Raj shuffled across the kitchen island and walked over to where Naina was standing near the back door, “Your Baldevji.”
“He is not my Baldevji,” She crossed her arms and scowled at him, “And why would you call him a puppy? It’s absurd.”
Raj walked casually past her with his hands in his jeans pockets and went and leaned against the door, crossing his legs, “It’s the way he looks at you…oh so adoringly, so reverently. The man has a crush on you.” His mouth twitched at the corners when he saw her expression. She was staring as if he had grown horns on his head.
“You are being completely ridiculous. He is a nice man. Now please move. I have to go. I need to come back by 11. I have promised the kids I’ll take them to the zoo.” She made to turn the door knob, but he refused to move. “Raj please…I am going to get late.”
“Naina, you are supposed to be resting. But if you really have to go, then I am coming with you. You are not driving.” His face was impassive and his tone reflected finality, making Naina exclaim in frustration, “Raj, I am fine. You are just being a fusspot. You have to understand that I am used to taking care of things by myself. I don’t need any mollycoddling.”
He straightened then, “I know you are strong and sensible and independent, and I respect that. But you fainted in my house Naina…under my watch…because of the things I said to you. You scared the hell out of me last night” She started to interrupt but he raised his hand, his tone softening further. “No, hear me out. Please. I upset you and got you sick. I am responsible for your health till you recover. If you insist on making this trip, then I want to come along. I promise I won’t say or do anything to upset you.”
“But you are supposed to be going to Dharamshala…to meet someone. You said so yesterday.”
“Yeah, my coursemate from army. He is on a two-day official visit there. But, not to worry, I’ll look him up tomorrow. Not letting you go alone is more important to me at the moment.”
He waited for her to argue, but after a long pause she only asked, “Why?”
He smiled gently, “For my peace of mind. Let me do this Naina. Let me accompany you. You meet up with Kalra, and I’ll take care of a small matter I have in the market there. OK?”
Naina regarded him dubiously and finally nodded. And then Raj saw it….the merest trace of relief across her eyes, which was gone before he registered it. But it was there. It gave him hope. Eyeing her shimmering beauty, he paused a moment to take in her soft skin, the slight pout of her perfect lips that complemented the slightly knitted brows as she contemplated what he would say or do next, and the most striking features of her face…her soulful eyes, so innocent and yet which hid in their depths a lurking, unknown fear. He wished for the hundredth time he could erase whatever was plaguing her heart. But he knew he couldn’t force her. If he did, she would withdraw more.
An errant lock had come loose from her ponytail to tickle her cheeks, tempting him to brush it behind her ears, but half way through he curled his fingers and resisted the urge, letting his hand fall. Instead he locked her gaze with his, “Naina, if I ask you something, will you answer me honestly?”
Her breath hitched as she looked into his probing eyes…his face close to hers. She felt stripped and vulnerable in front of him. No one had ever looked at her like that…as if he could see within the core of her soul. She wanted to run…escape, but she couldn’t…not when she felt this safe. An eddy of contradictory emotions consumed her. Oh God! Not good …not good at all.
“Yes.” She managed to choke out.
She felt him take her right hand, saw him raise it to his chest level, and hold it there…and yet she didn’t move, “Do you trust me, Naina? Really trust me?”
Through the fog of conflicting emotions a sliver of clarity cut through, and she nodded decisively, “Yes, I do.” She knew without doubt that she could trust this man with hers and Adi’s life. But could she pull him into the murky waters that had found their way from her past and were flowing toward her threshold? No…too many people depended on him. She could not drag him into the danger that might not be far away.
“Then believe that I have yours and Adi’s back. I won’t let any harm come to you.”
“There’s nothing to worry Raj. I am sorry I lost my cool in such a manner yesterday. Probably got you rattled. You are unnecessarily reading too much into…”
“Shshh!!” She was startled as he placed a finger on her lips and silenced her, “Don’t. You and I both know that is not true. I am a soldier Naina…I can smell the fear in you. But I won’t ask what is it that is troubling you. I’ll wait for you to tell me. If you trust me…as you say you do, and if you take me to be your friend, you will let me in. But don’t leave it for too late….”
Naina wanted to pick up something from home and needed to change as well. At home she took a quick shower and changed into jeans and a peach-colored top. When she came down after thirty minutes, she was carrying a file. Raj was flicking through a magazine. She paused on the penultimate step to surreptitiously look at the man who touched her senses as no one ever had. When he was around her, she felt her entire body betray her and react to his sound, his scent, his movements. She had to constantly discipline herself…force herself not lose focus. As if on cue, he looked up, his eyes piercing through her as if owning her. All her nerve endings tingled to life…as if all the answers of the universe lay in those eyes. Stop Naina! Stop!!
“You look lovely.” Raj smiled as a deep pink touched her cheeks, before she schooled her expression to a casual indifference, “Thanks. Err…Shall I pack something for breakfast?”
He tossed down the magazine he was reading and stood up, “Don’t bother. We’ll grab a bite in one of the midway dhabas.”
He stopped her a little away from the car and went and opened the back door to take out a small bunch of slightly wilted assorted variety of flowers and three red-, yellow-, and green-colored balloons. Sheepishly he extended them to her, sneaking a glance as she gaped at him before taking the flowers and staring up at the balloons, “Th…Thanks. I..(gulp) Whoa! I don’t know what to say. I...err…why? I mean when did you get them?”
He swiftly turned, fumbling with the keys to unlock the doors, but not before she glimpsed his reddened ears, “When you were gone for your bath, I went to the florist in the next lane.”
“But Raj, he would have been closed at this hour? Then how did you….” She raised her brows when he looked back to gesture her to take her seat, still not quite meeting her eyes. Naina smiled inwardly at his shyness. “Don’t tell me he had a dream that you were coming and was waiting for you?” She teased.
He grimaced. He should have known she wouldn’t let go, “I woke him up…OK. He is a damn florist; he should be open 24x7. I mean people need flowers all the time for …for…,” he made a sweeping gesture, “…for whatever reasons. In any case, he didn’t have any fresh flowers, let alone roses that I wanted. Those were the freshest of the lot.”
“Thanks Raj. They are beautiful.” She smiled amusedly as she held the flowers close to her heart and reached back to keep the balloons on the back seat. He was so flustered that if she was not so sensitive she would have laughed out aloud at his discomfiture.
His little lost boy look was quickly replaced by a devastating grin at her words, “Really? You like them?”
“Yup. I love them.”
“And…err…the Happy Holi balloons also.” This time she laughed…which turned into a fit of giggles at his goofy expression. “What the….” He turned to look at the balloons and groaned, “The rascal…I told him I wanted “Get Well Soon” balloons. I should have realized he was conning me when he insisted on keeping them in the car himself.”
Naina smothered her mouth in a bid to control the giggles, “Sorry Raj. Seriously, that’s a sweet gesture. But I told you I am fine…Where was the urgent need?”
“There was.” He said fiercely as he got the car on the road. “I hurt you last night.”
“All right…thanks all the same. I have always loved balloons.”
“Good. Did you notice the colors?”
“Yes. They are my regimental colors.” He nodded proudly at her. “Shall I tell you how they came about?”
She could only stare at this amazing man as he narrated the story behind the colors. He had gone out of his comfort zone to get her gifts to ensure that her day begins with a smile. His clumsy gesture made her wonder whether he ever gave his wife any flowers. He looked so cutely embarrassed. Ten seconds back he was an endearing friend…and now he was the proud soldier. So many facets to a single man…and all pointing to genuine goodness. How can a man be so good? Out of nowhere her mother’s words floated in her mind….words she had told her during one of their boy talks before she entered college: “The eyes Naina…look into their eyes. Eyes are truly the mirrors of one’s soul. When they look at you, you will know whether they hold, love, attraction, possessiveness, admiration, or just lust.”
For the first time in her life Naina felt an uncontrollable urge to hug a man after her father…and that scared the life out of her. She had no right to indulge in wistful thoughts of such nature. She had no right to allow her heart to weaken. Especially now… not after the phone call she got from the Palampur police station the previous evening, just as she was getting ready to go to the mahal. The call that all but confirmed that her cover was going to be blown.
“Good evening madamji! This is SI Kisan Chaubey here. Actually I got a call from Balrampur police station. They wanted to know whether you have a teacher called Nayantara Mehta or Nayantara Dhariwal in your school?”
The phone had almost slipped away from her hands but somehow she had kept her composure and answered, “No inspector. I don’t. Never heard of that name. What is this about?”
“Something about a missing person, madamji. Obviously it’s a misinformation. Sorry to bother you. I’ll let them know that their information was wrong.”