. Already cameraman had arrived and a cozy setting had been arranged, right down to cups full of cold, bitter-tasting coffee.
"Are you sure I look all right?" Khushi's gaze traveled critically over her reflection once more. The black, embroidered saree Arnav had selected was beautiful no doubt, and the matching jewelry the perfect touch, but Khushi couldn't help but feel she looked unusually huge for being only halfway through the pregnancy.
"You trust me, right?"
Her gaze whipped to Arnav's. He was watching her with such tenderness, such warmth, it felt difficult to swallow suddenly. She barely managed a nod.
Her husband grinned, stroking a finger down the side of her face. "Then trust me when I say you're beautiful. You always are. Hell, you could wear one of those old, pom-pom adorned outfits and still look beautiful." His gaze wandered to the trash can in the corner. It was overflowing with her old clothes from Lucknow. "You know you didn't have to throw them all away."
"I kept a few, but honestly baby, I never liked them very much either. I only wore them with such happiness so Amma and Babuji would never guess how much I secretly disliked them. What I used to dream about were clothes like this saree... I never imagined I'd ever wear such pretty things." Her voice held a world of awe.
Arnav's eyebrows furrowed and he tilted her chin upward. "You hated those dresses? Why would you pretend to like them then?"
"Because they were inexpensive," she said plainly, as if stating the obvious. "If I happily accepted them, there would be more money for Jiji's clothes. That way she could get nicer things."
Khushi had no idea why her small confession had such an effect on her husband but suddenly, he was crushing her to his chest, going on and on about how wonderful she was, how rare...
She found his compliments a bit embarrassing. "Baby, they were just clothes. It doesn't even matter now."
But to him it did. It scalded his heart when he imagined Khushi growing up in those awful dresses, smiling always, never letting anyone her true feelings. How far had her sacrificing nature gone, he wondered? How much had she given up just to see a smile on the face of her sister, someone who clearly did not deserve such love?
He closed his eyes. She'd be heartbroken when she found out about Payal, he realized. And yet, she had to know the truth.
"What are you thinking?"
He pushed all thoughts of Payal's true nature to the back of his mind, taking hold of his wife's delicate hand. "That's it's time for us to go." Which it was.
Hand in hand, they made their way to the suite, ignoring all the eyes they attracted along the way. As they crossed the threshold, Khushi felt her husband freeze alongside her. Her gaze followed his curiously and immediately ,she knew what had given him pause.
In the shadows of the bright lights stood the host of the interview, her makeup being touched up as an assistant handed her a last-minute sheet of paper.
"What the fu--" Arnav waved over to Aman, his mouth clamped in a tight line. "What the hell is she doing here?"
Aman flinched at his boss's harsh tone. Khushi put a calming hand on her husband's forearm, shooting an apologetic smile at his assistant.
"Baby, please calm down," she whispered.
"How can you say that?" His furious glare shifted to her. "Do you realize who that is? It's Nicole James. God, she must have arranged all of this. Aman, how the hell could you have let this happen?"
"Sorry, boss, I had no idea she'd be the host. I'll fix things right away."
But it was clearly too late. "Sixty seconds till we go live!" someone shouted. Khushi watched with a start as Nicole took her seat at the armchair, smiling at the camera with a well-rehearsed and rather fake looking smile.
"I'm cancelling this stupid interview," Arnav decided.
Aman gazed at the pair of them with alarm. "Boss, you can't. In seconds, the cameras will go live and if you walk out of here, they'll capture that. And you know how the media is. It'll be twisted into something it's not, making things even worse than they are."
"What do you suggest then? That I actually let that woman interview my wife and I?" To say the least, his break-up with Nicole had been very public and very ugly.
Unlike Khushi, Aman knew all about it, having witnessed it all just the year before. "I'll have the interview cut short to thirty minutes instead of an hour," he said. "You both just have to deal with her for half an hour."
"Twenty seconds!" someone shouted behind Khushi. "Mr. and Mrs. Raizada, wait in the wing! You'll make an entry separately. First you, sir and then your wife."
"What? No, we're going together." Arnav glared at the man who'd dared to give him directions.
Khushi turned him her way before he could shout some more. "Baby, would you please keep calm. I can handle this. Trust me."
His hold on her hand tightened and then reading the resolve in her eyes, he nodded, his expression hard as he told Aman: "Make it ten minutes. Immediately." God, if that woman hurt his wife in any damn way, there would be hell to pay. He'd make sure of it.
Khushi stared at him worriedly as they waited off to the side. He looked far too tense. "Arnav..." she began.
His eyes swung to her but at the same time, the final announcement came: "Going live in 3..2...1!" The room fell silent as the camera zeroed in on the pretty face of ex-supermodel, Nicole James.
"Welcome everyone to a very special segment tonight, straight from the untamed, vast beauty of Thailand. This interview has been in the works for months as I'm sure you're all well aware."
She was more than pretty, Khushi grudgingly admitted. In her cleavage-baring white designer dress, diamond studs glinting from her ears and the heels of her Louboutins highlighting her impossibly long legs, Nicole looked sophisticated and undeniably attractive.
Beside her, Khushi couldn't help but feel self-conscious. She was too pale. Too short. Too pregnant.
"Khushi, listen to me," her husband whispered gruffly in her ear as Nicole preened for the cameras. "I don't know what that woman will say when we get out there. She doesn't like me very much... But I don't want you for one second to forget something: that I love you--and that I never once loved her. What happened with her is meaningless compared to what we share. Hell, the two can't even be compared. If not for you, I don't know how I would have gotten through any of this honestly."
And suddenly, Khushi didn't feel nearly as awful as she'd just been feeling moments before. She felt loved, desirable, and yes, even beautiful. Fact was, she wouldn't trade her life with anyone else's. Because somehow her life had led her to this man... this love...their children...
She wanted to tell him how much she loved him too, but Nicole turned to face them then and bright cameras shifted their way, blinding Khushi momentarily.
"Please welcome my very close, old friend, Arnav Singh Raizada, the CEO of AR Designs." As Arnav stepped forth along with Khushi--directions be damned--she recovered quickly, adding, "And his wife, Khushi."
It could have been her imagination, but Khushi could have sworn the other woman's inky black gaze narrowed at her for the briefest of moments with nothing short of rampant disdain. There was no time to dwell on it though. Arnav was leading her to the sofas and she could only force herself to smile, reminding herself that this meeting was being televised live.
That smile quickly disappeared as Nicole stood, embracing Arnav far too tightly to her liking. She angled her face toward him, her lips inching higher and higher. As Arnav realized she meant to kiss him on camera, not just on the cheek but on the mouth, he took a deliberate step backward, guiding Khushi forward.
"My wife," he introduced brusquely.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," smiled Nicole, thought her eyes clearly indicated it was far from pleasurable.
How could anyone be so fake, Khushi wondered? She managed only a slight nod of her head in turn. As Arnav helped her to sit and took a seat beside her, lacing their fingers tightly together, she could only wonder how on earth they'd last through this interview--even if it was supposedly only for ten minutes now. If not Arnav, surely she would lose her temper. She hadn't missed how Nicole had raised her lips for a kiss.
This whole situation had all the makings of a disaster, but Khushi vowed she would not allow it to be. They would leave here with their dignity intact and AR Designs' reputation no longer tarnished.
But all that good judgment threatened to fly out the window as Nicole directed her first question at her and not her husband. They'd been briefed beforehand that the questions would begin with the recent deal with Mr. Mookjai's company, giving Khushi ample time to adjust to this new setting, but that quickly proved to be a lie.
"How does it feel, Khushi, to be married to Delhi's most sought after bachelor?"
She smiled at her husband, focusing on him rather than Nicole. "I don't see him as such. For me, he's just Arnav. My husband. And being married to the man you love is every girl's dream."
"Still, it couldn't have been easy for you to adjust to the Raizadas' lifestyle, could it?" said Nicole, her false smile growing more and more frosty. "To put it mildly, you both come from two, very different backgrounds..."
It was Arnav who answered, shaking his head. "We lead a very normal, very private life--away from my family and in our own space. So no real adjustment--at least not the type you're hinting to--was necessary. Khushi and I...well, we just click. We understand each other as no one else can." He raised his wife's hand to his lips and many watching could only stare in awe. Despite the reports to the contrary, the two looked very much in love.
"I must congratulate you, ASR," Nicole cut in, "Not just for the new deal, but also on the news of your wife's pregnancy."
Khushi felt Arnav tense beside her, but that made no sense. The interview wasn't going nearly as bad as she'd imagined.
"Thanks," he said curtly, his eyes shifting to his ex-girlfriend for the first time. "I couldn't be happier."
Her smile vanished all together this time and her sharp gaze veered to Khushi. "Look, Khushi, I know everyone assumes we must not be able to get along, but why should we allow that to be true? What matters if Arnav Singh Raizada is now the father of your child and once he was mine?"
"That's not true!" Khushi heard her husband cry out. Other shouts erupted. There was suddenly chaos and the room seemed to swim. Khushi could only sit deathly still as Arnav stared at her anxiously. In contrast to Nicole's gloating expression, her face had gone ashen gray.
"She's lying, baby," he told her, urgently cupping her face in his palms. "It's all lies. Trust me."
"Unfortunately, I'm not lying." The camera zoomed on Nicole's now teary eyes. "Only someone living under a rock wouldn't know about our tumultuous relationship. It was all very public. Everything from the night I met ASR at a party to our wild romance to the time we fought in Paris and ultimately, the breakup and then the miscarriage." She shuddered dramatically. "But it seems you haven't told your wife, Arnav. How typical. Well, to the viewers out there, let me confirm what the rumor mills have guessed all along today: ASR did break up with me when I got pregnant. The reports are 100% true." Her stormy gaze turned to Khushi. "So, Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada, how confident are you that he won't leave you too?"
To be continued.
Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
Episode 30: An Eventful Party


So what did you think of Epi 29?

2 comments:

  1. Wheeeeee!!!
    Anjali n Dadi ka kya popat hua!!!
    I so loved it
    Dadi is off to the ashram...lalalala
    Anjali got a god lesson..lalala
    Jha got beaten up..lalala
    Payal got ignored..lalalala
    Aman;s getting the Jaguar...Whoa...lalalala
    Kashyap got whacked...lalallaala
    They are having twins!!!
    Yayayaaaaaa!!
    Blockbuster epi it was :D
    I so loved it
    Guess u understood by my lalalaalas :D
    Hope u r doing well :)


    ReplyDelete
  2. OMG! I'm first! lalalalala

    P.S: Ignore the above comment I double posted it

    ReplyDelete

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