Sunday, May 10, 2015

DH 29-30 + First 5 chapters reposted

DESERT HEAT UPDATED! First Five Chapters Reposted!
Yes, you read that right, I'm reposting the first five chapters of Desert Heat since many of the events are referenced in this chapter and also because I've increased security over here. 
I really, really hope I don't have to regret this decision and can repost the entire story very soon. 
After a long, long time we're going back to the dunes... Six chapters to go roughlyCry... 
Comment as always guyz!Smile
ps. I haven't been getting enough time to reply on the comment thread as I usually do but trust me I do read each one of your comments and feeback. Many people asked about rita after the last chapter of Secret Passion--guys Arnav has answered your question for you in the preceding episode! Question is, do you and Khushi for that matter, trust him?
pss. We need to recast Aman in Desert Heat. Any suggestions? :) I don't watch soaps any more so I'm clueless.
Current cast list and other Desert Heat Historical Facts all here: Bonus Stuff


**NO COPYING, SHARING, ALTERING OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT BY TINA! ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. If you see this material on any other site or account (other than india-forums under username TINA!) inform the author ASAP. Action will be taken immediately.**

Desert Heat by TINA!
Chapter 29: Paradise
As grains of sand, tossed by a sudden gust of wind from the North, pelted against the hut's outer walls, Khushi woke with a soft, shy and rather pleased smile on her face. For a moment, she could not believe where she found herself. But for once, it was no dream, no cruel fantasy that taunted her with hope and longing only for it all to be snatched away.
Her husband's arms were wound around her, the delicious heat of his body searing into her from behind while his warm, steady breath caressed her bare shoulders. Real. He was undeniably real. Just like their wedding and every second of togetherness that had followed it.
Her blush intensified as she reflected on their frenzied intimacies the night before. They'd both been insatiable, fighting to get closer, to bridge every last distance that separated them. Even now, Arnav slept with one of his hands cupping her breast in blatant possession, reluctant to part.
Covering his hand with hers, Khushi very carefully rolled over to face him, her breath hitching as she studied his sleeping face. Perhaps it was the trick of the early morning light or just her overly romantic imagination, but Arnav looked different this morning. Serene. And much younger than his twenty-five years.
Yet the weight of the responsibility he carried on his shoulders was there too, visible in the tiny lines that crisscrossed the corners of his eyes, in the rugged tilt of his jawline, and in a number of battle scars that spread across his body. Bowing her head, Khushi placed a tender kiss on one such mark near his collarbone, her lips feather light against his tanned skin.
"Don't stop."
His voice, husky and noticeably drowsy from lack of sleep, had her wrenching back, her gaze wide and startled as it met his.
Her shameless husband had the gall to wink at her, his lips curving into a crooked half-smile. He had no idea how much the sight of that familiar smirk affected her. She had half a mind to push him down on the tousled bedding all over again.
"Sleep well?" Arnav teased, sliding a hand down the length of her spine.
Khushi began to nod, her eyes not leaving his shining ones. "Actually, no... I didn't."
"No?" His eyebrow cocked. 
Shaking her head, she grinned at him, her lips curving. "No. I didn't get much rest last night... All because of you."
He pretended to be affronted. "My first true morning as a husband and I'm already failing at the task."
Shifting closer, she looped her arms around his neck. He smiled into her eyes as she leaned over him, her hair falling around them, a thick, rich curtain of deep ebony.
"Failing?" Khushi shook her head, brushing her lips over the corner of his mouth. "No, I'd say you're being successful. Very successful, in fact."
His hand rose to cup her cheek, his look one of quiet marvel as he stroked her soft flesh. "Is that right?"
Her eyes drifted close at his touch, a stab of wild, bottomless desire and yearning shooting through her. "Yes," she managed, her voice carrying an irrepressible breathless lilt to it. "Do you doubt it?"
He was silent for a moment and Khushi opened her eyes to peer down at him. "Arnav?"
He didn't reply, simply drew her down on top of him, his mouth pressing to her temple. "You're my wife, Khushi. It's my duty and privilege to always make sure you're happy, safe, and loved... And you are loved, angel. More than I can ever explain."
Tears stung her eyes at the sincerity of his words, the blazing affection she glimpsed in his gaze. She took his hands in hers, threading their fingers tightly together. "I've never been happier than when I'm with you. I never expected to fall in love with you, but more than that, I never expected to be given the chance to love you. I never thought we'd have this..." Her voice broke off and it was only the gentle tug of his hand that made her glance up, her eyes twinkling with unshed tears. "I woke this morning half-convinced last night was a dream and then I felt you holding me, and I realized my greatest wish had come true. It was no dream."
"Damn right it wasn't." Flicking her tears away with the tips of his finger, Arnav bent his head, his lips brushing over hers. The corner of his mouth curved in a wolfish grin. "Do you need another reminder that it was indeed all real, wife?"
Her heart raced at his words and she felt the last remnants of the past, of uncertainty and the fear of dreaded separation slip away. All that mattered was the present, here and now in her husband's arms. "Yes, please. I feel I need a considerable amount of reminding."
She could tell she'd managed to stun him once more, but by the way his eyes twinkled up at her, she also knew she'd pleased him too. She'd felt his desire and need last night in more ways than one, especially after that God-awful nightmare.
"Do you now?" Arnav surprised her by suddenly standing. He didn't seem to be the least bit bothered by his state of undress, stretching his arms casually, but Khushi felt her mouth go dry at the sight of him. She could only stare, her heartbeat seeming to drown out at everything. She realized he'd said something by the quizzical look he gave her and forced herself to concentrate.
"Did you say something?"
"I said it was time for your reminder." His hand extended down to her.
Khushi blinked at his open palm and then back up to him, her mouth working several times though nothing came out. "N-Now?" she finally managed. "But it's...it's daylight..."
He tilted his head sideways, nodding toward the window where warm sunshine filtered in through the threadbare curtains. "Yes, I do believe it is."
Ignoring his amused smile, Khushi sat up, drawing a sheet over her chest. She was decent, but barely and her husband's close proximity, the heavy weight of his gaze on her exposed skin heightened that giddy realization. Swallowing, she stared down at her hands. They were fisted on her lap. "But how can we...I mean that is..."
She gazed up at him with searching eyes, hoping he'd understand what she meant without further explanation. Though last night she'd given herself wholeheartedly to his embrace, she found herself feeling a bit shy this morning. Everything appeared so much starker and different against the bright light of day, particularly those faint, red scratches she glimpsed on Arnav's shoulders and back. Her face warmed as she realized they were all her doing.
Arnav stared down at his wife with unconcealed puzzlement. She'd been flirting with him in her own sweet, endearing way moments ago and now it was like she'd retreated back into her shell once more. Well, that wouldn't do. Especially not after all it had taken for them to reach this point. Taking her by surprise, he leaned down and lifted her high in his arms, sheets and all.
"Arnav!" Khushi gasped, clinging to his broad shoulders. "What are you doing, love?"
He kicked open the hut's door in answer. "I want to see you," he explained as if that was all that needed to be said. "See you as I make you mine...again."
Khushi couldn't tear her gaze off of him, her pulse escalating. Her hand flattened against his chest. "But it's daylight. If anyone would see us--"
"No one will," he cut in. "I've told you, no one has discovered this oasis before me and besides, no one would dare trespass here."
"Are you certain?"
"Completely." He stopped all her other questions with a firm kiss, walking in long strides toward the pool, its surface appearing crisp and smooth as they neared. His brooding gaze swept down to her. She'd grown silent once more, her gaze focused on the dunes in the distance. "I wish I had some of Maya's skills," he murmured, his jaw clenched.
As he'd known, that confession took her by surprise. "You do? Why?"
He pecked her forehead. "So I could read your mind and know what you're thinking. Unfortunately, I don't though. So will you please tell me why you're suddenly behaving like this? What made you so shy? Minutes ago you were asking me to make love to you. To take you again."
Khushi shivered as he stated it so bluntly. "Because it's daylight." Her voice was so soft he had to strain to hear it.
"And?" he pressed, his grip tightening on her. "Why would that change anything? You want me, don't you?"
"More than anything. But..." Khushi bit down on her bottom lip. "It can't be proper to...to engage in such activities in the daytime as well."
"Proper?" Arnav repeated the word with marked disdain, his eyes growing serious as he looked down at her. "That word does not exist for us."
"But--"
He pressed one long finger against her mouth, stopping all protests. "You must realize something, angel. When we are together and alone, I do not want that word between us in any way. I don't give a damn what is proper or not. We are husband and wife. Bound for the rest of our lives by our love. I will not have you feeling guilty in any way for that love, Khushi. If you want to kiss me, you may. If you want us to make love, you only need to tell me, even a hint will do. I won't have you running away from what you feel any longer."
She slowly nodded against his shoulder, contemplating his words. "And will you do the same? Kiss me whenever you feel like it?"
He smiled, a beautiful, full smile that did strange things to her heart and body. "Probably. But it will always be because you wish for it as well. To lie with me is not your wifely obligation, Khushi, and never will be. I want you to want this just as much as me."
"I do," she insisted, not wanting him for one moment to think otherwise. "I want nothing more than to forget about the rest of the world, of custom and tradition and just be with you. Even when I was first falling in love with you, I would struggle to understand how something that felt so incredibly right could possibly be considered wrong."
He dipped his head to find her lips in a lingering kiss. "If this isn't right," he breathed against her mouth, his eyes blazing against the morning light, "I don't know what is. You're all I've ever wanted."
Her eyes grew wide. Surely he was being only half-truthful. "Me? But what about the throne? And the title?"
Arnav shook his head. "I won't deny that I ache to reclaim Raizada. It has been my goal for over a decade now. But I want it not for myself but for the people. Trust me, Khushi, if my half-brother had been just and fair in his dealings, I would have renounced everything and walked away and never  once looked back. But he is the worst sort of ruler there can be. Selfish and cruel..." His jaw flexed. "I want Raizada freed for its people. For the farmers who toil the land, the children who deserve a bright future, and the women, who unlike you, can't escape Akash's clutches. The innocent and the defenseless... But you..." His gaze seemed to burn as he stared down at her. "You I've wanted desperately almost from the moment I first laid eyes on you. It was all I thought about so many nights on the sands..."
Khushi flung her arms around him, burrowing her face against his neck. "I've always wanted you too. Your friendship, your love... Even when I thought you were a dangerous bandit on the run, I couldn't bring myself to stay away from you."
"Bandit, huh?" He slanted her chin upwards, his expression growing serious. "You realize some people would call me far worse than that? A traitor. A conspirator. A criminal. You're the wife of a wanted man, don't forget."
Something sharp tugged in Khushi's chest at his gloomy tone, the sudden grimness that overtook his handsome features. Her hands trembled as she framed his face in her palms. "I know, sweetheart. But I wouldn't call you any of those things. In my eyes, you're a rebel and more than that, a hero."
It was his turn to balk, his footsteps jerking to a halt on the sands. "A hero?" He threw out the term as if he'd never heard of it much less considered it before.
She nodded, meeting his astounded gaze with utter sincerity. "Right from the moment I met you, in fact. Don't you remember how you came to my rescue that night? If it wasn't for you..." She shuddered. "I don't know what would have happened to me. What that evil man would have done to me..."
His hold tightened on her to the point of almost painful. "I won't allow any harm to come to you. You are mine, Khushi. Mine to protect... Mine to love..."
Her heartbeat quickened at the ferocity of his low voice, roughened by the charged emotions they were both feeling. "And you, you are mine."
Their mouths met then, first tenderly and then all too soon, it was as if a fire had been kindled and their lips and tongues battled for a much more devastating intimacy.
"Arnav," Khushi gasped as she felt one of his hands descend between them, kneading her breasts none too gently. He did not hesitate, his eyes darkening as he felt her helpless response to him. Her nipple prodded into his palm in silent longing.
"Do you trust me, angel?"
Through a haze of smoldering passion, Khushi nodded, wondering what made him ask that particular question. Didn't he already know she trusted him with not just her heart but with everything?
"Well, it's time to test that." And without further ado, he dropped her into the warm water of the pool, his laughter ringing out.
"ARNAV!"
Pushing her drenched hair out of her eyes, Khushi stared up at her hsuband with disbelief. "I can't believe you--"
Her outraged words were cut off by the sudden pressure of his mouth on hers, his tongue sliding past her parted lips and sweeping within as he surged between her thighs, pressing her into the shallow tide of the pond.
Moaning, Khushi felt her outrage fade away just as quickly as it had come, her fingers weaving through his wavy hair as a much more urgent and deeper yearning took control. As her husband's mouth closed over her nipple, wet and hot, she arched beneath him, bucking wildly.
"Steady." His hands sloped over her body with deft firmness, holding her hips still as he continue to suckle and tease her.
"Love, please..."
Her plea made his jaw clench and spreading her legs wide, he settled himself between them, his breathing harsh and uneven. "Khushi... Don't you ever forget this. Don't you ever forget how much I love you." And then he kissed her. There.
She was heedless to make sense of his words, so lost in passion, she could only react, her nails scoring the tense muscles of his back, her hair swinging back and forth in the shallow depths of the water beneath as he lapped her with his tongue, kissing her with soul-shattering intimacy. It felt as if he'd never get enough, his mouth hungry and unrelenting.
"Arnav! Love, please..."
"Look at me, angel."
Breathing hard, Khushi struggled to blink open her eyes. Arnav was braced between her legs still, his gaze flaming hot, his mouth moist and shining. Keeping his eyes on her, he rose over her, drawing her thighs further apart.
"Put your legs around my waist."
Khushi complied, her chest rising and falling with every unsteady breath.
Her husband grew rigid as stone above her as her legs locked in place at the small of his back. His jaw worked several times, his eyes darkening to the color of almost midnight black.
"Don't look away," he bid against her mouth, his voice hoarse and roughened with lust. "Don't look away from me."
As Khushi watched him, her heartbeat thundering in her chest, he plunged deep, sealing them as one. His mouth caught her broken cry as he filled her again and again, his hands guiding her hips in time with his thrusts. And true to her word, even as their movements reached fever pitch, as wild and all consuming as the empty desert surrounding them, not once did Khushi glance away from him. 
*****
Far from the balmy sands of the oasis, Zara sat in her favorite spot under the shade of an old Khejri tree, sifting through a large tray of grains. It was dull, tedious work and most certainly not her preferred chore, but she found it to be strangely relaxing this morning. Anything was better than spending another moment thinking about that man... Imran...
As his name repeated in the recesses of her mind, she sighed hopelessly, her eyes drifting close almost on their own accord.
His face flashed past her eyes. The elegant bow of his mouth, those sloping cheekbones with their hint of dimples when he smiled, and those eyes, as light as the clear, blue sky overhead and just as mesmerizing.
The fleeting memory of seeing him from the terrace was never far from her thoughts. It was hardly something she could control though she tried. Tried even though it was impossible.
He'd changed...
Of course he'd changed, she berated herself. It had been over five years after all. He was no longer the lanky boy she'd spent much of her childhood running alongside with. He was older now. More rugged and commanding, a definite hardness apparent now in his features where none had been present before. Even his eyes looked different, strangely hollow and harsh appearing.
Imran had unquestionably changed, and perhaps it was her punishment for never having truly forgotten him, but she found herself yearning for him just as much as ever--if not more. She'd fallen in love with the teenage version of him long ago, but the grown up, manly side of him was downright irresistible.
Pressing her hands to her warm cheeks, Zara wished his sinful image would leave her be. But of course not. Imran remained the ever-present specter in her life. Not physically there, but alive in every way that mattered in her thoughts and dreams, try as she might to banish him from her mind.
Though once, not too long ago, he hadn't been such a foe. He'd been far more special. Her closest friend and confidante. The boy she'd fallen in love with when they'd been but teenagers, unsure of the world and the future, but certain of their feelings.
Unlike Aman and Maya who'd been constantly at each other's throats growing up, Imran and she had always understood one another, not even needing words to convey what they were feeling. He'd been so quiet and hardworking growing up that she'd never once imagined him to become anything more than a simple farmer, herding the animals and training the horses much like her brothers. 
But his path had crossed with the Dark Prince's and that fateful encounter had changed everything. Zara couldn't find it in her heart to blame ASR. She knew that he was a good man with a worthy cause--one that she supported completely. And as she'd once told him, the decision to leave her and break off their engagement had been entirely Imran's doing. ASR and Aman had in fact tried and failed to make him reconsider, though she'd tried to tell them it was no use. Imran was often silent and reflective, more a poet than a warrior in her eyes, but he was also just as stubborn as the old mule Nafisa Chachi had brought with her from Lucknow. He would not change his mind. Never.
"Zara!" called out her aunt from the house, making her jerk. "Zara, where are you?"
Gathering her skirts, she stood, the tray of grains balanced in her hands slipping slightly. She'd lost track of time once more. All because of him. Shaking her head, she made her way to the kitchen, her eyebrows shooting upward as she surveyed the loud scene of chaos inside.
Her young nieces and nephews were laughing and running wildly in a game of chase while Maya and a few of her older cousins and sister-in-laws sat in a circle in the center of the room, their heads bowed down in concentration.
"What's going on here?" she asked more to herself than anyone in particular.
Maya's head shot up, a wide, toothy smile crossing her face. "Oh, there you are. We were wondering where you'd disappeared off to."
Zara felt like pointing out to her friend that she'd completely ignored her earlier question, but Maya's focus returned all too quickly back on the task before her. Inching closer, Zara realized the whole group was busy applying henna on one another.
"Isn't this beautiful?" Maya held up her decorated hand. "I'm going to have this design on my wedding day I think."
"Really?" Zarine gushed. "You like it?"
"Love it," corrected Maya, clasping the younger girl to her side. "You're truly very talented, you know."
Zara's cousin beamed at the compliment, but Zara simply raised her eyebrows. "Isn't it a bit... early for all this? I didn't think you and Aman had a date for the wedding set yet."
"We don't," her friend replied cheerfully. "I'm making that man suffer a good while longer. Whenever he brings up the topic, I extend it by a month. You should see his face!"
The others giggled, but Zara shook her head. "Maya, really, you need to stop always baiting poor Aman."
"Poor Aman?" Her eyes narrowed, growing fiery. "Do I need to recount to you all the times he ignored me or generally made my life miserable? The list is very long as you well know."
"I haven't forgotten. But you love him, right?" At Maya's fervent nod, she continued, "Well, then you can't keep holding onto the past. You need to forgive him and move on."
Her friend looked entirely too satisfied by her answer, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "And what about you? Does the same apply to you as well?"
"Me?" squeaked Zara, startled.
Maya gave her a measured look and stood. Being careful not to smudge her henna, she led her toward a quiet corner, her voice lowering. "Just ask yourself the same question you just asked me. Do you love him still, Zara? Do you love Imran enough to stop holding onto the past as well?"
She couldn't seem to breathe, much less manage a reply. Nafisa Chachi though saved her from having to answer, appearing on the threshold.
"Zara! There you are. I've been looking all over for you." Her aunt looked more exasperated than usual.
"I'm sorry, Chachi. I was out back and--"
"--Never mind about that." Her aunt handed her a stack of packed lunches. "These need to be taken to your brothers. They're working in the western fields today. Take a few of the servants with you and make sure it all gets delivered on time." She didn't wait for her answer, turning to Maya. "And this is for Aman. He must be somewhere around here as well."
Maya smiled gratefully, throwing her arms around Nafisa Chachi. "Thank you! You are truly amazing. I wish you were my aunt too."
Nafisa smiled, patting her back. "I am always here for you as well, Maya. Now go and give your soon to be husband his lunch and don't eat it all along the way like last time. Yes, I heard all about that."
As Maya's eyes grew wide, Zara fought back a grin. Poor Aman indeed... He would not be spared once Maya realized it was he who'd tattled on her. 
"I'm going to murder him," she heard her friend murmur under her breath. "I swear I'm marrying the biggest gossiper in all of Rajasthan. What am I thinking?"
"That you love him." Zara hoisted the lunches up. "I'll see you in a while. And please, don't be too harsh with Aman. I believe it was Taj who told everyone."
"But who was it who told Taj in the first place?" Maya shook her head and waved over Zarine. "Can you and the others please take these out to the fields?" The group agreed without a single protest--Maya was their favorite after all--and before Zara could intervene, they'd already run out the door.
"Why did you do that for?"
"Because you need some rest and also--" Maya gave her a tiny, guilty smile. "--I need you to deliver Aman his lunch. Please! I can't be trusted near him right now and not to mention, I have another problem."
"Another?"
She nodded, holding up her henna decorated hands. "See. It's still not dry yet. Please, Maya, will you please take it to him for me? Please?"
Zara didn't want to refuse, but she knew Aman was staying in Imran's old home, the one she had not set foot in for years now. How could she possibly go there?
Her friend seemed to realize her dilemma, her eyes warm and understanding. "He won't be there," she murmured softly. "Aman said Imran rode off two night ago to visit a new group of suppliers near Bikaner. You needn't worry."
Still, as Zara made her way over to the house almost directly across the dusty street from hers, she couldn't help but worry. Imran's house was as she remembered it. Smaller than her own, but more homely. It had always appealed to her and it still did, though it was in a pitiful state now, abandoned and uncared for.
She didn't know how long she stood there on the wide veranda, her feet feeling rooted to the ground. Wetting her lips, she knocked on the door, realizing she could delay it no longer. "Aman? Are you there?"
He didn't answer, but the door gave way. Zara glanced hesitantly inside. She couldn't see much, but there was an empty table near by. Gathering her courage, she headed right for it, setting the metal plate in her hands carefully down along with a pitcher of freshly drawn well water. She turned to leave just as quickly, but a voice from behind her stopped her before she'd taken little more than two steps.
"Zara? What are you doing here?"
Her heart ricocheted in her chest and her lips parted with a jarring sense of shock. Swerving around, she stared with incredulous eyes at the man she'd never forgotten... never stopped loving...
"Imran..." she whispered breathlessly as the realization crashed down on her.
*****
Maya gazed toward the darkened doorway her friend had disappeared into. Worry and a healthy dose of guilt gnawed at her. Perhaps this hadn't been the best idea after all...
Grimacing, she left her hiding spot behind the fence and ventured forward. A hard hand caught hold of her wrist.
"And where do you think you're off to?" Aman quipped.
She tilted her head toward Imran's home. "I don't know if it was right to make them meet like this."
Aman's brow furrowed. "But this was your idea, Maya. Yours and Taj's. I went along with it only because of you two."
She nodded dejectedly. What he said was completely true, but now she was having second thoughts. Perhaps this matchmaking business was best left to their youngest friend.
"I think it's going rather well all things considered," Taj said in a sage-like voice. He was lounging on the back of a wagon, nibbling on the end of a stick of hay. 
"Do you really think so?"
Taj nodded at Maya while Aman shot the pair a disgruntled look. "Well, I don't. I knew this wasn't a good idea, but of course, you two wouldn't listen to me. You both are so bored with Khushi and ASR, as well as Sia and Raj, off on their respective honeymoons, you've turned into a bunch of meddlesome matchmakers."
"Sometimes I think I should marry Taj instead," murmured Maya, rolling her eyes heavenward.
Aman saw red at that. "What did you say?" he bit out as he advanced towards his now guilty-faced fiancee.
"Who me?" she asked innocently, backing away.
"No, the hen squawking over there. Of course you! How could you--" He made a move to grab her, but Maya ducked, running through the open gate and into the dusty lane beyond.
As Aman chased after her, he could have sworn he heard Taj laughing, but he couldn't be sure. He was so angry he could barely control himself.
"Maya, stop!"
Of course she didn't listen. Had she ever listened to him? With his eyes glinting, he doubled his efforts.
Maya was glancing over her shoulder when Aman's arms appeared on either side of her, hoisting her up. She yelped out loud, her smile dimming as she glimpsed the simmering fury in his eyes.
"Aman... I was jesting. I just wanted to see how you'd react to my suggestion."
"Suggestion? That was meant to instigate me and you know it!" He marched into the stables to their right with angry stomps of his boots, shouldering past napping horses and cattle to an empty doorway. Dropping her on the cot inside, he towered over her, his lips compressing into a thin line.
"What am I supposed to do with you, Maya?" he ground out.
"Love me," she suggested, beaming up at him.
His frown deepened all the more. "Do you not realize how angry I am right now? You hurt me back there, Maya. Deeply."
Her smile vanished and she drew him down into her arms. "You crazy, lovable oaf. How could you think for a moment I was actually serious? You know how much I love you. How much I've always cared for you and only you."
Aman felt his temper mellow slightly at her words. "Still... what you said back there cannot be forgiven."
"Cannot?" His fiancee's face blanched of all color.
He nodded. "It demands a punishment."
Her mouth opened and closed with incredulity. "What? You can't be serious, Aman! I'm not one of those women you can order around. I will always do and say what I feel is right. Do you understand?"
"As you should, but was what you said back there right?"
Maya hesitated, glancing away. "No..."
"What was that?" He leaned closer, pretending he hadn't heard her.
"No, it wasn't right. There. Happy now? I've admitted I'm wrong. There's always a first time for everything, I suppose, but I promise you this will be the first and last time I deliberately hurt you."
He grinned at her quick acceptance. "So you admit you're guilty and deserve a punishment?"
"No... Yes... I don't know!" Maya covered her face with her hands. After a moment, she peeked up at him from the gap in her fingers. "What punishment do you exactly have in mind?"
He drew her hands away and before she could realize it, covered her mouth with his, his kiss deep and sensual. Maya moaned, flinging her arms around his neck as his teeth nipped and tugged. If this is what punishment he had in mind, Aman was truly daft. How could this ever be considered a reprimand?
As if he'd read her mind, Aman drew away, his lips wet and parted. "That wasn't your punishment by the way."
"It wasn't?"
He pecked her lips again. "No, your punishment is to give me a date."
Her eyebrows knitted together. "A date?"
Aman smiled down at her, his lips curving in his full beard. "A wedding date. And it better not be six or even two months from now."
"Oh. Is that it?" Maya cuddled beside him. "Perhaps we can negotiate."
"Negotiate?"
She nodded, looping her arm around his waist. "For every kiss you give me, I'll subtract one day from the six month date I last gave you. What say, my soon to be husband?"
His eyes glittered with challenge. "I say you've got yourself a deal, Mrs. soon-to-be Mathur." And then his mouth swooped down on hers and all their arguments ceased rather quickly for once.
****
Imran gazed at her with the same rapt stare, his hand poised over his left cheek. It was then that Zara realized he'd been shaving, his face half-lathered with soap and water.
The sight was so domesticated and so unexpected, she couldn't help but smile slightly. "You have soap in your hair."
His hand rose to where she pointed, his eyes still on her face. Turning away, he snatched up a towel and roughly dried his face and hair. When he faced her once more, his expression was unreadable.
"What are you doing here?" he asked again.
Her hands knotted at her sides at the sound of his voice. It had been so long since she'd heard it. But even his voice sounded strangely different, more gravely and colder. What has happened to you, Imran?
The question was on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't voice it aloud. She knew what had happened. He'd no doubt seen and experienced things in five years that she could scarcely manage to even picture. Death. Violence. A perilous life on the run.
"I brought lunch for Aman," she whispered instead of asking him any of the umpteenth questions swirling in her head. "I thought he'd be here." Not you...
Imran's gaze went to the plate and pitcher of water nearby before settling back on her face. His voice became even icier, harsher. "Is that normal for you?"
"What do you mean?" She stared back at him, wondering what she'd done to anger him. If anyone had the right to be angry between the two of them, it was surely she--not him!
"Is bringing lunch to men who are not your husband normal for you? What about going to another man's home unattended? And not just any man, but me, a man you were once on the verge of marrying? Your husband must be quite broad minded or plain dim-witted."
"My h-husband?"
His face hardened and he stalked up to her so quickly and silently, Zara did not have time to react. He didn't touch her but he was standing so close, the heat of his body seared into her, the smell of him invading her senses.
"Yes, your husband," he all but snarled. "What kind of man would leave you unprotected like this?"
"You have no right to ask me any questions, Imran. You lost that right five years ago."
For a moment, neither of them moved, their gazes silently warring. Imran was the first to look away, his jaw clenched tight as he took a step back. "You're right of course. I'm nothing to you now."
She ached to correct him. He meant everything to her, but something stopped her. Imran glanced back at her, his gaze softening just slightly. "I saw you with your daughter on the terrace. She looks just like you at that age."
Daughter? Zara struggled to understand, but then she recalled holding her youngest niece in her arms when she'd seen him. Of course...
At her silence, his lips compressed into a too straight line. "You seemed happy, content... I know I have no right to ask you anything, but I can't help but ask you this. Are you happy, Zara? Does that husband of yours keep you happy?"
Tears stung her eyes to hear him say her name. How long it had been... Her mouth opened to reply, but the look in his eyes stopped her. He looked so desperate, so despairing. She ached to reassure him, to tell him how very wrong he was about everything, but her heart wouldn't allow her to, never having forgotten the pain he'd inflicted on her five years ago. 
To risk everything to this man again, to make herself vulnerable only to be left broken and alone a second time, she could not do it.
"Yes," she finally said, "I'm very happy."
And then she flew past him, tears streaking her face as she ran out the door, the sound of her pounding heartbeat drowning out everything else. What had she just done? 
*****
Kissing his wife heatedly, Arnav ground himself against the juncture of her thighs, sweat beading his brow. Khushi moaned at the contact and then pushed at his chest, her eyes twinkling with mirth.
"Not so fast...my turn first."
Arnav's hands fisted on the sheets as his wife trailed a line of kisses down his torso, her palms smoothing over his taut muscles. They were lying outside in a low-pitched tent, its flaps billowing in the slight breeze. It had been Khushi's idea. She'd known it wasn't like him to be cooped up indoors for days on end. So on their third night at the oasis, she'd surprised him by suggesting they sleep outside.
Ten days had passed since then. Ten, blissful days. Unquestionably, the best of his life. He and Khushi had not left a single area of the oasis untouched. Once her hesitation about making love in the daytime had fallen away, his wife had been as insatiable as him. They'd spent hours making love slowly on the sands, drinking in every moment of togetherness, only to give in to far more primal urges against the wall of the hut just hours later. Arnav groaned as his wife's mouth closed around him, his hips wrenching upward.
His eyes opened in thin slits as he watched her pleasure him, the sight of her mouth and tongue on him tearing him apart. Taking her by the shoulders, he rolled her beneath him, his mouth crashing down on hers as he thrust deep.
Her head fell back with a gasp and he nuzzled the exposed skin of her throat, marking the pale flesh with his mouth and teeth. Her hands slipped over the corded muscles of his back to his bottom, holding him to her as he filled her to bursting.
Their sweat-glistened bodies strained together on the white sheets of the tent, their mouths colliding as he moved faster, harder. As he felt his wife unravel beneath him, incoherent cries escaping her mouth, Arnav gave in too, his body tensing as he bathed her inner walls with his seed.
Breathing hard, he collapsed beside her, pillowing his head on her breast while he lazily fingered her other nipple. Her hands weaved through his hair, her heartbeat just as wildly out of control as his. He kissed her breast and her fingers tightened in his hair.
"I wish we didn't have to leave," Khushi murmured in a soft voice, glancing down at him, her eyes looking impossibly large beneath the thick fringe of her lashes.
He met her gaze with the same sense of regret and longing. "Me either, angel, but it'll be two weeks tomorrow. It's time we head back."
She nodded, but remained quiet for a long time, stroking his hair idly. "Arnav?"
"Hmm?" He was busy cupping and massaging her breasts, his lips peppering feather-light kisses.
"Do you think I might be with child?"
His head shot up and he gave her a tentative smile, his hand sliding to her flat abdomen. "God, I hope so. It might be selfish to wish for this now when everything's such a dangerous mess around us, but I ache to see you swollen with my child. More than anything else..."
"Me too, love. And I'm not worried," Khushi told him. "About the danger or the threats. I know you won't let a scratch come to me or our child."
"Damn right I won't." His eyes sizzled and he lowered his face, kissing her stomach. "When will you know if you're with child or not?"
His soft caresses made her body quiver with renewed need. "Very soon..." But almost as soon as she'd voiced those words, a feeling of trepidation settled over her. She'd heard stories about women who couldn't conceive... What if she was one? Her aunt had often cursed her in a fit of a rage, screaming how she'd never make anyone happy, how she would die one day, alone, unloved, and childless.
"Khushi?" Arnav tilted her face up, his gaze growing concerned as he glimpsed the tears in her eyes. He breathed in sharply, sitting up and hauling her onto his lap. "What is it? Tell me," he all but ordered.
She shook her head, holding him as tight as she could as her body shuddered in his arms. Though she tried to prevent it, a sob escaped her lips, broken and pitiful. Her husband's hold on her strengthened, his body growing rigid against hers.
"Khushi, please. Tell me what's bothering you."
Wiping her tears, she realized she could not keep this from him. The pain she'd faced in the past would not go away simply by ignoring it. She had to confront it. But it didn't have to be alone, she reminded herself. Because now she had him with her. Her Arnav.
"Khushi, tell me," he growled in her ear again.
Swallowing, she pushed back her hair from her face and met his fiery gaze. "I'm fine."
"Don't lie to me. I know you're not. Please, tell me what upset you. Was it something I said or did?"
"No, of course not. It was... a memory... of my aunt."
Arnav's face darkened. Khushi had shared with him in the past things about her Masi. He knew all about how she'd abandoned her at the train station. He knew she was a cruel woman, who'd never thought twice about striking Khushi. How anyone could possibly hate someone as good and innocent as his wife was beyond his understanding.
"What was the memory?" he managed in a calm tone even as overwhelming anger curdled in his gut.
Khushi detected the fury in his voice, but she didn't back down. Marriage meant to share everything with your spouse, no matter how painful. She wanted no secrets between them.
Taking a deep breath, she slowly told him about the harsh words her aunt had once thrown her way.
"She cursed me, Arnav. All the time. She said I'd die barren and alone."
He swore under his breath and cupped her face in his palms. "Listen to me, angel, your aunt was cruel to you and abusive. I don't know what made her so vindictive, maybe jealousy, but whatever it was, it's her problem. Not yours. Not ours. Whatever she said hurt you, deeply I know, and I wish to hell I could make that woman pay for it, for every word and every time she laid her hand on you. But love, whatever she said will not happen. Do you hear me? Her words hold no power over us."
She knew he was right, but the fear was still there. "But Arnav, won't you be very disappointed if I'm not with child? What if I can't have children? Ever?"
Voicing her anxiety was not easy, but to her relief, her husband took the questions with soul-stirring calmness, his lips thinning as he studied her pale face. "Has this honeymoon, all these months we've spent together, not answered that question for you? Don't you get it, Khushi? Having you is all I ever wanted, anything else more than that is more than I honestly deserve."
"That's not true. You deserve everything."
His eyes were gentle and kind. "You're only saying that because you love me."
Her smile matched his. "Very much."
He kissed her in answer, settling back down on her, his arms winding around her waist. "I love you very much too. And Khushi?"
"Hmm?" She couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"Even if we aren't lucky enough to have a child, that love will be enough. Enough for this lifetime and the next."
She held him to her, tears stinging her eyes. "For me too. But Arnav..."
"Yes, angel?"
In a move that took him by surprise, she rolled on top of him, her hand grasping his length. "That doesn't mean we can't try... for a baby I mean..."
The faint smile he gave her made her heart turn over and the heated look in his eyes made her toes curl. He covered her hand with his. "I'm in complete agreement with you, my queen. Although at this moment, more than a child, I just want you."
And then as he drew her down, his mouth capturing hers and his hand disappearing between her thighs, Khushi forgot all about curses and old hatred. All that mattered was love. Their love.
*****
"KHUSHI!"
Maya squealed with delight as she glimpsed her friend in the Khans' stone courtyard. Arnav was lowering Khushi down from the saddle and no sooner had her feet touched the ground and he'd brushed a soft kiss to her forehead that Maya was between them, hugging her friend tight.
She winked at Arnav. "Sorry, Dark Prince, but you've had her all to yourself for two weeks now."
"I have her forever," he corrected, clasping Aman and Taj in quick embraces. As much as he'd loved being at the oasis and wouldn't trade that time being alone with his wife for the world, seeing his friends again was a welcome distraction.
"How have things been here?"
Aman shrugged uneasily and from the shadows behind him, Imran emerged, his face appearing more gaunt than usual. "Akash is getting more reckless. He killed the families of two farmers near the border of the North Reaches two days ago as well as burned down their homes and crops. There's nothing left but ash."
Zara, who'd been hugging Khushi, froze as Imran's voice sounded. Their gazes met and this time, it was she who glanced away first. Her response wasn't missed by her friend.
Khushi stared at the pair with confusion. Though she couldn't explain it, she could more than sense that something had changed between the two. "What is it?" she whispered to Zara.
"Nothing," she replied in a dull sounding voice.
"They won't get away with this," Arnav growled alongside them, a dangerous note ringing in his voice. "Get the weapons."
Khushi's heart collided against her ribcage. They'd only just returned and already things were changing. Turning from Zara's drawn face, she took Arnav's hands in her, her gaze imploring. "Sweetheart, please calm down."
"Calm down?" he all but roared. "Did you not hear what those people did? I won't let this go unanswered Khushi."
"What are you going to do?" she countered. "Ride into Raizada, barge into the palace and kill someone? That place is armed more than a fortress! It's impossible for you to get in right now. Please, love, I'm only asking you to take the next step after thinking it through calmly."
His gaze shone bright. "I have thought it through and it changes nothing. Those people will pay for this." Pulling away from her, he mounted a nearby horse. "Let's go."
Imran, Aman and Taj hurried to their horses, grabbing rifles. Even Raj, having just returned with Sia the night before, stepped away. Unlike Khushi, Sia did not attempt to stop him. She stood stoically, only her eyes giving away her inner turmoil. Her hand slipped to her burgeoning belly.
Khushi could not believe how calm her friends were behaving. She felt helpless in contrast, terrified and heartsick. "Arnav, stop! Will you please listen to me?"
He shook his head atop the stallion, his hands tightening on the reins. "I'm sorry, but I can't. Not this time. You'll be safe here with the Khans. I'll be back in a day or two."
Khushi swallowed back tears, her hand flattening on his calf muscle. "Be careful."
His hand briefly caressed her cheek, his thumb brushing over her lips. "I have everything to live for now, Khushi. Don't worry, nothing will harm me."
With those final words, he steered the horse away, his gaze on her teary face for a long, timeless moment. And then he was gone, racing into the sands toward the north, his cape trailing behind him. The others followed closely.
Khushi covered her mouth with her hand. What had just happened? Sia's hand settled on her shoulder.
"They'll be fine. There are no better fighters in all of Rajasthan."
Instead of relaxing, Khushi spun toward Maya. "Do you see anything? Any clue of what's to come?"
Her friend looked just as powerless as she was feeling. "I can't will it to happen. It just does sometimes. I'll let you all know if something happens though."
Khushi nodded wearily and Zara clasped her hand, taking her inside. "You need to rest, you look exhausted."
Khushi said nothing, walking lifelessly behind her into the house. Inside the room she'd last shared with Arnav, her footsteps slowed and she sat on the cornhusk mattress, a troubled frown on her lips. What had Arnav planned? Where had he gone? To Raizada? She hoped to God not. That place was a death trap. Marked for one man.
Her husband.
She fell back on the bed, knowing well that she would not be able to sleep tonight. It was out of the question.
Arnav, her heart screamed, as silent tears made their way down her face. Arnav!
*****
Arnav and the others were gone nearly four days. It hadn't been easy work to track down the men responsible for the farmers' deaths. But eventually, one man had given them the answers they'd been searching for.
"It was Jha's chief soldier, Yash Ranawat. He killed them."
Arnav's hands tightened on the soldier's neck. The man flailed futilely, struggling to breathe. "And you? You expect me to believe you had no part in it?"
"I was..." He coughed violently as Arnav's hold loosened just a tad. "I was one of the soldiers who was told to burn down the fields. I was working on direct orders. I didn't want to do it, but I had no choice."
With a disgusted look, Arnav threw him to the ground. "We all have a choice."
Taj shot the soldier a glare. "Exactly. So Jha was there? Don't even think of lying to us."
The man nodded, clutching his throat as he crawled in the dirt. "He was there. He was laughing the whole time."
Arnav's hands fisted at his sides. "Where do we find Jha's chief soldier?"
"He's near, his home is a day's ride on horseback." As soon as he'd given them the exact directions, Arnav motioned to Raj and with a look of supreme pleasure, Raj swung his gun. The soldier fell to the ground in an unconscious heap.
Locating the Ranawats' family home took more time than Arnav liked. The house was situated a good distance away from the nearest village, atop a low-lying hill. They owner was clearly not expecting any sort of ambush and so the place had been left vastly unprotected.
Arnav and his men rode in through the double gates that barricaded the main entrance, their guns aimed toward the guards that blocked their way. Getting in was easy.
Women fled and screamed and children cried as they rode past them, stopping at the whitewashed main building. Arnav pushed open the door, his gaze sweeping over the emptiness within.
"Ranawat!"
The man didn't answer but from somewhere deep within the house, a scream erupted. A terrible, earsplitting cry of pain. Arnav ran toward its ringing echo.
It was coming from within a locked room made of heavy oak. He slammed his body into it, but the hinges barely moved. The others joined him and it was only after several attempts that the door split open, clean down the middle.
The sight inside made Arnav's skin crawl. A man was sprawled over a nearly naked, crying woman, holding her down as he whipped her with his belt. Standing nearby was Jha, laughing as he watched the spectacle.
As the door sprang open and he glimpsed Arnav, that laughter quickly disappeared. He sprang toward his gun, but Imran was already there, lifting it out of his reach.
With an oath, Arnav grabbed the man on the bed, hauling him bodily off. The woman reached for the blankets to cover herself, her face ashen beneath cuts and bruises. She looked as if she was barely alive.
"Did they hurt you?" Arnav managed.
The woman nodded, revulsion visible in her eyes as she gazed at Ranawat. "He did. That one just watched."
"How long have they kept you here?"
"Three days," the woman breathed. "But it feels much, much longer than that."
Arnav's jaw worked. He didn't need reminding that if circumstances had been just slightly different, if fate had not worked in his favor, it might have been his Khushi in this poor woman's place.
"Help her," he instructed Aman and Taj in a tight voice. "Get her outside."
The woman shook her head. "I want to see. I need to see the light leave his eyes."
Ranawat struggled in Arnav's grasp. "Don't listen to her! You can't kill me!"
Arnav laughed, a harsh sound of pure hatred. "Actually I can. Easily."
The man shook and flailed. "You're better than us, aren't you? If you do this, there's no difference between you and me."
"There's a world of a difference," bellowed Arnav, his grip tightening. "You kill for sport. You torture and rape without thought or conscience. Me and my friends protect the people. We stand for the defenseless. And we also punish those who deserve it, like you."
"This isn't justice. You can't do this."
Arnav hit him so hard his head snapped backward. "How dare you speak of justice? Justice would be if I could kill you again and again for every life you've taken. Have you even spared those farmers a thought since you murdered them? Of course not! Justice would be if I tortured you as much as you've tortured this girl and every single one before her. But unfortunately, you have only one life and it ends tonight."
Jha's chief soldier's eyes went wide with panic and he shook, his expression beseeching suddenly. "Please. You can't! I'll do anything!"
Arnav raised his rifle and the others followed suit. Exactly five seconds later, gunfire erupted and a body slumped to the floor.
A mewling cry broke the silence and Arnav's eyes flashed to Jha. He was struggling in Raj's grip, a petrified look on his face. Raising his rifle, Arnav pressed it against his forehead.
"I could kill you right now too."
Shyam swallowed, his eyes wide as he tried to hobble forward. "I'm on your side, Dark Prince. I always have been and--"
"Enough!" barked Arnav. "Do you think I'll fall for your lies? Do you think I'm as brainless as you and your master? I could end your life here and now, Jha, but I won't."
"You won't?"
Arnav shook his head. "Because I need you to live a little while longer. Go and tell your false king that I'm coming for him next. Tell him to hide within in that palace behind as many guards and weapons as he wants but nothing will spare him. He will have to pay. You will all have to pay!"
Shyam nodded, seeming to relax marginally. Arnav's smirk turned deadly. "I said I'd let you live for now, but that doesn't mean you go unpunished."
The man's eyes rounded with renewed terror and he stumbled away. "ASR, you promised! You can't--"
Arnav approached him like a predator nearing his prey. "I can and I will. Do not forget for a moment that it was I who maimed you."
"How can I ever forget? Please, ASR--"
"How dare you plead with me? Did you listen to the pleadings of those farmers? Did you do anything to help this girl? No, never! You laughed instead, didn't you?"
Jha struggled to respond and Arnav did not wait for his explanation. There was none, he knew. Taking aim with his rifle, he shot Shyam in his right hand and without a word, walked away, ignoring the cries of pain echoing behind him.
*****
As clouds drifted over the full moon outside, Khushi sat alone in the darkness, a frown marring her brow.
Four days.
He'd promised to return in half that amount of time. Where was Arnav? Had something happened? Something she couldn't bear to even contemplate? Arnav had to be okay. He had to be...
"Khushi?"
Her head snapped up, her fingers knotting hard around the beads of her mangalsutra. Zara stood at the threshold, looking hesitant. Khushi felt her heartbeat escalate as fresh worry gripped her heart.
"Is everything okay?" she whispered. "Any word from them?"
Zara shook her head, closing the door softly behind her. "None so far."
Glancing to her right, Khushi looked out toward the shadowy dunes. Love, where are you?
"I had to speak to you." Zara sat down beside her, her expression hard to read in the dim light. "It's important."
"What is it?" At Zara's silence, Khushi glanced down at her hands. "Actually, I had to speak to you as well. I've been meaning to ever since we got back, but things have been so difficult these past few days... It's about you and Imran. I saw you in the courtyard. What's happened between you two?"
Zara hesitated and Khushi laid her hand on her forearm. "You don't have to tell me if you don't wish to, but I just want you to know that you can speak to me freely whenever you'd like. I'm your friend, Zara."
She nodded. "You are and I want to tell you, but I wonder what you'll think of me once I do. For the first time in my life, I don't know if I did the right or wrong thing." She glanced away, frowning.
"Sometimes it's not about right or wrong. Sometimes it's just what we feel in that moment and how we choose to act on it. I know you, Zara. I know you'd never do the wrong thing."
"Oh, Khushi, I think I have this time. Imran... he believes I'm married and have a daughter and instead of correcting him, I cemented his beliefs." Speaking in a low voice, she recounted to Khushi about their encounter in his home. "I don't know what I want anymore. I thought I could forget him, but I can't."
"You love him..." Khushi whispered.
Her friend nodded hopelessly, tears pooling in her eyes. "I always have. I wish I could stop these feelings, but it's beyond my control, Khushi. I can't stop loving him. I can't!"
Very gently, Khushi settled her hand atop hers. "Then don't."
"What?"
"Life is unpredictable, Zara. Right now, my husband and the others are all out there facing God knows what. Who knows what will happen? Who knows who will return and who will not? I can't sleep at night thinking of the possibilities. Zara, not many people find true love. What you and Imran share is rare and beautiful. I've seen the pain in his eyes and it mirrors what I see in yours right now. You need to decide once and for all if you want him in your life."
"What if he doesn't want me though?"
Khushi angled her face up. "Then he never deserved you. But something tells me that he needs you just as much as you need him."
Her friend contemplated her words silently for a long moment, blinking back the last of her tears. "I'll speak to him," she finally decided. "As soon as he returns."
Khushi smiled. "Good. You both have so much to discuss. And what did you have to tell me? You mentioned something when you entered."
"Oh..." Zara hesitated, her hand sliding into the pocket sewn into her skirts. "It's about this..."
As a familiar emerald ring sparkled in the dimly lit bedroom, Khushi couldn't help but frown. How much she hated that jewel.
"You still have it?"
Zara nodded. "I gave it to my brother just as you wanted. He traveled to the North Reaches recently and inquired about anyone by the name of Nidhant Singh."
"And? Did he find something?"
Zara didn't respond for a brief moment. "Has ASR not told you anything about this? About the owner of the ring? I thought he might have during your honeymoon."
"Told me what? Zara, tell me what you mean."
"I don't know if it's my place. I think it's best if ASR told you himself, not me." She started to leave but Khushi grasped her hand.
"He has told me," she lied. "I just want to hear it from you as well. If the stories coincide..."
Zara frowned. "They have to. It's simple enough. The ring was given to you by Nidhant Singh, the son of a colonel in the North Reaches. It took my brother some time to track him down. You see, Nidhant Singh doesn't go by that name anymore. His friends and family call him N.K. now. He's been away in England for years, maybe his name was changed there, but whatever the reason, he's known as N.K. now and recently returned from London."
"He's in the North Reaches?"
Zara peered down at her pale face with a troubled frown. "Yes, just as ASR must have told you. Nidhant is after all his only cousin."
Khushi couldn't quite hide the surprise that flooded her face, shock rifling through her. Memories of the past flitted by:
Arnav reacting to the name Nidhant Singh...his moodiness and distance that night. She'd thought he'd been just in a bad mood, but had there been something deeper going on?
As Khushi recalled what had immediately followed that night, she felt her world tilt. The red bridal lehenga he'd insisted she purchase...the British soldiers...his sudden smearing her parting with his blood, marking her as his...
He'd never told her he knew Nidhant. They'd had weeks alone and he'd never once even hinted that he knew anything about her once betrothed. They were cousins! How could Arnav and Nidhant possibly be related?
As she struggled to understand, to grapple with the feelings of confusion and betrayal washing over her, all she could focus on was one thing: her husband's lack of trust in her. His lack of faith in her love for him. He hadn't trusted her. He'd instead gone out of his way to hide the truth from her, to make her his at all costs.
As if she'd summoned him, his voice rang out then: "KHUSHI! KHUSHI!"
Zara sprang up beside her, but she did not wait, darting out the door and into the courtyard, barely seeing where she was going.
The moonlight was just enough to see by. Arnav and the others were dismounting, looking tired and sleep-deprived, but otherwise unharmed. Most alarming, her husband had what appeared to be a sleeping woman nestled in his arms, her face hidden against his cloak.
As she neared him, he handed the woman over to Raj. Khushi couldn't keep her emotions in check a moment longer. Arnav no doubt imagined she'd race into his arms, but it was a homecoming neither of them had expected.
"Is it true?" she bit out. "Is Nidhant truly your cousin?"
His reaction was all the confirmation she needed. His body stilled, his eyes disbelieving. "How do you know about that? Who told you? Angel, I can explain--" His hands reached out to her, but she backed away, shaking her head.
"Is it true?" she cried out again, her voice almost unrecognizable, her gaze wild. "Did you marry me knowing I was meant to be your cousin's wife? Did you really hide the truth from me all along?"
A lonesome breeze washed over them, carrying with it grains of sands, but neither of them moved, their gazes locked. And then Arnav slowly nodded. "Yes," he said simply, appearing stoic and remorseless.
Khushi inhaled sharply and then as the others watched in unconcealed shock, her palm thrust out, striking his cheek so hard, it stained with instant color.


Desert Heat by TINA!
Chapter 30: Blood on the Sands
Arnav had known all along his wife would not react well to his affirmation of the truth he'd kept so carefully guarded. But never--ever--had he expected her to lash out at him so, her eyes wild and darkened by shadows in the moonlight, her body trembling as she stood before him.
More than the echoing ring of the slap, it was that look of utter betrayal in her eyes that was his undoing. Ignoring the others, he seized her wrist in his grasp, his mouth thinning as she fought against him.
"Arnav! Let go!"
"ENOUGH!" he roared, silencing her. Behind them, Taj, who'd been on the cusp of intervening, took a step backwards, his extended hand falling to his side.
Arnav and Khushi exchanged a glance, a brief, wordless glance that revealed everything. Anger, loss, and wounded spirits.
Khushi was the first to look away, moistening her dry lips. She pulled on his hold on her, futile though the effort was. She knew as well as him that tonight he would not be stopped.
"Arnav...let me go."
Let her go? The mere suggestion of such a thing was out of the question. He wrenched her forward instead, heedless to the calls of the others as he led his wife at a brisk pace inside the compound, never pausing till they were once more in the corner bedroom they'd shared. The tension between them felt like a living, breathing entity, the silence filled with doubts and uncertainties. He freed her hand only to slam the door behind them and locked it for good measure.
As he whipped around to face her, his dark, overgrown hair fell across his eyes. It added to the prominence of his facial bones, hidden but not fully concealed by a nearly full beard. In his fitted pants and black, sand-stained cloak, he looked just as Akash had once described him: unquestionably dangerous. A man on the run. A man who now appeared so enraged, Khushi couldn't help but feel uneasy.
He'd looked at her with love often, with affection and adoration, his gaze always admiring and many times proud, but now... none of that remained. He looked wholly furious--and at her! When it was he who had lied to her, who'd married her for intentions that only now made sense, who'd not trusted her...
Every breath suddenly felt painful, her throat feeling as dry as the Thar. Tears stung her eyes but she batted them away, her hands fisting at her sides. She would not break now. She would face her husband and all his anger.
"This," he said in a low, strained voice, pointing to the distance between them. "Is why I never mentioned N.K. before to you. I knew this would happen. I knew nothing good would come from it."
She met his glare with her own. "You should have told me! I deserved to know!"
His mouth tightened into a foreboding line and in a heartbeat, he was against her, pinning her to the wall, his eyes wild, his grip tight around her wrists.
"Why, dammit? Why?" he all but snarled. "N.K. holds no significance in your life. The girl who was once betrothed to my cousin no longer exists now. She was a child for crying out loud. You are my wife, my Khushi."
She stiffened at the hard, possessive undercurrents lacing his tone. "Exactly, Arnav. I am yours. I've given everything to you. All my love, my soul, my body... I thought you trusted me now," she murmured with no little disappointment and glimmer of accusation. "Surely you must have realized that knowing who Nidhant Singh is would change nothing between us. Why then did you not tell me? Why did I have to hear of it from another person? It should have been you."
"Enough, Khushi," he raged, his breathing hard and fast as he stared down at her upturned features. "You expected me to tell you this truth? A truth that could very well ruin our lives, our future, our love? I've lost you once," he bit out in a tight voice, his mouth twisting. "And that was all because of a ring. A damn ring and you walked away from me. Do you think I'd be fool enough to risk losing you a second time?" His hands rose to cup her face, his gaze boring into hers. "You. Are. Mine. I will not lose you. I refuse to let that happen. I've been fighting for us from the start and I vow to you, angel, that is one battle I will never stop fighting. Never."
She pushed at his chest, little good that it did. He was holding her securely in his arms, their bodies crushed together. Closing her eyes, she took a calming breath. When she opened them, her gaze was hard and almost unrecognizable. "You treat me as if I were a possession. A toy you're afraid to lose to your cousin."
"KHUSHI!"
She turned from him as if he'd strike her, though she knew he would never do such a thing, no matter how angry he was. Still, the instinct to protect herself was there, and her head swung sideways, a single tear slipping past her closed eyelids.
They were both quiet for a moment, their mingled breathing harsh and loud.
"You think you're just a possession to me?" came Arnav's low and distinctly hurt voice. It made her look up, her chest constricting as she glimpsed the agony in his burning gaze.
"It hurts me to hear you refer to yourself in such a way," continued her husband, glancing away as if to calm himself. "You obviously have no clue how much you mean to me. Have I not been clear enough? Have I not shown you my love, time and time again on this journey? How can you question it then?" His voice rose in volume and he framed her face in his palms once more, forcing her to meet his gaze. "From the moment I saw you, I wanted you. I didn't understand it myself, but slowly I accepted it. I couldn't keep away from you and neither could you. It was like our hearts recognized one another. As if we were meant to be... When I learned of your childhood engagement, my love for you did not change. Hell, I thought that silly ring carried no meaning at all. But it was you, Khushi, you who insisted you had a duty to another man, a man you'd never even met! You put that obligation over our love. Thank God, you changed your mind and came back to me, but angel, how can you expect me to forget that? I can endure anything, but I cannot and will not endure losing you again. Do you understand me?"
Her tears slipped free and his expression softened slightly, his thumb rubbing the moisture away. "Oh love, what the hell are we doing? I don't want to fight with you."
"And you think I do?" she retorted, chewing on her bottom lip. "I love you, Arnav, and I cannot endure losing you either--ever. Yes, I once attempted to cast that love aside, to forget you and our love, but do you blame me for it? I am not like Maya and Sia, raised to be wild and carefree. My parents were traditional, simple folk. I have very few memories of them, but what I do recall is how much they valued traditions, honor..." She glanced up at the hard planes of his face, her gaze imploring. "To be yours, I overlooked their last wish, I paid no heed to what tradition or society demanded. And that was not easy, Arnav. I was constantly battling with my heart and my mind. I needed time and you gave me it. I realized that nothing is more beautiful and sacred than love, especially the type of rare and selfless love that we share. In these past weeks, I've done everything for you. For your happiness. Nothing else matters to me. I thought you understand that. Understood how deeply I love you..." She blinked through tears at her husband. "But to love means to trust. And you didn't trust me..."
"Khushi, I--"
"Please," she whispered, closing her eyes. "Please, leave me now. I want to be alone."
He recoiled from her as if she'd struck him again. And then his expression grew stoic and unreadable once more. "Fine. I'll give you some time alone tonight, but this conversation is not over, love. Not by any means."
The door slammed then and Khushi listened to the clanks of his boots stomping away, the sound growing muffled until it was suddenly gone and she was alone. Hopelessly alone. She sagged down, her back to the wall, her arms wrapped around her bent knees.
As much as she tried not to, her thoughts kept shifting more to her husband's silence than his words. He hadn't apologized for keeping her in the dark, for not trusting her. There had been no remorse in his eyes, just a wild need for her to understand him.
Was she foolish to expect him to apologize? He was after all the Dark Prince. It was practically unheard of for a husband to apologize to his wife in this day and age.
But still... she'd been hopeful. Because she'd thought they were different from other married couples. She'd thought their love made them different. She'd regarded their love as something rare and precious, as perfect as a desert rose.
But it seemed everything carried some flaws. Her own words echoed back to her: "To love means to trust."
And there it was. The crux of the matter. A sob threatened to escape and she burrowed her face against her forearms as her body quivered and shook in the darkness.
*****
It was with a wretched grunt of pain that Arnav landed square on his back, his muscles protesting against the force of the fall. The sun shone down on him, reminding him with its familiar glare that the night had come and gone and he'd yet to hear from his wife. His Khushi... Despite every last ache, he stood again, dusting the sand from his face as he turned toward his opponent.
Raj hesitated and Arnav glared at him. "Damn you, attack!"
His friend shifted on his feet, but didn't move forward. "I can't," he cried after a long pause. "What kind of exercise is this? You're not even defending yourself."
Arnav brushed the blood away from his cut bottom lip. "For the thousandth time, I'm fine. Start again."
Sia jumped up from the sidelines. "Stop it, ASR. I'm in agreement with Raj. What kind of game is this?"
"It's no game. I'm training to see how much I can endure." His gaze narrowed on Sia, falling to her waist, where the slightest of bumps was visible. "And you shouldn't be out here on the training grounds to begin with. It's not safe for you or the c-child."
For some strange reason, he had difficulty saying the last word. Why, he wondered? Was it because it had been his and Khushi's most cherished dream for so long now? Or because that dream felt completely out of his reach now?
His wife's tear-glazed gaze flashed in his mind's eye and he felt as if invisible hands were tearing his heart apart, bit by painful bit. Her every tear had been his fault.
He'd not just made a blunder by failing to tell her about N.K., but lost all control last night. She'd turned from him as if he'd strike her. Him! She'd feared him in that moment and he'd never loathed himself more. To see the woman he loved beyond all reason and sense stand before him bravely, her face turned aside as she expected him to physically attack her, was enough to destroy him.
His hands had only ever stroked her smooth flesh, caressed her skin, loved and protected her. How had she for a moment assumed otherwise? 
He would have been angry with her for assuming such a thing for even a second, but he was too consumed by the memory of her tears, by her trembling voice and accusations to focus on anything else. She'd put up with his fury, his lies, and though he wished it were not so, his betrayal.
Khushi was truly an angel, and he... he was her wretched husband who had brought tears to her eyes and pain in her heart. He deserved to be punished and with far more force than the few throws Raj had aimed his way thus far.
"I said attack me, Raj."
"No!" his brother, Taj said on his behalf, stepping between them. "ASR, you've endured more than enough by anyone's estimate."
"Exactly," Imran nodded. "This has been going on for far too long as it is."
"I can't do this anymore," Raj mumbled, frowning down at his blood-covered hands.
"You can," Arnav insisted.
"Stop this," Aman began in a soothing voice. "We can discuss this--"
"I ORDER YOU TO ATTACK ME!" Arnav bellowed. Seeing the mutiny in Raj's gaze, he added in a hard voice, "I ask not as your friend, but as your king. Attack me! Now!"
Aman and Taj who'd looked ready to argue, fell silent. Imran and Sia appeared stunned and Raj looked nothing short of shaken.
"Please," Arnav softened his words. "I can't stand h-her being in pain when I'm the one of who deserves it. I promise you it hurts far more when you don't strike me. Go on, Raj. Hit me."
The fist came from his right, striking his side. He did nothing to stop it, foregoing the defense tactics he'd once taught Khushi, and accepting the blow with no fight.
As he fell on the sun-warmed sands some time later, his sweat and blood mixing with the grains, all he could think about was the woman so close to him and yet so frustratingly far. The woman he'd fought for and won. He recalled vividly the night he'd placed his blood on her parting, sealing them in the bonds of marriage in the most raw, basic manner. The British soldiers had been surrounding them and it had been the only escape, the only way out. But the truth was he'd been waiting for just such an opportunity, and then it happened, as if the fates had deemed their love worthy. He'd made her his that night. His wife. That victory felt hollow now without her beside him.
"Khushi..." he whispered brokenly.
"Arnav..." He could have sworn he heard her sweet, lilting voice in the light wind that curled about him, but it was gone the very next moment and he was alone. Alone except for the agony that bit his heart and body, tormenting him far worse than any physical blow.
*****
He insisted he walk unassisted back to the holding. Aman, Taj and Imran followed directly behind him, ready to catch his bruised and battered body should he fall. They were patient and silent, never saying a word as he struggled over the dunes, his gait unsteady and stumbling.
Behind them trailed Sia, gripping her husband in shaking arms. Raj had always been a physical man, a bit crude and coarse in his ways. He'd never imagined it possible to emerge the victor from a fight and feel the type of remorse and grief consuming him now.
But today, he'd understood. Understood how you could come out of a fight without a scratch on your skin and leave with more scars on your soul than felt right to carry.
His eyes drifted to the man who had not just his friendship but his loyalty until death itself. Something uncomfortably clogged his throat as he surveyed the damage he himself had inflicted.
ASR's broad shoulders were bleeding, the skin mangled and raw appearing. His body was a tapestry of bruises, painful remnants of their one-sided fight.
"ASR..." Taj whispered as they entered the Khans' home, ignoring the gasps of the others. "Khushi will be beyond livid when she sees you. I promise you that this is not what she'd ever have wanted."
"I'll face her fury." He shouldered past his friend.
As he opened the room where he'd left Khushi to think and ponder alone, he found it nearly pitch black, the curtains drawn over the single window.
"Khushi?"
There was silence, a drumming, powerful silence that slashed into him and made his heart seize with panic. His aching body proved no hindrance as he hurried to the corner table, his fingers struggling with the matchsticks.
As the lantern bloomed to life, he turned around, hoping to find her. Hoping to see her jump up and scold him for his foolishness, to shout at him, to perhaps nurse his wounds, but he hadn't expected this. This deafening silence and emptiness.
Her things were just as she'd kept them in the cupboard, but her shoes were missing and so was she.
His cry was anima-like, wild and uncontrollable. "KHUSHI!"
Footsteps ran to him, but he knew the sound of his wife's footsteps, knew the chime of her anklets by heart.
He raked a hand through his hair as he stared at the bare room, willing it to be all a lie. She couldn't be gone. She'd couldn't have possibly left him. She'd promised to never leave him!
"ASR?" Taj came to his side. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Saying her name hurt. "K-khushi... She's not...not here."
"What do you mean she's not here?" Raj entered the room, looking baffled. "She has to be here somewhere. She's probably with Zara or the other girls."
"She's not!" Arnav cut in sharply. "I know her. I really hurt her this time. She said to love...means to trust... She thinks I don't love her truly."
Imran had heard enough from the doorway and as Zara neared with a tray of tea in her hands, he pulled her against him, his gaze piercing her with its fire.
"Where is Khushi?"
The porcelain cups shattered on the floor between them. Zara pushed out of his hold. "What do you mean? She was in her room resting last time I checked."
"You don't know anything?"
She shook her head, confused, and he looked at her with quiet apology. "I-I'm sorry then. I thought you might know of her whereabouts."
Zara looked at him, startled. "She's not here? But then where is she?"
It was Aman who answered, entering the dark bedroom, his face paler than normal. "I can't find Maya either. She's nowhere to be found."
"Do you think someone's taken them while we were gone?" Arnav struggled to make sense of it.
But his friend's next words halted his very heartbeat. "Maya's horse and wagon are gone as well. I checked the stables just now. There were two sets of footprints on the sands there, hers and what I bet are Khushi's. There was no evidence of struggle."
"She left me w-willingly?" Arnav had difficulty voicing his worst fears. "Where the hell could they have gone?"
"Every route from here to the North Reaches is covered by our men," Imran pointed out. "They couldn't have gone that way."
"Then where?" Raj asked.
Arnav halted in his pacing as it hit him. Of course... His eyes were hard and cold as he turned to the others. "I know where they must be heading. And I know how to get there first." Donning his cloak, he was out the door before the others could even begin to grapple his meaning.
*****
Khushi leaned her head against the side of Maya's colorfully painted wagon, her toes skimming the top of the warm sands.
Maya sat cross-legged beside her, her gaze veering to the sweeping scenery facing them and back again several times. Suddenly, she exhaled forcefully. "I've never been this quiet for this long in my entire life."
Khushi looked up guiltily. "I'm sorry. I first forced you to take me out here and now I'm being terrible company on top of it."
"Oh don't feel bad, I'm just congratulating myself. I never thought I could keep silent for so long. You can take all the time you want, Dark Princess." Her eyes shifted to the setting sun. "Well, not too long. ASR will grow worried if we do not return back soon."
"A few more minutes please. It's so peaceful out here."
"Now that I agree with." Maya smiled at her. "Are you sure you don't want to talk about it? Trust me, I have experience with stubborn men."
Khushi managed a weak smile. "It's not about his stubbornness but his lack of trust and faith in me. I thought we were long past the emerald ring. I thought he knew how very much I love him, but he didn't trust me or my love enough to reveal the truth. What did he expect? That I'd leave him and go to his cousin?" She felt sickened by the thought alone.
"But it is ASR, Khushi. With the rest of the world, he is the Dark Prince, always confident and controlled, but with you his vulnerabilities come out, his insecurities. He goes from king to a common man. And like any commoner, he fears losing what he loves most." Her cat-like eyes flashed at her. "You."
"I don't wish for him to ever feel that way. He can never lose me. How can he imagine for a minute I could go on living much less breathing without him?"
"I don't know, but when you've lost so much already like ASR has, it makes sense to safeguard such a love. I've never seen two people more attuned to one another. You speak through your silences. You understand one another in ways few can. Why, the very air seems charged to me when you two draw near. Have you not noticed how restless he is when you're not around and then the moment you enter, his entire focus turns to you and his eyes light up. And the most wonderful part is, you have the exact same reaction. Even now, when we're so close to him but not close enough, you're fidgeting with your hands and your eyes are searching the sands, hoping against hope that he'll emerge from the dunes and come to you."
Khushi hadn't realized she had been doing exactly that, wishing he'd find her, drag her into his arms and ravish her with his tender kisses. Her heart ached to be with him. Her body throbbed with the restlessness Maya had hinted toward.
"Everything was so perfect days ago when we were at the oasis," she murmured, lost in those blissful memories. "And then his homecoming... I'd been praying for his safe return, I'd been dreaming of being with him again. I had so much to tell him, so much I wanted to hear from him in turn but then...everything shattered. I just wish he would have trusted me. I thought he did."
"Hush," her friend whispered, squeezing her hand. "You need to tell him all of this. You both need to just speak to one another and all will be well. The love you two share is enough to weather any storm."
"Is that based on a vision you see?"
"No," Maya giggled. "It's based entirely on my heart. ASR and Khushi are meant to be, it says."
Her husband's words echoed in her ears. "From the moment I saw you, I wanted you. I didn't understand it myself, but slowly I accepted it. I couldn't keep away from you and neither could you. It was like our hearts recognized one another. As if we were meant to be..."
She brushed her tears aside. "We should head back, Maya. You're right, I have a lot to discuss with my husband."
"Finally! I can't say I haven't been missing your husband's best friend terribly."
Khushi smiled, but that smile quickly faded as they approached the Khan's home.
"KHUSHI!" 
Zara ran across the courtyard, breathing hard. "Where were you? Is Maya with you?"
"She's in the stables, putting the wagon away. What's wrong?"
Instead of Zara, it was Maya who answered, racing to the pair, her bright orange skirts raised to her ankles as she ran. "They're gone! The horses all gone from the stables!"
"What?" Khushi couldn't make sense of it.
Maya nodded. "Not one remains. But who would steal from us? Could it have been the British? Or perhaps robbers?"
Khushi was weighing the same options when Zara raised her voice. "It was not the British! ASR, Imran, Raj, Taj, and Aman left hours ago."
"Left?" Khushi echoed in a hollow voice. "Where? Why?"
Zara pulled on her hand, leading her into the dunes behind the house. "This morning, ASR went out to the training grounds," she pointed.
Khushi felt her stomach turn and her heartbeat falter as she glimpsed the blood criss-crossing the sands. So much blood... No...
"It's ASR's blood," Zara confirmed in a soft, hesitant voice. "He made--ordered--Raj to attack him and refused to defend himself. He was barely able to stand when he finally called a halt to it."
"What?" Khushi cried, her eyes wide and panic filled. "Why would he do such a thing?"
"He said he'd hurt you unintentionally and he couldn't bear to watch while you suffered. He thought the pain would connect you to him in some strange way."
"That's...that's completely insane! And you all let him get away it?"
"We argued, but we had no choice. He is the rightful Maharaja after all. We knew if Raj refused, he'd have hired other men to injure himself and it would have ended far worse."
Khushi gripped Zara's hand. "Where is he? I need to see him! Where is my husband?"
Her friend glanced away. "When he came back and found you gone...he assumed the worst."
"He thought I'd left him," Khushi whispered, shaking as the truth of it dawned on her.
Zara nodded. "Please don't blame him, Khushi. We all thought you and Maya had left."
"HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER!" she cried. "I promised him--I vowed to him--that I would never leave him. And it isn't just about that promise, Arnav knows my heart, he should know I can never even think of going away from him."
"Perhaps...but the circumstances were such that we all believed you'd gone willingly away from him."
Khushi struggled to remain still. "Where did he go? The North Reaches?"
"No, those routes are all manned. He said there was only one other place you could have gone. Only one place you had ever called home..."
Her eyes fluttered close as she realized where her husband had to have gone. "Lucknow..."
Zara nodded miserably.
"Which way did they head?" Maya cut in. "Perhaps we can still reach them or get word to them that this is all nothing more than a misunderstanding. Khushi and I were always here. We never left the village borders."
"There's no way to reach them. You see they aren't traveling by horse the entire way, just to the nearest town. ASR said they'll take the train from there."
Khushi felt her legs give way and she found herself kneeling on the sands, her chest heaving.
Sia's hand settled on her shoulder with gentleness. "It's only a matter of a few days. ASR will realize you're not in Lucknow and make his way back here. If you go after them now, you'll both most likely miss each other."
"We'll try to send word through my brother's business acquaintances in Lucknow. Don't worry, Khushi," reassured Zara. "Everything will be okay in the end."
Khushi couldn't answer, tears rolling down her cheeks as she stared at the bloody sands. How could she explain to them how much she needed Arnav? How much she needed to speak to him?
She knew better than anyone how dangerous it was for him to travel to Lucknow and back. He had a bounty on his head and more enemies than she dared to count. What if something happened? What is she never saw him again?
She willed the frightful thought away, breathing hard. No, she would see him again. Would feel his arms around her and his mouth on hers, coaxing her with sinful teases and caresses to open up for him.
She would feel all that and more, she vowed. And then once they'd grown exhausted from their lovemaking, she'd tell him the news she'd been waiting to tell him for the past few days in almost giddy anticipation. The news of their dearest wish coming true. A dream they'd shared together for so long now.
Because as Khushi pressing her palm to the largest puddle of spilled blood on the sands and smeared it across her parting, she knew without a doubt that it was true. Undeniably true.
She was with child.
Oh, Arnav... Where are you, love?
To be continued...
Okay, this chapter was a bit shorter than my usual ones but I felt like this was the perfect place to stop. You might be wondering why the detour to Lucknow...well we are steadily reaching the end of this journey and before that we have to deal with a certain viper-tongued aunt, remember her?
Desert Heat by TINA! Chapter 31: North Reaches

2 comments:

  1. Hey dear..
    take ur own time bt do continue soon.!
    waiting.<3
    if- Uttara.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Tina... don't stress... take time but do update! Don't leave us!

    LOVE
    KBS

    ReplyDelete

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