Thursday, January 15, 2015

Baby Hold On Part 26-29

Got a bit delayed tonight, but here is Baby Hold On's much awaited update. This is the one you've been waiting for--trust me. All those questions so many of you have asked all along finally get answered. Answers I couldn't share until now... Happy Reading. 
And let me know what you think.
Please leave all comments here please! 
I will try to reply to everyone soon.
ps. Secret Passion readers, I know that was some cliffhanger to end at last time. I will try to post the next part sooner than later.
pss. I haven't forgotten about DH. I'm just a bit sentimental about that story ending so I'm taking my time with it. Only 10 chapters left :(

**NO COPYING, ALTERING, SHARING, OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. If you notice any part of this material on any other site other than my blog or IF (under username TINA!), inform me ASAP. Action will be taken. COPYRIGHT TINA!**
Baby, Hold On by TINA!
Part 26: Answers & Hideouts
I couldn't seem to stop staring at the phone. The line had gone dead long ago and yet there I lay, handcuff and all, unable to tear my eyes away from it. A dizzying mix of confusion and fear left me feeling almost paralyzed.
Who had that man been? Had he harmed my Raizada in any way? I shook the thought aside, taking deep, steadying breaths. No... Of course not. I was probably being paranoid for no reason. Surely if anything had happened--anything at all--I would have heard by now. But Lavanya, on patrol in the lobby downstairs, had not come once so far to give me any news.
I took that as a good sign. There was no other option. Nothing left to do except wait and wonder and worry. I tugged with all my strength on the chain attached to my left wrist but for all my efforts, it just barely budged.
I hated this feeling of being so helpless, of having no clue what was happening. It reminded me of those terrible three months. Months in which all I'd done was pine for a man who'd left me without so much as a word of warning.
And yet, I hadn't stopped loving him. Sometimes I'd wished I could. It would have made my life so much easier, but loving him had seemed beyond my control. It still felt that way and I wondered if it would always be like that.
My eyes felt heavy with sleep, but I wouldn't allow myself to give into that alluring pull. This room--where I'd laughed and yelled and made mind-numbing love with Arnav--no longer felt the same.
Ever since that man had called, it felt strangely contaminated. As if he were in the room right now, watching me with small, greedy eyes. I shivered, longing for Arnav so much it was a bodily ache. Baby, where are you?
The clock across the room caught my eye. 3:40 AM, it read. Each minute ticking by was bringing me closer and closer to the time Butterball's boss had mentioned:
"I'll tell you over the phone. On this same number. Convenient, isn't it? Wait for my call at 9:31 PM tomorrow. On the dot."
I'd waited so long to know where and why Arnav had disappeared off to three months ago. He'd remained tight-lipped about it all, frustratingly so, seeming hell-bent on never telling me the exact details. It had to have been important, I reasoned. Something beyond his usual work of chasing after drug dealers and rescuing damsels in distress. But what?
I'd struggled with these same questions and theories so long now it almost like forever. And then tonight, out of the blue, that call had come. I was going to find out where Arnav had gone. Finally.
It was all I'd ever wanted to know. Why then did I not feel any joy at the prospect? Why did I find myself debating if I even wanted to know now? Raizada had to have his reasons for not telling me. Couldn't I simply wait till he divulged them one day--whenever that day would be? Before I could sort it all out, the door suddenly swung open and my heart ricocheted in my chest. Oh God, what if it was Shyamji or his boss or--
"Khushi."
I expelled the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding, lowering the gun from my shaking hands as my gaze landed on the familiar shape filling the doorway. Arnav turned the lock and then came to my side in three, smooth strides.
I took all of him in: the wrinkled uniform, his black leather jacket, the line of tension marring his brow line. I knew without being told that Butterball had slipped from his fingers tonight.
"Khushi?" he asked again, looking genuinely puzzled at my silence. It wasn't like me to be so silent. Usually I spoke non-stop and he often had to kiss me to shut me up.
But right now, I needed a moment. A moment to catch my breath.
He hadn't been harmed. He hadn't been harmed. I repeated the lines like a mantra, forcing air into my lungs.
"Baby?" Raizada sat beside me, his face so close I could see the tiny flecks of gold and amber in his pupils. I could have happily stared at him all day and never get tired of it, I realized.
"Dammit, baby, talk to me. Are you okay?"
I finally found my voice. "Okay? You left me chained to this bed and expect me to be okay?" I whacked his chest with my free hand, my chin trembling. Arnav seemed more upset by the tears in my eyes than all the punches I threw his way, grabbing my fist and raising it to his lips.
"I'm sorry, Khushi. I did it to keep you safe."
Before I could begin to tell him how very wrong his tactics had been, he hauled me into his arms, holding me tightly and effectively silencing all my protests. The clink of a lock turning sounded and my wrist was suddenly free. With a cry of bottled anguish, I hugged him just as tightly, my tears wetting his shirt.
"Hush," he crooned in my ear. "Khushi, don't. It tears me up inside when you cry. Love, hush."
For some reason his soft, achingly husky voice made me cry all the harder. I didn't even know why I was crying. For him...for me... for Buaji... for this whole crazy situation.
I was biting down so hard on my bottom lip, my whole face was turning red, but I kept at it, not wanting him to know. And then suddenly, a broken sob left my lips. Raizada cursed and drew me onto his lap as if I weighed nothing. I threw my arms around him and burrowed my face against his neck with such force, he suddenly found himself on his back, pressed to the mattress.
I rolled on top of him, never wanting to let go. Even a centimeter of distance felt too much. And all the while, he just held me, seeming just as reluctant to part with me. Raizada, I learned, was just as apt at handling a crying, pregnant woman as he was handling one of those dangerous looking guns.
"Shh," he kept murmuring, "Baby, I'm here. I've got you."
My tears thankfully eventually slowed and for a long moment, we just lay there like that, arms and legs entwined. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him everything. About the call...that threat...that awful voice, when a knock sounded.
My body went stiff and since I was literally plastered to his front, I felt his too coil with tension. Who could it possibly be? Raizada put his finger to his lips and carefully guided me off of him. Motioning me to crouch down beside the bed, he crossed to the door with panther like agility, a gun braced in his hands as he looked into the peephole.
Whomever it was must not have been a threat because he visibly relaxed, stowing the gun in his holster.
"It's just Aman," he told me.
For some reason, that didn't reassure me. "My spies are everywhere," that man on the phone had said so confidently. Who could it be? There were only four of us here--five including Sheena, though I had the hardest time picturing my best friend working for a notorious crime lord. It couldn't be her. But then who?
Mr. Sexy had no idea of all the questions swirling in my head as he opened the door. "Aman? What is it?"
His friend held out his hand. "Your phone. You left it in the jeep. Must have slipped out of your pocket."
"Thanks."
Aman nodded and his tired looking face brightened as he spotted me. "Still awake, Khushi?"
"No, I'm sleeping and this is just my duplicate standing before you." My voice was deadpan and I couldn't help but feel less than my usual cheery self.
Aman laughed slightly, but Arnav's eyes swung to me with confusion. He'd detected the note of wariness in my words. And I could tell he was not amused. Not at all.
As soon as Aman left, he turned to me, hands on his hips and a hard glint shining in his eyes. "What's with the new attitude?"
"What attitude?" I snapped.
"That attitude." He stalked up to me and I suddenly found myself pressed flat against his chest. "Why are you behaving this way? It's not like you."
"What do you expect? You chain me to a bed for hours and then when you return, what I supposed to do? Smile at you? Tell you how wonderful that whole experience was?"
"Jeez, Khushi. I said I had my reasons. And I've apologized too."
"And that makes it all better, Raizada? That erases everything?"
"God no!" We were nose to nose by now, neither backing down as his voice rose. "You have every damn right to be mad at me. But not Aman. You were rude to him for absolutely no reason. Hell, you didn't even wish him back goodnight when he left. And that, Khushi, is not like you."
I quieted--slightly. "I have a very good reason for that."
"Really?" His eyebrow cocked. "Well, I'd love to hear all about your very good reason."
"Not here," I mouthed.
"What?"
Throwing up my hands, in a much too loud voice, I lied, "Because you ignore me and spend all your time with him!"
Raizada looked as if I'd hit him over the head with something. "What?"
Oh, why didn't he understand? This room could possibly be fitted with secret cameras and recorders. What if Shyamji and his boss were listening to us right now? Eavesdropping on our conversation? Maybe I was being paranoid again, but I couldn't take the chance. That monster had my Buaji with him!
"Are you seriously jealous? Of Aman?" Arnav asked with that same stupefied expression.
"Of course not!" I mouthed.
"What was that? Would you just talk plainly instead of--"
I cut him off with a swift kiss to his full lips. "Just do what I say," I whispered against his mouth. Mr. Sexy looked thoroughly confused, but he pecked my lips again, nodding only just.
As I stood there against him, gazing into his gorgeous eyes, I decided on something. Something important.
"I missed you," I said in that too loud voice again, tugging on his bottom lip with my teeth. If there were speakers surrounding us, I could only hope Shyamji was squirming in his seat by now. That nauseating toad! "Make love to me, Raizada. Please... I want you so much."
By now, I could tell Arnav was struggling to decipher what I was exactly up to, but he'd never turned me down when it came to sex before. Pressing increasingly passionate kisses to my lips, he began leading me backwards to the tumbled sheets behind me.
I splayed my hand over his heartbeat, the badge on his uniform digging into my palm. "No," I said. "In the shower. It's been so long since we did that. Not since months ago in Laxmi Nagar." Yeah, Shyamji, are you listening to me? I've been in a relationship with Arnav Singh Raizada right under your very nose.
Smiling seductively at the man towering over me, I kissed him again, full on the mouth, my hands trailing down to his belt buckle. Raizada, though, was suddenly very guarded.
"Let's stay here."
"No, please," I insisted, tugging on his hand. "The bathroom. I want us both naked and wet."
Arnav still resisted, probably picking up on how something was off with my too loud voice, my too bright smile. I somehow managed to get us inside the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I sighed the moment we were alone, my eyes closing.
"Khushi? What the hell is going on?"
I shook my head at him in warning, hurrying to the shower. Water gushed from the showerhead and the sound was so loud, it drowned out most else--just as I'd figured it would. A smile curved my lips. Turning to Arnav, I yanked him inside the stall with me without further ado.
"What the--" He gazed down at his soaked uniform and then back at me. "Okay, I don't know what you're up to, but you've seriously lost your mind this time."
"Actually it's my most brilliant idea yet," I corrected. As we stood there, fully dressed, the water drenching us to the skin and steam curling around us, I had no doubt how silly we must look. But there had been no other option.
Grabbing a hold of Raizada's shirtfront, I tugged him down to my level while at the same time rising onto my tiptoes. My lips brushed the softness of his outer ear.
"No one can hear us here."
He froze and then his gaze whipped my way. I smiled into his eyes. "Sorry to get you wet like this, but there was no other option. I umm... I think the bedroom might be bugged."
"What? Why?"
I licked my lips, Shyamji's boss's warning ringing in my ears: "And Khushi, don't even think about telling anyone about any of this, least of all that man you love so much. I have your dear, old Buaji with me and I will find out if you tattle. My spies are everywhere, so close to you it would leave you stunned."
I bet that evil man hadn't counted on this though. How the hell could any possible spy get between me and Arnav now? Here in the shower? I would not fall into that monster's trap. Damn him and all his threats!
Still, I felt more than a little nervous I spoke into Arnav's ear. "I got a call tonight. From the man...Shya...Butterball works for."
"What?" Raizada's eyes blazed down at me as he caught onto why I'd dragged him into the shower. "Seriously?"
I nodded. "I thought it was you at first...but it wasn't."
His hold on me tightened to the point of almost painful. "What did he say to you, baby?"
I clutched him just as snugly and word for word, told him all about the call. Tears tracked their way over my cheeks as I concluded with a soft sob, "Arnav, he has Buaji."
He cursed out loud. "We need to leave. I need to get you out of this hotel. I knew it. You're not safe here."
"I'm the safest with you! What did I just tell you? He has spies everywhere. It could be anyone, but it has to be someone close to us. One of the others..."
"Others?" His eyes flew to mine. "So that's why you were being so unfriendly with Aman. You think it's him."
"Could be," I murmured.
"It's not him," Arnav said with utter certainty. "I can vouch my life on that."
"How? Baby, be practical. I know this is hard, but it has to be someone who's been with us all along. Someone who's been leaking information right under our noses. How else could Shyamji have found us on the ship? And how did his boss contact me tonight?"
"Like I've told you before, there is a mole amongst us. I have no doubt on my mind about that. But it sure as hell isn't Aman."
"How can you say that for sure though?"
Arnav's jaw was set at an angle as he ground out: "Because he took a bullet for me." My jaw slacked as he continued, "It happened last year, when we were on a mission in North Africa. I told you about it, remember? The one that went all wrong? The one that got me demoted and shipped off to Laxmi Nagar... well, I would have died then if not for Aman. He jumped between me and a gun, Khushi. If he wanted me dead, he would never have done that. Hell, some of my own family members wouldn't do the same for me. I'm not close to any of them except for my sister, and even with her, I exchange a few emails and calls each month--sometimes not even that. But Aman... he's always been with me. Every mission. Every up and down in life. He's more than a friend, Khushi. He's a brother to me."
I curled my arms around Arnav's waist, holding him in a taut grip. My body was trembling, but it had nothing to do with the water pouring over us, though it had started to grow increasingly cold. In fact, I barely felt its icy brunt. Dear God, he'd almost lost his life on that mission... My heart lodged in my throat. "I'll apologize to Aman in the morning and I'll thank him too. Thank him for saving you."
His lips pressed to my temple. "You didn't need to do that. It's not like we keep count of who saves who. I'm just telling you all this so you understand that Aman would never--ever--harm me. He's not against us, but with us."
I nodded. "So Aman is out. We both are obviously out. That leaves Lavanya."
"And Sheena."
It was my turn to balk. "Baby, you can't be serious. Sure, I've never been on dangerous missions around the world with her, but there is no doubt in my mind that she would be with me too in a heartbeat. She's the gentlest soul I know."
"You'd be surprised how quickly people can change... Look, I'm not saying she would be happily involved in this whole mess. Maybe she's under some pressure... under some force..."
"But she wasn't even there on the cargo ship that day! How could she have told anyone? Baby, please, trust me, it's not her."
Raizada slowly nodded. "Fine, but that means it could only be..."
Our eyes met, mine wide and his grim. "Lavanya," we said together.
"I never really liked her," I confessed a moment later. "She's been after me since the start."
"I can't believe it could be her." He shook his head, spraying me with water. I shivered and at the same time, his leather jacket settled on my shoulders. I looked up with my heart in my eyes.
"You're shivering," Arnav murmured, blowing on my too cold hands. "We need to get out of this damn shower."
"Not yet." Stepping closer, I made fast work of the buttons of his uniform.
"Baby," he groaned. "Now's not the time for lovemaking. We need to--"
I stopped him with a kiss. "I know. We have to discuss this. I'm just trying to generate some body heat so we don't freeze to death."
"Body heat?"
His perfectly sculpted chest came into view as the material parted down the middle and I could only nod, my mouth feeling suddenly very dry. Goodness, Mr. Sexy really lived up to his name. His body was all smooth, toned muscles and brandingly hot to the touch.
I gasped as we came together this time. It felt so amazing. Indescribably good. My fingers felt numb as I tugged the leather jacket so it surrounded him too.
"Isn't that better?"
Raizada took a step backward and jerked up my clothes so my naked breasts pressed to his chest. "Now it is."
I was panting as we stood there, sharing his leather jacket, his hands curving over my hips and dipping lower still. How much I wished it were the perfect to give into passion. It didn't help matters that I could feel an all too familiar hardness against my lower stomach. Without thinking, I found myself moving against him.
"Khushi..." Mr. Sexy's voice was hoarse sounding and I knew he was just as affected as me by what was happening between us. "Baby, we can't. Not here."
That reminder was the perfect wake up call. Yes, of course not here, in this room that no longer felt like ours. I drew down my dress and he buttoned his shirt back up. I frowned as his glorious abs were hidden once more.
"Where were we?" Raizada said after a moment. "Oh, Lavanya... Well, it could be her, but I'd be surprised. She has one of the best track records in the department. Not to mention, she's dating my cousin. Getting me killed wouldn't really work in her favor with the rest of the Raizadas."
"Your cousin?"
He nodded. "Haven't you heard her arguing on the phone? NK wants her to quit her job and move to Australia to be with him. They're always fighting about it."
I had heard a few of Lavanya's phone calls, but never really focused on it before. My mind had been too preoccupied with a certain Raizada, my aunt's disappearance and the news that I was actually pregnant.
"Maybe Lavanya wants to make so much money on this mission that she can retire and go back to her boyfriend," I guessed out loud.
"Possibly. But it sounds far-fetched to me."
"There's no other option," I said with exasperation. "Who else could the spy be? She was the only one who was with us on the cargo ship and now here at the hotel."
Arnav couldn't argue with my logic. "We'll have to confirm it."
"How?"
"You'll see," he said cryptically. "But first, we need to get out of this room...this town... I can't believe that man actually called you."
"What's his name?"
He shrugged, turning the dials. "We have no name. No picture. He's very clever, whoever he is."
As the water turned off, I followed after him, feeling cold to the bone, but far more than that, incredibly guilty. I'd told Arnav everything--except for one thing. For some reason, I hadn't been able to tell him about the call that was to come at 9:31 PM. My conscience battled with me:
You can't be serious, Khushi. This is stupid and not to mention, plain dangerous! Tell him. He needs to hear everything. All of it.
I know, but...I need to know too about those three months. And he'll never tell me.
Maybe this time he will.
He said he never would. And he's not just Mr. Sexy, but also Mr. Stubborn. He'll never tell me the truth if he had it his way.
I have a bad feeling about this...
Me too.
My attention was suddenly caught by what Arnav was doing. He was in the process of throwing away the phone--the one I needed for tonight.
"Arnav, don't!"
He looked at me with a frown as I snatched the phone away. "We need to destroy it. If he called you on that, it means it's no longer secure and--"
"It wasn't this one," I lied. "The call came from the hotel's phone."
Raizada glanced at the phone and my heartbeat sped. Did he suspect me? But to my utter relief, he only nodded. "I thought so. This one is untraceable and only me, Aman, and Lavanya have the number. See, this is another clue that it might not be Lavanya after all."
I ached to tell him it was actually the exact opposite. Just till 9:31 PM, baby. And then I swear I'll tell you everything. I just hope you forgive me.
Arnav's back was to me as he pulled me into the adjacent bedroom so he didn't see my downcast expression.
"Pack," he mouthed, flipping about. "Quickly."
I could only watch as he swung up a black duffle bag onto the bed, throwing our clothes and the rest of our few possessions inside.
"Can you handle the rest?" His voice was a hushed whisper. So soft, I had to lean forward to hear it. "I need to...let the others know." He kissed me on the forehead as I nodded.
"Where will we go?" I whispered back.
His mouth opened, but I realized he too was wary of the room being fitted with who knows what device. "You'll see..." Turning, he pulled out his phone, no doubt to alert Aman of the new developments.
"Oh, Sushi?"
I swung around to find him facing me again, his eyes bright. "I know you're not used to any of this. You don't even like my line of work. And on top of that you're pregnant and Maddy Bua is missing, but I just thought you should know that I've never been prouder of anyone. You really amaze me."
As I met his loving gaze, I felt nearly drowned in guilt. 9:31 could not come soon enough.
*****
Within fifteen minutes, I, along with a sleepy-eyed Sheena, sat waiting on one of the lobby's comfy sofas, our bags near our feet. Arnav was at the front desk, checking us out.
"So you finally decided to return home," a voice called out. Though she too had been up all night, Lavanya appeared wide-awake as she strutted up to us, her hair and makeup utter perfection. "Good for you."
I elbowed Sheena lightly, but she was sleeping again, her head rolling against my shoulder. "It's for the best," I told Lavanya, repeating exactly what Arnav had instructed me to say. "Arnav is going to join us soon too in Delhi. There's no point of staying here and looking for Shyamji."
"And your aunt?"
"The police here will keep looking. I'm sure she will be found."
Lavanya crossed her arms. "I'm surprised for once. I thought you wouldn't give up so easily."
"I'm pregnant," I told her, fighting to keep a hold of my temper. "And I can't risk anything happening."
She couldn't argue with that. "I suspect that's the reason ASR's decided to quit too. I thought he never would. He was so in love with this job."
"People change," I murmur.
"Clearly." Her eyes traced over me. "You know, the first time I met you, I wondered if ASR truly loved you. I mean you're so different from him. But he proved me wrong on that island when he gave all the food to you and kept none for himself."
For the first time, my brow furrowed. "No... he said he ate his on the way to get me." I could recall that conversation vividly:
"What's this?" I'd asked him, holding up a rectangular packet. "Popcorn?"
"No, it's rice and something you'd rather not know about. Trust me on that too. It is edible though. I heated it at the fire. It was part of the emergency pack on the boat."
"And yours?"
"I ate mine on the way over here."
He'd lied to me then? Lavanya nodded seeing my eyes widen. "There were only two packs. Aman and I shared one and the other one was for you both. But ASR wouldn't eat a bite. He said you needed it more than him. And that's when I really realized how much he cared for you."
I drew in a shaky breath. "Why are you telling me all this now?"
"I guess because this might be goodbye for awhile. You're heading back home and I'm free to return to Australia--at least till the next mission. Besides, we're going to be sister-in-laws one day. I don't know if you know, but I'm engaged to ASR's cousin, NK."
She held out her hand and a gorgeous chocolate diamond sparkled up at me. It reminded me of my own engagement ring, the one I was now wearing again. Arnav had noticed it with a slight, crooked grin as we'd left the hotel room, though he hadn't directly mentioned anything about it. But I could tell he was pleased to see it back on my finger.
"Congrats," I told Lavanya, feeling utterly confused. Who was this woman? Was she whom she claimed to be? My mind was spinning.
My knight in shining armor--scratch that, my dragon--rescued me from my predicament and as he neared, Lavanya tilted her head at me. "I suspect I'll see you soon. All the best...with everything."
I couldn't quite manage a nod.
"She say anything?" Arnav murmured, taking my hand in his.
"Not really..."
His mouth bent all the more. "Come on. We need to go." He tugged me up and Sheena woke to the slight movement.
"Khushi?"
"Who else? We need to leave now. We'll be late for our flight."
"But I haven't said goodbye to Aman yet," she pouted. "Where is he?"
I frowned at my friend, but it was Raizada who answered. "Aman and Lavanya's flights leave after yours. He's heading to London and Lavanya to Sydney."
Sheena's face fell. "Oh."
We crossed the lobby, stepping out into the chilly air outside. It was just before dawn, my favorite time of day, but I couldn't focus on the scenic beauty surrounding me, my thoughts fixed on Lavanya and everything she'd said.
We rode to the airport in silence. Sheena especially was quiet, even though she was no longer sleeping. Raizada's eyes met mine and I easily read the question there: are you absolutely sure it's not your best friend?
I stretched my hand and grasped his, lacing our fingers together. "One hundred percent," I whispered.
He only nodded, slipping on his aviators. The sun was peeking over the clouds now. As we neared the airport, the SUV suddenly swerved right, back onto the road.
Sheena gaped behind us. "But the airport! Arnav, you missed the exit."
I turned around in my seat, deciding it was time to spill some of the plan. "We're not going anywhere. I told you, right, I won't leave him?"
Her mouth opened even wider. "Where are we going then?"
"A hideout," Arnav said. "It's safe."
Sheena seemed as confused as ever. "But then why did you both say we were going back home for?"
"So Lavanya would think that was really our plan and possibly Shyamji too. We suspect she works for him and his boss. Someone is leaking details about us, Sheena. It has to be her."
Her face paled by a few shades. "I'd never have suspected her... So you two pretended we were leaving so she would pass that onto Jha and he wouldn't guess the truth?"
I nodded. "Exactly. And this way, we no longer have to worry about her. She thinks the mission is over, but you see, it isn't. We're going to catch that toad and free my Buaji."
"And Aman? Is he part of this too?"
I nodded again. "He's pretending to head to London, but it's only to make sure Lavanya gets on her flight to Sydney. He's going to meet us at the safehouse in a few hours."
Sheena smiled for the first time. "Wow. All this planning. You are really good, Arnav."
He squeezed my hand. "Actually, Khushi and I both thought of this whole scheme. She gets 49% of the credit."
"Just 49%?"
He grinned at me, raising my hand for a kiss. I felt that slight touch all the way down to my toes. "Fine. 50-50."
"My dream team," Sheena broke in. "ArShi."
"What?" Both our heads snapped toward her so fast, we collided.
"Eyes on the road, baby," I scolded, massaging his temple. His fingers brushed over my forehead, the corners of his mouth thinning.
"You okay?"
"Of course, I am." Turning to Sheena, I tucked a strand of my hair behind one ear. "ArShi?"
She nodded, giggling. "Like Brangelina. It fits you two. And you know, if you have a daughter, it would be the perfect name."
"Absolutely not," the man at my side declared. "It's beyond cheesy."
I found myself agreeing with him. "Cheesier than pizza."
"Cheesier than that joke even," he said with a wink.
I laughed and his smile shone. My heart tugged at that. Oh God, how much I wished all this craziness was behind us and we were back home in Laxmi Nagar. Free to laugh. Free to love...
"Well, I for one still find ArShi sweet," my best friend insisted. "Just think about it."
"We just did, Sheena." Raizada and I spoke at the same time, in almost the same exact fed-up tone.
As we grinned like two kids at each other, Sheena shook her head warily. "No one can beat the two of you when you're together. Jha should give up now."
"If only..." I whispered.
Raizada caressed my hand with his thumb. "I'll catch him, babe. Don't worry."
How easy he made it sound. But how could I not worry?
*****
I'd imagined the hideout to be some remote location, like the cabin where I'd lost my virginity. But Arnav steered the car to an industrial area. A factory town.
There was chaos on the streets, the noise deafening as we stepped out. The sidewalk was teeming with people and as one passerby, screaming in Greek  about something or the other stomped by, Raizada hauled me to his side, effectively shielding me.
"Stay close to me."
I didn't need to be told twice. I reached for Sheena and together we made our way through the winding lanes, stopping before the metal door of a what seemed to be an abandoned warehouse.
"This place?" Please say no.
Arnav nodded, gesturing us inside. I squared my shoulders and walked in. Oh my--
As the iron door shut behind us, Arnav turned to fiddle with a security system mounted on the wall. I meanwhile surveyed the vast room I found myself in.
It was huge. It had clearly been a factory at one time, but it looked as if several decades had passed since then. The cement floors were scratched and dust-streaked. Giant machines--what they had once made, I had no idea--crowded the area, hovering around us like grim specters.
I shivered, reaching for Arnav's hand. "Raizada, this doesn't feel right."
"Give me a second."
I waited alongside Sheena. She was having a similar reaction to me to this place, her arms wrapped around her middle.
"You'll see now," Arnav said, punching a chain of numbers on the keypad.
I began to ask him what he meant by that when there was a loud crashing noise. I clung to Arnav as suddenly the floor beside us slid apart in two giant slabs, a light bulb flickering on from overhead.
Lips parted with surprise, I walked to the edge of the pit. I don't know what I'd been expecting, but I was stunned to see a stairwell winding downward. Unlike the rest of the factory, it was clean and from what I could tell, had been recently painted.
"Be careful, Khushi."
Holding onto Arnav's hand, I made my way down the stairs, Sheena following close behind. As we reached a second platform, Arnav pressed another button and the pit above our heads was suddenly sealed once more.
"This is one of the most secure locations we have in Greece. Clearance is hard to get, but Aman and I managed it. You don't have any reason to feel unsafe here. These walls can withstand anything and you'll be fifty feet below ground level at all times. Plus, the accommodations aren't bad at all."
We went down another flight of stairs and I was startled to see another vast room. This one was clean and distinctly modern looking. Beds and tables lined the walls, all conspicuously empty. It was like being in a haunted hotel.
"There are five rooms on each floor. Space won't be an issue."
"How many floor are there?" Sheena asked, looking around curiously.
"Six."
Wow. "Is anyone else here?"
He shook his head. "We've moved operations out of here during the past few years, but thankfully, they still keep it maintained as a cautionary measure."
I was grateful to know we'd be alone here--and safe. We spent the next half an hour or so exploring our new temporary home. It really had everything. A full kitchen, stocked and ready; a laundry room--which excited me almost as much as the kitchen--and even an exercise room.
By the time we made it back up to the first level, I felt drained. Like I was swaying on my feet. Sheena looked just as sleepy.
Arnav kept a steadying hand on my shoulder, his eyes full of concern. "You both need to rest. You've been up all night."
I nodded, leaning into his embrace when that same loud, cracking noise came. I jumped and Raizada smoothed a hand down my back.
"Relax. It's just Aman."
And sure enough, seconds later, his friend was coming down the stairs two at a time, a wide smile on his face as he spotted the three of us.
"AMAN!" As Arnav and I watched with surprise, Sheena raced into his arms, hugging him tightly.
I swear he blushed, but his arms rose all the same, holding her with the same fervor.
"When did this happen?" I murmured with shock.  "Sheena, why didn't you tell me?"
Her cheeks reddened as she turned around. "I was going to, but there just wasn't time. After Arnav introduced us, well...we just started talking and then we were kissing and--" Her voice broke off and she shot an embarrassed look at Aman who was looking more than happy. Ecstatic even. "We just connected," Sheena said. "Even that first time I walked into the hotel's restaurant, I felt something strange pulling me toward him."
Aman grinned. "I felt it too. I couldn't look away from you."
The same problem was happening again, I saw. They had eyes for no one else but each other. I found myself smiling. If there was any man I could trust with my best friend's heart--especially after her awful break-up months ago--it had to be Aman. Besides, they clearly had some rather intense chemistry. And I knew a thing or two about such chemistry...
My eyes went to Mr. Sexy only to find that he was observing me just as intently, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "I think we should give them some privacy, baby. We'll take the third floor, you guys take this level."
I whispered good night--err... morning... err whatever time it was by now--to Sheena and we hugged one last time before parting.
"Aman..." I said, glancing at the man at her side. "I'm sorry about last night. Honestly, I thought you might have been involved in all of this, but I see now how wrong I was."
"I can understand. And please don't apologize. I'm just happy to know my best friend found someone who's so concerned for him...so protective."
We smiled and it was Arnav who pulled me away. "Ready?" he murmured, holding out his hand.
I smiled at him, sliding my hand along his warm palm. To my surprise, he lifted me high in his arms, taking the elevator I'd failed to notice till now carefully down two floors.
I nuzzled my face against the side of his neck, breathing him in. I must have fallen asleep because what felt like the very next moment, my back hit the mattress. Arnav slipped in beside me and I rolled into his open arms as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I... I..." My eyes kept threatening to close.
He pressed his mouth to mine. "I know. And I love you back. Sleep, baby."
Curling into his solid warmth, I finally slept.
*****
As I'd feared, my dreams were nightmarish. A low-pitched voice, threatening to kill the man I loved. Shyamji's yellowy gaze, vowing to never let me go. But most frightening was Arnav's look of anguish and anger as he realized I hadn't been completely truthful.
"HOW COULD YOU, KHUSHI?" dream Arnav hollered, shaking me hard and making my teeth rattle. "HOW THE HELL COULD YOU LIE TO ME?"
I woke up with a start, my heartbeat pounding wildly.
Arnav shifted beside me and then turned on the light. "Khushi? What is it?"
I dove into his arms. "Oh, Arnav. I have something to tell you..."
"What?"
"It's about--"
Aman's voice stopped me cold. It came from the darkness nearby. "Arnav? Sorry to intrude, but there's news. Did you see the message?"
Arnav was already reaching for his phone. "It came in 82 minutes ago. Shit, I must have slept through it." His gaze flew to me. "That's never happened before."
"I almost missed it too. Got up after Sheena... umm she accidentally elbowed me in her sleep."
"At least she just elbowed you. Khushi basically does karate in her sleep."
"I do not!" I countered with indignation, standing up and crossing my arms under my chest. "Now, will one of you please tell me what's happened? What message?"
Arnav was the one to break the news to me. "Jha's been spotted."
Goosebumps dotted my skin. "Where?"
"At a cafe about a three hour drive from here. We need to check it out."
I watched silently as he slipped on his leather jacket. Aman too left, no doubt to get ready also.  "When will you be back?" I whispered.
Arnav paused, meeting my gaze evenly. "Late tonight. Maybe tomorrow morning. Don't wait up and don't--"
"If you tell me not to worry, I swear on jalebies I'll hit you," I announced. "I mean it too."
He came before me, kissing my forehead. "Can't risk that, can I?" His lips were curved in a familiar smirk. "Baby, I'll be back soon. I promise."
I embraced him hard, reluctant more than ever to part. "You better. Otherwise I'll come after you myself."
"I wouldn't want it any other way." His eyes shone, but I thought I glimpsed a trace of sadness in them too. Or maybe it was just a trick of the light.
I had no time to dwell on it though because the very next moment--scratch that, the very next second--his mouth was on mine and I was beyond focusing on anything else.
"Don't. Do. Anything. Stupid," he lessened the impact of those words by punctuating each with a firm kiss. "I mean it, Khushi. Don't risk your safety or the baby's for any reason whatsoever. No one can get anywhere near you in this place. I'm leaving an extra gun for you just in case, but you won't need it." He brushed the hair out of my face, staring into my eyes as if searching for something. "I'll come back to you very soon. Before you know it, we'll be back in each other's arms. Just like this."
I quivered as his palms slid over my stomach, caressing the slight bump there. My throat felt unusually tight. "I'll be waiting. Please stay safe."
"I always do."
With one last kiss that left me swooning, he was gone. I crumpled on the bed, crying my heart out.
*****
The day that followed was possibly the longest one in my life. I sat with Sheena for a long while, but even talk of her sudden romance couldn't hold my interest. I kept staring at the clock and when I wasn't doing that, I sat looking at the phone in my hands. Perhaps Arnav would call... perhaps someone else...
By the time 9:25 PM rolled around, I was a nervous wreck. I made an excuse about needing a relaxing bubble bath and since Sheena probably sensed my anxiousness, she just nodded, watching me scurry out of the kitchen.
I locked myself in the third floor's bathroom, my heartbeat raging. As the minutes ticked ever closer to the appointed time, the call came. At exactly 9:31 PM.
I fumbled with the phone. "Hello?"
"Good evening, Khushi. I thought you might pick up."
I wanted to throw the phone away, but I couldn't seem to. My hands felt tied. "Just tell me what you know. I don't have any wish to talk to someone like you."
"Tsk, tsk, once again such rudeness. I could make you pay for that you know. I'd love to... Oh, the possibilities... Unlike Shyam, I would give you what you need: a firm hand to tame you. Break you... I wouldn't sit in a corner and bawl after hearing you talk about sleeping with ASR."
So they had been listening in on us! My hair stood on end just as it had last time. Bile rose in my throat. I ignored all the vulgarity he was spewing, focusing on the task at hand. "You were lying yesterday, weren't you? You know nothing about what happened to my Arnav three months ago."
My taunting words had the desired effect. His facade slipped like a mask and he was suddenly his true self: ruthless and cold.
"SHUT UP! SHUT YOUR MOUTH OR I SWEAR I WILL FIND YOU AND TEACH YOU SOME MANNERS MYSELF! I will not behave with you as nicely as my servant would have, you'll find. Don't think for a second you can beat me. Unlike you, I wasn't being deluded last night. It's you and your lover who will die if you don't get out of Greece. And as for your question... well I know everything about everything. News travels fast in my circles."
"Tell me what happened to him," I ground out, the phone's weight feeling very heavy in my hands.
"So pushy. But I'll ignore it this time. Only because you see, dear Khushi Kumari Gupta, I want you to know. You're not afraid right now, but once you hear, you will be."
My heart lurched and yet, I didn't stop. "Tell me then," I all but dared him.
I could sense his evil grin. "Three months ago, my ex-business partner in North Africa summoned your lover boy."
"Summoned?"
"Yes, in our way--which was to hold a group of innocents hostage and demand ASR be handed over in exchange. My friend hadn't forgotten about your dear Arnav. It was all because of him that nearly half of his drug empire collapsed months before."
My throat felt tight. Dear God... I didn't have to told now what had happened next. I knew. Arnav had surrendered himself to save those innocent people.
"What did they do to him?" 
The man on the line laughed with glee. "Beat him within an inch of his life. Starved him. Tortured him. Things you can't even imagine."
Tears dripped from eyes, unrelenting. I didn't want to hear this. Couldn't bear to picture this. My heart shook. "No... you're lying. You have to be lying! Arnav always escapes. He's the best. No one could have hurt him..."
"Oh, I assure you that even he can be brought to heel under these circumstances. I'm frankly surprised he survived more than a week in that hellhole. Most die within days."
"But he didn't die..."
"No," said the man in a sad tone. "Regrettably, he did not. My friend was far more charitable than I. When they did feed him--which was not very often--they gave him a spoon one time. Well, he fashioned that into a weapon of same sort apparently. The next day, fifteen men were found dead in the compound--along with my friend. And after a month and a half, your lover boy finally saw some sunshine."
"A month and a half? He was gone for three."
"He was there 53 days I assure you. That friend of his found him nearly dead. It took him another 6 weeks to recover. His bones had been broken, his back viciously burned and stabbed. He almost didn't make it... My friend didn't finish the job, but I would, Khushi. I'm much more cruel than he. That's why I'm warning you both--stop chasing me. Because this time it's not just him that dies, but you too. Not to mention that baby inside of you."
I could hear no more. "Go to hell!" I shouted, cutting the call. I threw it against the wall and it splintered apart.
Sobbing, I fell on the ground. No... it couldn't be true... He'd been beaten? Starved? Tortured? I shivered, weeping uncontrollably. "Arnav! Arnav!"
He wasn't there to hear my screams of agony. Not there to witness me fall apart. Because as much as I didn't want to believe it, I suddenly recalled how he'd first arrived at my doorstep after three months apart:
"I missed you to hell and back. I need to kiss you."
And then later on the cargo ship:
"Where did you go three months ago? Please, I need to know."
"To hell."
There was also something else to consider: his back. Even though we'd made love several times since his return, I couldn't help but note how he'd never once shown me his back. His shirt had always been on or his leather jacket. Why, even this morning in the shower, he'd seemed so hesitant to bathe with me...
It suddenly made sense...too much sense... Curling my arms around my bent knees, I cried for him. Cried for all he'd been through. Cried for every harsh word I'd ever said to him. I cried till there were no more tears left, till I felt broken, my heart in pieces.
That night I couldn't sleep, that evil man's words haunting my mind, hideous images tormenting me with the unknown.
And then it came. The sound of the door turning. I froze and then quickly sat up. It hadn't been my imagination. It was really Arnav. My Arnav.
"Khushi..."
A smile played on his lips as he opened his arms, expecting me to run into them, but for the life of me, I couldn't seem to move.
"Everything go okay?" My voice was a croak.
His brow furrowed and he slowly shrugged. "We lost the toad on some back roads. We were close though."
"You should shower," I murmured. "You must be tired."
"Khushi...what's wrong, baby?"
"Nothing. I just can tell how tired you are."
His frown deepened and with a tightening of his mouth, he walked into the bathroom, slamming the door close.
I waited a moment and then quickly rose, kneeling before the locked door. My fingers fumbled with the bobby pin I pulled from my hair, but I managed it, just as I had that last time in Laxmi Nagar.
As the lock gave, the door swung open and my world came to a jarring halt. No matter the amount of evidence flung at me, I hadn't wanted to believe the truth. But there was no running away from it now.
Arnav stood with his back to me, naked. His back was just as I remembered it, muscular and toned, but there were horrific scars marring it now. He'd been burned badly, I saw and stabbed repeatedly. Dear God, how much pain had he endured?
At the sound of my sob, he turned, his face whitening. For a moment, neither of us moved, not even breathed.
"Khushi..."
"So it's true," I said, swaying on my feet as I reached him. "That man wasn't lying."
"What man?"
"Shyam's boss. He called again. Just as he said he would last night. He told me he'd tell me why you left me so I hid it from you... I didn't want to believe him because it hurt so much, but it's true, isn't it? Those monsters tortured you. For 53 days!"
He started toward me, but I held my hand up. "Tell me, please," I begged. "Is it true?"
Arnav looked me in the eye and then slowly nodded. "Yes."
I cried out, feeling my knees give out beneath me. Sobs, horrible, wrenching sobs tore from the depths of my soul. I would have fallen on the hard tiles, but Arnav caught me in his arms, tears shining in his eyes.
"Khushi, hush. It was months ago."
I was heedless to listen to anything. "I was so cold with you! So rude... Why didn't you tell me, love? WHY?"
He cradled me in his lap as I shook, sobs choking me. He brushed the tears from my eyes. "Because I didn't want to see you in this state. I knew how you'd react... I was holding off till things calmed down...till we were back home and Maddy Bua had been found."
I cried into his chest. "I wish I could have taken all that pain instead of you."
"Don't say that. Don't you ever say that again." His eyes held a world of agony. "I would rather die a thousand times than to see you step anywhere near that hell... From the moment I stepped into your life, Khushi, during those carefree days in Laxmi Nagar, if there was anything I wanted, it was for your life not to be marred by any more sadness. I always tried to make you laugh...blush...  That's why I couldn't say goodbye to you before I left. What could I have said? I knew I was walking into a death trap. I didn't think I'd make it back to you honestly. I can bear anything--any amount of pain and torture--but I can't say goodbye to you." He took a deep breath, holding me tight. "I thought if I left without a word, you'd hate me. You'd forget me and give love another chance eventually. If I'd told you the truth that night, my name would have haunted you for the rest of your life. You'd never have moved on."
"I can never move on. How could you for a moment think I would have? You are my heart and my soul. My everything..."
His tears mingled with mine as we kissed, holding onto each other as if we'd never get enough. For the first time I suspected since he'd escaped that hellhole, Arnav broke down. In my arms.
I cried with him. Kissed him. Loved him. Running my hands through his soft, wavy hair, I pleaded with him to tell me all that had happened in the compound and to my surprise, he did. I listened to all of it, no matter how painful or horrifying, my insides throbbing as he told me how he'd been beaten, tortured with whips and flames, left to rot.
In the past, we'd laughed a lot together, but crying together felt just as natural. I held him to me, kissing every part of him, every scar, every wound...
"I'm hideous, aren't I?"
I kissed his gorgeous mouth. "No, you're my Mr. Sexy. You always will be."
As our lips met again and he rolled me beneath him, catching my heaving breasts in his mouth and thrusting deep within me at the same time. I moaned, arching into his body. My hands rubbed gently over his mangled back and I vowed then and there that I would never allow another scratch to touch him.
Jha and his boss would be caught. And this time it wouldn't be just Arnav risking his life, but me as well. I would end this. Once and for all.


Baby, Hold On by TINA!
Part 27: Break In
That night I held Arnav in my arms all night long, my heart aching every time I gazed at him. I kept wishing my touch could erase all traces of the brutality he had experienced, remove every dark memory from his mind till nothing but our love remained.
If only...
If I was desperate to be close to him, to keep not even a smidgeon of distance between us, so was he. His grip on me was unbreakable and a wild, almost primitive glow glinted in his eyes every time he caught my mouth in his, his hands sloping over my body with barely contained longing.
We made love four times, each time more explosive than the last. I dozed off in between but his hands and mouth would rouse me awake and I'd find myself lost in that soul-shattering passion all over again, arching up to meet his all-consuming embrace.
In the underground bunker, it was hard to tell how much time passed or even what time it was. But I guess it was around dawn that I felt myself collapse onto his warm, solid chest, my eyes heavy with sleep and my body sated--for the time being.
"Sleep, baby," he crooned against my temple, cradling me against his front.
I forced myself to blink open my eyes, my vision blurry till his familiar, chiseled features came into focus.
He grinned at me. That devastating, sexy half-smile of his that I could never resist and I felt my heart throb all over again.
This man--this amazing, tender, fierce, brave, impossible, beautiful man--was mine. And he loved me just as much as I loved him.
Cuddled in his arms like this, no more secrets or lies between us, I felt his love more keenly than ever before. It was like a cocoon, warming me in ways and places I couldn't explain.
One vital truth stood out: he hadn't abandoned me after all. He hadn't wanted to leave me all those months ago... He loved me. Truly, madly, deeply, as the song went.
Leaning sideways, I pecked his lips. "I love you so much."
His eyes shone. "Love you back, baby. Now, go to sleep. I've kept you up all night."
"I'm not complaining," I teased.
His gaze heated and lowering his head, he kissed the side of my neck, his lips wandering to my earlobe. "You sure? You must be sore..."
I was well past the point of blushing. "Not really. I can never get enough of you." There. I'd said it. Admitted what he already knew to be true.
His affect on me was irrepressible and we both knew first-hand how he could effectively seduce me with a single glance alone. Just being near him made me feel complete. And the thought of being separated from him...well, that just tore me apart. I couldn't live through that pain, that loss, a second time around.
"Don't you ever even think about leaving me again," I warned him, dead serious.
His breath suspended and his fingers rubbed over my slightly swollen lips, back and forth, making me shiver. His eyes were warm and solemn. "I'll never leave you. I can't. It nearly killed me the first time to walk away from you... It won't happen again, baby. I promise you." His gaze softened a tad. "Besides, maybe you haven't noticed, but I can't get enough of you either."
At that husky confession, I caught hold of his wandering hand, drawing one of his long fingers boldly into my mouth. His jaw flexed.
"Do you know what you're asking for?" His voice was hoarse and laced with naked lust.
I slid my free hand down his scarred back and felt him tense.  His eye whipped to my face, but my expression did not change. I hid nothing, my love and desire for him eclipsing all else, including how exhausted and sleepy I was.
"I know..." I wet my suddenly dry lips.
He sucked in a deep breath. "Again?" he asked, seeming a bit startled but more than pleased.
I nodded breathlessly and suddenly he was there, on top of me, rocking against me even as his mouth crashed down on mine. One of his hands slipped down between my parted thighs, making me toss and moan aloud, while the other dove into my hair, angling me up for him.
I needed to be with him so badly and caged in his rock hard, scorching embrace, I could feel how much he did too. We detonated together, our cries merging as he pushed deep within me. I threw my arms around him, my legs tightening around his hips.
I wished this night would never end.
*****
-Arnav-
If I'd been the kind of man who slept in late, I would have probably slept till noon the following day. But I wasn't. My training was ingrained into me. So at 5 AM on the dot, I found myself lying awake in the darkness, my thoughts centered on the woman nestled in my arms.
She was warm and soft and mine.
I smiled as I gazed down at her upturned face. Khushi was naturally beautiful, but like this, with her tousled hair framing her delicate features and her body bare and reddened in places by my touch, she took my breath away.
We'd made love all night, in every position, and yet, I still hadn't gotten my fill of her. I doubted I ever would honestly. Every time we made love, the need to be with her intensified, not lessened. I loved her so damn much... In a matter of months, she'd managed to become not just the center of my world, but my entire world.
Part of me was still coming to grips with just how far this love ran. Not because I was shying away from it--hell, no, I was long over that--but because it gave my enemies a very real means of striking me to the quick. That toad and his boss certainly had an inkling of how much she meant to me.
My jaw hardened as I thought of those two. If only I could get my hands on them. I had no fears for myself, but if anyone tried to harm Khushi-- Well, I saw only a powerful haze of red at that.
Khushi was a complete innocent in all of this. Unlike me, she hadn't signed up to risk her life on missions like these. It was all my fault she was in this dangerous situation.
And she's pregnant, my mind pointed out. Your fault too.
I froze in the darkness. I still couldn't quite wrap my head around the fact that roughly five and a half months from now, it wouldn't just be the two of us, but also a baby. Our baby. My very own little Sushi...
My heart warmed as my palm slid to Khushi's abdomen. There was a slight swell there, one that I'd first detected when we'd been on the island. It had shocked me then, it still unraveled me now.
Khushi shifted in my arms as I stroked her and I thought she might wake up, but she just sighed after a few seconds, cuddling closer. Keeping one arm wrapped around her, I went back to caressing that slight swell.
"I love you," I whispered, my throat feeling raw all of the sudden. "And I promise you, I will keep you and your mother safe. Always."
I thought I was being quiet, but Khushi stirred in my arms. "Arnav?" She blinked at me sleepily.
I hushed her with a not-so-chaste kiss. "Right here, Sushi. Go back to sleep."
She yawned. "What time is it?"
"Almost five thirty. You should sleep."
She scooted closer instead, draping an arm across my collarbone and hiking one slim thigh over my abs--her favorite position. I loved how she was no longer the least bit self-conscious around me. My hand rubbed over her soft, silky skin. I couldn't get enough of it. Hell, I couldn't get enough of anything related to her. Her touch, her warmth, her body, her love... I was greedy for it all.
That month and a half in that hellhole had made me desperate to have her back in my arms. I knew not many people got second chances. I'd seen other officers, friends, colleagues join the list of causalities on a weekly basis almost. I knew how incredibly lucky I was to have survived. There was no doubt in my mind I was supposed to have died in that hellish sandpit. I almost had. So damn it to hell if I wouldn't make the most of this second chance.
Our second chance...
"I don't want to sleep," Khushi pouted, her voice child-like.
My head snapped her way. This time, I think she did blush, but I couldn't be sure.
"You don't?" I breathed, my heart starting to pound all over again as my body lower down instantly reacted.
"No..."
I brought her face close to mine, so close our lips almost collided. "What do you want, Khushi Kumari Gupta?"
She held my gaze and I felt somewhat stunned by the love I glimpsed in those inky depths.  "You," she said simply.
My control splintered apart at her words and I bent low to find her lips. As we heatedly kissed and rolled on the rumpled sheets, I was helpless to do anything else but love her. Love her as if the act would cement her to me for life and never tear us apart.
If only...
*****
-Khushi-
"Wake up, sleeping beauty."
Pouting, I turned away from that voice I knew oh so well. "Five more minutes."
The blanket was torn off of me and warm lips pressed to my naked back. I yelped. "Raizada!"
He sat beside me, a very satisfied smile on his handsome face. His hair was ruffled and a thick stubble darkened his cheekbones.
"It's past ten now," he informed me.
"So?"
His grin broadened. "So... I want to shower with you and have breakfast together." He motioned to the tray on the nightstand, a stack of crepes topped with strawberries and a single, long-stemmed rose catching my eye.
I picked up the rose with wonder, bringing it up to my nose. "You did all this?"
He quirked an eyebrow. "Who else?"
I beamed at him. "So you're Mr. Romantic today after being Mr. Insatiable last night?"
"Yes, Mrs. Sexy, that's exactly it. Am I not allowed to pamper you a bit?"
The look in his eyes made my heart squeeze. "Of course, you are... only you..."
He kissed the tip of my nose. "Damn right only me." Reaching for my hand, he drew me up, lightly swatting my bottom. "Come on, beautiful. I have more romance up my sleeve."
"Do you now?" I giggled as he hoisted me up in his arms. He winked down at me.
"Of course."
I nuzzled my face against the side of his neck, his words from earlier coming back to me. "You know... I'm not Mrs. Sexy yet."
He froze mid-step, his gaze crashing down on me. "In every way that truly matters, you are," he insisted. "And if you mean legally, then just say the word. We can get married today if you want."
I had an overwhelming desire to say yes--hell yes actually---but I forced myself to shake my head. "I want to wait till we find Buaji. She should be there."
His lips teased my temple. "I'll find her, baby. I promise you I will."
Nodding, I watched with bated breath as he lowered me onto the slick tiles of the shower, his warm, hard body coming behind me and pressing intimately as water rained down on us.
"Again?" he murmured, his hands coming around to cup my breasts.
I nodded, my heart beating erratically as I braced myself against the fogged up glass. "Again."
*****
I should have known that perfect night and morning were too good to last. But in those blissful hours of just being with the man I loved, I forgot about everything. Forgot about crime lords and drug dealers, my aunt's kidnapping, Butterball, torture compounds, and even that raspy-voiced man on the phone. Instead, I imagined myself almost on a mini-honeymoon. It definitely felt like one.
Only difference was most people got days on their honeymoon, days to relax, make love, and forget about the rest of the world. I got less than 14 hours.
Aman knocked on the door shortly after we finished breakfast. I was a sticky mess. Most couples would have sweetly fed each other breakfast, but Raizada and I had sparred over every last bite of the crepes. He insisted I eat more since I was now technically eating for two, while I struggled to make him understand that I would burst if I ate another bite. I was carrying one baby for crying out loud, not a tribe!
I won the round in the end by stuffing a whole strawberry into his unsuspecting mouth. That shut him up right away and the look on his face was comical to say the least. I was still trying to contain my laughter as I opened the door. The serious expression on Aman's face sobered me right away.
"There's been a..." His gaze shifted to me briefly before turning to Arnav. "...new development. We need to head out."
If I was confused, Raizada appeared the exact opposite, absolutely unfazed by his friend's announcement as he swallowed what remained of the strawberry. "I know. Give me ten minutes."
Aman left with a nod and I felt alarm bubble within me as I watched Arnav pull on his leather jacket. He took out a dangerous-looking gun from the nightstand and slipping it into his holster.
"What development?" I managed to ask.
He didn't look up, stuffing another gun in his back pocket. "Your house in Laxmi Nagar was being watched by that toad's men. Little did they know, I placed a team to monitor it too right after we left. They caught one of Jha's workers and brought him in for questioning."
I struggled to keep up. "When was this?"
"Last night."
I gaped at him. "And you didn't tell me?"
"Baby, I didn't I find out myself until after our shower this morning."
Oh, so he'd gotten distracted last night as well. It hadn't been just me. That made me feel slightly better. "What did the man say? Any new information?"
Raizada's eyes hardened. "Well for one, Jha is still in Greece. He knows you didn't go back home."
"And two?"
His hands fisted at his sides, the knuckles standing out. "Apparently he told the men that he wouldn't leave Greece without you. He... had the guts to refer to you as his wife."
I shuddered, feeling my skin crawl. "He's insane."
"Clearly. And deeply infatuated with you." Seeing the look on my face no doubt, Arnav took me into his arms. "But you don't need to worry. You're safe here. Nothing can touch you here. I won't allow it to."
I hugged him hard. "I know, love."
He clasped me to him for a long moment and then with a gentle kiss, stepped back. "I need to go now. You'll be okay, right?"
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
"What?" he murmured.
"It's not me you need to be worried about," I told him, stating the obvious. "I'm in a bunker six stories underground, Arnav! But you... you're the one who's going to be in some very real danger the moment you leave this place."
"I'll be fine. I've dealt with far worse people than that toad."
I knew he had, but I couldn't help but worry. More than Shyam Jha, I worried about that nameless man on the phone.
"My friend didn't finish the job, but I would, Khushi. I'm much more cruel than he ever was. That's why I'm warning you both--stop chasing me. Because this time it's not just him that dies, but you too. Not to mention that baby inside of you."
Whoever he was, I knew that man had no conscience. No humanity. He would kill without remorse.
My hands cupped my belly protectively as I met Arnav's gaze. "I need you to be extra careful. For us. Please--" My voice broke.
Raizada was before me in under a second. His kiss was firm and yet so tender, I could only clutch his lapels, drawing him to me.
"I'll be careful. Extra careful. You have my word." He punctuated the vows with more kisses. "I love you."
And then he was gone, his footsteps fading on the concrete floor outside. I collapsed on the bed and it wasn't until lunchtime, when Sheena called my name, that I forced myself to stand, brushing away salty trails of tears from my face.
Arnav and Aman were gone for three days. Three, long, excruciating days. I would have gone crazy if not for Arnav's nightly texts. They were brief, never more than a couple words, but they were all that allowed me to fall asleep at night.
Tonight's read: Sushi, I'm okay. Couple more days baby. Love u.
I wish I could reply, but he'd warned me on the first night not to. In case he lost his phone for whatever reason, any message from me could serve as an easy way for someone to track down our location.
I was so very grateful that Sheena was with me during those endless days. Otherwise, it would have been just me and my worst fears for company.
Sheena though understood far more than anyone else. She too was waiting to hear back from the man she loved. Yes, loved. She told me how much she loved Aman on our second night on our own.
"I never expected to fall in love again. Not after..." Her eyes darkened. "Whatever happened. But I can't lie to myself. I love him, Khushi."
I read the sincerity in her eyes. Maybe someone else would have questioned her over how anyone could fall for someone so quickly, but I couldn't seem to. I'd fallen for Arnav Singh Raizada within days of meeting him. Perhaps hours. I couldn't exactly pinpoint the exact moment my feelings had shifted. It felt as if I'd always loved him. Even when I'd been arguing with him and aiming pillows at his head. The old memories made me smile.
"Have you told Aman?" I asked Sheena.
She shook her head slowly. "But I will, as soon as he's back. If I've learned anything on this trip, it's that life is short. Why waste time denying what you feel? I'm going to tell him."
I squeezed her hand. "I'm really happy for you."
"And I'm ecstatic for you. You found your Prince Charming after all."
Prince Charming? I shook my head. "That was a silly fantasy. A caricature of what I imagined the perfect man to be. But Arnav... he's so beyond all that. He's real. He's not perfect, but he's perfect in every way that truly matters to me."
"And you love him," Sheena pointed out with a wide smile.
I smiled back. "More than anything."
We hugged and setting our half-eaten dinner plates in the sink, headed off to sleep, still talking about the men in our lives.
*****
You know what they say about always being prepared? About things happening when you least expect them? Well, day three of being without Raizada proved those sayings to be all too true.
The day began ordinarily enough. By now, Sheena and I had developed a routine.  At around nine AM each morning, we settled in front of the TV, watching the morning news with bated breath while munching on cereal or toast.
The channels were mostly Greek, but there was thankfully a couple in English. I breathed a sigh of relief as the channel cut to a commercial break. There had been no report of any incidents involving Arnav, at least I didn't think so.
"This waiting around will drive me insane," Sheena said, flipping through the channels. "When do you think they'll be back?"
I gave her the same answer I'd given just an hour ago. "Arnav said a few more days."
She groaned. "And on top of everything, we're on virtual house arrest. God, what I'd do for some fresh air." She turned toward me. "You don't think we could go out, do you?"
"Out?" I blinked stupidly, shaking my head. "It's too dangerous, Sheena. And besides that, we would never make it outside. The only way in and out of here is with a code," I said, recalling Arnav punching buttons on a nondescript security alarm. I didn't tell her that Mr. Sexy would probably lose it if I failed to follow his directions this time too. I didn't like imagining his reaction. I could almost hear him roar my name. My heart pitter-pattered in my chest.
Sheena's mouth bent. "You're right, but I just miss being outside... the fresh air... seeing other people... And we're in Greece of all places. If only that Shyam wasn't after you." Her nose wrinkled at the mention of the toad.
"We'll sightsee another day."
"I hope so." She stood, stretching her arms. "I'm going to go check out that gym on the lower level. You want to come along?"
I gave her a look that plainly read: All I want to do is nap. Thank you very much.
She laughed. "I'll see you in awhile."
"Have fun."
I sat with my legs propped up and an old romance book I couldn't quite focus on balanced in my hands. The TV droned on in the background, two smiling women selling what looked to be a very versatile makeup kit. Something Buaji would have ordered in a heartbeat.
And then suddenly, I heard something that did not have any place in infomercials. The staccato tap of something hard striking the pavement above my head. I was up and standing in a matter of seconds.
"SHEENA!"
She didn't answer and I doubted she could even hear me. She had a habit of putting in her ear buds as soon as she started working out. I knew she was safe in the gym for the time being. It was in the lowest part of the bunker.
As the tapping continued, beginning to sound like the popping sounds of gunshots in my fear-driven mind, I felt like diving for cover. That was my instinctive reaction. But almost at once, I realized it would not be enough. Not nearly enough.
By the sound of it, someone was well on their way to breaking in. They would find me eventually. It was only a matter of time. There was no foolproof place to hide here. I had to act and fast.
Buaji's voice rang in my ears: "The best defense is offense, Sanka Devi. Surprise your enemy."
I raced to the bedroom and pulled out the gun Arnav had once used on the cargo ship. It felt strange and awfully heavy in my hands. I grasped it and ran.
The stairs were all metal and concrete and my footsteps slowed as I gazed above my head. The noise would not let up. Someone was up there... perhaps a couple someones...
Flattening myself against the wall, I climbed higher and higher. As I rounded a corner, the roof of the bunker seemed to blow apart, the deafening noise of the explosion sending me flying to the railing. I grasped it with shaking fingers as dust rained down on me. Voices, thick and garbled, speaking rapid Greek, drifted to me.
And then a dark figure descended from the hole above my head, dressed in all black. I pressed myself into a corner, my heartbeat drowning out all else as I raised the gun.
I didn't know if I had it in me to pull the trigger. Could I do it?  My pulse hammered as I stood there, hidden from view, my back plastered to the railing.
I heard footsteps and I knew the man was near. Too near... He had to be just feet away.
With a whip of my hair, I swerved to face him, the gun aimed toward his chest.
"DON'T MOVE!" I shouted. "Don't take a single step closer!"
He didn't react as I'd suspected, freezing mid-step. Behind his gas mask I could not make out any features and I skipped over all that, my eyes drawn to the gun in his right hand. It was no ordinary handgun like the kind Arnav used, this was a--don't hyperventilate, Khushi!--a machine gun. How could I possibly defend myself and the baby now? Despair and fear choked me like two hard hands, making it difficult to breathe.
"Khushi..." the man whispered with intermingled relief and shock.
I didn't hear him. My heartbeat ricocheted in my chest as he stepped toward me. My eyes swung to the gun again and I took a giant step backwards.
"Don't!" I cried.
"Easy," he whispered, putting the gun down. "Baby, look at me. Calm down and look at me. It's me."
His voice finally got through to me. "Ar...Arnav?"
I was so shaken, I could barely manage not to sway. He looked nothing like himself.
He seemed to realize that at the same time because his hand rose to his mask. As he threw it aside, I ran to him.
"Arnav!"
He caught me in his arms, hauling me up as if I weighed nothing. I cried into his shirt.
"I almost shot you!" I said hysterically. "I almost--" killed you...  This time, I very nearly did hyperventilate.
He massaged my tense back, rubbing soothing circles. "Babe, listen to me. You didn't harm me. And even if you had, you had every reason to. You were defending yourself, just as I told you to do."
I couldn't get over the fact I'd almost shot him. "But--"
He shut me up with a swift kiss. "No buts... We don't have time for that. We need to get the hell out of here."
He didn't have to tell me something was wrong. Wrapped up in his arms as I was, I could feel it. Sense it. He was rigid and immovable against me. His eyes glinted with urgency. I cupped his stubbled cheek.
"What is it? Why did you break in like this?"
Something hot and dangerous swept past his eyes. "It was the only way I could get to you. While we were gone, the codes were changed. Aman and I have been taken off of this assignment and some other officers have been put in our place."
"What? Your bosses did this? But why? They're the good guys aren't they?"
He didn't reply for a moment. "There's sometimes no difference between good and bad, Khushi. Not really. I've felt for awhile something's not right and this proves it. Someone doesn't want me near you."
I shivered, clutching him. "So you broke in?"
He nodded. "Aman and I hired some Greek men and managed to detonate the roof with some very advanced explosives. We were being so careful, I didn't expect you to even notice we were coming in till it was already done and over that. But of course, that didn't happen." He gave me a rueful smile.
I wished I could smile back, but my body felt jarred. "What'll happen now? Are those men... your replacements on their way?"
He gave a stiff nod, all business once more. "As we speak, they're headed here. They have orders to take you to a secret location, somewhere even I can't find you."
"You won't let them though..."
He caught my bottom lip in his, sucking hard. His eyes gleamed with a fierceness I'd never seen before. "Damn right I won't. You're mine. Mine to protect. I trust no one else. And didn't I promise you? I will never walk away from you again."
I hadn't doubted him for a moment, but nonetheless, joy swept through me at his words and I launched myself at him. Aman slipped past us, shouting Sheena's name.
Taking my hand in his, Arnav led me to the steel cable he'd descended from. I gazed upwards, my stomach in knots. I suddenly felt like I was back at the summer carnival in Lover's Park, my heart sinking as I studied the rollercoaster.
"Hold onto me and keep your eyes closed at all times," Raizada instructed, recognizing well my fear of heights. He was the one after all who'd distracted me with some rather intense kisses on that fateful rollercoaster ride.
As he pulled me to him, I climbed onto his back, my hands clamping down on his shoulders and my legs scissoring his waist.
"Ready?"
Keeping my eyes tightly closed, I nodded against his nape.
It was faster than any rollercoaster. Before I knew it, we were standing on the old, dirt-streaked floor of the factory, machinery surrounding us. Aman and Sheena were close behind, hands clasped.
The Greeks Arnav had hired were nowhere to be seen and I wondered where they'd disappeared as Arnav led me toward a nearby jeep. It was black and parked at a sharp angle. Arnav didn't give me the chance to walk or even run. He simply picked me up in his arms and sprinted, his gaze whipping over the factory.
I didn't see any danger but almost as soon as he'd deposited me in the front seat, the unmistakable sound of gunshots broke out.
Police cars hurtled through the attached garage, sending it flying on its hinges, and black SUVS sped our way.
Arnav cursed, diving to avoid another round of gunshots. My heart lodged in my throat as I watched him roll to the ground. They were aiming for him! Gunning him down before my very eyes!
Ignoring Aman and Sheena's protests from the back seat, I swung open the door.
"Don't!" Arnav's eyes were wild with fury. "Stay inside, dammit!"
"No!" I ran to him and the gunshots stopped at once.
Breathing fast and hard, I held Arnav to me, flinging a look of pure hatred at the parked cars. Raizada tried to make me move back, but I wouldn't allow that. With a savage curse, he threw his arms around me.
There was dead silence for a moment as we stood there, chest to chest, bodies entwined. And then a man in one of the police cars lowered his window, holding out a speaker. To my surprise, he wasn't Greek, but appeared to be Indian.
"ASR," the man said, his voice echoing in the mammoth factory. "You have nothing to do with this case any longer. Step away from the girl. We don't want to hurt you, but we will if you try to create any hindrance in this mission. You know how we operate."
Arnav didn't answer, showing the guy his middle finger instead.
The man's mouth tightened. "You have thirty seconds before we open fire."
My lips parted with surprise and ignoring Arnav's warnings, I stepped before him. "You'd hurt us? I'm a civilian. I thought men like you protected people like me."
"We are trying to help you, Ms. Gupta," the man said with exasperation. "And we will. But ASR cannot be a part of this any longer. He's too involved as it is."
My chin lifted with defiance. "Then shoot," I all but dared. "Shoot an unarmed pregnant woman."
The guns being aimed our way hesitated. "Ms. Gupta, listen to us. You need to step away from him. Do you understand? It's best for everyone. Step away!"
I shook my head and spoke in a whisper to Arnav. "Are you with me?"
He squeezed my hand. "Always."
Keeping our eyes on the cops, we carefully backed toward the parked SUV. Aman and Sheena had jumped to the front seat and the engine was revved to go.
Arnav opened the back door and tried to steer me in, but I wouldn't let him. He had to go in first. I was all that kept them from shooting him.
He slid inside and then taking a firm hold of my waist, drew me onto his lap, so fast no one could react. I slammed the door close even as the tires screeched and suddenly we were flying, zooming past the machinery with a line of police cars and sirens trailing after us.
Arnav forced my head down against his neck, pulling out a gun. Bullets rained on us but to my relief, the jeep was made to withstand their impact. As we hurtled down a steep cliff, Arnav clasped my face in my hands.
"Don't you ever do that me! What the hell were you thinking?"
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. "I was saving your life, that's what. You're not getting away from me again in this lifetime, Raizada. So get used to it."
He looked furious for a second and then his face cracked into a crooked smile. "You crazy, crazy woman... God, I love you."
I moaned into his mouth as he kissed me, throwing my arms around my neck.
Aman coughed from the front. "Umm, there's still a pack of them tailing us. I managed to lose only a couple."
I turned in my spot, frowning at the flashing lights following us. They were so close...
"Third right," Arnav directed, completely at ease. "Head to the bridge. Take the stairs and park below. They'll never suspect that. But you've got to be quick."
Aman nodded while I frowned, my brow furrowing. Take the stairs? What did that mean? But as Arnav clicked my seatbelt into place, I suddenly knew.
A scream escaped my throat as the jeep made a sharp right and we sped down a flight of stairs. The route was mostly empty, but a few people stood nearby. They jumped out of the way, eyes wide with terror.
Aman swung the jeep in a complete 360 and then stomped on the accelerator again. This was far worse than any rollercoaster. Much more real. My head was spinning. My heart pumping with adrenaline.
"Almost there," Raizada whispered in my ear, hugging me close. He was as ever unperturbed by any of it.
I clung to him as we came to a sudden halt, the tires screeching. It was suddenly all quiet and the four of us sat frozen, fearful to breathe much less move.
And then I heard it. Sirens. No... No! I threw myself into Arnav's arms. I wouldn't allow them to take me away from him. I trusted no one but him.
"Hush," he whispered in my ear. "They're not coming this way. Do you hear that?"
I calmed myself down enough to listen. He was right. The noise of the sirens was fading, growing fainter and fainter.
Aman slapped the steering wheel, a toothy smile on his face. "We did it! They fell for it. Hook, line, and sinker." He turned to kiss Sheena.
Arnav undid my seat belt and I crawled into his lap, holding him as my body trembled. Part of me couldn't believe what had just happened. Had it been only an hour ago that I'd been lounging on the sofa, listening to two women sell a gaudy set of makeup? I felt as if I'd aged ten years since then.
Raizada combed back my hair, kissing away the tears from my eyes. "It's okay, baby. It's safe now."
I said nothing, curling into his arms as his fingers went back to stroking my hair. It soothed me like nothing else.
*****
We ditched the SUV soon thereafter and I was reluctant to see it go. That bulletproof glass would be sorely missed. But it did fetch a decent price.  Arnav used most of the money to buy a cheap motorboat instead.
The boat was small, but efficient and as the four of us cruised over the crisp, ice-blue water, our fears were never quite behind us. It seemed the height of irony to me that while our lives had gone all topsy-turvy in a matter of hours, the day was peaceful and bright. Almost deceptively so. Birds flew by overhead and the sun shone down, warming my skin.
I thought the boat ride would never end, but Arnav veered us toward an abandoned looking shipyard after a few hours.
"They'll never think to look for us here," he said with utter certainty, tethering the  boat to the dock. "We'll be safe here for the night."
He extended his hand to me and I slipped my palm over his, our fingers entwining. The shipyard wasn't used this time of the year, he explained as we walked past boats so old and battered looking, I could only wonder how they managed to stay afloat. From what I gathered, it seemed Arnav had discovered this to be a nice hideout spot during a previous mission to Greece.
I clung to his hand, grateful to be back on solid ground once more. Sheena and Aman headed off toward one of the empty shacks nearby while Arnav, to my surprise, led me to an old houseboat.
It looked like no one had used it for a very long time, the windows broken and stained, the paint faded to a color past recognition.  I was surprised to see the letters painted on it's side: A's.
"Is this--"
Before I could finish the sentence, he drew me inside, locking the door after us. I blinked at the interior. It looked like something out of one of those cringe worthy horror movies and personally speaking, I'd always been more of a romantic comedy type of girl. Nets and knives swung from the ceiling and the place reeked of stale fish.
I scooted closer to Raizada. "Arnav--"
He cut me off again. "Follow me."
I opened my mouth to argue and then closed it just as fast. Hell, whom was I kidding? I'd follow him anywhere and happily too. Even if the place smelled like dead fish.
I almost walked right into him then. Arnav was bent on the scratched floorboards. I watched in awe as he unlocked a paneled door and a light bulb turned on, shining bright.
Just like the bunker, this space too proved to be anything but predictable. It wasn't as comfy or fancy as the underground bunker, more serviceable than anything, but it was clean and dry and thankfully, fish-smell free. A queen-sized bed took up most of the room while the back wall was filled with monitors and devices I'd never seen before.
Arnav was busy going through everything, his jaw tight. I padded over to him, settling a hand on his back. "Everything okay, love?" As soon as I voiced the question, I wanted to kick myself. Okay? How could anything possibly be okay? We'd been ambushed and this time, it wasn't just Butterball's men after us, but the people Arnav worked for too. We were being chased by everyone it felt like, attacks coming at us from all sides.
"They've put a hit out on me," Raizada said abruptly.
I felt my heart sink, a stunned expression on my face as I met his wary gaze. "What?"
His mouth compressed into a straight line as he nodded. "Eight long years. I've done this job right from college and they do this to me." He swore. "Well, screw them. Screw them all. I'm not letting you go."
He yanked me into his arms and I held him just as snugly. "Why?" I managed. "Why are they doing this to us? Why would they remove you from this mission?"
His muscles were tense around me. "There can only be one reason. Which is that this whole mess is a lot bigger than that toad. This goes high up. Really high up. It has to."
I shivered. "What are we going to do?"
Leaning back, he framed my face in his hands, his eyes grave. "I don't know. But I'll figure it out. You trust me to do that, right?"
"Yes... but..."
"But what?"
I looped my arms around his rigid waist. "I know what we can do... What I want to do... right now."
His eyebrows bent. "What?"
I stepped away from him and holding his gaze, drew my dress over my head, tossing it aside.
His gaze went wide as my underwear joined the dress, his eyes running up and down my body. My skin tingled wherever his gaze landed.
"Khushi... Baby, what are you--"
I rose on my tiptoes, cupping his roughened jaw line. "A few hours ago, I thought you were going to be ripped from my world again... That I was going to lose you... I need to know we're together. I need to feel it. I need you."
"Oh, baby." His mouth crushed mine, his hands lifting me up. I gasped as my back hit the mattress and he towered over me, his eyes glittering. We went up in flames, his skillful hands and mouth possessing me with a roughness that hadn't been there before.
I bit my lip to contain my shouts. "Please... please, Arnav..."
He caught my hips in his hands and drawing my legs wide, thrust hard and fast. I felt everything erupt then. The boat rocked, matching his maddening rhythm.
Our bodies strained together on the sheets, fighting to be closer and then as his mouth caught my breast with its mind-numbing, wet heat, I felt myself break apart.
I didn't know where we'd go from here. I had no clue. All I knew was, I belonged nowhere else but here. With him.


Baby, Hold On by Tina!
Part 28: Bait
The days flew by. One week and then two. We'd gotten good at this hiding thing. Every day, we switched locations, sometimes twice in a day. And every night, Mr. Sexy and I would stay up late, making love, often finding time to sneak away in the daytime as well.
It was a bit exhausting and the growing dark circles around our eyes were proof enough, but we kept at it. If I wasn't already pregnant, there was no doubt in my mind he would have definitely knocked me up again. No place was safe from us: empty stairwells, shabby hotel rooms, old sailing boats, jeeps, shower stalls, and even a picturesque waterfall near Mount Athos.
We were shameless and not the least bit apologetic about it. I couldn't seem to keep my hands off of him and by the way Raizada kept dragging me off, his mouth hungry and hot against mine the moment we were alone, I knew the feeling was mutual.
I don't know how it was possible but I found myself falling more and more in love with him. When he'd left me the first time, I'd nearly given up. I knew now that if anything separated us--anything at all--there would be nothing to give up. Arnav, his love, our baby, they meant everything to me. Everything.
Perhaps that was the reason why I could so seamlessly slip into this crazy lifestyle. This life I'd never once dreamed about. Who would have guessed that one day, I'd be on the run from the police, spending my days chasing after leads and my nights in Arnav's arms, gazing at the stars on top of a fishing boat, our bodies blissfully bare beneath a thin sheet?
Certainly not me.
Though part of me was afraid of what the future might hold and worn out by the constant running around, I knew there was no other option. Besides, even if this was all the life I'd ever have, I'd gladly accept it, as long as it kept Arnav and me together. That was something I didn't have to even think about.
More than me, Mr. Sexy was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to his world. How I learned to eat whatever was put before me, to sleep in a new place every night, to anticipate a threat from across the street, and to slip into a crowd and remain unnoticed.
"This is temporary," he said one night, pressing kisses to my sweaty temple as his hands carefully massaged my expanding baby bump. We were lying on a giant, heavy-duty hammock and the fact that it was still standing after our rough lovemaking was quite a feat.
"Soon, very soon, we'll catch that toad and that'll be the end of it." He sounded convinced and he had good reason to be.
He'd almost caught Butterball once before. He'd told me it had happened the morning he'd broken into the underground bunker. Shyam had been surrounded by a pack of security guards, but even then, he'd appeared antsy in his usual, polka-dotted shirt and floppy pants. Arnav would have arrested him then and there but at that same moment, he'd received an alarming message. Without warning or explanation, he'd been taken off the case and replaced by officers he'd never even heard of.
The choice had been to go after Shyam or come to me. He'd chosen me, knowing that they would take me away from him even if I'd been unwilling.
Running a hand through his wavy hair, I cuddled into his hard embrace. The night was a bit chilly, but pressed against him as I was, I felt none of it. I was warm. Deliciously so.  "I know you'll find him, baby. That's why they probably took you off the mission in the first place. They were scared because you were so close to ending it all."
He was quiet for a moment, pondering my words with a serious expression. I didn't like to see him so grim and unsmiling. His sinful mouth was made to laugh and joke and do unmentionable things to my body. Bowing my head, I kissed him on the chest, my lips lingering over his flat, male nipple. My tongue flicked out, lapping it. He drew in a sharp breath and I grinned, repeating my movements.
"Again?" I teased, my free hand wandering lower and confidently taking hold of him.
Tugging my head up, he kissed me, quick and hard. "Damn right again."
I laughed as he rolled me on top of him. He entered me swiftly and my laughter morphed into low moans. It was everything I'd ever wanted and more, and I couldn't get enough. Lowering my head, I slanted my mouth across his, our tongues entwining as he filled and stretched me all over again.
It would have been the honeymoon of my dreams if not for the constant hiding, the constant glancing over our shoulders. Nowhere was safe. Not for us at least.
While I was handling our new situation pretty well, Sheena was slowly drowning in it. She missed having a normal life and didn't like "running around like criminals," as she put it. I couldn't really blame her and it made me feel even worse that she was in this mess only because of me.
"It's just for a few more days," I tried to explain to her, late one afternoon.
"It's been weeks, Khushi!" she cried. "Weeks! I want to go home. I've had enough of Greece."
I squeezed her hand. "It's going to be okay." But as her tear-glazed eyes bore into mine, I wondered if I was lying to her or not. We were in such a huge, complicated, and very dangerous situation. There was no easy fix, no solution that would magically put everything in our lives back into order.
A few hours later, Aman came up to Arnav and I on the top floor of the boat we'd borrowed for the night, his face drawn. "Sheena," he said. "She's upset again. Really upset this time."
I sighed, rising from Raizada's lap. "I'll go speak to her."
He grabbed my wrist, shaking his head.  "No, baby. I don't think that will help."
"But what will then? I have to try."
He ignored me, turning to his friend. "What does Sheena want?"
"She wants to go home."
"I hope you've told her that's not possible right now, Aman. You can take her to a different country, but it can't be home. Not for the time being."
"She knows. I've explained all that to her God knows how many times now, but she doesn't want to understand. She just wants to feel normal again. Not like a... a criminal on the run."
I watched as Arnav's jaw hardened, a muscle tightening there. Going back to his side, I wound my arms around his waist in silent comfort, laying my head over his heartbeat. I knew better than anyone how impatient he was to end this and get us back home. If Sheena was suffering, so were we all.
"Then make her feel normal," he finally ground out, surprising both Aman and me.
"What?" his friend stammered.
He nodded. "Make her feel normal for a short while if that's what it takes for her to get through this. We need her to cooperate a couple more days. Jha is close. I can feel it."
Aman struggled to make sense of things. "Normal? But how do I do that? There's nothing normal about our current situation."
Arnav shrugged, waving toward a beach in the distance. "Take her there for awhile."
Shading my eyes, I gazed to where he pointed. Bonfires had been lit on the sands and having spied on that same spot earlier with a pair of binoculars, I knew there was a throng of people celebrating and swaying to music over there. What they were celebrating I had no idea, but they seemed rather happy about whatever it was and very, very drunk.
Aman looked doubtful. "I don't think it's a good idea. Someone might notice us."
"There's a very slim chance of that happening. We're nowhere near where they're looking for us."
Arnav often said things like that. Things his training had taught him. Things I doubted I'd ever fully understand. But if he said it was so, I knew he had good reason for it. Besides, I doubted anyone would think of searching for us here. At an airport or highway? Possibly. But at a drunken beach fest? Highly unlikely.
"I'll think about it," Aman murmured as he left.
I was left alone with Arnav and settled back down on his lap. His arms came around me, stroking my belly while his chin settled on my shoulder.
"You okay?" he murmured.
I covered his hands with mine, nodding. "Yes."
He observed me quietly, not saying anything for a long while. And then suddenly, he was pulling me up. "Come on."
I stared up at him in confusion. "Where?"
He cocked his head to the beach. "I think we both can use some normal too."
I nibbled on my bottom lip. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
He kissed me in answer. "Very. You trust me, right? Then, let's go, baby."
I couldn't say no to him, a small smile crossing my face. To not run for once... to stand still, wrapped in his arms... well that sounded like my very own version of heaven.
I stood by his side as Arnav steered the boat carefully to the docks and as we neared, music drowned out the loud sound of the motor. I had no idea what the band was singing, it was all in Greek, but the rhythm and pounding of the drums was something you didn't need a foreign language dictionary to understand.
I stuck close to Arnav's side as we stepped onto the sand, our hands weaving together. Aman and Sheena went the opposite direction and I knew that was deliberate. On the off chance someone was searching for us, they'd be looking for all four of us.
As we neared the crowd, I no longer felt this idea was the best or the safest. There were too many people. Too much chaos.
Arnav seemed to read my mind. "Sometimes the best place to hide is right in the middle of a crowd. Take a look around, Khushi. Most of these people are well on their way past drunk."
I forced myself to calm down enough to confirm his words. He was right as usual. The crowd was made up of people around our age, drunk and jubilant. The only thing that did make me feel uneasy was something not to do with them, but with me.
I tugged on Raizada's hand. "My clothes... they're all wrong."
He stopped and stared down at the floral maternity dress I was wearing. I was one of the few, if not the only one on the beach, not in a swimming suit. Even Sheena had one on, though I had no idea where she'd found one. I spotted her in the distance, her arms around Aman and her mouth glued to his. For once, she didn't look depressed. She seemed genuinely happy.
Arnav suddenly let go of my hand, walking away. I was so stunned for a moment, I could only watch him. This was the first time in weeks we'd been apart even this slight a distance. What was he up to?
My eyes narrowed as he sauntered up to a pretty girl in a barely there, blue bikini. I wished for the hundredth time I'd picked up some Greek, but I hadn't and so their conversation flew right over my head.
Arnav returned before I could march over there and drag him away. A smile tugged on the corners of his mouth as he approached me.
"What were you doing?" I demanded, hands on my hips and flames glinting in my eyes.
"Finding out where we can get more suitable clothes for you." He caught hold of my hand again. "Come on. There are some stalls apparently set up on the opposite end of the dance floor."
We shouldered past drunk, kissing couples and laughing teenagers, our eyes searching for any threats. There were none. At least none I could spot.
"Did you have to flirt with her so much?" I bit out tersely.
"Flirt?" His eyebrows rose and damn him, his eyes shone with amusement. He didn't ask what or rather whom I was so angry about. "I was talking to her, baby."
I rolled my eyes. "Well, don't talk to her again."
"Bit bossy, aren't you?"
I met his smiling gaze with a cool glare. "Very bossy," I corrected. "And Buaji taught me some of her wrestling moves. You better keep that in mind too."
He had the gall to laugh at me. I punched his side. "I'm serious, Raizada."
"I know you are, Gupta." His smile broadened and without warning, he lifted me off my feet, kissing me soundly.
I tried to resist, but whom was I kidding? I couldn't deny him even if all I wanted to do in that moment was rip out half his hair for even looking at another woman. I found myself clinging to him, a gasp escaping me as I felt how much he desired me too.
Someone bumped into us then and I reddened with embarrassment. Public displays of affection weren't something I was used to and I had only one man to blame. For awhile there, I'd forgotten where I was.
"It's all your fault," I grumbled to Mr. Sexy. All your sexiness's fault.
He drew me against his side, carefree as always. His mouth pressed to my hair. "I'll happily accept the blame. Now, come on. I want you out of that dress."
Leave it to Raizada to turn everything into some sort of sexual innuendo. "Do you?" I whispered. "Well, you're going to have work on that tonight. I will not make it easy for you."
His eyes glittered at me, reflecting the ocean waves. "Good. You know I love a challenge, baby. Tonight, I will not take it easy on you either..."
God, the man was impossible! Every word that left his sinful mouth managed to unravel me, leaving me all hot and bothered.
My feet came to a jerking halt as we neared the swimsuit stall. It looked more like a shack than anything and it was filled with one thing and one thing alone: bikinis. My lips fell open.
I couldn't wear this. Even if I were comfortable wearing one, I couldn't in my current state. I was four months pregnant and blame it on Raizada's genes or whatever, but I looked far more along than that.
"Arnav... I can't--"
He lowered a hanger from the wall. It was a red one piece and for a moment, I relaxed, but then I noticed the plunging neckline, the flimsy back tie, and the giant cutouts along its sides. It wasn't a bikini, but it wasn't all that much more material either.
"You could wear it with a wrap or some jeans. It'll look good on you."
Was he out of his mind? "I don't think so."
"Oh, I know so."
I rolled my eyes at him, but he simply said something to the salesperson--again in Greek.
"What did you say?" I asked as the woman walked away.
"That we'll take it."
I balked at his arrogance. "You said what?"
He pecked my cheek quickly, setting a wad of bills on the counter. "Hurry up and change, Mrs. Sexy. I'll be waiting outside."
Before I could even begin to argue, he was gone. I would have chased after him but the saleswoman's voice stopped me.
"This way." She pointed to a row of makeshift fitting rooms, separated by thin curtains.
I weighed my options and then with a grimace, walked into the corner one.
Reaching for the zipper, I undressed quickly, tossing my floral dress aside. It looked ready to fall apart and I realized I'd worn it for far too long on this trip. I stared down at it hopelessly.
It was just as bad as the one my Buaji referred to as my rotten watermelon outfit back home, but it had been comfy. I made a mental note to buy some more maternity clothes. I had gotten a couple dresses last week but Raizada had ripped most of them in his haste to get me out of them. I should've been mad at him about that but I wasn't. Not at all actually.
There was a chipped, oblong mirror leaning against one side of the changing room, but I forced myself to avoid it. I knew what I'd see. An obviously too pregnant woman in a too tiny swimming suit, her stomach and heaving cleavage in danger of spilling out.
If I looked that way, I'd lose all my courage. With trembling fingers, I tied a matching sarong high on my waist, though that did nothing to conceal my belly, and opened my braid, combing my fingers through the tangles. My hair fell down past my waist in soft curls and I felt a bit better. At least I'd be covered from the back. The front through... was a different story. Wetting my lips, I realized I could stall no longer and taking a deep breath, I took a tentative step past the curtain.
The saleswoman was handing back change to another customer and as she saw me she smiled. I couldn't quite smile back. Of course she'd give me an encouraging look. I was wearing her merchandise after all. She couldn't very well say I looked like a whale now could she?
I was a bundle of nerves as I walked out onto the beach. I expected Arnav to be standing nearby and waiting, and he was--but to my surprise and utter fury--he wasn't alone.
A tall, slim, blond woman in a neon pink bikini was standing beside him, laughing over something. The sound of her laughter grated on my ears worse than Buaji's infamous snores. My lips thinned as I studied Arnav and her.
They were standing close, but not touching. I was grateful for that. I wouldn't have been responsible for my actions if they had been. But thankfully, Arnav's hands were firmly kept to himself, wound around a plastic glass.  He took a large swallow every now and then. He also spoke very little, but the girl was chattering on and on.
I would have been somewhat calm if not for that fact that Raizada had taken our time apart to change as well. In his case, he'd gotten rid of his jeans and put on trunks that sat low on his hips. A little too low in my opinion. They were black, the same color as the sunglasses he was wearing. The shirt he'd had on was nowhere to be seen and his toned, muscled chest was on full display. He didn't look like a dangerous man on the run. He looked like a model, too gorgeous for his own good, and I wasn't the only female who'd come to that conclusion. My hands knotted at my sides as I noticed the Barbie look alike eyeing my Mr. Sexy.
With an equally plastic smile plastered on my face, I headed right toward them. Arnav spotted me first and something warm expanded in my chest as I saw his lips part with surprise, his jaw flexing as his eyes traced over me.  I knew exactly what that look meant. I'd seen it countless times in recent weeks. He wanted me. If we'd been alone, I knew the red one piece and sarong would have been in shreds by now.
I stepped up to him and ignoring everyone, especially you know who, boldly caught his bottom lip between mine. "Hello, love."
His hand slid possessively down my spine to my bottom, bringing me flush against him. "Hello to you too, baby. You look stunning."
My skin heated under the weight of his awestruck stare. I wanted to tell him how sexy and rugged he looked, but his recent chitchat with Barbie wouldn't allow me to. It took some doing to force myself to turn toward her. She stood watching us, looking gob smacked.
I gave her my biggest, fakest smile. "It's really sweet of you to be so friendly with my husband."
"Husband?" she managed, her gaze swerving to Arnav, who simply nodded, a slight smirk playing on his lips.
"Yes," I continued. "Husband. Most people tend to not be so friendly once they find out about his time in jail and everything..." Arnav stilled, but I was too focused on Barbie's reaction to pay him much attention.
"Jail?" She blinked several times, reminding me of a yellow-haired owl.
I nodded, very seriously. "Don't worry. I don't believe for a moment he killed any blond woman on the beach. It was just an accident. And accidents can happen to anyone, right?"
Arnav made a choking sound behind me and the girl was suddenly backing away, her face paling under her fake tan.
"Come back soon!" I waved though she was already lost in the crowd.
"What the hell." Arnav swung me around to face him. "My time in jail?"
I glared at him. "Next time you flirt with a woman like that I will make it much worse, Raizada."
"For God's sake, I was not flirting!"
"She was!"
"So? I'm immune to it." He yanked me to him and though I fought to free myself, he wouldn't allow it, drawing me flat against him. Our gazes warred. "The only woman I want is the one who drives me out of my mind on a daily--no hourly--basis, whom I lust after and love to hell and back, whose pregnant and moody these days, and hot as sin in a flaming red swimming suit, and who just called me a murderer."
A giggle escaped me and suddenly, he was laughing too. With a soft kiss, Arnav pulled me into the throng of dancers, his hands settling on my hips.
"I like it when you're jealous, Mrs. Sexy."
I looped my arms around his neck. "Well, I don't."
"Mmm..." He pecked my lips again. "Try to see it from my perspective. You're extra hot and sexy when you're all angry with me."
"Angry? Love, angry doesn't even begin to describe what I was feeling when I saw you with her."
He spun me in a circle before drawing me back into his arms. "She just came up to me. It doesn't matter."
"She better stay away now."
He laughed again. "Do you seriously doubt that? You scared her off."
"Good," I muttered.
"You mentioned you'll do something else next time." He looked down at me curiously. "What do you have in my mind exactly?"
I pretended to think hard. "Well, if there is ever a next time and there better not be, Raizada, I'll mention something about the five kids we have. That'll make any woman think twice. You being a father of five would definitely take away some of the charm."
"Five?" He patted my stomach. "Last time I checked there was just one in here."
"True, but no one else knows that but us, baby. We could have four more waiting for us at home."
"God help me," he mumbled, but I sensed his smile as he rocked me against him. The music rose in intensity and my body tightened as I felt something unmistakable and very familiar against my lower belly.
"Arnav..."
"Yeah?" He was busy nuzzling the side of his neck.
"What are you doing?" I managed. "We're in public and you're..."
He had the audacity to grin at me. "I'm what, baby?"
I rubbed up against his err... problem. "You're aroused," I whispered in his ear.
He shrugged nonchalantly. "Tends to happen when you're around. A lot."
I turned a shade redder. "Well, there's nothing we do about it now."
Raizada drew his head up, his mouth twisting up at the corner. "Don't be so sure about that."
My heartbeat shot up. "What do you mean?"
He said nothing but swung me around so his front was plastered to my back. "Head that way."
"Where?" I squinted.
He went back to nuzzling my neck, making me shiver. "Just keep walking till I tell you to stop."
"Mr. Bossy," I grumbled even as I followed his instructions.
As we reached the far end of the beach, where the crowd was noticeably less, a very drunk looking man ambled up to me, his beady eyes wandering up and down. He muttered something in Greek. It sounded harmless enough but whatever it was made Raizada furious. He shoved the man out of the way and into the surf, yelling at him in fluent Greek.
"What just happened?" I asked as he wrapped his arm around me and steered me away.
Arnav's lips thinned. "He asked to dance with you and I asked him if he had a death wish."
I blinked up at him with surprise. "Bit drastic, don't you think?"
He shook his head. "He also called you something... inappropriate."
"What?"
"Khushi..."
"Please." I pouted. "I want to know."
"I'm not repeating it, but the gist was, you're his type of woman: hot and plump."
"Plump?" I echoed with outrage, my feet coming to a jerking halt on the sand. "You better have told him I'm pregnant and not just chubby for the heck of it!"
"I was more upset by him calling you hot and the way he was eyeing you. The chubby part didn't bother me."
"Didn't bother you?" My mouth fell open.
"I just said that. Will you please stop repeating everything?"
"Stop saying ridiculous things then!"
He stared down at my livid face for a moment and then without warning, tugged me toward a row of private showers. Swinging the door open, he pulled me inside. It was about the same size as the small fitting room I'd been in not too long ago, except there were sand-streaked tiles below my feet and a flimsy showerhead above. My eyes widened as Arnav turned the water on, whipping his sunglasses off.
"Arnav Singh Raizada, what are you doing?" I demanded as he stalked toward me. "If you think you can distract me by looking at me with those bedroom eyes of yours, then--" Words failed me as he pushed up against me, letting me feel just how hard he was.
"Then what?"
I struggled to keep from moaning. "Then... you're right. Damn you, kiss me."
He smiled with triumph and I wrenched him down to my level, my mouth finding his. My hands thrust his trunks out of the way and he kicked them off, backing me up against the shower with increasingly intense kisses.
"Be careful," I warned as he reached around me, pulling on the one piece's back ties. "Don't rip it into pieces. I don't have any other clothes with me."
"Too bad. I don't know what I was thinking to make you wear this. It's too damn tiny."
I bit back a smile at the sour note I detected in his voice. "Oh? You don't like it? I thought you did." Dropping the sarong, I posed before him, jutting my chest out. I knew from this angle my full breasts were practically spilling out.
His eyes darkened, the heat in those inky depths making me quiver and burn. "I like it very much, but I can't handle other men looking at you as if you're a bloody piece of meat. I almost did some serious damage to that idiot back there."
I tried not to smile, failing badly. "Now, who's being jealous?"
"Me. Hands down me," he admitted. "Khushi?"
"Yes?"
"Take off the damn swimming suit. You're right, if I do it, I'll probably tear it."
I liked having all the power in my hands. As he stood there, fully aroused, watching me with his hands fisted at his sides, I took my sweet time undressing.
"Khushi..." he growled, "I know what you're doing."
"Do you?" I baited him deliberately, very slowly baring my chest to his heated gaze.
He made an impatient noise and the one piece was none too gently dragged the rest of the way down my legs, still intact though. I bit down on my lip hard as he kneeled before me, pulling my thighs apart and kissing me intimately.
"Arnav!" My fingers clenched on his hair.
He didn't so much as react. By the time he rose and sought my mouth, lifting me in his arms, I was beyond caring what happened in the outside world. All I knew was that I wanted him within me. Inside me. Now.
He seemed to feel the same powerful need and suddenly I found myself pressed up against the wall, his hardness pounding into me as his mouth lowered to my breasts, suckling greedily. It was glorious and as I collapsed in his arms a long while later, out of breath and ridiculously happy, he pillowed his head on top of mine, his breathing ragged.
"Raizada?"
"Hmm?" He rubbed soothing circles on my back.
"Don't put me down. I can't seem to feel my legs."
He laughed. "Don't worry, I've got you."
I smiled. He most certainly did have me. Heart, body and soul, I was his.
*****
The following week rolled by at the same clipped speed. I was getting used to our daily routine, but everyone else seemed to be growing increasingly agitated. And I don't mean just Sheena, but Aman and my own Raizada as well.
"What we need is bait," Aman declared, shutting his laptop and pushing it aside. "Something that will lure Jha out of his hole. It's the only way to end this."
Arnav opened his mouth to speak, but I beat him to it.
"What about me?"
It seemed the most obvious option, but by the way all their heads snapped in my direction, I knew I'd managed to stun them. Sheena appeared aghast, Aman looked more than a little taken aback, but most frightening was Raizada's reaction. Every muscle of his body seemed to tense and his eyes darkened, burning with seething fury.
"What did you say?" he all but growled.
I swallowed. "You heard me... Shyam wants me, isn't it? He went through all this trouble to get me. If I were the bait--"
"You?" Raizada had me by the shoulders in a matter of seconds, his perfect features twisted in a way I'd never seen before. "Over my dead body! I won't allow it!"
We glared at each other, neither backing down. I crossed my hands over my chest. "I don't believe I asked you for permission. This is mydecision."
"The hell it is!"
I could tell that he would not make this easy so I tried another approach, grasping his hands in both of mine. "Baby, please. Just think about it. You must see how much sense this makes. It's the only way."
"IT ISN'T! Stop it, Khushi! Not another word more about this."
I felt like shouting in frustration, but the look in his eyes gave me pause. He was truly frightened for me. Crossing to him, I threw my arms around his neck, holding him as tight as I could.
"I'll be safe the entire time," I whispered, my face buried against the side of his neck. "You and Aman can arrange it all. I know you can. Please..."
He tilted my face up, staring down at me with an unfamiliar steeliness in his gaze. "Listen to me: you will not be the bait. Never. Do you think this is some joke? Jha and the people he works for are dangerous. They are capable of anything. If you think I'd let you walk into something like that... well then, you don't know me at all."
"But Buaji--"
"I'll find her!" Mr. Sexy shouted. "I've told you that before, haven't I? Don't you trust me to keep my word to you?"
"Of course I do," I whispered, chastened.
Sheena, of course, was on his side too. "Arnav is absolutely right. We can't risk your life to save Buaji."
"It's not just that though. This is how we can capture those criminals. Those people who..." My voice broke, but as my teary eyes rose to Arnav, I knew he understood. These people who tortured you...
His jaw flexed and he drew me flush against him. "You don't need to worry about that. I'll find them. But get the thought of being bait out of your head. Jeez, Khushi, you're pregnant."
I was on the verge of dropping the whole idea and agreeing with him, when a voice cut in--in my support. Surprise surprise.
"I think Khushi has a point. This might just work."
And suddenly all of Raizada's wrath shifted from me to his best friend. "What?" He stared at Aman as if he couldn't quite believe his ears.
"Your hearing is as perfect as ever, baby," I told him.
He gave me a look, his mouth compressing into a too straight line. "Aman, how can you possibly suggest Khushi risk her life for this bloody mission? Are you out of your damn mind?"
Any other man would have flinched at the furious tone with which Arnav barked out those questions, but Aman managed not to. "Hear me out. I'm not saying Khushi risk anything. But this idea of her being the bait might work. All we need is another woman to pose as her and Jha might just fall for it."
It sounded brilliant to me, but Arnav looked uncertain and then he shook his head, grabbing my hand. "I don't think so. I want Khushi in no way involved in this. It's too dangerous."
I tried to free myself but his grip was like an iron band around my fingers. "Baby, stop. It's hurting," I said as he took me into the bedroom, slamming the door behind us.
Arnav was immediately remorseful. He raised my hand, kissing the skin he'd just bruised. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was holding you so hard."
His voice was low and soft and my heart tugged in my chest. "I know you didn't. It's okay."
"The hell it is." Looking angry all the sudden, he stomped over to the edge of the bed, sitting down with his head in his hands.
I crossed over to him slowly, the waterbed's mattress dipping as I sat beside him. My hand settled on his shoulder. "Raizada--"
He turned toward me so fast and so suddenly, I was taken aback. I could only sit there as his arms came around me, winding around me as if he'd never let go. My hands rose, grasping him just as tightly.
"Oh God, Khushi," he said, shuddering in my arms. "Don't ever talk about being the bait again. I can't handle it. I can't handle the thought of you in danger like that. It rips my heart into pieces and my mind into shreds."
I swallowed the uncomfortable lump in my throat, smoothing the tense muscles of his back. "I didn't mean to upset you. But love, please try to understand. What Aman is suggesting makes a lot of sense. It doesn't have to be me. We can find someone who resembles me and create a situation that will force that Butterball to come out of his hole. Please, just consider it. It would end this whole mess, once and for all." I raised his face, pressing kisses to every patch of skin: his eyelids, his cheeks, his mouth. "I won't be in danger at any point. I won't leave your side for a second."
He didn't say anything for a long moment and then nodded. "Fine."
I couldn't believe my ears. "Really?"
He smiled back at me, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "If this is what it takes to get rid of Jha then I'm all for it. We'll find a girl who can pass off as you and lay the perfect trap to catch that toad. But you won't be involved in it more than that. Do you understand me?"
I was so happy he'd agreed that I didn't even think of arguing. "Yes, baby. I promise you, I'll stay safe."
We hugged again and he lowered me with palpable urgency onto the waterbed, making fast work of my clothes. I felt the same restlessness, the same potent desire to close the distance between us. Buttons flew into the air and the familiar tearing noise of ripped clothing sounded as we fought to get our hands on one another.
As my legs parted and he drove in, I yelled his name. He caught my shout in his mouth, moving with a merciless rhythm that was sure to drive me out of my mind. Clenching around him, I bucked and moaned, wishing that everything was already behind us. The plan, the bait, the trap...
If only...
*****
You'd think finding a girl who looked similar to me would be hard work, especially in Greece, but Arnav had sources everywhere. By noon the next day, we'd zeroed in on Claudia Agrinio. She was a little-known actress and an ex-cop. She was also my height and complexion though her hair was cut in a short bob and her features looked nothing like mine.
I chewed on my lip as I considered her photo. "With a wig, from the back, she'll pass off as me, but her face is another story."
Arnav was all prepared though. He handed me something else, an invitation, printed on fine, golden paper. "There's a masked ball in Athens two days from now. Some of the wealthiest people in all of Greece will be there. We just need Jha to show up. I'll handle the rest."
"And how will we get him there?"
It was Aman who answered this time, holding out a phone. "You need to call him, Khushi. You need to make it sound like you're ready to go with him."
My gaze whipped to Arnav and I could tell he wasn't happy by this, but he slowly nodded, squeezing my hand. His eyes looked into mine and I nodded in turn. I knew what he was asking. I could do this.
Arnav understood. He took the phone from Aman. "This line is untraceable, but don't keep him on the phone more than two minutes just to be safe. Ready, baby?"
I could only nod and he jabbed the speaker button, dialing a number I didn't recognize.
The line was silent for a few seconds and then a voice I'd heard the last time on the deck of the cargo ship rang out: "Private caller? Is that you ASR? Ready to admit your defeat finally?"
I was gripping Arnav's hand so hard you'd think I'd gone into labor. "Shyamji... it's me. Khushi."
There was stunned silence for a moment. "Khushi?" he choked out. "My Khushi? Princess, where are you? I've been searching for you for weeks. Where is that monster keeping you?"
You're the monster, I wanted to scream, but I held my tongue. "I don't know, Shyamji. I'm so scared."
"Oh, Princess, don't be. I'll find you. There must be a way."
"There is, but it's dangerous."
"Tell me, darling. With my boss's backing, I'm a very rich and powerful man now. Nothing scares me. I'm so happy that you called. I knew you were lying that day on the ship when you said you loved him and not me. I could tell you didn't want to go with that ASR. He forced you, didn't he, Princess?"
I looked at Arnav and he nodded at me. "Yes," I managed, struggling over the words, "He forced me."
"That monster! He should have died in that hellhole months ago. It's a pity he survived."
My temper almost snapped at that, but Arnav grabbed a hold of my hand, shaking his head. Maddy Bua, he mouthed. Of course.
"Shyamji, what about Buaji? I'm so worried about her."
"Oh don't worry, I have her safe and sound in a factory of mine. She has her own suite there and half a dozen servants. Just tell me how we can meet. I want you in my arms again, Princess."
 I could sense his eagerness and I hurried through the rest of the conversation. Arnav had a stopwatch going. I had 25 seconds left. "I heard ASR say he's going to take me to a gala in Athens in two days. Maybe we can meet there?"
"The masked ball? I was planning on going anyway. Oh, this is truly meant to be. I will be there, Khushi. Don't worry. And then we will be together the rest of our lives. I love you, Princess."
I gazed into Arnav's eyes. "I love you." I hung up quickly, breathing hard.
"That was perfect. You were brilliant, Khushi," Aman commented.
I said nothing. I didn't feel brilliant. In fact, I felt as if I was going to be sick. Just hearing that man's voice again made me feel as if he was nearby, watching me.
"Khushi..." Arnav pulled me onto his lap and I threw my arms around him, burrowing my head against the column of his neck. "Hush, baby. That was all you needed to do. From here on out, Aman and I will handle it. Okay?"
I held onto him, loosely aware of him telling his friend to make a list of all factories in Greece with international backing and dubious connections. Buaji had to be in one of them.
The next morning, I found myself waking up in a lovely bed and breakfast near Athens. We'd driven all night and I dimly recalled Arnav tucking me into bed at some ungodly hour, his lips brushing over mine.
I knew he'd stayed up most of the night going over the plans with Aman but as I woke up, I found him propped up beside me, studying me.
I wound an arm over his waist, scooting closer. "Good morning."
"Excellent morning," he corrected, kissing the tip of my nose. "How do you feel?"
I shrugged. My dreams hadn't been the most calming. I'd imagined gunshots and buttery monsters chasing after me.
"Fine," I lied, not wanting to worry him. He had enough on his plate as it was. The ball was tomorrow night, little over 24 hours from now.
"Liar," he purred, pecking my lips. "I know how anxious you are. Baby, so am I, but tomorrow, this will all be behind us. Jha will be where he belongs: far from you and in jail."
I smiled up at him. "I wish it was tomorrow already."
"Me too." He kissed me again and then lifted me in his arms, walking toward the adjacent master bathroom. I blinked at its bright interior. Candles had been lit and rose petals floated atop the bubble bath.
"You did all this?"
He nodded, lowering me into the warm water. "The last few days have been hectic and not to mention, a bit insane. I thought you could use this."
My heart felt overwhelmed with love for him. Leave it to him to put me first even when the most important mission of his life was just hours away. "Thank you," I whispered, tears stinging my eyes.
His gaze was tender and loving. "You don't need to thank me, Sushi." He shrugged out of his clothes and sat opposite me, taking my feet in his grasp and gently massaging.
I moaned out loud and a smile crossed his chiseled features. "Feel good?"
"Feels amazing," I said. Relaxing back in the bathtub, I let him massage me. He washed every inch of my body and even shampooed my hair. By the time he lifted me out and dried me off with a towel, I was utterly relaxed, my body soft and limp in his arms.
I could only stare at him with awe as he took me back to the bedroom, lowering me on the rumpled bedding. We ended up spending the good part of the day in bed, making love. It was a bit bittersweet, but I had no idea why. By this time tomorrow, everything would be back to normal, I kept reminding myself.
Later that day, Aman had me record my voice on a device for Claudia to use. If Shyam came up to her at the party, he would likely ask her something or the other. I recorded all the responses I could think of, but it left me feeling uneasy. What if our trap turned on us? What if that toad realized Claudia wasn't me? What if he caught Arnav and Aman instead?
We'd be far worse off than what we were now. Those questions plagued my mind and the lines of worry on Aman's face didn't help matters.
"Maybe Khushi should wait out in the car near the gala. We can have her directly connected to Claudia. That way if Jha asks anything, we'll be prepared. These recordings can be a total hit or miss."
It made sense to me but Arnav shook his head. "No way. She's staying right here. The recordings are all we need."
Aman gave me a look but said nothing. He found me alone later in the kitchen, that same anxious expression on his face. "Khushi... can I speak to you?"
Setting a plate full of jalebis aside, I nodded, wiping my hands on the apron tied around my waist. "Of course you can. What is it?"
He spoke after a long pause. "Arnav doesn't want you involved in the gala directly, and I understand that. He loves you very much. But this whole mission is looking like a pending disaster to me. We're banking on Jha being so captivated by seeing you again that he won't ask very many questions. But that's not how he behaves. Do you remember him on the phone? He wouldn't stop talking. Claudia needs to get him alone and then me and Arnav can take over, but to get him from the middle of a packed gala to somewhere alone won't be easy. He will have a team of guards with him."
I nibbled on my bottom lip. "I've been thinking the same. But I don't know what to do. Arnav won't budge. I know he won't."
His friend hesitated. "I hate saying this, but we can do this without him finding out."
I stilled. "You mean behind his back? Aman, do you realize what'll happen if he finds out? He'll probably never speak to either one of us again."
His mouth grew tight. "I know. But that's a risk we have to take. Are you with me?"
His hand extended toward me and in that moment, all I could recall was the vow I'd made when I'd found out how Arnav had been tortured. I'd vowed to protect him, to not let another scratch touch him. How could I allow him to walk into what might be yet another trap?
"I promised Arnav I'd stay safe."
"You will be. We'll make sure of it."
I stared at him and then with a great deal of foreboding, shook his hand. "Okay, then."
*****
The morning of the gala, I woke up before Arnav for once. He was sleeping soundly, his arms wrapped around me, but I couldn't seem to close my eyes. My conversation with Aman kept playing in my head. Had I made the right decision? Had I protected the man I loved more than anything or betrayed him?
Sighing, I realized there were no simple answers but one thing was for sure: I wouldn't be able to sleep in today. Pulling myself out of my Arnav's arms, I dressed quietly. Bending low, I pressed a kiss to the corner of Arnav's mouth. "I love you."
I'd just turned around when he caught my hand in his. "Where are you off to so early in the morning?"
I froze at his voice. Was it just me or did he sound a bit suspicious? "To get us some breakfast," I muttered feebly.
He stared at me hard and I somehow managed not to flinch. His face cracked into a gorgeous smile. "We never got around to dinner last night, did we?"
I shook my head. We'd tumbled into bed and hadn't been able to extract ourselves till now.
Raizada rolled onto his stomach. "Don't take too long, baby."
The sigh of his scarred back cemented my decision. "I won't."
As I walked to the kitchen, my guilty conscience warred with me the entire way.
What do you think you're doing, Khushi Kumari Gupta?
Saving his life.
If he finds out, he'll never forgive you. Never.
My heart twisted painfully. That was a risk I had to take. There was no other choice.
I had breakfast in bed with Arnav, managing to eat a few bites only. He didn't pester me too much about it for once, thinking I was simply worried about tonight. If only you knew, love.
We met Sheena and Aman for lunch and I sat silent, again eating very little as I listened to them go over the plans and iron out last minute details. Claudia was going to meet them directly at the gala and as soon as she got Butterball alone, he would be arrested.
"We don't want to create a scene," Arnav said. "We need to act smartly and fast."
I closed my eyes, wondering what he'd say or rather shout if he knew I'd be at the gala too. Aman and I had met again and we'd come to the conclusion it would be best if I were directly there, listening to Claudia and Shyam and giving appropriate responses. A dress and matching mask and shoes were in fact hidden in one of the kitchen cupboards just for me.
Arnav took my hand in his, his gaze concerned. "You okay, baby? You've been so quiet today."
I leaned my head against his shoulder. "I'm fine, just a bit worried."
He kissed my forehead. "Everything will be okay. Just a few more hours."
A few more hours... They felt like the longest hours of my life. After forcing me to eat half of my lunch--I couldn't stomach any more--Arnav took me outside for some relaxation as he called it.
I know what you must be thinking. More lovemaking, right? But while we did that often--very often--it wasn't what Raizada had on his mind this time.
The bed and breakfast had orchards out back and to my surprise, Arnav led me out there, a dusty ball appearing in his hands. I stared at the ball and back at him. "This is what you meant? To relax like David Beckham?"
He smirked, bouncing the ball back and forth on his knees.  "What did you think I meant, baby?"
My skin warmed and it had nothing to do with a sun shining down on us. "You know what..."
His smile grew all the more. "Oh, I was planning on that afterwards. How about a game first?"
"Between the two of us?"
He nodded. "You in?"
He kicked the ball toward me and I slid my foot across, stopping it. "Let's make it more interesting. Winner gets to do whatever they want to the loser."
His eyes shone. "What do you have in mind, Mrs. Sexy? If you win that is."
I didn't look away from his smiling eyes. I couldn't. "You at my mercy. In bed. With not so many clothes on."
"Can I surrender now?"
"No," I pouted. "You have to promise to play fair."
He jogged closer, kissing me hard and fast. "I can't promise that, love, but I'll try." And with that, he stole the ball from me.
I yelped and jogged after him. He didn't run too far, just a little further into the orchard, smirking at me. We fought over the ball, our bodies sliding past one another. I could tell that Arnav was taking it easy on me but I didn't scold him.
"You're good at this," I commented as he pivoted suddenly, drawing the ball easily away from me with a lingering and very distracting kiss. "Really good." And I wasn't just talking about his kissing expertise.
He shrugged, aiming a kick toward the trees in the distance. It was an easy goal since I wasn't even trying to keep up by now. "I played in school and later in college."
"Why did you stop?"
The light in his eyes dimmed slightly. "Work came up," he said simply.
I frowned and abandoning my search for the ball, threw my arms around his waist. I was sweaty and a bit out of breath, but he seemed not at all winded. His arms came up around me, caging me against him.
"I shouldn't have made you run around so much."
"I'm fine. And I wasn't even running."
He didn't say anything, hoisting me up in his arms. "So you admit you lost?"
I smiled into his eyes. "Never."
He grinned back at me. "That's why I love you, Sushi. You never give up, do you?"
Emotion clogged my throat. No, and that's exactly why I couldn't give up now. Too much was at risk. I had to keep him safe, even if he'd be furious with me afterwards.
By the time the sun set on that fateful day, I was feeling sick to my stomach with nerves. I lay in bed, naked, watching as Arnav dressed in a designer tux. He looked handsome in anything but with his hair gelled back and a faint stubble darkening his cheekbones, he looked downright irresistible.
We'd just make love twice, but my body reacted to him as if it had been ages since we'd been together. I longed to draw him into my arms all over again.
"You'll be okay, right?" he murmured as he adjusted his bowtie, gazing at me from the mirror.
I sat up against the headboard, not bothering to cover myself up. "Yes. Promise me you won't take any unnecessary risks tonight. If you think things are going wrong, you'll get yourself out of there at once."
With a sigh, he sat beside me. His hand curled around my neck and he drew me to him for a long, lingering kiss. "I promise. You have nothing to worry about, baby."
Oh, but I do, love. Tons to worry about.
He kissed me again and I more than met him halfway, my tongue darting past his lips and entwining with his. He groaned and his hands sloped downwards, kneading my breasts.
I pulled away, panting. "You should go now, otherwise your suit will be in shreds."
He laughed and bent low to kiss my stomach before kissing me again. "Can't have that. I love you, Mrs. Sexy."
"And I love you, Mr. Sexy. Good luck tonight."
It was cheesy and loving and the only way I was able to say goodbye to him without falling apart. He pecked my lips one last time and then headed out the door as if he wouldn't be able to leave if he stayed a second longer.
I heard the car door slam outside and the engine turn on. Arnav and Aman were on their way to the gala and I had to be close behind. Rushing out of the cozy bed, I pulled out a sequined, peacock-colored dress and matching mask from under the bed. Both were lovely and the dress hid the extent of my pregnancy quite well. Still, as I slipped inside its strapless confines, I couldn't help but wonder all over again if I was making the biggest mistake of my life or not.
"What are you doing?"
I froze, spinning toward the door. Sheena stood watching me, mouth agape.
"Sheena..."
Her eyes grew stormy. "Arnav will kill you," she remarked, "And he has good reason to. What do you think you're doing, Khushi?"
I swallowed, glancing away. "I have to do this. To keep him safe."
"And what about you? What about your safety and the baby's?"
I slipped on the heels, tying my hair up in a high bun. "We'll be safe as well. I'm not stupid, Sheena. Aman and I have thought this through." I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth.
"Aman?" Her gaze glinted with fury. "He suggested this stupid plan to you, didn't he? Oh, that man. I love him but he drives me absolutely crazy sometimes." She took me by the shoulders. "Khushi, listen to me, this is way too dangerous. Arnav is right. You can't risk yourself to avenge him. Those people will be punished and Buaji will be found. You just need to be patient."
"Patient?" I pulled away from her. "Please, Sheena. You're the one who's been so impatient for this mess to be all over. How can you expect me to do nothing when the man I love more than anything is out there risking his life once again?" My friend looked instantly remorseful and I squeezed her hand. "Please, try to understand. I have to be there. Arnav doesn't want to admit it, but he needs me tonight to pull this off."
Sheena looked unconvinced but she said nothing as I applied a pale pink lipstick to my lips, blue eye shadow to my lids and a light dusting of blush. As the finishing touch, I slipped on a blond wig. It reminded me of days long ago, of my first date with Arnav and the get up I'd worn then.
"How will you get there?" Sheena said stiffly. I could tell she disapproved of my plan still.
"Aman arranged for a taxi to pick me up. It should be here any minute."
"No, I'll drop you. Come on."
I shook my head. "You should stay here. It'll all be over soon."
"Stay here when you three are out there putting yourself in danger? How can you expect that from me, Khushi?" I had no reply for her and without further argument, we walked silently outside, getting into the spare car.
Athens was beautiful against the glowing moonlight, a beguiling mix of the historical and modern-day ages. We passed countless monuments and even the Parthenon, torches highlighting its majestic columns, but I couldn't focus on any of it. I sat with my head pressed against the window, my hands stroking my belly as a queasy feeling threatened to overwhelm me.
The gala was at the National Archeological Museum and its stone steps looked daunting as Sheena parked directly across from it. Somewhere inside, Arnav was probably waiting for the toad to arrive, I realized. It was that thought that gave me the necessary push to open the car door.
"Be careful," Sheena said. "I'll be waiting out here for you."
I nodded, carefully putting the mask over my face as I headed inside. A man in a white tuxedo took my invitation at the top of the stairs, running an appreciative glance down the front of my dress. I scowled at him, hurrying past.
The floor of the gala was a maze of decked up figures. I'd thought my dress was over the top, but I realized it was far from that in this crowd. Beads, feathers, and satin. That was the norm. Everything was extravagant, right from the billowing curtains that flanked the pillars to the stage and marble dance floor.
I placed the earpiece and microphone Aman had given me in position and found a secluded spot behind one curtain. I hadn't needed him to tell me how to use the devices. After all, I'd used them at the Fu King Restaurant once before.
"Aman?" I whispered.
His voice sounded in my ear, loud and clear. "You're here? Where?"
I gazed around. "Near the buffet, off to the right side." I leaned a bit out of the shadows.
"I see you. I'm almost directly across from you."
"And Arnav?" I whispered, my heartbeat escalating.
"Don't freak out, but he's close to you. He's talking to Claudia to your right."
I peeked around the column. If I hadn't known that was my look alike, I would have been truly fooled. It was like seeing the two of us from a distance. Claudia in her black wig and yellow dress stood out from the crowd. There was no way Butterball could miss her, even if she hadn't been wearing his favorite color.
Beside her, Arnav looked dapper as ever, the black mask he had on making him all the more swoon-worthy. I ached to go to him, to run and throw myself into his arms.
Aman's voice in my ear stopped me. "The toad is here. He's just arrived. With a posse."
I gazed toward Arnav, only to find him arguing loudly with Claudia in a pretend argument. I knew this was part of the plan, to make Shyam think we were no longer in love. It seemed to work. Butterball, dressed in a flamboyant, polka-dotted suit, stood at the top of the stairs, his gaze narrowed on the fighting couple. Something like victory glowed in his eyes.
I knew what would happen next, having heard the plan countless times by now. Arnav would storm off and dance with another woman, giving Shyam the perfect opportunity to catch me alone.
I had known all this but what I hadn't expected was for Arnav to stomp over to me, holding his hand out without so much as really looking at me.
"Would you like to dance with me?"
No woman would decline him but I hesitated.
"Say yes," Aman ground out in my ear. "We can't let him find out. Keep your head down and whatever you do, don't let him see your eyes."
I followed his instructions, my heartbeat pounding in time with the music as I laid my gloved hand on top of Arnav's palm. He froze for a second but at the same time, Butterball descended the stone steps and his attention was no longer on me.
He danced superbly as ever, elegant and charming, but there was no affection, no intimacy as there had been during our dance on the beach. Tears sprang in my eyes as I followed his lead, biting my lip to keep from throwing myself at him.
It's me, love, I ached to shout. Under this wig and mask, it's me. Your Sushi. Your Khushi...
But I kept silent. He twirled me in circles, making my head spin in a very pleasant way, his strong arm curled around my waist keeping me steady. "Thank you for the dance," he said as the last note rang out. He bowed his head slightly and then he was gone. I raised a hand to my heart, my breathing shallow.
"What happened, Aman?"
"The toad has almost reached Claudia. It's show time Khushi. Switch to the other earpiece. This will connect you to me, Arnav and Claudia."
I hurried to the nearest empty pillar, pretending to adjust my earrings. "Ready."
There was stunned silence and then his voice sounded. Low and furious beyond words.
"What the hell. Tell me that was not you, Khushi."
I quivered. "It's me, baby. I'm sorry, but I knew you needed me here tonight."
Arnav swore. "Where are you? Where the hell are you?"
Aman saved me from answering. "Jha is here. Everyone calm down."
"Don't tell me to calm the hell down, Aman! I'm going to kill you once this is over. You were a part of Khushi being here tonight, weren't you?"
His friend didn't deny it and Claudia's jumpy voice reached my ears. "He's here."
I pressed a button on my device that would make my voice come out of a small speakerphone embedded in her mask. She just had to follow along.
"Princess."
I shuddered as I heard Shyam stutter the name with ill-concealed affection. "Shyamji," I said breathlessly, watching Claudia mouth the word. I sighed with relief. She was good at this. If I didn't know about the whole set-up, I wouldn't have guessed something wasn't right.
"Oh, darling." He crushed her in his arms while his guards circled the two of them, their deadly force hidden from view but ready as always.
Now came the hard part. Separating him from the guards. "Oh, Shyamji, I've missed you so much."
"As have I. You have no idea, Princess."
Claudia looped her arms around his waist, nuzzling her masked face against his neck. Butterball wasn't used to such affection from me and I could tell even from a distance how much it affected him. He pressed a string of kisses to her hair.
"I want to be alone with you, Shyamji," I said, mustering all the sexiness I could in my voice. "I need to be."
"You do?" he stammered, surprised.
Claudia kept her head bowed, taking his hand in hers and kissing each finger. "More than anything."
Shyam looked nervously at the crowd. "We can't right now, Princess. We have to wait a little while longer. Patience, my sweet."
Claudia rubbed up closer to him. "Please. Don't you love me enough to sneak away for a few minutes? I just want to be alone with you. You're not afraid of that ASR, are you?"
Butterball laughed. "Not at all. He's probably watching us, all jealous that you've chosen me. He's probably too scared to show himself. He knows my boss will not leave him if he gets his hands on him. And now his own colleagues are after him too. He's basically a dead man."
My stomach clenched with hatred and I couldn't manage a response without lashing out at him.
"Khushi," Arnav murmured in my ear. "Baby, ignore him. You're doing great and--" His voice cut off abruptly and looking up, I saw what made him pause.
"Let's give him something to be really jealous about," Shyam growled to Claudia, hauling her in for a floppy, wet kiss.
I felt my stomach grow queasy again and I made up my mind that whatever we had agreed to pay Claudia, we had to double--scratch that--triple it. She was getting pawed by that buttery monster who thought he had me in his arms.
"Moan," Arnav growled in my ear. "This is taking too long. We need to get him alone now. Moan, Khushi."
I closed my eyes and imagined I was back in bed with Arnav, his body bearing down on mine. Moaning, I whispered, "Please, please take me away from here."
Shyam drew his mouth off Claudia, licking his lips. "Let's go." His guards started to follow him, but he held up his hand to ward them off. "I want to be alone with my wife."
"But sir--"
"Did you not hear me? Stay away."
I grinned with triumph as I watched him lead Claudia to an empty corridor. A masked man in a dove grey suit tailed after them and I knew it had to be Aman. Butterball would be arrested now and he wouldn't even realize it.
"Khushi?" Arnav's voice came urgently in my ear. "Where are you? Are you outside, baby?"
I bit down on my lip. He would not be happy once he found out, but I couldn't lie to him anymore. "No... I'm inside."
"What?"
I cringed. "You danced with me earlier. I was in the blond wig and blue dress." There was tense silence and I could feel his rage. "Please don't be angry," I whispered. "It's over now. And I'm safe and unharmed."
"Where the hell are you? I'm coming to get you."
I looked around, trying to find him in the crowd of designer ball gowns and black and white tuxes. "Near the stage, behind the--"
Someone grabbed me from behind then, twisting hard and something sharp dug into the side of my neck. A needle, I realized, with mounting horror.
"Arnav!" I screamed but it came out as nothing more than a muffled sound, barely discernable. Whatever was in the syringe was weakening me. I could feel my legs collapsing. Hard hands drew me up and guided me away.
"No," I moaned as the room seemed to spin and my vision grew blurry
"KHUSHI!" Arnav was screaming. I could hear him close by. "KHUSHI!" There was the sound of gunshots and my heart ricocheted in my chest.
"We need to get out of here," Aman shouted, his voice coming across the earpiece with difficulty as chaos erupted in the gala. "I have Jha locked up and secure. We need to get the hell out of here."
"Khushi is here!" Arnav roared. I breathed again at the sound of his familiar voice. He was safe. Thank God. "She's here somewhere and someone has her!"
"What? But how? I told her to leave the moment we got Jha alone. Where is she?"
I could sense Arnav's panic and it matched my own. "I don't know," he cried. "But someone has her. She was supposed to be near the stage and I heard her voice cut off."
"You think she has the microphone still on her or the earpiece? Khushi? Can you hear us?"
"Baby, can you hear me? Love, say something. Anything."
I gurgled something. All I could manage. His name. "Arnav..."
I heard his sharp intake of breath. "Baby, where are you? Who has you?"
I couldn't reply, my vision blackening in and out. I was being dragged somewhere, through empty rooms and long corridors, a hard hand clenched in my hair.
"She's here," Arnav kept repeating, his voice echoing in my ear as if from a great distance. "She's somewhere close. Search this goddamn place, Aman!"
"I'll head this way! You go that way."
Their voices grew fainter and I moaned in agony. No, I couldn't lose my connection with them. I couldn't give in to the darkness, no matter how much it clawed into me. "She sounds drugged," Aman said. "Someone took her and did something to her. That's why she's not replying. It's either that or she's been gagged."
Arnav must have already come to the same conclusion and I could detect the fear lacing his voice. "Khushi, baby, I need you to focus on my voice. Can you do that? Please, love, focus on me."
I struggled to keep my eyes open, vaguely aware of being dragged past the museum exhibits. It all looked strange in the dim light, like something out of a fuzzy dream or a nightmare. "It hurts..." I gurgled.
The hand in my hair didn't let up but I heard the impact my words had on Arnav. I could almost taste his tears, smell his fear. "Oh, baby... Khushi, I am on my way to you. I'm looking for you. Where, baby? Can you open your eyes? Where are you? Are you here still? In the museum?"
"Yes..." I managed in a whisper.
He inhaled sharply. "Good, baby. You're doing so good. Now look around. What are you near? What do you see?"
I struggled to open my eyes. The pressure in my hair hurt horribly and I realized I was being dragged on my knees down a marble hallway. A huge, marble statue of a Greek soldier caught my eye.
"Statue," I whispered, hoping the person pulling me along would ignore my mumblings as a side effect of the drug.
"The courtyard!" Aman said. "She's near the statues."
I faintly heard the sound of Arnav running, his breathing harsh in my ears. "I'm coming, Khushi. I'm coming. Baby, hold on. Do you hear me, love? Hold on!"
I wanted nothing more than to reply to him, but my eyes felt heavy and my body weak. Slowly by slowly, I began to notice other things. First and most importantly, the person dragging me along wasn't very strong. It was struggle for them to pull me along and I could hear the sound of their harsh breathing.
That gave me the second clue. It wasn't a man, but a woman. As her dark eyes gazed down at me with unconcealed hatred, I felt my heart collide against my ribs. Holy crap, I recognized her. Vaguely. Dimly. I could only ask one question: "Why?"
"Why do you think, you bitch? For money of course. I've been following you for weeks."
"You were there," I gurgled, hoping Arnav was listening. "You were there on the cargo ship..."
Her beady eyes lit up. "Yes, very good. And I was at the hotel too where you sent your friend off to Australia thinking she was the mole."
"She wasn't."
"No, it was always me. It's easy to ignore me. Even when I was right under your nose as a hotel maid, you didn't see me. You didn't recognize me. I don't blame you. I mean who'd ever think an old woman like me would be the one tracking you? But appearances are deceiving, my dear. I've been in this business longer than you've been alive."
I struggled to make sense of it, the drug making my head spin. It took all my focus to say the next words: "You had me alone in the ship. You told me I was pregnant. Why didn't you just kill me then and there?"
The old woman laughed. "It's not my job to kill you. He doesn't want you dead anyway."
"Who?"
"Me."
An awfully familiar, raspy voice broke out from the darkness surrounding us and the woman threw me to the ground. I broke the fall with my hands, protecting my belly. Panting against the marble, my vision blurry, I watched a pair of black, expensive shoes near me.
"You will be paid well for this, Majda. Leave us now."
The old woman began to walk away, her footsteps fading. I wanted to beg her not to leave me alone with him but my mouth was too dry, my throat closing up.
"Majda."
"Yes, sir?"
"You're forgetting your payment for all your hard work." There was the sudden sound of a gun firing and the woman screamed, her body falling to the floor with a dull thud.
I shouted, blocking my ears. "Arnav," I whispered again and again. "Baby..."
"I'm coming," came his voice, panic-filled. "I heard the shots. Please tell me you're okay."
I ached to reply to him, but the man with the raspy voice lifted me in his arms then and no matter how much I flailed, I couldn't get away. My limbs felt like dead weights. I couldn't even keep my head up.
He gave me an evil, leering smile from beneath his clipped beard. "At last we meet Khushi Kumari Gupta."
"Why?"
His thumb rubbed over my bottom lip and I twisted my head aside. "Can't you guess? This began with my idiotic employee's fascination with you but somewhere along the line, it morphed into my own. I don't know how it is possible to hate someone as much as I hate you and your lover boy and yet, want you too. But I do want you. And I will have you."
"Never! Let go of me!" I pushed at his chest but he didn't react, striding away, taking me away from Arnav. "No!" I shouted. "ARNAV!"
A voice sounded behind us. A voice for a second I thought I was imagining. "Stop right there!" Arnav roared. "Because believe me, I will not hesitate to kill you."
The man froze and then spun me around. I saw Arnav's eyes fall to me, his mouth tightening at the corners, but the gun in his hands never hesitated. He stood with his legs braced apart, ready to shoot.
"Let her go, Desai," he growled. "Turn yourself in."
The man held me even tighter. "I don't think so. How do you like my new toy, ASR? I think I might keep her even after I break her in. At least for a little while. Then I'll give her over to my boys. They'd like her."
Arnav's jaw hardened like granite. "You have ten seconds." His finger was poised over the trigger.
A gunshot rang out, but to my horror it wasn't the raspy voiced man who fell, but Arnav. My Arnav. I shouted as he buckled before my very eyes, clutching his shoulder. Dark red blood stained his hands, gushing.
"NO!" I shouted, senseless to anything. "ARNAV! NO!"
I fought to get to him, but the man held me in a taut grip, his nails digging into me. As I watched Arnav slide to the floor, blood pooling around him, my gaze widened even more.
"I'm sorry," whispered my best friend, a still smoking gun in her hands. "I'm so sorry, Khushi."
I stared at Sheena with accusation and hatred, feeling as if I'd been lanced in the chest. "How could you?" I screamed. "How could you shoot him?"
She fell to the ground, sobbing. "I'm sorry. I was forced to--"
I ignored her, flailing in the man's arms. "Let me go, you monster! LET ME GO TO HIM!"
Arnav wasn't moving on the marble tiles and it scared me like nothing else.
The man holding me laughed. "I don't think so. I've just got you, Khushi Kumari Gupta. The fun has just begun."
He hit me hard against the side of my face and as my head snapped back, I was suddenly lost. Lost in an impenetrable blackness I wondered I'd ever come out of.
Arnav, my heart cried. Arnav!

Baby Hold On by TINA!
Part 29: Holding On
They say when you're dying your life literally flashes past your eyes. Moments you long to go back to, memories you fight and struggle to never forget, loved ones you want nothing more than to return to, even if it is for a few precious seconds.
I'd never really believed something like this actually happened, but then I lived it.
As I lay limp and defenseless in the grasp of the raspy-voiced man, a man Arnav had identified as Desai, I was overcome by those fleeting moments... those memories that belonged to Raizada and me alone. Forever.
"Are you following me?" he asked, his eyebrow arching.
I recalled myself bristling with agitation, battling against a rare and devastating case of blazing attraction.  "Of course not! It's you who stopped in the middle of the street."
More memories assailed my mind and I saw us evolving from strangers to reluctant housemates, squabbling in Laxmi Nagar, in a home I now doubted I'd ever see again.
"I'm being perfectly civil," Arnav said, giving me a pointed look, an insufferable smirk brightening his too handsome face. "It's you that's been after me from the start."
"What! Me?" I threw one of Buaji's plush pillows in the general direction of his head.
He caught it easily, grinning outright now. "Point made, I think, Sushi."
"Stop calling me Sushi!" The pillow flew back and forth between us.
"Then stop laughing!"
"You started it!"
"I did not!"
My heart sped as I recalled the time he'd left me a beet-red, stuttering mess, his flirtatious and meaningful glances warming me from the inside out:
"Let me finish, Sushi. I was going to say that rather than a raccoon, you looked like what I imagine you'd look after a night with me."
I vividly remembered the first time we'd kissed. I'd been the one to initiate that kiss after all. Raizada's reaction was ingrained into my very being:
"Don't you dare apologize, Khushi. Do you know how long I've been waiting for our first kiss?"
I wanted to run and hide, but my feet felt glued to the floor. His hands dove into my hair, tilting my head back up. "That was incredible, Sushi, but I want more."
"More?" I squeaked.
And there had been more kisses between us... so many I'd lost count...
"For all this waiting, I think I more than deserve a kiss--"
"Kiss?" I interrupted, startled.
He nodded, looking for some reason extra hot and manly in Buaji's spick and span kitchen. "Every hour."
"A kiss every hour?" I raised the back of my hand to his forehead. "Do you have a fever? Are you insane, Raizada? How will I ever manage that?"
He dusted some flour from my cheek and chin, those gorgeous eyes twinkling outright now. "I'm sure you'll find a way. Here, I'll help you get started..."
My agony-filled mind jumped to the night I'd given him much more than a kiss. I'd given him myself.
"Don't stop. Not tonight."
He shuddered at that. "Khushi, baby, do you know what you're asking for?"
My heart was hammering in my chest, but I refused to back down. "Yes... I want you to make love to me."
His eyes glittered like burning coals. "Are you sure?"
Kneeling before him, I pressed my mouth to his, outlining his lips with my tongue. "Is that answer enough?"
Even as I fought to hold onto consciousness, I recalled that moment that had changed the foundation of our entire relationship: the day I'd discovered he was not a small-time writer but an undercover cop. His secrets had made me question not just his feelings for me, but my own heart and judgment.
"I can explain," Mr. Sexy began in a calming tone.
My anger spilled forth unchecked. "THEN EXPLAIN! EXPLAIN WHY YOU LIED TO ME! WHY YOU KEPT LYING TO ME RIGHT FROM THE START!" He approached me, but I batted his hands away. "Don't come near me, Arnav Singh Raizada! If that's your name! Don't touch me! Not till you explain this. Don't even think about it."
"Fine." He held up my hands as if in surrender. "But, please, sit down. I'll tell you everything. Just sit down, baby." 
My heart turned over as I recalled the haunted look on his face when he'd returned to me three months later, unwilling to share the horrors he'd suffered alone.
"I answered your question, now answer mine. Where did you go three months ago? Please, I need to know."
He looked like a man torn between his heart and his soul. "To hell," he finally whispered.
I felt Desai's grip tighten brutally on me, his nails biting into my skin, but I would not let him tear me away from these memories... from Arnav... No! There was so much more: our secret kisses, wild lovemaking, those moments of conversation and togetherness that suddenly meant the world to me.
My heart clenched painfully as I focused on the past couple of weeks. It had been an adventure of epic proportions, a heart-stopping, dangerous life on the run I'd never dreamt I'd ever experience, but with him beside me, with me, every moment had been one I'd cherished.
"Well, if there is ever a next time and there better not be, Raizada, I'll mention something about the five kids we have. That'll make any woman think twice. You being a father of five would definitely take away some of the charm."
"Five?" He patted my stomach. "Last time I checked there was just one in here."
"True, but no one else knows that but us, baby. We could have four more waiting for us at home."
"God help me," he mumbled, but I sensed his smile as he rocked me against him. 
A tear slipped from my cheek. Would I ever see that smirk again? Would I ever feel his arms around me again?
I almost welcomed death. A world without Mr. Sexy was something I could not bear to consider. My life would be colorless without him, as if the sun had suddenly been extinguished and separated from its light.
"LET GO OF HER!" came a jarring shout. A trigger cocked behind us. "NOW!"
I couldn't believe it, but hope is a strange thing. Even when you think you have nothing left, it's there, pushing you to not give up, to hold on.
Desai spun around and my eyes blinked open at the same time. The image was blurry at first and then I saw him... My Arnav! My Mr. Sexy! He was standing before me, very much alive.
For a moment, it felt as if both my heart and lungs had stopped functioning, I couldn't seem to breathe. And then a rush of adrenaline coursed through me, my mind ignoring the drug coursing through my system and focusing on a single mission: to go to him.
By any means possible, to get to him.
I lurched out of Desai's grip and he was so stunned to see Arnav standing there that his hands loosened a tad. It was more than enough. I slammed my elbow into his stomach and darted forward, my footsteps unsteady.
The second I was out of range, Arnav shot the man who'd held me captive, four bullets going off in quick succession. They were aimed with deadly precision, one to each knee and another to each wrist. Desai fell on the museum's polished tiles behind me, screaming profanities.
Raizada and I were heedless to him. I was a crying, slobbering mess as I threw myself into his arms. The gun in his hands clattered to the floor. Arnav held me just as tightly against him, the length of his body shaking with fine tremors.
His eyes were dark and worry-filled as he tilted my face up, his voice roughened with emotions. "God, Khushi... Are you okay?"
I leaned up on my toes, pressing my mouth to his with overwhelming urgency. "Yes--" Kiss. " But--" Kiss. "What--" Kiss. "About--" Kiss. "You? You're the one who was shot...by...by Sheena."
I stiffened as I recalled her involvement, turning toward her with a glare, nothing short of murder on the forefront of my mind. How could she have betrayed us like this? Arnav caught me by the shoulders before I could march over to her.
"Woah, baby. Hush. Sheena did nothing wrong--"
My mouth fell open. "Nothing wrong? What are you saying?"
But he only nodded. "She shot me because I told her to. I forced her to actually. Aman was busy keeping Desai's hired guards at bay. I needed Sheena to help me. I needed a chance. One chance for Desai to believe I was no longer a threat. She shot me at point blank range into my bulletproof vest, just as I told her to."
"But... but what about the blood..."
"Just a bit of theatrics. I'm fine, Sushi. Truly. But you did give me the scare of my life tonight."
"I did?" I balked.
He nodded very seriously. "Don't you ever do something like this again. I mean it. What the hell were you thinking to come to this masked ball? I told you to stay at the bed and breakfast."
I stopped his scolding with a peck on the mouth. "I have a hard time following orders and you know it. Besides, why break old habits? I enjoy defying you."
He rolled his eyes, a too-sexy smirk lighting up his face as he pulled me flat against him. "I know you do. It's why I love you so damn much. There's no one quite like you, Gupta."
"And no one for me except you, Raizada."
We shared a wordless glance, our eyes seeming to say everything words could never explain. A cough interrupted us.
I glanced toward Sheena, who looked at me with genuine apology in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Khushi. I didn't want to shoot him, but I had no choice. Are you sure you're all right, Arnav?"
He nodded at her. "Never better now that I have your best friend in my arms again. We needed a distraction and you gave us it. There's nothing to apologize for."
I crossed to Sheena, hugging her tightly. "You were really brave tonight."
She laughed, tears streaming past her eyes. "So were you. I was scared to death when that man grabbed and then hit you."
Arnav tenderly brushed the bruise at my temple, his mouth thinning. "I should have shot him twice more just for this."
"It barely stings, baby," I told him, squeezing his hand. Glancing sideways, I frowned at Shyam's boss's crumpled body a short distance away. He was no longer moving on the tiles, but moaning every now and then, his body twitching.
"Who is he?" I wondered aloud. It was strange, but I could have sworn I'd seen this man before. But where?
Arnav crossed to him, keeping the gun aimed toward his head as he reached down to pick up his discarded phone. At the same moment, the door behind us swung open and Aman charged inside, his hair in wild disarray.
"What happened? Is everyone okay?" His eyes narrowed as they fell on Desai and he whistled low under his breath. "Is that J. S. Desai? The man running for parliament's open seat?"
I frowned at the raspy-voiced man. No wonder his face and voice had seemed so familiar. I must have seen him on TV at some point but never really focused on it.
"The very same," Arnav confirmed. "This explains why we were pulled from the case and set up from the start. Desai's reach has no bounds. He's rumored to be involved in drugs and arms dealing globally. And according to these phone records, he's been buddy-buddy with the head of our organization for months now."
Aman drew a shaken Sheena into his arms. "This solves it. A bloody, corrupt politician interfered and pulled the strings against us. We should have known."
Ignoring his friend, Arnav cupped my face, his gaze serious. "Everything will be fine now, baby. The danger is all behind us."
I had complete faith in him. "What will you do?"
He raised the phone in his hands. "I'll start by calling my boss's boss. I'm sure he'll be interested to know what's been happening behind his back all along. But first--" His jaw hardened as he turned to Aman.
"What is it?"
Arnav stared at his friend hard and then abruptly and without warning, slammed his fist into his face. Sheena and I cried out, but Aman appeared unsurprised. If anything, he'd been expecting it.
"If you ever--and I mean ever--drag Khushi into something like this again, I will not leave you. I will make you regret you were ever born," Mr. Sexy said with deadly grimness.
My face flamed and I shot Aman a look of apology. "It's not his fault. I agreed--"
"Oh, it is his fault, baby. He should have known better than to involve you."
Aman nodded, wiping at the blood rolling from his split bottom lip. "It won't happen again."
"It sure as hell better not," warned Raizada. "Because I can't promise I'll behave so nicely with you next time." And then before I could stop him, he punched Aman. Again.
*****
We wanted nothing more than to leave the museum then and there, but there was one last important detail to take care of.
Gripping Arnav's hand, I followed him into a low-ceilinged room, its all four walls covered by ancient hieroglyphics. At the center of the room sat Shyam Jha, tied to the chair he was sitting on.
A gag had been put in his mouth. I thought he was sleeping but at the sound of our footsteps, his head jerked up and his gaze widened.
Arnav removed the gag with a look of extreme distaste, crossing his arms. "Where's Buaji, Jha?"
Butterball didn't seem to hear him, his reptilian gaze trained on me. "Oh Princess! Are you all right?"
"Yes and it's all thanks to the man I love..." Shyamji had always been slow to grasp certain things so I decided to spell it out for him. "FYI, that would be the man standing next to you. Arnav Singh Raizada. My soon to be husband."
"Princess, what are you saying? You love me! You kissed me!"
I shook my head. "That wasn't me under the mask but someone we hired to impersonate me. Did you really think I'd ever kiss you? I can't stand you!"
Butterball looked as if he'd swallowed a toad. "So you choose him?" He shot Arnav a look of pure loathing. "He's being hunted down by the very people he works for. I, on the other hand, can offer you everything, every luxury you've always wanted."
He really did not get it. "First of all," I began in a curt voice, "All I want is him. Arnav. And he is not being hunted down by anyone. He's just been promoted to senior director of operations, in fact. You, on the other hand, will be going to jail as you deserve, along with your boss."
Butterball looked positively colorless now. Arnav jerked his head up. "Where the hell is Buaji?" 
"But...Princess..."
Arnav struck him hard across the face. "Enough! Haven't you been listening? Khushi is not your concern. She was always mine. She's marrying me and she's having my baby. You need to forget her if you know what's good for you."
Jha looked at me with regret. "I did so much for you..."
My temper sparked. "Really? Like kidnap my aunt? Come after the man I love with guns and hired men?"
"I wanted to take you away from Laxmi Nagar. Those idiots brought your aunt instead."
I felt my patience wearing thin, the relentless pace of the night catching up to me. "Where is my aunt? Tell me!"
He didn't answer and I felt a moment of terror. What if he never told us where she was? What if something had happened to her after all?
But with a sharp inhale, Butterball finally divulged that secret too: "She's here."
"Here?" Raizada and I exchanged a puzzled glance.
"Outside of the museum, there's a semi-truck parked two blocks down. A chips truck. She's being kept there."
"Any guards?"
Jha shook his head at Arnav and I turned away. If I never saw Shyamji again it would be too soon.
"Princess! I did it all for you!"
My footsteps stilled. "No," I told him. "Don't you dare pin this on me. You did it for yourself, for you own greed and selfishness. Your crimes are your own and that's something you will have to live with for the rest of your life."
He didn't reply this time and Arnav squeezed my shoulder. I managed a weak smile for him, tiredly resting my head on his shoulder.
"Let's go, baby," he murmured. "Maddy Bua is waiting."
*****
My aunt was working through what looked to be her twentieth bag of potato chips when Arnav pushed the door open. She was at once on her feet, the chips slipping from her fingers, forgotten.
"SANKA DEVI!"
I hugged her tight, my throat constricting. Unlike me, Buaji was not choked up, she was chattering a mile a minute.
"I can't believe it! How did you ever find me? Oh, Khushi, that evil little cockroach kidnapped me but I wouldn't let him get away with it!"
"Are you okay? No one hurt you, did they?"
She snorted. "Let anyone try. I'm fit as a fiddle, though I could use a mani and pedi. Are you okay?"
I nodded and her warm gaze shifted to Raizada. "Arnav! I knew you'd be with Khushi. I knew you would return to her!"
He enveloped her in a hug, lifting her clear off her feet. "Of course I would be. Khushi means everything to me."
My heart warmed as he turned to look at me, the affection and longing in his eyes obvious. My aunt noticed it too and smiled all the more with approval.
That smile though faded as she got her first good look at me, her lips parting with shock.
"Are you pregnant?"
I stuttered to think of a reply, and Arnav had the gall to laugh at me. "That or she's swallowed a watermelon."
My aunt elbowed him. "This is all your fault. Tell me you two have gotten married at least."
Mr. Sexy's smirk widened. "Not yet. And before you pounce on me, Maddy Bua, hear me out. I've asked her repeatedly but your niece is so stubborn. She insisted we get married only with you there."
Buaji smiled at me briefly before schooling her expression. "That's a good thought, Khushi, and I'm happy to hear you care so much, but honestly, what were you thinking? What if you hadn't ever found me?" Before I could reply, she made a firm motion with her head. "That's it. I've decided."
Did I want to know? "Decided what, Buaji?"
She gave me a wide, glowing smile. "You're getting married. Tomorrow."
*****
An hour later, we were standing in the marble-tiled lobby of one of Athens' most posh hotels and I was still trying to talk my aunt out of such a swift wedding. I took her aside to a quiet corner of the lobby. Raizada seemed to understand, heading off with Sheena and Aman toward the elevators.
I took a deep breath. "Buaji, please try to understand. It's completely impractical for me to get married tomorrow."
"Don't you want to marry him?"
"Of course I do! I'm dying to, but not like this. I mean look at me. I've barely slept and neither has he. Everyone is exhausted. How will we ever pull off a wedding?"
"Leave that to me," she declared, marching away.

"Buaji!" I wailed.
I tried to reason with her the entire way as we went up to our rooms, but she refused to budge.
"I've always dreamed of getting married in Lover's Park," I told her. "Let's wait till we're back home at least."
She paused at that and I exhaled. "Maybe you have a point. But I'm warning you, Sanka Devi, this wedding better happen within one week."
I nodded dutifully. "Of course it will! Thank you, Buaji!"
She accepted my hug with a growing smile, chuckling about Arnav and me under her breath as she turned away. Her room was directly across the hall from mine.
On Buaji's insistence, I would not be sharing a room with Mr. Sexy this time. I sighed. After tonight's events, I had been looking forward to falling asleep in Arnav's arms, but that would have to wait now--for a good week at least. Buaji would be extra alert now, no doubt giving Sheena's General-like mother strong competition.
I'd just walked into my hotel suite and flipped on the lights when a gasp escaped me. I jerked to a halt, my gaze disbelieving.
There was Mr. Sexy, reclining on the bed, hands folded behind his head, completely naked.
"Took you long enough," he drawled, eyeing me up and down with keen interest.
I wondered if I'd ever be able to figure out this man. "What are you doing here? If Buaji--"
"She's not here, baby. Relax. And get out of that dress already. I want you."
To hear him state it so bluntly made a bolt of desire surge through me. It took everything in me not to launch myself at him. Raising a hand to my head, I gazed at him incredulously.
"I can't believe you're just lying here naked. In my room! Did I mention you're naked? God, Arnav, what if Buaji had walked in here with me?"
"She didn't though. Now turn around."
That's it. It was going to take me a lifetime to understand him. Thank goodness, we had that and more. "Turn around?"
He nodded at me as if I were a child. "So I can unzip you of course."
I rolled my eyes heavenward. "You are impossible."
He tugged me down on the bed, seizing my lips in a passionate kiss. "And you are irresistible."
My thighs straddled his and I smiled down at him as he lowered my zipper, bending low to catch his lips again. We rolled on the bed and without much foreplay, he entered me. I moaned out loud, my back arching as I rose to meet his movements. As always, we went up in flames. I had to bite my lip to keep from shouting as he laved my breasts with his tongue and then sucked on them, strongly. The last thing we needed was Buaji to come knocking.
Minutes later, we fell on the bed, sweaty and out of breath. I wondered if it would always be like this between us and something told me it would be. Arnav gathered me against his side and pulled a thin sheet over us.
I grinned at him, nestling closer.  "I love you so much."
"I--"
The door swung open at that exact moment and to my horror, Buaji stood at the threshold. Her face reddened several shades as she noticed us and she appeared to be speechless for the first time in her life.
"That's it!" she said as she spun around and slammed the door close, "The wedding is happening tomorrow! End of discussion!"
I started to go after her, but Arnav pulled me back into his arms, looking the least bothered by the interruption.
"Relax, Sushi."
"Relaax? She just walked in on us--"
"Lying in bed together. So what? We're perfectly decent." He motioned to the sheet, biting back a smile. "Imagine if she'd walked in here five minutes ago."
"Don't," I moaned, covering my face with my hands.
He tugged my hands out of the way, kissing me leisurely. "Look, all I'm saying is that it could have been much worse. And from now on, she won't come anywhere near our room ever. Win-win situation, really."
I frowned at his logic. "How did she get in here anyway?"
"There's only one possible explanation. She must have had an extra key to your room."
"But why would she enter like that? Without knocking?"
Raizada reasoned everything out with his usual super spy skills. "She must have, but we must not have heard. We were a bit preoccupied, weren't we?"
I blushed as I recalled how wild and out of control we'd been. "This is all your fault, Arnav Singh Raizada! You knew I wouldn't be able to resist you if I found you in bed like that."
He wrenched the sheet off of us, throwing it to the floor. "My strategies usually work. And anyway, since we're getting married tomorrow and knowing your aunt it will probably happen at the crack of dawn, I say we continue our pre-honeymoon."
"Pre-honeymoon?" I giggled.
He smiled, pinning me to the mattress. His fingers entwined with mine and I held his fierce, loving stare.
"Marry me?"
I curled my legs over his hips, smiling up at him. "That depends on how great this pre-honeymoon is."
His eyebrows rose. "Are you challenging me, Gupta?"
"As always, Raizada."
Grinning, he leaned low to purr in my ear, "Then game on."
His mouth trailed across my throat and down my body and needless to say that when I did finally say yes to him, I was screaming it.
*****
~Arnav~
We got married the next morning on a picturesque beach off the coast of Greece. It didn't happen at the crack of dawn as I'd been expecting, but it was damn close. The beach was deserted at this time of day, but it appeared to me extra beautiful against the early morning light. Decorations weren't really necessary. The view was enough.
Still, Buaji insisted on making a heart-shaped design on the sand around Khushi and me, using an array of colorful rose petals. I added a touch of my own. For my soon to be wife, I wrote on the sands in large letters, Lover's Park.
Sheena and Aman were there and of course Maddy Bua. She looked the most wide-awake out of all of us.
Me and Khushi on the other hand... Well, let's just say it had to be the first wedding of its kind where both the bride and groom looked as if they hadn't slept all night--which we hadn't. We even had the dark circles around our eyes to prove it.
Khushi looked overwhelmingly beautiful in the simple saree she'd chosen, but there was no hiding how tired she was. Smothering a yawn with her hand, she gave me a tiny smile.
"You look sexy in the white suit. I approve."
"Thanks," I whispered back as the official went over the legal documents we had to sign. Maddy Bua in her haste to arrange things hadn't checked what language he spoke so although I understood him perfectly, everyone else was clueless, though Maddy Bua kept nodding her head every now and then as if she understood Greek.
"Sushi..."
"Hmm?"
"I love you in that saree, but you know I'll like it even more when I take it off of you."
She gave me a warning glance, her eyes bright. "Don't you start. It's all because of you that we look like raccoons on our wedding day. Dark circles," she pointed.
"Shh," chided her aunt, giving us a look.
I waited till she was once more immersed in the official's speech before leaning toward my soon-to-be wife, reminding, "I told you once, didn't I? You'll look like that after a night with me."
She pinched my side. "Behave. And now act like a good husband and wake me up when I need to say 'I do.'"
"Are you seriously going to nap right now?" I whispered back, struggling not to laugh.
"Just for a few minutes..."
She pretended to stare down at the sands and I held her up, sliding my arm around her waist. For all I cared, she could snore through this ceremony. Truth was, this wedding was just a formality for us at this point. We'd made our vows to one another the night we'd succumbed to our love...the night I'd made her mine and she'd claimed my heart forever. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't love the idea of her being Khushi Raizada.
Almost lazily, I trailed my fingers along the exposed skin of her stomach, whispering in her ear, "Khushi..."
She shot upright. "I DO! I DO!"
Startled, everyone turned toward us and I couldn't hold back my grin. "Not yet, baby. I know you can't wait to marry me, but there's still some time for the I Do's."
Khushi's cheeks flamed with rosy color and she waited till everyone had glanced away before aiming a swift kick to my shin.
I pinched her waist in response.
She squeezed my butt.
I turned and kissed her.
She smacked my chest, gobsmacked.
The man presiding over the ceremony laughed. "Not yet, son," he told me in Greek.
I shrugged, looping my arm around Khushi's shoulder and replying back to him in his language.
Khushi gazed up at me with a tiny frown. "What did you say to him?"
"To hurry up. I told him we need to be married as soon as possible so we can hit the bed."
She choked and I whacked her hard on the back.
"Would you two behave for two minutes?" her aunt scolded, clearly exasperated. Aman and Sheena were struggling not to laugh. I ignored them, focused on the stunning woman beside me.
"Please tell me you're making that up," she murmured under her breath. "You didn't really tell him we can't wait to hit the bed, did you?"
I raised my eyebrow at her. "But it's the truth, baby. I can't lie to him, can I? We need to get to the nearest bed. My eyes are barely staying open."
"Mine too," she agreed. "What is he saying anyway?"
I translated for her and added some vows of own. "That I will always love and cherish you and you will give me the same devotion. That if we fight, the make up sessions will be twice as passionate and intense. That you will share my bed, my life, make me sugar free jalebis and pamper me with kisses for eternity."
She laughed. "And what will you do in exchange? 
"I'll do whatever it takes to keep that smile on your face. Always."
Our eyes met and held as she vowed, "Always."
We leaned in to kiss and Maddy Bua stomped her foot. "Oh for goodness sake, not yet!"
Ignoring her, I kissed Khushi, pulling her into my arms. The official tapped me on the shoulder and Aman and Sheena handed us rings and garlands, which we exchanged with impatience. A few signatures later, it was done.
"Now?" we asked the priest, arms wound around one another.
He threw his hands up. "You are married! You may kiss the bride--again!"
Khushi raised herself on her tiptoes and I yanked her into my arms, slanting my mouth over hers. Aman and Sheena were clapping and snapping pictures and Buaji was crying. I, on the other hand, couldn't stop seem to let my wife go. My wife. Finally.
"That was amazing," she said as we parted, her lips moist and rosy. "Our first kiss as Mr. and Mrs. Raizada."
I picked her up in my arms. "I prefer Mr. and Mrs. Sexy, don't you?"
She laughed and then her eyes widened in surprise as I dove with her into the crisp, warm waters of the surf nearby.
"ARNAV!"
It was hands down one of the best moments of my life, right up there with an ordinary Tuesday morning months ago when an angel had collided with me on the streets of Laxmi Nagar, drenching me with milk and cheekily asked, "Got milk?"
I got more than milk in the end.
I got her.


EPILOGUE NOW UP!

3 comments:

  1. hey read ur stories nw and dey r jus wonderful.... awesome chapter!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Awesome update keep up the good work

    ReplyDelete

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