“I brought some dessert for you.”
“Thanks Raj. Cammy’s Chocolate cupcake!…Mmm….It’s my favorite.”
“Don’t tell me you have a dossier of me stored somewhere in your vault.”
“Yup. Right here…in this vault.” Raj pointed to his heart and glanced at her.
Naina turned sideways from where she was standing leaning against the railing post and stared at him. She had escaped to her pet spot after kissing beeji goodnight. Raj had found her at the same place where they were in the afternoon, staring at the mountains. He had stood a few moments in the dark. She looked divinely pretty beneath the glittering rays of the moon with her hair swaying lightly in the breeze and her angelic face tilted up to gaze at the mountains…. He recalled how the first glimpse of her beauty had knocked him off that first night he saw her. She really had no idea how beautiful she was, and that made her more alluring.
Now, he angled his head and appraised her with a grave look. Naina knew he was trying to read her expressions. She smiled tentatively and took a huge bite of the delicious cupcake. Chocolate melted on her tongue and her eyes closed for a brief second in sheer bliss, a soft moan of delight escaping her lips.
Naina heard a breathy groan and opened her eyes to find Raj staring at her with smoky eyes. Their gazes caught and fused even as their heartbeats struggled to find a common rhythm. Time stood still and the world around them ceased to matter in that moment. Then Raj leaned closer and lifted his hand. His fingers grazed her cheek softly as his thumb flicked off a tiny blob of chocolate that clung to her bottom lip. Naina stood mesmerized at the raw emotion reflected in his eyes, and every pore of her body came alive to his nearness. For the first time her senses imbibed the distinctly male aura that Raj exuded, separate from his quiet strength and intense persona. His warm breath, the clean masculine scent…a sensual blend of his cologne and soap and fresh linen and a fragrance that was just Raj. And those eyes…that missed nothing…that saw everything…that bared her soul with just a glance. She dragged her eyes down and stared at his neck, at the skin that shown through the slit of his kurta, and suddenly had this insane desire to lean forward and press a kiss there. Her wayward eyes traveled up to his lips and stuck. He had beautiful lips. She remembered the taste of those lips and craved for more. The tip of her tongue sneaked out to lick where his thumb had caressed her lip.
Naina felt Raj hitch in a breath. She came back to reality and released a loud gasp at her wanton thoughts. What was wrong with her? Just today she had revealed the dark secrets of her life to him, and now she was almost throwing herself at him.
Yes, she felt unburdened and free for the first time in years…as if the shackles that bound her to her past had fallen away at long last, leaving her feeling euphoric, almost like flying without wings. Even so, she should not let her desires overcome her like this. She had to give Raj time to absorb all the revelations regarding her. Will he still want her when he has given this more thought? Tomorrow? Day after? A week from now? She had to give him some time to process his feelings after her confession. The more she thought, the more confused she became. This play of emotions was new to her. She had no idea how to deal with them. And just like that, Naina felt the familiar, invisible armor engulfing her, shielding her from the attacks of temptation caused by his proximity. Abruptly she jerked away and turned her attention back to the mountains, drawing in deep breaths.
“Naina?” Raj’s husky whisper floated to her. Then, she felt his lips brush her hair before he moved to stand beside her, “It’s OK, love. It’s only me. Don’t overthink. These feelings are natural. They are right. They are good. Let go, Naina. Set yourself free.” Raj was ecstatic. His Naina was going through the same emotions as he was even though she refused to accept them. Yet, he couldn’t help feeling relieved that though she might be denying him the pleasure of her acceptance, she was not denying herself. It was there in her eyes…her desire, her love, her hesitation. It was still too soon. But then Naina had always surprised him with the unaccepted. He never knew what she would say or do next.
He looked at her sideways when she didn’t reply and then stared where she was looking, at the dark silhouette of the mountains. “You love those mountains, don’t you?”
She replied after a long pause, “Yes, I do. They are the only constant in my life…from Dehradun, to that village, to here. They have been there with me in some form or the other. They give me strength when fear overcomes me and I become weak.”
“Naina, fear is not an expression of weakness. Fear is the face of rationale. Everyone tastes fear some time or the other in life. What matters is what one does in spite of that fear. And sweetheart,” he held her by the shoulder and turned her to face him, “by that measure you are the strongest person I know. You are my strength. Only a very strong person could have a heart to do what you did today: give words to your trauma. You need never feel ashamed of your past. It has made you who you are. More importantly, it has brought you to me. Just for that this soldier is ready to stand on his only leg and salute it for the rest of his life. I am so proud of you, and I revel in the fact that you are mine.”
Naina was amazed to see only pride and love in Raj’s eyes. Her insecure heart searched for hidden traces of revulsion, but there were none. That’s when Naina understood the poignancy of this moment. Life had broken her from within so that this man could step in and put it together all over again. She couldn’t fail him…not today, not ever.
Suddenly she smiled impishly, “Tell me something Colonel. Were you always this confident of yourself? Or is this a recently acquired trait?”
“Be specific Ma’am.” The corner of his mouth lifted. At the same time his heart soared…She was cracking jokes. She had been the same old Naina ever since she came down in the evening after her nap. She was being herself. God, she was incredible.
“Well, I don’t remember saying Yes.” She pouted.
“True. But your heart has spoken to mine, and they are very much in harmony.”
“Why Colonel? That’s very romantic. And I thought soldiering was all cut and dry.”
“Oh sweetheart! I have so much to teach you. Didn’t you know true lovers make the best fighters? Centuries back they used to fight duels to win their love. Only a soldier has the heart to cherish the one he loves to the last drop of his blood, because he has seen how it is to yearn for his lover when he is deployed in a remote area, with months of separation and only a photograph to pour his love to….and how it is to bid final goodbye to that photograph, kissing it with bloodied lips and saying “I love you” before drawing the last breath. Naina, a soldier fights well when he has loved and when he knows he is loved.”
Tears welled up in Naina’s eyes. Slowly she raised her hands and encircled his waist and stepped forward to keep her head on his chest. A heartbeat later Raj’s stunned arms tightened gently around her as she whispered, “I am sorry Raj. I am so sorry for not trusting you enough. I must have hurt you so much with my assumptions.”
“Hush sweetheart! It’s OK.”
“No, it’s not OK. How can it be? I was so scared of losing you after you knew all about me that I kept pushing you away. I was only deluding myself that I wanted you as far away from me as possible, for your own good. I thought I was protecting you and me, whereas I was just being selfish. I deliberately dishonored your feelings and also what was happening between us. I have been so stupid. Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Naina. Don’t be so hard on yourself. This is the only thing you are doing wrong. Cut yourself some slack my love, and be gentle with yourself, especially now. You have nothing to fear from. Whatever you felt earlier and whatever you are going through now, it’s all part of your healing. We shall take this as slow as is required and we’ll heal together. Just let me take care of you. You need time, and I have forever.”
Naina pressed her cheek against his heart and sniffled, “I promise never to distrust you again Raj. I promise I will never hide anything from you again. I am done with secrets. Friends should not hide anything from each other, and I was doing exactly that. No more secrets between us, unless….”
“Unless it’s a birthday.”
At this Naina tilted her head back and frowned, “What anniversary?”
“Emm…to begin with, Today. It’s a good day to celebrate every year.”
“The day you brought me back to present?”
“Hmm! I’d like to put it differently. It’s a day of new beginnings…of a fresh start…of looking beyond the winter chill to embrace the warmth of Spring and welcome back the colors.”
Naina’s heart flipped in her chest, love for him consuming her soul. She was tired of denying herself, of fearing her own body, of trying to be in control. If only she could gather enough courage to say the words he needed to hear. Naina felt tears prick her eyes at her helplessness. She rested her forehead on his chest and sighed.
Across the valley and surrounding the mountains the enchantment of the spring night spread and drew them closer. High above the peaks the moon increased the swell of its golden glow in order to reach the couple and bathe them in its radiance. The garden with its lush lawns and trees and dancing ferns along with the sleeping flowers looked singularly peaceful and poetic in the silvery moonlight. A light breeze traveled through the garden, rustling between the leaves and petals, and kissed their faces with the fragrance of flowers.
Raj’s hand moved up to Naina’s cheek to brush back the hair unsettled by the breeze. He cupped her face and smiled down at her, the inky depths of his eyes trapping her, “Dance with me Naina.”
“Yes. Now. Here. And don’t look at me with that utterly adorably befuddled look. It makes me want to….”
“Want to what?”
“Among other things, to kiss you senseless. I am hanging by a mere thread, sweetheart. So help me, here, OK?”
As he pulled her into a slow waltz, with the Spring night providing the music by way of blowing breeze, rustling leaves, chirpy crickets, and the gurgling of far-off flowing stream, Naina wished Raj saw her to be the girl who wanted to be swept off her feet and kissed thoroughly, and not the girl who was hiding behind a wall and needed time to come out. In his arms she realized that just words would never be enough to show him how much she loved him, and that he had to know that she fell in love with him long before this madness began. He was wary of hurting her…understandably so. After all, she had lived with her pain for seven years and was used to it, but for Raj all this was still fresh. He was hurting…because of her. He had been strong for her for the past so many days. It was time she was strong for him and show what he meant to her.
She snaked her arms around his neck and snuggled closer.
“Do you hear them?”
“Hear what Naina?”
“The whispers of Spring.”
“Of course. And you? Can you?”
“Yes, oh yes. Loud and clear.”
Naina kept her pen down and leant back in her chair, exercising her neck to remove the cricks formed as a result of two hours of nonstop working at the pending paperwork. She flexed her fingers and looked around her office. She had been back to regular routine for about a week now. Nancy had done a remarkable job of holding the fort in her absence, but she was not in a position to take the important decisions. Good news welcomed her the first day she joined back. The Himachal government had accepted her appeal and sanctioned her land to build “Asha Jyoti,” a blind school. She waited now for the approval of the bank loan. With Manmeet gone, and along with him the impending threat, she was in a position to take a decision that she had wanted to for years: Get Bela and her parents here. She had already made up her mind regarding Bela’s involvement in Asha Jyoti. She needed to talk to Raj regarding her relocation.
Raj’s thought brought a smile to her face. She had relived that magical night a thousand times over the past week. The time they spent together on that moonlit night had all but obliterated the memories that had gushed back because of her narration earlier in the day. After ages, she had slept peacefully that night, and every night thence, with no nightmares chasing her. She had insisted Raj go back to mahal with Tanu the next day as Ranima was due back that day. Raj had reluctantly left, but not before making her promise that she would take proper care of herself. He called her every other hour throughout the day. They hadn’t had much time together as Raj had to first go to Delhi to take care of some academic issues of his cousins and then to Shimla to invite a few select dignitaries for the opening of the Palampur Spring festival, which was four days from today.
As if on cue, her phone rang. It was Raj.
“Hi, sweetheart. Working hard?”
“Not really. I was going through to the Asha Jyoti project papers.”
“I spoke with the bank manager today. He has received a verbal affirmation from his bosses. Loan papers would be ready in a few days. Naina, you know we don’t have to wait for this red tapism to delay us. If only you….”
“Raj, we have had this discussion. I won’t take any money from you. I wish to do this myself, for Bela and me.”
“Your wish is my command. I understand your sentiments. At least let me be the first donor to this cause.”
“You are incorrigible Colonel. I get what you are doing here.”
“Yup. I get you totally.”
“You got me the first time you laid your eyes on me, sweetheart.”
“Flatterer. Where are you? I needed to talk to you about Bela.”
“I am at the festival site at the moment. We’ll talk on our way to Amar’s house for dinner. I’ll pick you up at eight. Wear the saree you wore the day you came to the mahal for dinner that first time we had a party.”
“OK. And Raj...it’s their anniversary. We.…”
“Don’t worry. I have the gift with me. I did the purchases in Shimla. We’ll pick up the flowers on our way…..Damn!”
“What’s it Raj?”
“The crane driver seems to be a rookie. He was about to hit the decorator’s van. I have to go.”
“Be careful darling.”
A long silence and then….
“I…err…uh, I’ll see you at eight then. Bye.”
She kept the phone down, rubbing her temples. Gosh, that was some blunder. She didn’t want her confession this way…over phone. Raj deserved a special treat, a special ambiance, the right mood, the right setting. She had been working on it. The night before the festival opening she was going to whisk him away. Her thoughts wandered. She had no idea how long she was in her dreamland. She came down to earth on hearing a loud clearing of throat.
“You look like a cat that swallowed a canary. What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, Nancy.”
“Then why do you look like Tarun of LKG?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the naughtiest boy of our school has exactly that look in his eyes just before his next mission.”
“Ha…ha…Very funny, Nancy.”
“OK. OK. Am I allowed one guess?”
“This is something to do with the Colonel, right? Pray, please tell. I swear I’ll zip up my mouth and throw the key away.”
“Timing, Nancy. Timing. Remember? So hold your romantic horses and file these papers for me please. I need to leave.”
“Oh, I came to tell you that Altaf chacha is here with the car.”
“God, Raj is so stubborn. I told him I have the jeep.”
“He worries for you. And rightfully so. You shouldn’t drive yet.”
“Thank you for your concern, Granny. Bye. Don’t forget we have a meeting at ten tomorrow with the architect.”
“Sure. Good evening Ma’am! Enjoy the dinner.”
Altaf chacha looked perturbed. Naina hated to see the otherwise cheerful old man looking so grave. After a bit of coaxing he sighed and said, “I am worried about Colonel saab. He listens to what you say betia. Please tell him to go to the Chamunda Devi temple and offer prayers there. I told him but he says he doesn’t have time now. ”
“He is rather busy chacha. Why do you want him to visit the temple now?”
“He told me not to tell you, but I guess you should know.”
“What don’t I know chacha?”
“That today’s was the third accident he escaped this week.”
“Accident?” She recalled her conversation with Raj and whispered, “The crane. Did it…”
Altaf mian nodded, “It was shifting wooden beams from the truck to the site. Colonel saab was going to have a talk with the driver, ask him to be careful, when a beam came crashing down at him. Colonel saab’s fast reflexes saved him today.”
“Oh my God! Raj.” Her blood ran cold thinking what could have happened.
The car came to a halt in front of beeji’s house. Naina turned to Altaf, “Chacha, you mentioned about other accidents.”
He nodded, “You know we drove down from Shimla. Colonel saab was driving. We stopped for a meal at Chahal. It’s all downhill from the dhaba where we ate. Just a couple of kilometers or so later, Colonel saab said something was wrong, and the very next moment the back tire came away and rolled ahead of us. It’s just his skill that stopped the car from swerving off the cliff. He said that a young boy had repaired our tire when we had a flat just before we stopped at the dhaba. Maybe the boy didn’t tighten the screws properly.”
“What about other accidents?”
“He rides in the mornings. Yesterday his saddle tore away when the horse was on a fast trot. He held on and had to come back riding bareback. I tell you betia, this is not good. First you and then Colonel saab. You two need to go to the temple and offer prayers.”
“We will chacha. I’ll take him. Thanks for telling me about this.”
Raj picked up Naina and drove to the flower shop. He glanced at her and found her staring out of the side window. “You are rather quiet. Still mulling over the slip of tongue?”
That got her. She eyed him narrowly, “What slip of tongue?”
“You know what I am talking about...Darling. So don’t try to hide.” He grinned.
“I am not hiding anything Raj. Question is, are you?”
“Am I what?”
So he wanted to play games. Naina was furious. She crossed her arms and glared at him as he pulled the car to stop in front of the florist, “Colonel Rajveer Rathore, isn’t there something you have to say to me?”