Beyond words

When eyes and souls connect

Chapter 42: Will you marry me?

arnavkhushidance

Khushi woke up mumbling Arnav’s name and opening her eyes realized she was home and Payal was asleep next to her. She had a goofy smile plastered on her face as she made her way to the bathroom.

“Payaliya” cajoled Buaji as she woke the sleeping bride to be. “It is your Mehndi and Sangeet today bitiya. Wake up”.

Payal woke, thoughts of Akash ji still fresh in her mind. She smiled and hugged Buaji.

The morning bustled with activity as Lehengas and accessories were set out. Lavanya arrived bright and early to help with make up. Shashi watched his daughters get ready with happiness. Everything was as it should be.

Khushi fingered the silky material of her Jiji’s skirt. She would miss all the rituals. A pang went through her heart. A voice piped up in her head.

“You don’t really have to miss it you know? Participate in your sister’s rituals as your own. Nobody is the wiser.”

She grinned as she hugged her secret to herself. Worry niggled at the back of her brain. It was one thing to promise Arnav ji to get married secretly. How would her parents and Nani and Di react. They would be heartbroken.

Khushi see-sawed between extremes. She would write a long note explaining why she was doing what she was doing. Surely they would understand?

Payal watched her sister with amusement. The usually klutzy girl was even worse today.

“Khushi, look at your face. You look like a ghost. Enough of the powder.”

Khushi looked at herself in horror and shrieked as she ran to wash it all away.

Laughing and teasing the family got ready to leave for the Raizadas where the ceremony was to be held.

The Raizadas waited for the Gupta family with equal enthusiasm. Akash looked splendid in his cream kurta and Arnav stuck to his usual suit. Anjali had opted to wear silk as did Mami. NK had outdone himself in a blue sherwani.

Nani looked at the joy and happiness in their faces and she hoped Anjali would love again. Anjali held Anya’s hand as she posed for pictures. NK had taken over Anjali’s camera and was going to town taking pictures.

Aman had kept his word dropping Anya off and having a word with Anjali about her food and other needs. Anjali found her heart skip a beat at the sight of him with Anya. The love for his child set him apart in her mind. Very few men she had seen made such dedicated fathers.

Arnav looked impatiently at his watch. What was taking them so long?

The door opened to the Gupta family and Anjali took aarthi before they stepped in. Payal looked lovely in her saree and Khushi stunned in her yellow lehenga.

Arnav felt his breath catch at the sight of her. Her eyes searched for him and they met across the hallway. Sparks flew and everyone around them felt the tension in the air. Coughing rather loudly, Anjali lead Payal to the room they had decorated for Mehendi and Nani shooed the men away.

The ladies looked at the books and picked out patterns. When Payal’s was almost done, the lady applying the pattern asked her what letter she wanted in her hand. Payal blushed as she said “A.. Akash ji”.

Di’s heart swelled with happiness at seeing how beautiful Payal looked as she said Akash’s name. Khushi debated how to get Arnav’s name on hers without drawing attention. As if on cue, even as the lady asked her what letter to write on her hand, her cell phone buzzed.

“Arnav ji?” she said aloud as she saw the number.

Using her free hand to pick up the call, she said hello.

“Meet me by the poolside when you are done.” said a cryptic Arnav.

Switching the phone off, she looked at her hand and saw a neat “A” in cursive at the center of her pattern. Devi Maiyya had willed it. She was sure.

A smile broke out on her face as she hugged her secret even more tightly to herself. When her hands were done, she slipped out to the poolside and saw no one. She sat down looking at her reflection in the pool when she spied another join her. Looking up, she saw Arnav ji looking at her with so much love that she felt flustered.

He helped her up and asked to see her hands. She hid her hands behind her back teasing him that he was not to see it before they got married. He smirked and whispered rather loudly in her ear.

“After Payal’s wedding. Remember.”

Her heart thudded as she realized what she had signed up to doing. The smile gave way to a serious look and she looked up at Arnav ji’s face. He seemed serious.

Even as she made to walk away from the pool Arnav grabbed her to place a kiss on her cheeks before he let her go. He couldn’t wait for the evening.

Khushi walked away feeling flustered and upset. What was he thinking? What if anyone had seen? Why did he not understand how she felt about getting married in secret. She had given her word and she would keep it. The joy of the morning was evaporating and in its place a dread and unease seized her. She looked at her mehendi to reassure her that it was meant to be.

Anjali watched as Khushi walked back indoors. She looked upset.

“Khushi ji, Are you OK? You look upset.”

Khushi looked up at Di concern writ large on her face.

“Am OK Di. I just realized Payal will soon be leaving our home.”

Anjali smiled knowing it was only a matter of time before Khushi would be a bahu in their home too.

“Show me your mehendi” she said hoping to take Khushi’s mind off whatever was bothering her.

Khushi had not counted on anyone asking to see her mehendi. She fidgeted. Anjali took her hands in hers.

“A??”

“Khushi ji. You have “A” in your hand.” she exclaimed.

Khushi looked nervous and tried to explain how it had happened and that it was a mistake. Arnav stood by the stairs enjoying her discomfiture and winking at her when she turned to him for support.

“That’s OK Khushi ji, am sure it was a mistake. Who knows? perhaps your husband to be’s name starts with an “A”” she teased.

Khushi blushed and wished she could disappear.

The rituals of the morning gave way to family time at the tea-table. NK and Lavanya exchanged looks and jibes. Nani was sure Lavanya was well on her way to being a bahu even if not as Chottey’s bride. Life was good!

Washing off the Mehendi, the women changed into their evening wear and got ready for the Sangeet.  Arnav had arranged for performers from outside as their original plan of getting things choreographed had been nixed by Dadi’s untimely demise.

The music started and everyone got up to join in and shake a leg. Khushi was determined to have a good time and pushed thoughts of her elopement to the back of her mind. She decided if the next few days were the last time her family would be nice to her, she would make the most of it.

Arnav watched his girl give in to the music and twirl. He had eyes for no one. Di came to stand next to him and watched his face transfixed. Her chottey was besotted. She felt tears prick her eyes.

Aman had arrived to pick Anya up before her bedtime and thanked Anjali for being so good to his daughter. Anya hugged Anjali and kissed her without being asked to. Anjali felt sad as she watched the little girl go. She had started feeling attached to her. Nani watched Anjali follow Aman and Anya with her eyes and made a mental note to find out more about them.

Lavanya and NK grooved to the music till it felt like there was no one on the dance floor with them. Akash and Payal retired to a semi private corner to spend time before the haldi ceremony. They whispered sweet nothings to each other and quite forgot the rest of the world around them.

The lights dimmed and everyone looked at the makeshift stage as the dancers took their place. The next hour sped past listening and dancing along to popular numbers. Khushi danced so much that she felt her legs would fall off if she did not sit. She found a seat by the dais and watched her Jiji and Akash ji dance lost in each other’s eyes. NK and Lavanya had found seats and were whispering to each other. She would have to talk to Lavanya. She belatedly remembered it would not just be her family and Arnav’s family that would disown her for what she was about to do. Lavanya would never forgive her either.

She felt a despondency settle on her. As if mirroring her mood, the lights dimmed again and a voice rang out from the stage.

“As we come to the end of the performance we have a special dance. This one is dedicated to the sister of the bride Khushi ji.”

Whistles and hoots sounded with the announcement as she looked up. Her eyes popped out at what she saw. Her mouth made an O and she half rose in amazement.

Arnav stood on the dais with a bunch of dancers singing along and mouthing the words “Mujse Shaadi Karoge?” His eyes were fixed on Khushi as he danced.

Khushi looked disbelievingly as he danced with gay abandon. For him to pull a Salman Khan number on her was so not him. She rubbed her eyes as she watched and as the music slowed, he bent down on one knee and indicated for her to join him on stage.

Arnav realized what had happened was still sinking in so he got of the stage and pulled Khushi with him. Onstage, in the presence of both their families, he went down on one knee and in a clear, steady voice asked for all to hear.

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“Khushi, will you marry me?”

Khushi felt as if she would burst. Her eyes shone and she nodded and with fierce burst of love said “Yes Arnav ji” as she lip synced

“Haan. Thujse Shaadi Karoongi.”

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Chapter 33: Laad Governor or Rajkumar?

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Khushi looked at the bundle on her lap. They really were sample invites. Did he really come to drop the invitations? Shaking her head she focused on them and picked out a couple she liked. She then picked her phone to follow-up with the girls who worked for her on how the day went and if they were able to manage without her.

Payal returned looking happy and flushed. Her eyes were bright. Khushi’s heart overflowed. Love did suit her Jiji. Akash Jijaji was fast becoming her favorite person. Another two weeks to Mehndi and Sangeet and then the wedding. She realized with a pang that her Jiji would be moving to the Raizada Mansion. Well! At least she would be in Delhi.

As if Payal heard what Khushi was thinking, she pulled her to the porch outside. She was bursting to share the news with someone.

“Khushi. Guess what was the surprise?”

“What Jiji? Tell me na?”

“We.. I mean Akash ji and I after the wedding will be moving to Lucknow for a few months.”

Payal paused for what she said to sink in. Her eyes shone.

“Few months Jiji?”

“Yes. Arnav ji told Akash ji that he needed him to relocate to Lucknow for about 6 months to handle some business they are setting up there.”

Payal lowered her voice.

“Akash ji thinks it is because Arnav ji thinks we need the time away from sasuma after the wedding,”

She grinned as if she was privy to some inside joke amongst the Raizadas.

Khushi gave her sister a big hug and squeezed her tight. Her Jiji deserved all the happiness she was being showered with.

Payal bounced back into the home to find Bua with a surprised look on her face looking at what looked like a check register. Her forehead had furrows in it from thinking so hard.

“Payaliya, come look at these numbers for me. Why does my account have more balance than it usually does?”

Payal sat next to her Bua and crunched the numbers for her. She added up the numbers and looked at the past month to compare debits.

“There it is Bua ji. Your rental check has not been cashed yet. That is why you have a higher balance.”

Bua sat lost in thought. The check should have cleared by now. She would have to follow-up with the landlord.

“Hai Re Nandakishore. With all the work relating to the wedding, I now have to follow this one up as well” she said as she rose to go in the kitchen.

Khushi who had come in as well, grabbed the check register and concurred with what Payal said.

“Buaji. Am feeling good enough to go out. I will look into this for you tomorrow morning” she said as she pocketed the check book and the passbook from the table.

She was hungry and peeked into the kitchen to see what Bua had for dinner. Her eyes fell on the teacups on the counter and the memory of Arnav ji assailed her.

“Who was he? The laad governor who enjoys having the last word, reminds her of her aukat and pushes her away or her rajkumar who rescues her from burning buildings, bashes goons who dare lay a finger on her, says sorry without hesitation and brazenly presses her fingers to his lips?”

“What did she feel for him?”

Khushi smiled absently at her naivete in the years before when she mistook her attraction for him as acidity. She now knew that she was attracted to him. She definitely liked him. A lot. Love? Did she love him?

She felt color rising up her cheeks at the thought and decided she had enough of playing the demure damsel. It was time to up the ante. Two can play this game.

Cheering up, she let go of her fingers she had been staring at and looked up. Bua and Payal sat transfixed watching her.

“Sanka Devi! What were you thinking of? Your cheeks are so red. Are you OK?”

“Should we call Arnav ji?” Payal teased. “He always seems to be there when you fall, when you decide to walk into speeding cars.”

“Jiji! You too??”

With that the Gupta sisters attacked their food with gusto.

Lavanya entered the home, her face radiant.

“I had such a good evening” she declared. Payal and Khushi looked up and at her expectantly.

“Well! NK had asked me to show him around Delhi and we had a good time driving and walking around the main spots.”

Payal and Khushi looked at each other and said in unison.

“NK? Good time huh? Just walking and talking Lavanya?”

Lavanya looked at them and added hurriedly.

“We are just good friends now. He is cute though.”

Khushi felt happy for her friend. She had been through much the past couple of years and NK would be good for her. He was goofy and knew how to make her laugh.

“Did you have dinner or are you joining in?”

Lavanya waved her hand breezily and disappeared into Khushi’s room.

Arnav sat at dinner table playing with his food. Nani and Anjali looked at each other meaningfully.

“Chottey, Are you OK? You seem to have lost interest in food these days? You are going to temples. You actually volunteered to take the invitation samples to Payal ji’s home. Sab teek hai?”

Anjali reached to touch her brother’s forehead in mock concern. Nani smiled coyly and Mami looked at everyone with suspicion. What was happening without her knowledge. She would have to find out. Akash and Mama dug into their food without any hesitation.

Arnav pushed Di’s hand and scowled. He ate hurriedly and left without a word. Reaching his room, he let the mask down and a smile played on his lips. He relived the evening and the look of surprise on Khushi’s face as he walked away dropping the invites in her lap. Something about being with Khushi brought the child out in him. He loved sparring with her and having the last word.

She had looked lovely in her night suit he thought distractedly. What would he give to be able to kiss her. He recoiled with horror at the direction his thoughts were taking him. Mehndi and Sangeet were a couple of weeks away. How was he going to contrive it such that they could meet often?

He smiled as the answer dawned on him. All he had to do was let Di know casually and his work would be done. He went to bed a satisfied man.

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Chapter 25: Lonely in a crowd

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Raizada Mansion had outdone itself this time when it came to preparations. Workers scurried everywhere clearing, trimming, mowing, hanging lights, stringing flowers and sprucing up the place for the impending celebrations.

Nani ji sat content at the center giving directions and guiding the event. Anjali wished she could make copies of herself one for the kitchen, one for the outdoors and one for the puja related detailing. Mami sat moping in her room rueing the loss of her position as the bahurani in chief. Realizing belatedly that whether she liked it or not, she had to be at the forefront and that videos and pictures will be taken, she focused her attention on getting ready. It wouldn’t do to be seen with bags under her eyes would it?

Akash put finishing touches on a gift he had bought for his fiancée. A set of payals for his Payal. He knew she hated ostentation and he had been careful not to splurge on it. He had a lifetime ahead of him to do that.

Arnav barked orders to Aman on the phone.

“No, he couldn’t be at the office today. Yes! please reschedule the meetings to next week.”

“And Aman, I expect you to be here at home for the evening celebration. Bring your daughter with you. And yes, that is an order.”

A smile nudged the corners of his mouth. For all his bark, Arnav had a soft corner for Aman. His man Friday.

Work was taken care of. There was just this problem of the little note that stayed in his pocket burning a hole with its presence. The year that had gone past had Di at its center. Khushi remained on the outer edges rarely disturbing his conscious.  This past week had been tumultuous. It had dredged up memories he had suppressed for a whole year. It brought with it remorse and an overwhelming sense of regret. He looked forward to the evening with a mix of apprehension and excitement.

He felt like an animal on a hunt, his senses heightened and the thrill of the kill pumping adrenalin through his body. Except his prey knew he was lurking and was armed.

He dressed to kill.

His phone buzzed and he looked at it with irritation. Picking it out of habit, his eyes widened when he saw the message.

“Nannav mere bhai. Am at the airport. Is anyone coming? Do I take a taxi? – NK”

In all the excitement surrounding the sudden festivities he had totally forgotten that Akash’s cousin was flying in from Sydney that afternoon. He slapped his forehead and texted back.

“Take a taxi. Will explain when you get home. Ask for Raizada Mansion. Most taxi drivers will know. If not, call me.”

He ran down the stairs to apprise Di and Akash of NK’s arrival and stood mesmerized at the sight of the Gupta family at the door.

Di, Nani and Mami stood with the aarti plate and they were calling out to him. Walking downstairs he was aware of a pair of eyes following him.

Folding his hands in a polite namaste, he joined the rest of the family in welcoming the bridal party and acted the perfect host.

His eyes strayed to the vision in cream and pink next to the bride. Her dark locks framing her porcelain face. A small stone studded clasp pinning the hair away from her ear. The barest of eyeliner highlighting those charcoal eyes. A smile seemed to permanently dance on her face. She stole looks at him when she thought he was not looking.

Feeling a tiny prick of excitement, he dug out a small box from his pocket and discreetly dropped it into her bag that she had left by the side of the dais  He stood by Nani and watched as Di held out the ring for Akash to put on his fiancée’s finger.

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Akash eyes shone with happiness as he slipped the ring on Payal’s finger gently. Khushi held out the ring for Payal to slide on Akash’s finger. Payal looked up demure and happy. Her fingers trembled a little as she held Akash’s hand and slid the ring on. They turned towards everyone and walked off the dais to take blessings. Only Khushi noticed Akash slip his hand into Payal’s reassuring her that he was there to support and hold her hand. For life.

As the music began signalling the start of the festivities, the door opened and a handsome young man strode in. A collective gasp went around the room.

“NK Bhai!”

The entire clan rushed to the door and greeted the newcomer with such enthusiasm that the Gupta family looked on in surprise. Struggling to breathe from the onslaught of hugs, the said NK extricated himself and introduced himself.

NK

“Nandkishore. You can call me NK.”

Payal shyly extended a hand as Akash explained that NK was his cousin. He went around the group and his hand lingered on Khushi’s. Arnav burned. He made it a point to rush NK away from her and to his room.

When Arnav came back, the music was on and every one seemed to be having a good time. His eyes scanned the room for Khushi and found her talking to one of their guests for the evening. Wondering how she knew him, he made his way to the small group at the back. Waiting for a lull in the conversation, he stuck his hand out.

“Welcome Mr. Mehta. I am are glad you could make it to Akash’s engagement. Meet Khushi, sister of the bride.”

Mr. Mehta took the proffered hand and shook it vigorously before proclaiming “I know Khushi. She supplies food to our canteen. In fact, I believe she does business with most of us who are here today. Excellent partner to work with.” he beamed.

Arnav’s eyes narrowed. “In that case, I will leave you folks to catch up.” He strode out of the room in a huff.

Walking to the poolside as he did when he needed to let off steam. He took a couple of deep breaths and stared at his reflection in the pool. She has a life. She had one before she came into yours, a voice whispered in his head.

She was a business woman now? What else did he not know about her? Why did he feel she was his? Why did he burn so when NK held her hand? The questions seemed relentless. Pushing himself to get back to function, he walked in to see her dancing with abandon.

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She was a free spirit. The joy on her face roused something protective in him. What he would he not do to make sure she remained that way all her life? He leaned against the pillar and took in the celebrations feeling like an outsider, his eyes only for Khushi.

Aman walked in with his daughter. A little girl of about 5 years. He looked around to find Arnav at the back watching the group with a wistful look on his face. He had worked for Arnav over ten years now. The ten years had been good to him. When his wife died following complications from her C-Section, Arnav had provided silent support providing him time off and arranging for a wet nurse for the baby. A man of few words, he had been a godfather of sorts to his little Anya.

Arnav felt a little hand slide in his. Looking down, his face lit up at the sight of his goddaughter. He lifted her high and gave her a kiss on her forehead before setting her down. He guided Aman to the refreshments and asked him to help himself. He felt a tug at his elbow and found Di looking with curiosity at Anya. Introductions done, he was happy to see Di take Anya under her wing and show her around.

Soon Aman was introduced around the crowd as the man who was heard but never seen. Laughter bubbled to the ceiling and the night fell on a happy crowd. Arnav ached to be alone. Crowds made him feel lonelier.

Slipping away to his favorite spot he found someone standing there much to his annoyance. He was about to turn away when she turned and his heart stilled.

She was looking at the sky. Her eyes searched for the two stars she claimed as her own. She sat down by the pool looking reflective. Her eyes seemed to be brimming with tears. A quiet voice said “I feel lonely Amma. Even in a crowd.”

His heart went to her and he turned and went inside.

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Chapter 24: Friendship

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Khushi woke early. She had to meet Shukla ji to let him know she would not be hands on for the next couple of months. She had reached out to other vendors to ask if they could fill in for her. She felt happy with the way her business was shaping up. She enjoyed the goodwill that came with being flexible and willing to work with others. When it came time to use her cards, she did it wisely and without coming across as a bully.

Payal sat at the table tallying her accounts and making copious notes for the woman who would be taking over from her for the next few weeks. She knew she could not be hands off the entire time but she did want Sarita to feel comfortable dealing with everyone. She needed to run to the bank and then she would have time to relax before getting ready for the evening.

Amma, Babuji and Bua sat at the table making lists and estimating what the wedding would cost. Shashi looked at his daughters with pride. In the one year that they had started the catering business, they had saved quite a bit. His girls had grown up and looked ready to take on the big bad world. His face darkened at the thought of that slime ball who had threatened rob his Khushi of her innocence. It was good that he was behind bars. He felt the rage building up inside him subside at the sight of Khushi bouncing into the room.

Garima looked at her daughter and smiled as she said.

“Be back soon. We have tons of work to do.”

“Bitiya, before I forget, your friend Lavanya had called. She seemed upset.”

A shadow fell across Khushi’s face. Lavanya and her fiance seemed to be fighting a lot these days. She wondered what was it this time. Was Lavanya marrying for love or did the break up with Arnav cause her to yes on the rebound to Anand? Well she would know soon enough.

Walking out of her meeting with Shukla ji, Khushi head straight to their favorite meeting spot, the cafe right outside AR Designs. There was so much she had to share with Lavanya.

Lavanya was already sitting by the window looking forlorn. Her eyes looked puffy and red like she had been crying. Khushi felt a stab of fear. Was she alright?

“Lavanya! Are you OK? Did you fight again with Anand?”

Lavanya looked at her and got up to collapse into sobs again. Khushi looked around. She needed to get Lavanya out of there. Far too many AR employees were filing in. Quickly dragging her and picking up her bag, Khushi hailed an auto and directed him to her favorite temple. Lavanya held Khushi’s hand as she sobbed.

“I could not take it any more. Anand was starting to physically abuse me. Each time he slapped or bossed me around, I would fight and then make up because he would come back looking all repentant and plead with me. This time something broke in me. I had to get out. He left for a meeting in Bombay this morning and he will be back tonight. I am scared to go back Khushi.”

Khushi looked at her friend in horror. She knew they had fights but physical abuse?

Getting off at the temple, they made straight for the steps. Khushi knew she had to do something and do it quick. With the engagement in the evening they had little time. Thinking on her feet, she looked at Lavanya.

“You take an auto and go home Lavanya. Payal will be home. Tell my parents that you are sick and go into my room. I will be back in an hour. Give me your home key and your cell phone.”

Lavanya looked at Khushi with gratitude. This is exactly what she needed now. Someone to take charge and tell her what to do. Nodding her head, she gave her friend a tight hug and made her way to Devi Maiyya.

Khushi watched her friend take an auto and she took one.

An hour later, Khushi pushed open the door to her home and noticed the atmosphere was subdued. Her parents and Bua looked concerned about Lavanya. They had grown to like her as one of the family. Khushi made straight for her room and saw that Lavanya was sitting on the bed. The tears were gone but her eyes were still red. Payal fussed around her. Noticing Khushi come in, Payal left, closing the door behind her.

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“Lavanya, I brought some of your clothes in this suitcase. Also inside are anything of importance I could find. I left a note for Anand saying you were done with him and not to make an attempt to reach you. If he does, he will be sorry. I had the sim card changed on your phone. This gives us some time to figure out what to do next. You stay with us till we can find an apartment for you.”

“Come give me a hug. You will be alright and you were brave to leave when you did.”

The tears fell again. This time with gratitude and relief.

Khushi had Lavanya freshen up and help Payal with getting ready. She hoped it would take her mind off the morning and it did. Soon Lavanya was smiling and teasing Payal.

Khushi had hoped to talk to Lavanya about Arnav’s note. That would have to wait.

It was soon evening and everyone was ready to leave. Khushi felt misgivings at leaving Lavanya behind. They had cajoled and pleaded with her to come but she remained firm. She needed her space and the Raizada Mansion was the last place she needed to be in today.

Lavanya watched as the family left and closed the door behind her. She had hardly gone into Khushi’s room when a knock sounded. Peeking through the window warily she sighed with relief that it was only Khushi. She probably forgot something she thought as she opened the door.

Khushi slipped in, gave Lavanya a big hug and reminded her to lock the door and not let anyone in. I will be back before you know it.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

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Chapter 23: Realization

Arnav held the crumpled piece of paper in his hand. Making the first move in relationships had not been his style. He opened it to read “Jeth ji, friendship MEANS much to me. It has to be earned.”

Arnav felt a frisson of anger radiate through his being. “How dare she.. What did she think of herself?”. He read the note again noticing the capitalized “MEANS”. Was she telling him something. His mind went back to the last conversation they had after the Diwali night.

“For me you or whatever happened tonight MEAN nothing”

He sunk to the ground, his back against the bed frame. The images played in succession in his head. The hurt in her eyes as he backed away after leaning in to kiss her that Diwali night. The tear that escaped her eyes when he stood with Lavanya announcing they were to get married. The devastation on her face at her doorstep as he uttered those cruel words dismissing everything she had felt in one swoop.

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How had he even expected her to respond to his offer of friendship? She was right. He would have to earn her trust before her friendship let alone love.

“Love?”

Did he actually say that?

Khushi sat by the window sill. The full moon poured a silky light all over her room. Her hair was open. Her thoughts far away.

Arnav. Not Arnav ji. She had earned the right to be his equal. Hadn’t she? This time they would start out as equals.

“Can we start afresh? As friends.”

The note had been burned into her memory. What did he want from her? He had destroyed her that night hadn’t he? She knew as well as he did that what had happened was not an impulse. They had been drawn to each other as moths to the fire. Writing her reply had been difficult. She knew how hard it would have been for him to take the first step. Arnav Singh Raizada never asked for anything. He demanded and got away with it. If he wanted to her in his life in any capacity, he would have to earn that right this time.

She looked at the sky. The bright light of the moon had overshadowed the stars. She knew her parents were up there watching over her. She had to sleep.

Tomorrow Jiji would be engaged.

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Payal sat in the living room clutching the phone. Akash ji had called for the third time that evening. He was besotted. She had to give it to him. For all his mild manners, he was a wild horse at this romance thing. She half expected him to pop in to her room through the window next. Life was good.

Akash couldn’t believe himself. Tomorrow he was going to be engaged to the girl of his dreams. His Payal. The first time he had seen her at the market looking for dupattas, he had fallen hook, line and sinker. Growing up with a mom who believed in flaunting, he craved for the simplicity that Payal offered. He needed someone silent and strong. Someone who would stand with him. By his side. Not ahead. Not behind. A partner.

Anjali watched the moonlight filter in through the window. The drapes moved in the breeze sending shadows dancing on the walls. Tomorrow one of her brothers would be engaged. She sighed wistfully at the thought. When would she see Chottey’s eyes shine with happiness the way Akash’s did? Would she ever see him laugh. In the fourteen years since he had taken responsibility for their well-being, he had been a man on a mission. He hid behind his pain. His heart was shuttered in making them impregnable to hurt. He used cynicism as a shield and held a grudge against the fates for leaving him without a mother’s love to cocoon him. She had done her best but what he needed was a shore for his soul to moor itself. A sunny, calming presence that could heal away the hurt and apply balm to his troubled soul. An image of Khushi inveigled itself into her conscious. If there was one girl who fit the bill it was Khushi but Chottey seemed to always get off on the wrong foot with her.

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Devi Maiyya, please make Chottey see sense she whispered as exhaustion overcame her.

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