*Phew* I'm back :) Here's the continuation of Fateful Love
**NO COPYING, SHARING, OR DISTRIBUTING OF ANY PART OF THIS ORIGINAL MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT 2014 BY TINA! If you see this posted on any other site by a different account, inform the author ASAP**
Fateful Love by Tina
"I will always find my way to you," vowed Arnav, pressing kisses to her tear-streaked cheeks and finally her mouth.
Khushi drew him on top of her, needing him desperately. "I'm not the kind to wait, as you know. I'll chase after you if I have to, Arnav. I won't let you forget me."
His tongue stroked hers as he murmured between more kisses: "That will never happen. You know very well I can't live without you. We will be together."
He sounded utterly convinced and yet both couldn't help but worry. Holding him to her heaving chest, Khushi closed her eyes in prayer. Everything was against them, but their love had to be enough. It had to be..
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Fateful Love by Tina!
Chapter 17: Sunlight
"Khushiji," the worker broke in again, watching her with a perplexed expression from the doorway. If the woman was wondering why Khushi stood frozen in an empty room, she didn't ask, simply informing her: "We're all done now."
"I'll be right there."
The woman nodded, quietly closing the double doors behind her. Pressing a hand to her aching back, Khushi sighed. Time had changed everything. Where once the Raizada family had lived and breathed, now there was only dust. And memories--some of joy and others of the cruelest agony.
Not for a moment could she forget how Anjali's wedding had been called off in this very room, the sounds of two gunshots haunting her even now. That night, Arnav had been destroyed, his heart and spirit left broken. He'd entered this ballroom as a smiling teenager, the much-pampered Chote whom the whole household doted on, but had left it as an orphan, a world of responsibilities thrust onto his young shoulders. As Khushi had held him in her arms that night, crying with him, she'd wondered if things would ever be right again.
The scars would always remain, but the darkness had ultimately given way to light. Their love had shown them the way. And even his sister had found her happily-ever-after, marrying Aman and not the vile Shyam Manohar Jha in this ballroom.
Khushi vividly recalled that wedding, the tension in the air gradually shifting to hopefulness and calm. Her eyes closed and it was as if she was there again, pressed against him, cupping his face in her trembling hands as she confessed:
"When the priest was going through the vows just now, I felt those words were binding us too. My heart accepted you long ago. Sweetheart, don't you see? It will always be you and only you. I can never be another's. You are my husband, my soul mate..."
"I love you," Arnav whispered against her lips, his voice thick with emotion. "How much I love you..."
"I love you too," Khushi said aloud, brushing back tears. An ache settled over her chest as she stared at her grim surroundings. How much she wished he were with her now, his memories returned. Her heart yearned for him. Screamed for him. With one final glance around, she carefully made her way to the door.
The three workers she'd hired were waiting just outside, a few cardboard boxes and stacks of newspapers near their feet.
"Is everything done then?" she asked.
"Just this trash left to throw away, Khushiji. We'll do that on our way out."
With a nod and faint smile, she handed a labeled envelope to each one with their allotted payment inside. "Thank you for all your help these past two days. I couldn't have finished without you all." And it was the truth. She couldn't imagine cleaning and cataloguing everything in Sheesh Mahal on such short notice, especially in her condition. Though she'd had no choice but to miss one day from work, tomorrow she'd be back in Delhi, helping Arnav remember.
"You'll come tomorrow, won't you?" he'd asked in such a soft yet urgent tone, clutching her hand. "I promise I won't push you with any more questions. I'm sorry if I frightened you."
He was so very close. Though it never lasted long, sometimes she could have sworn she discerned a glint of recognition in his eyes.
The workers were busy gathering their things and lifting the last remaining boxes and papers. They were halfway down the corridor when something completely unexpected caught Khushi's attention. Dark, brooding eyes stared at her, piercing her heart.
Her hands were visibly shaking as she drew out a wrinkled newspaper from the garbage pile, her heartbeat pounding as she gazed down at Arnav's photo. Unlike his old portrait, this one was in color, though his expression was much the same. "Unidentified Man Found on Bridge,"the headline read.
"Where did you find this?" she asked, her voice unsteady.
"It was with the other papers out back. It looked months old so we thought to throw it away."
At her silence, the three workers exchanged glances. "Everything all right, Khushiji?" asked the closest one.
Pressing the newspaper to her chest, Khushi murmured, "Yes. Take care." Without so much as locking the door behind them, she unfolded the article, reading each word hungrily:
Unidentified male, believed to be in his mid-twenties, found by Delhi's prominent industrialist, J. M. Malik, and his daughter, Sheetal Malik, on Lucknow's famous bridge. Though the incident slowed traffic momentarily much to the dismay of morning commuters, there were no other significant effects reported. The man in question was not bodily injured in the near-collision, but taken to a nearby hospital where doctors confirmed that he has no recollection of how he arrived at the bridge nor much else. Only a gold ring with the inscription "Arnav" and currency dating from the 1920s were found in his possession. Anyone who recognizes this man is instructed to immediately call the number below. A cash reward is generously being provided by the Maliks to anyone who helps this man find his family. Until then, the mystery continues.
The date at the top was January 21st--the same date he'd been presumed dead in his own time, realized Khushi with a start. She could clearly recall Mr. Ram's words from his diary:
"I wish I'd known Chote Uncle. He was only 22 years old when some drunkard crashed into his car, killing him on the morning of January 21, 1926."
The connection couldn't simply be coincidence. Was this how he'd entered her time? Had the bridge somehow linked their times, spanning the centuries? She was left baffled and confused, though one truth was glaringly obvious: he'd been searching for her all along.
Pressing her lips to his picture, Khushi felt overcome with emotion. He'd been so very close and she hadn't known. In fact, within hours of the article's publishing, she'd been on her way to Delhi. And yet even there, they'd found their way to one another, their unlikely, but powerful bond pulling them ever closer.
Khushi found herself walking toward a place that always calmed her. A place she had the fondest memories of. Blinking back tears, she pushed open the back door, stepping out into the gardens. Her hand settled on her abdomen.
Oh Arnav! How I miss you. How much I wish you could be here with me and the baby...
Closing her eyes, Khushi berated her foolish heart. Arnav was far from Lucknow and by this time tomorrow, she'd be reunited with him though he wouldn't remember her. The challenges remained daunting, almost insurmountable, but for the time being she stood silent, the wafting fragrance of the roses soothing her soul in ways she couldn't explain.
From his bird's eye view inside the helicopter, Arnav gazed down at the vastness of Lucknow, his eyes focusing on the bridge where the Maliks had first discovered him. It appeared much the same, its steel chains and cables looking as sturdy as ever. But for some bizarre reason, very contrary images flashed past his eyes:
The side of the bridge splintering apart. The rumbling and crunch of metal as a car struck and dove past the railing, plummeting through the air. Panic churned his stomach. A terrible fear engulfed him.
For a moment, it felt as if he was in the car, his hands tightening on the steering wheel as jagged boulders and murky water closed in below.
His head swerved sideways at the pilot's shout over the deafening roar of the helicopter.
"Are you okay, Mr. Malik? You seem a bit pale. I'd advise you not to look down if the height is bothering you."
Arnav shook his head. "It's not that." He willed himself to calm down. The bridge was clearly in one piece and not at all damaged, an endless stream of cars and trucks zipping across it. From this high up, they resembled little more than the colorful toys he'd played with in childhood.
Childhood? Now where had that thought come from?
Childhood? Now where had that thought come from?
He sat silent as the pilot steered over the bridge, the GPS pointed north. It was the exact opposite direction from the hospital the Maliks had first taken him to. If only he'd known back then that his true destination lay so close, his Khushi so achingly near.
Just the thought of her made his heart gallop. It still seemed unbelievable to him that she was in fact the woman from his visions. Why hadn't she told him that she was his love? His wife? That she was carrying his child?
Although his memories remained frustratingly out-of-reach, his heart had known all along there was something between them. Something that tied their fates. He wanted nothing more than to see her again. Only Khushi could answer his questions. Only she could explain what bound them and why she had a photograph of him from the 1920s. The date had to be wrong. There was no other reasonable explanation for it.
The pilot turned in his direction, pressing buttons with one hand. "Mr. Malik, I won't be able to land on the property directly."
Arnav recognized the problem at once. His eyebrows bent as he peered down again. A thick fog had descended, its approach silent and swift. It obscured much of the view below. "What's the closest point you can safely land?"
"A short distance outside of the main gates."
Arnav nodded. "That'll be fine."
"I'll have a limo called for you," said the man, reaching up for his intercom. "It'll take you directly to Sheesh Mahal."
But Arnav waved his hand in dismissal. "That's not necessary. I'll walk."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Very." He couldn't explain why, but it felt like the correct thing to do. His posture tensed as the helicopter descended, the whirl of its blade slowing. His pulse leaped with tightly bottled anticipation, his hands fisting at his sides.
I'm here, Khushi. Finally.
It was like crossing a threshold and walking into a dream, though Arnav doubted any dream could be this vivid. This vibrant and real.
A crisp wind tore over him, tousling his hair and sending leaves and blades of grass hurtling toward him though he barely noticed. He was too caught up in the mammoth structure ahead.
Sheesh Mahal--in all its glory.
Sunlight broke past the fog, striking the old ivory, stone and mortar and making it shine and glow. Beyond it, some of Lucknow's oldest turrets could just be seen. Arnav stood rigid, his breath suspended. And then he noticed something.
Someone had forgotten to close the main gate. It stood ajar, almost as if beckoning him in. He stepped forward, one hand coiling around the old, rusting iron. Vast gardens stretched before him, flowers of every color. In the distance, there was a fountain, roses blooming nearby.
He stuck to the gravel path, his gaze wandering over the landscape. It all seemed so familiar. Like coming home, but that couldn't be true, could it?
Giggles suddenly sounded from behind him and then the girl he saw in his dreams all the time--she couldn't have been more than nine years old, her hair in two plaits, her face flushed from running through the gardens--ran right through him, making him stagger backwards.
She was a ghostly figure, her image hazy. "Come," she called, gesturing toward the house. "Come on!"
The boy he always saw with her stepped right beside him, a crooked smile on his young face. As he turned sideways, Arnav reeled. His own dark eyes stared back at him.
"This way, Arnav!" the girl beckoned, sprinting toward the door.
"Be careful, Khushi!"
His younger self ran to catch up, but Arnav stood frozen. Khushi? It had been her all along? The two of them? Swallowing hard, he hurried after the pair.
Through the trees, he spotted them easily enough. The children were having an animated discussion near the main door, though he couldn't make out the words. As he stepped within reach of their hazy shapes, Khushi's lips pouted. Neither seemed to sense him. It was then that he realized that they were not ghosts, but memories. His memories...
"I want a piggyback ride." Khushi demanded, hands on her hips. "Arnav, you promised!"
His younger self relented with a roll of his eyes, helping her onto his back. "Don't let go of me," he warned.
Giggling, Khushi wrapped her arms and legs around him. "Never." She tweaked his hair and the two raced up the steps, vanishing as suddenly as they'd appeared.
Come. This way, Arnav...
Shaken to the core and breathing harshly, he raised his hand to the knocker only to find it gone. A bell had replaced it. Steeling himself, he pushed the button.
It didn't seem to be working--at least he didn't hear anything. Knocking, he called out: "Khushi? Anyone there?"
No one answered, but the door edged backwards. Taking a deep breath, Arnav pushed it open, gazing with awe at the home's interior.
The foyer was lavish, an old-fashioned but welcoming air about it. The furnishings looked decades old, but were still in reasonably good condition, the fireplace's veined marble catching his eye. His feet barely made a noise on the carpet as he stepped inside, one hand still clenched on the doorknob.
But if his mind was uncertain, his heart was not. His feet seemed to have a will of their own as he headed down the hall, pulled unexplainably toward an oak door. He faced it with mounting confusion, not knowing what had led him to it. Why did it feel so familiar? So important?
As he turned the knob, completely missing the small hand-carved etching above it, he felt himself freeze.
A sheer white canopy swayed over an antique bed, an emerald chaise lounge a short distance away. He recognized it at once. He'd seen this bedroom countless time in his dreams.
Before he could riddle it out, the door slammed shut behind him. A thin, dark-haired boy, dressed in strange, distinctly dated nightclothes, walked in. One glance and Arnav knew it was the same child he'd just seen outside. It was himself, he recognized with disbelief.
His younger self appeared just as startled, though his gaze was directed not on him, but to the bed. As Arnav turned his head to look, his eyes widened.
The bed was no longer empty. Khushi, eight or nine years old, sat amid the pillows and blankets, clutching a broken-looking doll to her chest.
The children yelled at the same time as a knock sounded. "Chote, are you okay? Why did you yell?"
His throat constricted, a strange emotion choking him.
"Nothing, Di. Good night."
His sister sighed. "Night, Chote." Footsteps padded away. Khushi gulped as he crossed the distance between them.
"Don't come a step closer," she warned, brandishing her doll as if it was a weapon. "I'll hit you."
"You'll hit me?" His younger self sounded amused. "It's you that's in my bed."
"Yours?" She seemed taken aback and then she suddenly jumped backward, edging away. "You're a ghost! Aren't you? Stay away from me, I'm warning you!"
The boy rolled his eyes at her. "I'm most certainly no ghost. My name is Arnav Singh Raizada."
She raised a skeptical brow at his declaration. "You are a ghost. You have to be! No one fools Khushi Kumari Gupta! Babuji!"
Arnav Singh Raizada. Khushi Kumari Gupta. The two names echoed in his head like the beats of a drum. Arnav Singh Raizada. Khushi Kumari Gupta.
Nothing could have prepared him for what came next. The memories crashed into him like a bodily slam, one shifting into the next with such dizzying speed, he stumbled backwards. One face remained constant amid the chaos: Khushi's.
Khushi crying, tears rolling down her plump cheeks as she admitted,"I'm not from this time."
Khushi launching herself at him, her body shaking. "Please, don't doubt me... not you as well. No one believes me, not Jiji, or Amma, and not even Babuji. But I swear on my parents, it's the truth... we're both real. We're both friends."
He saw it all: the two of them becoming best friends, sharing secrets and holding onto one another on nights where his parent's arguments rang through the walls. His heart felt every emotion: his shifting feelings for her, friendship blossoming into young love. He recalled Khushi telling him about Valentine's day, nervously holding out a rose.
His mind suddenly flashed to them by the window, a falling star shining in the skies above. "True love?" he remembered asking her."Do you believe in that?"
The images whipped by in chronological order, pausing at the moment they kissed for the first time, their tears mingling as the looming pain of heartbreak and separation overwhelmed them:
"I will never forget. You're taking my heart with you, you will have to bring it back, Arnav."
"I will be back for you, but your heart is mine for eternity. Just as mine is yours."
Like the swing of a pendulum, the scene shifted again. They were both older by several years now. Khushi lay against the headboard, her gaze tearful and brewing with thinly veiled terror as she told him about Shyam. "His nephew told me what happened. What his uncle did... to you..."
He crushed her into his arms. "Shush, love. It's okay. Just tell me. I'm here, aren't I? I'm with you now."
Holding him close, shudders racked her thin frame, but she managed to tell him what she had learned: "Shyam Manohar Jha will kill you. He's responsible for your death."
The memories shifted to the night before January 21, 1926. They lay entwined on the canopy bed again, worried and afraid.
"Nothing will happen, jaan," he reassured her though he was battling his own doubts. "I'll see you tomorrow night, just as always."
"I'm being silly, I know, but what if something goes wrong despite all our planning? Like that Norwegian mountaineer's story?" Tears clung to her eyelashes.
He kissed her tear-streaked cheeks and finally her mouth. "I will always find my way to you," he vowed.
Khushi drew him on top of her, her hands weaving into his hair. "I'm not the kind to wait, as you know. I'll chase after you if I have to, Arnav. I won't let you forget me."
Her voice faded and his mind flashed to the following morning: their last kiss. Her tears. And then the accident--Shyam in his drunken stupor crashing into his car. The horrific fall off the bridge. And then a voice:
"Your bedroom held a great significance in your too short life. It was where you often cried and mourned alone, where you longed for love and friendship, and where you breathed your last... Your soul became entwined with that place. Time passed and then someone stepped into Sheesh Mahal. Someone just as lonely as you, someone who also sought friendship and family. Your souls recognized one another from the start."
He'd been overwhelmed by the answers provided but the voice had remained judicious, "But a word of caution: if you decide to go to her, your love will be tested."
And then his own prompt reply, the decision something he did not have to think twice over: "I want to go to my family... to my wife and child."
"Then open your eyes, Arnav."
Arnav was shaking, his eyes wide and dazed as they blinked opened. He found himself on his knees beside the canopy bed, tears wetting his cheeks. His heart was thundering wildly in his chest, his gaze disbelieving as it whipped over the room though he knew it was real. It was all real. He was truly in her time. He had been for months now.
One word fell from his lips. One name. "Khushi... Oh, Khushi..." He bounded up, sprinting out the door. "KHUSHI!"
Arnav ran past the rooms, franticly opening and closing doors. Where was she? She had to be here somewhere.
As he paused to check the library, his heart lurched against his ribcage. His feet skidded to a halt. Through the bay window, he could see her. She was standing in the rose garden, her face half-turned away. He knew her well enough to realize she was weeping, one hand on her belly while the other was clenched on a newspaper.
His fingers trembled as they pressed to the glass, tracing over her beloved form. Tears stung his eyes. Khushi... his Khushi... His best friend. The woman he'd loved for as long as he could remember.
He couldn't bear the distance between them. He ached to look into her eyes. To hear her voice. To kiss her lips. To hold her and never let go. Glancing over his shoulder for one final glimpse of her, he raced to the back door.
Khushi set aside the newspaper on the stone bench, fingering a ruby red rose. Everything at Sheesh Mahal reminded her of him, every pebble, flower and blade of grass. Their childhood had been spent on these grounds and in the canopy bedroom, the moon and stars the only witnesses of their nighttime wanderings. Standing alone now on the same patch of dry earth, her heart throbbed all over again. She missed him so much it was a physical ache, stinging her every breath.
And then, suddenly, against all hope and reasoning, a voice broke out behind her--a voice she'd have recognized anywhere:
"I always wondered how you'd look in the sunlight."
Her heart stilled, her eyes flying open. Was it truly him? Spinning around, she felt her world sway.
Arnav stood directly across from her, tears streaming down his face. Their gazes met and in that one moment, she knew. Knew that he'd returned to her.
"Arnav--" Her voice broke over his name. She wavered on her feet.
He ran to her. "KHUSHI!"
The next second she was in his arms, crushed to his heartbeat. Crying out, she threw her arms around him, holding onto him in a grip that would not be slackened.
"Arnav... Arnav, you remember."
His hands shook as he tilted her face up, staring down at her with quiet wonder. "Everything." His lips descended and Khushi met him eagerly, kissing him as she'd dreamed of for so long now.
It was wild and tender. Fierce, frenzied, and yet gentle. The need to touch one another seemed unquenchable. Encased in his arms, she felt an overwhelming sense of peace. As if things were finally set right again. This was where she belonged. With him.
Tears escaped her eyes as he pressed kisses to every inch of her face. "I love you," he told her again and again. "I love you so much."
She tightened her arms around him, her fingers trailing over his beloved features and brushing away the moistness there. "And I love you. I always have. I always will."
His half-smile made her heart throb. "How did you get so brave?" Arnav whispered. "Why didn't you tell me? You bore it all. Every pain. Every heartbreak. Everything all alone."
Khushi shook her head, smiling up at him through her tears. "I wasn't alone. You were with me all along. Our love wouldn't let me lose hope. I knew you'd return to me in time."
Arnav kissed her long and hard, his breathing harsh and uneven. "I'm not as strong as you. I can't bear to be separated from you ever again. Never again."
"Never again," she echoed, swallowing thickly. Her hand smoothed over his cheekbones and lips, the need to touch him as powerful as the need to breathe. "Time has bowed down to our love, Arnav. Now nothing will ever tear us apart."
They sealed those words with a searing kiss. "You are all I've ever wanted, Khushi. Ever since I was ten years old."
"I've always loved you," she admitted against his mouth, their breath mingling together. "First as a friend and then with all that I am. As a woman and wife. You're my other half, Arnav."
He kissed away her tears. "No more crying, jaan. We're together now. I'll never leave you again."
"Hold me," she whispered.
"Always." Drawing her into his arms, Arnav dropped lingering kisses on her hair, her forehead, cheeks, and lips.
As he suddenly stepped away, Khushi protested, keeping him pressed to her. He smiled with understanding, their gazes locking.
"I'm not going anywhere, Khushi. Never again, I promise you. I just want to kiss our child too."
Her arms immediately relaxed, a warm smile on her lips as he kneeled on the grass, cupping her belly with awe. His heart swelled with love.
"How far along are you?" he asked, his hands curving over her.
"In my eighth month now."
Arnav gazed up at her with a deep sadness rimming his eyes. "I've missed everything, haven't I?"
Khushi drifted her hand down into his hair, her touch feather-light. "You're here now, love. That's all that matters."
He nodded, pressing his lips to her stretched skin. "I hope you can hear me in there, baby. It's... it's Daddy. I'm sorry I've missed so much, but I'm here now. And I will never leave you again. You and your mother mean the world to me. I love you both more than I can ever say."
He felt a sudden, but firm fluttering against his hands and his head whipped up to Khushi. "What was that?"
She laughed, the sound tinkling in the warm sunshine. It felt so good to laugh again. To smile again. "The baby kicked, Arnav. It happens a lot as you'll see."
"Really?" And sure enough, another kick was aimed against his palm. His astonishment was quickly replaced with concern. "Does it hurt you?"
Khushi shook her head, massaging his scalp soothingly. "No, love."
Arnav nodded, his lips gliding over her belly one more time as he stood. Taking her hands in both of his, his gaze roved over her up and down, as if he was truly seeing her for the first time.
Khushi fidgeted slightly. "I'm huge, aren't I?"
His eyes crinkled at the corners. His touch was reverent as he framed her face with his hands. "Your beauty takes my breath away, jaan. I always dreamed of you like this, but didn't think it was possible. But it's all real now. We're actually standing together, the sun shining down on the two--I mean three of us."
She pressed her lips to his, winding her arms around his waist. "It's real. But how did it happen, Arnav? How did you come to my time from 1926?"
"Let's discuss it inside. You've been on your feet too long." Before she could get another word in, he'd already lifted her up in his arms.
"Arnav! I'm so heavy! You don't need to--"
He hushed her with a firm kiss, the happiness in their eyes shining brightly. "Let me, Khushi. I need to feel you. I need to hold you and take care of you."
She understood, looping her arms around his neck with a soft smile.
"Don't let go me," he warned.
Her smile widened. She could vividly recall him saying those same words whenever she'd asked him for piggyback rides countless times in these very gardens.
Burying her face against the side of his neck, she breathed him in. "Never."
Fateful Love by Tina
Chapter 18: Dreams Come True
Reaching for the blankets, Arnav spread it over them, drawing her to his side. "I don't fully understand it myself, but I'll tell you what I know." Keeping her clasped to him, he described the car accident, the harrowing fall off the bridge and then the voice and all it had told him.
"When I opened my eyes, I was on the bridge with the Maliks. I had no memory of you. They took me to a hospital directly from there and the first vision came to me then. It was of us in the rose gardens. You were on my lap, but your face was turned away. I didn't know who you were, not even your name, but I knew that I loved you. More than anything."
Khushi brushed her lips over his, her tears spilling over. "When Ms. Anita told me about the car accident, I thought I'd lost you. That all our planning and research had failed." She glanced away, breathing hard.
"Khushi, look at me... Please, jaan."
Tear-filled, hazel eyes rose to his and Arnav leaned forward, tenderly cupping her face even as emotion choked him. "I made a vow to you that I'd return to you. Haven't I always kept my word to you?"
She nodded, feeling overcome. Even during childhood, he'd kept his every promise to her, no matter how trivial the matter. He'd been her closest friend, her sole confidante. The only one with whom she felt a sense of belonging. The only one who saw her as she was and loved her for it.
"How could I not return when I had your love with me? Khushi, don't you see, you didn't lose me. In fact, you saved me." His gaze was intense and strikingly sincere as it clashed with hers. "If it wasn't for you, I would have died on this bed or on that bridge--"
Her hand clamped over his mouth. "Don't. Don't ever speak of death again. I can't bear it. I've mourned you once. I can't go through that pain ever again. It hurts too much."
He crushed her to him, holding her as she cried, her body a quivering mass. His voice was distinctly thick as he spoke. "We won't lose each other ever again, jaan. The darkness is finally gone. There's only sunlight now. But the fact remains: you did save me. If I am here, alive and breathing in your arms, it's all your doing. Your faith. Your love."
"Our love," she corrected. "Like the voice told you, our souls share a deep connection. It's rare and beautiful and sometimes scary and overwhelming, but it's ours. And I wouldn't change anything about it. I love you."
"And I love you." He slanted his mouth over hers, his tongue stroking and teasing with a relentlessness that left her breathless. The kiss had just deepened when a low growl sounded.
She could feel his smile against her lips. His hand lowered to her bulging swell, stroking gently. "I think you and the baby are hungry."
Khushi began to deny it, but her stomach grumbled once more, persistent as always. "I'll eat later," she insisted, pulling him close. "I just want you now."
"I want you too. Very much. But that can wait, while this cannot. I won't have my wife and child hungry."
Before Khushi could even begin to argue, he'd picked her up in his arms as if it was no great task and she was still her former weight.
"Are you really going to carry me everywhere? I can walk, you know."
"True, but I've missed this. Let me." Arnav said the words with such tenderness, his gaze so adoring, Khushi felt her heart lurch. She resisted the urge to pinch herself.
This was real, she reminded herself. He was with her and all the heartache and loneliness was now firmly in the past. Curling into his embrace, she laid her head on his shoulder.
Together, they made their way down the corridor, past the pink bedroom that had once belonged to their sisters at different points in time, and the library where the Raizada family portraits still hung--all except for one.
Most would have found Sheesh Mahal, with its chipped antiques, drafty windows and dusty cobwebs, a cold, dreary place, but Arnav and Khushi took solace in its aging splendor. The house seemed to glow with promise.
Looking at it for the first time from Arnav's perspective, Khushi eyed it all critically. Her gaze flew to the small imperfections: the fraying, burgundy curtains, the hard-to-miss scratch on the grandfather clock, and the worn out appearance of the arm chairs flanking the mammoth marble fireplace.
There hadn't been enough money from the trust to fix everything, though she'd tried over the years to make Sheesh Mahal the beacon it had once been. Despite all her efforts, Khushi couldn't shake off the feeling that she'd failed somewhere.
"It's nothing close to what you remember, is it?"
Arnav's brow furrowed at the uncharacteristic glumness of her tone. Though Khushi didn't realize it, she was chewing on her bottom lip. He knew from years of experience that meant something was troubling her.
Pressing his lips to hers, he smiled. "Close to a century has passed, Khushi. You told me Sheesh Mahal had been boarded up for decades before you arrived. Truthfully, I expected it to be empty and unlivable. But just look at it. Look at all you've done. It's beyond anything I could have hoped for."
She stared at him bewildered. "But the sink is leaky and the roof needs repair and the curtains--"
He hushed her tirade with a swift kiss. "All that can be fixed. When I look around, all I see is the hard work you've put into it. It was you, wasn't it, who dusted the high ceilings and scrubbed these floorboards? How long have you been taking care of the property like this?"
"Since I met you."
Arnav froze mid-step, his head swerving in her direction. Only one question escaped him: "Why?"
She shrugged, lightly stroking his bristly cheekbones. "You were so proud of Sheesh Mahal, and I wanted it to be that way again. So I made it my mission to restore the house and grounds. It hasn't been a complete success," she said, recalling the sizeable carpet stain in the library she'd once spent several mornings cleaning. The stain had faded only slightly since then. "But I've done all I could do. For you. Only you." She pressed her lips to his cheek.
He observed her incredulously. "Khushi, do you even realize how much you've done? Most people would have abandoned an old property like this."
"But I couldn't." Her eyes sparkled as he deposited her on the granite slab in the kitchen. "Sheesh Mahal means everything to me. It's not just my home, but yours. This is where we grew up... where we fell in love."
"And where we'll now raise our family." His mouth met hers in a searing kiss. "You won't be alone anymore. I'm with you now. We'll make this house all it can be. I won't allow it to be demolished."
"Demolished?" She wondered if she'd heard him correctly.
He slowly nodded, telling her about the Malik company's plans to replace Sheesh Mahal with a shopping mall. Khushi's face blanched as she recalled all the vendors lists she'd so carefully prepared.
"So that email... the one that told me to come here..."
"It was from me," he explained. "I was the one to reply to you. Though I didn't realize it then."
Khushi struggled to keep up, her eyes wide. "What will happen now? Will the Maliks tear down Sheesh Mahal still?"
"No, jaan," Arnav reassured. "I promise you I'll put a stop to it. Sheesh Mahal is our home and we will restore it--just as you want."
She took a deep breath, extending her hand. "Together then?"
His eyes twinkled and he grasped her hand, shaking it solemnly. "Together. Always."
His gaze shifted to the corners of the kitchen with keen curiosity. "Everything is so different. All these strange contraptions. And it's so quiet. Before there was always a brigade of cooks and servants dashing about."
Khushi smiled wistfully, squeezing his hand. "A hundred years changes things."
"That it does," he agreed, tipping up her face. "But the important things never change. Like friendship and love."
She met his kiss eagerly, throwing her arms around his neck. "I've missed you so much."
"Me too, Khushi. Me too." He knew just how to calm her, smiling charmingly as he picked up an empty bowl. "This looks familiar still. What would you like me to make?"
"Make?" Her eyebrows rose. "You?"
He appeared amused. "Of course. Do you see anyone else around?"
Khushi looked at him skeptically from head to toe, her lips curving. "Have you learned how to cook? I still remember the birthday cake you once made for Anjali Di following a recipe I wrote down for you. And remember what happened then? The cake turned out to be partly hard as a rock and partly uncooked. You were both sick for three days straight."
The mention of his family, particularly Anjali, didn't hurt nearly as much as he'd imagined. Knowing that his sister had found her own love made all the difference.
"Di didn't speak to me for a week," he recollected with fondness, a bittersweet sting throbbing in his chest. "She was convinced I'd deliberately tricked her. And then to make it worse, you went off and ate a mountain of jalebis just so you could be sick with me."
"In my defense, I was just eleven," Khushi pointed out, looping her arms around his waist. "And I wanted to provide you company."
"Even in sickness?"
"In sickness and in health," she said with a warm smile.
"Tell death do us part."
Khushi whacked him lightly. "Arnav Singh Raizada! Did I not just tell you not to mention that word around me?"
"Sorry, jaan." He pecked her on the lips. "Now, what do you want to eat? My baking skills have sadly not improved, but I can make a pretty decent salad."
Khushi pretended to seriously consider his offer as she walked to the refrigerator. He followed after her with what could only be described as a lost puppy expression, playing with the end of her saree. He seemed completely taken aback when she handed him several vegetables.
"Here's everything you'll need for your salad. I'll make some soup and toast by then."
"Mmm." Arnav pressed a lingering kiss to her nape. "I think my stomach is growling too now."
They worked side-by-side, slipping back into that same easy friendship as if no time had passed. Smiling and laughing, they flirted and bantered, unable to look away from one another. Khushi found herself not even wanting to blink or look away from him, part of her still fearful he'd disappear.
As the soup simmered, she showed him the newspaper clipping she'd stumbled upon just that morning. "I understood then the bridge had to be involved somehow."
His eyes narrowed on the caption: "Unidentified Man Found on Bridge" and his colored photo below. "I remember being so confused when this was taken. Everything was a haze around me. It was only later when the tutor explained about cameras that I understood. They were very different in the 1920s."
"A tutor? So that's how you knew everything," she mused. "I wondered about it every time I'd see you typing away on the computer or using the phone in the office."
He had noticed her curious glances. It had perplexed him back then, but now it all made perfect sense. "Everyone reasoned the amnesia had erased my memories of the modern world so Mr. Malik hired a tutor to help me. It was tedious and extremely frustrating at first, but I caught on after a few tries."
Khushi could easily imagine such a scenario. Was there anything he wasn't brilliant at? From sketching to business to tutoring her on algebra, he'd always excelled. "So you know everything then."
Arnav shook his head. "The tutor didn't explain everything. Like all these kitchen appliances. Except for the very basic ones, I don't recognize any. What is that, for instance? That shiny, metal box?"
"The toaster?" She showed him how to insert the bread and adjust the setting.
"And that'll toast it? Just like that? How do you know when it's done?"
Khushi smiled at all his questions. "You'll know, love. Just wait."
And sure enough, less than a minute later, two slices of crispy, warm bread popped out. Arnav jumped slightly and Khushi's smile widened.
"It's done now."
Gazing at the toaster with wide-eyed curiosity, Arnav began to pull out the toast, his thumb grazing one of the bright orange coils. He grimaced, snatching his hand away. "Damn, that is hot. No wonder it works so fast."
"Arnav!" Khushi exclaimed as she realized what he'd done. "Does it hurt very much?" She grasped his hand in both of hers and pressed her mouth to the reddening patch there.
"Khushi, jaan, relax. It barely stings."
But there was no dissuading her. She ever so carefully applied an ointment, tending to him with such love and concern he could only watch, his throat constricting.
"It's all my fault," she said, blowing on the burn. "I should have warned you."
"Don't blame yourself. I should have learned about toasters by now. But I never went to the Maliks' kitchen. My daily routine was to go to the office and then straight to my room. I was never the least bit curious about where the food appeared from."
"You were preoccupied, love. And whatever you don't know, I'll explain to you. We're together now."
"And I'm so thankful for that." He embraced her, setting his chin on the top of her head. "So thankful."
Eventually, they settled in front of the fireplace, feeding each other soup, toast, and some very haphazardly cut bites of salad.
"It's a huge improvement from the cake," Khushi had to admit.
His eyes shone and he pressed his ear to her stomach. "I think the baby likes it too." Caressing his wavy hair, Khushi felt more at peace then she'd dared to dream.
That night, they stayed up late, talking and kissing on the canopy bed much as they had done countless times in the past. When her eyes began to droop, Arnav insisted she sleep, brushing a soft kiss over her pouting lips.
"I'll be here when you wake up. Sleep, jaan."
"I'll be here when you wake up. Sleep, jaan."
"I love you, Arnav," Khushi murmured, snuggling closer. "Good night."
Before he could reply, she was already fast asleep. Arnav's gaze swept over her adoringly. "Good night, love." Tightening his grip on her, he finally closed his eyes.
The remainder of the night passed with absolute ease, not a single nightmare plaguing them. But just before dawn, both found themselves blinking awake. It was half habit and half anxiety.
Khushi clung to him, holding him in a white-knuckled grip as panic shot through her. "Arnav..."
"I'm right here." His voice was calm but he too couldn't shrug off the doubts completely. "Keep your eyes on me, Khushi. No matter what, don't look away."
As the first light of dawn emerged, striking the windowpanes of Sheesh Mahal with its blinding glow and bouncing off the thick iron bars installed long ago solely on Khushi's insistence, their gazes remained locked, tears pooling.
But the morning light did not separate them this time. The bedroom lay untouched. The sun's warmth cascaded over them, highlighting the auburn tints in her hair and the golden specks in his eyes.
"No more crying," Arnav whispered, though his eyes were moist too. "Dawn no longer holds any fear for us."
Ever so tenderly, she kissed away his tears. "We're together. Forever this time."
Smiling, they embraced one another. And then out of the blue, a melodious song began to play: "Rabba ve... Rabba ve..."
Khushi froze in his arms. "What is that?"
"My phone." Arnav was already bending toward the nightstand, clicking it on. "Hello?"
"ARNAV!" The voice on the other end was so loud Khushi was sorely inclined to cover her ears with her hands.
"Where are you?" the man continued in a breathless rush. "You took off so suddenly. With not even a word. Is everything all right?"
"It is, Mr. Malik." Arnav's eyes lit up as they settled on her. "Everything is perfect actually. My memories are back. I'm with my wife, Khushi, now. In Lucknow."
"Wife?" an annoyingly familiar voice broke in from the other end. "Papa, it can't be!"
And Khushi could easily imagine Sheetal in her mind's eye: her face paling and contorting as she heard the news over the speakerphone.
Her father seemed to brush aside her outburst, coughing to cover up the subsequent shouts and shrieks. "You remember? I'm so happy for you, son. Enjoy your time with your family. And call me whenever you get time. I want to know all about it."
Right before he cut the call, they could hear Sheetal wailing, "That damn catering girl!" followed by the telltale sound of glass shattering. Sheetal had likely thrown a vase or two in her rage.
"I would not want to be in the Maliks' mansion right now," Arnav said with a grimace, pulling Khushi close. "Mr. Malik is a good man, but his daughter is a nightmare to be around."
"She told me she was your wife," Khushi muttered lightly, running her hands down his chest.
"What?" He caught her hand in his, staring at her with alarm. "When?"
"The night of the party. She warned me to stay away from you. But she had no idea I saw right through her lies. And she also didn't know that no one can keep the two of us apart."
He raised her hand to his lips. "No one. Least of all her. She once..." His eyes shifted away.
Khushi turned his head her way. "What did she do, love?"
His gaze was grim. "She snuck into my bedroom one night. I was dreaming about you and suddenly it all felt wrong. Even in my sleep, I knew I had the wrong woman in my arms. Nothing happened, but it sickened me when I found her in my bed, half naked."
Khushi was nibbling on her bottom lip, her eyes radiating with fire. "That witch! I would have dealt with her with much less patience if I'd known that."
He pressed a soft kiss to her temple. "Forget about Sheetal Malik, jaan. The only woman I could ever want is in my arms right now. I don't think I can be any happier except for..."
Her eyebrows rose as his voice trailed off. "Except?"
"Except for one small detail." Arnav's gaze grew serious. "I know we're husband and wife in all the ways that truly matter, but I also know how much the actual ceremony and rituals mean to you. And for the longest time, I've had this desire to see you as a bride. My bride. Will you marry me, Khushi?"
A tear slipped from the corner of her eye. She was trembling as she leaned her forehead against his. "You already know my answer. I'm yours already."
Their kiss was much more than a meshing of mouths. It was a vow and a pledge. Grinning like two kids, they relaxed on the pillows, their heads pressed close. With palpable excitement, Khushi started planning what she'd wear, the flowers, and the guest list
"And don't forget about our most special guest," she laughed. "Our child will be one of the few to actually attend his or her parents' wedding."
"Actually, jaan," Arnav murmured, "I was hoping we could get married before the baby arrives. I don't think I can wait much longer."
Her mouth fell open. "There isn't very much time left, Arnav. The baby can come anytime in the next few weeks."
He nodded, kissing her cheek. "I know, but it can all be arranged by the end of this week. What do you say?"
Khushi bit her lip. "Will that be enough time for all the guests to reach us?"
He knew exactly whom she was referring to. He smoothed his hand down her tense back. "Yes, love. It's more than enough time." As her radiant smile returned, he met her for a heady, passion-filled kiss.
"Mrs. Gupta, I'm calling about--"
"Mrs. Gupta, I'm calling about--"
"I don't care what you're calling about. We no longer have any connection to Sheesh Mahal or Lucknow or India for that matter."
Arnav's teeth gnashed together. It took him a moment to leash in his temper. When he spoke, his tone wasn't quite civil. "What about your daughter? Do you still have a connection with her?"
Garima frowned at the phone. "Are you referring to Khushi? What's happened? How do you know her? Who are you?"
Arnav's mouth curved in a lopsided smirk. "I'm the man she's getting married to. In six days actually."
There was dead silence on the other line.
"Mrs. Gupta, are you there still? Khushi doesn't know I'm calling you, but I know she'd like you all to be there. I can arrange for you all to travel here--"
"I have not forgiven her for all she put us through just months ago!" came the fuming reply. "As far as I'm concerned, I have only one daughter and that's Payal. And why are you marrying Khushi?" Garima questioned, her voice laced with scorn. "She's pregnant, you realize? Still, it's good of you to accept her in that state. You must be one of those old men who wants a family so badly you can happily accept another man's sins."
Khushi's head snapped up and Arnav only just managed to keep his composure. As she went back to sifting through the colorful array of sarees, his hand clenched on the phone, the knuckles standing out prominently.
"Not another word against Khushi, do you understand?" he seethed. "You don't deserve her love if you continue to doubt her. Did you ever trust her? And as for the baby, don't you ever refer to my child as a sin. Are you listening? It's my child! I'm the father! If you should hate anyone, it should be me."
Garima's face had whitened several shades. "Who are you?"
His smirk was downright wicked this time. "A.S.R. Arnav Singh Raizada."
Garima's eyebrows shot toward her hairline. A tremor rocked her as she clutched the phone to her ear. "That's impossible! The Raizadas all died off decades ago."
Arnav sighed, "You're clearly wrong about that too. Khushi never lied to you. I'm a Raizada and if you came to the wedding, you'd see that for yourself. It's this coming Monday. I hope you show up--for Khushi's sake at least. But if you don't, rest assured that she's very happy and that I'll cherish her. Always."
There was a long moment of silence and he could sense her shock. "Take care, Mrs. Gupta," he snapped, ending the call.
"Arnav?" Khushi called.
In Canada, Payal entered the kitchen to find her mother staring at the phone long after the line had gone dead.
Garima didn't seem to hear her, her eyes wide and shock-filled. "It's impossible. Impossible," she kept saying.
Payal caught her by the shoulders. "Amma. Amma, what is it? What's impossible?"
Her mother's face was ashen gray. "Khushi is marrying a Raizada. Arnav Singh Raizada. A man with the same initials as on that portrait. It's impossible. It has to be."
The night before their wedding, Arnav found Khushi in the rose gardens. She stood alone, swathed in a delicate, ruby red saree, amid the twinkling lights and flowers. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, laying his palms flat against her skin.
"What are you thinking about, jaan?"
Her hands rose to cover his, their fingers lacing together. "About Amma and Babuji and Jiji... I can't help but feel that I should have invited them. Perhaps they would have come."
He stilled and then bent his head, pressing his mouth to her nape. "I've called them, Khushi. Several days ago."
She whirled around to face him. "What? Why didn't you tell me?"
Arnav sighed, brushing back an errant strand of hair from her temple. "I wanted it to be a surprise. And also, I didn't want you to be hurt if they didn't show up."
She considered him for a moment and then threw her arms around his waist, laying her cheek over his heartbeat. "Amma didn't react quite as you hoped, did she?"
He began to ask how she knew, but Khushi simply shrugged. "I know you, Arnav. I can read it in your eyes... They're not coming, are they?"
He massaged his palms down the silky expanse of her back. "Truthfully, I'm not sure. I've sent them the airline tickets. Let's just hope for the best."
A soft breeze curled about them as Khushi raised her head, her lips grazing his. "Regardless of what happens, thank you for trying. I love you."
"And I love you. Now, smile for me. I won't have my bride being upset right before the wedding."
"Some bride," she laughed, pointing to her stomach. "I feel so huge these days--more like a whale than a bride."
"You're beautiful," he said and as he noticed her inky eyes fill with doubt, he lifted her in his arms, taking her to their bedroom.
"Arnav, love, what are you doing?" she murmured as he set her on the mattress.
He paused only to lock the door before kneeling near her side. "Lie back, Khushi. Let me show you how beautiful you are."
She wasn't sure what he was planning but as his mouth descended to the top of her foot, her eyes closed, an unexpected blaze of pleasure startling her.
"Arnav!" Her hands clenched on the sheets.
He raised her leg, trailing more scorching, teasing kisses along her thigh. As his hands reached for her saree, Khushi inhaled sharply. But he would not be deterred, lavishing his love and affection on each inch of her skin with single-minded focus.
As he carefully undressed her, Khushi felt her heartbeat escalate, a familiar warmth rushing through her. She could do nothing but surrender to him, enthralled by his every caress.
As the last bit of fabric slipped off her shoulder, she attempted to shield herself, very conscious suddenly of how big she'd truly become in the past eight and a half months.
His eyes were warm and understanding as they fixed on her reddened face. "Jaan, trust me."
She stared at him for a moment and then lowered her hands, lying back with a tremble.
His hands and lips settled first on her protruding abdomen, stroking gently and dropping kisses. She quivered as his hands rose to her breasts, palming the fullness. A moan escaped her throat and his mouth covered hers, eager and hot.
"Can you see now what you do to me?" Arnav asked between kisses. "Can you feel it? You're beautiful, Khushi. So very beautiful."
Khushi smiled, much of her anxiety fading away. Perhaps she wouldn't be the typical bride tomorrow, but she'd be his.
Her hands rose to his shirt buttons. "My turn," she said with an impish wink.
As night descended outside the walls of Sheesh Mahal, Khushi and Arnav lay wrapped in each other's arms, utterly blissful.
Their wedding was a small, intimate affair. Buaji was the one to help Khushi dress in her light pink lehenga choli, while Mr. Malik stayed by Arnav's side. His daughter had not been invited.
Other than a few of Khushi's school friends, the only other guest was Ms. Anita, the housekeeper who'd known Mr. Ram so well. She had been pleasantly surprised by the invitation--and by Arnav's last name. But like everyone else, she too chalked it up to a strange coincidence. There couldn't be any other plausible reason for it, could there?
"You make such a lovely bride," Buaji commented as Khushi stood before the mirror, spinning in a slow, careful circle. Underneath the ornate, beaded veil, a rose from one of Arnav's mother's rose bushes was clipped in her hair.
"Really? But the pregnancy..."
Buaji clucked her tongue, pointing toward Khushi's reflection. "It's not all that noticeable, Sanka Devi. And if anything, the glow on your face only adds to your beauty. Your groom might faint when he sees you."
"I hope not," Khushi laughed.
A knock sounded on the door and they assumed it was one of her friends, but to both their surprise, it was Payal.
Payal embraced her tightly, tears streaking her face. "I'm so happy for you, Khushi! You found your Raizada after all. I've missed you."
"I've missed you so much. Did you bring Jijaji too?"
She shook her head, wiping her tears. "No, but--" She turned toward the door. "Babuji, you can come in."
Khushi froze as her father entered, looking more somber than she'd ever seen him, the glint of tears gleaming in his eyes. "I'm sorry, bitiya," he said. "So very sorry for how distant and cold we've been to you... How we've treated you."
She felt moistness coating her cheeks. Her throat felt heavy. She could say nothing more than: "I've missed you... Amma?"
Payal set her hand on her shoulder, her voice strained. "Amma refused to come, Khushi. I think she needs more time. It's just us. We wanted to be here for your wedding."
"Do you forgive us, bitiya?"
It was in many ways not much of a decision for Khushi to make. As she stood there, dressed in all her glittering finery for a wedding that was no short of a miracle in her eyes, she realized she didn't want to hold onto any bitterness of the past.
Besides, her heart felt entirely engulfed with her love for Arnav, their child and her family. There simply wasn't any room for resentment or regrets. Nodding, she managed a teary smile. "I'm so glad you both came."
Buaji sniffled into her handkerchief as the three embraced. "We should get going. Someone must be waiting for his bride very impatiently." Smiling, she held open the door.
By the time Khushi stepped out into the gardens, her family beside her, her makeup touched up, and the sun shining down on her, her heart was pounding.
A mandap and circle of white chairs had been arranged in the center of Sheesh Mahal's main grounds. Majestic curtains billowed from towering pillars, roses of every color everywhere. The guests craned their necks in her direction as a familiar tune signaled her approach: "Rabba ve... Rabba ve..."
As Khushi caught sight of Arnav, everything else seemed to fade away. He was dressed impeccably, his eyes twinkling as she walked toward him. Time seemed to move fast and she was suddenly at his side, their hands entwining.
"You're beautiful, Khushi," he murmured for her ears alone. "Do you know how much I love you?"
She swallowed, tears gathering in her eyes as she marveled again about how unlikely this all was. But no distance had been insurmountable for their love and ultimately, even time had bowed down to it.
"As much as I've always loved you," she whispered.
The priest called them then and side-by-side, they completed every ritual. It was like reliving a memory, except this time they were the bride and groom and not the anxious guests awaiting Aman's arrival. Khushi vividly recalled the same exact prayers being read that night at Anjali's wedding. Arnav was right; some things would never change.
As they stood for the pheras, seven rounds around the holy fire that would unite them as husband and wife, she nibbled on her bottom lip, eyeing the nearby flames worriedly.
"What is it?" Arnav murmured.
"It's just going to be a bit difficult to walk when I can't see my feet. Can you hold my hand?"
He did much more than that, lifting her up in his arms.
"Arnav! Is this even allowed?"
"Of course it is."
As their guests smiled on, throwing an endless stream of rose petals, Khushi and Arnav kept their eyes on one another, circling the flickering flames.
"I love you," Khushi could only whisper as he swept sindoor in her parting and clasped the traditional gold and black beaded necklace about her neck. Her throat felt choked with emotions and tears clung to her eyelashes.
His eyes shone and he raised her hand for a searing kiss. "And I love you. I always have. I always will."
The dinner that followed felt almost like a small family gathering. Khushi began to introduce Arnav to her family, but realized they'd already met.
"Arnavji was the one who told us to speak to you before the wedding," Payal explained.
That wasn't the first surprise of the night. Soon after the cake had been cut and dessert been served, Ms. Anita took Arnav and Khushi aside, handing them a thick, wrinkly book.
They exchanged a confused glance, but she gave nothing away, telling them to look inside. Khushi gasped as she flipped the page.
This diary belongs to Ram Mathur, the inscription stated in a fine, wispy script. Taped below was a black and white photograph of an aged Anjali, Aman and a teenage boy with unruly, curly hair, bright smiles on all their faces.
Arnav stared at the photo for a long moment, blinking several times, and Khushi squeezed his hand, her eyes moist too.
"He wanted you to have it," Ms. Anita told Khushi in a low voice. "Do you remember that rainy afternoon you visited us for the first time? That very day he told me to give it to you on your wedding day, along with this note." She pulled out a small envelope from her purse. "I'm just sorry he's not here to give this to you himself."
"We'll always cherish it," Khushi said and then surprising Ms. Anita, she embraced her. "Thank you."
The stern-faced housekeeper smiled, lightly patting her back as she stepped back. "Congratulations to both of you again."
Khushi stared down at the envelope in her hands. "Should I open it now?" she asked her husband.
"I don't see why not," murmured Arnav. "Your name is on it after all. Go ahead, Mrs. Raizada."
Pecking him on the cheek, Khushi broke the seal. The letter inside was in the same handwriting as the diary and Arnav and Khushi held onto one another as they silently read:
You left my house moments ago completely distraught, mourning a man's death that had occurred roughly a hundred years ago. Perhaps I am growing senile, but you reminded me so much of the Khushi my mother spoke of that I couldn't help but tell you the truth.
No one ever met Chote Uncle's Khushi, but he told my mother about her--about how brave, lovely, and resilient she was. How she loved him with her whole heart and soul. I saw those same emotions in your eyes. Strange, isn't it? Or perhaps, not strange at all.
You see, before I retired and turned to a quiet life of poetry and Ms. Anita's wonderful companionship, I was a researcher, studying the quantums of time and space. To me, time is a marvel, a mystery few can decipher. When I saw you, my mind went immediately to the uncle I never knew. His body was never recovered. And then you show up on my doorstep, asking about him, with concern and--dare I say it--love in your eyes.
I do not know what challenges you must have faced, but I know it must not have been easy by any means. Some may call me a crazy, old man, but I am convinced that you will find your happiness, your destiny. I am so delighted I could be a small part of that journey. Congratulations on your wedding and may you and Chote Uncle be showered with all the joy and peace you both so rightly deserve. Welcome to the family.
With all my love,
Ps. Chote Uncle, if you are reading this, please know that my parents never once forgot you. Mother missed you terribly, but she too never accepted the explanation of your death. She prayed often that you would find your love as she had. You were my parents' matchmaker, weren't you?
Pss. I sincerely hope I don't spoil your evening with any tears. Something tells me one day, we will all be reunited. Till then.
They were both crying as they finished reading. "He knew," Khushi whispered with wonder. "He knew all along."
Swallowing thickly, Arnav nodded. "I wish I could have met him once. The information he gave you was invaluable."
Khushi brushed aside his tears. "We'll meet one day, Arnav."
"Do you really think so?"
"I hope so," she corrected, smiling.
Arnav and Khushi were still marveling over the letter and diary--it was full of pictures of Anjali and her family--when Mr. Malik stepped before them.
"I want you to have this," he said. "It's your wedding gift from me."
As Arnav read the file, his eyes widened. "Mr. Malik, this is too much--"
"You've earned it. The deed of Sheesh Mahal is yours." He turned toward Khushi, his gaze the same shade as his daughter's though not the least bit frosty. "And yours, my dear."
Arnav shook his hand, embracing the man who'd been more of a father to him than his own. "Thank you. You don't know how much this means to us."
Mr. Malik nodded at them, smiling as he strode away as suddenly as he'd appeared.
"Can you believe it?" Arnav cried. "If there are any more surprises, I'm not sure I'll be left standing."
Khushi raised her eyes guiltily, chewing on her bottom lip. He stopped her with a gentle caress, his fingers featherlight against her lips.
"You're awfully quiet, jaan. What's bothering you?"
"Don't panic," she whispered, setting his hand on her abdomen. "But there's one more surprise... I think the baby is coming."
And sure enough, her first contraction crashed into her just then. Arnav caught her in his arms, utterly stunned.
Fateful Love by Tina!
Chapter 19: Parenthood
A cacophony of loud, incessant horns and curses filled the muggy night air. Traffic on Lucknow's main intersection had come to a grating halt, backing up in a winding chain of trucks, cars and old rickshaws. Many of the drivers had lowered their windows, some craning to get a better look, others shouting expletives. For Arnav, the ruckus only added to his restlessness.
Seated in the back seat of his jeep, his heavily pregnant wife half-draped over his lap, he was battling his worst fears, more tense and impatient than ever before.
"Why isn't the traffic moving, dammit!" he yelled at the driver, a nervous-looking man who had till now never given him any cause to complain. "Do something!"
The man gestured helplessly. "The roads ahead are blocked, Sir."
"Then find a new route! Call an ambulance! We need to get to the hos--" His voice cut off abruptly.
Because in his arms, Khushi was shifting again, twisting and jerking, her eyes tightly closed. One hand rested on her burgeoning belly while the other clutched his. He squeezed her hand reassuringly, worry darkening his deep-set, compelling eyes.
"Jaan? Jaan, I'm here. Grip my hand."
She braced herself against him, her head falling back as a wall of pain slammed into her. The contraction was not her first, but its force caught her by surprise. She didn't want to alarm him, but she couldn't seem to keep it bottled inside. Moaning his name, she flailed in his arms.
"I'm here, Khushi. I'm here." Panic choked him as he observed her struggle. If only he could take her pain away, he lamented. Smoothing back sweaty tendrils of her hair, he peppered featherlight, achingly tender kisses over her upturned face. "Khushi, don't worry, we're almost at the hospital. We're no more than ten minutes away now."
Her face was much too pale as she nodded, holding onto him in a white-knuckled grip. Rocking her in his arms, Arnav crooned to her, whispering things only she could hear. It seemed to help for a few minutes, but the pain returned all too soon.
An awful, agony-filled sob erupted from Khushi's throat as if she could no longer contain it. As if she was doing her best not to be vocal and frighten him, Arnav realized with a start.
Would she ever cease to amaze him?
Here she was, worrying about him when all that mattered right now was her well-being and the baby's--the child that according to reason and logic, could not possibly exist. But he or she did, and would be arriving soon to prove it. In contrast to that budding urgency, the traffic outside had not yet moved.
"Did you call an ambulance?" Arnav hollered, his face lined with tension. "Where the hell is it?"
The driver glanced uneasily over his shoulder, his phone pressed to his ear. "The ambulance can't get through, Mr. Raizada. They're saying to turn around and try another hospital."
"There isn't time for that! And we're so close!" Dammit, he could see the hospital! They couldn't be more than four or five miles from it. As more horns blared around them and Khushi flattened her mouth against his shirt to veil her shout, he could no longer sit still.
As the driver watched astounded, Arnav kicked open the door, jumped out and carefully lifted his wife into his arms. And then he was running, sprinting as fast as he could without jostling her.
"Arnav! What are you doing?" Khushi's face was contorted with pain. "You can't run the whole way like this. It's too far!"
He hoisted her higher, adrenaline pumping through him. He could do this. He must. "I can, jaan. Just hold onto me."
More than his words, it was the blazing determination she glimpsed in his eyes that pacified Khushi. Doing her best to ignore the discomfort, she did as he instructed: she held onto him.
They made quite a sight as they ran past a never-ending line of cars, past small corner shops and seedy looking bars, and toward the red cross that glowed ahead--all the while dressed in their wedding finery, her shimmering dupatta wafting behind them.
Arnav was breathing hard, but he never once faltered. Ahead, under the dim glow of the streetlights, he could see the outline of the hospital. It appeared eerily similar to what he remembered from months ago.
The building was tall and stately looking with its nondescript windows and mammoth pillars and glasswork. It may not have changed, but he had. For him, his entire life had transformed since that fateful day on January 21st.
That morning, led by Mr. Malik and his pestering daughter, he'd arrived at this very same hospital, struggling to make sense of time and place. Without any sense of direction, of belonging, he'd been left untethered, feeling lost and confused and more than a little miserable. Nothing had made much sense. All he'd known was that there was a void within him, an emptiness that refused to go away.
He knew now what--or rather who--he'd been missing so terribly. He was holding her in his arms.
Cradling Khushi against his chest, Arnav hurried toward the entrance, his heartbeat wildly out of control. Somewhere behind him, much of their wedding party was likely still stuck in traffic. He knew they had to be worried sick, especially Buaji, Khushi's father, and sister. They were probably trying to reach him on his phone, but in his haste, he'd left the device behind in the car. In his mind's eye, he saw the phone lighting up with concerned messages and missed calls. But he could not focus on that. Not now.
His entire being was centered on the precious weight in his arms. Khushi was shaking, her face colorless and contorted with pain. The contractions kept coming, stronger with every passing.
"Arnav," she moaned, her head rolling on his shoulder. Her fingers fisted on his sherwani, tears slipping from the corners of her eyes and staining the fine silk. "Arnav...it hurts."
A sharp bolt of pain shot right through his heart, piercing his soul. Pressing his lips to her forehead, he searched wildly for help, but found none. "Almost there, love. Almost there." His pace hastened.
Khushi buried her face against his neck, her breath hot and distinctly shallow. Though her arms remained curled around him, her grip was weakening, gradually coming undone. It scared the hell of out of him.
He hadn't expected this. Though he'd known childbirth carried with it the possibility of complications--complications so worrisome he'd spent several nights unable to sleep properly just thinking of them--he hadn't anticipated how utterly terrifying it could be.
In his time, it had been downright risky and unpredictable. One of his aunts had perished during the birth of her first child, and Aman's mother had succumbed to a similar tragic fate when he was just two years old. But Khushi had insisted that medicine had progressed greatly since the 1920s. She'd explained how things rarely went wrong these days--and had taken him to her last few doctor appointments to confirm it.
His worry had diminished after that, though not completely, and whenever Khushi noticed that same anxiousness return, she'd embrace him, telling him in an ever patient, gentle tone: "Everything will be fine, love. You'll see."
But what if something did go wrong? What if his worst fears came true? Full-blown panic threatened to overwhelm him. Destroy him with its sheer force and send him toppling to his knees.
But his heart would not allow that. He kept going, focusing on one foot before the other on the gravely road. One step, then another, countless more remaining.
"We're almost there, jaan. Almost," he reassured her as well as himself. They were so close.
His muscles were screaming as he crossed the final road, weaving in between several dusty truck and bikes. Heads turned their way; several people stopped and stared. Arnav ignored all that. He wasn't much aware of anything except his wife. Her heartbeat was galloping against him, the rhythm strangely enough matching his. Pressing another firm kiss to Khushi's clammy forehead, he jogged to the entrance.
The glass doors automatically sensed his approach, sliding open as if by magic. A few medical personnel were gathered nearby, and as soon as they saw them, they were up and standing, calling for things he didn't fully understand.
Panting, he managed to state the obvious. "My wife...She's having a baby."
One of the women in light blue scrubs stepped forward, motioning to the person behind him and at the same time, asking a string of questions. "Her name? Does she have a doctor? How long has she been in labor?"
"Khushi Raizada." He could only answer the first question with reasonable surety. His mind was suddenly blanking on the name of the doctor, so he did his best to describe her. "She's elderly, curly hair, her office is on the next street. And what do you mean by labor?" He wasn't familiar with that term. "How can my wife do any sort of labor in this state?" He looked at the woman as if she'd lost her mind.
Unlike him, Khushi didn't seem too outraged, squeezing his hand. "She means when the contractions started." she explained, turning toward the woman who looked not too taken aback. It appeared as if she was used to the outlandish talks of first-time fathers.
Thankfully, Khushi did remember the name of the doctor and went on to answer the remaining questions with remarkable calm.
The woman was satisfied, motioning urgently toward a young man. He was pushing a wheelchair. "You can set your wife down here, Mr. Raizada. And then you'll need to complete these forms."
He barely heard her, all his attention was directed to carefully placing Khushi on the extra wide, odd-looking chair. He kneeled beside her, his gaze fastened on her delicate features and his arm curled around her shoulder. He hated to relinquish his hold on her. Though the run here had been difficult and too painfully slow for his liking, it had given him something to do. Now, he felt the same helplessness descend. His jaw clenched with tension as his arm fell to his side.
"Are you okay?"
Khushi nodded, a weak smile curving her full lips. He started to straighten, but her hand rose to smooth over his cheek, the touch featherlight. "You got us here, love. Don't worry. Everything will be okay now."
Tilting his head, he kissed her palm and then took it in his, weaving their fingers together in a snug grip. He would not leave her side. Let anyone try!
In his time, there had been no hospitals quite like this one. Every Raizada thus far had been born in Sheesh Mahal. The custom had been for the husband to remain outside the bedroom, left to pace and wring his hands as shouts erupted every now and then and the midwife hollered for additional supplies. He could not imagine it. He knew that even if this had been the 1920s, he would have stayed beside her, traditions be damned!
No matter what the year was, the most basic truth of his life remained unchanged: he couldn't bear to be separated from Khushi.
He didn't know how they'd managed to be apart for years before, but now he simply could not stomach her absence for even mere hours--especially not when he knew she needed him, when he knew she was just as lost and terrified as him. The thought of being parted was painful, akin to death itself. But Khushi had reassured him that nothing like that would happen here. Husbands were allowed in the hospital room these days.
"Everything will be fine," she repeated, knowing him all too well.
He kissed her forehead and stood, trying to smile at her, to say something reassuring, but just then, his gaze happened to fall on his sherwani.
His stomach rolled. His heart lurched. The room seemed to spin.
Blood, thick and scarlet red, smeared his front. But what horrified him most was whose blood it was. His wife's blood...His Khushi's blood...
"He's going to fall!" he heard Khushi scream as if from a great distance.
"No, I'm not--" he began to protest. His vision blurred and then darkened like a narrowing tunnel. He felt his feet slide on the tiles and was vaguely aware of several hands reaching out, catching him.
And then there was blackness. An impenetrable darkness that held nothing except one fear. His worst fear.
That he'd lose her and their child. That he'd lose everything all over again. He didn't know what was happening, didn't know why it was all so dark, didn't know where Khushi was, how she was, but he knew one thing: if his fear did come true, this time he would not survive the blow. It would be the end of Arnav Singh Raizada.
Khushi hardly felt the pinprick of the needle as it prodded the taut skin of her forearm, her head turning toward the opposite side of the room. The private hospital suite was roomy compared to most, but it had never been meant for two patients.
Close enough to almost touch, Arnav lay on a narrow hospital bed, his body completely lax. Extending her arm toward him, she asked the nurse, "Could you please check on him again?" Her fingertips fell just short of his bed railing.
The woman, middle aged with a kind face and silver at her temples, raised an eyebrow. "I just did, Mrs. Raizada, and so has the doctor. Your husband should up very soon. He's just fainted. It's you and the little one who need our full attention. Please, stop moving."
Her arm slowly retracted, her gaze tracing over her husband's still form. "You're sure he's all right?"
"Absolutely. Any second now, he'll be coming to."
Khushi wasn't content with that response. She wanted her husband to open his strikingly soulful eyes and say something...anything... Only then would her heart calm down. "Arnav? Love, can you hear me? I--"
Her voice broke off abruptly. She cried out as a contraction crashed into her, stretching and twisting her insides. Her hands clamped on the sides of the bed. "ARNAV!"
"Khushi?" His eyes blinked open slowly, not recognizing for a moment where he was. A bright white light beamed down from the ceiling, reminding him of another place like this, of a voice he'd once heard, a choice. As his head hammered and throbbed, his gaze fell to his chest. He was wearing a strange, long shirt with buttons at the neck. Something you'd see in a hospital. The last word struck a chord.
Hospital. Images flashed: running with Khushi in his arms toward the glowing red cross. Setting her on the wheelchair. Her blood all over him.
His head swerved to the left. Khushi was yelling for him, her eyes squeezed close as pain rippled through her.
He shot up with a jerk and immediately several hands pressed him down. "Not so fast. Slowly, Mr. Raizada."
He struggled as if time itself was keeping him from her. "No! I need to go to her! Move out of my way!"
Khushi felt the pain recede slightly and her eyes flew open, finding him at once. Her husband looked confused, very concerned for her, and highly irritated with the staff, but otherwise fine. She exhaled. "Arnav! Arnav, it's okay. Listen to her. I'm okay."
"Relax, love. Here, hold my hand."
He rolled onto his side on the bed, reaching for her. This time, their hands met, entwining as if they'd been made to conform like this. Two halves now joined.
"You were bleeding," he murmured, his heartbeat quickening. "God, Khushi, there was so much blood. How can you possibly be all right?"
"It's controlled now. And I am more than all right." A soft, tired smile curved her lips. "Now that you're with me."
He swallowed, his eyes bright. "Always. How long was I unconscious?"
"Not too long, but every moment felt like forever." It was no exaggeration, his fall had terrified her, his stillness had wrenched her heart apart, making her momentarily forget the agony biting into her midsection. Put simply, Arnav was no longer just her best friend, the one she'd spent her nights talking with and her days pining for, he was her husband, the father of her child, the man she couldn't imagine breathing, much less living, without. He was her heart and soul.
Her voice rose from a whisper as the nurses stepped out of the room, leaving them blissfully alone. "Arnav, if you weren't with me today... well, I don't know how I'd have managed. I need you so much."
He squeezed her hand. "And I need you. But Khushi, even if I wasn't here, even if something had gone terribly wrong, you would have found a way--just as you did for the first eight months of this pregnancy. You, Khushi Raizada, are the strongest woman I've ever known." His gaze paused on her with a look of pure longing and affection. "And besides, we've gone through much worse and vastly more confusing struggles. We can get through anything."
His words made her smile, tears pooling in her eyes. "We have gone through so much, haven't we? Sometimes I still think I could lose you. That the last few weeks are nothing but a beautiful, magical dream and I'm going to wake up in our bed, all alone. I'll never see your face again or hear the sound of your voice. Once, I truly thought I had. But this baby--" She caressed her abdomen with her free hand. "--saved me. After Ms. Anita told me about your car accident, all my strength seemed to fade. I'd been hopeful throughout, always optimistic, but at that moment, it all came crashing down. Everything seemed to end. But then, the very next morning, I received the news that would change my life. I found out about this baby...our baby... How could I give up when I carried a part of you within me? When our love was growing inside of me? I couldn't." Tears rolled down her cheeks and into her hair. Her breath hitched as she saw him swing his legs out of the bed, heading to her side with a glint of determination and purpose in his eyes.
"Arnav, you heard the nurses. You need to rest for awhile and--"
"I'm fine now. Truly. Give me your hand, jaan." Khushi watched stupefied as he took her hand, raising it to his mouth, his other hand braced on the railing for support.
A warm sense of peace blanketed her at his touch. "I'm so thankful that you're here with me. So thankful."
Arnav grazed his lips over her palm again. "I am too. I don't know how it happened exactly. I don't know if we'll ever have all our questions answered, but the point is, it did happen. This is no dream and nothing can tear us apart again. We're together for the rest of our lives now."
"Together." Could there be a more beautiful word than that? She started to reach for him when a wall of agony slammed into her. She whimpered, her head thrashing. The nurses rushed in, instructing her on how to breathe and position herself.
"How long will it be?" Arnav asked from beside her, his voice roughened. "How much longer till the...labor...ends?"
"It ranges, Mr. Raizada. From as little as six to fourteen hours and more. But it will be sometime tonight or tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow?" His mouth parted with shock, the anguish in his tone palpable. "A whole night of this? Can't you do something? Don't you see how much pain she's in?"
"She's refused an epidural."
"She's refused an epidural."
"Arnav..." Khushi's grip relaxed a bit as the contraction subsided. "Like you said, we've gone through so much together. This will be fairly easy compared to all that."
His gaze was turbulent as he considered her, giving a curt nod of thanks to the nurse who pointed him toward the chair in the corner. He pulled it to Khushi's side, bending low so their faces were pressed close.
"You can do this, jaan. I'm with you. Every step." She laced her fingers with his in answer and Arnav finally smiled, kissing her smooth cheek.
The night that followed was long and in some ways, never-ending. Khushi clung to her husband, turning to him each time for reassurance. He calmed her as only he could, the simple touch of his hand soothing her as a tide of pain crashed into her again and again like the constant ebb and flow of ocean waves. In between, in the moments of calm, they talked much as they always had.
"Do you realize what's coming soon, love?" she asked him.
"The baby, I hope."
Khushi laughed. "I meant Valentine's day. Still a while to go but it'll be the first time we'll be together on that day after so many years."
A faint smile curved his lips and he brushed sweaty tendrils of her hair aside. "I remember. Last time, you explained to me what it all meant. You gave me that rose from Ma's garden."
"And you kept it safe. All through those years in between." Her heart squeezed as she gazed at him adoringly. "I found the dried up petals and stem in your trunk."
"I cherished that gift." His eyes crossed over her face as if he'd never get his fill of her. "Because it was from you. Whenever I missed you, I'd bring it out of the box and it would feel as if you were close to me. It was calming to know that you had once touched those same petals. That your essence, in some strange way, clung to them still."
She turned sideways to kiss his palm. "We might have been apart physically, but you were never far from my thoughts. And my heart...well that was always yours."
"Just as mine is yours. Only yours, jaan."
"Arnav, I--" She gasped as another contraction hit, much stronger, the tightness and pain sweeping up and over her torso. "Arnav!"
He kissed her hand, his gaze worry-willed. "I'm here. I'm here, Khushi. You're doing so well. Focus on your breathing, jaan."
"It hurts!" A broken whimper escaped her lips.
He wished for the hundredth time that he could take her pain away, but he couldn't. Instead, he tried another tactic. "You gave me a rose on that Valentine's day, but do you remember when I first gave you flowers?"
The pain lessened with his voice, and it slowly edged away. Trembling, Khushi clutched his hand. "I remember. It was when we were kids, racing through the gardens after sunset. I was furious because you said I was too old for any more piggyback rides."
"And you started to cry. I felt awful."
She smiled wistfully at the shared memory. It was bright and vivid still. "I was quite dramatic as a child. Even when you tried to take back your words, I wouldn't listen to you."
"You did stomp away rather dramatically. But I found it endearing. I couldn't stay away no matter how many teary glares you aimed my way."
Khushi stroked his fingers. "You chased after me from what I recall. And even though I tried to stay angry, I was really curious about what you were hiding behind your back."
Arnav brushed back a few wayward strands of hair from her temple. "And when I gave you the bouquet of wildflowers, you smiled like I gave you the world."
"They weren't just any wildflowers. To me, they were beautiful, magical," Khushi said. "I forgave you soon after that."
"But you still demanded a piggyback ride," he pointed out with a grin.
"Of course. I made you lift me up then and there."
"I was more than happy to."
They smiled at one another and then someone coughed. "Mr. and Mrs. Raizada," the nurse said, hating to interrupt them. She'd seen all sorts of couples during her time at the hospital, but there was something about these two. A baffling affinity and certainly a friendship as well as a very tangible love. "Your family members are in the waiting room."
"Thank you for telling us." She turned to her husband. "Tell them not to worry and head back home. It's very late, almost morning."
"I will." He kissed her on the forehead and started to go, but Khushi caught his wrist, giggling.
He raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Your hospital gown... it's a bit untied in the back. Turn around."
His cheekbones reddened a shade or two and she tied the knot extra hard. "Relax, only I saw, love. There you go. All done."
He lowered his head to kiss her forehead. "Thanks," he gruffly replied, striding out. As the door closed, he glanced back and their eyes met for a fleeting second.
"You two really love each other, don't you?" murmured the nurse after a pause.
Khushi smiled, nodding. "Love doesn't begin to describe what I feel for him. He and this baby mean the world to me."
"It's rare what you two share."
"You don't know the half of it," Khushi whispered under her breath, wondering what the woman would say if she mentioned the words time travel. Perhaps she'd faint herself.
"What was that?"
She arched a brow. "What was what?"
"I could have sworn you said something."
There was a tap on the door and Arnav strode in, saving her from more questions and taking his spot beside her again. He looked thoroughly exasperated.
"That was fast." She glanced at the time. Not quite three minutes had passed since he'd stepped out.
"I didn't want to leave you alone for even a second, but you were right, everyone needed to be informed."
"Well? What did they say?"
"They're not leaving--that's what." Arnav sighed. "I really tried, but Buaji is more stubborn than even you can be. I see where you get it from." His gaze softened.
Khushi stuck out her tongue at him. "But it might be hours more. They should go home and rest and come back later."
"I know, but they don't want to get stuck in the traffic jam again. It took them hours to get here."
"We'd have been stuck too if not for you."
"I wouldn't have let anything happen to you and the baby, Khushi."
"I know." They smiled at one another and slowly, time ticked by.
When the first light of dawn appeared over the horizon, washing over them in golden rivulets, a sheet had been drawn over Khushi and though she couldn't see what was happening, she more than felt it.
Shouting, her grip on Arnav's hand tightened. If it was numbing or too uncomfortable, he didn't say. He hadn't once left her side, and as pain rippled and sliced through her, she was dimly aware of how exhausted he appeared, his eyes bloodshot and his face creased with lines.
"Push, Mrs. Raizada. You need to keep pushing!" someone shouted.
She struggled through it, and felt herself go limp, tears streaming down her face. "Arnav, I can't! I just can't anymore."
He forced her to turn his way, his gaze intent on her. "Look at me, jaan. You can do this. Think of the baby. Focus on that love. Come on, jaan, push. Push and it'll be all over. Push!"
Khushi thought about how much she loved their baby, how much she loved her husband, and how very close they were to having a family of their own. And swiftly, seemingly from her heart itself, a burst of strength washed over her. Bracing against him, she bore down, her head falling backward, his name on her lips.
A sudden wail pierced the still air.
Arnav froze as he heard it, wondering if he'd imagined it. But it was real, and it came once more, loud and strong.
"It's a girl. A healthy baby girl."
A tear slipped out of his eye and he fell against Khushi, hugging her as well as he could. She ran her fingers through his hair, holding him as his shoulders heaved and shook. Their faces were wet as they drew back, but both were smiling too.
"I love you, Khushi. How much I love you."
"And I love you."
The nurse stepped to the side opposite Arnav, a swaddled bundle in her hands. "Your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Raizada. Congratulations."
Khushi felt her breath suspend as she took her daughter into her arms for the first time. Their miracle. The only one, besides them, who'd crossed the span of a hundred years. "She's so beautiful. So perfect. Arnav, love, look. Look at our daughter."
He didn't bother to hide his tears, sitting beside them on the bed and brushing his finger ever so carefully across the baby's warm, downy soft cheek. His chest constricted as he looked for the first time at the child he'd often wished for, but never believed he would ever hold.
"Would you like to hold her?"
He smiled at his wife. Leave it to her to know exactly what was on his mind. "My arms don't feel steady right now." Nothing did. "What if I drop her?"
"You won't, love. And I'm here." With a gentle smile, Khushi eased the bundle into his arms.
A rush of love shot through Arnav as he studied his daughter. She was warm and so very small with a button nose, a slight tuft of dark hair, and long, fanning eyelashes. As she turned her head sideways, he could have sworn he saw a dimple.
"Just like your mother," Khushi said in awe as he pointed it out. "But that stubborn jaw line is definitely all you."
"And the eyes..." Dark and beguiling with a playful twinkle. "Her eyes are just like yours."
Khushi lowered her head to kiss the top of the baby's head. "What should we name our angel?"
His eyebrows rose. "You haven't decided yet? I've seen you and your list of names countless times."
Khushi shook her head, her eyes lighting up much like her daughter's as she watched him rock the baby side to side, crooning in a low voice.
"I want you to name her," she said. "Having you and our daughter with me is all I ever wanted. This was my wish, my miracle and it happened--against all odds. You name her, Arnav. And with our next baby, I will. We'll take turns as we always do."
"Next baby? You want to go through this again?" He looked at her as if she had truly lost her senses.
Khushi bit back a laugh, nodding. "I admit it wasn't easy--not at all at some points--but it was worth it in the end." Her gaze warmed as it rested on him and the baby. "This makes it all worth it and more."
He stared at her for a long moment with misty-eyed disbelief, carefully handing their daughter back. "You really amaze me. Truly, you women have incredible strength. I've seen for myself tonight how difficult it is to bring life into this world. The amount of pain and uncertainty... and you not only endured it all, you're actually planning more of it!"
Khushi shrugged. "I saw you tonight too. Saw how hard you struggled not to breakdown. I can't imagine being in your place for all that time."
"It was incredibly difficult, but now..." His gaze flew down to the baby. "It's all worth it. Like you said."
"Do you have a name in mind?" Thus far, he'd remained tight-lipped about his opinion on all the names she'd suggested--no matter how much she'd badgered him. He'd told her she could decide the name; all he wanted was for her and the child to be healthy.
But Arnav surprised her, nodding with a wry grin. "I have for some time now actually."
Her lips parted. "And you haven't told me? Love, tell me. What is our daughter's name?"
"You are my jaan." He kissed her softly and then pressed a featherlight kiss to their daughter's cheek. "So this beautiful angel has to be Jaanvi."
"Jaanvi," Khushi breathed, smiling as the name rolled off her tongue. "It's perfect. Just perfect."
"Like mother, like daughter."
Khushi beamed at him, reminded suddenly of the first time they'd met. The night he'd walked into her bedroom and as fate would have it, straight into her heart. Her eyes filled with tears.
His grin vanished instantly, concern blooming in his eyes. "Khushi? Jaan, what is it? Have I upset you?"
"No. Of course not."
Pulling him close, she kissed him lightly on the mouth. "I was just thinking about how unlikely this all is."
Arnav knew exactly what she meant. "Unlikely it might be, but in our case, not impossible. We were meant to meet, to become friends, to fall in love."
She leaned her head on his shoulder, nodding. "We both came from broken families. In our own time, no one seemed to understand that pain. You couldn't share it with Di, she was too shattered already, and I hesitated to tell the Guptas. They found me strange as it was, even spoke of taking me to a mental asylum. We were both so alone... Two orphans who longed for a true home again, for love and family."
"We have a family now," Arnav said. "You, me, and Jaanvi."
He kissed away her tears, embracing her tightly. "Our family," he echoed.
The next several hours were chaotic. There was a long line of very impatient visitors waiting to see the newborn baby. Khushi's father and sister were overjoyed, and though both wished nothing more than to remain a couple of weeks extra, they had a flight to catch in three days' time. Things were pending in Canada, Payal explained, several important commitments. Plus, her husband had suddenly arrived and he was restless to get back to work.
Khushi and Arnav were shocked more by the man's appearance than his sudden arrival. Tall and thin with wavy hair and metal-rimmed spectacles, he bore an uncanny resemblance to someone they'd once known.
"Khushi, Arnavji, this is Akash Mehra, my husband."
The man smiled. "Nice to meet you both."
Khushi struggled to reply, blinking at him. She'd seen this face before--at Anjali's first wedding, weaving through the guests. Arnav had too--he'd shared a room with his cousin in Delhi for several years.
"Akash? Are you related to Akash Raizada from Delhi?"
Payal and her husband shared a perplexed glance. "Not that I'm aware of. Is he your relative?"
It was Khushi who answered. "Yes, though not now. He lived a hundred years ago."
"Raizada..." Akash's doppelganger thought hard. "Well I am named for one of my great-grandfathers, but I don't know very much about him. He was from Delhi, I think. You know how it is, with time, people forget and lose touch with the past."
Arnav and Khushi processed the information slowly, watching him smile and greet Jaanvi.
"You don't think he's that Akash, do you?" she whispered in a low tone for her husband's ears alone.
Arnav shook his head. "No, look at his nose and chin. They're not at all like my cousin's. He's a descendent of Akash's, but the resemblance is very striking."
"Not to mention spooky." It was like looking at a ghost.
"Let me call Amma," Payal broke in with a wide smile.
Arnav and Khushi exchanged a doubtful look, but neither stopped her. The phone rang several times and they heard her mother clearly ask, "Payal? Why are you calling so late? Has something happened?"
"Something wonderful, Amma. Khushi's had a baby! A few hours back! An adorable baby girl! You're a grandmother now." There was a long pause. Payal's eyebrows knitted together. "Amma? Amma, are you there?"
The only reply was the line being cut on the other end. Payal looked startled and she couldn't quite hide her shock. "I think it must be a bad connection," she tried to cover politely. "I'll try again later."
Khushi would be lying if she said she wasn't hurt in the slightest. Her mother's indifference did hurt. A lot. But was she her mother? Had she ever accepted her? Trusted her? Arnav squeezed her shoulder and she managed a smile. "As you wish, Jiji. I'm just happy you, Babuji, and Akash jiju could be here today."
"We are too."
"Let me through," a booming voice announced. "It's my turn." Buaji was smiling the widest as she went to Khushi's side. "How are you feeling, Sanka Devi?"
"Exhausted, slightly hungry, but happier than ever."
"You look very well all things considered." Her aunt took the napping baby in her arms, staring down at her. "As for this one..."
Khushi and Arnav exchanged a smie. "Well, Buaji?" he asked.
"She looks just like how Sanka Devi looked the day she was born. I'm going to call her Sanki." The group laughed, and Khushi turned sideways to hug the woman who'd stood by her when no one else had. "I love you, Buaji. Thank you."
Arnav climbed out of the bed, hugging her too. "Yes, thank you, Buaji. For all you've done for us."
Buaji raised her finger, glaring at the pair warningly. "If either one of you thanks me one more time, you're going to be very sorry. I'll make you eat that whole wedding dinner from last night in one go--by yourself!" Her smile was warm. "I love you two--well now three."
"We love you too, Buaji."
Mrs. Anita and Mr. Malik were the last to enter the crowded hospital room, their faces bright and smiling as they congratulated the pair.
"It's strange, but she looks a bit like Mr. Ram's mother," commented the old housekeeper.
Arnav and Khushi wished they could tell her why that exactly was, but some things would never be accepted no matter the amount of proof, and time travel was definitely one.
Babuji, Payal, and her husband (whom Arnav and Khushi had taken to calling "Ghosty" privately) left later that week and the same afternoon, Buaji too departed for Delhi.
Arnav, Khushi, and Jaanvi settled into Sheesh Mahal almost seamlessly, quickly becoming adept at changing diapers, off-tune lullabies, and all manner of baby talk. Unlike other new parents, the late nights and earsplitting wails at 3 AM were not too much trouble. They were quite used to staying awake all night and falling asleep at dawn. Jaanvi, it seemed, was still on that old schedule.
With her arrival, other things changed at Sheesh Mahal too, particularly in their bedroom.
Though the white, canopy bed remained in its fixed spot, the room had been taken over by the baby's things. Along with Arnav's old, black and white portrait, dated 1925, large, framed photographs of the three of them covered the once empty walls. Toys and stuffed animals littered the carpet and a crib and rocking chair had taken over one section completely. Some day, their daughter would shift to the pink bedroom that had once belonged to their sisters at different points of time, but for now, they were averse to letting her out of their sight.
One night, almost three months since Jaanvi's birth, Arnav woke to find the bed empty beside him. Even in sleep, he'd known that Khushi was no longer near. He might have panicked, but he heard the faint creak of the rocking chair in the corner.
Khushi was sitting beside the window, breastfeeding their daughter. The sight constricted his heart. As the moonlight spilled over her beautiful form, he saw that she was reading something, her voice barely above a whisper. The words were familiar, echoes of the past:
"My dearest Khushi, you must be sleeping right now, pouting in your sleep and switching positions like you always do. I hope your day went well, that you, my love, are okay. Do you know how much I miss you? How much I ache to see you? Even a glance would get me through this hell. And yet, even though we are apart, you are never far from me. I think of you all day, I plan only to be close to you once more, and in my dreams, it's only you... only us and our love. I often imagine we're lying side by side under that old canopy bed, talking and sharing kisses."
"Reading that again?" he whispered, coming to her side.
"I don't think I'll ever get tired of reading your letters. Jaanvi loves them too--more than lullabies. See how she's quieted down now? I used to read them out loud during my pregnancy too. Maybe she remembers."
He kissed their daughter's fuzzy head and then pressed his mouth to his wife's, kissing her gently. "I'll write you more."
"No, you don't need to do that. We're no longer apart. You can tell me your every thought face to face now."
"Then I'll tell you every day how much I love you. How much I've always loved you." Their lips met again, firmer this time. Arnav exhaled, his breath washing over her as their eyes clashed. "You know, Khushi, I've seen you grow up right alongside with me. I've seen you as a young girl with braids, scratched knees, and constant smiles. I've seen you as a teenager in glasses, when you were convinced you were a nerd."
"I was a nerd," she laughed. "I always will be."
He grinned back. "Point is, through all those years, I witnessed first-hand your transformation from a girl to a woman. My love and eventually, my wife. You were always the most beautiful woman I've ever seen--inside and out-- but let me tell you, jaan, this is the most beautiful you've ever been. Nothing rivals to you as a mother."
Khushi felt her heart quake as Arnav lowered his head, catching her lips gently with his. "I love you," she whispered. "And this side of you is the best yet too. You are the most wonderful husband and father."
He smiled at her and then at their daughter. "She's asleep."
Khushi put his letter back in the old wooden trunk while he placed their daughter on the blankets, watching her with doting eyes. Khushi smiled as she observed the pair. She hadn't known it was possible to be this happy. Part of her wondered if she'd ever grow accustomed to it. It was all so astonishingly different from the suffering and uncertainty of the past. So blissful...
"Come to bed," she whispered, curling her arm around his waist. He pulled her close and she kissed his chest. "You must be sleepy."
He lifted her up in his arms and set her on the white canopy with aching tenderness. "Not anymore. You?"
Khushi bit down on her bottom lip as her husband buried his face against the side of her neck, his mouth fastening there. She felt his hands tug on the straps of her nightgown and pushing him slightly back, she drew it over her head, tossing it aside.
The muscle at his jaw worked as his gaze dipped law, sliding over her with unsuppressed longing. He took just seconds with his own clothes and then he was on her, pressing her back against the pillows and covering her with his length.
Hands and mouths fought to get closer yet, suckling and teasing and stroking. As the first light of dawn brightened the sky outside, Arnav captured Khushi's mouth in his, holding her in an unyielding grip as everything seemed to shatter apart.
They fell on the bed, flushed and out of breath. Nestling closer, Khushi pressed her lips to Arnav's chest, right at the spot where his heartbeat was most discernable. "I love you," she murmured sleepily, cuddling into his warmth.
He smiled, gathering her so close not an inch of space remained between them. "And I love you. Go to sleep, Khushi. It's going to be a busy day. Remember?"
"How can I forget? Good night, love." Arms and legs entwined, they finally dozed off.
No more than a couple of hours later, Arnav shook her awake. He hated too, but they couldn't be late today. "Jaan, it's time. We need to start getting dressed."
Groggy-eyed, Khushi blinked up at him much as she had when they were children. But things were different now. He was her husband, her amazing, gorgeous, wonderful husband, and in his arms, was their child. The strange nightclothes of the early 1900s were gone too. Arnav was bare-chested, a white linen sheet tied loosely around his hips.
Khushi might have enjoyed that enticing sight for a while longer, but Jaanvi turned to gaze at her and Khushi took the baby with a warm smile and a swift kiss. "Good morning, baby. Momma missed you."
"Don't I get a kiss too?" quipped her husband.
Khushi pulled Arnav down beside her, pressing her lips to his stubbled cheek. "There you go. What time is it anyway? It feels like we just slept."
"It's almost eight AM. We have less than an hour."
"That's more than enough time. I can get ready in ten minutes, you know."
"I do know that, but I thought you might want more time today. It's not every day you graduate."
He smiled with pride. Though Khushi had missed most of her last semester of college, she'd made it up quickly once Janvi had arrived. Arnav had helped her too: reading over her essays, suggesting new points to ponder, and quizzing her before final exams much as he had in the past.
"Argh," Khushi groaned. "I'll have to wear that silly hat."
"You make even that hat look sexy, Mrs. Raizada."
She laughed as he used his favorite modern-day slang. "You're crazy, Mr. Raizada."
"Crazy for you." Janvi gurgled loudly, arms waving, and his smile widened. "See, even our daughter agrees with me."
"You two are impossible!"
Their daughter was the first to react, grabbing the end of Khushi's hair and pulling hard.
Arnav extracted the small fist away. "No, baby, that hurts Mommy."
Jaanvi wailed, two, huge tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Khushi rocked her in her arms as Arnav reached behind them, grabbing the end of the canopy curtain.
"Here, let her pull on this. This thing is never coming down."
Khushi laughed, and sure enough, Jaanvi quieted down at once, gazing up at the billowing canopy with curious eyes.
Eventually, they managed to distract her and get her dressed, but it left Khushi with less than ten minutes to spare. She showered quickly, blow-drying her hair as she applied a light dusting of lipstick on her lips with her free hand.
Behind her, Arnav snapped on her blouse, and pinned the saree into place, admiring her reflection. Khushi grinned at him. Against his steel gray business suit, white shirt and burgundy tie, her red saree with its silver embellishments and thin, lace sleeves looked quite sensual and attractive. They looked perfect, except for--
Combing her hair once, she picked up Jaanvi from her crib. The baby smiled at her, a bit of drool slipping from her mouth. Khushi wiped it away and then smoothed her hand over her flouncy, light pink dress. With a matching hair band of pink flowers, their daughter looked adorable beyond words.
Khushi stepped beside Arnav again. "Now it's perfect."
He raised the camera in his hands, taking a picture of three of them with such effortlessness no one could have guessed he'd been born a century ago.
"Ready?" He picked up her the black cap and gown.
Khushi clasped his hand, smiling at him. "Ready, love."
The college auditorium was already halfway filled to capacity when they entered the main double doors, searching for seats. Since it was the mid-year graduation, rather than the customary one in spring, the graduates were few in number.
Turning, she was pleasantly surprised to see her familiar batch of friends heading up the aisle, waving at her. They hugged as a group.
"We've missed you so much!"
"College wasn't the same after you left."
Khushi nodded, and with a smile gestured to her family. "You remember, Arnav? And our daughter?"
They ooh'd and aah'd over the baby, looking a bit awestruck at Arnav. "Of course we remember. You wedding was lovely."
"And Janvi has gotten so big," remarked another. "How old is she now?"
"Three months." As they crowded around him, asking more questions, over the top of their heads, Arnav looked at Khushi with an expression that clearly read: "Help!"
Smiling, she stepped forward to rescue him, but an announcement from the speakers stopped her.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. The ceremony will begin momentarily. And graduates, please make your way to the designated area if you have not yet done so."
"I'll see you in while." Khushi murmured, adjusting the hat on her head. She kissed the baby and then rose on her tiptoes to brush her lips over Arnav's cheek. "Everything is in the diaper bag if you need anything. I even packed that giraffe doll she loves so much. And don't worry about taking pictures if you get confused. We can do it afterwards."
Arnav squeezed her hand. "I can handle the new camera, jaan. All the best."
"Congrats, Khushi!" said her friends. "Arnavji, we saved you a couple of seats up front. It's the best view."
Khushi smiled at Arnav one last time and then hurried after the line of graduates exiting the room.
Arnav followed after her friends, taking the corner seat in the second row. He kept the diaper bag on the chair beside him and adjusted Janvi on his lap. Her bottom lip was trembling as she searched for her mother and knowing very well what that indicated, he tried to distract her, opening the program and flipping through the pages.
"See, baby, here's Mummy." He set Jaanvi's chubby fingers over Khushi's picture, reading the lengthy blurb beside her name. "Bachelors of Arts degree in English Literature with a Masters in Physics and Quantum Science. Recipient of the university's oldest scholarship for her dedication to community service and academic achievement. Founder and the first president of the school's Jalebi Club, an organization whose members write and share recipes and stories and lead efforts of community and personal empowerment, closely working with local orphanages. Voted most helpful and most likely to succeed. Future plans: Complete her research in quantum teleportation, write, eat too many jalebis, dance, and most importantly, live the life of her dreams with her husband and daughter. Favorite Quote: "An invisible thread connects--"
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the dean of Lucknow University and the graduates of this year!" There was loud, raucous applause and Arnav set aside the program, clapping as a willowy woman stepped on the stage, smiling graciously. Behind her trailed the black-gowned students, searching for their loved ones in the crowd.
Khushi spotted her family right away. They were sitting almost exactly where she'd left them. Taking her seat behind the podium, she blew a kiss toward the two and Arnav picked up Jaanvi's hand, waving back. "Love you," he mouthed.
Her throat constricted as she stared at her small family, her lips moving just slightly. "I love you."
The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur. There were several prominent speakers, but their message was much the same: to be proud of all they'd achieved, to go forth with courage, and to thank those who had gotten them so far. Khushi found herself worrying more about Jaanvi's looming feeding time than what was being said. The first name being read out loud surprised her.
"Ankita Ahuja." A petite girl with shoulder-length hair and square-shaped glasses rose from her seat. Khushi knew her reasonably well. She'd been the one to take over the Jalebi Club's responsibilities following her sudden departure to Delhi. She clapped extra hard for her.
From then on, the names continued one after the next. Most were familiar looking faces she'd spotted in the hallways but never really spoken to, while others were those she considered friends.
By the time the list reached "Saba Qureshi," Khushi was feeling a bit nauseous. She was next. What if she tripped? What if she was the first graduate to do something incredibly stupid, like forget to shake the dean's hand?
With her heart pounding much too fast, she gazed at Arnav and found him watching her. He smiled, and she resisted the urge to pinch herself. This was real. He was really here, at her graduation ceremony, their daughter on his lap! A gorgeous smile appeared on her face, and all her anxiety seemed to fade.
The applause was loud and almost deafening as she crossed the stage, grasping the dean's hand and taking the diploma. There was the flash of cameras and a handful of seconds later, it was all over.
Khushi couldn't believe she'd been stressing over that! The speaker made a few last remarks and then announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, this year's graduates!" As claps rang out, Khushi happily joined the others and threw her cap high up toward the vaulted ceiling. It truly was silly looking.
Moments later, she was marching down the steps and straight into her husband's open arms.
"I'm so proud of you," he said against her temple, smoothing his hand down her back. "So proud, jaan."
Pausing to kiss his bristly cheek, Khushi took Jaanvi in her arms with a wide smile. "I love you. Both of you."
The three embraced again and at that exact time, a most unexpected voice called her name. Khushi stiffened and then slowly spun about, her gaze wide. She recognized that voice. Could it truly be?
Garima twisted her hands as she stepped forward. Her gaze went first to Khushi's pale face then to the beautiful child in her arms and last, to the man who stood behind her.
She felt the ground beneath her sway as she studied him. But it was no mistake, it was him. The man whose portrait she'd once tried to burn. Those same chiseled features, deep-set eyes, and aristocratic air. "How is this possible?"
"Amma, what are you doing here?"
Garima blinked at her and then back at Arnav. "How is this possible?" she repeated. "That portrait was old. It was ancient!"
"I never lied to you," Khushi whispered, her voice calm. "I told you the truth about Arnav."
Garima struggled to make sense of it. Perhaps her husband and Payal had not made the connection to the portrait since they'd never given it too much attention, but she had. She had often wondered why the portrait had been moved from the library to Khushi's bedroom. Her husband had shrugged off the questions, and so had Khushi, simply stating, "I like it very much, Amma. His presence calms me. Like an old friend or guardian angel."
Garima had added that statement to her mental list of Khushi's eccentricities, and had even debated taking her to a doctor again. Though no one else seemed to see it, she'd always felt something was wrong. Something was abnormal with this whole situation.
Now, she had her answers. She knew why Khushi had been so attached to the portrait all these years. Why she'd risked harming herself to save it.
But how had the man in the photograph suddenly become flesh, blood, and bone? There was one explanation she could think of, but it was too staggering and improbable to possibly be true. She grappled for something that made far more sense.
"You're a descendent of the man in the portrait, aren't you?" she asked as if it was a fact, and not a question. "Khushi, why didn't you tell me?"
Khushi didn't bother to correct her. "Would you have believed me? You never trusted me." The hurt in her voice rang out and Arnav took her hand in his, his touch reassuring.
Garima stared at their entwined hands and took a deep breath. "You're right, I would not have believed you. You see, Khushi, though you accepted me as your mother from a young age, I was never able to. I tried--very hard--but I just never felt that same connection. A mother's love is not something you can force. It comes innately. You must know all about that now."
Tightening her grip on Jaanvi, Khushi slowly nodded. She did know about a mother's love now, but she also knew that if a young, lonely child with no family were to be dropped at her doorstep, she'd have accepted her, cared for her, and likely grown to love the child. Love had nothing to do with blood, but some people, like the woman before her, would never understand that. Why else were adoptions so rare? Why else did thousands of orphans spend their childhoods waiting for someone to love them? A family of their own?
As the crowd rushed past her, laughing and smiling as they headed toward the exit, it was a somber moment for Khushi. Even her friends detected something was amiss and had the good sense to stay away, following the others outside.
It was only her mother, Jaanvi and Arnav that remained, the silence and empty hollowness of the auditorium making it even more awkward. Khushi was incredibly grateful for Arnav's presence. Only he knew the full extent to which her mother had hurt her. Only with him had she ever shared how she sometimes felt Amma didn't love her like Payal, how though she was nice, there was a difference in how she treated the two of them.
She'd asked him throughout their childhood why that was? Had she done something? Angered Amma in some way? Was there something wrong with her? Something that made her unlovable?
Arnav had always shaken his head firmly, his gaze fiery. "There's nothing wrong with you. Don't you ever think that. You're perfect, Khushi. It's her with the problem! Not you!"
"Why are you here, Mrs. Gupta?" he asked in a clipped tone. "Today is an important day for our family. A happy occasion."
"I know." Her gaze settled on Khushi's drawn face again. "That's why I came today. I knew you'd be here."
"You could have come to Sheesh Mahal," Arnav interjected. "I invited you to the wedding months ago and Payal informed you about Jaanvi's birth."
Her mother--it felt weird to call her anything other than that-- seemed to wilt at the words. "I know all that too. I should have come sooner, but there was too much guilt. I didn't have the strength to face you till now. Khushi..." Her eyes were bright with tears. "It pains me to admit this, but I was just never able to love you completely. I couldn't love you as you deserved. But I did care. Even when I told you to leave Lucknow and even when we left for Canada, I cared. I just didn't allow myself to show it. I was so sure you were lying to me." Wringing her hands, she took what appeared a painful breath. "What I'm trying to say is that I've made mistakes, Khushi. Huge mistakes. I wish I could say that if I knew what I know now, I'd have acted differently, but we can't change time. It is what it is."
Khushi froze, part of her wanting to say: Time does change, Amma. Arnav and I are proof of it. But even for those who cannot travel through time, jumping centuries, there is always time to apologize, to make amends. Why have you waited so long? Haven't you missed me at all?
But she couldn't seem to get the words out, standing mute as Garima gazed at her pleadingly. "During these months apart, I have missed you. Your aunt kept me informed about you regularly, you know. I wish you--" Her eyes swept to Jaanvi and Arnav. "--and your family the very best. If you can forgive me, I'd like us to be as we used to be. I can't be your mother, Khushi, but I can be your aunt. You're my sister's daughter. Her death shocked me, saddened me, but it wasn't enough to make my heart accept you. You look very much like her, do you know? My husband and daughter accepted you with ease, but I couldn't seem to. It made me feel even more horrible. I started keeping our conversations short and to the point. Eventually, I closed my heart completely to you." She brushed away a tear, swallowing visibly. "I can't change all I've done, Khushi. I can't change how much I've hurt you, but I'd like to be your aunt again. Just like Madhumati."
Khushi felt herself shudder and Arnav squeezed her hand, knowing well the state of her heart right now. Khushi stared at the woman across from her and saw that she had two options. One was to embrace her, to forget all the pain and grief she'd caused. That seemed foolishly optimistic, but the second was no better: to be bitter and turn her back to her, much as she'd done to her.
Though Garima had never loved her quite like Payal, she had raised her, and in so doing so, had earned a place in her heart. Handing Janvi to Arnav, Khushi crossed the slight distance separating them.
Garima was teary-eyed, and this close it appeared as if she'd aged considerably over the last year. And Khushi realized then that there were more than two options. There was a middle ground.
"It will take time for me to forgive you," she said, her voice steady. "To forget all that's passed between us. I don't think I'll ever be able to explain to you how much it hurt when you told me to leave Sheesh Mahal. It's not just my home; it's where I spent my childhood, where I found love, where I have a thousand memories. When I left that rainy day, I truthfully never thought I'd ever forgive you. But my mother taught me to forgive someone who was truly sorry, and I sense that you are. I need time though, this has been building for years between us. It all began the day I called you 'Amma' for the first time, didn't it? It was the day after my parents' car accident, the morning of their funeral. In my child's brain at the time, I considered you an angel my Amma had sent to me and so I accepted you with all heart. It lessened the pain a bit." Khushi blinked back tears. "But perhaps that was asking for too much. I tried to make a place in your heart as a daughter, but was never able to. Hopefully, I'll succeed as a niece, Masi."
Garima cried out, embracing her. "You already have, Khushi. I'm so sorry. So sorry for everything."
They hugged for several long moments and then Khushi smiled, motioning toward the two people who were her world and then some. "This is my husband, Arnav Singh Raizada, and our daughter, Jaanvi."
"Nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Gupta."
She smiled through her tears, shaking his hand. "Nice to meet you. Please take care of my niece. She is the most remarkable girl I've ever known."
Arnav nodded, his gaze softening as it rested on his wife. "That she is. The most extraordinary woman I've ever had the good fortune to meet."
Only Khushi knew what those words truly hinted to. Smiling at him, she stepped into his arms. His love and warmth enveloped her, dulling the pain till it no longer hurt so badly. Khushi knew the wounds of the past would never fade completely, but in his embrace, they certainly felt sealed.
Perhaps Amma had never loved her, but time and fate had guided her to this man. And he loved her unconditionally, cherished her so much she often felt awed by it. It was strange, but her heart told her that perhaps she'd read all the signs wrong as a child. Perhaps her mother had never meant for her to turn to Garima, perhaps she'd been guiding her all along toward someone else. Someone who'd lived and died in Sheesh Mahal a century ago. Someone just as lonely and broken as her. Someone who needed her just as much as she needed him. The one she loved so fervently. Her Arnav.
That night, after a scrumptious dinner and too many spoonfuls of sugar-free cake, Khushi wandered into the bedroom, dressed in a pale rose, silk nightgown.
Arnav was reclining on the chaise lounge, sketching with a bit of charcoal. He set the half-finished picture of Khushi and Janvi aside, his eyebrows furrowing as he looked at her empty hands. "Where's our daughter?"
"Sound asleep beside Amma--I mean Masi. The two really seem to get along well."
Arnav nodded stiffly, tugging her down beside him. Curling next to him, Khushi wrapped her arm around his toned waist. His fingers stroked through her hair. "I'm not sure how I feel about all this, Khushi," Arnav confessed. "I really don't know what to make of this whole aunt-niece game. That woman has hurt you, and maybe you can forget all that, but I can't."
Smoothing her hand up his chest, Khushi tilted his face toward her. "I know you don't trust her. I'm not too sure of it all either honestly. It will take time, but let's see what she makes of this second and final chance. The truth is, I did barge into her life and family all those years ago."
"You were eight years old! An innocent, traumatized child! You just wanted her love!" he said with biting outrage. "That's all!"
"True, but she never wanted me to love her like a mother. She wasn't expecting that. Let's just see how this goes, love."
"How long is she staying for?"
"Two more days. She has to return to Canada. Apparently, Jiji is expecting."
Arnav's jaw hardened. So she was going to Payal to care for her during her pregnancy, but for Khushi, she'd thrown her out of the house in that same state with practically nothing? Thank goodness for Buaji. It scared him to imagine what Khushi would have faced without her support in those dark days when they'd been apart and he'd had no memory of her.
His grip tightened around her slim form. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Yes," she murmured. "I want Jaanvi to know her, Babuji, and Jiji. I want us to keep in touch--even if it is only once a year. Life's too short to hold onto bitterness. I don't want to be like her, Arnav. I want to move forward, past all that hurt and resentment. To be blissfully happy just like I am this very moment."
He brushed a kiss to her forehead,. "Then we'll see how your mothe--err aunt--handles this second chance. But if she hurts you again, I will not remain quiet, Khushi. Your happiness is all that matters to me. And if anyone tries to harm that, they're going to be answerable for it. I will not leave them!" He slanted his mouth over hers, kissing her thoroughly.
When they came up for air, Khushi smiled at him and he smiled back, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "By the way, I read about your future plans: Complete research in quantum teleportation, write, eat too many jalebis, dance, and most importantly, live the life of your dreams with your husband and daughter.'"
Khushi pecked his lips. "That's all I want. Did you read my favorite quote?"
"I didn't get a chance to," he admitted. "What was it?"
"I found it during the time I was searching for a way to reach you in 1925. And I just happened to come across it. It's an old Chinese proverb."
Arnav trailed his fingers across her cheek to the fullness of her mouth. "Well? Aren't you going to tell me?"
Clearing her throat, Khushi gazed into those twinkling eyes she loved so much. "It goes like this: An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, and circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle. But it will never break.'"
Tears shone in the dark depths of his eyes and he lowered his head, catching her lips in a searing kiss. "It'll never break." Grasping her hand, he set it against his chest.
Both were reminded of a night long ago in this very room: the first time they'd met and she'd set her ear against this same spot, unsure if he was real or not. Just like then, his heartbeat pounded with life and vigor.
"Khushi, what you and I share, this bond...this friendship...this love...it was never supposed to ever happen, but it did. And I'm so thankful for it. You are the other half of my soul."
"And you're mine." She leaned forward for his kiss. "I thought you'd like that quote. I'm going to use it as the opening of my thesis on teleportation physics one day."
"It fits very well. So you'll be busy with that, the jalebi making, dancing, and being just you, and I'll be relaunching the ArHi group soon. I'm thinking of making it entirely online so I can hire a few people to manage it and work from home whenever I need to."
Khushi looked not at all surprised by his decision. "I guessed as much, but are you sure? You had so many ambitions about the company."
"I still do, but mostly, I want to spend my time with you and Janvi. Not many people have the means to do that, but we do."
"True, love. And don't forget about Sheesh Mahal. We'll have our hands full restoring it." In fact, the work had already started and the leaky roof was the first item to be checked off the long list of impending repairs.
"There was something else too, wasn't there?" Arnav questioned. "You mentioned writing. Did you mean your research or something else?"
Khushi looked a bit sheepish suddenly. "Something else. A novel, actually. I haven't really started it, but I did write an opening to it."
"What's it about?"
She got up and found her notebook on the nightstand, handing it to him with a surprising look of shyness. It was completely unlike her to be so nervous around him. Usually, she was a spitfire. Arnav was more than intrigued.
"This is all I have so far," she said, pointing to the top of the page. "Just this poem. But I guess it's something. Hopefully, the story flows from here."
Arnav took his time reading the scribbled lines, almost as if he was savoring every word. He was quiet for sometime afterwards, staring at her in a way that made her blush and stammer.
"Well? What did you think?"
"It's beyond anything I could have imagined. It's the perfect story for you to tell."
Khushi smiled at him. "You really think so?"
"I know so." He lifted her in his arms, making sure the door was locked as he deposited her on the bed they'd shared for over a decade, across the centuries. In his time and now in hers.
"What are you doing?" Khushi asked, feeling her body clench as he began to unbutton his shirt.
"Adding something else to our to-do list."
"What's that?" She opened her arms and he surged into them, holding her tightly.
"You're the one who added it originally. The day Jaanvi was born." With a handsome grin, he rolled onto his back. Khushi found herself straddling his hips, her pulse escalating wildly. "Don't you remember?"
"No, remind me."
Arnav tugged her down, caressing her mouth with his. "More babies, jaan. Remember?"
Heat spread across Khushi's cheeks. Her husband kissed her again, holding his hand out. "With me?"
She threaded his fingers with hers. Finding this man had been fate and she was never letting him go. "Always."
As they rolled on the mattress, mouths fused, a cool breeze washed over them from the ajar window, curling over their entwined forms and shifting to the chaise lounge, where Khushi's notebook lay open.
The page fluttered to the poem Arnav had read, titled simply "Fateful Love."
The blinding white of the canopy,
So unlike the dark richness of his eyes
Sways by an unseen breeze.
"Never let me go," I command
Though Fate decrees I have no right
His eyes grow moist.
"Never say goodbye.."
His hand strokes mine.
"Don't leave me," I whisper.
Our lips meet in a searing kiss.
"Stay, please stay..."
His mouth opens as if to reply
but his image begins to fade
Our hands entwine and separate.
He is nothing but a shadow now,
Vanishing as the sunlight strikes.
"NO!" I howl, plead and cry. "NO! HE IS MINE!"
His wistful smile is half sorrow, half pain
"I'll return to you" his eyes seem to say.
I fall on the bed, broken and alone.
The canopy billows to and fro,
As I fall ever more.
Never let me go..
Never say goodbye..
Because without you, my love, my heart will die.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Only a short epilogue remains. Lots of surprises will be included in that last update for readers who've followed this story. I will try to repost it all soon.
Precap Fateful Love Chapter 20 Epilogue:
Timeline for Fateful Love:
1914--Arnav and Khushi meet in Sheesh Mahal; age ~9 and 10
1922--Arnav and Khushi admit their love. Arnav leaves. Age 17 and 18
1925--Changed date on Portrait. Arnav Returns. Consummation. Age 20 and 21.
1926--Original date on Portrait. Year of Arnav's "death" (January 21, 1926).
1944--Ram Jha/Mathur born.
1975--Anjali's death at age 75
2013--Khushi enters Sheesh Mahal, age ~9
2022--Khushi, age 17 meets Ram, age 78.
2025--Ram's death, age 81. Arnav enters Khushi's time. Arnav age 22, Khushi age 21. Janvi Raizada born. Khushi graduates college.
2026--ArHi group relaunched. Sheesh Mahal's major restoration begins.
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