Saturday, 31 May 2014

Whispers of Spring......Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Naina fingers curled tightly around Raj’s as she gazed down into his eyes with an expression of undisguised love that made his heart swell. He had never felt so present in a single moment as he did then with her, waiting for her to say something. Waves of emotions crossed her countenance, her lips trembled, yet she didn’t say anything…so caught up was she by his sudden proposal. Raj drew himself up, and with their hands entwined between them, he gently rubbed his forehead against hers. As their hot breath mingled, he said in a gravelly voice, “Let’s carve out our own universe, my love. Share your life with me. Be the keeper of my soul. Let me show you every single second of every single day of our lives how so very much I love you. I want to wake up to every morning in your arms. With our future right out there for our taking, all you have to do walk beside me.” As she blinked back her tears and clutched at his hand, he bent down to whisper in her ear, “You are supposed to say Yes now, sweetheart.”

“Yes,” she whispered back then, instantly, breathlessly…her smile brighter than the summer morning sun, “Yes. A thousand times Yes. A million times Yes. Oh Raj! Yes…Yes…Yes. Yes, I’ll marry you. I love you darling, and I am going to show you back how much every single second of every single day of the rest of our lives. I look forward to those mornings too.”

A whirlwind of emotions swept through Raj from the highs to the lows and all the shades in between. He lowered her arms and tucked them behind him and gathered her to himself before bending down to seal their lips together as firmly as they sealed the promise of a lifetime of loving. It was now his turn to be overpowered with a deluge of emotions that inundated him when Naina pressed her soft body to him in complete surrender. He cherished her closeness for awhile, pressing soft kisses all over her face as tears of pure joy seeped from his eyes. Finally, he lifted his head and looked down at her velvet-deep brown eyes. Taking her face in his large hands, he said in a deep, thick voice, “You do know that I cannot let you be out of my sight ever. I would simply break if anything separates me from you.”
“I won’t let you break, Raj. Not ever. I am not going anywhere.”
“I know. It’s just that I…”
“Shshh!” She silenced him with a finger on his lips, “Kiss me again.”
And he did. A long and lingering kiss that caused her lovely face to flush and eyes to glaze over with desire.
“Yes sweetheart!”
He turned to look into her eyes.
“I wanted you to know that…that…”
He tilted her face to his when she wouldn’t look at him, “What is it Naina?”
He hated to see the shadow of pain still lurking in those depths. He promised himself once again that even if it took a lifetime he would not rest till he freed her of that pain completely.
Naina took a deep breath and reached up to cup his cheek with her palm, “Raj! I wanted you to know that when you kissed me earlier, it was my first real kiss. He never…I never…I mean I have never been kissed on lips ever before. I am happy that at least I could give you that.”
“Don’t!! God don’t do this to yourself, Naina. Do you think this makes any difference to me? The only thing that is important is that we have each other, and nothing will ever change that. Every other thing becomes redundant on the face of this reality…our reality. It was as much my first kiss as yours…and when we make love, it’ll be our first in every which way. That’s because my sweet Naina, we both started to live again the night we met. Whatever happened before that was destined…something that was meant to happen, even though it didn’t make us happy. Now we shall create our own destiny.”

She rested her cheek on his heart as he drew her close, “What did I do to deserve you? Whatever it is, where you are concerned I want to be selfish. You are mine.”
“Yes, I am…as you are mine. Marry me soon, Naina.”
Silence for awhile and then, “How soon?”
“As soon as possible.”
She tilted her head and looked at him with a twinkle in her eyes, “Hmm! Let’s see. What are you doing tomorrow?”
Raj chuckled throatily, “Apart from being the happiest man in the world, nothing much. What do you have in mind?”
“Let’s take the kids and elope. It’ll be fun.”
“You are one devious little woman. But no. No one is eloping here.”
She stepped back, crossed her arms across her chest, and pouted in exaggeration, “I said Yes when you asked me to. And you won’t even do this teensy-weensy thing for me.”
“Naina, this time everything is going to be as you always dreamed. Everything will be done the right way. OK?”
She scrunched her nose in mock disappointment and then grinned, “OK Colonel. Elopement cancelled. What next?”
“This.” Saying he took out a small blue velvet box from his pocket. Naina stared in stunned amazement at the exquisite ring embedded on red velvet. The blue heart diamond was mounted into a platinum ring and had small brilliant-cut colorless diamonds hugging it. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry she had ever seen…elegant, unique, and obviously vintage.

Naina felt tears prickle her eyes as she reverently ran a finger softly across the gem, “Raj! It’s…it’s…I don’t have words. It’s so beautiful.”
“It belonged to my great grandmother, nanisa’s mother. When I mentioned to her about getting a ring made for you, she got up and brought this out from her safe. For you. I had it engraved.”
He took out the ring and placed it on her palm. She picked it up and looked at it sideways to read what it said…Because of you my world is now whole.

She just looked at him. No words…Silence was more eloquent in that moment. He reached out to caress her cheek and she curled into his hand. How could one not help but believe in fate at that moment? Two souls belonging to different worlds and living miles apart managed to find their way to each other, surmounting all the obstacles that life tossed at them. Proof that they were just meant to be.

The loud call of a bird broke the spell. Naina smiled shyly and said, “Raj! Is it OK if you don’t put the ring on me today?”
“Sure. Whatever you wish.” He smiled, but she read the unspoken query in his eyes.
“It’s just that when you do, I want our children, beeji, and Ranima also to be there.”
He pocketed the ring and entwined his fingers with hers, drawing her toward the cottage, “Of course. By the way, I liked the sound of the ‘our children’ part.”

Naina paused in mid-stride, “Adi. Raj, Adi…I… I mean….”

He turned and put his hands on her shoulders, “Naina, you trust me, right?” When she nodded mutely, he continued, “Then you would trust me if I take a decision for Adi. Hmm?” Another nod. “Naina, the day I realized I was in love with you and will have you in my life was also the day Adi became my son. From this time forth, we have two children, and Adi is our older child. Adi will know me as his father, and he will be known as my son. I will be there for him just as I will be there for Tanu or a child we may decide to have. Never doubt that. He will soon be re-named Adityaveer Singh Rathore. I have already applied for the affidavit. Of course, your signature will be required when they call us. I would have told you all this but then I thought I would do so after we have spoken with the children.”

He waited for Naina to speak, but she only stared at him with a look that said all.
“Naina? Say something sweetheart.”

Finally, she whispered, “Are you for real?”

Naina leant against the car window and looked out. She was rather quiet on their way back. Millions of thoughts were criss-crossing her mind. Raj glanced at her a few times but let her be. All he did was take her hand and kept it on his thigh, covering it with his own time and again. She turned to look at him, smiled tremulously, and then turned away again. He knew she was speculating about how Adi will take the news. Even though Adi had wished for them to marry, yet when it came down to it, he knew the child will have questions of his own. He had played the role of the man of the house ever since he understood the meaning of responsibility. He was overprotective and almost adultlike when it came to his mother’s happiness and security.

Dusk had fallen on the valley by the time Raj turned the car inside the mahal pathway. They had spent a wonderful afternoon….talking, partaking of a picnic hamper in the cottage, holding hands and walking across the meadows, and kissing…lot of kissing. Raj couldn’t have enough of her. Every few seconds he would hug her, pet her, or caress her hair, her cheeks, her jaw line, her neck. As if he needed assurance that she really was there and that nothing held him back now.

Raj parked the car and turned to her. She was looking at him, apprehension writ large on her face. He lifted her hand and kissed each finger one by one. Before he could say a word of assurance he heard a shout and saw the kids make a dash toward the car from the far end of the lawn. They were engulfed in their chatter when they got out of the car. Both of them caught Raj’s hands on either side and regaled him about Furry’s latest exploits and how she runs and plays with them when left free in the lawn.

Naina walked a few paces behind, still wrapped up in her thoughts. Adi glanced back and saw her. He excused himself from Raj and ran to her, “Mumma, is something wrong?”
“All is fine Adi. Why do you ask?” Naina kept a hand on his shoulder and hugged him to herself.
“You have that worried frown on your face. You have it when something bothers you.”
“You are absolutely right, Adi,” Raj had halted. He looked at Naina and nodded. He bent and spoke to Adi, “Your mumma and I have something to tell you, and she was just wondering how you will feel about it.”
“What is it, uncle?”
“Not here. Let’s go inside. Both of you run ahead and tell beeji and badima to come to the family room.”
Adi looked at Naina, reluctant to leave. She ruffled his hair and smiled, “Go on sweetie. I need to go to the washroom and freshen up. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Assured that she was fine he ran off. Naina looked at Raj.
He hugged her and turned her toward the door, “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. I’ll make sure Adi will be fine. Trust me.”

Twenty minutes later, Raj walked into the family room after making calls to get a report regarding the day’s progress about the festival opening. Everything was on schedule.
Naina was pouring tea for everyone and the kids were playing on the carpet with Furry.
Adi got up when he saw Raj, “Uncle, what were you going to tell us?”
Beeji and Ranima looked at each other and smiled, knowing very well what the news was going to be.

Raj sat on the sofa. Naina joined him. Tanu plonked herself on Naina’s lap as Raj pulled Adi between his legs holding his hands, “Adi, how do you feel about calling me papa instead of uncle?”
Adi stared at him for a second and then turned to look at his mother, “Are you getting married?”
Naina nodded and held out her hand. Adi went to her. Holding both the kids, she said, “Raj uncle asked me to marry him today, and I said Yes. But your opinion matters to us. Are you both OK with this?”

Naina looked at Tanu. The little girl looked a little confused as to what was being asked of her. She looked at Adi for assistance. He took her hand and said, “Tanu, this means that my mumma will become our mumma and your papa will become our papa. And we will be real brother-sister now.” He smiled as Tanu let out an uncharacteristic squeal, “Mumma! Really! I can call you mumma? You will be my mumma?” Naina nodded through her tears as tiny hands hugged her tightly. Tanu kissed her and slipped down to run to her father and hugged him around his waist, “Papa! You made Naina aunty my mumma. You are the best.” Then she ran to Ranima, “Badima, did you hear? Adi bhaiya will be my real brother and I will have mumma too.”

Everyone was taken in by Tanu’s exuberance and got so caught up with all the congratulations and hugs and blessings that no one noticed that Adi had gone a little pensive. No one except Raj. As the older ladies fussed over Naina, Raj went to Adi and said, “Adi, come with me to the armory.”
Naina looked at them as they quietly left the room. Raj glanced back at Naina and gave a slight nod.

Inside the armory, Raj switched on the lights and turned to Adi, who was standing near a glass case containing an 18th-century rifle. Raj went and stood near him.
“Does this rifle shoot?”
“It will, Adi, once it is cleaned. Do you want to know who this belonged to?”
Adi looked up and nodded.
Raj took the rifle out of the case and kept it on the table, “Come here Adi. Read this.”
On the long handle of the rifle there was an inscription. Adi read haltingly, “To my be..lo..ved son,, Kishan…Kishan Singh Bhati.”
“Correct. Kishan Singh Bhati. He was the most favorite son of Raja Kumbh Singh Bhati of Kishanpura. Legend says that Raja Kumbh opened his eyes in the morning only when his son Kishan came and stood before him so that he could begin the day after looking at him.”
“Didn’t he have any other children?”
“Oh yes, he did. Seven more princes and princesses. But Kishan was special…his first child, his best friend. Another thing, Kishan was not fathered by Raja Kumbh Singhji. He married Rani Kalawati, Kishan’s mother, after her first husband had died, leaving her a widow with baby Kishan. They fell in love, and against all odds and orthodox norms of those days, he married her. He also fell in love with little Kishan instantly. From that day, Kishan became his eldest son.”

Very slowly Adi raised his eye toward Raj. The longing in his eyes made Raj’s chest tighten with innumerable emotions…primary being love and pride. He pulled Adi and hugged him. Then he pulled him to the nearest sofa and sat with him, “Adi, what’s bothering you?”
Adi’s lips trembled as he whispered, “Mumma!”
“I love your mumma Adi. I will always make her happy. What’s really scaring you son?”
Adi hesitated and then said, “Raghav said…Raghav is a boy at the cricket academy. He said my father hurt mumma and left her just as his father left his mother…and that fathers are not to be trusted.” Adi looked straight at Raj, “You won’t leave her and go away?”
“No…no…Adi. Never. I cannot live without your mumma and you. I will never hurt her.”
“On my honor Adi. I promise.” He leaned forward to kiss Adi’s forehead, “I love you son. I am so proud of you. You have done a great job of taking care of your mumma and beeji. Now I ask for a chance to help you do this job. Together we can take good care of mumma, Tanu, beeji, and badima. I want to be your papa. I want you to be my son and my best friend. Will you take me as your father?”
Adi nodded and then with a sob jumped on Raj’s lap and hid his face in the crook of his neck, crying softly, “I love you too, uncle. I want to be your son.”
Raj held him tight and rubbed the thin back up and down, “Then how about calling me Papa.”
Sniffle. And then one softly spoken word, “Papa!” and Raj’s eyes welled over. He looked past Adi’s shoulder to see Naina carrying Tanu, beeji, and nanisa standing inside the door….happy tears cascading down everyone’s eyes.

The woman hated Raj. It was in her eyes, though her lips spouted sugar-coated greetings when he welcomed her with a formal namaste. Her hands petted Tanu’s head and blessed her, but there was no warmth in her interaction. Naina stood near the far exit of the main drawing room, where Ranima and Raj received guests and dignitaries, and observed the meeting between Raj and his family.

Naina had told Raj that she had an urgent matter to see to and so would be a few minutes late and won’t be present alongside him when his family were scheduled to arrive. Ever since the night when Raj was shot, Naina had a suspicion, which was based on what Raj had told her about his family. That was why she was here, half-hidden behind the heavy curtains. She trusted her intuitions…she trusted her instincts. They had not let her down when Manmeet’s men were hunting her in that forest. Now her instincts told her that the Raj’s stepmother was dangerous. The man who had shot Raj had inadvertently let out that a woman was behind the attacks. Looking at her demeanor Naina was sure that she was the one behind Raj’s encounters with near death. The couple of glances she threw at Raj when she thought no one was looking were anything but maternal; in fact, they were downright lethal. Standing afar, and unnoticed, Naina read her body language clearly. On the contrary, Raj’s father seemed genuinely glad to see his son and grand-daughter. Emotions of pride and affection crossed Ranaji’s face as Raj bent to touch his feet.

Naina recalled how surprised Raj was when he had come to know that his stepmother was going to accompany his father. “She hates the goodwill my mother carries even after all these years. She is the last person I would have expected here…in my mother’s house” was his reaction after he got the news. An unexpected visit meant only one thing: she had come to finish what others could not. But why? The motive escaped Naina. Whatever the reason, Naina knew only one thing: she had to stop the woman before she tried anything malevolent.

Naina had a plan. If all went well, they all can look forward to the Spring festival without a glitch. She patted her clutch to ensure the evidence was there. There was just one thing that needed to be done. Time enough for that. Naina stepped back and went to the library where Adi waited. Taking his hand, she stepped into the drawing room. A maid was serving tea and refreshments, while Meenakshiji sat conversing with Raj’s parents with Tanu on her lap. Raj stood near the window chatting with Kundan, his brother. It was evident that the mother’s noxious beliefs for Raj had not filtered down to her son. He might have gone wastrel because of his mother’s faulty upbringing, but the respect and admiration she could see in the younger man’s eyes for his elder brother were not fake.

“There you are. I was waiting for both of you.” Everyone turned to look at her and Adi as Raj strode toward them. He stroked Adi’s hair and smiled down at him, “You ready champ?” Adi grinned and nodded. Like Raj, he too was wearing a white shirt with jeans and jacket, and like Raj he too had not tucked in the shirt. Like father, like son indeed. Naina looked simple and elegant in peach and white Jaipuri laharia chiffon saree.
Raj bent and whispered in her ear, “You look deliciously tempting. Very edible. I wish I could taste those lips.”
Naina blushed a dark shade of pink and muttered under her breath, “Colonel! Behave.”
He smiled and took her arm. Tanu jumped out of nanisa’s lap and ran to hold Adi’s hand. Head held high and with pride in his bearing, Raj guided his family towards the new faces. When they were in front of Ranaji, Raj said, “Babasa, meet Naina, your soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Naina, this is my father, that’s my younger brother Kundan, and this is Choti Ranisa.”

Ranaji looked surprised but recovered soon to bless Naina as she bent to touch his feet, “May God grant you long life! I hope you will keep my son as happy as I see him now.” Then he looked at Raj and practically beamed, “This is such a wonderful surprise son. I am happy that you have decided to settle down.”
Naina straightened up and looked at Choti Ranisa. She did not touch her feet but folded her hands and politely said, “Namasteji!”
“Who is this boy?” Padmavati had found her tongue. Raj presenting a future wife was not good news. It had stunned her for a moment. Raj coming back to Devisar was bad enough. If he came with a wife, then complications are bound to arise. What if he sires a son? God forbid! Then Kundan will get lower in succession queue.

Naina was about to introduce Adi, when Raj kept a hand on her arm in a restraining gesture. He turned and nodded at Adi, who was looking up at him.
Adi smiled and stepped forward and folded his hands, “Namaste everyone! My name is Adityaveer Rajveer Singh Rathore. I am six years old. I study in Class 1. I am honored to meet you.”

Padmavati’s mouth hung open as she gaped. Ranaji and Kundan stared at Raj, expecting him to explain. Ranima smiled proudly. Naina flicked away a tear from her eye, smiling softly at her men.
Raj stepped behind Adi and kept his hands on his shoulders, “Babasa, meet my son. We call him Adi. He is the most responsible, brave, and loving boy I have ever met. You have no idea how proud he makes me. Naina has brought him up well.”
“Yes. I can see that.” Ranaji smiled. “He is a fine young man. Come here, Adityaveer. You may call me dadasa like Tanu does.”
Raj gave a gentle push to Adi, “Go Adi. Touch your dadasa, dadisa, and chachasa’s feet.”

Tanu pattered across to stand next to Adi after he had done the needful. As she slid her hand into his, he turned sideways and petted her head. She beckoned him to lend his ears and whispered something to him.
Adi straightened and looked at Ranaji, “Dadasa, Tanu…I mean we…want you to meet another member of our family.” He felt a tug and looked down at Tanu with a raised brow. When she mouthed a name, he turned back, “Her name is Furry.”
“Is she a dog?” Kundan came and kneeled down beside them.
Tanu giggled at that. But Adi said seriously, “No chachasa, she is a rabbit.”
“Call me chachu, Adi. May I meet your little friend?” He stood up. Both the kids nodded. “Just give me a minute.” He surprised Naina by walking up to her, “Welcome to the family bhabhisa! And thank you.”
“For what Kundan? Is it OK if I call you Kundan?”
“Of course. I want you to know that this is the first time I have seen bhaiya look so happy and so much at peace. Trust me. When I say first time, I mean first time. You are Godsent.” He smiled and turned to the children, “OK kids. Guide me.”

The moment they left Padmavati turned to Naina, “So, where is your family? Are you a widow or a divorcee?” She looked at Raj, “Are you sure what you are doing? You could have easily got an unmarried girl from a royal family. No offense to Naina here, but I was wondering why did you feel the need to settle for a woman who has had a child with another man? You didn’t even consult your father regarding this.”

Raj took a step forward but checked himself when Naina squeezed his arm. Ranaji turned to his wife and said in a stern voice, “That’s enough Padmavati. Raj is a grown-up man and capable of making his own decisions. If he has chosen this lovely girl to be his wife, then so be it. That’s enough for us. We don’t want to make the same mistake we did before, do we?” The last being in reference to Raj’s first marriage.

Padmavati complied, catching the warning look in her husband’s eyes. She turned to Naina with a smile, “I am sorry if my words hurt you. It’s just that as a mother I worry for Raj. He has been hurt once. I don’t want him to be hurt again.”

Naina smiled, “Please don’t apologize Choti Ranisa. I understand. I assure you I shall never hurt your son.”

Meenakshiji stepped forward, “Padmavati, I appreciate your concern. I vouch for Naina. She is a wonderful person. She has already made Raj very happy and is terrific with Tanu. After her parents died, she was adopted by a very close friend of mine. Naina is a highly respected and admired person here in Palampur. You will see with your own eyes tomorrow at the festival opening.” She smiled at Raj and Naina, conveying through a nod that that was all the information the two needed to know. Then looking at Naina, she said, “Naina, please take Padmavati to the Royal suite. I am sure she is tired and needs freshening up. Jamaisa wanted to see the armory first. Raj will take him and then show him and Kundan to their rooms. We shall all meet again at dinner. I want to discuss Raj and Naina's wedding plans tonight.”

As Padmavati turned to pick up her hand bag, Naina whispered to Raj, “In your room. Thirty minutes.”

“You did what?”
“You heard me. I borrowed the phone of that man who shot you.”
“Borrowed the phone? Just like that! For God’s sakes Naina, that phone is legal evidence.”
“I know. Didn’t I just say that I borrowed it for one night and not stolen it?”
“How in the world did you get it? It’s still in police custody. Right?”
“Baldevji helped me?”
“Baldev who? Oh! You mean your puppy.”
“Naina! And how did he get it? Does he run a side business of stealing from police stations?”
“Ha! Very funny. His cousin is in-charge of the police station. Also, his son is in my school.”
“Whose? Puppy’s?”
“Of course not! His cousin’s. I explained the situation and requested him, so he lent it to me. In any case, the shooter’s court appearance is still a few days away.”
“Right! Naina…Sweetheart…The police has interrogated that man. He denied seeing or meeting anyone. In fact he outright denied the involvement of anyone else.”
“But we know that’s not correct. He is lying.”
“Yes, Naina. We know. He is a hardened criminal. He won’t spill out anything so easily. We need just a couple of days more to break him. My men are working on an information that will ensure he blurts out the truth.”
“A couple of days might be too late, Raj. We don’t have time. I refuse to let you be the object of a sick person’s target practice a second time. I won’t risk it. In a few hours everything will be clear, and the threat over you will be over.”
“No Naina. I won’t have you involved in this. It might get dangerous. I don’t want you fighting my battles. I want you safe. Whatever has to be done, I’ll do it.”
“Shut up, Raj! I am not in the mood for your “Me Tarzan, you Jane” nonsense. Don’t go caveman on me Colonel. We promised we’ll be equal in every which way. When I needed it, you helped me. Right?”
“That was different?”
“Why? Because you are a soldier and trained to deal with it? A threat is a threat my love. I may not have worn a uniform, but life has taught me a few soldierly tricks of its own. I need to do this. You are mine. I will do everything to protect what’s mine.”
Raj pulled her roughly and crushed her to him, “You stubborn little woman. I’ll never be able to gauge how much I love you.” Overcome by emotion, Raj kissed her again and again, as if his life depended on it. Each kiss conveying his reverence and love in a different manner….so strong and so passionate that she lost herself as she poured all her emotions in her response. She forgot her name for a moment…forgot the reason of their argument. When he pulled away, they were breathing hard.
She leaned back in the tight band of his arms and stared at him through a deliciously heady haze and whispered, “You don’t play fair.”
“All’s fair in love and war, sweetheart. Now sit here and tell me what you are up to.”
Naina sat on the edge of the bed and twisted the end of her saree aanchal, “Raj, do you suspect anyone?”
Raj sighed and sat next to her, “Naina, I not only suspect, I know who the person is.”
“Choti Ranisa?”
Raj nodded sadly, “Yes.”
“I am not sure Naina. Somsinhji said that of late babasa has had several meetings with his lawyer. He thinks babasa has changed his will.”
“And made you the main beneficiary?”
“Looks like it.”
“So she thinks her son will get the raw end of deal with you getting the lion’s share. If you are removed from the equation, Kundan will be the sole heir.”
“Something like that.”
“Not the sole heir Raj. Someone else entered the picture today.”
Raj stared at her and then his eyes grew wide as understanding donned, “Adi! Oh my God!”
Naina nodded, “I saw her expression when you claimed Adi as your son. Wheels are churning there Raj.”
Raj pulled her onto his lap and hugged her, “I won’t let her harm Adi.”
“I know. But we have to put her on the back foot before she takes any step forward.”
He looked at her, “What did you have in mind?”
To be continued……………

Monday, 12 May 2014

Whispers of Spring.....Chapter 26

Chapter 26

Raj kissed her forehead and cradled her to his chest with one arm as she wound her arms around his waist. He smiled through the tears that escaped after her confession. He had been waiting for this moment for so long….waiting for Naina to trust him enough to bare open her heart. To have her love him with the same intensity that he loved her…to feel the same passion flow through her. It was more than he could ever have asked of his life. Breathtaking didn’t even come close.

He flipped his fingers at his men, gesturing them to go ahead. Then he pulled Naina closer than ever before. Nuzzling into her hair, he breathed in her scent, “Thank you Naina. Even though I knew how you felt, I loved hearing you say the words. You have no idea how happy you have made me.”

“I am sorry for holding back for so long Raj. You told me over and over again how much you loved me. Each time I had the opportunity to reciprocate and tell you my feelings, but couldn’t. A vague sense of safety in silence always shut me up.” Words tumbled out of her, and Raj couldn’t interrupt even if he wanted to. “I spent seven years putting thick bars around my heart. Breaking them and stepping out always seemed scary and unsafe. But with you I felt unbound right from the beginning. My heart set itself free from the shackles I myself had put, and I didn’t even realize when it happened. You made me feel amazing. You made me feel nothing but respect about myself. You made me feel like a woman. You made me feel belonged Raj. It’s an amazing feeling…to feel belonged to someone.” She raised her head, “Thank you for fighting me…for me. I love you. I love you so much. Breathing without you is not an option anymore.”
“I love you Naina. You do more than touch me here.” He took her hand and pressed it over his heart. “You own me.”
Naina leaned and kissed his hand. Raj cupped her chin and tilted her face to him, “Don’t you think that kiss was a bit off-target, sweetheart?”
“Raj!” Naina went red. She glanced at the man who had dropped behind to drive them to the hospital, but he was standing farther way, “Behave. Not here.”
“What? I am only asking for my due. I believe in fair dealings. I earned that kiss my love. I promise I’ll collect my earnings as soon as we are alone. So be prepared.”
“Promises. Promises.” She grinned and pushed herself away from his arms. Slipping her hand through his she started to tug him toward the car.
“Is that a dare?”
“What do you think?”
“Do you really want to know what I am thinking?”
“Nah! Both of us know who has the naughty mind here.”
“Ha! I am only more vocal about mine.”
“So not true.” She laughed, “I never think or talk naughty.”
“We’ll see Naina…We’ll see.”

Her retort died in her lips as she looked at Raj and gasped at the way he gazed at her…a look that held so much possibilities. “You are incorrigible. Come on, let’s get you stitched up.”
Raj chuckled at her consternation. Damn she was adorable when she was so flustered.
In the car, Naina made a call to Amar and then let her head rest against Raj’s chest, his good arm gluing her to him, feeling peace, relief, and warmth roll through her. As she felt his labored breathing caused by the pain of his wound and the steady beat of his heart, she thought how wrong people are when they say that time heals all wounds. Little do they know that deepest scars can be healed by the right person, and not time. She had healed more in the past seven weeks than in the past seven years…and all because of this man’s love and understanding.

Devisar Palace….Next morning

“What? He failed again? You are all bloody nincompoops. You couldn’t even do this much?”
“We are sorry Choti Ranisa. Give us another chance. This time we shall succeed.”
“No. Your foolishness has already alerted Raj. Whatever has to be done now, I’ll do myself. Your job is to make sure your man doesn’t spill the beans to the police. Nothing should come back to me, otherwise your family will face the consequences.”
“Don’t worry Choti Ranisa. He was just a hired man. He doesn’t know anything.”
“You forget I spoke with him last night.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know your identity. I never told him.”
After another brief instruction, Padmavati switched off her phone and stood for awhile, thinking. Taking a decision, she stepped out of her chambers and went and knocked on her husband’s door. Ranaji’s personal valet opened the door. She dismissed him and the hovering maid and strode across the room to the balcony, where she knew her husband would be. He was a stickler for routine and always took his morning cup of tea in his balcony while reading the papers.
“Goodmorning Ranaji!”
“Goodmorning Padmavati! Is everything OK? You never get up so early in the morning.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, she sat down in front of him and actually smiled, “Everything is fine Ranaji. I came to tell you that I realized my mistake in questioning your decision regarding the succession. I regret my behavior. I am sorry.”
“Hmm! Why this sudden turnabout?”
“I have been thinking. You were right. Kundan does have a lot to learn. With Raj here at the helm of affairs, Kundan will be well guided. For all his erroneous ways, he has always held deep respect for his elder brother.”

Ranaji folded the paper and kept it on the marble table before looking straight at his wife. What was she upto now? Though a bit late in life but he had understood how she had manipulated him throughout their married life. It was the reason he had distanced himself from her, especially after Raj left without so much as a backward glance, giving up everything that was rightfully his without a second thought. That was the proverbial straw that broke camel’s back. He realized how his foolishness had hurt Raj…his first born, the son he was so proud of, but could never express because of his own personal drawbacks. In the end, he lost him. But not anymore. He intended to bring Raj back to where he belonged.

“Come to the point Padmavati. I am sure you didn’t wake up so early to come and tell me about your mistakes.”
“Ranaji, I would like to accompany you to the Palampur Spring festival opening.”
“Why Padmavati? Just yesterday you sent a message saying that you were not interested when I sent you Meenakshiji’s invitation.”
“It was a mistake Ranaji. I understand that now. I would like to go with you and persuade Raj to come back. We can even take Kundan with us. Please Ranaji, let me do this. I want to do the right thing.”
Ranaji narrowed his eyes and stared at his wife, trying to gauge her sincerity. She did look guilty…Maybe she did feel bad about her stepmotherly thinking. Well, if that was true, then it was about time. It will be good for all concerned if she finally accepts the reality.
Ranaji got up, “Fine. We leave tomorrow for Jaipur. We shall be there for a day before proceeding to Palampur. Shamsher will brief you regarding the itinerary.”

Padmavati smiled smugly to herself but was pulled back to attention by Ranaji’s voice who had halted at the door, “I am hoping that you will do nothing there that would jeopardize our relations with Meenakshiji. I will not allow anything or anyone to dishonor this association.”

Padmavati nodded, not missing the chill in his tone.

“Mmm! Good coffee.” Raj glanced appreciatively at Naina.
“Perfect.” Nanisa nodded, taking a sip from her cup.
“So is this masala chai. Just what I needed. Thanks Naina” Beeji smiled as she picked her cup.
“Mmm! Good Horlicks. Isn’t it, Adi bhaiya?” Tanu added, sitting on Raj’s lap, conveying to everyone that she was very much capable of keeping up with the adult conversation.
“Yup, the best. Just like mumma is the best.” Adi smiled at Tanu in agreement, and then turned to Raj, “Uncle, tell me once more how you punched that man.”
Naina ruffled her son’s hair and sat down as Adi made place for her in his chair, “Later Adi. Uncle needs to rest.”

It was a beautiful morning. They were all relaxing on the mahal lawns. Amar had been adamant about keeping Raj under observation in the hospital for the night even though Raj insisted he was fine. Naina too had stayed back. In the morning, beeji and Adi had picked them up from the hospital. Nanisa had arranged for the breakfast on the lawn. While Naina was busy in the kitchen preparing their beverages, Raj had filled in the two ladies with the previous night’s details. He assured them that the culprit was caught and everything was fine now. The two women looked at each other, worry still writ large on their faces and nodded in silent communication.

Ranima kept her cup and straightened up, “Raj, I am sure you know what you are doing. But please be careful. Don’t be blindsided by one arrest. We need to find out who is behind these attacks.”
“Don’t worry nanisa. I am onto it. I have my suspicions. Just waiting for some information to confirm them.”
“Right. Raj, I have something to tell you.”
“What is it nanisa?”
“I invited your father and his wife for the opening. They are arriving the day after tomorrow.”
There was a long silence as everyone waited for Raj to say something. Naina whispered something into Adi’s ears, who immediately got up and pulled Tanu from Raj’s lap, and ran inside the mahal.
“Raj! You OK?”
“Hmm!” Raj looked up at his grandmother, “I am fine nanisa. I am not upset, if that’s what is bothering you. You did the right thing by inviting them. It is the right protocol. I was thinking about something else.”
“Just something a commandant of mine once said when I was a youngster…which is that ‘any time you think you are smarter than your adversary, you are probably a step away from stepping on a mine.’ ”
“What does that mean Raj?”
It was Naina who spoke, “What he means beeji is that we should not underestimate our opponent.”
“Actually Naina, I meant that for the opponent.”

Naina raised her brows, but he winked at her and changed the topic. After a few minutes, she looked at Raj. A silent communication happened. Naina blushed before getting up saying she had to check on the kids. Raj’s eyes followed her till she was out of sight. When he turned, he found nanisa and beeji looking at him with questions in their eyes.

He smiled and got up to sit next to beeji. He took her hands in his “Beeji, last night your daughter made me the happiest man in the world. She finally confessed that she loves me. And now I ask your permission to marry her and complete me and our family.”

Beeji’s eyes welled up even as nanisa shed unabashed tears of joy. She leaned forward to kiss his forehead and said, “Raj, you healed my Naina. You complete her. You two belong together. Whatever happened before today in your lives was just God’s ways to test you and to guide you to the roads that brought both of you to Palampur. Your match was made in heaven. Who am I to give permission? Naina was always yours. Go get her.”

Raj bent and touched beeji’s and nanisa’s feet and strode away to be with his family. If he had looked back, he would have witnessed a unique sight of two old ladies high-fiving and breaking into an impromptu jiggle before hugging each other.

Next day morning saw Naina standing in front of her closet in her bathrobe and chewing on her bottom lip trying to decide what to wear. Funny, this had never happened before. Usually she just picked anything on a whim and wore. As long as she saw a presentable image in front of the mirror, it was fine. Yet, today, the same decision seemed the most difficult task of her life. She was the same. Raj was the same. Still, something had changed between them since the other night. Their interaction was laced with an intimacy that left her tingling all over.

“A day date! Hmm!” She pressed a finger on her lips as her eyes roamed up and down the wardrobe. “What does one wear on a day date?”

The previous day had ended up being very busy for them. With the festival opening just three days away, there was much to do. Raj refused to take rest and was at it till late evening…until Naina put her foot down and threatened to walk out and not see him till the opening. The reaction was instantaneous: Raj immediately delegated the work to his managers. He wanted to spend some lone time with Naina but something or the other kept on cropping up. By the time he was completely free, Naina had to leave, and nanisa and beeji were after him to go to his room.

Naina was needed at the location where the Asha complex people were put up. Ever since they had arrived, she hadn’t had a chance to be with them. They wanted her to come over so that they could give her an idea about the kind of programs they were putting up for the opening ceremony and also show her the pieces of handicrafts they had brought to set up their stalls. She ended up having dinner with them.

By the time Naina returned home, Adi had gone to bed, and beeji was watching TV. She switched the TV off when Naina came and plonked herself on the couch beside her and laid her head down on her lap. Both mother and daughter had a long chat. Beeji didn’t tell Naina about Raj asking for her hand. He had requested beeji not to say a word because he wanted to surprise Naina. It was almost midnight when Naina went to her room. She took her cell phone and put it on charge before going to the washroom. She took a quick shower and put on her robe. The phone rang as soon as she came out. She picked it up and saw it was Raj. The screen showed half a dozen missed calls.
“I love you.”
She smiled, “I love you too.”
“I tried calling earlier, but your phone was switched off.”
“Yeah, it ran out of charge when I was with the Asha crowd. Are you OK? Is the wound hurting? Did you take the medicines?”
“Slow down Naina. Other than the fact that I miss you too damn much, I am fine. I know you are tired so won’t keep you for long. Be ready at ten tomorrow morning.”
“Why? Do we have to go somewhere?”
“Yes. I’ll be taking you out on a date.”
“Date? In the morning?”
“Yup. And before you ask, I have taken care of your schedule, and the kids will be in mahal along with beeji.”
“That was presumptuous, don’t you think so? What if I say no.” She teased.
“Then I’ll just have to kidnap you.”
She laughed. “What should I wear?”
“Anything comfortable will do. You look gorgeous in whatever you wear.”
“Thanks. So, see you tomorrow.”
“Goodnight sweetheart. Sleep well, and dream of me.”
“Always. Goodnight Raj.”
“Hey Naina!”
“Did you just come out of the washroom?”
“Yes. Why?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering.”
“Wondering what?”
“Whether you are wearing anything under that robe?”
“Yes sweetheart.”
“You…you…Goodnight!” She heard him chuckle before she pressed the off button.

Now, standing in her bathrobe again, she pulled out her black jeans and a floral top with cap sleeves and lacy edges. She felt the heat creeping into her as she recalled the night’s conversation. Yes, things were becoming more intimate. And that was where her deepest fear lay. She had no idea how she would react when Raj came closer. What if she disappointed him? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Not today Naina. Not today. That’s a fear to be tackled with another day.

“Where are we going Raj?”
“Have patience Naina. We’ll be there soon.”

This was the third time she had asked, and each time Raj gave an evasive response. Instead, he kept her attention engaged by telling her about his army life and various anecdotes associated with it. They were driving for about half an hour and were almost at the top of a mountain now. Raj took a right turn and stopped, “Naina, close your eyes.”
“Please love. And no cheating.”

He drove for another couple of minutes and then stopped the car. He got down and hurried to her side to help her out. He walked her with a palm covering her eyes for a few meters and then suddenly left her. Naina’s momentary sense of loss was immediately overcome as she heard his voice, “Now open your eyes Naina.”

The scent of pine and fragrance of wild flowers filled her senses before Naina opened her eyes. A beautiful logwood cottage stood before her in a backdrop of pine trees and fruit orchards. It was covered with honeysuckle and creepers. A lush green meadow stretched in front and dropped over the mountain edge. Birds chirped from the trees. Butterflies flitted over the daffodils and other flowers that grew randomly. Dandelion fluff floated around her in the light breeze. She ran toward the edge to look below where the meadow rendezvoused with a gurgling stream. Naina twirled on her feet, her arms thrown wide and head thrown back and breathed in the pure mountain air. Her tinkling laughter mingled with nature’s magical symphony and made it more melodious. Her sense of wonder was complete. Finally, she turned and looked at Raj who was leaning against a tree and watching her with fathomless passion and love.

Her cheeks pink with happiness, eyes dancing with excitement and joy, she asked him breathlessly, “This place is beautiful Raj. I have never seen anything like this, although I dreamt of it as a child. It’s straight out of a fairy tale. Who does this paradise belong to?”
Raj smiled, “You. It belongs to you Naina.”
“What? How…I mean …what?”

He straightened and walked toward her. Stopping close to her, he lifted a hand to brush away the windblown strands of hair from her face. Cupping her face with both hands he touched his forehead to hers and said, “Naina, when I was not with you, when I didn’t know you were out there suffering so much, these mountains were the only constant in your life, your source of strength. Right?”

She nodded…too overwhelmed to speak. In that instant she worshipped this man even as her chest tightened with the intensity of her love for him.

“And now you have a mountain of your own. This estate belonged to a friend of mine and is the only saleable land on this mountain. The rest of it belongs to the state. We used to come here for getaways whenever I visited Palampur. A month back he put it up for sale as he was shifting abroad.”
“And you bought it.”
“For me.”
“For you.”
“You love me that much?”
“More than it’s possible to love anyone.”
Naina was completely bereft of words. She slipped her arms around Raj and hugged him tightly, “Hold me Raj. Never let me go.”
“Not a chance sweetheart.” As he wrapped his good arm around her tightly, she fit herself into the hug as if she always belonged there.

For several long moments they stood thus, with only their heartbeats communicating with each other. When Raj tilted her face to him slowly, locking their gazes, she knew he was going to kiss her. His eyes were more beautiful this close, and at the moment held a tinge of fire…for her. He came close, very close…His lips brushed feather light across hers, a touch that made a quivering start deep within her core. Her hands fisted on his waist when he applied barest hint of a pressure on her lips. The sensations that rippled through her caused the tears that were swimming in breathless emotions in her eyes to spill over, causing her mouth to tremble. His thumbs brushed away the wet trails, and his lips dropped warm kisses all over her face.

“Hush sweetheart!” He whispered, “Please don’t cry. Your tears kill me.”

He tried to draw back a little, wanting to look at her. Fearing he was pulling back to leave her, Naina opened her fists and pressed his waist. Raj understood her mute plea to continue. He snaked his fingers through her hair at the nape, and with the other hand on her waist, he walked her backward to the tree. His lips pressed against hers in gentle persuasion. Naina gasped and parted her lips when his tongue traced the contours of her mouth, allowing him to gain access. Like a man stranded in desert, he drank in her honeyed sweetness. She tasted divine. A deep sigh escaped her lips and he kissed her with all the pent-up passion that he had kept in check.

Naina’s felt her bones turn to jelly as she felt the heat of his body enflame hers. Each touch of his lips, each invasion of his tongue ignited a response in her. Naina found herself kissing him back with all the fervor of her innocence. When she slipped her tongue in his mouth hesitantly, imitating him, her tentative passion played havoc with Raj’s senses and a growl of desire escaped him as he tugged at her hair and pulled her tightly to him, an act that caused a pleasurable ache to build in her. In that moment, something awakened within Naina, a dormant desire sprung to life…and she matched passion with passion. The deeper she kissed him, the tighter his hold on hers became. She had avoided a man’s touch for so many years because she feared the force and coercion and the ugliness she associated with it. But Raj took all that repugnance out of the equation with his touch. She found she liked being controlled by him. She found she liked being captured within his strong arms and being loved so thoroughly. She found she wanted him with a ravenous vengeance.
It was Raj who broke the kiss. Slowly raising his head, he stared lovingly at her upturned face. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips swollen and slightly parted, her eyes shut tight, and her skin glowed in the aftermath of their mutually shared passion. She still held onto him tightly, as if her legs would fold in if she let go. Her eyes fluttered open to look at him. In their misty depths, he saw love, desire and a hint of nervousness and uncertainty. Yet, even as she blushed cherry red and closed her eyes again in shyness, he saw the naivety that was the core of her being. She was precious and he would always cherish and protect her.

With unsteady fingers he swept an unruly lock of hair from her forehead and whispered, “Naina!”
“Won’t you open your eyes?”
A slight shake of head was her only response, causing his lips to lift in a smile.
“At least say something.”
A few beats later she whispered, “Wow!!”
Raj laughed softly, “Wow, indeed.”
She opened her eyes then and gazed at him, still unable to string together a few coherent words.
Raj caressed her cheek with his thumb, “Thank you sweetheart.”
She frowned, “For what?”
“For being in my life. You filled a void in my soul that I never knew existed till I found you by my side. You have taught me to see things that I would never have noticed if you had not graced my life. I was just a man…You brought meaning to my existence.”

Naina’s eyes welled up. He wiped them away before they fell. “Thank you for being my best friend and my soul mate. I cannot guarantee that our lives will not have less downs and more ups, but as long as we are together, we shall triumph over whatever life tosses at us.”

Tears flowed freely down Naina’s cheeks as she looked at the man who was always meant to be her destiny. It was fated.

She looked on in wonder as Raj bent his good knee and knelt in front of her. Taking her hands in his, he locked her eyes with his and smiled, “Naina, I want to be more than your best friend and your lover. I want to be your forever. I want you next to me till my last breath. I want to be your husband and have the honor to have you as my wife. Miss Nayantara Bhatia….. will you marry me?”
To be continued…..

* masala chai = spiced-up tea.