Baby, Hold On By TINA!
Laxmi Nagar is never quite the same again after Khushi Kumari Gupta 'collides with' Mr. Sexy aka Arnav Singh Raizada. He's a writer, poet, and their new paying guest! Khushi is both annoyed with and attracted to him from the first, milk-soaked glance, but there's a pesky engagement to deal with as well her meddlesome Buaji. Will Mr. Sexy show her that a fairytale romance can exist for a perfectly ordinary girl like her or will hindrances come in their way? Can she trust her heart with this handsome stranger?
Baby, Hold On is a fun, light-hearted romcom of the unlikely love story between Mr. Sexy and Sushi. Read on..
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Baby, Hold On by Tina Eskay--10/04/2013
**NO COPYING, SHARING, OR POSTING ELSEWHERE ALLOWED. COPYRIGHT BY TINA ESKAY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.**
'Baby, Hold On' is an original romcom starring ArHi (of course!). You will see elements of IPKKND but not everything. Should be fun. Hope some of you out there like it.
ps. the last chapter will be left open for comments! That way your thoughts on BHO will remain with the story always!
Baby, Hold On By Tina Eskay
Laxmi Nagar is never quite the same again after Khushi Kumari Gupta 'collides with' Mr. Sexy aka Arnav Singh Raizada. He's a writer, poet, and their new paying guest! Khushi is both annoyed with and attracted to him from the first, milk-soaked glance, but there's a pesky engagement to deal with as well her meddlesome Buaji. Will Mr. Sexy show her that a fairytale romance can exist for a perfectly ordinary girl like her or will hindrances come in their way? Can she trust her heart with this handsome stranger?
Baby, Hold On is a fun, light-hearted romcom of the unlikely love story between Mr. Sexy and Sushi. Read on..
Baby, Hold On
It was an ordinary Tuesday morning, the kind that came and sluggishly rolled by much as the countless Tuesdays before it. Nothing pointed to it being the slightest bit memorable. Other than the cloudy, gray sky overhead, Laxmi Nagar's main square looked the same as always to me: crowded and dusty and more than a little noisy. Certainly, nothing jumped out and screamed that today of all days, I, Khushi Kumari Gupta, would be meeting the love of my life.
If I'd known, perhaps I would have taken extra care to make my braid straight or selected a better salwar kameez--probably one of those fancy, flouncy ones I kept squashed at the very back of my too-tiny-to-possibly-be-real closet. The green and bubblegum pink one I'd chosen instead was one of my favorites, but it was noticeably well-worn, the colors having faded long back. My buaji called it "my rotten watermelon outfit" but I always shrugged aside those comments.
It was comfy and stretchy from too many washes, and made me feel wonderfully lazy. I also couldn't deny that it was sort of funny to see Buaji's disapproving expression every time I wore it. It was like I'd committed a great crime. Unfortunately for me, Buaji was right this time--dang it!
"Sanka Devi!" she called from the kitchen in a way that made my ears ring. "We're out of milk! Ask that good-for-nothing Happy Singh for some. He owes us!"
"No, next Diwali.. Of course, right now!"
I turned off the TV, groaning under my breath as I stood. I'd been kind of involved in my favorite daily soap: the hero and heroine had just escaped a gang of street thugs and were camping in a lush jungle. It was just my type of episode: blushworthy and oozing with over-the-top romance. But of course I couldn't argue with Buaji. No one could.
Outside, the street bustled with commotion. You would think that I would be able to cross the short distance that separated our house from Happyji's garage without being stopped, but of course that hardly ever happened. Someone would inevitably spot me.
"Khushi bitiya!" came the highly expected holler.
It was an elderly woman with a broad, stout build very much like my aunt's. I didn't recognize her, but plastered a smile on my face. It was time to use one of my lifesavers--the name that worked on such people with almost foolproof accuracy.
"Good morning, Auntyji." And just like that, the nameless woman beamed at me as if I was her long-lost granddaughter.
"Congratulations, bitiya. Madhumati told me everything yesterday."
"Did she?" Leave it to Buaji to tell all of Delhi it seemed. I, myself, hadn't adjusted to the news yet, but apparently, strangers were already rejoicing.
"When is the wedding?" continued nameless aunty, jumping to the next most logical--and annoying--question.
What I wanted to say was: "What is it with everyone and marriage? Is it a national emergency if a girl doesn't get married? I'm only twenty-one, dammit!"
But of course, I didn't. I was the cookie-cutter good girl. It just wasn't in my nature to be anything else. In my head, I could rant, rave, and swear as the best of them, but that side of me never--ever--came out. When I spoke my voice had that jalebi-sweet and polite Lucknowi quality to it. "We're still deciding the details, Auntyji, but please do come with your whole family."
She patted me on the head as if I was two and I even managed another smile for her. If it did not quite reach my eyes was a different story.
"He is one prized catch. You are very lucky."
I just nodded, watching her go with a poker face. My teeth were gritting together though. I was just so sick of hearing that same praise over and over again. It was like I was some inept fisherman and my soon-to-be husband a great, big trout I'd reeled in.
And shouldn't he be considered lucky too?
Sure, I was no Miss Universe with mile-long legs and curves that rivaled Sophia Vergara. And nor was I some Shakespeare-quoting scholar, but I wasn't that bad either. Clearly though, no one else thought the same in Laxmi Nagar.
A taxi honked behind me. My nose wrinkled as the driver pushed several times more on the horn. No doubt it was someone behaving as if they were rushing to the nearest hospital when in fact they just had an appointment to get their perm redone at Bumble's Beauty Boutique.
Giving my best frown to the black-and-yellow noisemaker, I headed toward my original destination, fingers crossed there would be no more small talk.
Fortunately, Happyji was busy, half under a shiny, red convertible with a wrench in his hand. His grease-streaked face turned toward me the minute I entered.
"On the counter to your right."
And sure enough, a milk jug sat waiting there. "How did you know?" I asked.
He laughed, wiping his brow. "We've been neighbors since you were a child so I know your Buaji pretty well by now. I was planning on dropping the milk off later today."
I thanked him, hurrying back out as fast as I could. If I speed-walked, Happyji wouldn't get a chance to mention--
"Khushi! Congrats on the engagement by the way!"
Too late. Of course the subject would not be dropped so easily. I wasn't that lucky.
Maybe if I felt something for my fiance, it would all be easier. But the truth was, I felt nothing but a bad bout of claustrophobia when he was near. As if my doom's day was inching closer.
Books and movies had utterly spoiled me. Almost every night, I tossed and turned, dreaming of passionate embraces and heart-quickening romance. But reality was a man who ate too much butter and apparently snored like a freight train.
I'd resigned myself to my fate. There was no valid reason to remain in my dreamland any longer. Such things were for fairy tales and as Buaji had told me a number of times by now, I was no princess.
"Khushi Di!" A scraggly group of neighborhood kids were throwing a ball around in the middle of the street and the bright red ball was headed right for my face. "Catch it!" they screamed.
My body reacted without thinking. Clutching the milk under one elbow, I backed up, farther and farther, arms outstretched as far as I could. In my head, I could picture it all: I would seize the ball and hold it up in effortless triumph while the children would all cheer and applaud.
The ball sailed over my head and my back collided with something stone-like and unfamiliar instead. I turned to look, completely losing my footing for a moment. Milk slipped and sloshed. My eyes closed automatically.
But the strongest pair of arms I'd ever felt wound around me, catching me mid-fall. Brilliant, caramel brown eyes pierced me with their fire.
It hadn't been some aunty off to the hairdresser's in the taxi after all. It was instead a man--a sinfully handsome man with dark stubbled cheeks and classic, Greek God-like features. In a scruffy sort of way.
'Hot and manly' were the exact words that crossed my foggy mind. 'Sexy' was number three.
I was too dazed to do anything but stare like an owl. His lips were compressed and part of me gradually realized he was frowning at me. My eyes traveled over him and then froze. Half of the milk had somehow stained his black leather jacket. No wonder he was glaring at me.
And yet I couldn't seem to find the words to apologize. Because for the first time in twenty-one years, something deep inside of me fluttered to life. My heartbeat pounded as I saw how he was holding me tightly pressed to him even now. Warning alarms buzzed in my head: DANGER. DANGER. DANGER.
"Oh, no.. Oh, no, no.."
His eyes narrowed on my face as if I was crazy. And then, just when I thought this day couldn't get any worse, the overcast sky darkened as it had been promising to do all morning, and ice-cold pellets of rain drenched us to the skin.
Mr. Sexy pushed me back, his perfectly sculpted lips thinning even more.
I smiled--an idiotic, lopsided, too-embarrassing-to-recall smile--and the words tumbled from my mouth before I could stop them: "Got milk?"
Baby, Hold On
Part 2: Are you following me?
I was mortified. Leave it to me to make things from hopelessly bad to downright awful. Mr. Sexy was clearly not amused.
He would have finished that sentence if not for the taxi driver yelling for his fare. I'd forgotten about our audience. In fact, everyone and everything in Laxmi Nagar had disappeared in that mind-blowing moment I'd been in his arms.
"Sir, if your love story is over, can you pay? I--"
The driver trailed off as that piercing glare hit him with its full force. I almost felt bad for him--almost. My cheeks had reddened a few shades brighter than normal. Love story? Ours? 'Not in this lifetime,' I wanted to say, but for some strange reason, I couldn't get the words out.
If I was feeling uncharacteristically tongue-tied, Mr. Sexy looked irritated, but otherwise perfectly peachy beside me. Wiping back his dripping wet hair, he pulled out some cash. He was grumbling something under his breath--I believe 'duck' but I couldn't be one hundred percent sure.
"Mind your business next time," he said furiously to the taxi driver. And his glare came back with a vengeance.
The man gulped, and Mr. Sexy slung a duffle bag over one shoulder, walking away from me without another glance.
It was only then that I noticed he carried a suitcase as well. Could he be visiting someone? But who? Surely, I would have heard about him if that were the case. Gossip traveled faster than lightning in Laxmi Nagar.
The rain fell harder as I trailed behind him, ogling him as if he was the first man I'd ever seen. I couldn't help it; it was like I was a magnet and he an overpowering metal.
If only he wasn't so attractive, I lamented. But he was. His black leather jacket fitted him flawlessly, highlighting his lean, toned build. As my eyes drifted lower, they widened.
A rosy blush tinged my cheeks as I saw how his pants clung to him in the rain. If I'd been a bit flush before, now I was tomato red.
"Eyes above the waist. Eyes above the waist." That was my litany as I forced myself to look away.
And then bam!
Next thing I knew, I smacked against his drenched, leather-covered back. He tensed at the contact while I immediately jumped backwards.
This time as he turned around to frown at me, there was no mistaking his annoyance. If his gaze had been a laser beam, I'd have been zapped on the spot.
"Are you following me?" he asked.
His tone, along with the question, sparked my own temper. "Of course not! It's you who stopped in the middle of the street."
"Because I could tell you were following me! First, you threw milk on me and now--"
"Only because you were in my way!" I broke in. "I would have caught the ball if not for you. And now the milk's all gone too." I thrust the empty jug at him.
One eyebrow rose. "Are you really saying I'm the one at fault?" He stepped closer, almost brushing against me. My heartbeat escalated. "If it wasn't for me, you would have landed on your backside in the mud. Maybe I should have let you fall." Even as I began to argue, he ground out: "Now stop following me."
Mr. Attitude glowered at me before stomping away.
He took two steps.
And I took two steps.
His head turned back to look at me and that same frown reappeared. Did the man ever smile? I wondered. But then again, maybe it was a good thing. I had a feeling his smile would be hard if not impossible to resist.
I don't know how, but we ended up at the same doorstep. His arms crossed as he watched me come to his side, shivering and soaked to the skin.
"And you're really not following me?" he asked mockingly.
I shook my head, asking him the one question that would surely explain this whole mess. "Who are you?"
Mr. Sexy didn't get a chance to reply because the main door swung open just then. A familiar shape stood on the threshold, blocking most of the light.
"Arnav Singh Raizada: writer, poet, and our new paying guest! Come inside, dear, you must be freezing."
My mouth dropped open as Buaji--my Buaji!--led him into the house, smiling a 100-watt smile. I had the urge to rub my eyes. What in the name of jalebis was happening?
"I see you've met my niece," she told him, "Khushi Kumari Gupta."
Caramel brown eyes narrowed at me. "Collided with is a better description of it."
"Oh, you writers," laughed Bauji, patting his arm as if he was a comedian as well.
I couldn't keep quiet a second more. "Buaji!"
Her eyebrows knitted together as she spotted me, standing in the rain still. "Sanka Devi, get inside! What is wrong with you?"
Oh, now she remembered that I existed too. "New paying guest?" I repeated as I trudged in. My hands brushed back my damp hair, self-conscious suddenly for some reason. There was no doubt in my mind how utterly silly I must look in my sopping wet, rotten watermelon outfit. "You didn't even tell me, Buaji!"
She giggled, at the same time flashing her eyes at me in a way that screamed: behave! "It must have slipped my mind with everything going on these past few days."
'Yeah.. right!' I wanted to say. There had been more than enough time for her to tell me. All she'd done yesterday was nap! Instead of getting into all that, I tried to reason with her. "But we don't need another paying guest."
"Sanka Devi!" Buaji smiled at Mr. Sexy apologetically. "We do.. now more than ever."
It took me only a few seconds to understand what she was hinting at: my impending doom--I mean marriage.
"Thank you for accommodating me, Madhumatiji," Arnav Singh Raizada said, ignoring my outburst. "I know it was short notice."
Buaji waved aside his words, smiling extra wide. "It was no trouble, dear. And please, call me Maddy Bua."
As he nodded, I blinked at my aunt owlishly, as if I'd never seen her before. Maddy Bua? I'd known her my whole life and she'd never mentioned the same to me. It all felt like some bizarre dream.
"Sanka Devi, welcome our new guest."
I would have refused, but I knew my aunt only too well. No one could budge her when she made up her mind about something. My hands rose to my hips, my gaze met and clashed with Mr. Sexy's. Fire sparked between us. "Welcome, Mr. Raizada. I hope the sofa is comfortable."
I could have sworn the corner of his mouth tipped up, but Buaji rounded on me just then, huffing and puffing. "Sofa? He won't be sleeping there, Sanka Devi."
"There's no other space available." And that was entirely true--and logical. Our small house was hardly some five-star hotel. Every bed was already taken.
"Of course, there is," Buaji said, smiling charmingly at the six feet tall man between us. "He will take your room."
"WHAT!" It was my turn to balk. "And where do I go? On the roof?"
"Really, Sanka Devi, this is exactly why I didn't tell you. I knew you'd react this way. Arnav dear will take your room and you will shift into mine, simple."
I had to share a room with her? All because of a wedding I'd never wanted in the first place? My teeth gritted together. "What about all my stuff?"
"It won't take you more than thirty minutes to move it all, I believe. By then, I'll make some tea for Arnav dear." She grabbed the jug from my hands, making a face at it. "First, let me get some milk, this contains more rainwater than milk."
Clucking her tongue, she would have sashayed outside if I hadn't followed after her, pulling on her arm.
"Buaji, you're just leaving me here with him?" I whispered incredulously. "Haven't you watched any of those criminal and serial killer shows on TV?"
She rolled her eyes, beaming over my head at him. "I doubt a criminal would give me all his bio data before attacking. Now, stop being so rude to the poor dear. Don't forget, we need him here. Weddings are expensive, Sanka Devi."
Twenty minutes later, my world seemed to have taken a 180-degree turn I could have never foreseen. Mr. Sexy was in my bedroom, lounging on my bed, sipping tea, while I tried to slyly empty my underwear drawer without him noticing.
It wasn't fair. I'd only just gotten the room to myself. Jiji had left for Lucknow less than a month ago for a cooking course. I hadn't even properly adjusted to sleeping on more than two feet of space and now he was taking over.
"Take that down too," he ordered, pointing to the wall behind my head. My lips pursed as I took down my favorite Salman Khan poster, rolling it up. I felt like shouting at him, but it wasn't really his fault--dang it! Throwing the last of my stuff into a tattered cardboard box, I strutted out of the room, my chin lifted high.
Less than two minutes later, his rather husky voice bellowed my name. "GUPTA! Get back here!"
My nose wrinkled. Did he think I was his servant or something? Buaji could pamper him all she wanted, but I would not--never! So I stayed put, doing my best to ignore him.
Of course, Mr. Sexy wouldn't drop whatever was bothering him that easily. He was scowling as he appeared in the doorway.
"Did you not hear me, Gupta?"
"Go bother Buaji--oops, I mean Maddy Bua. And stop calling me Gupta, Raizada."
He smirked at me. "You don't like your own name? Fine.. Here you go, Sushi." Something silky sailed into my lap.
As he marched away, I didn't know what was more red: my face or the flimsy, crimson satin bra in my hands.
Baby, Hold On
The kitchen was warm and cozy, and filled with over a dozen nose-twitching aromas. Buaji was bent over the pressure cooker, muttering about something or the other while I was busy arranging jalebis into a towering pyramid of deliciousness. But for once, my mind wasn't on food.
That red bra had thrown me completely off. I hadn't been expecting it--not from Mr. Sexy especially.
The image of his very masculine, long-fingered hand on my unmentionables felt impossible to forget. It made me flush beet-red every time. My palms got clammy and my stomach rolled. Was I coming down with food poisoning? I wondered, holding up a glistening jalebi with narrow-eyed suspicion.
"Sanka devi, take this tray to Arnav dear's room," Buaji ordered.
The jalebi in my hand slipped. Was I wearing a nametag that read 'Arnav Singh Raizada's personal assistant'?
"Buaji," I began in a clear-cut, reasonable tone, "He is not a child. He can come get his dinner on his own. We are the landlords--not the other way around." I made sure to emphasize the word 'lords'.
But my aunt had somehow transferred into his team. Her lips pursed at me with disapproval. "The poor dear is busy on the phone with his editor. The least we can do is accommodate him. Don't forget, Sanka Devi, we need him here. You must stop harassing the poor dear."
"Me? Harassing?" I struggled with that accusation.
Buaji pulled me up by the elbow, handing over the brimming tray. "Just go and give it to him, no arguments now." She softened her words with a tiny smile, patting my cheek. "Go on, Miss Landlord."
She was still chuckling as I left the kitchen, my hands fisting on the tray. Why was being a good girl so difficult sometimes? It felt as if everyone on the planet was on a mission to rile me up.
Mr. Sexy took his sweet time to open my--no, his--bedroom door. I could hear him speaking to someone, and not even five overly loud knocks could budge him. I had just placed my ear against the door when he turned the knob.
I would have tumbled inside and flung the food in the air if he hadn't caught me. His touch seemed almost familiar this time, but my heart raced even faster.
"Watch it," he said crossly.
I quickly righted myself, glancing pointedly away as I shoved the tray at him. The man ignored it, his eyes tracing over my face as the voice on the phone jabbered on.
"Arnav? Are you there?"
"One minute, there's someone here." He cocked an eyebrow at me. "Well, what is it?"
His exasperated tone grated on my nerves. He was acting as if I'd interrupted not a simple telephone conversation, but some uber-important United Nations meeting.
"What is it? Well, you see a monkey is here for you," I said with deadpan seriousness. "It wants to be with his kind."
"What?" He appeared completely taken aback.
"Arnav dear!" Buaji bellowed from the kitchen. "I hope Khushi is being nice to you!"
My temper almost sparked. Why was my aunt treating this great, big, giant man as if he was a cute, harmless kitten? It was me who was in danger--not him!--I wanted to shout back.
But I knew Buaji would not be swayed. So instead, I kept quiet, flashing my eyes at Mr. Sexy in a way that dared him to tattle.
"She's being her normal self, Maddy Bua!" he yelled across the house. For my ears alone, he added, "Clumsy as ever."
I would have snapped at him if not for my aunt. She was shouting again. "Haha, okay Arnav dear! Sanka devi, what is taking you so long? Don't disturb the poor dear!"
I rolled my eyes, thrusting the tray at him again and saying dramatically: "Your dinner, my lord. Enjoy and no need to thank me."
"Wasn't going to," he replied, smirking smugly as he took the tray and slammed the door shut.
I wanted to charge inside and shout at him some more. But instead I acted like a total child, kicking the locked door. That of course didn't change anything except for the lack of feeling in my toes.
Wasn't there a limit to how much you could be humiliated in one day? I wondered, hopping away on one foot. And hadn't I reached it by now?
The following morning, I was in a much worse mood. Sharing a room with my aunt was a lot easier said than done.
Problem was Buaji's snores were those loud, rumbling bulldog types that could shake rafters, rattle windows, and scare off burglars two houses away. I'd hardly slept all night and in those blissful, too brief moments in which I had slept, Mr. Sexy had appeared in every dream, taunting me with that charismatic smirk. No wonder I was downright grumpy.
I also knew I did not look my best today. My braid was askew, my eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. Combined with my naturally pale complexion, I felt and looked every bit a grouchy raccoon.
You would think my morning couldn't get any worse, but then he arrived--not Arnav Singh Raizada, but our other paying guest--the one I'd very reluctantly agreed to marry.
Shyam Manohar Jha was a respectable, no-fuss lawyer, who had charmed much of Laxmi Nagar when he'd arrived at our home three years ago. But it was like I was immune to him. I'll admit he was unfailingly polite and tolerable to talk to, but I was just never comfortable.
Still, there was no valid reason for me to refuse him. I'd tried everything, but Buaji had shot down each excuse. It seemed 'He eats too much butter,' 'His smile reminds me of the snake in Jungle Book,' 'His voice is sickly sweet' and 'His tacky ties make my eyes water' were not good enough.
"Good morning, Khushiji," Shyamji said in his usual sunny style as I arrived at the breakfast table. "You look lovely. Fresh as a spring day."
Liar, I almost wish your pants caught on fire.
Was I to be blamed if I couldn't quite manage a smile, nodding stiffly as I took my seat opposite him? Mr. Sexy was sitting beside him, looking even more handsome than yesterday.
Life wasn't fair, I lamented. How was it that I looked like I'd spent the night in a zoo and he so perfect?
If I was eyeballing him, he was too. He was observing me closely as he cut his paratha with a fork and knife into neat, little squares, staring at me as if I was some puzzle he couldn't seem to solve.
I couldn't help, but compare the two men. While Shyamji was professional looking in some boring khakis, plaid shirt, and polka-dotted tie, Mr. Sexy more than lived up to his nickname. He was scruffy and yet absolutely drool-worthy in navy blue sweats and a white, plain tee. The material was quite thin. When I squinted, I could see the shadow of his toned abs and you-know-what's.
Eyes off of him, Khushi Kumari Gupta! I told myself, feeling food poisoned all over again.
Buaji was smiling as she sat next to me, completely unaware that my stomach was doing somersaults. "Finally, you're up, Sanka Devi. These two have been chatting for a good thirty minutes. Another paratha, dears?"
Shyamji shook his head, taking a rather large bite of toast.
"No thanks, Maddy Bua," replied Mr. Sexy. "I'm good."
Good? No, you're sexy--and I hate that!
Shyamji made a frog-like face as if he'd heard my thoughts. "Is there more butter, Buaji? This bread is quite dry."
She beamed at him. "Of course, there is. Sanka devi, go bring some for Shyam bitwa."
The request was part of our typical morning routine, but I don't know what it was about today. Perhaps the lack of sleep or Mr. Sexy's amused smirk or just the drastic changes in my life over the past two days, but I couldn't keep quiet.
"Get your own butter!" I said too loudly and very rudely.
Everyone froze around me. Buaji's mouth had dropped open in a wide 'O.' She was for once struck speechless. Across from me, Shyamji looked more than a little perplexed, while Raizada, as expected, was grinning at me, his eyes twinkling.
"Sanka Devi!" screeched my aunt.
But I was already out of my seat, running to the kitchen. Grabbing the butter, I set it with a thud on the table. "Here you go." Butterball.
Shyamji aka Butterball smiled, ignoring my outburst as if it had never happened.
"I've been thinking of repainting the house," Buaji began out of the blue, no doubt trying to change the topic in her not-so-subtle way.
"Hmm, good idea, Buaji. How about a pale yellow?" suggested Shyamji between butter-slathered bites. "What do you say, our new guest?"
Despite everything in me screaming to not look up, I found myself staring right into Mr. Sexy's gorgeous eyes. To my surprise, he winked at me. "Red would be interesting."
My aunt and Butterball immediately began chattering and planning, but I couldn't seem to move. There was no doubt in my mind what he was hinting towards: my red satin bra.
I should have been angry, but for some reason, I was left more confused than ever. Was he trying to irritate me or actually flirting?
Soon afterwards, Shyamji excused himself, muttering about some vague work to do, as was his habit. Buaji yawned, taking off for her first nap of the day while Mr. Sexy went to his room to write. I was left alone at the table, replaying a very attractive wink in my head. What in the name of jalebis was happening?
That day I did not see Arnav Singh Raizada again. Both lunch and dinner were delivered to his room by my aunt. I didn't know whether I was more relieved or disappointed. My emotions felt all jumbled.
Around 1 AM that night, I could take no more of Buaji's bulldog snores. Anywhere had to be better than here--the sofa, the floor, the bathtub even. I ended up in the kitchen, recalling my mountain of jalebis. Only a couple, I promised myself.
I'd just bit into one when a most alarming, husky voice broke out from the darkness beside me.
"Still awake, Sushi?"
Baby, Hold On
Still awake, Sushi?
Only one man had that characteristic sexy drawl and the irritating habit of calling me Sushi. I knew exactly who it was, but I flipped on the lights still, my eyes rounding like saucers as they met his.
Arnav Freaking Raizada stood before me, dressed in some low-riding black sweat pants and not much else. The wide, bare expanse of his chest stunned me. I could have sworn my heart skipped a beat.
"What are you doing here?" I managed to ask, stumbling over the words.
He shrugged lazily. "Drinking your favorite."
It was only then that I noticed the half-full glass of milk in his hands.
I gave him my best glare. "Very funny."
"Agreed, it is funny," he said, grinning in a ridiculously handsome way. "But question is, why are you up so late? Can't sleep?"
Something about his tone put me on guard. Apparently, Mr. Sexy was even more naughty at night.
Those words and the scandalous images that followed stopped me cold. What the duck! What was I saying? I shook my head as if to be rid of that utterly silly train of thought. Clearly the lack of sleep was making me more harebrained than normal. "I don't have to explain myself to you, Raizada."
I sidestepped him, trying to hurry past but he blocked me. My back pressed against the refrigerator as he leaned closer, smirking.
"I don't understand you," he murmured in that silky smooth way that did strange things to my heart. "You would think a girl about to be married would be sleeping soundly, dreaming of her wedding day, of her honeymoon, and all those other happily-ever-after stuff."
"Move aside," I said icily.
He did just that, sitting atop the countertop in one fluid motion. His arms crossed over his chest.
This was my chance to escape, but for some infuriating, maddening reason, my feet felt glued to the floor. Damn his abs!
"Where's the rock?" he asked all of a sudden.
My eyebrow rose. "Rock?" Did he really jump from my wedding to geology? "I don't know what you're saying, Raizada, but there are plenty of rocks in the backyard. Feel free to take one and get me one too, I know just whom to hit it with."
My words surprised me more than him. I would have never said something so mean and violent to anyone else, but there was something about Mr. Sexy that made me act first and think later. Around him, I felt unusually warm, even though the kitchen was no less than the arctic tundra so late at night. Was I coming down with a fever?
He was oblivious to my inner turmoil, smirking again. "Not that kind of a rock."
Before I could stop it, his hand grabbed mine, his hold surprisingly gentle. "Where is your rock?" He pointed toward my bare ring finger.
Oh, that. "We haven't exchanged rings yet."
His gorgeous brown eyes twinkled at me. "Do you know what that means?"
Before I could form anything close to an intelligent reply, he yanked me against him.
I should have been yelling at him, but I found myself scooting closer. He was just so warm, his skin blazing hot and baby-soft. No wonder he was walking around shirtless.
"Wh--what?" I stuttered.
Mr. Sexy's wink was back. "It means you're single, Sushi."
"My name is not Sushi!"
He sighed, tugging me back against him as I made a half-hearted attempt to move away. It was like he was annoyed I hadn't confirmed his statement. But why he would be was beyond me.
"So you don't like it when I call you Gupta or Sushi. Hmm, what's left.. There's mushy or perhaps tush--"
I clapped my hand over his mouth. "Don't you dare!"
He didn't react as I'd quite expected. His eyes were surprisingly warm, reminding me of freshly baked chocolate cupcakes and his lips were curved in a smile against my palm.
I was mesmerized, my heart beating faster than what was normal, I'm quite sure. I don't know how long we stood there like that: pressed to one another in the too-cold kitchen.
A snore came from the wall behind us, making me jump. It was not the bulldog type, but more of a freight train. Choo Choo Chooo..
"What the hell is that?" Mr. Sexy was frowning in his oh-so-sexy style.
I took a giant step backwards, breathing hard. What had come over me?
"Shyamji," I whispered, darting out of the kitchen as if some butter-dripping monster was chasing me.
I knew the right thing to do was to go back to my room, but another hour of sleeping beside Buaji made me shudder. I could hear her rumbles through the walls.
Tripping over furniture in the pitch-black sitting area, I miraculously found the sofa. I laid down like a slob, my eyes closing tight as I tried to calm my racing heartbeat.
Relax, Khushi. Relax. Mr. Sexy will go off to his room and that will be the end of this whole bizarre midnight encounter.
But of course not. The man came after me and sat on the armchair right near my head.
"Sleeping here?" he asked in his usual carefree tone, as if nothing had happened between us in the kitchen.
My teeth mashed together. "If you'd like to sleep beside Maddy Bua, be my guest. I'll happily take my bedroom back."
I could tell he didn't like that frosty reply. "No thanks, Sushi."
Oh, so we were back to that again. But instead of lashing out at him as I longed to, I tried to take the higher road. The one that read 'Ignore him at all costs.'
I lasted about five minutes.
Every second was unbearable. Mr. Sexy was silent too, but just knowing he was sitting a hand's reach away made me feel all loopy. It did not help that he kept sipping his milk, the ordinary noise unbelievably sexy. Lips smacking together and parting. Lips I could picture in my head with heart-stopping clarity. Lips I'd touched..
Another minute of torture passed. Sip..Swallow..Smack..
"Why are you still here?" I finally asked through gritted teeth. Either the man drank milk slower than an infant or he was just out to irritate me.
He took another sip, swallowing in a deliberately loud manner. "Because I can. Don't forget that as the paying guest, I can go wherever I want."
"That doesn't mean you can bother me all the time."
Mr. Sexy sighed. I could imagine him frowning in the darkness, his arms crossing across that swoon-inducing chest. "I'm being perfectly civil. It's you that's been after me from the start."
"What! Me?" I threw one of Buaji's plush, embroidered pillows in the general direction of his head.
He caught it easily. "Point made, I think, Sushi."
I laid back down, lost in thought for several minutes. Perhaps, I'd been a little--teeny weeny--rude to him all along. But he'd egged me on. Still, I was the reasonable, forgiving good girl, wasn't I? I could be the bigger person--or so I thought.
Clearing my throat, I began in a soft, peace-making tone. "Let's just forget it."
"Really?" He didn't sound convinced.
"Yes." I took a deep, calming breath. "So, if you insist on staying here, what type of books do you write?"
Silence greeted my question. I turned to face him, making a face. "See, I'm being nice and you're not even answering!"
"Because I was taking a moment to enjoy this moment," Raizada bit out.
"Our first real conversation. This is the first time you haven't thrown something at my head, screamed at me, or made a face."
I almost laughed out loud. "But I just did a couple of minutes back."
"Let's just forget about that pillow.. and the milk too.."
"Deal, Raizada. But you threw something at me too." The words were out of my mouth before I could take them back. I could have kicked myself. Had I really brought up--
"Something?" he asked with feigned innocence. "Could you be more specific?"
I was as red as my satin bra all over again. Thank goodness for the lights being off.
"You know what," I managed to squeak out.
In the darkness, I could just detect his smirk. "Oh that. Well, honestly, Sushi, that was your fault as well. You didn't clean out your drawer properly. And I did call you, remember?"
Oh, did I ever. The whole embarrassing moment was engraved into my hall of disasters. "You can't ask me questions, I asked you one first. So, Mr. Writer, what books do you write?"
He propped up his feet on the coffee table, setting the milk glass aside. "Sci-fi mostly. I dabble in poetry too."
"So why did you come to Laxmi Nagar?"
"A bit nosy, aren't you? But, I don't mind your questions, Sushi. I came here because my next novel is set in this type of neighborhood."
"Seriously?" I couldn't contain my laughter this time, almost doubling over. It was hard to keep my voice down.
"What the hell is so funny?"
His annoyance-laced voice made me laugh even more. "I'm just imagining aliens descending on Laxmi Nagar and all the aunties running for cover! Let me guess, your dear Maddy Bua is the main character, isn't she?"
A pillow landed on my head.
"See!" I whispered incredulously, tossing it back at him. "You threw it at me first!"
"Because you're making fun of my work! And FYI, Sushi, not every science fiction novel involves aliens and spaceships."
"Stop calling me Sushi!" The pillow flew back and forth between us.
"Then stop laughing!"
"You started it!"
"I did not!"
I grabbed the pillow mid-air, out of breath as I rose to my full height. "Behave, Raizada. The last thing we need is for Buaji to wake up!"
Mr. Sexy combed back his messy hair, shrugging. "By the sound of her snores and that boring toad's, it would take a lot more than us laughing to wake them up."
He'd just insulted my sort-of fiance and here I was tongue-tied. Was it just me or did Arnav Singh Raizada have a knack for saying the most blush-worthy things?
We both settled down after that, I on the sofa and he on the armchair. It was very late now. I should have been drowsy and close to sleep, but instead I was wide-awake. It felt good to laugh so much. I'd missed it.
"Sushi? Are you up still?"
I was, but pretended I wasn't. But apparently, Mr. Sexy saw right through my facade.
"Sushi?" he asked again, more impatiently this time.
I turned on my side, grumbling: "Let me sleep, Arnav Something Raizada. Otherwise, I'll look like a raccoon again."
"Raccoon?" He chuckled.
"Don't laugh. I know I did not look 'fresh as spring' this morning."
For some reason, his quick agreement with me made me feel even worse.
Mr. Sexy was quiet for a long moment, and then he murmured, "But I wouldn't call it a raccoon-look either."
"Oh, so you want to insult me some more? Fine, Raizada, go ahead!"
"Let me finish, Sushi. I was going to say that rather than a raccoon, you looked like what I imagine you'd look after a night with me."
My eyes snapped open. "WHAT!"
"Rather than a raccoon, you looked like what I imagine you'd look after a night with me…"
I'd barely finished the sentence and Miss Khushi Kumari Gupta aka Sushi made a noise as if she'd choked on something.
"What!" Her lips parted in a perfect donut shape. Her gorgeous eyes spit fire at me.
"Put down the pillow!" I laughed, ducking sideways. "I meant after a night like this…when we stay up late together."
One sleek eyebrow rose as if she was trying to figure out if I was lying or not. I smirked back at her, giving no hint of what I had really meant.
"Why?" I quipped. "What did you think?"
Her pouting lips opened and closed several times, but not a word slipped forth. I'd never seen her so tongue-tied. Usually we went toe-to-toe, neither backing down.
"Good night, Sushi," I murmured, standing up in the darkness. "Pleasant dreams."
She said 'Mr. Something' but I couldn't quite catch the second word--she'd thrown the pillow over face. 'Annoying Raizada' though rung forth clearly.
I was still smiling as I climbed into Khushi's old bed, my feet dangling off the edge. The bed frame wasn't really designed for someone my size. The vivid image of my room in Mumbai came instantly to mind. My bed there was king-size and ultra-spacious.
Still, I'd never--ever--laughed or smiled in Mumbai as much as I had during the past few days. The reason for all the smiles lately sprang up unbidden.
Khushi Kumari Gupta--her eyes sparkling with a beguiling mix of innocence and mischief, waist-long, silken tresses I ached to run my hands through, a temper that more than matched my own, and full, very kissable lips..
Groaning, I closed my eyes, willing the temptation away. I wasn't here for this. My work had brought me to Delhi--nothing else. And yet, all I could think of was the feisty, raven-haired tigress sleeping so close.
What was it about her? I wondered. What was it that made me find excuses to run into her? Just to tease her and unabashedly flirt?
She's practically engaged, the logical part of me argued.
My teeth gritted together as that polka-dot tie wearing, butter-popping Jha came to mind. He was clearly all wrong for Sushi. How he'd ever found someone like her in the first place was beyond my understanding.
Maddy Bua. Of course, it had to be her. No doubt she'd dragged her niece into it. From what I'd observed, Khushi was not the slightest bit interested in the lawyer.
Why was I even thinking about all this? I wondered. Khushi Kumari Gupta and all the craziness that seemed to trail after her was not my concern.
Still, I couldn't get her out of my head. Was she comfortable on the sofa? I wondered. Was she cold?
Swearing, I headed back to the sitting room. I had to squint to see her in the dark.
Ms. Tigress--arms thrown wildly, one slim leg curled over the back of the sofa, the other bent 45 degrees and her mouth open like a child's--was sound asleep. I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Sushi to leave me wide-awake while she slept on without a care in the world.
My hand tightened on the blanket I'd brought along. Spreading it wide, I drew it across her, pulling it up to her chin.
She sighed in her sleep, a faint smile on her lips as I leaned down. I froze, struck by her tousled hair, the peaceful glow on her young face. Like this, Ms. Tigress almost looked friendly.
Grinning, I murmured, "Good night, Khushi."
Before I could stop it, my hand reached out and only just brushed across her cheek. She was all softness, a sharp contrast to myself. I began to draw away but she rubbed her cheek against my palm, her mouth curving even more as she arched closer.
I tried to back away--this was dangerous territory--but I couldn't seem to. And besides, danger had never fazed me.
Heavy footsteps sounded as if on cue behind my back.
"Hai Re Nandkishore! Sanka Devi had to forget my water tonight of all nights." Maddy Bua was grumbling under her breath, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
I began to slide my hand away from Khushi. If I ran for it now, her aunt would probably never even realize it.
But of course, Sushi had to fight me--even in sleep. One of her hands wrapped around mine, keeping my palm pressed firmly to her cheek.
I tugged and she frowned, her brow creasing with stubbornness as she held even tighter.
"Sushi.. let go."
No response. Her lips pouted in sleep, hugging me down to her.
I was stuck. I knew if I put more force into freeing myself, Khushi Kumari Gupta would definitely wake up, screaming like a banshee when she discovered who it was she was cuddling against. And if I stayed put, surely her aunt would discover us.
It was a split-second decision, but I chose to stay put, my breath suspended as Maddy Bua waddled over to the kitchen.
Lights blinked on behind us. I cringed, steeling myself for the shrieks. Any second..
But it never came. Khushi's aunt was drinking water, half turned to us. But she never looked our way, her eyes still glazed over as she began to sing--Yes, sing!
"Tip tip barsa paani.. paani ne aag lagayee.. aag lagi is dil mein tho, dil ko teri yaad aayee.."
Nothing could have prepared me for Maddy Bua's impromptu song, her voice loud and off-key as she sashayed in the kitchen, holding up the glass of water.
Khushi's nose wrinkled as she heard some of the song. I immediately smoothed my hand over her cheek. She smiled happily again, cooing as she pressed an open-mouthed kiss to my palm.
That was it. There was no doubt in my mind now. Both the aunt and niece were out to kill me tonight--one with her nasal singing, the other with her tempting caresses.
"Teri yaad aayee tho, jal uthaa mera bheega badan. Ab tu hee bataa oh sajan, mein kya karoon oo ooo?"
She was still humming as she went off to her room, shutting off the kitchen lights.
I relaxed, finally extracting my hand from beneath Khushi's warm cheek. She began fighting me at once.
"Hush, baby," I found myself crooning. "Hush.."
She settled down after that, almost hitting me square in the jaw as she turned sideways. I shook my head, my gaze thoughtful as I adjusted her twisted covers. It was strange, but I felt changed. That kiss had seemed to sear into me and Ms. Tigress didn't even know she'd done it.
Swearing, I walked back to my room, wondering: What had just happened? And how the hell would I sleep tonight?
My nose scrunched at the familiar, booming bellow.
"KHUSHI! It's almost 10 AM now! Get up!"
I clapped my hands over my ears in answer and rolled sideways, hoping to get away, but instead, landed on my butt beside the sofa.
"Oww!" I looked around, confused and disorientated. My aunt was standing over me, looking none too pleased.
"Gosh, Buaji," I murmured, stretching. "I was having the best dream."
"And I ruined it? Oh no, what a tragedy! What was this beautiful dream about?"
A rosy blush tinged my cheeks. "I'll tell you later, Buaji. I'm late for the market, aren't I?" Throwing the pillow back in its place, I darted towards the bathroom before she could stop me.
Locking the door, I pressed my back against it, taking deep, heaving breaths. My dreams had been downright scandalous.
I'd been slow dancing in the rain with Mr. Sexy as a romantic, sensual song played in the background. At one point, I'd even kissed him! It was so odd, but I could almost feel his masculine hand pressed to my cheek.
Warmth shot through me. I looked at myself in the mirror, trying to snap out of it. What was wrong with me? Arnav Singh Raizada had done nothing, but annoy me from the moment I'd run into--no, collided with--him.
He'd taken over my bedroom. Because of him I'd been forced to put up with Buaji's bulldog snores or move to the sofa. Because of him, my heartbeat was never normal. And now, he was even barraging into my dreams, spoiling my sleep.
I showered and dressed quickly. Maybe if I hurried, I wouldn't run into him this morning. Hair still dripping wet, I stopped only to grab my purse before racing out the door.
"Sanka Devi! First, have some breakfast!"
"Later, Buaji!" I yelled over my shoulder.
The local market near our house was one of my favorite places in Laxmi Nagar. Walking through the mouth-watering maze of fruit, vegetables, home-cooked food and desserts always relaxed me--except for today. I couldn't get Mr. Sexy out of my head. What must he be doing? I wondered, snacking on golgappas. Was he missing me too?
I dallied in the market for as long as I could. But by lunchtime, I knew I had to head back.
There were two main routes to get back home. The straight one went through busy streets and past Happyji's garage. The other was a shortcut, but it had its drawbacks too. It actually cut across Daylight Park--the local, charming park that had been taken over by teenagers eons ago and dubbed 'Lovers' Park'.
Still, why should I hesitate? I was not out to meet some secret date. Hauling my heavy shoulder bag higher, I hitched up my chin, munching on an apple as I walked into Lovers' Park.
As expected, a few teenagers were hanging around, some behind trees and hidden knolls. Giving them a very Buaji-type warning glance, I continued on, admiring the greenery all around me.
I froze in place. It couldn't be..
"Sushi!" His voice was firmer now, more urgent.
I turned around slowly, my eyes widening as I saw him.
Leather jacket--check. Black-tinted aviators--check. Wavy hair and stubble--double check. Mr. Sexy was actually here, standing right before me! He clearly spelled one thing: T.R.O.U.B.L.E.
"Are you following me?" I ground out, crossing my arms across my chest.
"What?" he frowned, jogging closer. "I don't have time to chase after you. I was coming back from mailing my manuscript when I saw you. Understand?"
I opened my mouth, but just then I saw something even more troublesome than him rounding the corner.
It seemed I wasn't the only one who'd taken the shortcut. A group of aunties were headed our way--many of them Buaji's friends.
"OMG! Now look what you've done, Raizada! I'm going to be caught here in Lovers' Park with you!"
He wasn't panicking like me. "The sign said Daylight Park."
"Never mind what the sign says! I've lived here longer than you! And this park is known more for things that happen after daylight!"
Arnav grinned at me, chuckling. "Really?"
"Yes, really! Stop smiling! Now, how am I supposed to explain us being here? Buaji will kill me! I should just start planning my funeral."
My eyes bulged as the aunties took a turn right toward us. Any minute now they'd see us. What should I do? I wondered. Climb a tree? Lay down on the grass and hope they'd simply pass on by?
I had a bad feeling it wouldn't be that easy. If only there was some place to hide.
As my heartbeat pounded wildly and my face drained of all color, Raizada swung me to face him.
"Do you trust me?"
I was too caught up with the approaching aunties to really understand his question. "What?"
He decided for me, backing me up against a tree.
"Trust me," he whispered.
And then his body pressed flush to mine. Leather pushed against my heaving chest, surprisingly soft to the touch. His hands rose and angled my face sideways, his lips coming closer and closer.
"Hug me back," he ordered. "Now."
I froze, struck speechless in his embrace. Even all thoughts of the aunties vanished.
"Hai Re Nandkishore, kids these days!"
The aunties had discovered us, and at the same instant, I caught onto Raizada's ingenious plan. Crushed in his arms like this, no one could see our faces. We looked like a teenage couple, making out scandalously in the daylight.
Rising to my tiptoes, I wound my hands around his neck, my fingers diving into his thick, wavy hair. I kept my face hidden, my lips almost brushing his as we met for a fake kiss.
The aunties made more noises of disapproval, and we clutched each other even tighter.
"Oh, baby," Raizada moaned, winking behind his glasses.
Both I and the aunties gasped.
But he kept at it, holding me indecently close even as my Buaji's friends marched off, huffing still. I sighed with relief, sagging against him.
But the feel of his warm breath on my lips had me flushing again.
"Thank you," I mumbled, trying and failing too keep my eyes off of him.
He smirked. "No thanks needed, Sushi. I do nothing for free."
My heart sped as I gazed up at him. "Meaning?"
"You owe me."
I'd never been one to back down easily, but around Raizada, I was always on my toes. He always had a very attractive, devilish glint in his eyes.
Warning alarms buzzed in my head: Back away. Now.
I didn't move an inch though, my heartbeat pounding against his.
"What do you want?" I asked warily, fighting to ignore him pressed up against me and completely failing--again!
Mr. Sexy grinned lazily, his mouth lowering to my ear. "A kiss.."
Translations of the song:
Tip tip barsa paani - Tip tip drips the water,
paani ne aag lagayee - the water lit up a fire.
aag lagi is dil mein tho - When the fire engulfed my heart,
dil ko teri yaad aayee - this heart remembered you.
teri yaad aayee tho - And when it remembered you,
jal uthaa mera bheega badan..- my wet body was burning.
ab tu hee bataa oh sajan - Now you only tell me oh lover,
mein kya karoon oo ooo? - what do I do oo ooo?
Baby, Hold On by TINA!
"I damn well know you can," he said, marching once more. "I've seen you these past few days: always doing something. Cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, repairing kitchen sinks and the list goes on. Will you let someone help you for a change? It's not a big deal."
It wasn't a so-called 'big deal' to him, but his words left me speechless. No one had ever praised me or commented on my work around the house. Even I'd gotten used to the daily list of chores. "You've been watching me?"
He smirked, the sunlight bouncing off his tall, manly frame as we walked through Lovers' Park like any ordinary couple, though we were far from that. "Just like you've been keeping an eye on me. Don't deny it."
I couldn't, too swamped with a gazillion confusing feelings and questions to argue. Shaking my head, I tried to shift the topic back to the original one. "You saved me from Buaji's friends just now and you won't take my thanks either. What do you want?"
"I told you, Sushi."
I flushed as his eyes fell on my parted lips. "How about jalebis?" I suggested brightly, hoping the shadows of the surrounding trees hid my rosy cheeks. "I make the best jalebis you've ever tasted, I bet."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
Arnav chuckled, the sexy noise washing over me like warm molasses. "Don't be. I've lived with it for a long time."
"Still," I insisted, chewing on my bottom lip as I imagined such a sugarless existence. "I'm sorry you can't gorge on cakes and chocolates. Or know the feeling of having eaten too many jalebis."
"There are some things more sweeter than any chocolates or cakes in the world." His eyes were once more on me, staring intently.
I couldn't meet that too hot gaze, glancing aside at the trees and shrubbery instead. "You shouldn't--"
"Talk to you like that? Flirt? Ask for a kiss?"
I nodded breathlessly. "All of that. I'm engaged."
His lips twisted. "We've been over this. Until your wearing that snoring, boring toad's ring--which you aren't--you are not engaged."
He said it as if it was set in stone, though it wasn't. Unfortunately. "Maybe, but that's beside the point. We don't even like each other! All we do is argue."
Arnav shook his head. "Don't change the subject. Question is: do you want to kiss me? Are you attracted to me?"
I balked, sputtering over the word. "Attracted?"
His chocolaty gaze traced over my face with such intensity it was as if he was actually stroking my skin. "And I say you are, Sushi. Wildly attracted."
The nerve of him! "You, Arnav Singh Raizada, are the most arrogant, shameless person I've ever met!"
Thankfully, we'd almost reached the house. Giving him an icy glare over my shoulder, I marched toward the main door.
He was at my side within a few strides. His voice when he spoke was unquestionably seductive. His hot breath nuzzled the side of neck. "Maybe I'm like you say, but bad news for you, Khushi Kumari Gupta: you still want me. And for the record, you owe me still."
Buaji chose right then to open the door. Perfect timing as always. "There you two are. I was getting worried."
Arnav smiled at her charmingly, looking away from me as if nothing important had passed between us. "Where do you want these vegetables, Maddy Bua?"
As Buaji guided him to the kitchen, I was left wanting to throw something at his sexy head of hair or kiss him senseless. What was wrong with me?
That night I avoided him, stuffing cotton balls in my ears and enduring Buaji's bulldog snores. I was up at the crack of dawn though, more questions plaguing me than ever before.
Attraction, seduction, affection--had I imagined it all in his eyes? Had Mr. Sexy been serious or simply teasing me? He was still very much a stranger, I reminded myself. A devilishly handsome and charismatic stranger. And falling for someone like that spelled not only T.R.O.U.B.L.E., but also H.E.A.R.T.B.R.E.A.K.
Still, no matter what I did, I couldn't stop thinking about him or his brazen request. Thankfully, I had more than enough to occupy me today. It was Buaji's ladies' night. A group of twenty women and their daughters would be coming for dinner. It was something of a tradition around Laxmi Nagar. Every month, Buaji and her friends would gather in one of their houses for an ever-expanding potluck. And tonight, was our turn as hosts.
Buaji had put me to work making garlands the minute breakfast was over. She wanted the house to be "the envy of the neighborhood." Butterball had smiled as she led me to the backyard, while Mr. Sexy had the exact opposite expression. He'd frowned at the pair of us, looking highly annoyed.
Sitting beside Buaji, stringing flowers, his husky voice replayed in my mind as if set on an endless loop: "A kiss.. and on the lips.."
I wondered what his mouth would feel like against mine. Would it be soft or hard? Warm or pleasantly cool?
Before I'd met Mr. Sexy, my idea of a kiss would have been a fleeting peck on the cheek. But I knew that wasn't what he'd meant. His idea of a kiss would no doubt be like the type in my secret collection of romance novels: something fierce and wild with not just lips meeting, but also tongues. "A French kiss.."
"French what?" Buaji squawked, squinting at me as if a fly rested at the tip of her nose.
My eyes widened in horror. Had I really said it out loud? Think, Khushi! Think!"Ahh..French..French fries! Don't you think we should make French fries for the dinner, Buaji? I'm sure they'll be a hit!"
She took a moment to consider the idea while I breathed a sigh of relief. That had been close--way too close.
"Why do we need French fries? We have Desi pakoras. Same thing, Sanka Devi."
"Not really. They're completely different," I said the words as a true food connoisseur.
"Don't be silly," she fussed, swinging her braid around her neck like a lasso. "Pakoras were even invented first!"
Before I could get another word in, Shyamji came up behind us, a brooding Raizada at his heels. My heart picked up speed as I spotted him.
"Is this like the question of the chicken or the egg?" asked Butterball, smiling from ear to ear. "Perhaps our new paying guest can answer."
My gaze invariably shot to Mr. Sexy. He was dressed in jeans and a classic black shirt today, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His mood was just as dark. He was practically glowering at Shyamji.
"I write books, Jha. Not jokes."
Was it just me or had he deliberately mispronounced 'Jha' as 'Jaa' meaning leave? I couldn't be sure.
Shyamji chuckled, oblivious to the daggers being thrown his way. "You know, you must loan me some copies. I've never read any of your work."
Raizada crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the doorway. "Not surprised. You don't look like the reading type.. I mean you must not get time to read."
Sure, you mean that, Mr. Sexy. But I was more than a little impressed by how he got away with everything. He'd just insulted Shyamji, and Butterball didn't even realize it!
"That's true too, ASR," he commented. "See, it's time for me to leave now. Important meetings today. See you all at the dinner."
Buaji waved her hands in the air. "Help me up, babua. Time for my nap as well. I've been working all day. Sanka Devi, that's enough garlands. Water the plants and then you too rest. It'll be a long, busy night. My friends are like me: we all have quite the appetite but touchwood, we're still quite trim."
To our credit, no one cracked a smile. Shyamji draped his arm across Buaji's shoulders, guiding her in as I set aside the flowers and began untangling the water hose.
"Sleep well, Maddy Bua."
I froze as I heard Mr. Sexy so close behind me. But a quick, backward glance showed that he was still standing there: his eyes on me and that same insufferable smirk on his lips.
Making a face at him, I walked over to the plants, doing my best to ignore him. Footsteps neared me. His footsteps.
Spinning around, I pointed the hose as if it was a weapon. "Stay back, Raizada. I don't want to talk to you."
His eyes twinkled as he considered me, and then in a flash, he picked up a second hose from the grass. "Now, you have to, Sushi. We're even." He stalked closer, a naughty glint in his eyes.
"Don't you dare.." I warned, backing away.
"Ahh, see now you shouldn't have done that. I never back down from a dare."
"I wasn't daring you!"
"Oh, really? Sounded that way to me, baby."
That did it. I aimed the water right at his face, spraying with all my force before darting away as fast as I could. If I ran for it now, he'd be too surprised to even react, much less catch me.
I got less than two footsteps away before his arms wrapped around my waist, swinging me backward. My shrieks mingled with his laughter as water cascaded around us.
"Put me down, Raizada!" I demanded, my heart and mind locked in a tug of war.
To be fair, he'd been about to do just that. But as he stepped forward, his foot slid on the wet grass. We toppled almost comically, him right on top of me.
"Are you okay?" he murmured, rising up on his forearms.
Forget replying, I couldn't seem to breathe. Water dripped from his hair onto my face. This close, I could see the small flecks of gold in his eyes. Could almost count his eyelashes. Gosh, did he have to be so handsome? How was I expected to resist?
That same characteristic smirk crossed his face as he studied me, sensing my reaction to him. "You're beautiful," he murmured. "Do you know that?" His hand curved on my cheek, stroking ever so lightly. My eyelashes fluttered close as his warm breath washed over my trembling lips.
"I'd kiss you this very second," he admitted against my mouth. "But I want you to do it. Kiss me, Khushi.."
My eyes snapped open as he said my name for the first time. Khushi--not Sushi, Mushy, or Tushy.
Arnav rolled me on the grass, drawing me on top of him. I was struck once more as I stared down at him, my wet hair curtaining us in a world that was our own.. only the two of us..
"Kiss me.." he whispered again, his hand massaging my tense back. "Kiss me.."
My heartbeat escalated against his. I found myself lowering, our lips just a hairsbreadth apart.
"KHUSHIJI!" some pesky, unwanted voice shouted from the house. "I forgot my lunch!"
My eyes widened as they met Mr. Sexy's. What had I been about to do? Hastily straightening up, I ran inside. I could hear Raizada swearing behind me: "Damn you, toad."
My heartbeat thundered in my chest. Inside, I saw that Shyamji had already gotten his lunch and left. Buaji had woken up from her nap it appeared. She paused mid-yawn as she saw me, wet and covered in grass and dirt.
"What have you been doing, Sanka Devi? WWE mud wrestling?"
"Something like that.." I mumbled, walking in a daze to the bedroom. I'd been wrestling with my heart--and still was.
Blessedly, Arnav Singh Raizada stayed out of my way the remainder of the afternoon. I dressed in the bathroom, pleating on a saree carefully. I'd never been too comfortable in them, but Buaji had insisted. As I stepped out, my eyes flew to my old bedroom. Some crazy part of me missed him--a lot. But the door remained firmly closed.
Buaji's friends arrived soon after that, dressed in all their finery. I greeted them politely, but stuck with the younger crowd. The last thing I needed was more congratulations for my so-called engagement. But even in my circle of friends, I wasn't spared.
"You're so lucky, Khushi. Shyamji is a gem."
"Everyone has been talking about it," said another. "The two of you are a perfect match."
"I think Buaji is calling me," I mumbled, sneaking out into the empty backyard the moment I could. Taking deep, gulping breaths of fresh air made me feel better, but the annoying tears wouldn't leave me alone. Why was life so unfair?
And then his voice broke out. "You know smiles suit you, not tears."
Arnav stepped out of the shadows, guiding me to the old stone bench I'd often played on as a child, and for some reason, I let him. His gaze was worry-filled as he studied me. "The party just started, you should be inside. Are you okay?"
I sniffled, nodding. He sighed, seeing right through me. "What's going on, Khushi?"
"You won't understand. No one does. Not my friends, not even my aunt, no one." The words tumbled out before I could stop them.
"Try me," he insisted.
I turned to face him. "Everyone expects me to be happy with Shyamji. Like I'm the luckiest girl in the world. No one cares what I want.. what I think.."
"And what do you want?"
"Not him," I said at once.
Mr. Sexy smiled charmingly. "Then you don't have to marry him."
I shook my head. "It's not that simple. All of Laxmi Nagar is celebrating as if it's already done."
He was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. "Maybe not easy, but not impossible either. We can do it together."
"Together?" A small flame of hope lit in my heart.
Arnav nodded, his eyes tracing over me. "Look, I know we didn't start off as the best of friends, but that doesn't mean we can't be. Friends, Sushi?"
I stared at his outstretched hand, torn once more. And then letting all my worries and doubts slide, for the first time all afternoon, I smiled, shaking his hand. "Friends."
There was a matching smile on his handsome face. "Great. Now, go on inside. This isn't the right time to start Mission Toad."
"Mission Toad? Mission Melt the Butter fits more, don't you think?" I was smiling as I stood, gazing at him in wonder. He'd turned my whole evening around. Perhaps, I could get rid of Butterball after all.
I began to walk away and then changing my mind, ran back to Mr. Sexy. Rising on my tiptoes, I pressed a kiss to his cheek. His expression was priceless.
"Thanks," I mumbled, ready to dart away.
But his hand captured my wrist. With a sizzling heat in his eyes, Raizada swung me back. Back into his arms.. Oh my..
Baby, Hold On by TINA!
Words escaped me as Mr. Sexy's mouth pressed to my left cheek: deliciously hot and branding. My eyes fluttered close as he trailed kisses down my neck, a devastating combination of lips, teeth, and tongue.
"I want to kiss you so much," he admitted, his voice husky. "So damn much.."
I quaked against him, struggling to catch my breath.
Arnav rose up slowly, his eyes midnight-dark as he met my stupefied gaze. "But it has to be you, Sushi."
I knew the proper thing to do was to break free of his hold. But the circle of his arms felt so safe, so warm and intoxicating, I couldn't step away. I wet my suddenly dry lips.
He sharply inhaled at that, staring at me in a way that made me feel oddly feverish. His hands tightened on my sari-draped waist, drawing me hard against him.
A squeak of surprise left me. Warning alarms sprung up with urgency in my mind: What in the name of jalebis are you doing, Khushi Kumari Gupta? Step away now!
But I shrugged aside those nagging worries, too caught up in the man in front of me to care. Was this truly happening? I clutched his shoulders partly to steady myself, but mostly to confirm he was real--this stranger who'd captured my attention right from the first milk-soaked glance.
If I was ogling him intently, so was he. And then he had to ruin that perfect, fairytale moment. Of course.
"By the end of tonight, you'll kiss me," Raizada said as if it was fact.
I made a face at his overconfidence. Typical Mr. Sexy. "No way," I replied, my eyes glittering with challenge.
His lips curved into that signature smirk. He pulled me tighter against him, indecently close--though I was too lost in him to point that out.
"Fight it as hard as you want, baby, but it'll happen. Mark my words."
The heat in his gaze stunned me. Still, I did not give in, stubbornly shaking my head at him. I'd been about to retort when someone called my name.
"Khushi! Where are you?"
Arnav swore as I broke free, his arms falling to his sides and clenching into tight fists. "If it's that toad again, I'm going to--"
"No," I cut in. "Shyamji is busy with work. He's not coming tonight."
"So our mission is really delayed."
I nodded, crossing my arms over my chest to keep from throwing myself at him and truly making a fool of myself. I'd never felt anything like his embrace in my entire life--not that I would admit to that so easily.
"And for the record, Raizada, you're wrong about you-know-what."
His eyes lit up. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Sushi."
"Liar." Gathering my courage, I added, "I won't be kissing you tonight."
The defiance in my tone seemed to amuse him. "I guess we'll know soon enough, wont we?"
"KHUSHI!" My friend's voice was louder this time.
I grudgingly headed back to the party, raising my sari to my ankles as I waded across the dew-covered grass. I thought Mr. Sexy would be coming too, but I didn't hear his footsteps. Turning around, I saw that he was still standing near the stone bench, hands in his pockets as he watched me.
"You're not coming in?" I asked.
"I will, but I have some calls to make. You go on."
"Come soon," I found myself saying, needing him near me for some crazy, inexplicable reason. As I was about to step inside, he called out my name:
"Sushi! By the way, you look especially beautiful tonight."
I couldn't help, but beam at him. I was still smiling as I walked in, Mr. Sexy at the forefront of my thoughts. The man drove me mad most of the time, but he was also the first to make me feel beautiful. Cherished. What was happening?
The house was in a loud uproar--aunties laughing, their daughters gossiping over dinner, and our neighbor's children dancing on top of the coffee table. After the quiet and very romantic moment in the backyard, it all felt jarring. As if I'd walked into someone else's out-of-control life.
"Khushi!" My friend grabbed me by the elbow. "Where have you been? Everyone has already starting eating."
I glanced behind her to the dining table. My Buaji's sari-clad friends surrounded it. As much as I didn't want to hear about Butterball, I knew I had to risk it. Food came first.
"Khushi, go on!" pushed my friends, bewildered by my hesitation.
Crossing my fingers, I made a beeline to the table. Perhaps I was being overly concerned because no one mentioned Shyamji as I filled my plate. Or maybe it was simply because I moved so fast, almost at lightning speed.
I'd just raised a mouthwatering jalebi to my lips when a large shadow stepped before me.
"Sanka Devi! There's a huge problem! Come right now." Buaji took the plate from my hands, setting it aside and even plucked away the jalebi.
"Buaji!" I whined as she literally dragged me to the TV.
"The movie is not playing!" she said in an urgent whisper, waving at her friends with a too-bright, plastic smile. "The entire night is ruined now. All my friends have been waiting to watch this one."
I wanted to say no--I knew nothing much about wires and electronics--but my aunt's crestfallen face stopped me. She'd been looking forward to this night for months.
"It'll be fine, Buaji. Don't worry," I told her reassuringly. If only I believed that too. Kneeling before the TV, I whispered a prayer and pressed a random button.
I frowned at the blank screen, pressing some more important-looking buttons in rapid succession. But that seemed to make it even worse. The TV was all fuzzy and grainy now. "What the duck.."
Buaji cried out, standing before the TV to block the guests from seeing our technical difficulties.
"Damn you. Cooperate," I muttered.
"Talking to the TV now?" asked an amused, all-too-familiar voice.
I froze for a heartbeat, gazing up in astonishment at Arnav. But he was really there, a brimming plate in his hands.
"Here, finish your dinner, Sushi. I'll handle this."
Our fingers met as I took the plate, the innocent contact shooting off sparks and blazing with palpable electricity. I could barely contain my gasp.
Our gazes met and clashed. Something wordless passed between us. Mr. Sexy was the first to look away, fiddling with the TV.
It seemed to like him more than me because less than sixty seconds later, the screen came to life. The opening track of Mamma Miasounded at an extra loud pitch.
"Bless you, Arnav dear." Buaji clapped, waving her friends over. "Time for the movie, everyone!"
I got squashed in a corner seat, my plate precariously balanced in one hand as I tried to pay attention to the movie and not Mr. Sexy. He wasn't helping matters though: sitting on the kitchen counter, eating and looking too handsome for his own good.
I wasn't the only one staring at him. My friends and most of their mothers were as well. It was hard not to roll my eyes or keep from shouting: Sorry, ladies. He's mine--well, sort of!
"Who is that, Khushi?" the girl beside me asked.
"Our new paying guest," I said between bites. "Arnav Singh Raizada."
My other friend grasped my free hand. "Please tell me there's no Mrs. Raizada."
Not yet, I almost replied. A disturbing thought came to my mind. I froze, unable to swallow.
"Khushi?" she asked again.
"Not that I know of," I managed.
Could there be a Mrs. Raizada? Surely Mr. Sexy wouldn't flirt with me so much--not to mention almost kiss me--if he were married. But he'd never said anything about his family. It struck me how little I knew about him still.
Raizada seemed to notice my changing mood. His eyebrow rose in question. Glancing pointedly away, I did my best to ignore him.
I would have sat there on the sofa longer, but Buaji's sharp eyes spotted the empty plate in my lap.
"Sanka Devi, put that in the kitchen, and take mine too please."
Everyone else quickly said the same:
"Can you take mine too?"
"Mine as well?"
"Thanks, Khushi Di."
"No problem," I managed, carefully handling the teetering tower of thirty or so odd plates.
As I'd feared, Mr. Sexy was waiting for me in the kitchen. He frowned as he saw me, taking the plates before I could stop him and setting them near the sink.
"Thanks," I murmured, turning away just as quickly.
"Not so fast." The way he said those words had my heart galloping. Before I knew it, he spun me around, pulling me into his arms.
"Stop it," I scolded. "Everyone's watching."
His frown deepened as he studied me. "Not till you tell me what's wrong. And relax, no one is watching us. They're all too busy dancing."
Which was entirely true. Yet another song was playing and my friends, Buaji, and her friends were all busy imitating Meryl Streep's moves and singing at the top of their voices.
"Come on," Arnav growled in my ear, dragging me backwards--straight into his room.
He closed the door behind us, backing me up against it. "Now, tell me, Sushi. What's going on?"
"Nothing," I replied, flashing my eyes at him. "Everything is just peachy."
"Now who's lying? Baby, I wish I could read your mind, but I can't. So tell me."
I just spit it out: "Is there a Mrs. Raizada?"
"What!" He looked gob smacked.
"You heard me. Are you married, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada?"
"What the--! Khushi, do you really think I'd be this way with you if I was married? Is that what you think of me?"
I shook my head, taking a calming breath. "I'm saying it all wrong. I know you aren't married, but the point is: I still don't know anything about you."
Raizada frowned. "That's not true. You know mostly everything about me."
"Oh really? What about your family? You've never even mentioned them."
"Because you didn't ask till now and it never came up." His chocolaty eyes locked with mine. "There's honestly not much to tell."
I pulled away, sitting down on my old bed. "I want to know though."
Arnav sighed, lounging next to me and taking up most of the space. "Like Maddy Bua probably told you, I'm an orphan just like you. I have an older sister, Anjali Di, as well as my cousin Akash, who's basically a younger brother to me. There's also my grandmothers and my Mama and Mami. Everyone is in Australia now."
"And you're alone here?"
He nodded. "Di was with me till her wedding last summer. She's now happily married and settled there too. I visit them all a couple times a year so it's not too bad."
I reflected on that new information as Arnav stared at me with a half-smile. "Any more questions, Sushi?"
I couldn't help but ask the one question that had been plaguing me for the past couple nights: "What about girlfriends? Have you had a lot?"
Arnav's smile widened. He clasped my hand in his, raising it to his mouth for a feather-light kiss. "I'll be honest with you, I had a couple during school and college, but nothing too serious. You're the first girl who's come to mean so much to me.. who's turned my world upside down."
"I have? What about you?"
He tugged me against him and before I could stop it, I found myself on top of him, my sari plastered to his chest. The friction was slippery, but he held me firmly, his hands clamping on my exposed waist.
"I'm serious about you, Sushi. I won't hurt you."
My breath hitched as I stared down at him. He'd hit on my number one fear.
"I trust you. I won't hurt you either," I promised.
He smiled, running his fingers through my hair. "I know, baby."
We lay like that for several minutes, lost in each other. And then as my Buaji's laughter boomed outside, I blushed scarlet.
"Let me up, Raizada." I straightened quickly, brushing back my tousled hair. I hoped it didn't give too much away to all those gathered outside. "I should go," I mumbled lamely.
What was wrong with me? The house was full of people and all I could think of was romancing Mr. Sexy.
His hand caught the end of my sari, and I froze as I felt his grip tighten. "Don't think I've forgotten, Sushi. You owe me a kiss."
I stuck out my tongue at him. "Keep dreaming." We were both smiling as I slipped out the door.
It was nearly 2 AM by the time all the guests left and the house was back into some order. I was mopping the kitchen floor while Buaji washed the last of the dishes. Mr. Sexy was sitting beside her on the countertop, drying off some plates.
Our gazes would meet every now and then, something hot and magical bridging the slight distance between us. My hand tightened on the mop as I swung away, cheeks brightening.
"It was truly a wonderful evening," Buaji said, oblivious to the two of us. "Everyone praised the food and loved the movie--thanks to Meryl. I'm just so very sad it's over."
I had never liked seeing her upset. And so, I acted without thinking. Using the mop's handle as my mic, I sang her favorite song from Mamma Mia:
"You can dance.. You can jive.. Having the time of your life.. See that girl," I pointed to Buaji. She laughed, joining in. "Watch that scene.. Diggin' the dancing queen."
We were laughing as we spun to a stop on the kitchen floor. Buaji hugged me, patting my head. I closed my eyes, smiling.
Mr. Sexy's claps seemed to come out of nowhere, making me freeze with embarrassment. But as our eyes met over my aunt's shoulder, I saw that he was grinning too.
"I love that song," murmured Buaji, yawning.
"Buaji, please go sleep. I'll handle the rest."
"I'm so tired I think I'll plop down and sleep right here, Sanka Devi."
I began to argue, but Arnav jumped off the counter just then. "Khushi is right, Maddy Bua. Come, I'll take you."
And then surprising both my aunt and me, he lifted her up in his arms.
"Put me down!" laughed my aunt. There was a hint of a blush on her cheeks.
But Arnav shook his head, marching off as if it was no great task. A warmth shot through me as I observed the two of them. I couldn't keep the smile off my face as Mr. Sexy made some cheeky comment that had my aunt laughing all over again.
I was drying off the last plate when Arnav's voice came from behind me.
"Maddy Bua fell asleep almost the second her head hit the bed," he said with a smile.
I acted quickly, before I could reconsider or chicken out. Turning around, I raised myself on my tiptoes, cupping his stubbled cheeks with my palms as I pressed my mouth to his.
The kiss was fast and firm. For once, Raizada was speechless, staring at me with shock. I thought of saying something--anything--but I couldn't seem to.
"Did you mean that?" he asked, his eyes tracing over my too-pink face.
I nodded breathlessly. "Yes. I'm sorry if I surprised you, but I couldn't help it. And--"
Arnav pulled me against him before I could finish my ramblings and I could only watch in awe as he smiled, his gorgeous eyes crinkling at the corners.
"Don't you dare apologize, Khushi. Do you know how long I've been waiting for our first kiss?"
I stared fixedly at his Adam's apple, feeling shy all of a sudden. Had I really kissed him? I wanted to run and hide, but my feet felt glued to the floor. His hands dove into my hair, tilting my head back up.
"That was incredible, Sushi, but I want more."
"More?" I squeaked.
He nodded, his gaze tender as he slanted his mouth across mine. It was more than anything I could have ever dreamt up: softness and heat and mind-numbing passion. I gasped as he glided his tongue across my bottom lip and he instantly dove in. My last rational thought:Mr. Sexy had been right about one thing, there were some things far sweeter than jalebis.
His taste reminded me of the finest Belgian chocolate even though that too paled in comparison. I could only hold on, swept off my feet by his sensual and fierce kisses. As we came up for air, I shivered against him, gripping his waist tightly.
"The French really deserve a prize," I whispered, shaken.
"What the--" He was laughing as he tugged me back into his arms, his mouth finding mine and shutting me up very nicely.
Good night indeed. It was more a case of mind-blowing, sleepless, sinful-thoughts-filled night.
I lay for a long time in the dark thinking about Arnav--the way he smirked, the way he sauntered around in his leather jacket, how he always jumped to help me, the way he kissed me--as if he was aching to. As if he couldn't get enough.
Beet red, I gave in to the ridiculous desire shooting through me. Before I knew it, I was standing up on the mattress and doing a quick, chamkilli-style dance.
I wasn't fast or silent enough.
"AHHH!!!" Buaji screamed as she found me standing over her head mid-spin. "What are you doing, Sanka Devi! It's the middle of the night!"
I was struggling to hold back my laughter as I laid back down. "Sorry, Buaji."
"I'm sorry too! I was having a wonderful dream about Pierce and me."
I turned toward her with mouth agape. "Pierce who?"
She looked shocked, as if she hadn't realized she'd spoken aloud. "The one in the movie.. Mamma Mia.." she finally answered, her voice lower than I'd ever heard it.
She whacked me on the head with a pillow as I laughed, imagining the pair together.
"Enough. Good night, Sanka Devi."
"Good night, Buaji. I love you."
She huffed something that sounded like "Love you too, pagal."
So you know I didn't sleep much at all that night, but for some strange reason, I was the first one up the next morning. I showered and dressed quickly, choosing a flouncy, red outfit I'd once noticed Raizada not-so-secretly admiring.
The kitchen was quiet as I entered, and I blushed as I recalled those magical kisses against the refrigerator all over again. Shaking off all those mind-numbing thoughts, I hurried to make Raizada's favorite parathas--though I had no idea why.
It was raining outside, a light drizzle more like it, but to me, it felt as if roses were blooming, the sun shining, and birds humming to Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai. Was this what happened when you found yourself falling in love? Did the world suddenly appear more beautiful? Hopeful?
Very familiar, masculine hands suddenly appeared out of nowhere, wrapping around on mine on the rolling pin.
My eyes fluttered close as I felt Raizada behind me, his lean, rock-hard body pressed intimately close.
"Good morning," he murmured huskily, resting his chin on my shoulder. His warm breath nuzzled the side of my face.
"Morning," I managed.
It was hard to pay attention to what he was saying. His fingers were massaging mine, turning the paratha-making into something unquestionably sensual.
I glanced over my shoulder at him.
He was very close, his drowsy expression making him look sexier than ever. It wasn't fair, the man had gorgeous, bedroom eyes. How was I expected to behave? All I could think about was kissing him.
Swallowing, I just shrugged. "I guess. And you?"
"What do you think, Sushi?"
I smiled knowingly, trying to focus on the dough and not the man behind me--useless though the effort was. There was no ignoring Mr. Sexy.
He was busy dropping kisses to the side of my face: my cheeks, my neck, another at my temple, and even the top of my head.
"If you don't want your paratha to be in the shape of Australia, you better stop that., Raizada."
He chuckled as he looked down at our handiwork. His hands left mine and instead wrapped around my waist. "Fine then. I like this position too."
That same, sexy drawl was back. I flushed as he tugged me closer, his sandpaper-like stubble grazing the side of my neck. He drew the dupatta out of his way impatiently.
"Arnav... someone might see."
"I don't care."
"--Is snoring away. Relax, baby."
This was scandalous. I tried to move away, turning on the stove. But Mr. Sexy followed after me, refusing to let go. His arms were locked around my waist. He was behaving like he was a giant baby and I, his favorite stuffed animal.
"You're impossible," I said, rolling my eyes.
I could feel his grin against my nape. "I'm not going to argue with you this one time because frankly, I'm just glad you're behaving the same way with me. After those kisses last night, I kept hoping you wouldn't turn all shy and formal around me."
I dropped a dollop of butter into the sizzling pan. "Formal? No chance of that, Raizada."
The melting butter reminded me of the pesky problem still before us. "What about Shyamji? What are we going to do about him?"
"Don't worry, baby. We'll send the toad packing to some swamp soon enough," Mr. Sexy said, his lips curving. "We can discuss it later today. What are your plans by the way?"
"For today?" At his nod, I ran down the list. "Well, breakfast first. Then, I need to shell that basket of peas for lunch. Wash dishes, fold and iron the laundry, dust the house. The sink is getting fixed later, so I'll have to supervise that in between. And then dinner, of course. Oh, and I need to bake a cake--it's Happyji's birthday."
"That's it, Cinderella?" Arnav asked, not bothering to hide his sarcasm. "Dammit, baby, where's the time for us? For you? All you do is work around here. Don't girls normally pamper themselves--get their nails done, go to a spa, and all that?"
"You mean manicures and pedicures?" I laughed, shaking my head. "I've never done any of that. My nails look just fine, don't they?"
"Beautiful. But that isn't my point. Do you ever relax?"
I started to tell him ordinary girls like me did not routinely get "pampering" time, but he placed his finger on my mouth, stopping me right there. I stared at him with surprise, a heady warmth washing over me.
"Let's just agree to disagree, Sushi. Don't you want to know my plans for today?" His finger moved off my lips.
I gazed at him warily. "What are you up to, Raizada?"
He smirked, pulling me back into his arms. "Well, I'll be writing and hopefully spending some time alone with you in your busy schedule. For all this waiting, I think I more than deserve a kiss--"
"Kiss?" I interrupted.
He nodded. "Every hour."
My eyes widened. "A kiss every hour?" I raised the back of my hand to his forehead. "Do you have a fever? Are you insane, Raizada? How will I ever manage that?"
He dusted off some flour from my cheek and chin, those gorgeous eyes twinkling outright now. "I'm sure you'll find a way. Here, I'll help you get started.."
I gasped as his mouth covered mine, his tongue stroking across the seam of my lips. I began to push him away, but who was I kidding? I couldn't resist him. I wanted him too much.
Surrendering completely, I looped my arms around Mr. Sexy's neck, kissing him back just as fervently. He groaned with approval, deepening the kiss. I was lost in him all over again, feeling dizzy and wonderful and almost drunk.
We were both breathing hard when we parted. "Don't forget, a kiss every hour," he whispered. "Otherwise I'll find you myself."
He pressed a quick kiss to my reddened mouth before sauntering away. I sagged against the countertop in a daze.
As much as I wanted to kiss him, how would I manage it with Buaji, Shyami, not to mention the plumbers coming today?
"Mr. Sexy, you're driving me crazy," I mumbled under my breath, dropping our odd-shaped paratha on the crackling hot pan.
Breakfast was served within the hour and I mentally checked off one thing from my ever-growing list of chores.
Buaji was unusually silent this morning. As she ate, she kept yawning. "Yesterday's party was just excellent, wasn't it?"
I could only nod, my eyes on the man opposite me. Thankfully, Shyamji had not returned yet. It was only Mr. Sexy at the table today.
The way he was watching me made me blush. As I took a sip of milk, I noticed him tap a finger to his watch.
"Fifteen minutes," he mouthed.
I narrowed my eyes at him. "You're crazy!"
Oops.. Had I said that out loud? Raizada's smirk sure pointed to it.
"That is no way to behave," my aunt continued. "We need to make Arnav dear feel at home--not call him names! I can't believe you would--"
"It's okay, Maddy Bua. I'm used to it."
My gaze burned into Mr. Sexy. Little good it did though. He just grinned all the more.
Buaji was missing everything. She was firmly on Team Paying Guest. "It's just not right, Arnav dear. Khushi, you should be more welcoming. Whatever he wants, you should try to make that happen."
"Yeah," Arnav nodded, his eyes languidly tracing over my redenned face. "And you know what I want, don't you?"
Did I ever.. I pursed my mouth at him, crossing my arms over my chest.
"You want something, Arnav dear?" My aunt paused mid-bite. "You know I never even asked you about your likes or dislikes, or favorite foods. And you didn't even complain once. So, tell me dear, what do you like?"
"I like Sushi."
I almost choked. What was Mr. Sexy up to? This was not the time or place to flirt! I plastered a too-sweet smile on my face and in the same breath, kicked him under the table.
"Duck!" I cut in before he could finish that line. "He likes duck. You know, like Daffy Duck, Buaji."
My aunt made a revolted face before she could quite conceal it. "Well, I'm afraid we can't make that here. There is that new Chinese restaurant down the road--you can try that, dear."
"Oh, I will," bit out Arnav as he stood. His eyes promised that he wouldn't be dropping this topic any time soon.
After that eventful breakfast, I was on edge, my eyes falling every now and then on the clock. I'd missed the one-hour deadline, but Mr. Sexy remained out of sight.
Though I told myself it was all silly, a part of me couldn't help but fret. What was Raizada planning now? How was I going to make it up to him?
I was walking down the hall, having just folded a mountain of laundry, when a hand grabbed me by the elbow.
Next thing I knew, I was standing before Arnav, our bodies squashed together in a very cramped space.
My mouth dropped open as I looked around us. "The cleaning closest!"
"Shush," he murmured, righting a broom that threatened to knock me over the head. "Someone might hear you."
"Exactly, Arnav! You cannot be serious."
He wound his arms around my waist, his gaze smoldering hot. His voice though was baby-soft. "I missed you."
All my arguments and second thoughts flew out the window. This man had the most uncanny ability to turn my mind into mush. To override all my common sense with his droolworthy streak of passion and romance.
Besides, there was something very exciting about this secret love affair.. these secret kisses. Highly dangerous, but exciting nevertheless. I leaned up, kissing his chin, the corner of his mouth.
He grumbled and I began to kiss him properly. I'd not so much as brushed my lips against his when my aunt's voice sounded--right outside the door! Of course. Perfect timing, as always. "Sanka Devi! The plumbers are here!"
Arnav clamped a hand over my mouth before I could give anything away. My heartbeat pounded. The moment Buaji's footsteps grew faint, I scurried out.
Amid the chaos and chores, I did manage to have lunch with Mr. Sexy, but Buaji was with us too, like a true blue chaperone. Despite her presence between us, we did manage to talk and spar as always, switching topics at the drop of a hat: movies, sushi, sports, books, and of course butter. It was strange how easily we could talk, neither thinking twice, neither backing down.
"You two debate on frying or melting the butter, I'm off for my nap," yawned Buaji.
My eyes met Raizada's. Something red-hot sizzled between us. The moment my aunt was out of sight, he was rounding the table, pulling me up.
"Arnav, we can't!" I whispered. "The plumbers--"
"--Are busy. This is our chance."
"I don't think--"
"Then, don't." Before I knew it, he picked me in his arms and threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
"Arnav!" I ground out through my teeth. "Put me down. Baby, someone will see!"
But he was already marching off toward his room. And just like that, with not a care in the world, he hoisted me higher, walking right past the plumbers' bent heads.
I would have snapped at him the moment we were alone but his mouth was on mine, and I couldn't find the words to complain. We kissed heatedly as he laid me down on my old bed, neither able to get close enough.
Mr. Sexy was the one to break it off, leaning back. I pouted, missing him the second his lips left mine but he surprised me, grabbing my right leg. I quickly sat up.
"What are you doing?"
"It's called a massage, baby. And you can use it, you've been working all day."
That same peculiar warmth shot through me as I observed him. Was he real? He certainly felt real, his hands massaging my sore muscles, his lips pressing a scorching kiss to my instep.
There was magic in his hands. Within minutes, I felt wonderfully relaxed. Only one worry remained.
"Arnav, what will we do about Shyamji? I can't just go to him and break it off."
I frowned. "Because Shyamji is a drama queen err man. He'll make a huge scene and all of Laxmi Nagar will be gathered in our house in the blink of an eye. I don't want to embarrass Buaji like that. We need to find a not-so-messy way to end it."
Raizada listed off some ways to chase off Butterball, but I couldn't agree. They all sounded too mean.
Arnav sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Baby, we have to either make him look bad or make you appear a wrong choice. There's no other alternative."
"That's it," I exclaimed. "We'll make Shyamji reject me."
"Seriously? The man is always looking at you like you're a slab of butter. He's not going to walk away just like that."
I kissed away Mr. Sexy's scowl, entwining our hands. "True, but the two of us together can tackle any toad."
He smiled, kissing me. "How about a date--"
"Date?" Countless ideas came to me in a heartbeat. I could picture it all: the worst date in the history of dates. One that would have Shyamji running for the nearest swamp by the time it ended. "Raizada, you're a genius!"
I kissed his cheek firmly and then ran out the door, ignoring his voice calling after me.
Exactly fifteen minutes later, I was back, smiling widely. "It worked! Buaji agreed. She said Shyamji and I should spend some time together. He's taking me to that new Chinese restaurant tomorrow night."
I'd expected Mr. Sexy to be sharing my glee, but he frowned instead, laying back on the bed and staring moodily up at the ceiling. My eyebrows knit together as I went to his side, trying to read his eyes.
His lips compressed even more as he turned to my direction. "What's wrong is that I was talking about taking you on a date--the two of us--and you went and arranged a dinner date with the toad."
I froze. "What! Why didn't you say anything?"
"You ran out the door before I could, Khushi." At my grimace, he sighed, hugging me close. "Baby, it's okay, your plan is good too. This will be phase one of our mission. But you owe me a date."
"Promise," I whispered, wrapping my arms around his waist.
Mr. Sexy smirked. "And some kisses.. How about twenty?"
"Twenty?" I repeated with astonishment.
He nodded slowly, his hand plunging into my hair and pulling me on top of him. "Here, let me help you get started.."
Next up: Part 9: The Fu King Chinese Restaurant under 'Baby, Hold On'
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