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 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.”
“Did you just come out of the washroom?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering.”
“Whether you are wearing anything under that robe?”
“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.”
“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.