First of all, sorry for the delay.
It wasn't my intention, but my schedule changed:(
I opted to work nights this month instead of later in the summer.
Good news: I only have two more nights of call left:)
So there's a very good chance of me updating late this Sunday US time (Monday IST).
Quick progress updates on the stories:
Desert Heat: next chapter is 75% done
Baby Hold On: is done. Like to the epilogue. But I have to edit it still. I'll post it all together eventually.
Secret Passion: next chapter 90% done
I will try my best to update on Sunday but no promises, I'm so exhausted these days I don't have time for anything let alone writing. But next month should put us back on track.
Reminder: you can follow me on Facebook under 'Tina Ipkknd' I don't add anyone but I do make public posts about updates and notes.
See you soon (hopefully!)
*Do NOT plagiarize, copy or distribute any part of my original work. I will take this story and all others down immediately. Copyright TINA. All Rights Reserved.*
Pack your bags everyone, as we travel to the far reaches of a vast desert..
The sand dunes..the scorching heat..the fluttering of the tents..the chilly nights..
Khushi: an innocent, beautiful woman leaving Lucknow for the first time.
ASR: a man who loves his land fiercely, but knows the only way to save it is with aggression.
They were never meant to meet.
But they did.
Sweet innocence meets savage masculinity.
Will Khushi give in to the overwhelming passion this man brings out in her?
Will ASR become Arnav for her?
Will they ignore the love blooming between them or fall under its heady spell?
To find out, read Desert Heat..
INDIA...a land of history and intrigue, steeped in a millennia of deeply rooted culture and tradition.
Bordered on the North by the towering Himalayas, the land slopes, twists, and turns through grassy meadows, open plains, crowded cities to villages and lush jungles, culminating at the coastlines of the South.
Forged through centuries of war and conflict, the land has witnessed countless changes. From the rise and fall of the Indus Valley Civilization to the grandeur of the Mughal Sultanate to the technology of the British Empire.
By the mid nineteenth century, much of India has succumbed to the foreign presence. But high in the northwest corner lies a vast desert, where the people refuse to bow down easily.
Known as the 'land of the kings,' Rajasthan faces not only the encroachment of the British, but also internal factions and strife as small, autonomous kingdoms battle for power.
The land is wild and lawless and it is here in this place and time long forgotten, that our story of unlikely love and burning passion opens...
Bordered on the North by the towering Himalayas, the land slopes, twists, and turns through grassy meadows, open plains, crowded cities to villages and lush jungles, culminating at the coastlines of the South.
Forged through centuries of war and conflict, the land has witnessed countless changes. From the rise and fall of the Indus Valley Civilization to the grandeur of the Mughal Sultanate to the technology of the British Empire.
By the mid nineteenth century, much of India has succumbed to the foreign presence. But high in the northwest corner lies a vast desert, where the people refuse to bow down easily.
Known as the 'land of the kings,' Rajasthan faces not only the encroachment of the British, but also internal factions and strife as small, autonomous kingdoms battle for power.
The land is wild and lawless and it is here in this place and time long forgotten, that our story of unlikely love and burning passion opens...
She shook her head, her black pigtails flying in the dusty air. "No, thank you, uncle."
At the tender age of eight, she was a beautiful child with her waist-long braids, soft features, and shining brown eyes filled with mischief. A bundle of energy, as her mother often remarked.
Darting through the crowd, Khushi took her favorite short cut, cutting past the old temple and ruins to a narrow, cobblestone street. A beaming grin spread across her face as she recalled the large pot of kheer awaiting her. She could barely wait to taste some of the rice pudding herself. Jalebis were her personal favorite, but kheer was a close second.
Shouts erupted ahead. Khushi frowned as she skidded to a stop.
The road before her was clogged with people. A horse had collapsed suddenly, sending its rider flying off.
"Excuse me," whispered Khushi as she tried to squeeze through the crowd. Amma was waiting for her, and she hated to make her worry.
"Stop!" shouted a British soldier, blocking her. His blue eyes softened slightly as he looked at her. "Wait till the road is cleared, child." His accent was thick and unfamiliar, but his tone was unmistakable. Khushi hastily stepped aside.
Leaning against the high wall to her right, she tried to forget about the kheer. She really did, but she couldn't. Her young heart thumped as she imagined the scene at home: her mother frantic, the sweet dessert being slurped down by concerned neighbors.
She sighed, wishing that the horse would rise from the muddy ground already and live a long, happy life in some grassy knoll instead. Didn't it know she had kheer to eat?
And then her head swiveled to the opposite side. Her eyes lit up.
A small wagon cart, piled high with hay, had been pushed against the sidewall.
Sneakily, Khushi tiptoed closer, her eyes on the soldier. As soon as he turned his back, she ducked.
Crawling on her hands and knees, she passed underneath the wagon, not caring about the muck that stained her bright orange ghagra choli. A yelp of glee escaped her as she scurried out, her tiny feet racing forward.
She glanced back to see if anyone had noticed, and almost at once, ran headfirst into someone.
"Oww," she murmured, her small hand rising to her temple. As she glanced up from the man's long legs, her large, brown eyes widened with recognition. "Babuji!"
Her father chuckled as he picked her up in his arms, tossing her high in the air.
"Where is my rajkumari going in such a hurry?" asked Ram Kumar Gupta, his young face shining in the morning light as he gazed at his only child.
She threw her arms around his neck, hugging him close.
"Amma and I made Kheer," she said proudly. "And I took some to the Khans. It's Nafisa Aunty's favorite."
"I hope she will like it," he murmured, walking briskly through the crowd, his daughter held closely in his arms.
Khushi nodded, closing her eyes against the powerful sun overhead. Who wouldn't like her mother's kheer? She was the best cook in the whole entire world.
"Gupta!" called out a gray-haired man, rising from his porch.
"Good morning, Sharma," replied Ram, his eyes shifting to Khushi.
But she was already folding her hands, her small glass bangles clinking softly. "Namaste, uncle."
Their neighbor nodded hurriedly, his excitement palpable. "I just got word," he whispered. "There's been some rebellion along the back roads of Delhi."
Ram stiffened, his arms tightening around Khushi. News of strife was common, but every day, it seemed to be edging closer to home. His face was stone-like as he responded, "As long as my family stays safe, nothing else matters."
"Of course, Gupta. You know, I've heard even your wife's relations were involved."
"We have nothing to do with those people," said Ram shortly. His wife's sister and her banker husband were a spiteful, greedy couple who lived nearby. He did not regret falling out with them.
Sharma sighed as he realized there was no more gossip to be had. "Ahh, there's my brother. I'll see you later, I'm sure." He patted his shoulder as he walked off.
"Babuji.." whispered Khushi, her small face scrunching as she sensed his worry.
He kissed her cheek. "Everything will be fine. Now smile, my rajkumari, it's a big day for you today."
Khushi nestled closer, a grin crossing her face as they neared their thatch-roofed, modest home.
"Khushi! How did you get so dirty?" cried her mother, easing the mud-streaked choli over her head. "I just changed your clothes."
Khushi shrugged as she was redressed. This same conversation occurred every day almost. "Horsey, this time, Amma."
Her mother raised her eyes heavenward. "And last week, it was the pandit! Bitiya, you have to be more careful. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you." She hugged her tightly.
"I promise," said Khushi, smothered under a shower of kisses. And then she smiled impishly. "Amma..you know if I had brothers and sisters then I wouldn't play outside so much."
Her mother's face turned bright red. She exchanged a secret smile with her husband, who was laughing at his daughter's remark.
"She does have a point, Aarti."
His wife narrowed her eyes at him and then turned to Khushi, tickling her. As she shrieked with laughter, she scolded lightly, "Don't you dare say that in front of the guests, bitiya. It's an important night, remember?"
Khushi nodded seriously. "I will be on my best behavior. Promise!"
Her mother looked at her doubtfully, but just then there was a knock at the front door.
"That must be the Singhs," said Ram, rising. "Ready?"
Aarti adjusted the simple chain of gold and black beads around her neck, reaching for Khushi. Hand in hand, they followed him to the veranda.
For the past two weeks, Khushi had been instructed multiple times on how to behave tonight: to keep her head down and to speak only when spoken too. But now as she stood in the open foyer, she couldn't resist taking a peek.
She was surprised to see that the Singhs were a small family just like hers. By the way Babuji and Amma went on about them, she'd expected a maharaja at the very least.
"Ahh, this must be Khushi!" said a portly, mustached man, his eyes soft and kind. "Hello, beta."
Khushi nodded shyly. "Namaste," she greeted, folding her hands toward the man and his elegantly dressed wife. And then her eyes narrowed.
Behind the woman's right leg stood a thin boy, about her height. Their gazes met.
"Namaste to you too!" said Khushi, smiling brightly.
He yelped, hiding behind his mother.
"Nidhant.." cajoled his mother, "Come and meet Khushi."
He fidgeted and it was only after a stern glance from his father that he stepped forward.
Khushi's smile widened. She reached across, her palm raised towards him.
Nidhant frowned as he noticed a streak of dirt on her hand, but set his hand atop hers anyway.
Khushi instantly liked him. There was something soft and innocent about him. "Come on, I'll show you my dolls!" she said excitedly, ecstatic to have another person her age around.
The rest of the evening flew by for Khushi. She became fast friends with Nidhant, who although was very quiet, smiled at her every odd request. She enjoyed every bite of her dinner, drawn into the tales of adventure Singh Uncle told: of elephants and cobras and daring escapes through jungles and deserts--a magical world Khushi doubted she would ever encounter.
The only unusual part came when the guests were about to leave. Her father brought out a large inked paper, and both sets of parents signed the document. Her mother stamped her thumbprint. A religious thread was tied around Khushi's thin wrist, its twin around her new friend's hand. A short prayer was recited.
"There," said Nidhant's father, his eyes bright. "The contract is complete. Your Khushi will one day be our daughter-in-law."
Her father embraced him. "Ten years till the wedding, Sir."
"Time will fly by and you won't even realize it, Ram."
Her parents smiled, but Khushi was left confused as the Singhs left, giving her a sparkling emerald ring on their way out.
That night, sleep evaded Khushi. She played with the ring on her thumb as she lay on her small cot, her eyes huge with unshed tears. "Does this mean I'll have to leave you and Babuji one day?" she asked, her heart drumming with fear. "I won't, Amma! I won't!"
"Shh, my rajkumari," said Aarti, patting her head soothingly. "That day is far away. The Singhs are a wonderful family, above us in many ways. And every girl has to leave one day. I left my parents' home too, isn't it?"
Khushi scrunched her face, deep in thought. "That story you always tell me, Amma...about a rajkumar who loves his princess, who cherishes her and protects her. Will that happen to me too?"
Her mother kissed her forehead. "Yes, it will, bitiya. He'll come one day for you. And he'll love you just as much as your father and I do. So you see, Khushi, there's no reason to cry. That day, there will be smiles on all of our faces." She bent down, carefully tucking in her daughter. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Amma," echoed Khushi, closing her eyes finally.
That night she dreamed of a handsome rajkumar, showering her with love, dolls, and jalebis while spoiling her parents with warm affection and a kind smile. She had no idea that just outside her small house, two soldiers had ambushed her parents.
It was astonishing how swiftly rumors could travel, changing form as they went from ear to ear until they were unrecognizable. What had started as whispered gossip about Aarti's relations and a small rebellion in Delhi had twisted with each telling until the Guptas were said to be one of the culprits.
Aarti and Ram Kumar Gupta lay on the dirt road outside their home, their eyes unblinking as they stared lifelessly at the star-ridden sky above.
Khushi Kumari Gupta had no idea that her world was about to change forever. She rolled in her sleep, hugging her doll close.
Far from the crowded streets of Lucknow, Arnav Singh Raizada stood expressionless, his eyes stone hard as he watched the flames lick his father's pyre.
Clouds drifted over the full moon overhead as he waited, his dark leather boots digging into the hot sands of the Thar Desert. To his right, stood Old Mathur, his mother's most loyal servant, and his grandmother, elegant as always in her silk and brocade sari. Surrounding them on all sides was a barren and lifeless land.
And yet it was home. He was finally home. Arnav still couldn't quite believe it. As he watched his father's bones turn to ash, he vowed to never leave again.
A loud sniffle stirred him.
He frowned as he watched tears roll down his Nani's well-lined face. Why was she crying, he wondered? For her dead son-in-law? A man who'd given them nothing but pain?
His jaw tightened as he thought of his father, His Royal Highness Maharaja Anil Singh Raizada. By all accounts, he had been a charming, highly educated gentleman, well liked in the upper circles of Rajasthan and Northern India. And yet, he had failed as a husband and father. Miserably.
At the age of twenty, Anil had set his eyes on Arnav's mother, a beautiful, though frail woman, whose ample bank account and strong lineage more than made up for her docile nature. He'd wooed and married her within a month. Arnav had been born shortly there after.
For a time, the small family had been happy, at least from what Arnav could recall. His memories had fogged over with time.
But nothing could erase the date of June 14th from his mind. It was on that day that Anil Singh Raizada had banished his wife and son to Delhi, cutting them off from the land that was rightly theirs. He'd instead taken up with a lowly courtesan, proclaiming her as his new wife. Arnav had been just six years old then.
And yet, even at that age, he'd sensed his mother's deep pain, his own longing for the sands he loved so much. Rajasthan was his home. It ran in his very blood.
But had his father ever cared? Hardly. Never a scrap of telegram or a single rupee had been sent to them. Thankfully, Nani had been there. Arnav still sometimes stayed awake late into the night, wondering what they'd have done if it hadn't been for his generous grandmother.
His childhood had been difficult to say the least. He'd watched his mother steadily wither away, until at last her feeble heart had succumbed to her husband's betrayal. That had been the darkest night of Arnav's life. He'd vowed then to never forgive the man who'd ruined their happiness.
Brooding and rebellious, Arnav spent his early teenage years balancing military training with an intense education. Along with his cousin, he had been preparing to go to London when a letter had arrived in the mail.
It bore the stamp of Rajasthan and Arnav had been almost able to feel the grit of the sands on its stiff parchment. The message had been brief: Come home immediately.
He'd taken the first train, barely taking the time to pack. Nani insisted on coming along, although she remained dubious. "Why go now? Why are they calling you now?" she'd asked repeatedly, "Why are you even going, Chote?"
He hadn't been able to answer her. How could he explain using mere words how much the land meant to him? How could he describe how much that one word in the letter pulled at his heartstrings?Home..Rajasthan would always be home. He belonged there. Not in the stuffy social circles of Delhi.
And so he'd booked two tickets, taking one of the newly inaugurated locomotives, The Fairy Queen, homeward. As the train had wound its way toward the desert, he'd been unable to sleep, his mind embroiled with the letter. What could possibly be so urgent? Had his father finally come to his senses, he wondered?
Stepping out onto the dusty train station, his boyish head had been filled with silly dreams. He imagined that there would be a colorful crowd awaiting his homecoming..eager to greet the long absent rajkumar..
But there had been no one, except for Old Mathur, faithful as always. He'd informed Arnav in clipped tones that his father's other family had summoned him.
Going to his own ancestral palace as a guest had been humiliating. His father's second wife and her son had not even met him. Instead, a surly servant had thrust a newly inked will in his face and almost in the same breath, pointed toward the rotting body of Anil Singh Raizada in the courtyard, birds picking at his carcass.
The will flashed through Arnav's mind, sending him reeling still.
"Rajkumar?" murmured Old Mathur, gazing at him with concern.
Arnav shifted his eyes from the burning logs, focusing on the white-haired servant beside him. "I don't think you should call me that anymore."
The old man's face reddened visibly. "Why ever not? You are the rightful heir! The first-born. This kingdom is yours!"
Arnav nodded, firelight flickering across his chiseled face. "Still..the will says otherwise. My father gave almost everything, including the title, to the courtesan's son, leaving me just the north reaches."
Old Mathur frowned, observing mutely the rajkumar's profile in the dim light. The laughing boy who'd once raced through these same sand dunes was long gone. The young man standing before him was certainly more than handsome in the traditional sense, but it was his eyes that struck the old servant the most: midnight black and shadowed with a pain and maturity beyond his years.
Mathur's face tightened with concentration as he counted the elapsed time on his fingers. Arnav must have just turned fifteen last month, he realized with surprise. He bristled at the thought of his rajkumar facing so much all alone at such an age. He should be laughing and smiling with his friends and family, not standing like a stranger on his own land.
As the pyre's fire came to a still and tendrils of thick, black smoke snaked into the night air, Arnav's grandmother turned toward him, her face grim. "We're leaving, Chote. This very minute."
He shook his head, his dark eyes piercing hers. "No, Nani. I'm not leaving. This is my land. And I will fight for it."
She froze, her heart stilling. She'd already lost a daughter, she couldn't bear to lose her grandson too. "You and what army, Chote? We have no one here. And where will you go? To those north reaches your father left you?" she asked, her mouth twisting into a deep frown. "That place is uninhabitable. There is nothing there but sand and death."
Arnav shrugged, gazing up at the full moon, now unhindered by clouds. "I'll start from scratch. And one day, Nani, I'll take my rightful place."
"You can't! I won't allow it! You're going with your cousin to London as scheduled. You'll get the best education there, just as someone with your social standing deserves. And then you'll forget all about this horrible place..this emptiness filled with nothing but sand and grief and anguish."
"I can't, Nani," he said firmly, searching her wrinkled face. "You have to see that. After all these years, you must see that. I belong here, Nani. This is my home, my land."
Her hand shook as she cupped his cheek with her lace glove, noting the blazing determination in his young eyes. "Then, I'm staying too. I'm with you, Chote, always.."
He clasped her hand in his, his eyes shining. Old Mathur wiped a tear away, clearing his throat. "My family and I are with you too, Rajkumar."
Arnav nodded at the servant. "You are more than welcome. But don't ever call me by that name until I get all of my land back."
"Then what should I call you?"
Arnav stared at his father's pyre, lost in thought. "ASR.." he finally replied, marching away. "Call me ASR."
Edit: Since some are getting confused, understand that Khushi only got engaged in prologue. she is not married
Historical Fact: the train mentioned, the fairy queen was commissioned in 1852 in Rajasthan and is still in operation today
Chapter 1: New Beginnings
"Stop giggling like that, Khushi!" chided her aunt as the train rolled through another sleepy looking village.
"Yes, Masi," came the dutiful reply.
Diya Pratap's beady eyes narrowed on her niece. Her small mouth pursed. She exchanged a frown with her bald, potbellied husband, who sat beside her, rifling through a stack of bank correspondence.
"Did you hear her?" she whispered furiously in his ear. "The way she spoke to me?"
He seemed to ignore her. With marked haste, he flipped through another document, studying the latest numbers from Delhi. "You've spoiled the girl, darling," he finally muttered. "What more do you expect?" His terse reply was just as loud as his wife's.
Annoyance prickled Khushi. Spoiled her? Her aunt had barely given her a week's worth of happiness in the past decade she'd lived with her. Her uncle although not as harsh, was aloof and arrogant, perpetually turning a blind eye to his wife's nastiness. But she didn't argue with their lies. By now she'd learned it was best to keep her mouth shut. Anything else would only lead to an empty stomach and a throbbing, bruised face.
"Jiji.." murmured Simran, her young eyes meeting hers with concern as she turned from the train's large framed window at the squabbling.
Khushi smiled at her, patting her hand reassuringly. Her 10 year old cousin was the one bright spot in her dull life. "Look, Simran," she said, pointing out the passing terrain. "We've just entered Rajasthan."
Her cousin practically bounced with excitement. "Where are the sand dunes? And the camels, Jiji?" She pressed her face against the glass, eager to see it all.
For the past one week, they'd studied the legends of Rajasthan, pouring over every book they could find on the subject. Khushi had tried her best to explain, although she herself knew very little about the foreign land. As Simran's tutor and primary caretaker--unpaid of course--she spent every day and every evening with her. Besides the memory of her deceased parents, her cousin was all she had.
Simran sat next to her, busy pulling at a small lever. A draft of warm, musky-smelling air drifted inside the compartment as the window creaked open. "And where are the rajkumars and grand palaces, Jiji?" she continued, trying to peer into the blackness.
With a gentle tug, Khushi pulled her back beside her, shaking her head.
But it was her aunt who answered, her sharp features softening as she gazed at her daughter. "Just wait till morning, Simmy. Night has fallen now."
Simran's face drooped. With a sigh, she leaned back against the plush train seat, looking out sullenly.
Khushi smoothed her cousin's curly hair back, dropping a kiss on her brow. She knew exactly how she felt. It was her first time outside of Lucknow as well. And while she did miss her home terribly, anticipation curled in her at the thought of finally venturing beyond its high walls. The rocky roads and busy bazaars were all she knew, but now it felt as if her parents' spirits were urging her forward. Go on, Khushi.. the night air seemed to say, We are with you always, bitiya..
Khushi shivered as the breeze from the open window hit her face.
Lucknow would forever be entwined with the brightest memories of her childhood: of her beloved Amma and Babuji, of colorful dolls and fairy tales and piping hot jalebis. A subtle smile crossed her face as she recalled an old secret she'd kept safe in her family home, auctioned off shortly after her parent's death. Yes, her parents would always be with her no matter how far she traveled..
A painfully long hour passed. Her Masi's eyes had closed by now, her breathing had slowed. Next to her, Uncle was snoring loudly, his shiny head propped against the paneling.
Khushi sneaked a glance at her cousin: the poor thing was still frowning, her arms folded on the window ledge as she stared out at the cloudy night sky.
Slowly, Khushi reached inside the secret pocket she'd sewn into her ghagra, pulling out a small cloth purse. It contained not a single coin, but two small toffees gleamed from inside.
Khushi grasped them, passing them cautiously to her cousin.
Simran's eyes rounded with wonder. A wide smile spread across her face. "For me?" she asked.
Khushi placed a finger over her lips, motioning toward her sleeping aunt.
Her cousin nodded conspiratorially, popping a toffee into her mouth. "Thank you, Jiji," she whispered.
Khushi beamed at her, her eyes shining as she watched Simran unwrap the second chocolate carefully. She was just bringing it to her mouth when a hard hand clamped around her wrist, the nails biting. Khushi froze in her seat, not even seeming to breathe.
"What are you eating, Simmy?" cried Diya, her eyes gleaming in the dark coach. "Spit it out! Now!"
Khushi couldn't stop herself from speaking up. She shook her head, her hand reaching across. "Masi, it's just--"
Her aunt struck her hard across the face. "How dare you!" she screeched, her voice loud and almost bark-like as it pierced through her husband's loud snores.
"Amma, what are you doing?" cried Simran, her head whipping back and forth between them. "You always hit Jiji! I won't let you this time!"
"Hush, Simmy," replied Diya, her mouth twisting, "You don't know what a viper this girl is.. just like her parents." She turned toward Khushi with unconcealed malice in her eyes. "What were you trying to do? Poison my child?"
Khushi shook her head again, her face hurting as she spoke. "Of course not. It was just--"
"We have fed you and clothed you for ten years, you ungrateful girl! If it wasn't for our generosity, you would be wandering the streets of Lucknow, or more likely, be dead by now."
"I know that Masi, but--"
"Enough!" yelled Diya, holding her hand up. "Tomorrow we will finally be rid of you. You turn eighteen in a few hours from now. And then you'll be the Singh family's burden. I don't think their son will marry you, but we have done our duty."
Khushi's face blanched. For a moment, shock stole her every thought, leaving her mute. She vaguely remembered the wedding contract had parents had drawn up the night of their death. But her aunt and uncle had not mentioned it once in all these years. "What?" she finally cried, looking at the extravagantly dressed woman before her with disbelief. "But you said we were all moving to Rajasthan! What about Simran?"
"Simran is my daughter," bit out her aunt. "She is no longer your concern. We will leave you at the Singhs' doorstep and that is all."
"You can't do that! Simran needs me--"
"None of us need you," interrupted Diya, her eyes ice cold. Extreme dislike stirred in her as she glared at her pale niece. She hated to admit that the girl was a natural beauty, bearing a startling resemblance to her long-dead mother. Diya's lips curled with spite as she recalled Aarti, her younger sister, the apple of their parents' eyes while she was always treated second best. Aarti had even gotten married before her, ensnaring the handsome Ram Kumar Gupta, the very man Diya had been secretly eyeing for years. "I'm not even going to tell you our new address," she continued. "Because I know you'll come chasing after us. Thank God there are only a handful of hours left till I am freed from you."
"Masi, you can't--"
"Get out!" shouted her aunt suddenly, unable to stand the sight of her. "Did you not hear me?" she asked snidely as Khushi sat unmoving. "Out, now!"
"Jiji.." mumbled Simran, crying.
Anger and turmoil swelled in Khushi. She fought back her own tears as she hurried out of the cabin, her body shaking.
The long corridor of the train was empty at this time of night, except for a thin girl, mopping the floors. Most of the travelers were sound asleep. Snores could be heard from several corners.
The young girl's eyes widened as she noticed Khushi, dressed in a fine, flowing ghagra choli. "Sorry, miss," she said, stepping aside, her head bowed.
"Please," mumbled Khushi as she hurried past, "There is no need to apologize." How could she explain to the cleaning girl that her aunt and uncle only gave her these heavily embroidered clothes so that their friends and neighbors could praise them all the more? Taking in an orphan was more than pious, but dressing her so exceptionally set them as moral pillars in their social circle. Very few knew that in the Pratap household, Khushi actually held much the same position as the girl mopping.
Khushi ran past it all, her mother's silver anklets chiming softly. She stopped only when she reached the last train car. The large rectangular space was filled to the rafters with cargo and baggage. Someone's pet parrot squawked loudly in its cage as Khushi locked the door behind her, her eyes closing, her chest heaving.
It was only then, when she was sure she was alone, that her soft sobs broke out. Crying, she slipped to the ground, hugging her bent knees as the train jostled beneath her.
Why did Masi hate her so much? Why was fate so cruel? What had she done to deserve this? She'd already lost her parents, and now she was to lose her dear cousin as well? She drew in a deep, hiccupping breath, brushing back a strand of her long hair.
A large antique mirror, its brown paper wrapping half-undone, caught her attention. Khushi froze as she glanced at its shiny surface. For the space of a heartbeat, she saw an image of her father, hoisting her eight year old self up in his arms, her mother smiling widely beside him.
But just as she blinked, the memory vanished.
Khushi frowned as she stared at the reflection now: a too pale, slender young woman with thick raven hair, draped by an exquisite red pallu, huge, tearful eyes and a bow-shaped mouth gazed back at her. She turned from the mirror, her eyes closing.
Focusing, she tried to will back the memory of her parents. But it refused to resurface. Khushi sighed, covering her face with her hands, her body quivering. Amma, Babuji, I miss you so much..
The only reply was the roar of the train, snaking with an increased speed into the very heart of Rajasthan.
And as always she was alone, left to grapple with the fate destiny had written for her long ago.
For the next one hour, Khushi tried to recall all she could about the Singh family, her fingers tracing over the small emerald ring on her pinkie.
There wasn't much. She hazily remembered the wedding contract.. a small, shy boy wiping a streak of dirt from her palm.. a portly, smiling man telling her stories of adventure in a rich, baritone voice.
The memories, few as they were, soothed her. The Singhs had been kind to her, she recollected. Much nicer than her aunt had ever been. And most importantly, her marriage had been decided by her parents, the two people who meant the world to her. She knew they would have picked the ideal husband for her. Beyond her own fears and doubts, Khushi longed to fulfill their dying wish.
As the first rays of the sun entered the congested cargo space, Khushi leaned back against the mahogany door, lost in thought.Perhaps it's meant to be, she mused silently. Maybe today marks a new beginning in my life.
And then as she sat there, feeling the sting of loneliness and the heavy weight of exhaustion, a childhood dream rekindled, like a small burning hope in the penetrating darkness. Maybe, I'll get my rajkumar like Amma always said..
"Ouch, ASR!" squealed the gypsy girl draped across Arnav's lap as he pinched her waist, his face buried against her swan-like neck.
She eagerly ran her hands through his thick, wavy hair, urging him closer. They were sitting in a crude campsite, mats haphazardly arranged around a blazing fire that hissed and crackled. "Will you come to my tent tonight?" asked the gypsy breathlessly as his teeth nipped her neck. "It's been so long.."
"Boss," interrupted a firm voice.
Arnav glanced up, his eyes narrowing. "What do you want?" he asked, his tone gruff with annoyance.
His second in command, Aman Mathur, stood in the sands nearby. He didn't reply to the question, but his face tightened visibly.
Something important had transpired, realized Arnav with sudden alertness. He stood up at once. The woman in his arms fell to the sands, forgotten. A foul oath escaped her mouth as she landed with a dull thud. "ASR!"
Without so much as a glance below, he stepped over her skimpily-dressed form, his eyes stone hard as he approached Aman. "What happened now?" he asked, his voice steel-like.
"Trespassers in the north reaches again," said Aman, his expression grim in the dim morning light. "They killed two poor villagers for sport."
White hot anger surged through Arnav. His jaw clenched. "Who was it?" he asked with a snarl. "My father's other family again?"
Aman's deepening frown was answer enough. Arnav savagely cursed, stomping to his tent. "Take everything down!" he instructed as he cut the thick ropes. "We're leaving right now."
His men followed his order at once, disbanding the campsite in a matter of minutes.
The gypsy girl frowned as she watched the group of five men work. They were all exceptionally tall, tanned, and broad-shouldered. The fiercest warriors in all of Rajasthan. And yet, she was not afraid. Her body hummed still for the handsomest of the pack: their leader, 'the dark prince,' ASR.
She wandered to where he stood, hoisting supplies onto his horse. A thrill shot through her as her eyes greedily traced over him, taking in his fitted dark pants and plain white vest.
Without a thought, she threw herself against him, smashing her ample breasts against his muscular back. "How can you leave me, ASR? Stay tonight," she bid enticingly, brushing kisses across his warm skin.
He pulled her hands off of him, his eyes dark and unreadable as he turned toward her. The gypsy pouted at him, her bosom heaving. "My land comes first, Sheetal," he answered with a frown, swinging up onto the horse.
She was awestruck by his tall, majestic shape as he galloped across the sands, the sun rising in vibrant reds and golds overhead.
"I'm not Sheetal!" she bellowed, as it finally hit her. "My name is Lavanya!"
He gave no sign that he'd heard, his stallion never slowing. The gypsy girl crossed her arms across her chest, vowing to catch his eye again soon.
"ASR!" called out one of the riders, bringing his spotted horse beside him. "Where are we going? Home is that way." He pointed in the direction of the north reaches.
Arnav shook his head, his eyes darkening. "This isn't finished. Those *******s will have to pay for the deaths!"
The men exchanged a glance, but no one spoke up as they followed him on. Arnav could sense their questions, but he remained silent, his lips drawn into a thin line. It took everything in him to rein in his temper.
Over the course of ten long years, he had seen enough attacks, enough destroyed families to last him a lifetime. But his enemies showed no sign of letting up. If anything, the attacks were increasing. Those vile people were ruining what he'd spent a decade trying to create.
The north reaches were still not comparable to the rest of the kingdom, but they were drastically improved from what they had once been.
With his grandmother and Old Mathur's help, he'd painstakingly developed the land, backing trade and commerce. He'd built a fine haveli on the once barren sands. Sure it wasn't a palace, but his grandmother was comfortable and very happy there.
He'd slogged on the land as well, nurturing it. Unlike his father's other family, he had made wise investments, preserving the land for future generations. Over forty families had relocated to the north reaches once word had gotten out about the dark prince, strong and fiercely loyal. His reputation was slightly tarnished by his notorious savagery and combative nature, but the people of Rajasthan knew he could be trusted.
Arnav was still actively trying to garner support for his rightful rule. But it was time-consuming, tedious work. Most people refused to even open the door for him.
And who could blame them? The courtesan's son had much more money and influence, especially now that he'd signed a treaty with the British. Standing against him required a definite fearlessness, which many lacked.
Arnav's boyish dreams of riding into his kingdom and capturing the throne had been undoubtedly naive. But Arnav hadn't given up. He was still actively negotiating with several nearby kingdoms, trying to gather a sizeable army.
Maybe word had gotten to the other side, he mused, his hands tightening on the leather reins. Maybe that's why they've increased the attacks..
His hands fisted as he thought of his father's second family. Hatred enveloped his soul, blackening out any other thought. The cowards.. If they had heard of his plans, they should have attacked him directly. How did brutally murdering two villagers solve anything?
Well, he's show them the cost of stirring his wrath, he vowed. He was no longer a bright-eyed teenager. He was twenty-five years old, a man in every sense of the word. He wouldn't allow any more innocent deaths on his land, he couldn't even stomach the thought.
With a yell, he pushed his stallion harder, racing across the sands he knew so well.
Around mid-day, they arrived at a large white-washed bungalow. The owner was a well-known confidante of the so-called Maharaja.
Arnav slammed open the intricately carved mahogany door, his eyes scanning the luxurious room. His men followed closely behind, handling any guards that stood in the way.
"ASR!" cried a short, obese man, dressed in fine silks. His hand paused on the juicy grape he was bringing to his mouth. "What a surprise! I--"
Arnav pointed his rifle right in his face. "What do you know about the attacks in my land?"
The man shrunk back, appearing almost sickly as he stared at the barrel of the weapon. "Noth..nothing. I'm not involved. In fact--" His double-chinned face whitened as he noticed Arnav poise his finger over the trigger. "Wait! Wait ASR! It was just a little fun. The Maharaja meant no harm. I'm sure you understand, after all you are royalty too.. or were once.." His voice trailed off nervously.
Arnav glared at him and then without warning, shot him in the leg. A howl escaped the aristocrat. He fell to the floor, but Arnav latched onto his finely embroidered collar, holding his flailing body up.
"If you or any of your friends so much as put a toe on my sands again, I will kill you.. ALL OF YOU!" he thundered, throwing the man onto the marble floors. "Go tell your master that."
Ignoring the man's pitiful cries, he stalked out, his eyes burning with rage. The men followed silently behind, their hands fisted too at their sides. As Arnav neared the horses, he turned to them, a deep frown etched on his chiseled face. "Increase the security around the north reaches," he commanded. "If even a single drop of blood spills there, I will personally replace you all."
They nodded at once. "Yes, ASR."
"I'll leave right away," said the one with the fiercest scowl on his face, already mounting. "Where should I meet you all?"
"Handle the north reaches for a few weeks first, Raj," said Arnav. "The rest of us will travel and meet with a few neighboring kingdoms by then. You can find us near Abhaneri around the time of the next full moon."
Raj nodded and with a kick, raced toward the north reaches. It was roughly a six-day trip on horseback, but he planned on cutting the time in half with the short-cuts he knew so well.
Arnav swung up onto his saddle, reining in his wild horse. "Let's move!" he told the others.
"Where to, Boss?" asked Aman, pulling alongside him.
Arnav's jaw tightened as he gazed across the endless sea of sand.
"Raizada.. my ancestral kingdom," he finally murmured. "I think it's time to meet that half-brother of mine." With a roar, he urged his horse forward, blazing a trail across the desert.
Chapter Two: Caught
Riding into his kingdom left a bittersweet sting in the depths of Arnav's soul. His eyes longingly swept across the land, as he tried to breathe in its raw, earthy scent.
Ten years. Ten years had passed since he'd last seen it. Ten years since his father's second family had banned him from so much as entering. A substantial award was still being offered by the palace to anyone who managed to kill him on Raizada soil. Coming back was no less than a likely death sentence.
Arnav drew his giant cloak closer, his head and mouth covered by a long black cloth. Only his dark eyes were visible as he rode past.
His jaw gritted with the urge to fling away the garb and declare himself openly: Arnav Singh Raizada, the rightful heir and King. But his hands were tied.. as always.
With skill, he slowed his horse down to a trot, glancing about. He was surprised to see that Raizada was eerily similar to what he remembered from his boyhood. The windswept sands, the small villages dotting the landscape, even the old, rickety train station looked as they had in the past.
So the rumors are true, thought Arnav with a frown. His half-brother had hardly invested anything into the kingdom. Instead, that self-seeking puppet had likely hoarded the money and jewels, feeding the insatiable appetite of his greedy family.
It twisted his gut to see his land being crushed under such a rule, to see his people bow down to someone so unworthy of the title. Part of him wanted to barge into the royal palace and slice the man's head off. But he resisted the impulse--as hard as it was.
So many people depended on him, he reminded himself, his grandmother included. Going inside the palace would be nothing but a suicide mission. The opposing side would be well-prepared and heavily armed.
Moreover, reasoned Arnav, as much as it killed him to admit it, the north reaches were not yet ready to face the brutal attack that would surely follow. The villagers would be decimated. The land would be soaked with blood. His hands clenched on the reins as he pictured all of his decade-long backbreaking work being swept away with a single assault. To become nothing but sand once more.
"ASR.." murmured Aman from his horse, shaking his head just barely in his direction. "Don't. It's not the right time."
Arnav nodded at him, spurring his stallion forward. More than anyone else, Old Mathur's nephew had always understood his inner turmoil. He, along with the other three men, were brothers to Arnav first, friends and warriors second. Their bond was built on years of well-earned loyalty and trust and strengthened by an unwavering resolve to regain the lost kingdom.
"Over here!" called Arnav, racing toward the towering cliffs that surrounded the east side. They would be the perfect vantage point. From there, he would have an unhindered view of a large chunk of Raizada.
As he passed in front of the massive palace he'd been born in, a throbbing ache seared his heart. Guards surrounded the complex as if it was a military fortress, which in all sense of the word, it was.
Arnav's hands tightened on the reins as he took the opposite route, heading to the cliffs. Damn his father's black soul to hell! he thought with viciousness, steering his horse up the steep climb. The man had no idea what he'd taken from him. More than anything, Arnav loved the land first.
As the sun began to set overhead, he finally dismounted. A waiting game was about to begin.
"Set up camp," he ordered, his face grim as he gazed at the sands below.
The so-called Maharaja had to be somewhere nearby..
Khushi splashed lukewarm water on her face from the basin, her eyes fluttering close. It was late afternoon and she had yet to return to her aunt and uncle's private cabin.
Her lips thinned as her aunt's sharp words echoed in her ears: "..a viper, just like her parents."
Righteous anger welled up in her. How could Masi speak about Amma and Babuji in such a way? Her parents had been nothing but kind, simple folk. They had never hurt anyone.
With a shake of her head, Khushi brushed the towel over her face, taking a deep breath. Calm down, she told herself. Today is the last day you have to see those people. You will never have to bear another insult again.
But almost at once, an image of a laughing 10 year old crossed her mind.
Her heart throbbed as she thought of young Simran.
But her cousin would be okay, she knew. Her parents loved her dearly and would ensure that she lacked nothing. Her aunt last night may have spewed her usual venom, but her ringing words had carried a bit of truth. There was no denying that she needed Simran much more than her young cousin needed her. As much as Khushi wished it was different, it was true: she stood alone, with no real family or loved ones.
There was a knock on the bathroom door. "Miss?" called a hesitant voice.
"Coming." Khushi smoothed a hand over her newly laundered orange lehenga and reached for the door knob.
The cleaning girl from last night stood outside, a shy smile on her face. "I'm sorry, Miss. But that screechy Masi of yours is calling you. I tried to reason with her.." Her face scrunched. "But she won't listen. She said the train will be arriving at the station any moment and they need you to come at once."
"Thank you," said Khushi, patting her hand. "And I told you, call me Khushi, please."
An odd kinship had formed between them over the course of the morning. The young girl had discovered Khushi in the cargo car around dawn, but instead of alerting anyone, she had helped her instead. She'd sneaked a handful of snacks from the dining car and even brought Khushi a fresh set of clothes from her aunt's train compartment.
"I want you to have this," said Khushi, passing her the crimson ghagra choli she'd worn last night.
"Miss?" The girl's eyes bulged. "I couldn't.."
"Of course you can," insisted Khushi. "For all your help today. Please, accept it." She handed the fine clothes over, wishing she had more to give to the girl. She couldn't be more than fourteen years old.
"Thank you, Khushi!" cried the cleaning girl, reaching across to embrace her. "I'll never forget you. I hope you get all that you deserve."
Khushi smiled, not caring a bit that her opulent silk and chiffon lehenga was pressing against a raggedy, gray salwar kameez. "Thank you, Shefali. I wish you the best as well."
It was a bit poignant to say goodbye to her young friend. How could she explain to her how much she needed all the luck in the world? Her future loomed before her, black with uncertainty. A hundred questions and worries plagued her, but the answers remained beyond her grasp.
As the train's loud horn sounded, Khushi walked back toward her aunt and uncle, praying that today marked the beginning of everlasting love and unfathomable happiness, the kind her parents had once shared.
Stifling a grimace, Khushi knocked on the closed cabin door. No one answered.
Cautiously, she pulled down on the ornate door handle, peering into the compartment just barely. Her eyes widened.
There was no one inside. The space was utterly empty. All the luggage and even the parcels stored on the top shelf were missing.
Khushi closed the door, her face etched with confusion.
But just then a familiar voice reached her ears: "Jiji!"
It was Simran, waving toward her from a slight distant away.
It was Simran, waving toward her from a slight distant away.
Khushi smiled, her hands clenching on her lehenga as she hurried down the crowded aisle to her. She halted as she noted the tall, formidable form of her aunt near the exit, her bony hand curled around a metal pole.
"Jiji!" shouted Simran again, crushing her in a tight embrace. "Happy Birthday! But where did you go? I was so worried." Her eyes were huge and frightened.
"Shh," whispered Khushi, smoothing her curly hair out of her face. She steadfastly ignored her aunt's glare. "I'm sorry, Simran. But I'm here now, aren't I? I won't ever leave you without telling you again.."
Her cousin seemed to understand the unsaid emotions in her soft voice. She nodded, her arms loosening around Khushi's slim waist.
"Well, well, well," cut in her aunt, "So Her Highness finally arrives. We needed you to serve breakfast this morning, but you weren't there."
Khushi didn't even try to suppress her frown. The setting sun outside promised a new life. She felt downright liberated as she faced her aunt. "Today is the last time you'll see me, Masi. You should get used to my absence."
Her aunt scowled, looking ready to shout, but her husband turned to her just then, his face shiny with the glistening sheen of sweat. He looked hassled in the dimming light.
"Carry this, Diya," he said with impatience, handing her a round shaped box. "I don't trust these people."
"Why are you getting so hot and bothered?" she asked, her eyebrows arching up. "Our baggage will be sent to our new address. There is no need to take so much with us. We are just dropping off this girl and then we'll leave Rajasthan at once."
"Of course," said her husband, fanning himself against the heat. "But we cannot leave our valuables behind. Here, Simran, take this bag and don't you dare let it out of your hand."
"Yes, Babuji," said her cousin.
"And this is yours, girl," said her uncle, handing her a battered leather knapsack. "We will be keeping the rest of your clothes for our daughter, you understand. Now, it is the Singhs' responsibility to feed and clothe you."
"Thank you for all your care and concern," replied Khushi, not bothering to hide the sarcastic lilt to her words.
Her Masi opened her mouth to retort, but just then the train horn sounded. Khushi's heart skipped a beat. She was barely aware of anything around her as she glanced out, her eyes shining:
She was finally there.
A blanket of dusty, sweet-smelling air greeted Khushi as she stepped off the train, the brown leather bag clenched in her hand.
She turned around, helping Simran carefully descend the steep stairs.
"Jiji," said the child, tugging on Khushi's right hand, "Look at the sand!"
Khushi smiled, her excitement returning. Before them was a small desert town, blending almost seamlessly with the wild surroundings.
Her eyes widened along with her cousin's as she squinted beyond it: a vast, dry desert lay close by, sand dunes and parched earth as far as one could see. The only vegetation were a few dead looking trees. Steep cliffs overlooked the area on one side, rocky and treacherous looking.
The train station was completely unlike the bustling, crowded one in Lucknow, Khushi couldn't help but notice, with only a couple hundred meters of platform made from old, weather-beaten logs. A few rickety metal benches were positioned along the back wall. A lone man wearing a wrinkled uniform was asleep at the ticket counter, while a few kids were playing with a well-used ball on the barren land just feet from the platform.
Exiting the train behind Khushi were a few elderly woman and handful of families, their children in tow.
"Jiji.." murmured Simran, quieting. A frown crossed her small face. "Is it--"
Khushi kneeled on the platform before the child, her brown eyes warm and soothing. "What is it, Simran?"
Her cousin took a deep, shuddering breath. "Is it true what you said on the train? Is today the last day we'll see you?"
A lump formed in Khushi's throat. It felt difficult to breathe suddenly. "Yes, Simran. I'm getting married, and I'll have to stay here now. But don't worry, you're going to go to with your parents to a new, beautiful house. You'll love it there, I'm sure. You'll make wonderful new friends and--"
"But I want to stay with you!" interrupted Simran, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Please, Jiji, don't go! I'll talk to Amma for you."
"Hush, Simran," said Khushi, wiping her tears away with a trembling hand. She was suddenly reminded of the last conversation she'd had with her own mother. "Every girl has to leave her family's home one day. And this isn't goodbye. I promise you, it isn't."
Simran held her gaze, her face thoughtful. "Is it like those stories you told me, Jiji? About rajkumars? Is yours here?"
Khushi smiled through her own tears. "Yes," she replied, clasping her cousin's hand in hers. "He is here. That's why I can't come along with you."
"But how will we meet again?"
"We'll find each other one day," said Khushi, "And now you know where I'll be. Once you're old enough and have permission, you can visit me." She prayed it was the truth, that her new family would agree.
Simran launched herself into Khushi's arms, smiling. "Really? You'll be here.. in Rajasthan?"
Khushi nodded. "Yes, with my soon-to-be husband's family, the Singhs.." Her voice trailed off as she contemplated the life awaiting her. A wife.. she would be some stranger's wife.. The thought shook her.
"You'll be the prettiest bride," said her young cousin, not noticing Khushi's lost expression. "I wish I could stay for your wedding."
"I'll be thinking of you, Simran. Please, promise me you'll behave properly. That you'll study when you're supposed to, not make any fusses, and leave some time for fun and laughter."
"I promise, Jiji.. I won't forget our lessons. How could I? You're the best teacher I ever had. I love you.."
Khushi's heart turned over as she hugged her cousin close. "And I love you." With a last squeeze, she motioned toward the dunes. "Ready? We've been waiting so long. Don't you want to see the sand now?"
Simran yelped with glee, skipping off toward her parents.
Khushi smiled as she followed. She couldn't explain it, but she had an odd feeling that this desert would forever change her life.
The train horn sounded behind her, causing Khushi to jump.
"Fifteen minutes till departure! Step onboard," called the conductor, waving a lantern.
The area was dead silent. The sun was setting overhead. Crickets chirped loudly in the dry earth beyond.
Khushi, Simran, her Masi, and Uncle stood waiting along with a handful of other travelers.
"Where is our ride?" screeched her aunt, holding a silk handkerchief to her face. "If I have to stand in this hellish sand pit one more minute, I'll die!"
Her husband wiped back a steak of rolling sweat, glancing at his pocket watch. "I informed them weeks ago, darling. They should be here by now!"
Her aunt grimaced, glancing about. "What an awful place! How anyone can live here is beyond me." She glanced at Khushi with a sneer. "Enjoy these lovely sands, niece."
Khushi ignored the taunt, still engrossed in her new surroundings. It was nearing sunset and Khushi watched the bright crimson glow of the sun with astonished eyes. Never had the sun looked so powerful to her before.
The wind seemed to pick up just then. Dust and sand barreled toward the group. Particles caught in their hair, in their eyes.
Khushi quickly knelt, helping Simran and then covered her own mouth and nose with her dupatta.
"Let's wait below!" shouted Uncle, heading toward a small flight of stairs that connected the wild, primitive land to the rough looking train station. "The wind is stronger up here."
Khushi hurried to keep up with them, slinging the leather bag over her right shoulder.
"I think I swallowed some sand," complained Masi. "I've never felt this sick in my life." She coughed loudly. "All because of the viper.."
Khushi though was barely paying attention, her curious eyes were still drifting across the vast, barren land. Sand dunes stretched before her like an endless ocean. She'd never seen anything like it.
A ball suddenly smacked against her back. She turned around, surprised.
The small group of kids she'd noticed playing before were laughing as they ran toward her. She smiled, bending down to talk to them.
Dark, penetrating eyes stared down at the train station from the surrounding treacherous cliffs.
Under a voluminous cloak, the man's lips curled. So another group of unsuspecting travelers had come.. Perfect, he thought, clenching his hands on his horse's reins.
His eyes drifted over the train platform. Only a few elderly woman and two-three families stood waiting. One of them was a short, portly man, his wife gaunt and sturdy-looking as she pressed against his side. His eyes narrowed as he noticed their visible disdain for his land. His jaw tightened.
And then, he noticed a small figure kneeling at the far back near a couple of laughing local kids.
The young woman suddenly straightened and as she did, the cloth she'd held up to her mouth and nose slipped off, revealing a beautiful, fair face, twinkling eyes and full lips..
The man's eyes widened, his body stiffened. He couldn't keep his eyes off of her as she kicked a dusty ball around with the kids, her long, black hair fluttering in the dry air, her face rosy from laughter.
With a steady finger, he pointed straight at the young woman.
And then with a roar, he was urging his horse down the slopes, his men right behind him..
Khushi was just straightening up when the cloth covering her lower face unfurled suddenly.
The kids, Simran included, laughed, and Khushi joined in, smiling softly.
She was so involved, she never noticed the danger descend from the nearby cliffs. It was only when the unmistakable sound of gunshots rang out that she realized something was wrong.. very wrong.
Dust seemed to engulf the train station almost at once. A loud, thunder-like noise approached at an alarming speed.
Khushi watched shocked as chaos erupted around her. Shouts of terror and panic were everywhere. The ground beneath her feet seemed to tremble, the stones and sand vibrating visibly.
"Jiji!" cried Simran, huddling against her. Khushi clasped a protective hand around her, her heart racing with fear. Unknowingly, they'd ventured far from the train station while kicking the ball around; there was no place to hide here.
"Run to your Amma, Simran!" she shouted, pushing her to safety. "Go! Now!"
Her cousin raced back as Khushi followed, trying to block any danger coming their way.
She was completely unprepared for what followed.
Within seconds, men on giant horses arrived; their faces covered, but rifles in their hands.
Khushi stared at them horrified, her heart thundering in her chest. She dodged a hand that tried to grab her, her feet quick in the sand dunes.
Everyone seemed to be running, their cries loud and frightened.
But where were they going? wondered Khushi, squinting to see in the blinding dust storm. Almost at once, she spotted a flash of pale yellow. Her eyes widened. The train..
Fear propelled her to race toward it. Her heart beat wildly as she realized with growing horror that everyone else had already climbed aboard.
"Wait!" she shouted.
A bony hand paused on the railing. Her Masi was pulling Simran inside when she glanced back. Her face twisted into a wide grin as she looked at Khushi, helpless and struggling. With a mocking wave, she shut the door, locking it behind her.
Shock spiraled through Khushi as the train picked up speed, chugging past.
"NO!" she screamed, her cry going unheard in the dusty air. With renewed energy, Khushi sprinted through the sands as fast as she could.
She was very close. Only a handful of meters separated her from the train platform. Relief enveloped her as she realized she would make it.
But just then, she noticed a dark shadow in the sand before her, easily overshadowing her own small reflection.
Her eyes rounded as she stared down at the dark shadow of a man atop a mammoth horse. Khushi swung around, her eyes panicking.
But she didn't have even a second to think. Rough hands reached down, grabbing her with force.
Khushi screamed loudly as she looked up at the tall figure above. The man was dressed in black, his face covered. Only his ice-cold eyes were visible as he stared down at her. Khushi flailed in his hands, her hands hitting him, her legs kicking empty air.
The man cursed as he picked her up, dropping her in the saddle so that her back was to him. Khushi twisted wildly in his grasp, her heart pounding with fear. Reaching up, she tried to latch onto whatever she could find. Her fingers wrapped around his cloak. She pulled at it with all her strength.
Her kidnapper hissed with annoyance as his face covering dropped away, falling down onto the sands. Khushi's eyes glinted at the small victory. She tried to take advantage of his surprise, swinging around, her nails ready to scratch him.
But he was ready for her this time. With ease, he quickly grabbed her hands, tying them to the saddle.
Khushi fought against the thick rope, but it was too strong; she couldn't move her hands anymore. "LET ME GO!" she screamed, bucking away from him. "Get your hands off of me!"
With an impatient sigh, the man behind her swung his gun, clobbering Khushi on the side of her head. She fell forward at once, her body going limp.
His Royal Highness Maharaja Akash Singh Raizada grinned as he looked down at his prize. With a shout, he called his guards to attention, embarking back to the cliffs.
Chapter 3: The Tent
Torches burned brightly in the darkness ahead. Two servants rushed to the Maharaja's side as the convoy of over fifty riders arrived at the campsite. One stalled the horse while the other kneeled down on the sand, cupping his hands together.
Aakash stepped down onto the waiting palm, his boot meeting skin. The girl in his arms shivered slightly, but did not awaken.
"Your Royal Highness," whispered one of the guards, "I can carry her inside if you would like.."
His eyes narrowed dangerously at the man. The guard instantly recoiled, looking nervously down. Without a word, Aakash stalked past, his silk robes billowing in the biting wind.
It was true that he was not used to carrying things. As the sole and absolute ruler of Raizada, he never had to lift so much as a finger if he wasn't so inclined. Wealth and luxury surrounded him always.
But for some reason, he couldn't seem to part with this prize. And besides, the unconscious female in his arms hardly weighed much.
"Aakash!" called a voice behind him.
He tensed for a second before relaxing. If anyone else had called him by his first name so casually, he would have had them lashed with hot whips on the spot. But he recognized that annoying voice. It belonged to his oldest friend and long-time advisor, Shyam Jha. Unfortunately, he was one of the few people around who could drop his royal title and get away with it.
"What?" he asked in a bored tone.
Shyam hobbled to catch up. "It's just that I don't understand why you want to stay in this tent tonight? Why not go to the palace directly?"
"My tent is fully furnished. And like I told you before, I feel like staying here tonight, got it?" The hard edge in his voice left little room for argument. He was not used to explaining his actions. He took what he wanted, did what he so desired. And right now, he wanted this young woman.. all night long..
The royal tent loomed ahead, a large, white structure with warm light spilling from its lavish interior. Its curtains flapped invitingly in the breeze.
Two guards stood watch at the entrance. Aakash walked inside, laying the girl on the large mattress. She barely moved, her head rolling back, her hands falling to the sheets.
He stared down at her unmoving form, taking in her strange, pale skin, the long, black eyelashes that fanned across her cheeks and those tempting, full lips. She was unlike any other girl he'd ever encountered. "Tell the secondary guards to return to the palace," he whispered hoarsely, his eyes tracing over her willowy, slim shape.
Shyam's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You can't be serious! You need protection and--"
"This is MY land," said Aakash, straightening up. His voice shook with tightly restrained fury. "No one would dare to harm me on this soil. And believe it or not, Shyam, I can protect myself."
Aakash stomped to the entrance, brushing aside the thin curtain with impatience. He gave the command to disperse at once, watching as the men bowed down and headed back toward town.
Only he, Shyam and ten of the highest-ranking guards remained.
"There's something else you should know," whispered his friend as they stood outside the tent. His words were hesitant, almost fearful.
It was that very hesitance that made Aakash pause. "What?"
"That ASR shot one of our loyal supporters today, maiming him."
Aakash stilled, his eyes burning with rage. "How dare he! Was that criminal shot dead finally?"
Shyam shook his head, glaring at the dark landscape surrounding them. "He still roams free. That's why I wanted all of the guards to remain with us. There's no telling what that crazy man can do."
Aakash laughed, the sound hollow and grating. "Let the so-called 'dark prince' come. I don't fear him. He's nothing but a speck of my father's dirty past. And besides.." A sly grin crossed his face. "Any action against me on Raizada soil will be an open declaration of war. All the other kingdoms of Rajasthan will stand with us in unity. Nothing will be holding us back then from destroying the north reaches.. once and for all.."
Shyam joined in his laughter, their voices echoing in the night air.
"Do you see anything?" asked Arnav once more, his voice impatient.
The youngest member of their group, Taj, shook his head behind the binoculars. He was sitting cross-legged on the sands, his fingers busy adjusting the lens as he surveyed the darkness beyond the cliffs. "Nothing yet, ASR."
Arnav couldn't suppress his frown as he stood rigid beside him, his arms folded across his chest. All four of them had heard the far-reaching echoes of gunshots not too long ago, coming from the train station. But by the time they'd reached there, the area had been deserted. Even the old train conductor well-known for his endless naps was missing from his normal place behind the counter.
The only evidence of anything unusual were the hoofprints on the sands, streaking this way and that and a small leather bag, left behind in the chaos. Something had happened. He just knew it.
"Keep looking," he instructed Taj. "I know they're somewhere near." His father's other offspring and his guards had to be in the sands still. They'd been keeping an eye on the palace all day, a second pair of binoculars trained on the highest tower. It was there that a torch would be lit as per custom, signaling the monarch's presence within the high walls. So far, that tower remained stubbornly dark.
Aman added more kindling to the small fire burning in the pit. It crackled and spit as the flames rose higher. Arnav took his usual spot across from him, flipping open an old leather book. He tried to lose himself in the pages, but for some reason, he couldn't seem to focus tonight. Why? Why did he feel so damn restless? Why did it feel like someone was calling out to him?
He sighed, running a hand through his unruly hair. If only there was some light out still. But night had fallen across the desert with its usual swiftness, blanketing the land to almost zero visibility. There was only one way left for finding his half-brother tonight: if the other side was foolish enough to light a large bonfire, something that could be noticed even several kilometers away.
He closed his eyes, trying to relax. But the silence he normally enjoyed so much bit into him tonight, leaving him uneasy. "Anything?" he asked Taj again.
"Not yet," came the response. Arnav frowned, gazing at the flames with stone-hard eyes.
Aman was watching him closely, trying to decipher his expression. "Rum?" he finally asked. "Do you want some? Taj still has a decent supply left in his pack."
"No," answered Arnav, snapping his book shut. He shot up, pacing before the fire. The restlessness was eating into him again; he couldn't sit still.
Imran, the last remaining member of their group, exchanged a glance with Aman, his mouth drawn. Aman simply shrugged, not having the faintest clue what bothered their leader so much this late at night.
"ASR.." began Imran, meaning to end the never-ending watch.
But Taj shouted just then, waving his hand with palpable excitement over his head. "I see something! Over there!" he pointed.Arnav grabbed the binoculars from his hands, twisting the dials. The area came into focus at once. He swept over the sands and then paused, swiveling back.
Fire.. there were torches blazing in the sands to the north.
Without a single word to the men, he ran to his horse, his hands gripping the leather saddle. He heard the others following behind him, but he couldn't wait. Urgency bit into him.
And then he was off, racing across the dunes, the wind stinging his exposed face.
Khushi moaned softly as she stirred awake, her head throbbing on the right side. Murmured conversation floated past her ears as her eyes slowly blinked open.
A white tented sheet fluttered high in the ceiling above her with a candle-lit chandelier swinging from its peak. Almost at once, the events at the train station flashed through Khushi's mind, leaving her shaking. Her eyes widened as she looked at her unfamiliar surroundings. She wrenched herself up off the plush mattress, sitting up quickly.
A wave of dizziness hit her almost at once at the sudden movement. Khushi stifled the pained groan that threatened, clutching her temple. Dry blood caked her hair there.
But she forced herself to endure the pain. Danger was near, she knew. Her abductor had to be somewhere close. With lithe grace, she quietly scampered off the bed, her heart thudding with fear.
Her chest heaved as she glanced about. She stood in an opulent tent, filled with elaborately carved teak furniture and colorful tapestries. It was thankfully empty.
Khushi wasted no time. She edged toward the entrance, her steps tentative on the Persian rug that covered the floor.
"I'll kill him with my bare hands," snarled a hollow-sounding male voice outside.
"While you're tossing on the bed with that pretty little thing inside?" asked a second voice, sounding dubious. "I think it'll be me who takes the dark prince's life, Aakash."
The first voice started to argue.
Khushi froze inside the tent, only understanding bits and pieces of their muted conversation. Her heart pounded as she tiptoed closer. Two dark shadows stood just a slight distance away, their jarring laughter seeping through the gossamer curtain.
Her terror grew by tenfold. She retreated backwards, her breath quickening as she turned back around.
Almost at once, she collided with a hard, muscular chest.
Khushi's eyes rounded, her mouth opened to scream.
But the man was quicker. He clamped a firm hand over her mouth, drawing her backward until her back met a tall wooden chest of drawers.
Khushi struggled against him, her arms and legs thrashing. The stranger though seemed to hardly notice; his grip remained unyielding as he braced himself against her. Khushi sighed harshly as she realized the futileness of her efforts, finally glancing up. She seemed to freeze at once. Her heart stilled.
Dark, smoldering eyes pierced her, holding her captive. In their depths she saw something so soulful, so indescribably rare, she couldn't seem to glance away. His face was just as unforgettable: perfectly sculpted with a straight, aristocratic nose, high cheekbones covered with dark stubble, and tightly drawn lips. Decidedly overgrown, wavy locks of black hair fell across his high forehead as he leaned in closer. He was wearing what looked to be a well-worn cloak, the black of the cloth contrasting sharply with his tanned skin. But his messy appearance only seemed to enhance his scorching masculinity, his underlying strength..
He was easily the most handsome man Khushi had ever seen.
But then as she realized how he'd grabbed her and how intimately he held her still, her panic bloomed anew. She flailed in his arms, one of her hands pushing at his rigid chest.
He scarcely moved, staring down at her with the same inscrutable expression. And then his head lowered, pausing at the outer shell of her left ear. "Calm down," he bid in a low voice, his breath fanning the loose tendrils of her hair. "I'm trying to help you."
Help her? Khushi frowned. Part of her wanted to believe him, to believe the blazing truth she read in his eyes, but she couldn't ignore the tall, well-built body being pressed against hers. Heat seemed to be radiating off his very skin as the thickly corded muscles of his chest brushed against her fragile ghagra choli.
"I'm going to remove my hand from your mouth," he informed her in a blunt whisper. "Don't make a sound." Those almost midnight black eyes locked with hers again, asking silently if she agreed to the command.
Khushi nodded hurriedly, her lips grazing his calloused palm. She'd do anything to free herself from this stranger.
As his hand withdrew, she couldn't stop the small cry that escaped her parted lips.She thought he furiously murmured "Damn it!" then but she couldn't be sure. Everything seemed to fade away suddenly.
Because this time as he quieted her, it wasn't his hand. But his mouth, catching her broken cry in its warm cavern.
Khushi froze in place as his lips pushed against hers. Her hands rose automatically to shove him away.
His mouth though slammed harder, refusing to retreat. Khushi couldn't seem to move: every instinct she had screamed to push him away, but her body remained stubbornly still. She had never felt anything like his burning touch before. No boy had so much as touched her hand before, and the warm body against her was by no stretch of the imagination that of a boy. He was clearly all man: tall, lean and broad-shouldered.
His lips were soft and oddly hot as they met hers, and more than a little demanding. Those eyes that had mesmerized her so darkened, flames burning in their depths as he gazed at her. Heat pooled in Khushi, her body seemed to tingle with strange new sensations. His kiss gentled then, becoming tender almost.
But as his hands suddenly clenched around her bare waist and his teeth nipped at her bottom lip, Khushi's eyes rounded with horror. What was she doing? A stranger was kissing her, touching her as he pleased and here she was, allowing him!
With a well-aimed kick, she hit him in the shin with all her strength. He paused over her, his teeth withdrawing. His lips though remained hovering over hers, as if there was nothing extraordinary about this whole situation. Irritation spiked in Khushi. How dare he behave so calmly? As if he hadn't just manhandled her? But you didn't exactly push him away either, did you? reminded her conscience.
"Will you yell again?" asked the stranger, his mouth moving scandalously across hers. Khushi turned her head to the side, a wave of bewilderment and embarrassment choking her. She shook her head stiffly. The arrogant man had the gall to smirk at her.
For a moment they stood facing each other, their eyes tracing over the other.
Loud laughter sounded once more from the tent's entrance. Khushi's heart thudded as she recalled the two dark shadows. But the man before her looked unsurprised, only the tightening of his eyes gave away any indication that he'd heard.
"Did they harm you?" he asked with marked urgency, searching her face.
Khushi looked away as she realized what he was asking. But he wouldn't allow that. His bronzed hand rose, tilting her chin so she had no choice but to meet his penetrating gaze. "Answer."
She couldn't explain why she didn't shrink away from his touch. She finally shook her head in his grasp, her voice soft: "No, but they did kidnap me from the train station. I was trying to escape when you.. when you came."
She had been about to say 'when you kissed me,' but her innocent nature wouldn't allow her to say those words that easily. His eyes burned into hers as he stood over her, unreadable once more.
Without explanation, the man grabbed her right hand, leading her to the far wall. A long slit had been cut through the stiff tent material there, noticed Khushi. She barely had a moment to think, let alone argue. Because the stranger was already pulling her through the opening and God help her, she was following him. Out into the darkness..
Arnav and Khushi ran through the sand dunes with him leading. She hurried to match his long stride, but it was difficult. The night was unforgiving, so pitch black it was like she was blind. The stars were even covered by a thick wall of clouds. Only the crescent moon glowing high in the skies provided some relief.
Her hand remained clasped in his as he pulled her behind him. Khushi was surprisingly grateful for his hold, even though her mind was filled with uncertainty and fear. Because out here in this foreign land, he was the one solid point, the one person who tethered her to her surroundings. Without him, she would have been utterly lost.
Wind and sand flew past them as they headed toward the east. Khushi's hair swung wildly around her, the strands plastering across her face.
The stranger must have noticed her struggling, even though his pace never slowed. "Just a little further more," he informed her.
Where was he taking her? wondered Khushi. And why was she letting him? But she couldn't even manage a reply as she followed him on. She felt out of breath, her heart racing.
And then a hard voice cut in, its ring slamming into her like a whip in the darkness: "Turn around.. We have you surrounded."
The stranger froze. Khushi collided with him, her heart thundering with sheer panic and fear. He spun around, pushing her behind him as he faced the men that had discovered them.
A young, clean-shaven man dressed in fine robes approached them. Khushi had never seen his face before, but she recognized him. Those ice-cold eyes were ingrained in her memory. He was the one who'd kidnapped her at the train station, she realized with dawning horror.
Behind him stood eight or nine men wearing black and red uniforms. In their hands were rifles, aimed directly at their prey.
The man grinned as he neared, his smile devious and satisfied. "Well, well, if it isn't ASR.." said her kidnapper. "Come to die finally?"
The stranger who'd kissed her so thoroughly.. ASR.. tensed slightly. It was only because Khushi was pressed to his back that she even noticed the stiffening. To the others, he appeared nonchalant, almost carefree.
"You can't kill me here," he replied confidently. "Go on and try." His words rang out clearly with defiance. Khushi bit her lip behind him, wondering why he was purposely provoking the rich man. Didn't he see how terribly outnumbered they were?
She peeked from behind him again, catching the kidnapper motioning to his soldiers.
But just then three more figures emerged from the darkness, passing right beside Khushi. She immediately tensed, her hand fisting on ASR's cloak.
The men though seemed to be on their side, she observed with relief. Khushi watched gratefully as they pointed their own guns back toward the other side, passing ASR a long rifle. He accepted it with a natural ease, his large, tanned hand sliding over the shiny metal. Her heart dropped as she observed him. Dear God, what had she gotten herself into? What did she even know about his stranger? He'd grabbed and kissed her in the tent and now he held a weapon in his hands as if it was a toy. Had she mistaken what she'd glimpsed in his eyes?
The rich man frowned, looking ready to scream. But a burly man with a prominent limp pushed past the soldiers, going to his side at once. The full-blown panic on his face was easy to spot. "Now, now," he said, "This is not the time and place to settle this."
"Go away, Shyam--"
"Oh, really?" interrupted ASR smoothly. "I think it's the perfect place." His fingers tightened on the rifle.
"How dare you direct a weapon toward me!" shouted the kidnapper, flinging off his friend's hand with an angry swipe. "On Raizada soil no less! I am the Maharaja here! And you are banned from entering!" His eyes glittered with zeal. "Now all the other kingdoms will support me in destroying you. You will pay for this, ASR!"
Khushi's head snapped up in surprise. Maharaja? The kidnapper was nothing like the noble, dashing kings and princes she'd read about in fairy tales. He looked utterly fearsome as he stood before them, his rage barely suppressed.
The man in front of Khushi though simply shrugged. "I like my chances. And for your information, this is neutral territory. The border of Raizada ended at that dune back there. If you attack me here first, the other kingdoms will rise to MY side--my support has already grown."
The Maharaja looked so angry he was at a complete loss of words. His friend raised a calming hand. "Look," he said addressing both sides. "Neither one of us can attack the other on this soil, as much as we'd like to. I say we leave and face one another when the time comes, which will be very soon, ASR. So I wouldn't smirk so.."
"I look forward to that day," he answered, sharing a glance with the men standing next to him. "That day, I'll take back what you snatched from me."
The other man's face furrowed with hate. And then a sickly smile appeared. "We'll see about that. But right now, you have something with you that belongs to me." His eyes flashed to Khushi. "Come out, girl, join me.."
Khushi stood rooted to her place in the sands, her hand tightening on the cloak.
Her kidnapper watched impatiently, his face turning a dull ruddy color. His eyes swung back to ASR. "Let her go! She is mine!" he raged.
ASR stiffened. "I'm not holding her captive. I'm not like you, kidnapping defenseless women. You don't deserve to be called a man, much less King. If she wants to go with you, she's free to, but.." His voice turned hard as steel. "If she wants to stay with me, you're not coming one step near her!"
The other man laughed. "Of course, she would choose me! I will shower her with emeralds and rubies. What will you give her? That muddy cloak you're wearing?" His men all shared a laugh. "Now, come here," ordered the man who'd snatched her from the train station, his hand extending toward her in invitation.
Khushi hesitated as she stepped away, coming to a stand next to ASR. The rich man's eyes seemed to turn red with thinly veiled anger as she stood unmoving, refusing to step closer. His lips compressed. "Do you have any idea who you're standing next to, girl?" he asked with a twisting of his face. "Do you even know this man's reputation? He is not your savior, but a criminal. You will be much safer with me. I will give you everything you can ever imagine.."
Khushi didn't answer, but her eyes flew between the two men. She couldn't help but compare them. They were both similar in height with strikingly well-defined features. But while the kidnapper was dressed in fine silks and sported the look of a spoiled child, the stranger wore a slightly tattered black cloak. With his hooded eyes and dark stubble, he looked very much like a dangerous criminal. Most people would choose the Maharaja, realized Khushi. He was unquestionably the more proper option.
"Hurry up!" screeched the rich man. "I don't have time for this. Come here, NOW! And get this girl, you will lose your innocence to one of us."
The color seemed to drain from Khushi's face, her heart thundered as she stood alone in the darkness, surrounded by men. Her body shivered.
"So who will it be?" continued the kidnapper without pause. "Who will you bed? Me or him?"
Khushi froze. Everyone had turned to face her by now, except for one. Her eyes flashed to the stranger, but he was staring resolutely at the opposing side.
He provided her with no guidance this time. The choice would be hers alone she realized. And so as the Maharaja gazed at her with a confident leer, she listened to her heart.
With a deep breath Khushi met his gaze, her voice soft but firm as she spoke: "Him."
Chapter 4: The Canyon
Arnav couldn't contain the shiver that assailed him as her quiet, lilting voice hit his ears. His eyes closed for a moment as that one syllable echoed in the night air: "Him."
The girl had rejected the so-called Maharaja and chosen him. Part of him had known she would, but the resolve in her tone was startling. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at her: she stood bravely in her opulent ghagra choli, glaring at Aakash, her chin set in a determined angle. The gathered assembly though had never expected her answer. Most of them looked at her with eye-popping disbelief, their gazes quickly shifting to disgust. In a flash, he stepped in front of her, shielding her from the rage being directed at her thin, graceful form.
His half-brother stared at him from across the sands as if he'd snatched the very kingdom from his grasp. His face was frozen in an open-mouthed snarl while his hands were balled so tightly, the knuckles stood out white in the darkness. The guards behind him appeared just as dumbfounded, their mouths twisting into disapproving frowns.
Arnav smirked at them. He couldn't help it. Oh to see that look on the serpent's face, it was like a thin layer of balm on his deep wounds.
"Why you--" began the man opposite him, advancing forward.
The girl's right hand fisted on the back of his cloak again, holding fast. But it was unnecessary. Arnav wouldn't allow anyone near her. She'd made her choice. "Not one damn word more," he said through clenched teeth, his eyes blazing with loathing at Aakash. "You heard her, didn't you? Or are you too stupid to understand one simple word?"
Aman, Imran, and Taj grinned, their guns aimed at the rival side.
"How dare you!" bellowed Aakash, his gaze turning murderous. "I am His Royal Highness Maharaja--"
"So you claim. We've already heard," interrupted Arnav smoothly, lowering his weapon absently. "You know, Aman," he said, turning away from Aakash as if he didn't amount to much significance. "I've always believed only someone not secure in their position has to keep shouting it over and over, like a child.. It's so bloody irritating.."
"Agreed, ASR," said Aman. His teeth flashed white in the darkness. "Even the lady recognizes him for what he is: a snake dressed in stolen silks."
Arnav nodded thoughtfully, running a hand along his stubbled chin as Aakash practically seethed with rage.
"Attack them! Shoot that ASR down now!" he thundered to his guards.
The girl tensed behind Arnav. Given their close proximity, he noticed it at once. Under the cover of the surrounding darkness, his free hand impulsively covered hers, stroking the silky skin.
Khushi froze as his left hand caressed hers. He was a complete stranger and very likely, a criminal. She shouldn't be pressed against him so. It was highly improper. But she couldn't bring herself to step away. His touch which by all rights should have frightened her, actually calmed her in the middle of an increasingly volatile situation. The air was charged with tension. A brawl or gunfight could break out any second, she knew.
Arnav swallowed when she didn't move away, but remained in his hold, her body gradually relaxing. It reminded him of the kiss..
He forced those thoughts away, glaring at the opposite side. Hell, they were outnumbered three soldiers to one and yet all he could think about was the woman behind him!
Aakash Singh Raizada looked livid as his guards hesitated. He snatched a rifle from one, charging forward to fire. But his slippery eel of a friend, Shyam, stepped in between, restraining him with force.
"You can't attack him first, Aakash!" he screamed. "This is neutral territory! The other kingdoms will rise to support him--is that what you want?"
Arnav bit back the urge to shoot the pair right there. Hate choked him as he watched them argue. But he couldn't do anything without risking the north reaches. Not on these sands..
So with heavy reluctance, he gave the signal to go to his men. They nodded and as a group began retreating into the darkness. The girl didn't resist as he led her backward, his left hand closing around her much smaller palm. Their fingers entwined.
The last glimpse he had of his enemies was of his half-brother almost wrestling his friend to the sands, kicking his weak leg out from beneath him. Howls and screams of rage echoed around them.
And then there was nothing, but darkness once more.
Arnav rushed toward the canyon he'd been heading to from the time he'd first set foot outside of the royal tent. Thankfully, this time the distance was quite short. His grip on the girl's hand tightened as he guided her in the darkness, making sure to avoid any more unwelcome hazards in their path.
Khushi meanwhile was running as hard as she could to keep up. Her orange lehenga swung out behind her as she raced across the dunes. Glancing over her shoulder, she was grateful to see that no one followed. Her skin crawled as she remembered the vile Maharaja's words: Who will you bed? Me or him? She was so focused on running away that she never noticed the jagged ledge in front of her until it was almost too late.
Her heart skipped a beat as she tottered on the edge, her feet skidding to a stop on the gravel. Her eyes widened as she glanced down: there was a dark canyon carved into the sands below, appearing deep and perilous. If she'd taken a single step more, she would have fallen inside.
But the strong arm around her waist had pulled her back in the nick of time. A large, masculine hand settled with easy familiarity over her stomach, keeping her from tumbling over the edge. She clapped both hands over the stranger's as icy-cold fear washed over her.
"That was close," said one of the men, his voice coming from the pitch-black area to Khushi's right. Even when she squinted, she couldn't see his shape. "Lucky you caught her, ASR."
He didn't reply, but tugged her backwards until she fell against his hard, muscular chest. Khushi glanced up in the darkness, trying to read his expression. But except for the slight shadow of his profile, she couldn't see anything. Her body trembled in his grasp as she recalled those haunting eyes, those chiseled features, that scorching mouth..
His face lowered then. Wavy, overgrown hair brushed across her forehead. It was surprisingly soft. His words were even more unexpected: "We have to climb down."
Khushi's face paled. She looked toward the rocky edge and the dense blackness below. Down there? She had a vision suddenly of a pit teeming with deadly cobras and scorpions. Why would anyone willingly go down there?
But even as she struggled with that thought, she saw that the other three men were already climbing down into the canyon. So far, not one had called out for help.
Khushi forced herself to take a calming breath. As much as she wished this was all a horrible nightmare, the reality was she stood in the arms of this stranger, a man who had protected her from a lecherous Maharaja and whisked her away right under the noses of over ten heavily-armed guards. Those powerful people could very well be coming after them any moment, perhaps with even more soldiers and ammunition.. Just the thought of it shook her.
"I don't know how," she finally murmured up to him, staring at his shadowy form.
Arnav's hand paused on her waist at her earnest admission. He'd been expecting her to argue or outright refuse. The worry in her voice surprised him. Did she really think that he wouldn't help her? Had he not already shown that he would protect her?
He sighed, leaning in so close, their lips almost aligned once more in the darkness. She took a sharp intake of breath, turning her face hastily away. Her chest heaved against his. He paused at that, reminded once more of the kiss in the tent. Heat shot through him as he gazed down at her, noting the faint shadow of those rose petal soft lips. Hell, she had every reason to be nervous around him after what he'd done. He'd tasted her innocence for himself. So with the utmost gentleness he could muster, he avoided those full lips, settling his mouth near her ear instead.
"Climb onto my back," he ordered. And then as she hesitated, he said more firmly: "Now!"
Khushi flinched at the hard edge in his voice, but she had no other option. Turning, she moved so she stood facing his back once more. He was so tall she had to go on her tiptoes to reach him. Her hands rose up tentatively to hold onto his broad shoulders, her touch feather light and unsure.
But Arnav was becoming more and more aware of the eerie stillness around them. It was too silent. Something was nearing them in the darkness, he knew. With one quick move, he clutched her thighs with both hands, lifting her up.
She muffled her gasp against his cloak, burying her face there.
"Hold onto me," he warned as he neared the ledge. Khushi's eyes rounded as they reached the sudden drop. She instinctively closed her eyes, her legs crossing around his waist. It was a very intimate position with their torsos and hips slamming together with his every maneuver. Khushi flushed with embarrassment, praying they reached solid ground soon.
She could feel herself being lowered, the stranger's chest tensing under her palms every time he reached for a new rock to grab onto.
It was a difficult climb down for Arnav as well. Without even a single ray of light or fragment of rope to guide him, he had to rely entirely on his sense of touch. His hands drifted across the rocky cliff, finding ledges and small crevices to brace himself against. He was also very much aware of the attractive female on his back: her supple body clenched around his, her shaky breath warming him through the cloak. Sweat rolled down his forehead as he fought for control, searching for another point of leverage.
When his feet landed on the cool sands below, Arnav finally allowed himself to relax. He'd climbed down more treacherous ravines countless times, but never had it been so pitch black and never had he had someone strapped to him.
She was holding onto him tightly even now, her hands and legs folded around him. He could just make out Aman's amused glance in the blackness.
"You can let go now," he snapped, his tone more gruff than he intended.
She immediately jumped away, swaying slightly. He started to say something, he wasn't even sure what, but the sound of thundering hooves blacked out everything else just then.
Without a word, he grabbed the girl, holding her flush to him as he backed up against the rocky wall.
Khushi shook as she heard the approaching sound. It reminded her of the chaos at the train station. How helpless she'd been.. how completely unprepared..
The stranger, ASR, held her in his embrace and she didn't even attempt to push away. Rather, she found herself clinging to him. Why? she wondered. Why did she feel so safe with him? In the arms of a criminal?
It made absolutely no sense and Khushi was too frightened and exhausted to think it through. So instead she allowed him to drag her closer, his hand sliding soothingly up and down her rigid back.
Arnav glanced at the ledge above them. Sand and gravel rained into the canyon as the royal convoy passed overhead--just as he had known it would. The girl quivered against him then, burying her face against his cloak. He stilled. The looming threat of danger seemed to fade as he became increasingly aware of her breath fanning his skin, her chest rising and fall against him, her heart racing wildly. He tugged her closer, trying to ease the tension in her.
A few minutes of utter silence passed and then he motioned toward the shadow to his right.
Taj nodded, climbing back up the canyon's steep walls. He swerved the binoculars toward the east. "They're gone, ASR. Looks like about fifty riders."
"Set up camp," said Arnav, his arms still wound around the slight figure against him. "They won't return till tomorrow afternoon--empty-handed."
The woman in his arms stepped away at once. A frown crossed Arnav's face, but he didn't say a word. With a hard swipe, he peeled off his cloak, throwing it to the ground.
And then as Aman lit a small fire and he could finally see her shivering form, he couldn't help but ask: "Now what am I supposed to do with you?"
Khushi shuddered as his husky voice sounded. But before she could come up with an intelligible answer, one of the men clapped the stranger on the shoulder, his face shining with amusement. He was the one who had checked on the Maharaja's convoy: Taj.
"That was incredible, ASR," said the young man, shaking his head with laughter. "You fooled those idiots completely. They honestly thought we were on neutral territory and not in Raizada!"
Arnav shrugged, the ghost of a smile crossing his face. "That's what happens when you remain holed up in a palace and never know the sands first-hand."
Taj laughed once more, pulling out thin, woven mats from his pack. He threw five down around the small bonfire.
Arnav's eyes flew to the girl again. She stood in the same spot, looking anxious. And why wouldn't she? From the bit he knew, she'd been kidnapped around sundown and then had escaped with him into the desert, only to be found by the very serpent who'd abducted her. There had been a kiss or two in between as well.
He was about to motion her to sit when Aman approached her.
Khushi immediately tensed, her hands wrapping around her upper body in a protective move. But the man's eyes were kind in the dim light. Beyond his thick beard, his lips were curved into a placating smile.
"Listen, lady," he said to her, his voice soothing. "You are in no danger. We will not harm you in any way."
Khushi wanted to believe him, but she was still shaken by everything that had happened. Her eyes swung to the stranger. He didn't say a word, his dark, smoldering eyes locking with hers across the flames.
"We are not like those men," continued the man, his revulsion evident. "In fact, we pride ourselves in being nothing like them."
"Yeah," said Taj, sprawling down on his mat. "We're real men: we honor and protect women. Right, Imran?"
The last member of the group nodded stiffly, busy adding more dry wood to the fire.
Khushi still hesitated. It was only after several more reassurances by the friendly-looking man that she sat on one of the empty mats. Her hands shook as she gazed at the unfamiliar circle of men, so she clasped them tightly together, hoping to hide her nervousness.
"My name is Aman," continued the man as he sat on his mat to her right. "What is your name?"
The man who'd kissed her stared at her with that same unreadable expression, seeming frozen as he lounged on his mat.
"Khushi.." she finally whispered, tearing her eyes from him. "Khushi Kumari Gupta."
Aman nodded thoughtfully. "And where were you heading to when that snake kidnapped you? Where can we leave you?"
Khushi's head snapped up. They were really going to help her? They weren't going to harm her? For the first time all day, her body relaxed. Her heartbeat slowed.
"To the Singh family's home here in Rajasthan, please."
"And where is that?" asked Taj. "What town?"
Khushi froze, her eyes unblinking. Where did the Singh family live?She racked her brain for an address, a city, anything.. Focus, Khushi, focus, she scolded herself. Masi must have mentioned it. She had to have said it at least once..
As the silence stretched, the men exchanged puzzled frowns.
"Khushi?" asked Aman. "Is there any problem?"
Her ashen face was answer enough. Tears pooled in her eyes, glimmering in the firelight. "I.. I don't know their exact address. They were going to pick me up at the station," she finally managed.
Imran frowned. "Why didn't they?"
It was the question Arnav had been dying to ask. God, the helplessness and confusion in her eyes undid him. He suddenly wished he could go to her and soothe away those lines of worry on her forehead. As soon as that thought came to him, he shook it away. What the hell was wrong him? When had he ever wanted to comfort a girl before?
But this girl was unlike any other. She was so soft and delicate appearing that from his first sight of her in the tent, he'd become fiercely protective of her. But at the same time, he'd also sensed a fire in her, a blazing spirit behind those hazel doe-eyes.
Her voice broke out just then, rattling him with its hollowness. "I don't know.. maybe they were simply late. I was waiting at the train station when those men on horses arrived, shooting wildly."
"I don't think it's possible for you to go back there," said Aman. "That serpent won't forget you that easily. He hates being defied, especially by a woman."
Khushi knew he was speaking the truth. She'd witnessed herself the King's conceit and obstinacy.
"Is there any other way of finding their address?" asked Taj from her other side. "Someone you can send a telegram to?"
Khushi shook her head hopelessly. Masi and Uncle were long gone. She did not have the faintest clue about their whereabouts.
"What about your parents or some other relatives?" asked Imran, puzzled.
She looked away, glancing down at her clenched hands. "Amma and Babuji died when I was a little girl. I have no other family."
Arnav's eyes tightened. Aman and Imran quieted, but Taj almost grinned. "So you're an orphan like us!"
Imran shot him a glare. "Excuse me, but my Aami is still alive and breathing."
"Sorry," said Taj sheepishly. "I meant the rest of us."
Arnav shook his head at the younger man, his dark eyes falling on Khushi. "Where are you from?" he asked. She was obviously not from Rajasthan. Her voice was so polite and lilting, and accented delicately with something indefinable.
Khushi froze as the stranger spoke to her, her eyes flashing toward him. He was reclined back on the mat with a panther-like grace, meeting her curious gaze head-on. Her eyes were drawn to his lips, hard and masculine and yet soft to the touch, she knew. A vivid image of that mouth slamming against hers hit her once more, leaving her quaking. "Lucknow," she finally replied, watching the firelight cast shadows across his dazzlingly handsome face. "That's where I was born and raised."
He nodded, observing her silently.
"Wait a minute," said Taj, scratching his head. "Maybe I know this Singh family you're trying to reach. I know mostly everyone in this area. What are their full names?"
Khushi's mouth opened and shut. Her face furrowed as she sifted through her memories of her engagement years ago. But the memories were unchanged from what they had been on the train: a smiling uncle, a small boy, an emerald ring.. No names came to her.
"I just know Singh Uncle," she whispered.
"Singh Uncle?" repeated Taj, taken aback. "But do you have any idea how many Singh families there are in Rajasthan? God, all of us must know at least fifty Singh Uncles. Are you sure you don't remember a first name?"
Khushi shook her head in despair. "I've told you all the truth."
"But, there must be--"
"That's enough, Taj," interrupted Arnav. "She has answered your questions, leave her alone."
Imran though sided with the younger man. "But ASR, what are we going to do with her? We can't go to every Singh family in Rajasthan and knock on their doors can we?"
Arnav started to argue but Aman spoke up just then, surprising all of them, Khushi included, with the smile on his face. He turned toward her. "As I see it, Khushi, there is only one person who can help you. She's a woman who always helps those who need help and guidance."
Khushi's eyebrows knitted together. "Who?"
Aman's smile widened. "Nani. She lives in the north reaches of Rajasthan and I am sure that she can help you."
Taj and the rest of the group nodded. Khushi though was still uncertain. "Are you sure? And how will I get there? Are the north reaches very far?"
Aman spoke to her bluntly. "It is a long journey from here. The north reaches are very remote. I would not recommend that you travel there alone."
"But then how?" asked Khushi.
Taj sighed next to her. "Too bad we didn't run into you earlier this morning. My older brother left for the north reaches just hours ago."
"Taj, it's too late for that," said Aman. His eyes met Khushi's. "I think it would be best if you traveled with us for a time. We have some business to conduct in the nearby kingdoms but we will eventually head there too. Until that time, you can try to remember more about this Singh family."
Khushi didn't know what to say, but Imran looked at Aman with shock. "A woman? On the trail with us? It could be a good two weeks or more till we get to the north reaches!"
"There's no other alternative, Imran," interrupted Arnav, his voice hardening.
Aman nodded. "Well, Khushi? Will you agree to this? We will treat you with respect and get you to help. Or will you take your chances in Raizada?"
Khushi's eyes swung toward ASR. He just barely nodded.
"I'll stay," she finally declared, astonishing even herself. "Thank you.. Thank you all."
As the clouds passed over the thin sliver of moon above them, Khushi watched quietly as Taj knelt by the small fire, dousing the flames with handfuls of sand. "We should all sleep," he said. "Dawn will arrive before we realize it."
"Good night everyone," muttered Aman, laying down on his mat. "Imran, it's your turn to take the night watch, right?"
Imran started to nod, but a second voice cut in. "No, I'll take it."
"But ASR," said Imran, his voice filled with confusion. "It was your turn yesterday, you need your sleep too."
"I said I'll do it," said their leader, sounding cross.
There was no further argument. Everyone hunkered down on their mats, falling asleep within minutes. Snores came from around the circle.
Khushi shifted uncomfortably in the darkness. She finally made herself lie down, pulling her legs up against her chest. The woven mat was stiff to the touch, but the sands beneath it made it almost comfortable. It was very different from the thin mattress Khushi had slept on for ten years in her Masi's home.
She reached out a hand, her fingers cautiously feeling the grit of the sands beside her. Who would have guessed that one day she'd be spending a night under the stars, four grown men surrounding her? She still could not quite believe it. To think that only two days ago, she'd been tucking in Simran to sleep in Lucknow, certain that her dull daily routine would hardly change.
A tear slipped from the corner of her eye as she thought of her young cousin. She prayed silently that Simran was happy wherever she was and already fast asleep.
Wiping her tears with a shaky hand, Khushi rolled onto her back, gazing at the clouds. She shivered as a cold draft washed over her. Who would have guessed that the desert could become so chilly at night? This land was foreign to her; it both frightened and excited her with its wildness. Everything seemed more intense here. The soil, the sky, the people..
And then his thought came to her. That kiss.. Her eyes closed tightly. Her body clenched. She bit her bottom lip as she fought to forget it. But it felt impossible. Those vivid images refused to leave her.
And then a cloth fell across her, incasing her from her neck to her feet. She immediately tensed, her eyes snapping open.
Above her leaned the man in whose thoughts she'd been lost in, his soulful eyes glittering in the darkness. She hadn't been prepared to find him so close. She couldn't help but back away.
It was obviously the wrong move. Those eyes sizzled with sudden anger. A rough hand plunged into her hair, hauling her up to meet his furious gaze. Khushi was shaking beneath him, not knowing what he would do.
"I know what you must think of me," he snarled through his teeth.
Her lips opened and closed as she struggled to respond. She was acutely aware of his face just centimeters from her, his warm breath brushing across her lips. With a gasp, she turned her face to the side.
He wouldn't allow it. The hand in her hair jerked her head up. "You think I'm some lowly criminal about to push you down on this mat and take you right here, don't you?"
The angry words crashed into her. Never had anyone spoken so crudely to her before.
Arnav was getting more and more annoyed by her continued silence. He'd thought his graphic language would prompt some reaction. Why wouldn't she answer, damn it! He'd seen her shiver in the darkness and his only thought had been to cover her with the cloak. But that instant sheen of fear on her face, the sudden tensing of her body had snapped his control. Did she really think he was no better than the so-called Maharaja?
"You can relax," he growled, his eyes locking with hers. "I've never had to force a woman to share my bed before and I'm not going to start now. I thought you could use the cloak. The desert can be dangerous in more ways than one.." And then without waiting for a reply, he let go of her, stomping away into the darkness.
Khushi lay breathlessly against the mat. His touch had seemed to burn through her, igniting something nameless within her. She'd been left tongue-tied. What was wrong with her? Why did she feel this way around him? Their worlds were completely different. How could she forget that he was a criminal and likely dangerous?
But criminal or not, no one since her parents had cared enough to cover her with a blanket. She hugged his dark cloak closer, enveloping herself in the material that smelled so uniquely of him.
He'd been trying to help her, just as he had in the tent, and she had overreacted, this time certainly offending him. But she didn't know how to explain to herself let alone him what she was feeling. How could she tell him that when he was near she feared her own actions more than his? How could she explain how much it scared her that she could never pull away from his hold, even though she knew it was wrong?
A soft sigh escaped her parted lips as she finally closed her tired eyes, losing herself instantly in vivid dreams of a smoldering, furious gaze and a hard, burning mouth..
Chapter 5: Sore
Arnav sat wide awake in the darkness, his back scrapping against the canyon's uneven wall, his long legs stretched out before him on the sands.
The night was silent and peaceful. After the adrenaline pumping events earlier, it felt strangely unreal. The wind had died down considerably, although a nipping chill remained. His bare arms stung from the cold, but he ignored it. After so many years of wandering the Thar Desert like a common nomad, he was used to its bite.
His companions were all fast asleep, appearing like nothing but lumpy shadows on their mats. Despite his own unwillingness, his gaze wandered to the smallest shape, nestled on the pallet directly across from him.
She was sleeping--finally. He was drawn to that innocent face like a moth to flame, his eyes roaming across her creamy porcelain skin, those stunning features, her glinting nose pin, and pausing at that enticing, bow-shaped mouth. Sure he'd seen beautiful women before, but never had he stumbled upon an angel.
She was the picture of innocence: so soft and petite that when he had his arms around her, he felt as if she might break in his rough hold. But those fiery eyes radiated strength and warmth. A half-smile curved his lips as he recalled her kicking him in the shin, her gorgeous face filled with outrage.
Arnav had been watching her toss and turn for a good hour or so on the woven mat until exhaustion had finally taken over. He had a fairly good suspicion of what had sparked her unease.
He'd scared her--once again. He hadn't planned it but just like with the kiss, it had been done in the heat of the moment. She was the first woman to ever drive him to act so recklessly. Usually he was controlled and composed, planning every small action. He prided himself on keeping a tight latch on his emotions. But with her, everything went up in flames, each and every good intention. His temper unleashed at the most inopportune times. Careless words slipped from his mouth before he had a chance to think them through let alone consider their brunt. Arnav sighed harshly, running a hand through his too long hair.
And yet even if he could take back the outburst, he knew he would not. He would react the same savage way all over again, just to show her that he was not quite the villain her beautiful head had clearly cast him to be.
Even that feeling made no bloody sense. Why did it bother him so much how she seemed to jump away from him--as if he was some rabid wild animal? Why did he care so damn much about what she thought about him?
He didn't know the reason, but it was becoming more and more glaringly obvious that he did care--too much. He couldn't stand the thought of her comparing him with Aakash and his ilk.
Sure he had his faults, his temper and ruthlessness in battle being at the top of that long list, but he was not like his despicable half-brother. He had never dishonored a woman. Heck, he'd been raised entirely by two strong women: his mother and grandmother. He might not have always followed their directions, but he'd been taught well. But how could she possibly know that?
Khushi Kumari Gupta had just met him. She had likely taken one look at his rough appearance and branded him the criminal. Which made too much sense as well. Girls like her were probably accustomed to those milquetoast stuttering boys who spoke with sleep-inducing politeness and never so much as held a girl's hand. He could never be like that, it was not in his nature.
But still, mused Arnav, he should not have barked at her so, offending her with his crudeness. He'd said something along the lines of taking her on the mat, shocking her gentle Lucknowi sensibilities for sure. And to make it worse, he'd kissed her within seconds of meeting her.
He cursed under his breath, kicking a rock to the side with his leather boot. Truthfully, he hadn't intended to kiss her. He'd been trying to shut her up. The last thing they'd needed in the tent at that precise moment was the entire royal army to barge inside. But as soon as their mouths touched, everything had changed..
When he'd first arrived at Aakash's heavily-guarded campsite, he'd ordered Taj, Imran, and Aman to remain behind, deciding to go on alone. They'd tried arguing, but by now they knew his stubborn disposition only all too well.
It had been incredibly easy for Arnav to near the lavish, white tent, passing behind the soldiers on patrol. They hadn't been expecting any intruder clearly. Most of the men had been busy talking gossip.
"Did you get a look at that beauty's face?" asked one. "What a catch!"
They all nodded vigorously. "From head to toe, she's one fine-looking woman. I'm so jealous of the Maharaja tonight."
"Don't let him hear you say that," warned another as they all continued to describe the unnamed woman. "You know how possessive he is of his kidnapped conquests."
Arnav had heard enough. He'd sneaked behind them, heading toward the back of the tent. It was the place he'd been pulled to even before learning about some poor woman's abduction. Pulling out a knife from one of the hidden pockets of his cloak, he had cut a long slit into the thick material, glancing around to make sure no one heard the telltale sound of fabric tearing into two. He'd stepped into the tent cautiously, his body tensing as he prepared for an attack.
But what he'd seen had shocked him. He'd frozen as if struck. The last thing he had expected to face was a willowy young woman, tiptoeing with her back to him toward the entrance. His eyes had been drawn to her, taking in her slim form, the innate grace with which she moved.
As he'd stalked toward her, he'd thought that maybe the soldiers had been right after all, maybe she was really beautiful as they claimed.
And then she'd whirled around, slamming into him. He'd covered her mouth with his hand, his eyes darkening as they fixed on her.
His first thought when he could form one: The guards had done her no justice.
She was strikingly attractive. So pale and delicate. Her warm brown eyes were specked with gold and framed by long, sweeping eyelashes. Surprise, fear, and vulnerability flickered there. Beneath his palm, her lips felt hot and faintly moist. A small red bindi adorned her forehead, contrasting with her skin tone as she flailed in his arms. Angling against his rigid chest, her body flared at each curve, soft and utterly feminine. Silky, ink-black hair reached past her waist, the loose tendrils curling slightly in the humidity.
And then he'd kissed her, his mouth slanting over hers to keep her quiet. But one touch and he'd been lost. Softness, irresistible softness had met his lips. Heat ignited as he tasted her innocence and the welcoming honey nectar of her lips.
She'd frozen, her body quivering against him, her breath hitching. He'd just placed a tender kiss across her bow-shaped bottom lip when she'd kicked him.
Arnav's eyes were drawn to that slightly plump lip again. She was biting it in her sleep, her face contorted with a palpable restlessness.
He instantly tensed, his eyes narrowing. Khushi was thrashing on the mat, as if gripped by the hands of a living, breathing enemy.
He could not stay away. Without even realizing it, Arnav found himself at her side. He kneeled on the sands beside her head, not knowing quite what to do. But as she shifted in distress once more, he found that he knew just how to soothe her. It welled up from deep within him.
"Shh," he crooned, leaning down. His calloused hand lightly pushed back strands of her tousled hair, sweeping across the silky, smooth skin of her cheekbone. It was unlike anything he'd ever felt. It felt almost wrong to place his rough palm against such softness.
But Khushi was responding to his touch, even in the deep fathoms of sleep. She rubbed her cheek against his palm, snuggling closer. The trust that radiated from that simple touch left him awe-struck.
Arnav didn't know how long he sat beside her, his hand pressed to her face, his eyes tracing over her.
It didn't take long for her to ease into a dreamless sleep. She sighed as she rolled onto her side, pulling his hand with her.
Arnav carefully extracted his fingers from beneath her downy-soft cheek. He raised his black cloak around her small body and then sat back on his knees, reluctant for some inexplicable reason to leave her. He bit back a curse at his own foolishness. What the hell was wrong with him?
And yet he couldn't stop himself from leaning down once more and brushing his thumb across her rose-pink bottom lip. She stirred at that, a faint smile crossing her face.
A matching smile curved his lips as he stared down at her. And then as if stung by fire, he stood up in a flash, stomping away. He didn't even try to hold back his curse this time.
Khushi woke early the next morning to the sound of jarring language roaring in her ear. She shot up on the mat, her heart quaking. It was completely unexpected. For a brief moment, she'd been sure she would see the plain white walls of her bedroom, as she had every morning for the past ten years.
But nothing but dry, barren earth greeted her. Sand dunes stretched to the horizon, endless appearing. The air was hot and humid, and wholly unfamiliar too. Rajasthan was awakening, as surely as the vibrant red sun rising in the east.
"What the hell do you mean you didn't tie down the horses last night?" shouted an all too recognizable hard voice.
Khushi stilled as she saw him. The stranger who'd stalked her every dream last night was stomping around the campsite with the same dangerous calm. He looked fuming mad, his eyes gleaming as he glared at the young man before him.
Taj gulped, glancing away. "I thought they'd find us," he replied honestly. "You know, ASR, like they always do. But.."
His words trailed off as his leader's scowl deepened, his masculine arms crossing over his chest. Khushi felt very sorry for Taj as he bowed his head down. She too had experienced that blazing, furious gaze. One glance was enough to rattle anyone. "I'll just go get them," murmured Taj after a long, painful pause.
"You damn well better," growled Arnav. "Imran!" he shouted, his eyes flashing still. "Go with him."
"But ASR," began Taj, "I can do it alone and--."
He held up his hand toward him, silencing him at once. "Enough. You've compromised our security as it is. Do you have any idea how defenseless we are without the horses and the rest of the supplies?"
Taj could only nod, staring down at his feet with a frown. Imran grabbed his arm, dragging him toward the empty terrain. They climbed the stony wall with swiftness.
"I'm giving you no more than one hour!" yelled Arnav after them. As the two, tall shapes stepped out of sight, a string of curses left his mouth.
Khushi cringed at the profanity. She must have made some small noise because those angry, dark eyes swiveled toward her at once.
Thankfully, Aman rescued her just then, leaning down to offer her a small, chipped glass. It was brimming with hot tea. Steam curled in the dry, stagnant air above its rim.
"Good morning, Khushi," said Aman, sitting down cross-legged across from her. "I hope you slept well. It was nothing like your bed in Lucknow, I'm guessing."
Khushi nodded slowly, very much conscious of the tall figure observing them with hawk eyes. "It was very different. To be honest, I'm surprised I slept so well."
Aman started talking then about something to do with the desert's calming spirit, but Khushi could not follow him. She was drawn to the man standing behind him. Was it just her or had he smirked at her words?
Her confusion must have shown because his amusement seemed to only increase. His handsome face brightened with an almost tangible arrogance.
Khushi turned her head away, fighting to ignore him. Nodding at what she hoped was an appropriate junction in Aman's talk, she instead took a tentative sip of the tea.
Her mouth burned. Her eyes watered. It was without doubt the foulest thing she had ever tasted. Aman was so involved in his story he never noticed, but Arnav's vigilant gaze zeroed in on her sour expression.
A low chuckle sounded. Aman and Khushi's heads snapped up in surprise.
Arnav immediately schooled his expression, although his eyes twinkled in the morning light. Khushi blinked up at him owlishly, stunned by the way his face transformed when he smiled. He looked years younger and so good looking, her heart seemed to skip a beat. His mouth tipped up slightly as he sensed her response. When he spoke though, his clipped words were addressed to his friend: "Enough talking, Aman. We need to get the supplies packed."
Aman straightened, dusting off some sand. "Of course, ASR. And Khushi, I've kept some water for you beyond those rocks. You can wash up there if you need to, it's private."
Khushi smiled at his thoughtfulness. "Thank you, Aman."
Arnav watched the two smile at each other with a brewing temper. "Hurry up, Aman. We don't have all damn day!"
At his every swear, Khushi cringed and so to annoy her even more, he added a few more choice words from his vast vocabulary. Her eyes narrowed at him. Her mouth tightened.
With a slight shake of her head, she stood, striding toward the high formation of rocks Aman had pointed to.
Arnav couldn't help but gaze after her small form, her hips shifting with agitation beneath the voluminous lehenga. His eyes swung back to his oldest friend, but Aman was folding up the mats, not even paying attention.
Arnav relaxed at that, throwing in the last remaining items into the brimming pack.
Khushi splashed a handful of water onto her face, trying to conserve the small amount Aman had scrounged up for her. She combed through the tangles in her long hair with her fingers, hoping she looked somewhat decent. What she would give for a mirror!
As that thought flashed in her mind, her hand froze in her hair. Her face furrowed. She'd never been vain, so why did she suddenly care so much about her appearance?
The answer came to her at once in the image of a tall, lean man with an arrogant smirk playing on his lips.
What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she stop thinking about him?
Enough, Khushi, she berated herself. You can do this.
All she had to do was get through two weeks with this ASR. She would keep to herself and forget all about the odd pull she felt toward him. She would stop being so tongue-tied all the time and behave properly.
It seemed much more easier said than done, but she vowed to stick to it. With a deep breath, Khushi steeled herself, heading back to the camp.
The area were empty. The small bonfire from last night had even been covered with sand, so not a single twig of evidence was left behind.
Khushi frowned as she looked around. Where were they?
"Ready?" asked Arnav, leaning against the dark shadows of the canyon. His eyes ran over her, taking in her natural beauty. Against the warm glow of the sun, she looked very young and angelic as she stood before him.
Khushi swallowed as she saw him. He was wearing the same white vest and dark pants from last night, leaving much of his muscular arms and chest exposed. She couldn't seem to glance away.
Gritting his teeth at her silence, he edged toward her, his every footstep firm and determined.
Khushi could barely control her sudden nervousness. Never had she seen anyone move the way he did. With such power and grace. An aura of fierce strength and dignity clung to him like a second skin. Was it any wonder she was a stuttering mess around him?
She glanced away, trying to focus on the sands surrounding them. "Where is Aman?"
Arnav's jaw clenched at her question. He did not like hearing some other man's name from her lips, he realized. It was a completely unwarranted thought and yet it hit him with a searing force. When he spoke, his voice was gruff and harsh sounding. "He's scouting ahead. Everyone else is waiting for us above."
Khushi glanced up at the rocky wall. A vivid memory of him carrying her on his back down its steep slope flashed past her eyes.
"Well? Why are you just standing there? Climb onto my back already."
Heat shot through her, followed by a burst of shyness. But she forced herself to meet his darkening gaze. "I don't think that's necessary," she whispered.
His eyes tightened. His temper snapped. "Look girl, like I told you last night, I know what you think of me and--"
"It's not that," she interrupted, shaking her head.
Arnav paused, taken aback. Grown men double her size never dared to interrupt him mid-sentence and yet, she'd done it without a thought.
Khushi took a deep breath, standing tall before him. "It's just that I think I can climb this."
Her words seemed to shock him even more, but Khushi refused to back down. Gazing up at the canyon's wall, she saw that it was not as towering as what it had appeared in the blackness of the night. It reminded her of an old brick wall in Lucknow she'd climbed many times as a child, despite her Amma's warnings.
"Are you sure?" he asked, his eyes tracing over her opulent ghagra choli.
Khushi flushed under that very thorough look, nodding.
Sighing with impatience, he shrugged. "Go on, then. I'll watch you from down here in case you slip."
More than the peculiar concern that marked his words, she was surprised by the fact that he was not arguing with her. It was the second time in less than a day that he'd let her make her own decision. For her, who'd always been told what to do all her life, it was absolutely refreshing. She couldn't help but smile at him as she faced the rocks, her hands rising upwards.
Arnav stood tense as he watched her climb. That smile of hers had left him undone, its beaming joy and warmth catching him unaware. He couldn't help but wonder what he'd done to earn it.
Khushi was a natural climber. She gracefully ascended upwards, her every movement careful and certain. As she swung up onto the ledge, he finally released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
Less than a minute later, he was at the top of the ledge, his hand fisting on the dry gravel.
A small hand extended down towards him. Arnav stilled with surprise, gazing up at the vision above him. Khushi stood smiling, looking stunning and regal against the crimson glow of the sun. A balmy breeze swept over her curls, blowing them across her face. But more than anything else, it was the hesitant smile on her face that hit him hard. He'd thought that his harsh words the night before had frightened her for good. But she had surprised him once again.
With a slow glide, he placed his hand on her palm. Their fingers weaved together as she pulled him up.
They collided with one another as his much larger body barreled into hers. His free hand rose to her shoulder, steadying her. Their eyes met and held. Something wordless passed between them as they stood facing one another on the sands.
"ASR!" called a too loud voice. It was Taj, his face shining as he led a trio of horses toward them.
Khushi immediately jumped away from Arnav, her hands knotting together.
He frowned as he turned away, taking the reins from Taj and resisting the urge to kick him. Hell, Taj had ruined the entire moment with his sudden entry!
"Imran and Aman are scouting ahead, but I brought everything else," said Taj with notable pride.
Arnav nodded, patting his midnight black stallion. The horse neighed, throwing back his head. Taj set some hay on the sand and the two other horses leaned down, nibbling away.
Khushi looked at the horses with quiet wonder. Ever since she was a child, she'd been fascinated by them. In Lucknow, she'd routinely seen them on the crowded streets, but never this up close. Masi had always hated them, calling them slobbering beasts.
Arnav grabbed her hand without a word, pulling her toward the white-spotted horse.
"You're going to ride this one," he said. "I've raised her since she was a filly. She knows this land just as well as I do. You won't have to guide her or anything. Just hold onto the reins, understood?"
Khushi nodded, noting once more how easily his hand seemed to slip into hers. It was as if they'd always held hands this same way.
The horse turned its head to look at her, curious almost. It grunted in a carefree manner and then whipped its head back down, returning to the hay.
"Put both hands on the saddle like this," demonstrated Arnav. "And your foot in the stirrup." He stepped back, motioning her forward.
Khushi tried to follow his directions but it was difficult in her giant lehenga. She gripped the leather saddle tight, taking a deep breath. As she tried to pull herself up, her right foot slipped in the stirrup. Her eyes widened as she lost her footing completely.
But strong hands caught her, preventing her from falling. With ease, he cradled her against his chest as if she was a small child.
Her eyes swerved toward that dark, penetrating gaze, her body heaving against him.
He didn't say a word as he righted her, setting her back down. Khushi missed his touch the second he let go. She frowned, chiding herself mentally. But even that did not help. The completely unjustified emotion refused to leave her. She threw her arms around herself, trying to contain her restlessness.
"It takes practice," murmured Arnav, as he adjusted the saddle's position. "Here, I'll get you up there."
Even though he warned her, Khushi was not prepared. Her eyes rounded as he suddenly seized her by the waist, hauling her up onto the saddle. His fingers lingered on the bare skin, sending tendrils of heat coursing through her. She stared at him with bewilderment, her eyes wandering instinctively toward the thin line of his lips.
"Swing your other leg around," said Arnav, his voice gruff from the fierce yearning to capture that tempting mouth with his own.
Khushi blinked at him, a frown marring her face as his meaning hit her. He wanted her to ride like a man? With legs on either side of the saddle? She shook her head at him. "I can't."
He frowned right back at her, the corners of his eyes tightening. "You're going to be sore if you don't."
She was drawn to his mouth again, feeling oddly breathless. "It won't be proper.. please.."
He cursed under his breath as he stepped away. "Fine, do what you want. Who the hell am I to say anything?"
Khushi watched him march away with worry glinting in her eyes. She hated to upset him, but she couldn't possibly ride like that.
Taj smiled at her apologetically as he swung up on his horse. And then as Aman and Imran neared, the horse beneath Khushi surged forward, trotting after Arnav's black stallion like a doting puppy.
Six hours later, Khushi was feeling hot, hungry, and more than a little sore. Her thighs chafed together as she sat side-saddle, holding onto the bridle with throbbing hands.
It felt like they had been riding forever. The pace was hard and unrelenting. Even the passing terrain provided little distraction. The sands rose up dune after dune until Khushi had given up trying to lose herself in the scenery. Except for a few dead looking trees and odd, spiny bushes, the land was barren and lifeless.
She closed her eyes, forcing herself to rest. But that only highlighted other sources of her discomfort: her back ached from sitting upright for so long and her head still pounded from the Maharaja's blow. Coupled with the soreness in her thighs and bottom from the constant galloping, it was highly uncomfortable.
But Khushi fought to ignore the pain, biting down on her lower lip.
The neighing of a horse drew her attention. Aman and Taj had slowed down and joined her on either side.
After the hours of solitude, she smiled at them tiredly, so very glad for their company.
Aman passed her a small bag: it was filled with some dry nuts and spiced green leaves. Khushi thanked him quickly, eating a few handfuls.
"It's not the tastiest, is it?" asked Taj, making a face. "It reminds me of some hard rocks."
Khushi couldn't argue with that. The food was barely edible but her growling stomach seemed to not know the difference. She ate another bite, her face pensive.
"More like brick and mortar," she managed.
Aman and Taj laughed out loud. "That's it exactly!"
"Why didn't I think of that sooner?" asked Taj, scratching his head with a smile.
"Do you know a lot about bricks and mortar Miss Khushi?" asked Aman.
Khushi shrugged. She was suddenly reminded of a loose brick in the small house she'd once lived in with her parents. But she forced those thoughts away. "In Lucknow there was an old brick fence nearby and Amma used to always scold for me climbing it. But I never stopped, it was too much fun."
Taj grinned. "I was just as naughty when I was a child. Still am," he admitted. "Why once I trimmed my uncle's prized stallion so much the poor animal looked as if it hadn't eaten in days! It never really recovered after that haircut."
Laughter escaped Khushi as she imagined the unfortunate horse. She had no doubt it had come out unrecognizable after that ill-fated grooming.
Imran turned around in his saddle as he heard laughter echoing behind him. He was riding ahead, his horse alongside Arnav's.
"Looks like the kids are getting along," he murmured softly.
Arnav frowned, his brow furrowing. He'd been focused entirely on the trail. Despite every short-cut he'd taken, they were still hours from the next kingdom. "What kids?" he asked.
Imran motioned behind them with his head. Arnav glanced back: Taj was telling some story animatedly to Aman and Khushi. Her face was glowing as she laughed.
Arnav's frown deepened as his watched them. How easily she laughed with Taj. When she was alone with him, she always froze up, refusing most times to even meet his gaze. But with Taj, her laughter sprung up as if he some long-lost friend.
An odd sensation twisted his gut. His hands tightened on the reins. If there was one emotion he was not used to feeling it was jealousy. Usually women threw themselves at him, but this one avoided him with steadfast stubbornness.
Why didn't her distrust extend to Taj as well? he wondered. But Taj was hard not to like, he knew. His boyish good humor and charm had already made him quite popular with the ladies, although nothing close to himself. But that couldn't be it. Damn it, he'd felt her reaction!
Maybe it was because they were both so young, he mused. He hated to admit that Taj and Khushi had to be around the same age, probably no more than eighteen-nineteen. With his years of harsh experience and brooding temperament, he suddenly felt much older than twenty-five. Arnav didn't like it. Not a bit.
And so as more laughter sounded behind him, burning into his skin, he swore. With a rough hand, he tore off his white vest, galloping ahead bare-chested at a furious pace.