The phone slipped through Naina’s lifeless fingers. Before Raj could gather himself and go to her, she had rushed past him toward the restrooms. He picked up the phone, glanced at it, and followed her inside the restroom, regardless of the decorum. He heard her throwing up and hurried to her, holding her by the arms and rubbing her back. Once she was done, he wet a towel and gently wiped her face. She was cold and shivering and he quietly gathered her into his arms. She clung to him as if her life depended on it. Raj didn’t say anything, silently offering his strength and warmth. They stood there for a long time till Naina calmed down and clarity seeped back. She suddenly realized where she was and lifted her head and then stepped away, immediately feeling the loss of the warmth of his secure arms.
She looked away from him, “Sorry Raj. I…it must have been something I ate. I am sor…”
He lifted her chin, “Never mind that. Are you OK?”
“Yes,” she nodded, “I am fine. Please take me home.”
He put an arm around her waist and pulled her close to him before turning toward the door. She looked up in defiance, “I can walk Raj. I am fine…really.”
“I know you are, but I am not taking any chances.”
“Gosh, why are you so stubborn? I am not some delicate China doll. I can take care of myself. I….” Before she continued her tirade, Raj put a finger on her mouth, “Sshh! You talk too much. For your information, if you were any worse, I would have carried you to the car. So just shut up and walk. I am not letting you away from me an inch. So don’t even try.”
He heard her mutter something under her breath. He smiled sadly down at her bent head before heading for the parking lot. Very gently he glided her into the car. Naina did not speak all the way home. There was a blankness in her eyes and rigidity in her posture. That’s when he realized…that the time to push had come. He couldn’t let her go through the pain and fear alone anymore. He knew she was holding back the part of her that was scared of her past…scared that it would somehow harm her present. It was time she felt herself fortified. It was time she felt the security that he was offering. It was time she felt empowered and let him in on her secrets.
Raj patted his trouser pocket and felt her phone. He recalled the picture he had briefly glimpsed…a picture that had triggered off such a violent physical reaction from Naina….a picture of her with a man in their wedding fineries. Clearly, it was a picture of her wedding and the man was her husband. Raj’s mind was playing around with innumerable questions…Who had sent it? And why did it terrorize Naina? Because that’s the condition she was in at the moment: completely terrorized…even though she tried to put up a brave front. Raj was filled with an impotent rage against the people who had scarred her so deeply. He had to know what happened to her, and what had her running so scared. There was no denying that someone was playing mind games with her….testing her strength and psychologically weakening her.
In front of the main door Naina rummaged through her purse for the keys, at the same time glancing at Raj, “You may leave now Raj. Thanks for all the help and the ride home.”
“I am not going anywhere.”
She suddenly got angry, “For heaven’s sake Raj, I don’t need a babysitter. I am fine.” Her voice sounded shaky and weird to her own ears. She needed to be alone. Why can’t he understand that? And why the hell were the keys as elusive as a sea nymph when you needed to find them soon in the depth of your purse. So frustrating!
Through her peripheral vision she saw Raj reach for her purse and take out the traitorous keys in a jiffy and open the door.
“Raj!” She protested feebly as he ushered her inside. She stood like a mule inside the door as he turned to close it, “I want you to leave Raj.”
“Not before I make you a sandwich and make some calls.” Nonchalantly he crossed her and walked toward the kitchen.
She stomped her foot in annoyance and mumbled, “Suit yourself. I am going to take a shower.”
That stopped him, “A shower? Now? Why?”
“Because I want to.” She ran upstairs before he could say anything.
Inside the room Naina tore her clothes away from her and rushed inside the bathroom. She turned on the cold shower and stood under it, breathing heavily, trying to cleanse herself and wash the memories away….memories that had surged back like a giant wave the moment she saw that cursed picture. This won’t do. She had to think. She had to plan. She had to leave. She stepped out and toweled herself. Yes, she had to leave. She had to go to them before they came here and wrecked everything. For a moment fear for Adi paralyzed her into immobility. She allowed the fear to consume her so that she remembered exactly how it was, and then she straightened up. She reined in her fears and let them freeze inside her. This was not the time to weaken. She let her body tune into battle mode just as she had all those years back when she had made her escape, blocking out all weaknesses. Changing into a pair of jeans and a T shirt, she opened the bedroom door to find Raj with knuckles on the air. His other hand was holding a tray.
“I waited. You were gone long. You OK?”
Naina sighed. She didn’t deserve him and his concern. He had a life of his own and her messed-up life was messing up his life. She couldn’t allow that.
“Thanks Raj. I am sorry I was rude to you. You really must go. Tanu must be waiting.”
“Everything is under control Naina. Altaf chacha will pick up Adi and beeji and take them to the mahal.”
“Because we need to talk….and I don’t want any distraction.”
“Talk? About what?”
“Later. You eat first.” He placed the tray on her study table and made her sit on the couch. Disregarding her sulky expression and stubborn stance of shoulders he thrust the plate on her lap.
“Bully.” She grumbled indignantly before taking a bite of the sandwich.
He chuckled and made himself comfortable beside her. She glared at him and deliberately mumbled to herself. He heard “stubborn…tyrant…nagging” and a few other colorful words about pushy friends. He smiled affectionately. His woman was mad at him, and somehow that calmed him. At least she didn’t have that tormented look on her anymore. It also meant she had done whatever she did when she was scared to overcome her fears. Her anger didn’t bother him at all. It just made his heart ache for tenderness and love for the only woman who when it comes down to it really cared for him other than his grandmother.
His phone beeped and he switched it off. Naina was suddenly reminded of her phone. Her hands became clammy and wet and slowly she kept the plate away. Taking a deep breath she turned to Raj, “We have to go back to the hotel. I left my phone there.”
“I got it Naina. I picked it up.”
“Oh! May I have it please?” She stretched a hand, suddenly sounding distant and aloof, “Can we have the talk later? I have to do a few things, and I am already late.”
Raj took out the phone but didn’t give her….just stared at her. She gave him a cold look, “Raj! Please. I am not in mood for any teasing.”
Instead of giving her the phone, he pocketed it again. Naina’s eyes widened, “Raj, what are you up to?”
“Nothing. You will get the phone after we have had our talk.”
Suddenly Naina knew. He had seen the picture and connected the dot. She crossed her arms against her chest and looked away, “Fine. Keep it. I have nothing to say to you.”
Raj knelt in front of her and reached up to cup her face in his hands and made her face him, “Look at me, Naina. Talk to me. I want to help you. I am not like him. You must know that. I would never hurt you.”
Her eyes turned fearful. She whispered, “What do you mean?”
“He hurt you sweetheart, and even though I have half a mind to fly over to that town and take down the bastard, I want you to trust me and tell me what happened after your parents and sister died in the accident.”
“It was not an accident.” Her lips quivered and warm tears fell on his hands.
“What?” Raj’s hands fell to his sides, shocked.
“They were murdered.” She shifted as Raj sat next to her and held her hands.
“By whom?” Raj wanted to pull her into his arms and protect her from the pain that exuded from her bleeding heart. But she needed this…she needed to let go…she needed to talk. So he steeled himself for the worst. A deathly calm had settled over Naina after the initial tears, as if she was only voicing a conversation that she had had in her head several times.
“My uncle.” She looked down at their hands and tightened her grip.
“What was his motive?”
“The age-old one. Property. Papa was going to sell the land that was in his name in the village for my college education. Uncle wanted it for himself. Papa refused to give it to him. After papa that land would have come to my mother and us, so uncle wiped off the family.”
“But he spared you.”
“Yes. That’s because my grandfather had willed me a separate piece of land. My uncle needed me alive to sign it over to him. That’s why he took me to the village. He wanted me alive and well till the land was his.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police Naina?”
“That’s because I came to know about the accident being a murder after I was in village.” She looked at him with dull eyes, “You have to understand that I was totally numb and lifeless after papa, ma, and Milli died. I was completely zoned out for weeks together. I hardly have a recollection of my travel to the village.”
She closed her eyes and leant back clutching his hand. He gathered her to himself with his other hand and waited. Raj refused to process his own feelings at that moment. That will come later.
He rested his chin on her head as she pressed her face against his chest, listening to his heart beat against her cheek. She shifted in his arms and soon he heard her flat voice, “One evening I heard loud voices in the living room. I peeped from behind the window. A man was threatening my uncle. He said he had evidence and would tell the authorities if uncle didn’t do as he wished. I couldn’t quite catch what the stranger wanted of my uncle. But after he was gone, my aunt entered the room. That’s when my uncle told her that the stranger held proof that my uncle bribed a man to tamper with papa’s car and then ram into it with a truck. I was so angry that I barged into the room and blasted them and then tried to call the police from the phone there. My uncle stopped me and then he…he beat me till I was unconscious. When I came to, I found myself locked inside my room.”
She paused, breathing fast. Raj hugged her tight and rocked her. He then tried to get up but she held onto him, “Don’t go. Stay with me.”
“I am not going anywhere love. I’ll just get some water for you from the table. OK?”
She drank the water and then tugged at his hand to make him sit down. Raj brushed his fingers over the hair falling across her face, tucking them behind her ear. He pressed his palm on her cheek and said softly, “Naina, we can do this later. Why don’t you rest now? I’ll be right here.”
“No. You were right. We needed to talk about this. If something happens to me, I want you to be there for Adi and beeji and protect them. To do that you have to understand the background.”
“Nothing is going to happen to you. I will not let anything happen to you.”
“It’s not me I am worried about Raj…It’s Adi. He needs protection. And after that picture message, I know I don’t have time. Hear me out please.”
Raj nodded and hardened his heart for what he was going to hear next. Naina searched his gaze for signs of pity and anger, but saw only repressed anger. She knew she would have found it hard to go on if he had shown pity, but there was no hint of the emotion. He didn’t yet know the whole story, but whatever had happened he seemed to have trust in her strength to have dealt with it. He just sat there, giving himself. Her eyes welled up with pride and love that she felt for this man.
She kept her hand over his and brought it down to rest over her heart. She resumed haltingly, “I was locked up for days together. My aunt opened the door once in the day to pass on food and water. The windows were grilled and overlooked a ravine. Then one day, my aunt came in and told me I was to be married that day. The village thakur’s son wanted me as his bride. My wish or choice was never under consideration. Yet I was relieved in a way.”
She looked at Raj and saw the question, “You see I thought I would at last have an access to the outside world. I thought I would ask my husband’s help to get my uncle arrested. At that point only the thought of justice for my family was my sole motivation. But I was wrong…so wrong. I got married and the same night I came to know that my uncle had traded his liberty with mine. My in-laws held the evidence against my uncle. I also came to know that I was my husband’s second wife. The first wife stayed in the same house and was treated like a servant because she turned out to be barren.”
“What did they want from you?”
“A son. They are obsessed with a male heir of their bloodline. Manmeet is their only son. They would face huge property issues with others of the clan if there is no male successor.”
“That’s why you are scared for Adi.”
“Yes.” She whispered, “If they find out he has their blood running in his veins, they will take him away.”
She stood up then and started pacing, her hands balled by her sides, “There is no chance in hell that I would let those monsters near my son. I will go to them before they come here.”
Raj stood up and halted her agitated stride with a hand on her shoulder, “Calm down Naina, and think rationally. They cannot just take Adi away. You are unnecessarily worrying. The law won’t let them have Adi’s custody. Especially after you tell them how you were physically tortured and how they tried to kill you.”
Naina stared at him, “You don’t understand. The law won’t figure at all. If they come to know that I bore a son, they will just take him. Once they are in their village, no law can touch them. Over there, they are law unto themselves. The family is powerful and highly connected. I cannot fight that.”
“Listen to me Naina,” Raj made her look at him, “You are not a helpless, lone woman fighting against an army. You never were. What you did all those years ago was simply amazing. Best of soldiers fail at what you did…escape from enemy. Whatever they did to you over there, you still had the courage to defy them and escape. That is not the portrayal of a weak soul. You are the strongest person I know.”
“Well I sure am going to need some of that strength now,” she sighed.
“You have it in you, Naina. Don’t give up. Stay. If you leave, that would mean those bastards have won. Why would you do that? Stay and fight. You have people here who love you and care for you and Adi. You have me. Let them come. We’ll face them together.”
Raj pulled Naina in his arms, even as she murmured, “Why Raj? You don’t even know half of it. Why do you want to involve yourself in my mess?”
He kissed her head and said in a thick voice, “Because I love you.” He felt Naina stiffen and then step back.
To be continued…………