Raj escorted panditji to the car. After thanking him for his time, he had a word with Altaf mian who was to drive panditji back home. He reentered the drawing room where a buzz of discussion was on. His eyes sought Naina and found her feeding Tanu her dinner at the bar placed at far corner. Tanu sat on a high bar stool and was reciting all the poems she knew in her sing-song voice in between mouthfuls, while Adi sat swinging around on the other stool, prompting her. Naina raised a brow at Raj and gestured toward the animated debate going on in the middle between Ranima and Choti ranisa. Raj winked at her and nodded.
He strode toward them decisively as Ranima straightened and looked at him, “There you are, Raj. It’s your call. We seem to have hit a deadlock. I would like to go with panditji’s advice and have the sagai ceremony two weeks from now, coinciding with the closure of the festival. We can have the wedding here in Palampur on 21st November, which is the next auspicious date after the sagai date. But your parents want to have the wedding in Devisar.”
Raj’s father looked at him, “Raj, I would like you to get married in your ancestral home, with all the fanfare that befits the crown prince.”
Raj pulled a chair and sat down between his father and grandmother. He glanced at Naina, his look needing her to join him. She passed the almost-finished plate to Adi, asking him to feed the last bit to his sister. The maid moved closer to the kids, as she went and stood next to Raj.
Everyone waited as Raj laced his fingers through Naina’s and spoke, “I understand your sentiments and respect them. Babasa, I mean no offense when I say that you had your fanfare wedding the first time around. I wasn’t interested in such grandeur then nor am I interested in it now. As far as the crown prince matter is concerned, it’s no use dangling the royalty carrot in front of me. You are much aware of my thoughts on this.” He paused, and Naina squeezed his fingers gently. He looked at Ranima, “Nanisa, Naina and I don’t want a grand wedding. Today, everyone is here. It’s Naina’s wish that I put the ring on her finger in the presence of our family. I would like to do that now. Consider this our engagement. We’ll have the wedding two weeks from now here in Palampur in the presence of our close family and friends. I don’t want to wait a moment more than that to begin our new life with our children. Of course, after the wedding we’ll visit Devisar and take everyone’s blessings there.”
The next half hour was a medley of chaos. Furniture was rearranged. All the staff were asked to leave whatever they were doing and come to the drawing room. The kids shrieked with joy when they realized what was happening, running around wanting to help, and then rushing to the recreation room to fetch Kundan who was engrossed in watching cricket on the giant screen.
In the hullabaloo Ranima pulled Naina to her room. She opened an old chest kept at the corner of the room and took out a square package wrapped in yellow muslin. Inside it was the most exquisitely embroidered saree Naina had ever seen. Ranima cupped Naina’s face and leaned in to kiss her on the forehead, “You are going to be my daughter now…my Raj’s bride. You have no idea how happy you have made me. This is a special occasion. I have been waiting to give you this saree. This was the last gift from my husband. He died two days later. I never got to wear it. Wherever he is, he will be so happy to see you in it.”
“But Ranima, are you sure you…”
“Nanisa. Call me nanisa, Naina. Of course, I am sure. I want you to have it. I know you will take good care of it.”
Naina’s eyes misted over as she hugged the old lady and whispered, “I will always cherish it, nanisa…thank you. I am so honored.”
The rest of the evening turned out to be as special as it was meant to be. Raj waited for Naina at the end of the stairwell as she descended holding Adi’s and Tanu’s hands. He was mesmerized at seeing her in the alluring henna green, dark blue, and gold saree. Kundan came up and nudged him, saying in a low tone, “Close your mouth, bhaiya; you’ll catch a fly.” And then loudly, “Bhabhi, you look gorgeous. Now, how am I going to get a girl good enough to stand next to your sublime beauty?” He grinned.
Naina stopped on the last step and smiled. “Thanks Kundan. I am sure when you find the right girl, everyone else will fade away.”
Kundan gathered the kids and walked toward the center, giving Raj and Naina a moment to themselves. Raj offered his arm to Naina and then bent to speak in her ear, “You simply take my breath away. How am I going to last the next hour without kissing you, and tasting that delectable pulse throbbing at the base of your lovely neck?” His voice was low and sinfully seductive, radiating a heat that caused her to flush. It made her want to melt right there on the carpeted floor.
Naina swayed and then regained her composure. She glanced at the waiting family a little away, who all looked a little confused at their immobility. She smiled at them brightly and ran a hand over her saree, adjusting her pleats, conveying them her nervous need to take a breather. Then, tucking her hand around Raj’s arm, she turned to him slightly so that no one else could see her face. She proceeded to flutter her eyelashes and smiling enticingly before whispering in a husky tone, “Oh Raj! I want that too…so much. Let’s go up. I want your hands and lips on me, all of me…right now.”
Raj stumbled and having gulped a little too quickly started coughing. Naina thumped him on the back lightly and said with overly done sweetness, “What happened Raj? Kundan, could you get a glass of water please?....Hurry…..Thanks…Here Raj, take a sip. You’ll be OK. Poor you. I am sure someone is remembering you.”
Raj stared at her twinkling eyes, dancing with mischief, and muttered for her ears only, “You little minx! I’ll get you for this.”
“Sure Raj. I am all yours.”
Raj couldn’t believe she pulled a stunt like that in front of everyone. But then that was his Naina…always expect the unexpected. Life was sure going to be exciting with her…never a dull moment. He chuckled and shook his head, before straightening. Sliding his arm around her waist, he spread his fingers on her stomach, pulling her to him tightly. Two can play the game. Disregarding her feeble sound of protest, he walked to the center with her glued to his side. The others pretended to overlook the obvious interplay of attraction going on between the two.
Amid loud applause, laughter, and cheers, they exchanged rings. Everything was so sudden and impromptu that Naina had no time to buy a ring for Raj. When the time came, beeji slipped a ring into Naina’s palm. “Beeji, when did you…?”
“It’s your baba’s engagement ring, Naina. I went home and got it.”
“No buts, Naina. Raj is like a son to me. Consider this a blessing from your baba and me.”
Naina hugged her….this sweet, generous lady with a heart of gold, who came from nowhere and became her everything, who saved her, loved her, and sheltered her. To Naina, if there was God, it first resided within this beautiful woman and then anywhere else. “I love you, beeji.”
After the ceremony, Kundan insisted on grouping everyone together for family pictures. Naina looked around, seeking Padmavati. Through the evening she had noticed the older woman to be edgy and tense. Naina smiled to herself, knowing what was causing her step-mother-in-law’s nervousness. Her searching eyes found her near the French windows speaking rapidly and furiously on her cell phone.
Naina walked up to her and heard the fag end of her ranting, “I am telling you he has been released. He sent me a text and wants to meet me…No, no….you go there and…”
“Everything OK, Choti Ranisa?”
Padmavati stiffened and then spun around with a false smile, “All fine, Naina. Just minor palace problems. These people…they have to call me for petty issues.”
“Oh! I am sure you will solve any problem that comes your way. Beeji says that when one is looking at the mirror, one is looking at the solution, but one forgets that one is also looking at the problem.” Naina looked at her pointedly.
“What? Umm…yes…I guess so. Your beeji is a wise lady.”
“She sure is. I just came to call you to join us for the family photographs.”
“Of course. You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Naina turned and found Raj’s eyes on her, his gaze querying. She nodded.
One Hour Past Midnight………..
They were sitting on the wooden floor of the loft office of the under-construction stables. The burned-out shell was long cleaned out off the piles of ashes and debris. A brand new wooden frame was up. The ground floor had a long corridor with stalls for horses on both sides. On the opposite end of the main entrance was the storage area along with living quarters of the stable hands. The office, built over the main entrance, had a spiral stairwell next to the first stall. Currently, only the skeletal framing was complete, without fittings of windows or doors or fixing of interiors.
At this precise moment Naina’s world was a little off-balanced and askew. Raj’s lips were on a journey of their own. He was holding her tight on his lap and kissing her hungrily…a kiss of possessiveness…a kiss of fire and flame and at the same time seductively sweet. His mouth was warm, soft, and faintly tasted of champagne…lingering effect of a toast between the brothers after everyone had retired for the night. Naina loved this feeling of being in love…this feeling of complete surrender…this feeling that simply a kiss was the most sensual trip to paradise. Just then an owl hooted loudly from a close-by tree. Naina jumped slightly, coming back to reality. Her fingers stopped their wandering through Raj’s hair. She brought a hand on his chest and tried to gently push him away. He groaned in protest and nuzzled her ear lobe.
“What are we doing?”
“Mmm! I am making love to my fiancée. Now, where was I?”
She pushed him properly and got up, walking to the glass-less window, a dull moonlight streaming in through the leaves of the tree outside. “Raj, we are here to see to the end of the attacks on you...and not get sidetracked. Gosh, we are behaving like teenagers.”
“You have bewitched me sweetheart. I just can’t seem to resist touching you and kissing you.” He arose and stood behind her, hugging her from behind, dropping a kiss on her head, “Relax Naina! There’s still time.”
“What time is it?”
“I am. It’s middle of the night and you smell of fresh flowers. You smell of Spring. You…”
Naina turned and clamped a hand on his mouth, a smile playing on her lips, “You are incorrigible Colonel. What will I do with you?”
“Simple. Love me.”
“I do. Now, the time. Where’s the mobi…”
“Shssh!” Raj brought his mouth close to her ear, “Someone is coming.”
“Where? I can't see anyone.” Naina squinted her eyes and tried to seek human form through the shadows below.
Raj turned her chin slightly, “Two o’ clock. Behind that hedge. Now.”
Naina inhaled sharply, “I can see. A man.” She grasped Raj’s arm and whispered, “It worked, Raj. It worked. My sending him a text through that goon’s mobile did the trick.”
“Yes, my genius warrior, it worked.”
“We can only hope your stepmother too bites the bait.”
“She has, sweetheart. Look.” Someone had stepped out of the back gate of the mahal.
The man reached the stable door first. Raj and Naina saw him enter the stable, light a candle he took out from his pocket, and keep it on the window sill of the second stall facing the mahal.
“Sheesh! It’s a scene straight out of a 1950s’ suspense movie.” Naina rolled her eyes and whispered.
“So, who gave them this godforsaken time and the weird instructions regarding the candle?” Raj teased.
“Thank your stars that I didn’t play the song “Gumnam hai koi…Badnam hai koi.”
“You should have. The setting would have been complete then.” Raj chuckled soundlessly.
Before Naina could say anything, Choti Ranisa stepped inside the stable. She saw the man and stopped short, “You? What are you doing here?”
“Err, Namaste Choti Ranisa. I am supposed to meet someone here. But what are you doing here?”
Raj and Naina saw realization dawning on Padmavati. Her expressions turned from confusion to lividity. She strode toward the man wagging her finger, “Jaswant Singh, you fool. Your man played us. I will not spare you this mistake. You picked up this man. You told me that he is a small fry but loyal to you, and knows how to deal with tight situations. You said he didn’t know who I was. All lies. Not only did he get out of jail, he found out my identity and asked me to meet him here. Now if I don’t give in to his demands, he is sure to go to the authorities…or worst, to my husband. Damn! What a mess?”
“My apologies, Choti Ranisa. I just don’t know how they released him. Just yesterday I visited him in the jail, and he said he is likely to get few years for attempted murder. I promised him that once you leave Palampur, I’ll break him out of the prison.”
“Obviously, he had other connections.”
“Please give me another chance Choti Ranisa. I won’t fail you this time. You will get to take your stepson’s dead body to Devisar when you leave. It’s a promise.”
Naina swore under her breath and started for the stairs. Raj pulled her back, “Just a moment more, Naina. She hasn’t yet said anything incriminating.”
They looked down. Padmavati was pacing up and down. She stopped in front of Jaswant, “Listen carefully to what I say. We don’t have much time. Your man should be here any moment now. Whatever he asks of me, I’ll agree to all his demands. You have to finish him as soon as you leave these premises. I’ll take care of Raj. Are you carrying your gun?”
“Give it to me. Raj goes for morning walks outside the mahal. Tomorrow morning, I’ll follow him and shoot him as soon as he takes the turn to the hill. Nobody is around at that time.”
“But Choti Ranisa, the police will come and search the premises. You should not have the gun with you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll dump it in the Armory. There are so many guns there that by the time they go through all of them, I’ll be long gone.”
Naina could not hold back any longer. She stepped down the stairs, disregarding a soft “Naina wait” from Raj, and strode toward Padmavati, shaking with anger as she stood before her would-be mother-in-law, “My God! I have seen a few evil faces in my lifetime, but you take the honors of being the most diabolical woman I have ever met. How can you be so cold-blooded as to plan the murder of your son?”
“My husband’s son. Get your facts right. I have only one son. Kundan.” After the initial shock wore over, Padmavati was quick to recover. She pointed the gun at Naina and said, “Raj is nothing but a lame thorn in my Kundan’s way. Just because he was born before my son, Ranaji has willed him the major share of his inheritance. Kundan gets a pittance in comparison.”
Raj stepped forward. When Jaswant tried to stop him, all it took was one punch at the right place from Raj for him to drop to the ground with a thud…out cold. Padmavati swung the gun between Naina and Raj, “Don’t move Raj. I am serious.”
“I know Choti Ranisa. You did your best to get me killed. What confuses me is that why would you go to such extreme lengths. Did you even stop to think once that I left Devisar because I did not want to stay there? Nor did I want any share in the property? I gave away my share to the charity before I came. Remember?”
“Bah! All hogwash. If that were the case, why did Ranaji change his will? You must have repented your decision and influenced your father. Sorry Raj. Nothing you say will convince me of otherwise. Kundan will get his fair share only after you die.” She looked at Naina, “You got yourself involved unnecessarily. Good news is since you two are not yet married, your son is out of the equation, otherewise….Anyways, you know everything. So I’ll have to kill you too.”
“Then, following the logic, you should kill me too.” Kundan stunned all by stepping through the door. “Right mother? After all I too heard everything.”
Padmavati staggered back a couple of steps, completely in shock. “How did you get here? You were supposed to be in bed.”
“For that I should thank Sachin Tendulkar. I had just finished watching late-night viewing of some of his greatest innings and was coming to my room when I saw you slither out. I followed you. Simple. So, you didn’t answer. I am getting killed too, right?” His speech was may have been laced with humor but the eyes staring at his mother reflected deep contempt.
Raj said, “Stay out of this Kundan. Don’t involve yourself. This is too personal for you.”
Kundan looked at his brother, his eyes glistening, “I am already involved bhaiya. Even though by default. If I had not heard and seen with my own eyes, I never would have believed that my own mother…,” he choked and broke off, too overwhelmed with disappointment and disgust.
Padmavati understood that with Kundan in the know-how of her sordid scheme, her game was up, so she tried to salvage the situation, “Kundan, my darling son, no one is getting killed here. I just…I just thought I’ll scare these two a little so that Raj signs over his shares to you and you get what you rightfully deserve. After all you are going to carry forward your ancestors’ legacy in Devisar, not Raj.”
“Really? Wow, ma. Listen to yourself. I must say, when you plan…you plan. But then you missed out on one major point.”
“Whether I would want to be a pawn in your grand scheme of things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that regardless of whether bhaiya returns to Devisar or not, it’s a “No thank you; I am outta here” from my side. Simply put, I have decided that I won’t return to Devisar. I have wasted enough years of my life. I wish I had bhaiya to guide me in my growing years. Anyways, better late than never. I am going to stay here with bhaiya and bhabhi and try to become something in life…maybe join army even.” He stepped forward and took the gun from his mother and gave to Raj. He faced them with folded hands, “I apologize on my mother’s behalf. I had no idea she was causing such devilry and trying to bodily harm you. If you wish to, we can hand her over to the police.”
Raj sighed and pressed his temple with his thumb and index finger, “Let’s not be impetuous Kundan. Her arrest will cause lot of pain to a lot of people…people we love and respect. We don’t want that. Plus the family’s name will be dragged in mud. We have to forget this incident and move on.”
“But Raj,” Naina touched his arm, “if we keep quiet, where’s the guarantee that Choti Ranisa wouldn’t again try to harm you?”
“She won’t Naina. This night’s events have been duly recorded by that camera I had installed when all of us were in the mahal celebrating our engagement. Altaf mian got it done.” The other three looked up where Raj was pointing, to find a CCTV camera turned on them. Raj stared at his stepmother for a beat, shook his head, and turned toward the door, “Kundan, tie up this man with those ropes. I’ll make some calls. He belongs behind bars.”
Kundan nodded, “I am onto it. By the way bhaiya, what about the third angle of this triad? The third man? He should be turning up around this time.”
Raj smiled, “There's no third man. Naina sent the texts to their phones from the jailed goon's phone.”
Padmavati's eyes widened, “You mean that man is still in jail?”
It was Naina who answered, “Yes. It's just his phone that was paroled for a few hours. And before you ask, the police station staff were on this and they were instructed to tell anyone who called up that your goon had been released."
“You conned me?" Padmavati's eyes flashed fire.
Kundan paused in his task of tying a knot on the fallen goon's wrists and looked up, "Seriously ma! You have some nerve asking that of bhabhi."
Padmavati immediately melted and tried once more. She grabbed Kundan’s arm, “Please listen to me Kundan. I…”
He jerked off his hand from her grip and stood up, “Save it mother. You have a lot to answer for. Throughout my life you kept me away from bhaiya and, later, Tanu, and tried to fill my mind with filth against them. Consider it poetic justice. You tried to take away bhaiya from us, but God took your own son away from you. I won’t have anything to do with you anymore. Go inside. And try to behave during the opening ceremony tomorrow, otherwise I won’t be responsible for my actions.”
A defeated Padmavati turned toward the mahal. Near the gate, Naina halted her, “I want to have a word with you Choti Ranisa.” She crossed her arms and said gravely, “You sent men to attack Raj, and you just now threatened me with my son’s life. Raj is a good man, and he has his reasons to keep this under wraps, and I respect them. However, I have none. Please remember that. If you so much as point a finger at my family, I’ll discredit you so badly that even exile won’t be an option for you.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Absolutely not. I am stating a future fact that you would do very well to avoid for your own good.”
Naina dropped her arms and strode inside without looking back. Padmavati’s mouth felt dry as she stared at the retreating figure, realizing what it felt like to bite the dust…literally.
Sagai = engagement ceremony
To be continued……..
Note: I once again apologize for this delay.
Friends, I need your vote on another point: Chapter 29 or Epilogue OR Chapter 29 and Epilogue?