This chapter has a nod to many of my regular readers, but some of you I must specifically mention.
Ritu, Payal, Megs - you know the nods I give to you - my editors and my sanity check.
Farah (Omoraboti) - you have a hand in one thread in this chapter, and thank you for that - I didn’t ask you but I hope you won’t mind. You’ll know it when you read it!
Twisted Beenz - Honey, you’ve made me twist half the sacred scenes/dialogs from the show and the signature devices used. I’m becoming as twisted as you! Seat belts and ‘kha to nahin jaoonga!’
Two Week’s NoticeKhushi was worried. She worried her lower lip between her upper teeth and her upper lip between her lower teeth. She then looked up at Arnav’s cabin only to find the blinds drawn. Walking up the stairs, she worried the nails on her hand between her teeth, before she finally opened Arnav’s door and stepped in.
Arnav smelt the familiar perfume and knew Khushi was somewhere around. This scent was so evocative of her, so many notes, so many tones - just like her. That had been his first reaction when he’d smelt it the first time - it reminded him of the lemon, lime, vanilla scent that was all Khushi - and every single time since.
A flip of a remote and the blinds shut automatically. He looked up just as she peeked in through the door and smiled. He leaned back in his chair as she shut and locked the door before walking over to him.
He held out a hand and she put hers in it, raising her trusting eyes to his, as he towered over her.
‘I didn’t get my good morning kiss,’ his voice was low and sexy and sent shivers down her back. His lips came closer and she shut her eyes, anticipation thundering through her blood stream. Softly he touched his lips to hers, pulling her closer and running his palms up and down her back, slowly tugging on the zipper at the back, giving him access to more of her soft skin as he slid his tongue into her mouth.
He moved to her neck, nibbling it slowly, careful not to mark her, reining back the urge to throw her on the desk, rip off their clothes and make mad, passionate love to her. He’d no doubt in his mind that she would be a lioness in bed. The wait was making it all the more worth it, he thought. He pulled back at that thought, looking at her flushed face, eyes still closed, his thumb trailing down the sensitive cord just under her ear. She shuddered and blinked her eyes open slowly, lifting her heavy lids.
So much power, he thought. She had so much power over him, just one look like that and he was ready to go down on his knees in front of her. He kissed her palm and sat down with her on his lap.
‘I need a good morning kiss everyday, Khushi,’ he reminded her.
She smiled and nodded her head, playing with the buttons on his shirt, before leaning forward and pecking him on his lips.
He smirked. ‘You call that a kiss?’ he asked.
She nodded, a grin on her face. ‘Yes, what else do you call it?’ she asked saucily.
‘Ah! You want me to show you what a real kiss is?’ absolutely loving the way this conversation was going, leaning forward.
She shook her head and jumped off his lap, just as a discreet knock sounded on his door. He turned her around and tugged up her zipper.
‘That’ll be Aman,’ she said. ‘He wanted to go over some of the contracts with you,’ as she opened the door to let him in.
Arnav groaned inwardly in frustration, not bothering to get up. It would be just too revealing!
Shyam drove back towards Laxminagar, his thoughts in turmoil. Seeing Khushi in the morning light had made him feel - he didn’t know what it was. He had had a hard time keeping his thoughts straight when he was around her. The lingering smell of Shalimar in his car wasn’t making it easier on him. He was driving on autopilot now, weaving through the traffic as a call came through on his phone.
‘Hello?’ he barked.
‘Jhaji, where are you? We’ve been waiting for forty minutes. Are you okay?’ the man on the other end sounded worried.
He sighed deeply. Work! The bane of our lives. Not that he needed to, his Saaley Saab had enough to keep him and his wife i.e. Rani Sahiba and their as yet unborn children rolling in the lap of luxury all their lives. While that was an enticing thought, he knew he wouldn’t be able to swing it. Saaley Saab was notoriously smart, too, what with the Harvard brain and all. So, he had to work.
‘Yes, Pandeyji, I am fine,’ he sighed again. ‘Something came up and I had to attend to it. Bas! I will be right there in another fifteen minutes,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you then,’ before shutting off his phone.
He pressed the accelerator in frustration, breathing in deeply of the swiftly vanishing notes of Shalimar.
That evening, Shyam came back home in a foul temper. He marched through the hall making his way to the staircase when the overly sweet call of ‘Shyamji’ hit his eardrums. He sighed and turned around, his face creasing in a smile of delight, dimples deepening in his cheeks.
‘Rani Sahiba! I’m sorry. I didn’t see you,’ he apologized, holding her face in both his hands, kissing her on the forehead.
‘I saw that. What is it? Is everything okay?’ she looked worried, concern pooling in her big, dark eyes.
‘Of course everything is okay. Once you’re in my arms, everything is always okay,’ he assured her, hugging her close, drowning in the cloying perfume of honeysuckle clinging to her skin.
She giggled cutely as she snuggled into his arms, only drawing back coyly with surprise on her face as they heard a throat being cleared behind them.
‘Naniji!’ he exclaimed, before bending down to receive her blessings.
‘Be happy,’ she said, raising her hand, palm towards him, as he straightened up. ‘Damaadji, you’re late today. Are you also becoming like Chotey?’
‘No, Naniji. Nothing like that. It’s just that work piles up when I am away, and I’ve got to take care of it. And, before I know it, I’ve got to go away again, in two days,’ he smiled, but placatingly, knowing when the whine would start up.
‘In two days?’ Anjali’s big eyes filled up with tears, her lips pouting in dismay. ‘You just got back and now you have to go again?’
‘What can I do, Rani Sahiba? The court gives a date and I can’t ignore it! It’s the law, I have to go,’ he held her hands in his, looking deep into her eyes, love and dismay pouring out of his.
‘Really, Di,’ came Arnav’s deep voice from behind them. They turned around as he stepped off the last staircase, dressed in a casual olive shirt, open at the throat, and boot cut black jeans above a pair of well-worn Kolhapuris. A worn leather strapped wrist watch was his only adornment. He stopped in front of them, thumbs hooked in his front pocket, every inch the fashion tycoon that he was supposed to be. A faint tinge of the vanilla notes of Givenchy Pi floated in the air around him.
‘You know how hard Jeejaji works,’ he said, clapping his brother-in-law on the shoulder. ‘And I’m sure if he could, he would avoid all this traveling. But he can’t, so he has to go. Isn’t it, Jeejaji?’ he smiled, a small predatory smile that had Shyam mystified.
He nodded his head eagerly. But before he could open his mouth, Nani intervened.
‘Are you all going to stand around here talking? Damaadji, go freshen up. I’ll ask Hari Prakash to set up dinner. Chotey, where are you off to?’ she asked as he turned and started walking away, phone in hand, texting something.
‘Nowhere, Nani,’ he said, coming back to the group. ‘Just some emails that I needed to check.’
The phone buzzed in his hand. He looked at it.
‘Will follow up. Aman,’ he read.
Shyam was in a hurry the next morning. If his timing was right, he would make it in time, he thought, quickly gulping down his tea before dashing out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, he slowed his car down, his eyes scanning the sidewalk until he spotted her in a cyan blue salwaar frantically trying to flag down an auto. Perfect! He grinned in delight and slowed to a stop in front of her.
Khushi’s eyes rounded in surprise as the white car skidded to a stop in front of her.
‘Shyamji? You? Here? Again?’ She was surprised and not very pleasantly at that.
‘What coincidence, Khushiji,’ he smiled at her, his eyes glittering with mischief. ‘See? Looks like I am here again on time,’ he said, delighted no end with his perfect timing.
‘Yes, it certainly does,’ she was baffled at this. What on earth was Shyamji doing here this early in the morning two days in a row?
‘Arrey, Khushiji, are you going to just stand there? Get in!’ he shoved the door open.
She was trapped! Gulping down her doubts, she slid into the passenger seat and before he could help her, she’d strapped herself in.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel in frustration, but he breathed in deeply and sure enough the complex notes of Shalimar hit his nose, racing through his pulses, dulling his senses in a haze of desire.
Khushi stared wide-eyed at him, at that slow darkening of his face. ‘Are you okay, Shyamji?’
He pulled himself together at that and nodded his head. ‘Yes, of course. So do you ... ah ... always go to work at this time, Khushiji?’ he asked.
‘Actually, I usually go a bit later, but today Arnavji wanted me to come in a little early so...,’ she quickly improvised.
‘I see,’ he said, slotting that piece of information in his mind away for future reference.
‘What about you? What are you doing here again?’ she asked.
‘I did tell you that I came to Laxminagar for some work yesterday, right? There is still some work left so I had to come back for it,’ he said having thought all this through ahead of time.
‘Oh, I see,’ she mumbled, digging into her bag and finding her little stash of chana, which she began to chew.
As they drew up at AR, she turned around and said, ‘thank you, Shyamji. Very kind of you,’ while unbuckling her seatbelt and unlocking the door.
‘No problem, Khushiji,’ he said.
She nodded her head, barely listening as she pushed the door open. ‘See you later, Shyamji,’ she said.
‘I will be going out of town tomorrow, so I will be back next week,’ he informed her.
She stepped outside and then said, ‘Oh! Then I’ll see you next week, I guess,’ quite at a loss as to how to respond to this information, before turning around and walking away.
Was she disappointed? He hoped she was.
She walked into the office, deep in thought, tossing chana into her mouth.
Arnav watched her from his vantage point. What’s going on with her now? She’s thinking of something, he thought, watching her incessant chewing. Not that she needed an excuse to eat. It always amazed him how much she could tuck away. But she only did this unconscious mastication when she was worried about something! He’d find out, he thought. Nothing could worry her pretty little head, not if he could help it, no sir!
He waited till she’d sat at her desk, before dialing her extension. ‘Khushi, my cabin, now!’ he said, while hitting the remote for the blinds.
That night, Akash lay in bed, phone to his ear, talking to Payal. Sweet nothings, and whispered words of love and hopes and dreams of the future.
Payal loved this side of him - the sweet, gentle man that he was. He suited her to a tee.
Both of them were gentle characters - nothing like the fire and ice in their siblings. They just burned on simmer always. Even when they made out - which was very rarely as they were not allowed to meet much before the wedding, it was always with great care and tenderness. Payal wondered at all the books she’d read. When was that flame going to strike her? Probably on her suhaag raat, she thought, giggling to herself.
As they were about to hang up, he said, ‘Payal, how come you could speak to me for so long today? Isn’t Khushi there?’ Mostly she’d head outside for a quick conversation because of Khushi’s presence in her room. Little sisters with big ears! ugh! she could do without it and was thankful that Khushi wasn’t there that night.
‘No, Akash. Khushi isn’t here. She’s been working late quite often. Your brother keeps her working so hard. But he usually drops her off, so Amma and Bauji are not that worried about her keeping long hours.’
‘Yeah, he’s been working very hard lately, too. But that’s Bhai for you,’ he said in reverent tones. ‘He’s taken the burden of this family on his shoulders, and he takes it very seriously.’
‘You know, I find him a little ... scary,’ she said hesitantly.
‘Why? He won’t eat you, you know,’ he smiled wickedly and paused for effect. ‘Although I might,’ he growled as he bit his lip, smirking at the mental image and heard her gasp of shock.
‘What?’ with faux innocence. ‘What did I say?’
‘Akash!’ she pouted once again.
A few more kisses blown down the line, before they hung up. He lay in bed, grinning to himself, going over the conversation in his mind. He reached over and popped a Mentos in his mouth, when suddenly the proverbial light clicked on in his head.
Khushi was working late with Bhai? What the ?! He sat up straight. Then that means...? Bhai and Khushi? Khushi?!! Damn! Bhai was a close one. How and when did this happen? No wonder Aman was tight-lipped about it. He knew all about it, dammit, but no one told him. Akash sat and cursed himself roundly for his blindness. Blindness! The blinds! Of course!!! He raked a hand through his unruly curls. Then he thought, Di! I have to tell Di about this.
He was almost hyperventilating in his Eureka moment. Jumping off the bed, he strode purposefully towards Di’s room, only to see Arnav walking up the stairs, absentmindedly smiling to himself.
He i.e. Arnav, was thinking about dinner.
Khushi and he had gone to her favorite dhaba. Yes, it wasn’t exactly his kind of place to eat at, but if she wanted it, he’d give it to her. Completely accepting the fact that he was besotted with Khushi and having decided what he wanted out of this relationship, he had gently led the conversation around to their future.
‘Khushi, so what did you think?’ he asked her.
She stopped in the process of stuffing a piece of chana-bhatura in her face. ‘About what?’
‘My room?’ he asked.
‘Your room?’ she put the bite down and looked up at him under her lashes. ‘What about your room?’
‘Have you thought about what you wanted to do with it?’ he wasn’t going to let it go.
She blushed. She knew what he was asking, but he needed to ask her the right way, she thought. The room? Seriously, did this man never watch a Hindi film? He didn’t have a single romantic bone in his body. And she was stuck with him! But this time, she was determined to get what she wanted out of this conversation. He wasn’t going to get away so easily with his kisses and his ... she gulped, looked up and saw ‘that look’ in his eyes and immediately lowered hers.
‘Why would I want to do anything with it?’ she said with a straight face, picking up the bite and chewing firmly on it, before lifting her eyes to his, again.
He narrowed his eyes and thought, oh, so my little kitten wants to play, huh? Well, two can play at this.
‘I dunno. I think it’s too ... ‘ he pursed his lips looking for the right word. ‘Too colorless. And I thought you could give me some ideas. I want to change the colors, and you are always so ... ‘ he looked her up and down, eating her up with his eyes and said, ‘colorful.’
The red flags in her cheeks warned him he’d gone too far. But he loved, yeah he said it, the l-word. He loved it when she was angry. The fire was lit now in both of them.
‘Colorful?’ she spat at him.
He nodded his head, the smirk firmly planted on his lips.
‘Hmm.. yeah,’ he said nonchalantly.
‘Arnavji, if you think I’m too colorful, then maybe you should get someone else to change your room’s colors!’ she huffed and folded her hands. ‘Someone as colorless as you!’
He signaled for the bill, and paid it before he took her hand and led her out. Opening the passenger door, he let her sit, still fuming at him, fastened her seat belt, before brushing his lips on her cheek. He sat in the driver’s seat and said, ‘You spend so much time with me, I thought you’d know what I wanted in the room,’ casually hooking his seatbelt.
‘Argh!’ she said. ‘Really?’
He nodded, ‘yeah, really.’ He drove for a while in silence before pulling the car over on a quiet stretch of road.
‘After all, I want you to be comfortable when you live in that room,’ he said, looking over at her.
‘Live? in that room?’ she choked.
‘Yeah. I mean, when we get married, that’s where we’ll stay, right?’ he looked at her, carefully gauging her reaction.
‘Married?! Us?!’ she squeaked.
He nodded his head, still watching her. She was playing nervously with her dupatta, licking her lips, her hands automatically reaching for the chana in her bag. He held it before it got to her mouth.
‘You haven’t even asked me if I want to marry you,’ she said softly, looking at him with those big doe-like eyes.
‘Don’t you?’ he asked bending forward to look into her face.
She peered up at him, swallowed and didn’t say anything, nor did she nod her head.
Oh crap! he thought. He sighed. Of course, she wanted the whole thing - the roses, the candlelight dinner, the going-down-on-one-knee. And he’d given her dinner at a dhaba and a question in a car. He was gonna have to fix this, and soon. Well, he’d do that tonight.
Putting the car in gear, he drove off, keeping quiet, lost deep in thought. He dropped her off and drove home. He still didn’t know what had got her knickers in a bunch this morning. That would have to wait.
Time to talk to Nani.
Akash stopped on seeing Arnav and said, ‘did you have dinner, Bhai?’ with a tell-tale smirk on his face.
Arnav looked up, saw the smirk, wondered about it and casually said, ‘yeah, I did.’
‘Did you drop Khushi off?’ Akash was smirking wider now.
Arnav narrowed his eyes, stopped in front of his brother, put a hand on his shoulder and said, ‘good night, Akash,’ before walking into his room and shutting the door.
Damn, thought Akash and then remembered why he was out in the first place. Di. He walked down to her room and was about to knock, when the faint sounds of ahem! came through it. He blushed, turned around and rushed back to his room.
She was still awake brushing Laxmi’s fur, er, hide, when she heard a soft knock on her door. ‘Come in,’ she said and smiled in delight as her older grandson walked in, freshly showered and changed.
‘What is it, Chotey?’ she said.
‘Nani,’ he sat down next to her, his elbows on his knees, hands linked together. He looked down and said, ‘you remember what you asked me?’
She put her hand on his shoulder, eyebrows lifted, eyes dancing as she thought, Hey Devi Mayya! my grandson has seen the light of day! Thank you! Thank you!!
‘So what have you decided?’ she asked carefully.
He nodded his head. Looked up at her and said, ‘I .. yes,’ and threw a small, endearing smile at her.
She couldn’t keep the tears of joy in her eyes. ‘What is her name?’
‘Khushi,’ he said, softly.
Nani’s mouth hung open. ‘Khushi? As in Payal’s sister?’ This was too good to be true! So that’s what the late nights and dinners were about!
He nodded again, not meeting her eyes. ‘Nani, she didn’t say anything,’ he looked worried.
‘No problem, Chotey. We’ll go to their house tomorrow and ask for her hand,’ Nani said firmly. This was the bahu she wanted and she was getting it. Her years of dancing made her want to get up and do a few thumkas, but that probably wasn’t a good idea in front of her grandson. Instead she did a mental jig, just to satisfy herself. ‘You go to bed now, Chotey. We’ll tell the rest of the family in the morning.’ She brushed a hand over his head lovingly. No Gupta daughter was going to resist a Raizada son, she thought, kissing him on his forehead.
He smiled and left her room, walking on air to his.
It was just a little over two weeks to Akash and Payal’s wedding.