Friday, February 27, 2015

Secret Passion 30-35

First of all, thanks for all the messages of support. Really. It's a huge reason I'm still continuing with this (writing on arhi, that is).
I honestly did not think it would take me this long to get back, but several of my friends gave me some really wise advice. They said to not push it and to write when I felt like it. So that's just what I did.
I started writing randomly late Monday night and once I got into, I couldn't stop. I can't explain how much I missed writing on ArHi. It hit me when I started writing again how much this means to me.
I'm not sure what I'm going to do about Enemy Lines and a few other things I had planned (let's wait and see on that), but I do know that I will finish every story I start. Baby Hold On and Desert Heat are very close to their natural ends while Secret Passion is no where near done so for now, I'll stick with these and make up mind on where to go from here when the time comes. Who knows if anyone will even be reading arhi ff then anyway...
Instead of posting just one update, I'm posting two chapters of Secret Passion today so we get sort of back on track with things. I hope you like them. They are true roller coasters.
I'd like to reiterate once again, that all my work is copyright protected. Under US copyright law, fanfiction is protected at its time of creation just like anything else. Please see link above about more on copyright laws if you want.
I sincerely ask that anyone who sees any part of this material posted elsewhere, please get in touch with me either on IF or here. Action will be taken as it has in the past. Thankfully, I have a lot of very vigilant readers out there and that makes me feel so much better (it's one of the biggest reasons I don't restrict this blog).
One last warning: Secret Passion is a mature romance for a reason. Episode 30 delves into the extreme side of BDSM (though not in an overly graphic way).
Please keep that in mind.
ps. also posting a BHO teaser. Look out for it soon…
pss. Please leave all comments on the comment thread (link above). I'm really behind on replies but I will try to do that soon. I do read each message fyi. Just like always.

-Tina

NO COPYING, DISTRIBUTING OR ANY USE OF ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL STRICTLY ALLOWED. IF YOU NOTE ANY PART OF THIS MATERIAL ON ANY OTHER SITE OTHER THAN INDIA FORUMS UNDER USERNAME TINA!, INFORM ME ASAP. ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IMMEDIATELY. Copyright TINA.
Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 30: Runway
Khushi felt her husband stiffen beside her, the waves of barely repressed rage rolling off of his body more than palpable. Across from them, his ex was busy preening for the cameras still, something about her plastic looking features reminding Khushi of a lizard sunbathing on a giant rock. As she turned toward Khushi with a mocking smile, Nicole's eyes glinted with the knowledge that she'd bested them tonight.
The hell she had.
"I don't need to answer any more of your questions," Khushi said in a voice that was very unlike her. It was brusque and edged with icy cold finality.
Arnav's gaze snapped to her, but Khushi willed herself not to glance his way. Doing so would shatter something deep inside of her. It would hurt to see him gazing at her again with such anguish in his eyes, silently pleading with her to trust him. To believe in him. Something sharp tugged at her heart.
"What did you say?" Nicole James appeared more baffled than ever and Khushi relished the look of shock and surprise that flooded her face. Even all that designer foundation couldn't quite conceal it.
"Khushi, I'm trying to help you," she cried. "I'm on your side. This man is the worst--"
"Don't!" The threat in her voice stunned everyone gathered, including Arnav. "Don't you dare insult my husband," Khushi hissed. "Just because we haven't reacted to your ridiculous claims yet, does not mean you can spout off any nonsense you want. You don't know my husband. You never did! Because anyone who truly knows him, who knows him beyond what magazines or sensationalist interviews like this one portray him as, would know that he would never, ever, abandon a child. And especially not his own child."
"But he did! He left me--"
Khushi cut her off with a seething glare. "He must have had a very good reason to break things off with you I'm sure, but to make it out to be a supposed pregnancy is honestly, incredibly stupid of you. No one is going to believe it, you realize? Least of all me." Her gaze swung to the camera. "To those watching, my husband's private life has never been very private unfortunately due to his position as CEO of AR Designs. You've heard countless rumors and stories, and I understand that. Gossiping about someone else sometimes doesn't feel all that wrong, especially when it's a celebrity or public figure. But have you ever considered the man behind it? The man who faces all that scrutiny, all those cheap accusations so often it's become habit by now? So common that he stopped defending himself long ago because he realized there's no point to it. That with such success comes its share of mudslinging too. That there will always be people out there hoping to use his name for a few minutes under the spotlight."
She felt Arnav's heavy gaze on her again, but she reacted only by slipping her hand into his. His fingers curled around hers and clung. Clung with promise and hope.
Her voice rose with more conviction as something warm and powerful expanded in her chest. "These rumors may seem harmless, but as we can all see tonight, they have very serious repercussions. Tonight, you've just witnessed a publicity-hungry ex-supermodel defame my husband by--"
"Publicity-hungry?" Nicole bounded up, her eyes bright. "How dare you!"
Though Arnav tried to restrain her, Khushi stood too, not once drawing back.
"Baby, it's not worth it," he whispered with a look of distaste.
She squeezed his hand. "I know, but this needs to be stopped." Her gaze swung to Nicole again. "Tell me, if your story is true, why did you wait over a year to tell it? Why did you agree to interview a man you supposedly cannot stand? A man whom you claim betrayed you? If you hated him so much, how could you bear to be near him? Hug him as you did? Almost kiss him?"
Nicole looked stricken in the bright light. "I... I..."
Khushi's eyebrow rose. "Need a few minutes to make up more lies? Let me answer for you. You planned this whole interview, without our knowledge, in order to get some much-needed publicity. Isn't that right?"
Her whitening face was answer enough. "Shut this down!" she screeched to the crew. "Shut it down now!"
No one reacted and with an oath, Nicole darted to the nearest camera, slamming it to the ground. There was uproar and the room was suddenly filled with angry shouts. Producers and crew were yelling at Nicole for cutting short what was sure to be a rating-fetching spectacle while she appeared downright crazed, blaming them for all of it.
As Khushi eyed the chaos, she felt nothing but disgust. She didn't want to be here another second. "Ready to leave, baby?" she asked Arnav.
Her lips parted as she gazed up at him. He wasn't watching the commotion surrounding them. In fact, he seemed hardly aware of the shouting. His warm gaze was trained solely on her face, radiating with an intensity that left Khushi feeling oddly tongue-tied.
"Arnav?" she whispered, wetting her dry lips.
His jaw flexed as his gaze lowered to her mouth. His hand tightened around hers. "Come on. Let's get the hell out of here."
They were almost at the door when Nicole marched up to them, her face twisted with spite.
"Leaving so soon? Don't you two want to stay awhile longer?"
"No, thanks," Khushi said frostily. "Step out of the way."
Nicole flung her a furious glare. "This is all your fault! All of it! You're nothing but a middle-class gold digger and you have the audacity to call me names! I wasn't lying! ASR is a cheating womanizer who abandoned his own child and--"
The echoing crack of a slap rang out in the room and Nicole raised a hand to her reddened cheek, her eyes wide and incredulous. Her lips contorted all the more.
"You can go to jail for that, Mrs. ASR. You realize that, don't you?"
Khushi shrugged. "Before me, it's you that would find yourself there. Defaming someone publicly as you just did is a serious offense. You realize that, don't you?" Her mocking tone had the desired effect. Nicole looked suddenly very afraid.
"It can't be proven," she whispered. "No one can--"
"Actually it can."
Khushi gazed up at her husband with surprise. He'd been silent so far.
"What?" Nicole whispered. "You're lying!"
Arnav's lips thinned. "I'm not the liar. That's always been you. I have security footage from that night in Paris. It shows everything. I could easily release it."
"You wouldn't. ASR, you loved me once. I was your world!"
He shook his head. "I never loved you. I might have been a bit infatuated in the beginning, but it was never love."
"Love, lust, what difference does it make?" Nicole appeared hysterical suddenly and Khushi could only wonder what was so damning on those security tapes. What made her so afraid?
"There's a world of a difference," her husband ground out beside her, slipping back into his usual seamless control. "I don't expect you to understand it though." He tugged on Khushi's hand, shooting a final, withering glance toward his ex-girlfriend. "My lawyers will see you in court, Ms. James. My wife's absolutely right. What you did today has serious repercussions."
"Please! You can't! I'll do anything."
She was still pleading when they left the room, a dumbfounded group of cameramen tailing after them. Aman appeared at their elbow.
"This is my entire fault. I'll handle everything," he said in a great rush, casting apologetic glances toward Khushi especially. "Nicole James won't bother either one of you again."
To his surprise, his boss was entirely calm about the very public fiasco that had just taken place. "It's not your fault, Aman, but you better make sure that neither my wife nor I have to ever deal with that woman again."
"Will do. I'll speak to the lawyers right away."
The walk to their suite down the hall passed in a foggy daze for Khushi. As soon as the door was shut and locked behind them, and there were no more intrusive cameras, no more shouting, she sagged down on the mattress, her hands rising to her face. She was trembling, her body literally shaking.
"Khushi... Love..."
Her husband's hand settled on her shoulder and she glanced up to see him sitting beside her, concern brewing in his turbulent gaze. She could hold back no longer. With a cry, she threw herself into his arms, burrowing her face against the crisp softness of his shirt. He held her with the same unbreakable grip, raining kisses on her face, her hair, the crease of her neck.
"God, I love you," he whispered, shaken. "What the hell did I do to deserve you?"
"Don't." She stopped his self-loathing words with a gentle kiss. It quickly turned into something all together different though and with a gasp, she clung to him, losing herself in that same, all-consuming passion. Their tongues mated heatedly.
"I'm sorry, babe," Arnav murmured when they came up for air, cupping her cheek in his hand. His thumb stroked over her moist lips. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that."
She leaned her cheek against his palm. "Why are you apologizing? If anyone should be, it's that witch. I can't believe how low people can stoop for a bit of fame. Did she really think I'd believe her?" Shaking her head, she pecked his lips. "I know you. I trust you. I know you'd never leave a child like that." She may have doubted him about DL, but that had been an unfortunate misunderstanding. She refused to repeat that same mistake now.
"But--"
Khushi halted his protests with another swift kiss and with a low groan, he relented, his mouth smooth and hungry against hers. Kneeling before him, she started to work her way down his body, unable to stop touching him. As she undid the buttons of his shirt, Khushi pressed her mouth to each patch of revealed skin with loving attention, splaying her palms over his taut muscles. He was warm and hard, and the feel of his arousal made her body clench. The need to be with him felt as necessary as breathing suddenly.
"Khushi." His hand pulled on her hair and she found him watching her again, his gaze suddenly charged with emotions. "Wait."
"What's wrong?"
He stared at her a long moment, seeming to search for something.
"Arnav?"
His eyes fluttered close and she thought she saw him shudder.
"You're scaring me. What is it?" As her hand cupped his cheek, his stubble scratching the skin of her palm, he met her gaze evenly, a strange harshness taking hold of his chiseled features. When he spoke, his voice sounded almost hollow.
"I didn't leave her because she was pregnant. Nicole was lying about that. But..." He swallowed. "I'm not sure if the child was mine or not."
Khushi felt something break within her, crippling her. "What do you mean you're not sure? How can someone not be sure about that? Was it your child or not?"
His eyes, which usually gave her an inkling of what he was really thinking, revealed nothing this time.
"I don't know."
Khushi scrambled to her feet, her gaze stricken. "How can you not know?"
Arnav stood too. His hands reached out for her, but Khushi backed away. A look of hurt crossed his face, but she didn't waver.
"Was it... was it your child?" Please say no... Please...
For a moment, everything seemed to stand still and a terrible silence echoed in the chasm between them.
"I wish I could tell you for sure, but I can't. It might have been."
Khushi felt that same awful pain explode, piercing her heart. She stumbled away from him. "You lied to me..."
Before she could get away, he took her by the shoulders, swinging her around.
"Don't!" she cried, fighting him off, heedless to the tears running down her face and blurring her vision.
"Khushi, babe, stop. Listen to me."
"LET ME GO!"
He held her even tighter and as she twisted and flailed, he suddenly shouted, "She cheated on me! With my best friend!"
His words stilled her. Eyes wide, she looked up to find him drawing away. As she stood there, not knowing whether to leave or stay, her husband crumpled on the mattress.
"I was never in love with Nicole James. We had the type of relationship that was purely materialistic. Selfish. I got what I wanted and she got what she did: which was more money than she'd ever seen before. She was thrown into a life of luxury she'd never imagined. Just like you..." His eyes whipped to her and quickly darted away, as if he couldn't bear to see the accusation in her gaze. "But you both reacted very differently. Women like Nicole only wanted me for my money. They were willing to do anything for it, including pretending to love me. Little did they know, I always saw right through it. It wasn't until Lucknow last year that for the first time, a woman surprised me." He glanced at her. "Do you have any idea how refreshing it was for you to not be dazzled by my wealth? How rare? You didn't pretend to even like me. Hell, I knew you hated me."
Khushi finally found her voice. "What best friend? You've never mentioned anyone before. You've never mentioned any of this before."
He nodded slowly. "I know and I'm sorry for that, but I made a promise to myself to never think about Nicole and whatever happened. They both ceased to exist for me after that night."
There was a world of hurt in his voice and somehow Khushi made her way to the edge of the mattress, not quite touching him, but sitting close. "What happened?" she managed.
Arnav felt his breath catch and it took everything in him to resist the urge to take her into his arms and comfort her. "It's a long story..." he finally said. "Well, you know me, I never really had any good friends. Akash and NK are close to me, but even with them, I'm more a brother than a friend."
Khushi nodded. She knew all this. "Who's the best friend?" Or was...
"AJ," he whispered. "We met during college. He came from a rich family like me, except his parents were happily married. His mom thought I was a bad influence. She was always telling him to avoid me and make new friends, but he never listened. He was the one person I trusted in those days."
"What happened then?"
He shrugged. "I don't know... I thought everything was perfect--well, as much as it could be at that time. I had a pretty, though highly irritating girlfriend whom everyone envied, AR Designs was growing more than I ever thought it would, and Di was even better and seemed happy with Jha. Me, AJ, and Nicole were partying in Paris on New Year's Eve. I'd booked an entire hotel for us and our group of friends." His brow furrowed. "You know, I can't even recall the names of the other people. I didn't care enough to find out or remember--one of the two. I'm not proud of those days, Khushi, but I don't want to hide anything from you."
"I don't want you to." Her voice was emotionless. "What happened in Paris?"
Arnav lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. "I was dancing with some woman and through the smoke and haze, I noticed AJ and Nicole. They were standing in a corner, fighting. I saw Nicole say something and storm out the back entrance. AJ followed her. And I followed him." His eyes flew open, meeting hers. "I found them in a side alley, pressed up against a brick wall, kissing."
Startled, Khushi could only stare at him. "That's just like--"
"--what happened at Indigo. I know. Whoever planned that was well aware of my history. She went through a lot of trouble to recreate the Paris incident. She probably knew it would be a living nightmare for me. You in Nicole's place. With Nicole, I'd been shocked, but I hadn't been truly jealous or anything. But just the thought of you in that position..." His jaw clenched.  "I'd rip apart any man who got close to you like that. I almost did that night. But that woman made a mistake. She didn't realize that I'm not the same man I was then. She didn't understand how well I know you. I know you'd never willingly kiss anyone else. You'd never betray me. She underestimated our love, the trust between us..."
Trust? Khushi ached to ask, but something stopped her.
"The incident at Indigo was completely different from whatever happened in Paris," Arnav continued, his eyes seeking hers. "That night, I heard AJ and Nicole talking a bit before I confronted them. Unlike me, they were drunk, but that was no excuse for what they'd done. From what I could tell, it was clear they'd been going behind my back from the start. AJ's family business had apparently suffered a huge loss and through Nicole, he was getting money. My money." His jaw clenched. "I didn't give a damn about Nicole, but his betrayal hurt. More than I could have ever thought it would. I would have given him a blank check if he'd just asked me, Khushi. I would have helped him. But he went behind my back. He used our friendship in the worst possible way. We got into a huge fight that night in the alley. Paparazzi arrived. It became a headline: Drunk CEO Loses Control in Paris Over Girlfriend. How accurate, right?"
His dull smirk made Khushi's heart throb. She ached to smooth away the line of tension marring his forehead. But she did no such thing. Her fingers knotted on her lap. "What about Nicole...and the baby?"
He folded his hands under his head, gazing up at the ceiling. "She showed up at Shantivaan the following week, claiming she'd been forced to do everything by AJ. When I told the guards to throw her out, she said she was pregnant and that I was the father."
"Were you?"
Arnav shrugged, a deep sadness rimming his eyes. "I don't know. It's possible. It's even more possible it was AJ's child. I told her if there was a baby, I'd accept it in my life, but not her. We were done. She didn't like that. The next week, she claimed to have had a miscarriage, although I suspect it was more her doing than anything else... A magazine paid her a lot of money for a tell-all interview. Of course, she blamed everything on me, leaving out any mention of AJ. The interview gave her some fame, but it died down eventually, as it always does. She went back to modeling and I decided to go to Lucknow. I had to escape Delhi. I felt suffocated there. I had no idea that I'd run into you then." His gaze softened as it rested on her, tracing over her features with that same soul-shattering intensity. "When I met you, Khushi, friendship, love--none of that held any meaning for me. I was really cold with you, wasn't I? So damn rude. I'm sorry, baby--" He began to take her hand in his, but Khushi drew back, her body rigid with tension.
His brow furrowed as he studied her. "Khushi?"
She exhaled, hoping her voice didn't reveal how much his story had affected her. "How many days were there between your breakup with Nicole and meeting me?"
"How does that matter?"
"Please. Tell me."
He sat up, running a hand through his hair. "I don't know... a week or so."
Her heart throbbed all over again, but she maintained the facade of calm indifference. "Thank you for finally telling me."
Arnav watched with parted lips as she rose from the bed, striding to the balcony. He was up in seconds, catching her by the elbow.
"Thank you? Is that all you have to say?" His penetrating gaze almost undid her control.
She moistened her dry lips. "Yes. Thank you. But you should have told me sooner." She started to free herself, but he swung her back around.
"Khushi, stop this. What's wrong with you?"
Her control finally snapped and she pulled away from him, her eyes wild. "Don't you realize what's wrong? You kept this from me all this time. I'm your wife, Arnav! I have every right to know."
His head shook dismissively. "It's all in the past. None of it matters. Nicole and AJ are dead to me. Always will be. I saw no reason to bring up things that frankly are meaningless."
"Another woman having your baby is not meaningless!" Khushi cried.
"It might not have been mine!" he growled.
"But it could have been! I don't understand how you could have been intimate with someone to the point of creating a child and say none of it mattered. How can that level of intimacy not involve some feelings?"
Arnav swore under his breath, savagely. "You're comparing what we share to something that's completely different. What we have is not what everyone else does. We make love, Khushi. We love each other. With Nicole, it was just our bodies. Nothing else."
Khushi closed her eyes, but that didn't stop it. Horrible, gut-churning images of her husband and Nicole swamped her mind. Nicole touching him... he touching her... She felt sick to her stomach.
Stepping before her, Arnav framed his wife's too pale face in his palms. "Khushi, listen to me. It's all in the past. None of it mattered. I was a different man then."
Her hands rose, but instead of embracing him as he'd imagined she would, she instead pushed at his chest. God, it hurt.
"I know," she murmured, her voice so low he had to strain to hear it. "I'm probably being silly for caring about any of it, but I can't help it. Every time I close my eyes, I see you with her... I can't bear it, Arnav."
He embraced her hard, breathing in her scent. "Tell me how I can fix this. Tell me and I'll do it."
She quivered in his arms. "Leave me alone for a while. Please. I need to be alone."
Her words cut him deep and although he did not want to, he forced himself to take a step backwards. His hands fisted at his sides uselessly.
Khushi wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and with a long, lingering look at him, slipped out onto the balcony, closing the French doors behind her.
Sinking down on the mattress, Arnav held his head in his hands. He racked his brain to recall if Khushi had ever requested something similar before, about leaving her alone... He could not recall it. Even when she'd hated him, she'd never asked him to leave. She'd never shuddered in his arms before as if she couldn't bear his touch.
He cursed, his hands itching for a cigarette. Instead, he picked up his phone. Aman picked up immediately.
"Yes, boss?"
"Get the plane ready. I want to leave Thailand tonight." He cut the call without another word, throwing it aside.
Maybe being home would calm things between Khushi and him. It was a small hope, but his only hope.
*****
Payal kept to the shadows as she made her way down the darkened alleyway, casting anxious glances over her shoulder every now and then.
There was no reason for it. No one suspected her. No one ever had. But still, she couldn't help but worry. God help her if anyone ever found out.
She should stop, she realized. It was the wisest thing to do. But problem was, she couldn't seem to. Ever since her first taste of the forbidden, she'd returned time and time again, yearning for more. The air of danger only heightened that ache, making her pulse race in a most exciting way.
A lone security guard stood at the back entrance, tucked a good distance from the busy street and far from prying eyes. As she neared, Payal laced her favorite white mask into place. It was silky soft against her skin and left only the bottom half of her face uncovered. Marching up to the guard, she held out her hand.
A platinum card glinted in the dim light. It wasn't an ID or anything remotely similar, but a simple design embossed with the words: DL--Premium Membership. With a curt nod, the guard opened the door for her.
Grinning, Payal tucked the card back into her purse. It had cost a fortune, but Akash, absent-minded and clueless as he was, hadn't missed it, chalking it up to his last failing venture.
She shook the thought of her husband aside. He'd left for Nainital again last night. This time luckily without her.
Her expression brightened as she thought of the man she should be thanking for her husband's absence. Arnav had done her such a huge favor and he didn't even realize it. If only she could thank him. Properly. In her own sinful way.
Though it was late, DL was busier than usual, the hushed tones of conversation striking her ears as she stepped inside the spacious main hall. Dark oak paneling surrounded her, elegant sconces casting the room in just enough light to see by.
"It's going to some exhibition," murmured a tall man, stroking his goatee beneath a dark green mask.
"I heard it's a newbie. I love those."
"Me too. The repeats are boring. There's a reason they're not accepted the first time. I think they should change the rules and end the practice of Reconsideration."
"Yes, but some of the best have been repeats. Remember Madame--"
Payal brushed past the group. She didn't have time to listen to any more debates. Not tonight.
Inside her favorite room at DL, she visibly relaxed. The Prep Room's walls were draped in thick, black satin. The furniture was ultra modern and minimalistic. It screamed two of her most favorite things--aside from a certain Raizada and his allure, that is--wealth and luxury.
"Robe, Madame?" A willowy young woman with a rose pink mask held open a black robe and Payal shook her head, walking past her to an empty cubicle.
She was so used to the routine by now, she didn't require instructions. Before the curtain could fully close behind her, her hands were already pulling on her clothes. She undressed without pause, something hot and giddy spreading in her veins. The two attendants picked up her tossed clothes, folding them neatly and setting them on a high shelf.
For the next hour, Payal was bathed, oiled, waxed, and pampered till not an inch of her skin remained untouched. Sighing, she rolled onto her stomach, enjoying the easy familiarity of the massage.
She should be nervous, she knew. Fearful even.  But she felt none of that. DL was one of the few places she felt free to be herself. No longer quiet, meek Payal, but a masked beauty, ready and more than willing to confront her darkest desires.
If there was one detail that spoiled her fantasy, it was ASR's absence. If only ASR was with her... One day, he would be, she vowed.
Stepping out of the cubicle, she stretched her back. A black-masked woman strode up to her, naked too.
"Hello, Mrs. C," she said with a spreading smile, approaching Payal with feline grace.
Conversations at DL were limited and friendships weren't exactly encouraged, but Payal had come to know the woman in the black mask somewhat well. Unlike Payal, she was one of DL's old-timers, well known for her rather eccentric tendencies. Payal didn't know her real name, but the nicknames they all used gave some hint of her true face.
"Hello, Ms. X."
X for X-rated nodded. "Are you nervous for tonight?"
Payal shook her head defiantly. "Not at all. I chose this. I signed up."
"Yes, but I feel that was only because of my advice to you."
"Partly, yes, but it was entirely my decision. It's going to be close to six months I've been a regular here. I want to be one of the elite now. It's time."
Ms. X tipped her head sideways, her cat-like eyes gleaming. "Very true. I'm dying for you to join us in the elite lounge. It's something else up there." She licked her lips.
Payal allowed one of the attendants to slip on her a lacy, white robe, entirely transparent. "Have you heard anything about what they have planned for me, Ms. X?"
"No idea," the woman replied cryptically. "Initiations are kept secret until show time. I have heard though that Master Horatio has been chosen for you. He volunteered actually."
Payal heard her breath hitch. She knew a bit about Master Horatio. He was very, very high up in DL's inner circle. In the top tier. She'd seen him from a distance only once before, but even then he'd radiated power and an indefinable air of danger beneath a black mask.
Ms. X patted her arm. "Good luck, Mrs. C. I'll be watching."
Nodding, Payal turned in the opposite direction, through tall double doors and into the corridor. She needed luck, she realized. The last initiation she'd seen had been compelling and morbidly arousing.
The man had been precariously suspended from the ceiling by a few spiked ropes, his body jerking in time to flame-warmed whips that rained down on him. It had reminded her of a pitiful fly caught in a spider's web. The gleeful spider in this case had been Ms. X, who'd been in charge of the initiate's total submission that night.
Curious eyes followed her the entire way and Payal resisted the urge to smile. For once, she was undoubtedly the center of attention. She, Payal Gupta Raizada, and most certainly not her younger, unwanted cousin. Khushi couldn't snatch the limelight here. That clueless girl probably didn't even realize such a place like DL existed, Payal thought with no end to her amusement.
As she walked further along, shouts and grunts echoed from several of the closed doors nearby. Most of DL's training sessions occurred behind locked doors, but every month, one lucky submissive was chosen to join the highest rank, DL's elite league.
A man and a woman stood at the next pair of double doors, their hands poised over the golden handles.
"Are you prepared?" the woman asked, her eyes hard as granite behind her turquoise blue mask.
Head bowed, Payal nodded.
"Then enter," the man snarled.
And as the doors opened, Payal was suddenly thrust into a mammoth, pitch-black room, a single light lighting the way. It glowed more and more brightly as she stepped within and she found herself in the middle of what looked to be a boxing ring. Now that her heart rate had slowed down a bit, she could focus on the details. The spectators were in position and though conversation was strictly forbidden, she could hear the sound of their mingled breathing as they stood in the darkness, shoulder to shoulder, witnessing her greatest triumph.
A man of medium height and build stood facing away from her. He was wearing a satin robe, its hood hiding his hair. As he turned to face her, his icy blue eyes cut into her from behind a midnight black mask.
Contacts, Payal realized before falling onto her knees in obedience. He was taking extra precautions to protect his identity, just like Ms. X with her designer cat lenses. She would have done the same, but she'd found contacts to be horribly irritating. Never had she been more grateful for the mask.
Her heart sped as Master Horatio neared, his bare feet inching ever closer. Moisture gathered between her legs. For her, this man was not just any man, but ASR. Her ASR. She blocked out all else, aching to bow down and kiss his feet as he stepped closer still.
"Last chance to run, Mrs. C," he taunted, his voice cruel and yet, wildly arousing.
"I know."
"And?"
She wet her dry lips, at ease in her role as Mrs. Chote. "I choose to stay."
He tilted her chin up and smiled. It was a frightening smile, designed she knew to make her afraid though it had the exact opposite effect. Oh, ASR...
He spread his arms wide, for her benefit as well as those watching. "Then welcome. Welcome to the Demon's Lair, initiate."
*****
Monday morning dawned on Delhi with murky, cloud-filled skies. It aptly mirrored the mood Arnav found himself in.
One week.
A whole week had passed since he and Khushi had returned from Thailand and very little had changed. His wife had remained quiet and distant the entire flight back home and that behavior showed no sign of letting up anytime soon--if ever.
The first few days, he'd been patient and understanding. More than he ever thought he'd be. But a week later, he felt himself barely hanging on.
He wanted his wife back, dammit. He missed her love, her warmth, her easy friendship, her delectable, little body. This was the most they'd ever gone without making love and that was one fact he could not help but dwell on.
Jabbing a few keys on his laptop, he pulled up the company's security cameras. His eyes narrowed on Khushi's bent-over shape and he zoomed in. Despite his blatant disapproval, she'd moved back to her old cubicle on the first floor almost as soon as they'd returned. Unlike him, she seemed to be focused entirely on work this morning, busy going through a stack of new designs.
A knock sounded on his office door.
"Come in," he snapped, unable for the life of him to glance away from his wife. She was absently biting on her pen now and he felt desire surge in his veins, hot and volatile.
Lavanya beamed at him as she entered, seemingly impervious to his foul mood. She hadn't missed the distance between ASR and his wifey since their return. It had given her new hope. Hope for something she'd almost given up on.
"I have some files for you to look over and sign."
Arnav motioned to his desk, not looking up from his laptop. "Leave them here."
He was so engrossed in thoughts of Khushi, he never noticed Lavanya come closer till suddenly her hands descended to the tops of his shoulders.
He drew himself up and out of her reach, glaring at her. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" 
"I thought you could use a massage." She smiled and his frown deepened in response. "You look so exhausted these days, ASR. I can help."
"For the hundredth time, I don't need your goddamn help! Get out of here before I decide to fire you."
She pouted, but seeing the steely hardness in his gaze, stepped away. She was almost at the door when she paused.
"ASR, there's something else I have to discuss with you."
"Did you not hear me the first time? Leave, Lavanya."
At his tone, she flinched, but bravely met his furious glare. "But it's about Gupta."
Arnav bristled. "My wife's name is Khushi Raizada."
"Of course. Mrs. Raizada."
He turned away. "I'm in no mood to discuss my wife with you. You should go."
"But it's about her family!" she cried. "I don't think you realize what type of family you've married into, ASR. I'm only trying to look out for you."
He slammed his palm down on the mahogany desk, making her jump. "That's enough. You have exactly five seconds to exit this room. And don't even think about mentioning Khushi or her family in front of me again. I better not hear about it either. Because no matter how good you are with your work, I will fire you. Is that understood?"
She had no choice but to nod.
"Consider it my first and final warning, Lavanya."
Almost as soon as she was gone, his phone rang.
"A visitor for you, Mr. Raizada."
"Who the hell is it now, Aman?"
"Your cousin."
Arnav sighed. "Send him up." Since he knew Akash was in Nainital, having briefly spoken to him just this morning, he didn't have to be told which cousin it was.
NK looked nothing like his usual cheerful self as he entered. "Good morning," he said somberly as he took a seat opposite him, his smile not quite reaching his eyes.
"For some people," Arnav darkly murmured under his breath. "What's up with you, NK?"
His cousin looked taken aback. "What do you mean? I'm perfectly... perfect. You know me." He glanced around the office, looking surprised to find himself there. "This was a bad idea... I should go."
Arnav frowned. NK's over-the-top behavior usually grated on his nerves, but to see him so nervous and sullen-faced was in many ways, much worse, not to mention plain bizarre. "Sit back down. Now, what is it? What's bothering you?"
"Bothering me? Why would you say that, Naanav?" He tried to laugh it off, failing miserably.
Arnav's lips thinned. "Because you're not making any stupid jokes, you're not fumbling with your Hindi, and you showed up here dressed like that."
"Like what?" His bewildered gaze flew down to his clothes and widened. The SpongeBob pajamas were no dream. "I didn't realize..."
"I thought not."
His cousin put a hand to his temple, his mouth working several times though nothing came out. Finally he said, "It's Di."
At the mention of his sister, Arnav felt his whole body tense up. If that Jha had done anything to her, he'd--
"What happened?"
NK swallowed nervously, not meeting his fury-filled gaze. "I... I saw her... with him."
"With Jha?"
He nodded.
"And what? Was he hurting her? NK, tell me right now."
His cousin looked as if he were about to be sick. "No. Nothing like that... He was painting her... I mean on her..."
"What?"
NK sighed and in a very low voice, told him exactly what he'd seen. The crazed look on Shyam's face... Anjali moaning, not realizing her husband was painting a bull's eye on her stomach...
By the time he'd finished, Arnav didn't want to hear any more. Thankfully, he'd skipped breakfast otherwise he might have truly vomited.
"I can't prove it, Naanav," NK continued, "But there was something extremely creepy about it all. It wasn't like a normal husband and wife... And it's strange too how he paints in that room all day long. He never did before. I just thought you should know what I saw. Especially since you're not there anymore."
Arnav couldn't explain how glad he was NK was in Shantivaan to watch over his sister. Though she did not realize it or to put it more correctly, did not want to accept it, fact was, she was married to a man who was fit to be no one's husband.
In the past, he'd tried separating her from Jha countless times, even taking the help of several prominent doctors in the area, but it all had been futile. His sister would threaten to harm herself every damn time and she'd gone through with that threat more than a handful of times over the years. His stomach heaved as he recalled her last episode, her blood coating his fingers, hot and thick.
"Have you seen them? His paintings?"
Surprised by the question, NK shook his head. "He keeps them hidden under sheets and his studio is always kept locked when he's not there. It's all very strange."
"I need to get in there."
His cousin balked. "What?"
Arnav met his shocked gaze with a stiff nod, his jaw set. "I need to get in that room and see what he's doing. A man like Jha wouldn't hole himself inside a room for weeks on end without some reason. This painting hobby is nothing but an excuse, I think. And a stupid one at that. He's planning something..."
NK wiped a hand over his face. "I didn't think about that. Maybe... But what could it be?"
Arnav had no idea about that; he just had a suspicion. A terrible suspicion. "How can I get inside that room, NK? What's the easiest way?"
"I don't know... He's really careful these days. He never leaves it. I don't see how--"
"All we need is one opportunity. One."
NK was biting on his nails. "I can try to get the key and make a copy. It might take some time, but I think I could do it."
Arnav nodded encouragingly. "I bet you can do it. Let me know the moment you have it."
NK nodded, rising. Arnav's voice halted him near the door.
"Can you do me one more favor?"
Turning, his cousin raised an eyebrow. "Anything."
And this time, Arnav had to smile. Maybe more and more families these days were broken and dysfunctional, his being a prime example, but he had to say, there was still something about these strange blood ties that made it almost tolerable. He could trust them.
Well, some of them...
*****
To say Khushi was shocked when NK, dressed in bright yellow pajamas, came bounding up to her desk would be putting it mildly. But more than his odd choice of clothes, his words stunned her.
She blinked up at him stupidly, not quite believing her ears. "He what?"
NK nodded excitedly. "Naanav asked if I'd assist you with the bridal show coming up. Isn't this brilliant, Khushiji? We'll be working together. I have so many ideas already! Wait, till you hear them."
She managed a weak smile, half listening to him chatter on as her eyes swerved to the glass cabin on the floor above. As part of her had known, her husband stood there, arms crossed over his dark designer suit, watching her.
His hawk-like gaze heated her skin and her pulse picked up speed almost as if he were truly touching her, his hands and mouth grazing over her. It felt difficult to breathe, much less think, when he stared at her like that. As if all he wanted was to take her into his arms and consume her.
She shivered under the weight of his gaze and his lips twitched knowingly. Damn him. That was just it. He knew her too well, recognizing her body's instinctive response to him even from across the room.
Schooling her expression, Khushi turned to give NK some work that would hopefully keep him occupied for a while and then turned back around. Arnav was still there. Staring at her.
She frowned and this time there was no mistaking his grin. Was he laughing at her? She made up her mind to confront him when NK waved his hand over her face.
"Earth to Khushiji."
She blushed. How long had he been calling her name? How could she have not heard him? It was all one person's fault. A man whose initials remained engraved in her heart, her soul in spite of everything. Whose thoughts never once left her alone.
A. S. R.
"Yes, NK?"
"Is this really a wedding dress?" He held up the design she'd spent all morning editing. "It looks like a toga to me."
"Because it sort of is," she pointed out. "The inspiration for the show this year is brides of the world. This will be for Greece."
"Oh. Naanav never mentioned that."
"Of course he didn't," she whispered with more bitterness than was called for. Her husband had a bad habit of leaving a lot of information out. Some far more important than others. Her lips pursed as she recalled their argument in Thailand.
NK reached for a pen, the one she'd just put down. "Mind if I borrow this?"
She was about to say no, when a voice she'd have recognized anywhere cut in, hard and cold as steel: "I mind, NK. That one's mine. Here, use this."
Khushi sat dumbfounded as her husband pulled out a very expensive looking pen from his coat pocket and tucked her plastic one in its place. Would she ever understand him? Now he had a problem with her choice of pen?
He flashed her a heart-stopping, ridiculously sexy half-grin and her traitorous body clenched with familiar intimacy, reminding her all over again that he hadn't touched her in over a week. And this instantaneous, mindboggling reaction she had around him really did not help matters.
"I need to speak to you, Khushi."
His low, husky voice made her pulse hammer, something about how he said the words need and her name in the same sentence leading to all sorts of inappropriate images popping up in her head. She forced herself to pointedly glance aside. "Well, I'm busy as you can see."
He dipped his head, his breath teasing her nape. "Five minutes."
"I have too much to do." Stay strong, Khushi, she willed herself. Resist. Don't look his way. Do not!
"NK can handle it." He snatched her hand up and before she could pull away, he was leading her down the hall. NK waved after her, grinning.
"Arnav, let go."
He pretended not to hear her as he pulled her inside an empty, dark studio, locking the door behind them and flipping the lights on. Khushi blinked at the sudden brightness.
This wasn't just any studio, but a mammoth room with lines of white chairs flanking a long, elegant runway. It was where the bridal fashion show would be held in just a few weeks. Khushi had designed this room's every detail, right from the white, gleaming floor to the ceiling lights. Why had he brought her here of all places?
"Say that again," Arnav murmured, his intense gaze trained on her face. He took a purposeful step forward in her direction.
Khushi's breath suspended. As he edged closer, she moved backwards, until she effectively found herself pinned against the wall, his body a hair's breath away. Though he wasn't touching her exactly, she more than felt his heat. He was so close. Too close...
"Say it," he commanded.
"Let go..." Her plea was half-hearted this time and that came as no surprise. She was too awestruck by the look in his eyes to react in any other way.
He held her gaze. "Not that. Say my name again. Do you realize you haven't said my name for the past one week? You avoid saying it."
She shook her head in denial. "What? I do not. And if I do, it's not deliberate. I hadn't even noticed."
His palms flattened on either side of her head. "Well, I more than noticed, Khushi. And I don't like it. I want to hear you say my name. Shout it. Scream it."
Her eyes closed and she breathed in sharply as he pressed intimately against her, leaving no doubt on her mind what he was hinting toward.
"Don't..."
To her surprise, he stepped back, his eyes dark and glinting with quiet fury. "How long are you going to keep this up? How long are you going to punish me for?"
"Punish you?" She felt all of her carefully built control slide away. "You think that's what I'm doing? This is painful for me too, Arnav! Being away from you hurts so much."
His hands closed around her shoulders, hard enough to bruise. "Then end it already! Do you have any idea how much I need you? How much I miss you? Miss us?"
Her heart threatened to give in. "I feel the same, but..."
"But what?" Seeing her resistance faltering, he took instant advantage, his mouth crashing down on hers.
Khushi moaned as he consumed her, his tongue sliding past the seam of her lips and sweeping inside with unchecked hunger and pent-up longing. One of his hands slipped between them, going to her breast and roughly kneading. Gasping, Khushi clutched his shoulders.
"You want me, Khushi," he ground out against her mouth, pinching her nipple. "You need this just as much as me. It's how it's always been. How it will always be. You're meant to be with me."
She couldn't deny it. Not this time. And her husband must have recognized that too because Khushi suddenly found herself being hoisted up in his arms, his mouth ravaging hers again, devouring her as if he was starving for her taste.
Though she knew she should move away, she couldn't seem to. Her body was plastered to his with not an inch of space separating them. His touch melted away her every layer of control. Tore down all her walls.
Carefully, Arnav laid her down on the end of the newly constructed runway. The ramp felt smooth and a bit chilly against the open back of her saree.
"I've missed you..." His hands sloped over her body as if he couldn't quite believe she was truly back in his arms. "I can't live another moment being apart like this. Please, love, I'm sorry. So damn sorry..." His voice cracked and Khushi felt her heart shatter in her chest.
Nothing else mattered in that moment. None of it. Not Nicole James, not the secrets, the painful revelations, not even the fact she'd been his rebound relationship. All that mattered was him and how much he was hurting. Because of her. Unintentional or not, this was all her doing.
"I'm sorry too... so sorry... I was just so angry and hurt..."
"Hush," he crooned. "I more than deserved it."
This time as his mouth came down on hers, she was just as eager to close the distance between them as him. And because he knew her body better than she did, he knew the exact second she surrendered. His grin was boyish and so happy, she couldn't help but smile too.
"God, I love you." He pressed frantic, open-mouthed kisses to every part of her he could reach.
Raking her hands through his wavy hair, Khushi drew him down on top of her. "I love you too. Always have. Always will." Perhaps she'd been angry, and part of her still was, but the greatest truth was the one she'd just said aloud. She loved him. And for good or bad, that love eclipsed all else.
His eyes shone and then he was kissing her as Khushi had dreamed about him doing for the past seven days, his mouth hard and demanding as if he too sensed that she didn't want any gentleness right now.
Her saree came undone quite easily and as she lay there on the runway, blissfully bare, Arnav stood, his gaze burning into her as his hands went with marked impatience to his own buttons. Khushi ran her palm up and down his calf as he undressed, her eyes heavy with desire. He took her breath away.
As his coat came off, she noticed the pen he'd stolen earlier in the outer pocket.
"Why'd you take that?" she whispered, pointing.
He smirked, a lazy, sexy grin. "Because you spent all morning chewing on it and there was no way I'd allow any other man to touch it."
Her gaze widened. She hadn't even realized. "I was chewing on it? Wait, how do you know? I kept an eye on your office windows. You didn't check on me until NK arrived." That he hadn't been there even once had stung more than she cared to admit.
Arnav came down on her, warm and naked and wonderful. He bowed his head, licking her lips with the bold, possessive sweep of his tongue. "I've been watching you all morning."
"What?"
He nodded at her stunned expression, his hands lowering to cup her breasts, this time with no barriers in the way. Skin met skin and Khushi breathed in sharply, her body arching upwards in silent longing.
Arnav's grip tightened in response. "I had the security camera focused on your cubicle on my laptop."
Her face warmed and she found herself smiling. "Really?"
He smiled back. "Yes, Mrs. Raizada. It's not just you who keeps an eye out for me. I do the same."
"About NK helping me--"
He hushed her with a kiss. "I'd rather not discuss my cousin or any one else for that matter right now. I'd much more prefer to do this..."
As one of his hands slipped between her parted legs, Khushi jolted in his arms. He caught her cry in his mouth, stroking her all the while and sinking his fingers deep.
"Arnav..." Her voice came out like a hoarse whimper.
He didn't pause. "I'm going to love you now as I've been dying to do," he vowed in a hard tone that made her tremble anew. She watched with mounting, quaking desire as he lowered himself, bracing himself between her folded knees and bent low.
At that first, scalding touch, her cry echoed off the walls, but he didn't once slow down. Khushi stared down at his dark head of hair pressed against her most intimate of places and felt herself break apart, the glide and suction of his mouth undoing the last bit of her control. It was only after he'd tasted her to his heart's content and heard her scream and shout his name that he rose, kissing her heatedly on the lips this time.
"I need your mouth on me," he told her, bringing her to a kneeling position.
"Yes..." Khushi felt her heartbeat pound as he stood before her, his passion-glazed eyes locking with hers. Not once looking away, she took him deep.
As her mouth closed around him, she smiled at the sound of his holler, relishing its rough, guttural timbre. And this time, it was she who loved him, who sucked and stroked him as his hands dove into her hair, clenching around the long strands.
"That's enough," he ground out after several minutes, pulling away much too quickly for her liking. "On your hands and knees. Now."
Khushi moved to comply, but her clammy fingers slipped against the smooth surface of the runway. "Baby, it's too slippery."
He ran a firm hand down her spine, teasing her bottom. "I won't let you fall." One of his arms curled possessively across her breasts as he positioned himself behind her.
Khushi was suddenly reminded of the night they'd met. It had been another runway.  She'd stumbled that night and with deft ease, he'd caught her in his arms.
"I know you won't," she whispered, her chest heaving against his forearm.
He bit lightly into the flesh of her nape, soothing the same skin with a branding kiss and then holding her tight, dove deep, sealing them as one. Khushi's head fell back and her shout rang out in the mammoth room, merging with his low groan.
It was everything she'd dreamed about and more. Hot and heavy and soul-shattering. She wondered how on earth she'd lasted a single day, let alone a whole week, without this.
The sting of that recent separation made them both desperate. Arnav wasn't holding back and neither was she, rising to meet him each time. Turning her head sideways, Khushi found his mouth with hers, their tongues dueling, as he thrust deeper, harder.
When she sobbed his name and broke apart in his arms, he kept her clasped to him, a savage need driving him on. He couldn't stop. He didn't want to. But even his control had limits. As he held her soft, slick body in his arms, he too gave into the powerful passion they shared, her name escaping his lips.
Sometime later, Khushi found herself reclining on a mound of their discarded clothing, nestled against her husband. He was raining kisses on her abdomen, whispering things she couldn't hear to the twins. Smiling, she ran her fingers through his mussed hair.
"Arnav?"
"Hmm?"
"How am I ever going to be able to sit through the fashion show now? Whenever I'll see this ramp, I'll be reminded of what we just did."
"Good," he said, rising up and settling his head between her breasts. His arms coiled around her. "I'll be thinking the same."
Khushi closed her eyes as he caught one of her nipples in his mouth. Her body jerked.
"Baby, we can't."
"We can," he countered, adamant as ever.
She gasped. He showed no sign of letting up. "Someone... someone might come in."
"The door's locked, Khushi."
"Someone might need us though. We've been here too long as it is."
He swept his tongue back and forth across her pliant skin. "Trust me, no one could possibly need you as much as I do right now."
She ached to give in, her breathing ragged as he laved her other breast. "But we just made love..."
"That was just round one. We have a whole damn week to make up for."
Khushi quivered at the note she detected in his tone. He was entirely serious. "We're at work, baby. Round two will have to wait till we get home."
He froze and then slowly nodded. "Now that I agree with. Let's go home. Right now. I want you in our bed. It's been torture having you sleep in the guest bedroom for the past week."
"I only did that because I knew if I got too close to you, what just happened between us would have happened much sooner."
His gaze was tender as it met hers. "Do you regret it?"
She was quiet for a moment and then shook her head, cuddling closer. "No. I love you more than anything and I needed this just as much as you. But... whatever happened in Thailand, I can't just forget it never happened, Arnav. It hurts that you kept that from me for so long. That another woman almost had your baby..."
"I told you it most likely wasn't mine, but AJ's. Trust me. The only children I have are ours." His hands splayed over her stomach. "Yours and mine."
Khushi nodded. "But--"
His phone chose that particular moment to ring. Arnav frowned as he snapped it on. "Aman, I'm going to kill you I swear--" His voice cut off at whatever his assistant said. "What?" His gaze swung to Khushi's, wide with disbelief. "He's dead?"
Khushi reached for his free hand, urgently weaving their fingers together. Dead? But who?
"Mr. Mookjai," Arnav answered, holding the phone away for a moment. "Heart attack an hour ago... Yeah, Aman, I'm listening. Go on."
He was quiet for several minutes, his gaze veering to Khushi every now and then. "Okay. Get the plane ready. I want to be in Thailand immediately."
As the call ended, Khushi could only stare at him. "You're leaving? Right now?"
He nodded, kissing the corner of her mouth. "I don't want to go, but there's no choice. Mookjai's son is taking over and he's threatening to back out of the deal."
"I thought it was all signed and done with."
He shook his head. "Not exactly. There was a clause that it was in effect only as long as Mookjai Senior was in control of the company. We need a new contract signed by the son."
"But his father just died," Khushi said, struggling to understand. "Not even an hour later and he's concerned about the business and threatening to break his father's last deal?"
"Pretty much. It's a messed up world, babe." Arnav straightened and reached for her hands, hauling her up. "Help me dress. I need to get on that plane."
Khushi buttoned up his shirt while he worked on fixing his hair. "Why are you in such a hurry to leave?" she asked after a moment, her head bowed. She hoped he didn't see how hurt part of her was. They'd just reunited and he was leaving. And not just leaving, but behaving as if he was dying to get away.
He tilted her face up, kissing her firmly. "I don't want to leave you. That's the last thing I want. But this deal is important. There are a lot of jobs and a ton of money on the line. And besides, I have an even more important reason to leave."
She met his gaze with puzzlement. "What's that?"
Arnav smiled, winding his arms around her waist and drawing her flush against him. "The sooner I leave, the sooner I'll be back. And the sooner I'll be back home, the sooner I'll have you back in my bed."
Khushi giggled, swatting his chest. "You're insatiable."
"Only for you." He winked, rubbing a slow hand across her bottom.
Her heart warmed, enjoying the lightness between them, the love, her husband's open flirting. She'd missed this so much.
"Khushi, about Nicole and AJ--"
She stopped him with a lingering kiss. "Those people don't matter. I just wish you'd told me sooner. Can we talk about it when you get back? You should go now. Because the sooner you're back, the sooner I'll find myself in your bed. Don't forget, you have a whole week to make up for."
"That I do. And more." His half smile made her oddly emotional. She threw her arms around his neck and he held her just as tightly, as if he'd never get close enough.
"I could come with you," she whispered, blinking back tears.
"In your condition, I don't think so. It's too risky. I'll be back soon, baby. Promise."
Khushi held her emotions in check as he helped her dress, relishing the feel of his hands in her hair as he combed out the tangles. They eventually had to leave the runway and Khushi gazed back at it forlornly. It was once again bathed in darkness.
Hand in hand, they made their way to the main entrance. It all felt like deja vu to her. The same limo. Aman with a bag in hand, waiting. That same knife-like sense of loss.
Arnav paused near the limo's open door to kiss her again, his gaze serious as he framed her face in his palms. "I'll be back sooner this time. In a day or two. Call your aunt or parents over. I don't want you to be all alone at the house."
Thankfully, Akash had told him just this morning that he was still in Nainital and that meant Payal was likely nowhere near Delhi. And there was also Inspector Khan, who had strict orders to intervene should Khushi's sister attempt to get too close. But still, he didn't like the idea of Khushi being on her own, especially when she was almost five months pregnant. What if something happened? He couldn't bear to think about the possibilities.
"Okay," his wife agreed without protest, sensing how much this meant to him. "But promise me you won't stress too much. It'll all work out, baby. The deal and everything."
"Hopefully." He pecked her lips one last time and then before he could have second thoughts, forced himself to step away from her and slid inside the limousine's dark interior. Another second more and he knew he wouldn't be able to leave.
The driver closed the door behind him, coming around to the other side. As the engine started up, Arnav sat watching his wife. Khushi blew him a kiss and his hand pressed to the window, an uncomfortable lump taking hold of his throat and making it difficult to swallow. God, how much he hated leaving her. Every damn time was more painful than the last.
The ride to the airport passed silently and uneventfully. At the front of the limo, Aman sat bent over his phone as messages from their associates in Thailand came pouring in. Arnav was going through his personal emails too. He'd been so preoccupied the past couple of days worrying about the insufferable distance that had suddenly sprung up between Khushi and him that he'd neglected to check it. And so he'd completely missed the two emails Inspector Khan had sent nearly a week ago:
Mr. Raizada,
Last night I followed your wife's sister to the Demon's Lair. I went under cover. There was nothing directly involving your wife going on, but I think you should take a look at the video I'm attaching. Also, I'd like to inform you that I'm no longer active within the police department. I've opened my own private investigation company. Of course, I would like to continue to work on this case, but that is entirely up to you. Please let me know as soon as possible what you decide.
Sincerely,
B. Khan
The second email was much shorter.
Mr. Raizada,
I haven't heard from you. Hope all is well. Please see my last email, sent four days ago. I need to know if you want me to continue with this case.
B. Khan
Arnav dialed his number quickly. The officer picked up on the third ring.
"Did you see it, Mr. Raizada?"
Arnav's brow furrowed. "See what?"
"The video... I wanted to warn you that it is quite graphic."
"I haven't yet," Arnav said, running a hand through his hair. "I wanted to first make sure you're still on the case. I've been busy the past couple of days. Just saw your messages."
"You're sure you want me on this case?"
Arnav didn't have to think twice. "Yes, absolutely. Since you've been handling things, nothing has gone wrong and we've found out a great deal about Payal's true intentions. I need my wife protected at all times, Inspector Khan. Especially now. I'll be out of town for the next few days possibly. You can call my assistant if you need to get a hold of me. I'll have him get in touch with you too."
Khan hesitated. "You trust this man?"
Arnav glanced at Aman, who hadn't once looked up from his phone, typing away furiously. He looked far more panicked than him. "With my life."
Though he was still wary of friendship, Aman had somehow managed to come close to him over the months, even being one of the few to attend his wedding. Truth was, Arnav considered him more a friend than an employee, though he'd probably never tell him so.  AJ had destroyed friendship for him. He would not risk another betrayal. He could not.
"Okay then."
"What's the video about?" Arnav asked, shaking thoughts of his once best friend aside.
The officer didn't speak for a moment. "Payal Raizada's initiation. Have you heard about those? DL's initiations?"
Arnav felt his stomach roll. "Yes... I've unfortunately attended one. It was my first and last time in that place."
"When was this?"
"A few years ago. I went with a friend. He was into it and wanted to introduce me to that lifestyle. I knew right away it wasn't for me."
"It's definitely not for everyone. This is far beyond the typical BDSM."
"It's dangerous," ground out Arnav. "They torture people in the name of pain and pleasure. The more gruesome the act, the more they applaud. BDSM is supposed to be safe and consensual. I'm pretty sure this place isn't."
"You might be right about that," the officer agreed. "Look, if you'd rather not watch it, I can make a transcript for you. It'll take some time though."
"No, that's all right. I want to see it for myself. Just keep an eye on Payal. I don't trust her."
"Neither do I. And you'll see why..."
As the call ended, Arnav sat silent for a moment. And then reaching for his laptop, he pulled up the week-old email. The video was downloaded within seconds. Pressing a button that sealed him from the front end of the limo, Arnav's finger paused over the play button. And then with a look of extreme distaste, he clicked it.
*****
The video began dark and a bit grainy, but as a small light expanded, he suddenly saw it all. More than he'd ever wanted to see. 
A nearly naked woman with a white mask was kneeling before a man in a black robe and matching mask. He was whispering something to her, but it was too soft to pick up on. He knew at once this could only be one woman. His wife's sister. His cousin's wife. Payal.
He'd been stunned when he'd first learned of her frequent visits to DL, but since then, he'd come to see how much it made sense, how DL would appeal to a woman like Payal. Still, nothing--absolutely nothing--could have prepared him for this.
In the video, Payal was suddenly bowing low and kissing the man's feet, her body arching upwards as if she was a lifeless marionette and he'd pulled her strings.
"Come," the man commanded.
Arnav frowned, replaying the line several times. Was it just him or did that voice sound vaguely familiar? He could have sworn he'd heard it before. But where?
He shook that disconcerting thought aside as the man roughly dragged Payal by her hair to the center of the pen. A giant square, covered by a silk cloth had been arranged there. The man flung the covering aside and a large water-filled cage was revealed.
The crowd's appreciation could be sensed, though no conversation broke out. That was strictly forbidden, Arnav knew. He could still vividly recall that god awful night he'd been dragged to DL by AJ. It had been nearly three years ago.
He remembered standing in the darkness beside AJ, feeling utterly stupid in the burgundy mask he'd been given to wear. And suddenly, it was like he was back there again, back in the blackness of DL, battling with a growing sense of foreboding as masked strangers poured into the Theater, the informal name for the Initiation Room.
"Is this really necessary?" he asked AJ, lifting a hand to his face. "I don't give a damn who sees me here." He started to remove the mask, but his friend caught his arm.
"You can't," he hissed, looking around to make sure no one had seen. "That's the number one rule here. You can't speak either once the initiation starts or intervene in any way. Leaving is also not allowed."
Arnav ran a restless hand through his hair. "We should have gone to Indigo instead. At least there, I wouldn't feel like I've joined a fucking mask-wearing cult."
"You haven't joined. Your bronze card says Guest." He pulled out his silver one. "This is for premium members, but I'm hoping to get my hands on a gold one. That's for the Elite level."
"Are you kidding me? You want this?"
His friend shrugged. "Being a dominant is very exciting. The rush of power in your veins...the sense of total control over someone else..."
"Then find a girlfriend who's into that kind of thing. Shouldn't be too hard for you." AJ always had a line of women vying to be with him, second only to Arnav.
"True, but you know me, Raizada. One girl would never satisfy me for long. I can't do the whole being faithful to one woman for the rest of my life thing. That sounds like a death sentence, doesn't it? Here, they rotate partners. They have nicknames they use. You could be Mr. C, for instance. C for Chote," he laughed. "Imagine your dear Anjali Di's reaction."
He ignored the jibe. "AJ, I'm serious. There are other places you can go. This one seems all wrong."
His friend rolled his eyes. "You've been here five minutes and you've already made up your mind about DL. Just wait and see. You'll love it, Raizada. It's all harmless fun."
Harmless fun, indeed. Arnav hadn't been able to watch more than two minutes of it. It hadn't been a tank of water that night. It had instead been some poor nameless woman, tied to a chair, being disfigured and mutilated by the sharp edge of a blade.
She'd wanted it in the beginning but fear had set in all too quickly. He'd witnessed the alarm bloom in her eyes. Had smelled her sweat. Her terror. But she'd been trained not to respond and so she'd sat there, letting them carve her up.
He'd lasted about thirty seconds more and then he'd slammed his way out of the room, breaking protocol, and vomited in the alley outside. AJ had found him there.
"What the hell, Raizada. The fun hasn't even started yet."
Arnav wiped his mouth, staring at his friend as if seeing him for the first time. "That's fun for you? That?"
AJ shrugged, taking a drag of his cigarette. "She's not complaining and it's not like she'll be scarred for life. The blades they use are specifically designed just for this. She'll heal up within a few weeks. So it is truly harmless, like I said. You need to calm down."
"Don't tell me what the hell to do. Getting a high off of someone else's fear is not for me. It never will be." He'd left then and AJ had the good sense to not come after him, heading back inside DL's back entrance.
The next couple of days, his friend kept bringing up the incident, mocking him for his weak stomach whenever he got the chance. But Arnav hadn't cared. He hated the mention of that place. He'd tried in fact to erase DL's very memory from his mind. But now there was no avoiding it.
In the video, Payal was standing beside the tank, no fear in her eyes, but a strange glow of wonder. Behind her white mask, she looked more confident than he'd ever seen her. Almost like another person.
"Enter it," the man said and Arnav frowned again. His voice didn't sound at all familiar this time. It sounded like a robot, cold and lifeless.
Arnav averted his gaze and focused on her face as Payal unfastened the robe and climbed inside the tank, her head bobbing over the surface. The man followed her, but stood on a raised platform, staring down at her floating body. His hand suddenly yanked on her hair and he raised her up, taking her mouth in a brutal kiss.
Arnav watched in silent horror as he submerged her then in the water, holding her under as she kicked and flailed. The process repeated several more times and he had to skip over much of it. This wasn't some joke, some harmless fun as AJ had once called it. This was as close to a real drowning as it got. It was a near drowning actually. Payal was nearly blue in the face. She almost passed out at one point.
"More?" the man growled, and without waiting for her reply, shoved himself into her gasping mouth.
To Arnav's shock, his wife's sister moaned out loud and her raspy voice reached his ears.
"Yes, yes, ASR! I want it all!" She took him deep. "Give it to me, ASR!"
Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 31: An Eventful Party
What the--
Bile rose in his throat. He felt his stomach heave and his skin crawl. The man in the video too had a violent reaction by Payal's outburst. He flung her aside, no doubt unamused by her slipping out of her set role, and the video ended with her head striking the tank's sharp outer edge. Blood mixed with the ice blue water. Payal though was still smiling as she sunk to the bottom.
As Arnav stared at her strange, dark smile, he felt disgusted, sickened more than he could ever explain, but he also felt something else. Something unexpected. An odd sense of pity. Payal Raizada was far more damaged than he'd ever suspected.
How the hell could he show this to Khushi? It would haunt her for the rest of her life. His first encounter with DL's initiations still gave him nightmares and he hadn't even known the woman. But this was Khushi's own sister! Her dear Jiji. The one she'd always sacrificed everything for, including herself.
Besides, she'd never believe it was Payal behind that white mask and he couldn't really blame her. All he knew was that he couldn't show her this. He just couldn't...
*****
That night, Arnav hardly slept. His flight was delayed for hours and when it finally took off, it was only to be told midway that they'd have to be diverted due to bad weather conditions. By the time he arrived in Bangkok, it was close to 5 AM.
He'd spent the entire flight trying to forget the video he'd watched and perfecting a new contract.
Aman handled most of the details, so he'd gotten a few hours of precious sleep. His dreams had been thankfully DL-free. They had been the exact opposite, in fact. All Khushi. Khushi moaning in his arms. Khushi telling him she would always love him. Khushi on her hands and knees...
He groaned, aching for his wife so badly it was a physical pain. Life was really not fair sometimes... But then he thought of poor Mr. Mookjai, whose son was more concerned about money than anything else and that thought sobered him up. Maybe he'd once had a lot of complaints with the world, but no longer. All things considered, he was incredibly lucky.
Because he had her in his life.  His Khushi, as the tattoo on her wrist stated. Even after he'd disappointed her. Even after he'd broken her trust... her heart... Though that had never--ever--been his intention. To his surprise, her call came then, as if she'd sensed how very much he was missing her.
"Hi," she breathed, the sound of her soft voice making his mood brighten. It was always like that. "Is this a good time?"
"Just reached the hotel. Why are you still awake? You should be sleeping."
Sighing, Khushi ignored his scolding tone and rolled onto her side. She hugged his pillow close. "I can't fall asleep. It seems I need my husband."
"Do you now? And what about the past couple of days when you were in the guest bedroom?" He hadn't forgotten how hurt he'd been when she'd left their bedroom without so much as a backward glance.
"That wasn't easy for me either, but I had my reasons. We'll discuss that when you get back. And you know, the only way I could fall asleep at all in that room was by sleeping with your shirt on."
"What?"
"I took one of your dress shirts from the closet when you weren't looking," she confessed in a soft voice.
"I slept with your pillow," he said, deciding she should know that too. "It smelled like you."
"So does yours. I'm cuddling with it right now."
"Instead of with me..." he murmured with no little amount of jealousy. Khushi laughed and despite how tired he felt, Arnav found himself smiling too.
"It's not just you suffering, Mr. Raizada. At least you don't have to deal with Buaji's snoring. I swear I can hear her through the walls right now even though the door's closed and she's all the way down the hall... Baby," Khushi whispered seriously, her voice lowering, "I'm missing you so much..."
His eyes closed and he inhaled, taking a deep breath. "Me too, but I'm always with you, Khushi. Every moment, I'm thinking about you."
He could sense her smile. "Don't stop talking. When I close my eyes, it's almost like you're really here... lying beside me."
He drank in her words and held the phone closer to his ear. "I wish I was. You know what I'd be doing to you, don't you?"
The change in her breathing was answer enough. "Yes, but tell me... in detail."
He raised an eyebrow. "You realize what you're asking for?"
"Yes," she whispered after a pause.
He had to smile this time. "Are you seriously blushing? Even after all we've done?"
She didn't ask how he knew. "No... yes..." Khushi groaned, "I have my face buried under your pillow right now, you know."
He laughed as he pictured her, relaxing back on the hotel's king sized bed. Reaching for a remote to lower the blinds, he dimmed the lamp on the nightstand. He'd planned on sleeping in till the meeting, but now Khushi had given him something far more interesting to look forward to. "I love how you still blush around me."
"I can't help it. Now, don't change the topic. I want to know. What would you to me if you were here?"
"Well, I'd start by getting you out of the shirt you're wearing. Though technically, it's my shirt, isn't it?"
"Yes, baby. And then?"
"I'd kiss you."
"Kiss me where exactly?"
He smirked. "There, of course."
Her gasp was answer enough, but she pretended to be unimpressed. "You're not being specific enough, Mr. Raizada."
"Aren't I?"
"No, not at all."
"Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you though..."
They ended up talking for the next two hours and he told her in great, colorful detail what he'd love to do to her and what he would do as soon as he got back home. Towards the end, their conversation briefly veered to the meeting that was scheduled with Mookjai Jr. and in a rare occurrence, Arnav admitted how very anxious he was about the deal. And because it was Khushi, she soothed him as only she could, understanding his every unspoken worry.
"Khushi," he murmured sometime later, "Love, you should sleep. It's really late now."
She didn't respond and he heard the sound of her quiet breathing. She must have dozed off. Ending the call with a fond, tired-looking smile, he closed his own eyes.
Someone knocked on his door less than thirty minutes later. It was Aman. He appeared wide-awake, but his eyes were bloodshot, just like his. By his demeanor alone, Arnav knew something was wrong. Very wrong.
"What happened?"
"Mook Junior is here. He wants to sign the deal with another company."
*****
The next day, Khushi couldn't help but feel very worried for her husband. He wasn't responding to her calls and he wasn't even answering her texts. NK watched her with concern as she sat in her cubicle with her head in her hands.
"Khushiji, it'll be all right. Naanav is the best at what he does."
Khushi knew all that, but how could she explain to NK that something told her that Arnav wasn't okay this time. That he needed her. It was irrational perhaps, but she couldn't get the thought out of her head no matter what she tried.
Her phone suddenly rang, piercing the quiet and saving her from more of NK's questions.
"Baby?" she answered, sliding her hair out of her face. "Finally. I was waiting for your call. Are you heading back home now?"
The voice on the other end was not her husband however. "Khushi?"
She gazed up startled. NK raised his eyebrows at her, but she shook her head. "Sorry Jiji, I thought it was Arnav."
Her sister took a moment to respond. "I thought so. Arnavji is out of town?"
"Yes, Thailand again. An important meeting came up."
"Oh, that's too bad. I wanted to invite you both to Shantivaan tonight. Akash is throwing a grand party. His new business is really taking off and we're celebrating. We just got back from Nainital."
Khushi couldn't quite manage her usual cheerful tone, her concern for Arnav at the forefront of her thoughts, but for Payal, she tried. "That's great. I'm really happy for you both. But Jiji, I'm sorry, I won't be able to make it. Not without Arnav."
Her sister sighed, as if knowing she'd refuse. "Please, Khushi. It's been so long since we met and the entire family will be there. Arnavji can't come, but you can. Without either one of you there, it just won't be the same. Please, Khushi. For me?"
She bit down on her lip, debating the options. "Fine. But only because it's you. I'll be there, but I won't be able to stay for long."
"That's fine. Just show up at least."
It seemed simple enough. "What time does it start, Jiji?"
"6 PM but you can come in whenever you want."
"I'll try to be there sometime after work."
"Wonderful. See you then."
How sad was it, mused Khushi as she lowered the phone, that she needed an invite to go to Shantivaan? The home that should have been hers as much as it was Payal's. But she'd never been welcomed there.
"Party?" NK looked far more ecstatic than her and he must have sensed that because he quieted almost immediately. "Naanav must be fine, Khushiji. Just really busy. And don't worry, he has Aman with him to handle things."
But Khushi couldn't help but worry. It wasn't under her control. To love meant to worry to some extent. "Wait a minute," she suddenly said as it hit her. "That's it. Aman. Maybe he knows what's going on. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner."
To her relief, Aman did pick up his phone, his tone one of surprise. "Mrs. Raizada?"
"My husband," she said urgently, "Is he okay? Can I speak to him?"
She heard a faint rustle as the phone switched hands and then his voice sounded.
"Khushi."
She felt her body finally relax. Her heartbeat slowed. Arnav sounded tired, but okay otherwise. She'd been fretting for no reason. "Where have you been? I've been trying to call you all morning."
"My phone died and there wasn't enough time to charge it. I'm on my way to the airport. I was planning on calling you before the flight took off, but you beat me to it."
NK gazed at her with questions in his eyes and she nodded at him. "He's fine," she mouthed. He grinned and had the good sense to give her a few minutes of blessed privacy, walking over to Lavanya's desk.
"Babe? You there?"
"Yes, sorry. I'm so glad you're coming home. So the deal went okay?"
There was a moment of dead silence. "Not exactly. It fell through."
"What?" Surely it was a joke.
But Arnav was entirely serious. "Yeah, Mook Jr. is really bitter that his father entered into this contract without consulting him first so even though it makes absolute business sense to continue with it, he was being completely unreasonable. Last I heard, he's partnered with a different company."
Khushi knew first-hand how hard Arnav had worked on this deal. "I'm so sorry, baby."
"What are you apologizing for? It's okay. You win some, you lose some."
"But I know how much you hate losing."
"I haven't lost this time either. It's bad business all around to get into a long-term contract with someone you absolutely cannot stand. I'm glad it didn't work out. I'm just sorry this stupid deal took me away from you for so long. But I'm on my way home as we speak."
She clung to the phone. "I'm waiting."
"I'll call you as soon as I land. Can we eat in tonight? I just want to lie in bed with you."
"Just lie?"
He laughed and that husky sound made Khushi's heart soar. "Okay, more than that. You know what else I want..."
"Yes," she whispered, recalling their scandalous phone conversation all too well, "And I want it too..." She suddenly remembered something. "Baby, we have to change the plans slightly."
"Why?"
She told him about Payal's phone call and for a long moment, he didn't speak. "Arnav? Are you there still?"
"Yeah." His voice was all of a sudden hard and slightly on edge. "I want you to call back your sister this very minute and tell her we can't make it. We have plans."
Khushi's mouth fell open. "You can't be serious! Everyone is going to be there and aren't we part of that family too? Plus, this is Jijaji's first big success and we need to support him--especially since you backed him. He must want to thank you."
"I don't want his damn thanks. I did that because--" His voice broke off. "It was no big deal."
"It was for him and Jiji. You should have heard her on the phone. She really wants us to be there."
"I bet she does," he murmured with unnecessary sourness.
"Please, Arnav."
He relented with a sigh. "You know I can't refuse you when you say my name like that. Fine, we'll go, but on one condition... The entire time, I want you by my side. Understood?"
"Deal. But will you get here on time? It starts at 6 PM."
"I'll be there. Don't leave without me."
Khushi smiled. "Have I told you how much I love you?" she murmured, her voice lowering so only he could be sure to hear.
"Perhaps, but I want to hear it again. Remind me."
She swallowed. "More than anything. Anyone. You drive me absolutely crazy, but I can't live without you."
"Drive you crazy in bed, I hope... But you're talking about that now infamous interview, aren't you?"
Khushi sighed. They were back to that again. "Yes. Do you know how much it hurt to hear all that about you from another person? An outsider?"
"I know, but it never occurred to me to tell you about Nicole and AJ. I never thought they'd reappear in my life like that. I've closed that chapter. It's all in the past. All I care about is the present and the future. And that Khushi, belongs only to you. Only to you and our babies."
She brushed a tear aside, taking a deep breath. "Please tell me there are no other psycho ex-girlfriends out there with possible children."
"None. It's been verified too."
Her eyebrows shot up. "You verified it? Really?"
"Yes. I never want anything like this to happen again. You don't need to worry, Khushi. Most of the women I dated were not serious relationships."
She still had one niggling doubt. "What about Sheetal? I've heard her name mentioned a few times, but I know nothing about her."
To her surprise, Arnav didn't even attempt to change the topic. "I basically knew her growing up. Our families were really close during those days. So naturally everyone was set on fixing our marriage from the start, especially Dadi. My grandmother was Sheetal's biggest fan. Still is."
That pretty much told Khushi all she needed to know about the woman. "And you?" She couldn't quite keep the edge out of her voice. "Did you like this Sheetal too?"
He chuckled. "I like your jealous side, but babe, you have no reason to feel that way. Trust me. I never could stand Sheetal. She annoyed the hell out of me to be honest. We had nothing in common and I sure as hell wasn't attracted to her."
"But you dated her."
"Not for long and never seriously. I mostly did it to get my grandmother off my back and prove to her how it would never work with Sheetal."
 "Did you sleep with her?"
He was silent for a long moment and Khushi felt her heart drop.
"No. I did not," he finally ground out. "Is that what you think? That I take every woman I meet to bed with me?"
"You did with me." The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.
His fury rang out in the tense silence that followed, loud and clear. "You were an exception. How many times do I have tell you that?" His voice broke off and she imagined him running a hand through his wavy hair in agitation as he searched for the right words.
"That moment in Lucknow when you fell and I caught you in my arms... I can't describe it... I'd never felt that way before. Yes, there was lust and attraction--a ton of it--but I also felt this strange need to protect you. To keep you safe. You looked so innocent, so vulnerable, on that runway. A beauty amongst wolves..." He paused. "I wouldn't have agreed to your sindoor demand if it had been any other woman, Khushi. But it was you. And truth is, I would have done anything to have you in my life. I wanted you that much. I still do. And I always will."
The last remnants of her doubt and uncertainty fell away at the sincerity she discerned in his voice. Her eyes fluttered close. "I know. I also know I'm the only woman you took to bed like that. The contract and everything... I never meant to suggest anything else. I'm sorry if you--"
"We'll discuss this later," he interrupted. "I need to turn my phone off now. The plane is taking off."
"Okay. I love you."
His voice was low and if she didn't know any better, a bit sad. "Love you back, Mrs. Raizada."
As the line went dead, Khushi stared at it for long moment, yearning for him so badly, her heart felt as if was being torn apart. They had so much making up to do. Both of them. Maybe he'd been wrong to keep her in the dark about his past, but she'd been so distant with him lately too. With a heavy heart, she set the phone aside.
Work on the bridal show occupied her time for the next couple of hours and Khushi was grateful for the distraction. Around 3 PM, another call came and to her surprise, it was her mother this time. It was so unexpected, Khushi stared down at the phone's flashing screen twice just to be sure.
"Amma?"
"Khushi! Can you come to Shantivaan immediately? I'm helping Payal with the party preparations, but we need your help. You're so good at all this, bitiya."
"Aren't the decorators already there?"
"They are, but Payal's not liking anything they're showing her. You know how fussy she can be. Please, get here fast."
Her mother hung up before she could get another word in. Leaning back in her chair, Khushi sighed, absently rubbing her abdomen. Arnav wouldn't like it if she went early to the party like this, she knew. He'd strictly told her not to leave without him and to stay at his side during the party. But that could still happen, right? As soon as he arrived, she'd go to him.
And besides, what could possibly happen at Shantivaan? She'd be surrounded by her family the entire time, people who loved her. Her husband was no doubt just being a tad too overprotective as usual.
Still, she couldn't help but grimace as she typed him a quick message, explaining that she was leaving early to help with the decorations and she'd meet him directly at Shantivaan.
"I really hope Daddy understands," she whispered to the twins.
This had become a daily habit of sorts. Talking to her children. The bond between them had strengthened over the course of nearly five months, one of absolute and indescribable love. She felt so attuned to them. So in awe all the time with the knowledge that she carried them within her. Part of Arnav and her. "Hopefully, he's not too angry with Mommy."
But whom was she kidding? This was Arnav Singh Raizada she was talking about. She knew him better than anyone. There would definitely be hell to pay later. But for now, there was blissful silence as the message was sent. Even Aman wasn't around to report to his boss.
She did inform NK before leaving and he insisted on coming along and driving her there. By the time they arrived, making their way through Delhi's traffic-clogged roads, trucks lined Shantivaan's wide driveway and caterers were arriving.
"Woah," NK murmured, eyes wide.
"Jiji really wasn't lying when she said it'll be a grand party." Not that her sister would ever lie. She didn't have a bad bone in her body, Khushi thought with a slight, tired smile.
Unfortunately, it was not her sister, but Arnav's brother-in-law who opened the main door. As Shyam's tar-like gaze raked over her, lingering on her expanding waistline, Khushi had to fight not to recoil. Something about this man always left her feeling highly uncomfortable. What Anjali saw in him, she doubted she'd ever know.
"Well, well, well. So you finally return, Mrs. Arnav Singh Raizada." His eyes flickered briefly to her right. "And with NK. Had your fill of Chote Saab already? Switched to this one instead, have you?" He laughed then, a crazed-sounding laugh, and she felt her body shake in anger and revulsion.
"That's enough," NK said sharply.
"Keep your sick jokes to yourself," Khushi added.
He was still laughing as they entered and she hurried away from him. His wife was nowhere to be seen, but Payal sat on a nearby sofa, alongside her ever grumpy-looking mother-in-law and a smiling Buaji.
Akash's mother disappeared into her room with a turn of her nose as soon she spotted her, but Buaji rose to embrace Khushi.
"Finally. We've been waiting for you. Let me go find Garima."
NK stared down at his wrinkled clothes. "I'm going to go change. Be right back."
Khushi was left alone with Payal. She smiled as she sat down beside her. "Where are Naniji and Anjali?"
"Nainital, unfortunately. They're visiting Dadiji for the week. How are you, Khushi? Look at you, you've gotten so big," she marveled. "Do you realize how long it's been since we last met?"
She nodded, resting a hand on her belly. "Way too long. I've been good, just really missing my husband today. You know how it is."
The corners of Payal's eyes twitched. "Yes... I know all about that."
Something about her tone seemed off and Khushi stared at her with a small, confused frown. "Are you all right, Jiji?"
The darkness in her eyes brightened at once. "Of course," she smiled. "And now tell me what you think. Be honest. The party will be indoors mostly, but I've had the gardens decorated too."
Khushi looked around, admiring the arrangements. "It all looks amazing. What do you need help with?"
"Maybe you can help me out at the poolside."
"Pool?" Garima shook her head as she neared. "Payal, have some sense. Khushi's pregnant. What if she slips on some water? Or trips on the stones? The path is uneven there. No, bitiya," she said, grasping Khushi's hand in hers, "You're staying right here with me."
Payal smiled, her nails digging into her palms. "I'll be right back."
Her polite smile vanished as soon as she found herself alone. This was torture. Sheer, absolute torture. Khushi was so close, close enough to harm, and yet, she could do nothing. There were simply too many people around.
To attack her here would be utter stupidity and she'd never been stupid. Still, the knowledge that her greatest enemy was so near made her mind race with possibilities. She giggled as she recalled her mother's words.
Slip on the pool tiles indeed... It was a good idea, but one that would only cause slight injury or a possible miscarriage--not death. But pushing Khushi into the deep end of the pool, where the water was more than fifteen feet deep, now that just might work.
Khushi had never learned how to swim. It had been only she who'd gone to swimming classes when they'd been young girls, while Khushi had insisted she was more than happy to stay home and make jalebis with Buaji.
Payal could still recall how Khushi's eyes had silently begged her not to tell their aunt the real reason she didn't want to go. The swimming classes were too expensive, she'd confided to Payal late one night. She'd go another year.
That year had never come though and Payal had come to hate Khushi and her righteous behavior. How noble she must think of herself, she sneered, how selfless.
But Khushi's choice not to learn how to swim would cost her tonight. In the worst possible way.
*****
As 6 PM rolled by, Khushi found herself pacing in her husband's old bedroom, frowning down at the phone in her hands. He hadn't called yet and her every call to him was going straight to voicemail. Even Aman was unreachable. They were probably not yet in Delhi, she reasoned.
Someone knocked on the door. "Khushi? Bitiya, is everything okay in there?"
"Yes, Amma."
She unlocked the door and let her mother in. Garima's smile widened as she gazed at her. "You look beautiful."
"So do you."
"Nonsense." She patted her cheek with affection. "Are you ready? The party has started and your father is asking for you. He's terribly bored."
Khushi smiled. "Give me two minutes. I just want to try Arnav's phone one more time."
To her surprise, her mother nodded with understanding. "Can't you check on the computer if his flight is on time?"
"Normally you can, but he's on a private plane. There's not much information available."
"Oh, then try his number again. Maybe this time you'll get through. I'll check on you in a few minutes."
Khushi watched her go with quiet wonder. Shaking her head, she dialed Arnav's number again and then waited a few more minutes, touching up her makeup in the meanwhile. There hadn't been enough time to go home and get her things, so the makeup, along with the black, beaded saree she was wearing, had been taken last minute from AR.
NK had, in fact, nabbed the saree from a mannequin on her request. It was one she'd seen Arnav admiring quite a few times. He's even suggested she try it on on more than one occasion, but she'd always laughed it off. It was a bit too dark for her taste--not to mention overly sexy.
Still, she was grateful for it. At least this way, she hadn't needed to borrow anything from her sister. Payal, though sweet and caring, had never liked her wearing her clothes--not even when they'd been young girls, sharing a room. In fact, one of the rare times they'd ever fought was on the topic of clothes.
Khushi doubted she'd ever forget that day. She'd been graduating from twelfth grade and had asked to borrow one of Payal's lovely sarees for the ceremony. To her shock, her sister had thrown a huge fit, snatching the saree out of her hands. She could still recall how embarrassed and humiliated she'd felt for even asking afterwards. No, there was no way she would make that same mistake again, even if time had passed since that long ago, rainy afternoon.
Besides, unlike the appalling, pom-pom adorned dress she'd worn to her graduation, this saree was unquestionably beautiful. Midnight black with a silky, sleeveless blouse that left very little to the imagination. As Khushi tied in place the single string that kept the blouse from completely falling apart, she wondered what her husband would think.
Her skin warmed as she imagined him untying the knot with his teeth, his mouth hot and persistent against her skin.
Speaking of Arnav, where was he? It was almost 6:30 now. She dialed his number, but it went to voicemail. Again.
"Khushi?" Her mother stuck her head in the doorway. "Ready?"
"Just one second."
Carefully, she put a generous amount of sindoor in her parting, and clutching the phone in her hand, turned toward her mother. She could delay it no longer. Arnav had to be on his way.
"Let's go, Amma."
*****
The party downstairs was lavish by any standards. Pale pink and purple lights glowed along the walls and waiters in smart, black suits weaved between the guests, offering hors d'oeuvres. One in particular kept passing by Khushi, but when he sensed she'd noticed, he was suddenly gone. It was beyond strange.
Most of the guests were people she didn't know, business executives and prominent local socialites. So Khushi spent most of the time at a corner table with Buaji and her parents, catching up. But when they decided to leave around 8 PM, she was left with just NK for company.
Her sister came by every now and then, checking up on her, but she was busy being the hostess of the evening and from what Khushi could observe, very happy in that role. Unlike her, Payal seemed to be on a first-name basis with most of the guests.
A passing woman inadvertently answered some of Khushi's questions as she stopped by her table, inviting her to a kitty party the following day.
"Thank you, but I don't go to such parties," Khushi replied.
The woman quirked an eyebrow. "Really? I thought you would. Your sister attends most of them, often with her mother-in-law. They're regulars."
"I..." She gazed to where Payal stood laughing with a woman dressed in expensive furs though the weather in Delhi was quite balmy this time of the year. "I had no idea."
"You should think about it. It'll be fun."
Khushi highly doubted that. Her idea of fun was being home with her husband. Sharing a blanket by the fireplace, making love in their cozy bed, laughing and flirting, and perhaps having an impromptu picnic in the garden outside if they felt like getting out of the house. Parties like these had never interested her.
Her sister though looked far from bored and even Akash was smiling, something which in recent months had become a rare sight. Though he'd spent a few minutes chatting with Khushi earlier, she'd felt a strange aloofness in his attitude. She couldn't quite explain it, but it had something to do with the way he seemed in such a hurry to excuse himself. She didn't understand it. He'd always been so nice before.
"You okay, Khushiji? Do you want some water?"
She managed a weak smile for NK. He really was very sweet, reminding her of a younger sibling she'd often wished for growing up. "If you don't mind. I am a bit thirsty."
"Of course I don't mind." He waved a waiter over and passed her a glass. "Are you sure you don't want to eat something? The food is amazing."
"Very sure." She took a large swallow. "Arnav should be here soon. We'll eat together." Her eyes wandered to the time. It was almost nine now. Where was that man?
NK must have glimpsed the anxiety on her face because he added, "I'll give him a call again. Don't worry, his flight from Thailand probably just got a bit delayed."
"I think so too. I just hope he's okay. " She stood carefully, one hand settling on her burgeoning abdomen. "I'll meet you back here in a few minutes; I need to get some fresh air. It's too crowded in here."
He nodded in agreement. "Okay, just give me a call whenever you head in. I'll let you know if I hear from Naanav."
"Thanks. Oh, and NK?"
He turned back towards her with bright smile. "Yes?"
"Why do you call him Naanav all the time? I've always wondered."
His grin widened and he leaned in as if revealing a very important secret. "Well, you see, growing up Naanav was everyone's favorite, especially Nani's. Honestly, I thought she was a bit biased where he was concerned. So to annoy him, I combined their names. Nani plus Arnav equals Naanav. Brangelina came years later. I was the first to come up with that. I should get more credit, don't you think?"
Khushi giggled. "No wonder Arnav hates it when you call him that."
"Oh, don't let him fool you. He's so used to it now, he'd probably think I'd gone crazy if I ever called him by his real name." NK winked. "See you soon."
"See you."
As Khushi had guessed, outside it was cool and pleasant. Taking a deep breath of the crisp night air, she walked further onto the dewy grass, staring more at the twinkling stars above than the finery surrounding her.
Her sister had left not a corner of the gardens untouched. Lights dotted the trees and bushes and expensive-looking crystal vases had been arranged on a back table along with drinks and snacks. No one was there though, not even a waiter.
Probably due to the strong wind, Khushi guessed. It was picking up speed, growing chilly. But she didn't mind it. Her eyes drifted close as a cool breeze caressed her bare shoulders, sending her hair flying. Arnav, love, where are you?
"Will you dance with me?"
Her eyes snapped open. A stranger was smiling back at her. His eyes were a deep brown and his dark hair a little too long to be considered proper, brushing past the top of his open collar. In his white tux, he was certainly good-looking and she wondered why he was asking her for a dance when inside there were sure to be countless single women more than willing.  Maybe she'd heard him wrong.
"Excuse me?"
His smile spread. "Will you dance with me? You're very beautiful..."
She didn't know quite how to respond. He was no doubt charming, but she was immune to it. Her body only reacted that way to one man. And that man was unfortunately stuck on some plane still. If he'd been here, he would not have been at all pleased, she knew. The stranger was definitely very lucky Arnav was not around to deal with him.
"I'm also pregnant," Khushi said, pointing to her belly. She felt like pointing to her sindoor too but decided that would be a bit unnecessary. Even in the dim light, there was no way he could miss it. "So thanks, but no."
"Pregnant women can still dance."
"Maybe, but I don't. Not unless it's my husband."
He chuckled, stepping closer. "Oh, a loyal wife... I didn't realize they still existed."
Though it was meant to be flirtatious, she found his wide grin extremely off-putting. Actually, everything about him seemed a bit strange now that she considered it.
"I apologize," he said, as if he'd guessed how her opinion of him had shifted. "You just really are very, very beautiful. Much more than any other woman at this boring party."
"Excuse me," Khushi said stiffly, turning away.
To her shock, he grabbed a hold of her right hand in both of his. "Wait. I just--"
Her eyes flashed and she pulled on her hand with all her might. "Get your hands off of me!"
"Relax," he bid in a suddenly hard voice, his nails digging painfully into her wrists. "Quit fighting... You need to be taught how to submit to a man. How to listen to one."
She would have slapped him with her free hand, but he caught it easily, twisting it behind her back.
"Let go of me! NOW!"
His grip on her hands tightened so much, Khushi could feel her fingers beginning to go numb. Her skin burned beneath his nails and beads of blood appeared.
To her wide-eyed horror, he dipped his head closer, his intention clear. "I just want to talk to you--" he lied.
"I want nothing to do with you!" she cried, angling her face away from him. "Get away from me! LET GO!" Fighting with him as well as she could, she aimed kicks toward his legs, gazing wildly around for help. There was no one.
The stranger laughed as he watched her, seeming to enjoy her struggle. And then suddenly, his laughter stopped. The pressure on her wrists was gone.
Khushi stared down in open-mouthed surprise at his body on the grass. He looked just as shocked to find himself there. His gaze rose to the man who'd slammed him to the ground with such force and widened.
Khushi's eyes rounded too and she blinked twice. But it was really him. Tears burned her eyes as she ran to cross the slight distance separating them. A broken cry escaped her lips as Arnav enveloped her in his arms, his body shaking with rage.
"Baby..."
"Hush," he whispered, stroking her hair, kissing her temple. She gazed up at him to find his furious gaze focused on the man who still lay sprawled on the grass.
"Raizada?" The man laughed as if he'd just heard the most hilarious joke.
"What the hell is so funny?" her husband ground out in a warning tone. "You're lucky to be alive right now."
The stranger stood, gesturing between them and snickering still. "Just look at the irony of it all. The last time we met, I had your girlfriend in my arms and tonight, I had your wife. She really is very beautiful. Even with all that extra weight, she's sexier than Nicole ever was. I can see why you married her. But there's one similarity: just like Nicole, she's going to want me and not you in her bed now that she's met me." He licked his lips as he gazed toward Khushi, who shuddered with revulsion. "Aren't you, lovely? Don't worry, I'll tame you. Show you what a real man is like in bed. One who's not afraid of a bit of discipline. One who doesn't go off and vomit as soon as someone pulls out a belt or a knife."
Arnav had him by the collar within seconds. "You son of a bitch! Don't you even glance toward my wife! You're not allowed to come near her! You're not fit to so much as breathe the same damn air as her. And you're fooling yourself if you think you're a real man. You're nothing but filth. Garbage."
"Are you afraid? Afraid I'll snatch her from you? Just like Nicole?"
As the pieces connected, Khushi felt her face whiten. This could be only one man.
AJ laughed, not caring as another blow landed on his jaw, sending him toppling backwards. He smiled a sinister grin and then suddenly, he charged forward, tackling Arnav to the ground.
Khushi cried out. "Arnav!"
"Stay back, baby!"
She watched with shock as the two wrestled on the grass in their tuxes, exchanging blows. Arnav looked as if he meant to kill his once best friend, his face contorted with rage. AJ was not as skilled, but he managed a hit or two. A cry escaped Khushi's lips as her husband was struck square in the corner of his mouth. Blood trickled.
"Stay back, Khushi!" he roared as if he knew she was on the verge of running to him.
"Yeah, Khushi," AJ mimicked, "Stay back. Otherwise I'll seduce you too."
She could stand no more. As the two fought, trading insults and punches, she grabbed one of the crystal flowerpots she'd spotted earlier. And then when she saw a chance, she sent it crashing down on AJ's unsuspecting head. He collapsed on the grass, his eyes rolling back.
Though he more than deserved that, Khushi was shaken. "Please tell me I didn't kill him."
Arnav wiped the blood from his mouth as he stood. "No, but you did knock him out cold though." His lip twitched slightly and Khushi rushed into his open arms. He groaned at the contact and she gazed up at him with renewed concern.
"Oh God... Where are you hurt, baby? Where?"
He caught her wandering hands in his and then quieted her with a firm kiss, his tongue sweeping over hers. "Hush, I'm just a bit sore there. The son of a bitch managed a few hits, but I got him far worse. He's going to feel what I did to him with every breath he takes for at least a month."
"Good." Rising up on her toes, Khushi slanted her mouth over his. Her husband's arms tightened around her hips, drawing her flat against him. The kiss would have continued but she pulled away, gazing down at the unconscious man just feet away. "That's him, isn't it? AJ..."
Her husband nodded with disgust. "Yeah, my once best friend."
Khushi gripped him with taut fingers, unable to get close enough. "What is he doing here?"
"Now that is a really good question."
"And one only I can answer."
Startled, they turned together to gaze behind them, toward the trees where a high voice had rung out from the darkness. A tall, thin man stepped out of the shadows slowly, his face ashen behind a familiar pair of square-rimmed glasses.
"Jijiaji?
"Akash?" Arnav managed. His hold on Khushi's body hardened with new tension.
She held him just as snugly, uncaring what her brother-in-law or anyone else for that matter would think. All she knew was, no one on this earth could tear her from Arnav's arms in this moment. Not after what had just taken place. She wouldn't allow it and neither would he.
"Explain," her husband growled.
"He's my new business partner," Akash admitted with great reluctance.
As Arnav's rage ignited, palpable in the cool night air, his cousin hastened to explain, holding up his hands.
"Please, Bhai, just listen to me. I know you both had a small misunderstanding in the past, but that's old news, isn't it? You've moved on. You're happy with Khushi now. I didn't think there was any real reason to turn down such a good deal. He proposed to finance everything."
"You asked him for money? Him? When you could have easily asked me?"
 "You've helped me enough. I don't want to owe you any more than I already do."
Arnav's jaw worked. "So you chose to beg him for money instead?"
"It wasn't like that," Akash cried out, his livid tone surprising Khushi. She'd never seen him like this. So bitter.
"I put it out there I needed a partner and he was easily the best of the lot. I know you dislike him, but surely that's all behind you now."
"This is why your businesses have always failed," Arnav declared after a tension-filled pause, not caring if his words were callous. "You never learn from your mistakes, Akash! But I do. AJ betrayed me once and I will never let him get close to me again. Unlike you, I have some goddamn self-respect."
"Only because I owe you so much will I choose to ignore what you just said. AJ never betrayed me, Bhai! He's been nothing but kind to me since we met. And we work really well together. Why do you think Mookjai Jr. signed with us instead of with you? People change. But you don't want to accept that."
Khushi felt her husband stiffen and she knew it was only her presence in his arms that gave him some sense of restraint. She rubbed a comforting hand down his back even as her disbelieving eyes rose to his. Mookjai had signed with Akash and AJ?
He glanced down at her briefly, pressing a soothing kiss to her temple. When he looked up again, his angry glare fixed on his cousin's too pale face. "Really? He's changed? Him?" He pointed to the unconscious man on the grass. "Do you even realize what kind of man you're defending? That bastard was trying to get his hands all over Khushi not more than ten minutes ago. Is that the man you want to go into business with? One that attacks your sister-in-law? Are you really so desperate?"
"He didn't attack her, Bhai. He just asked for a dance."
"What?" Khushi felt as if she'd been bodily slammed. All the breath left her body as his words registered. "You were there? That whole time, you were there? And you didn't do anything? You didn't say anything? Just stood by and watched?" She observed her sister's husband as if seeing him for the first time, her gaze stricken.
Akash didn't answer her or even look her way, glancing instead toward the shimmering water of the pool nearby, but Arnav stared down at her with mounting concern.
"Khushi?" Keeping an unyielding hold on her, he cupped her too pale cheek in his palm, angling her face upwards. His heart and all his control threatened to blow apart at the distress he glimpsed in her eyes. AJ's attack was no doubt still fresh in her mind.
He couldn't imagine how she must be feeling. After running into NK at the party as soon as he'd entered, he'd gone to the back gardens in search of her only to discover her struggling with a man, crying out as he roughly twisted her hands behind her back and attempted to kiss her. Her soft whimper had nearly killed him. He hadn't been able to get to her fast enough, deadly rage taking hold of him. Even the five seconds it had taken for him to reach her side had felt like an eternity.
"Love, I'm here now..." he whispered, rocking her in his arms. "Hush. I've got you... Do you hear me? I'm with you now, Khushi."
Tears escaped her eyes and she clung to him. "Arnav--" Her voice broke.
Swallowing, he held her tight for a moment longer, his body rigid with tension and then with a gentle kiss, he pulled away. She tried to grab hold of his hand, shaking her head, but he would not be stopped.
As he stepped before his cousin, his fury felt potent and as real as the dark trees surrounding them, standing silent witness.
"Apologize to my wife," he barked, a muscle leaping at his jaw line.
Akash gulped, meeting Khushi's eyes for a moment before quickly darting away. "I'm sorry. I should have intervened sooner."
"Sooner?" Arnav shoved him back so hard, Akash's formal shoes skidded on the grass and he almost fell. "You didn't intervene at all, Akash!"
"I thought she was okay... He just held her hand..."
"Just?" Arnav growled, looking undeniably dangerous as he stalked closer. "He had no right to lay one filthy finger on her if she didn't want it! Couldn't you see that? Couldn't you see her struggling to free herself? The tears in her eyes? How could you have missed that? His touch was unwanted and anyone with half a brain would have known that. So don't give me that shit about not recognizing what was happening. I don't believe you. If you were a real man, you would have stepped in and put a stop to it. But you're not a real man, are you, Akash?" he taunted, his eyes flashing. "You're one of those lowlifes who would stoop to any level if it got you some money and success in return. YOU'RE A FUCKING COWARD!"
Akash blinked behind his glasses. "Bhai, that's uncalled for. And if you don't stop right there, I'll--"
"You'll what?" Arnav pushed him again, harder this time. "Tell me what the hell you'll do!"
As he threw him to the ground, Khushi tried to intervene. "Baby--"
Arnav warded her off with a hand. "Stay out of this, Khushi. He needs to answer me. What will you do, Akash?"
"I'll retaliate."
Arnav laughed, a cold, sinister laugh that made Khushi's hair stand on end. "Retaliate?" he said in a mocking tone. "I'd love to see you try. I could use some comedy tonight."
Akash made a growling noise at the back of his throat and he sprang toward his older cousin. Arnav was ready for it though. He caught him easily and with two, deafening punches sent him crashing on the ground.
 "You ungrateful... piece of shit..." He kicked him in the ribs, his eyes wild with rage. "How dare you stand there and watch? HOW DARE YOU!"
"You're making too much of this, Bhai," Akash gurgled, spitting out blood. "It was no big deal... Nothing happened." Arnav's fist connected with his face again and he moaned, grasping his broken glasses.
"Arnav, stop! Please," Khushi pleaded, "Stop!"
"I said stay back, Khushi!" he warned, anger darkening his features. He dragged up his cousin by the collar of his shirt. "Tell me something, if it had been Payal in my wife's place, what would you have done? Would you have watched then too?"
To Khushi's surprise, her brother-in-law nodded. "I'm telling you, you're making this out to be something horrible, but it wasn't like that. Khushi overreacted."
"Overreacted?" Arnav repeated darkly. "That man assaulted her! He grabbed her hands and twisted them! She even has blood on her wrists, Akash! And you have the guts to say she overreacted? Overreacted how? By crying out? By fighting him off? Let me guess, if it was your wife you'd have wanted her to happily give herself to AJ. Isn't that right? Maybe he'd have given you an even better deal if she'd have slept with him."
"Bhai, you're crossing the line! It isn't like that--"
"The hell it isn't! You really disgust me, Akash. I can't even stand to look at you."
"Then don't!" Akash appeared to lose all control in that moment. "We were all much happier before you arrived! It's only because of Payal you both were even invited tonight in the first place. I warned her not to. I knew you'd react this way to Mookjai signing with us. You wouldn't be able to handle that I'd done better than you for once. That I'd beaten you. I told her there was no need to call you people here."
Arnav's hands fisted at his sides, a vein throbbing near his temple. Khushi came up next to him and he pulled her to his side, his grip taut. She too wrapped her arms around his waist, silently supporting him as he growled at his cousin:
"You are seriously deluded. First of all, I don't give a damn about Mookjai or his fucking company. I'm the one who broke the contract with him--not the other way around."
"You're lying, Bhai! I heard you went to Thailand. Khushi told Payal herself earlier today."
"I never lie, Akash. I never said I didn't go there, but two minutes in that man's presence and I knew I wanted nothing to do with a piece of scum like him. Do you really think a man who wasn't loyal to his own father would be loyal to anyone else? I ripped the papers with my own hands and threw them on his face before I left." His jaw hardened as he considered his cousin. "Second, I don't need your damn invitation to come to Shantivaan. Maybe you're forgetting who owns this place. This is my house. Mine and Khushi's. So within the next thirty minutes, I want you and your wife out the door. Your mother can remain if she wants, but I want you both gone. Is that understood?"
For the first time, Akash seemed to realize how very wrong things had gone tonight. "You can't do that. Payal loves this house... It means so much to her. I'll buy it from you."
Arnav laughed at him. "I don't think you can even imagine the amount of money I'd want for it. Even if you gave me all the money in the world, I wouldn't sell it to you."
"But Payal--"
Arnav stepped out of Khushi's arms, charging forward. "I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT HER! Why should I? You certainly don't seem to care about my wife's well being. Why the hell should I care what your wife loves? I don't!"
"Bhai, please just listen. I'll pay you--"
"Did you not hear me? You won't ever be able to afford Shantivaan. I want you and your wife out of here. You have less than twenty nine minutes left."
Khushi started to go to him. This was all getting very out of hand. But suddenly, there was someone behind her. Someone pushing her, hard and fast. She felt herself stumble and then ice-cold water enveloped her, stealing her very breath.
"Arnav!"
More than her gurgled shout, he heard the sound of the resounding splash. His head snapped in her direction and his eyes rounded with horror as he saw her sink in the swimming pool, limbs flailing. He screamed her name and shoving past a shocked Akash, dove into the water.


Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 32: Breakdown
Enter Password.
The two-word command was the only instruction on the page, the background dominated by an image of an unsmiling, handsome man coming out of a helicopter, the logo of AR Designs embossed on its outer surface. 
Trembling fingers shifted across the keyboard urgently. The laptop made a slight beeping noise in response.
Wrong Password. Try again or click here if you've forgotten your password.
The flashing words made Payal curse. Forgotten? She felt like screaming at the blasted machine that she could never forget her password. It was next to impossible. Wrinkling her nose, she bent over the keys, jabbing them this time, her gaze wild. As she typed, she whispered the letters out loud, her voice barely above a whisper.
"I-H-A-T-E-K-H-U-S-H-I."
Password accepted.
The page morphed into the familiar site she was used to seeing on a daily--sometimes hourly--basis. It was she who'd created it after all. Years ago. Back when she'd first started college and begun collecting articles and pictures of one of India's youngest rising businessmen. She would have never heard about Arnav Singh Raizada if not for her business studies professor. He'd discussed AR Designs with them as a model of success.
Payal had been captivated by it all. ASR's expanding, international company, his sudden rise to fame, his wealth. Even his coldness and arrogance seemed to resonate with her. She was turned on by the detached look in his eyes, the sneer with which he often handled nosy reporters. Oh how she wished for him to gaze at her with those burning eyes. To bend her over and tame her using the most primal means possible. The idea of being dominated by him increasingly became her fantasy, one that she spent hours upon hours daydreaming about.
Her feelings were so strong, she could not keep them bottled in. And so she'd created the page. The site had begun as a way for her to vent her most private desires. Her secret passion...
Though ASR didn't realize it, there were thousands of women and some men too out there who were also fascinated by his aura. Payal doubted anyone's longing for the man could rival hers, but she'd been happy to have a place to discuss him freely and without restraint.
She'd spent hours on the site during college. It had been her addiction. She'd logged in nearly every day. Sometimes it had been to dissect or fawn over a new picture or interview. More often than not, her activities on the site had been not so innocent. She'd called his every rumored girlfriend countless names, criticized everything about them--their pasts, their looks, their very character. No one was good enough for him in her eyes except for one person. Herself.
The others joined her in attacking Sheetal, Nicole James, and countless others, but they'd been wary too. The overwhelming feeling was that it was only a matter of time before ASR fell for some manipulative model or actress. He was too good looking. Too rich. Too powerful.
Payal couldn't deny the fact that what the others said made sense. Far too much sense. Arnav could hardly be a bachelor forever, not a man as sensual as him if the gossip mills were anything to go by. Still, his every mention in an interview that he would never marry and that he didn't believe in the institution of marriage and never would was like music to her ears.
Perhaps she would never marry him or even meet him, stuck in boring Lucknow as she was, but no one else would either. And one day, some day, she'd find a way to meet him. Even if she had to scale the walls of Shantivaan and throw herself into his arms, she'd do it.
But fate was cruel and sadistic, in more ways than one.
Her family never knew about her obsession with ASR. She kept it all hidden. A secret so well-guarded no one had the faintest clue. Buaji would sometimes be exasperatingly snoopy and ask about what she did on the computer or her phone all the time, but Payal would weasel her way out of those tricky situations every time. Khushi too would often ask questions that Payal had no inclination to answer. One question though did manage to stun her. She could still recall that day...
"Jiji?" Khushi paused in her brooming to turn toward her.
Payal didn't look up, her gaze fixed on her phone. "What is it?"
"Are you in love?"
"What?" Her head snapped up with disbelief.
Her younger cousin's smile broadened, her eyes twinkling. "I've seen you... Ever since you started this semester, you've been different. Smiling more, talking to yourself, and daydreaming all the time. Is it love? Have you met someone at college?"
Payal's gaze lowered to Arnav's picture on the screen. She teased her thumb along his frozen lips.
"No, of course not."
"Are you sure?"
Frowning, Payal resisted the urge to slap her meddling cousin--so hard it would hopefully leave a permanent mark on her face. The girl was a nuisance ever since she'd landed on their doorstep with her big, teary eyes and waist-long pigtails. Buaji and her parents had been charmed instantly and though they hadn't exactly neglected Payal after her arrival, things had never been the same again. Was it any surprise she hated her cousin?
Khushi though had no idea how much she was loathed. She was always going out of her way to help her. Even now, she was cleaning the tiny bedroom they shared, though it was technically not her turn.  If anything, her kindness had the opposite affect on Payal. It made her resentment that much more bitter and volatile. It was all so maddeningly irritating. Why wouldn't her stupid cousin understand that she would NEVER love her? Never care for her!
Khushi was oblivious to the icy glare she was receiving as she dusted the windowsill, waving at some kids playing outside. "Well, I suppose it's a good thing I'm wrong. About you being in love and all..."
Payal narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?" Love... how ridiculous. How juvenile. She wasn't in love with anyone. But she was obsessed with one man. Had been for the longest time.
Khushi looked up guilty-faced. "Don't tell anyone, but I heard Amma talking. She said they're going to try to arrange your marriage around the end of the year."
Payal didn't react. "So? I'll happily marry whomever they chose." And this was true. Though she wanted only ASR, she knew the chances of her middle-class self meeting the millionaire were close to none. She had always been practical. She didn't much care whom she settled down with--she'd be imagining ASR in bed with her anyway--but she did have one wish.
"You'd marry like that? Without love? I don't think I'd ever be able to do that." Khushi's soft voice broke into her thoughts. She was frowning at the mere idea of such a circumstance.
Payal laughed. "What do you really know of marriage and love, Khushi? You're such a child still."
"I'm only three years younger than you."
"Huge difference. There's so much you don't know about."
"Like what?"
Payal bit back a curse. You know nothing about obsession, she longed to shout. True obsession. Lust. Passion. Or her newfound love, bondage. She'd been reading more and more about it, secretly of course. Her daydreams were filled with ASR dominating her, bending her to his will in sinful, often violent ways. She wished her future husband--whomever he was--would have a slight inclination to that darkness as well. She didn't know how she'd last through the marriage otherwise.
"I may not know about some things," Khushi amended, "But I do know about marriage. It should be based on love and trust. And faith."
Payal resisted the urge to snort. How boring and so very predictable. Trust, faith, love. She wanted none of that. What she craved for was lust. Pain. And of course, pleasure.
But what was the use of explaining such things to her cousin ? Khushi would never experience any of it anyway. She'd marry some ordinary, unambitious man like Karan, and happily settle into a dull existence of being a dutiful wife and mother, never realizing how much more there was to life. 
"I want a love like my parents," Khushi continued, a fond smile on her lips as she leaned against the window. "They were so in love, you know. I want that. An all consuming love."
"All consuming?" That sounded more like her idea of romance and the mere suggestion of her younger cousin hinting toward such illicit thoughts was laughable. Khushi would never know such passion, such desire.
But fate had gotten the last laugh, playing the ultimate, cruel trick. Payal would never forget the night her life had forever and irretrievably altered. June 6th. Her wedding day.
By all rights, it should have been the happiest day of her life. It had begun with somber gray skies, threatening to break into downpour. Though she hadn't realized it at the time, it had been a clue. A hint of the storm that was about to hit her world.
She'd woken feeling strangely numb and hollow inside. Today she would marry the man her parents had selected for her. He was no where near as successful or handsome as her ASR but at least he wasn't a penniless college student like that Karan, the boy Khushi was forever hanging around with. Their friendship had escaped no one's eye. Karan's mother and Amma were already murmuring about a pending engagement.
Payal had sneered inwardly, but had nodded her agreement to their planning like the good, dutiful daughter she pretended to be. She wanted nothing more than for Khushi to marry a man like Karan, someone who would never amount to much. At least her soon-to-be-husband owned a catering company. True it was small and locally based, but still, she could call herself a CEO's wife, something Khushi would never be able to do.
Though she'd never said it in so many words, that had been her only requirement for the wedding. That she marry better than her cousin. The last laugh would be hers and hers alone.
But by nightfall, the tables had turned. She stood alone in all her expensive finery, radiant in the wedding dress and jewelry she'd been adamant to wear and what had cost her father several steep loans to cover.  Her bridegroom had been conspicuously absent.
Her tears that night had been real. She'd never been more humiliated. To be left at the alter like some jilted, unwanted bride... It couldn't be real. It couldn't possibly be her reality surely.
But it had been. She'd run to her room, slamming the door. Everyone had chased after her, Buaji and Amma wailing at her father to do something--anything! Khushi's eyes had been rimmed in redness and she'd embraced her hard, promising to fix everything, to make things right. Payal had been so distressed, she'd allowed the hug, her body shaking with fresh shudders.
Khushi had stayed with her for some time, murmuring reassurances. And then a phone call had suddenly come, interrupting their tears. Payal had watched as her lips had parted, her eyes growing wide and shock filled. She'd sat stone faced as Khushi had scurried out of the room, raising the phone to her ear.
She'd sat silent through it all, never once guessing that the person who'd called her younger cousin was in fact the man she had fantasized about for three, long years. The mere idea of ASR and Khushi together was laughable. It just couldn't happen.
But it had.
Khushi had returned that very night with news of a much better proposal from the illustrious Raizada family of Delhi. The name had caused Payal to still, her very breath seeming to suspend.
"Raizada? As in Arnav Singh Raizada?"
Her cousin's eyes whipped toward her. "You know him?"
She hesitated. "In my business class, he was mentioned briefly. You're referring to those Raizadas?" At Khushi's nod, her happiness had eclipsed everything. "I'll marry him," she said without further thought.
Her mother had balked. "What? But you haven't even met him. None of us have! We can't rush these things."
"Amma, please. I know more about the Raizadas than I do about the family I was supposed to marry into. Please."
Her pleas and the tears swimming in her eyes had sealed her fate. That very week, she'd become Payal Gupta Raizada. She'd attained the name she'd only once dreamed about.
But her happiness had been short-lived. Rather than Arnav, her groom turned out to be his dull, geeky looking cousin, Akash.  Still, she hadn't backed down. Perhaps she wouldn't be Mrs. ASR, but she'd be close to the ultimate object of her fantasy. Closer than any other woman. And maybe one day, Akash would meet with some unfortunate accident and ASR would step into the role of her husband and lover. It didn't sound too difficult. She'd done something similar once before... She blocked the nasty memory away, savoring the ride in the private plane to Delhi. As far as she was concerned, if she never saw Lucknow again it would be too soon.
In the weeks that followed, Shantivaan became so much more than her home. It became her world. It was there she endured Akash's sloppy kisses, fought to earn her mother-in-law's approval, ate from the same spoon ASR used at breakfast and when he was at the office, often slipped inside his bedroom.
She'd spend hours there, staring at the bed longingly. She ached to snuggle into the black sheets, but she forced herself to keep a distance. Arnav was very smart. If her perfume lingered on the bedding, he'd be sure to know.
So she made do with fingering the blankets, sniffling his laundry, and rifling through his underwear drawer. She even took a couple as souvenirs.
She frequently took photos too. Sly pictures that never revealed her face, but showed an angle of his bedroom, his famous poolside or the garden he tended to so diligently. Once uploaded on her website, the photos garnered immediate attention. More and more people were logging on. Her site was quickly the number one site for all things ASR.
Over the months, she'd post a new picture every now and then. Not because she didn't have many--she had hundreds--but because she didn't want to draw any unnecessary attention to them. The risk was low though. Arnav didn't even know he had fans, let alone a fan site dedicated just to him.
Her fingers fluttered over the keyboard now, her urgency palpable. As she'd guessed, the others were already discussing the events that had just taken place.
ASRLuver45: I can't believe it! It's all over the TV! Mrs. ASR may well be breathing her last tonight guys!
A'sRedhead: I just saw! OMG! I just hope it's true. So sick of that Koooshiii -_-
Mrs.Chote: It's true. An ambulance took her to the hospital. Hopefully she dies on the way. Fingers crossed.
Payal's entrance had an immediate, euphoric response:
OMG!
FINALLY! We were waiting for you!
See guys, Mrs. C has confirmed it. Now I can sleep in peace:)
Is it true? Is she really no more?
Mrs.Chote: Well I do hope so. She never deserved him.
Payal wished she could reveal more. There was so much more to it. Khushi had made the serious mistake of going after her man. Her ASR. The day Payal had discovered the secret relationship the two of them shared had been the day Khushi's fate had been decided. Her childhood hatred had taken a decidedly deadly turn.
Khushi would have to die. She would have to suffer and endure every pain that lanced into Payal's heart every time she saw her younger cousin with ASR. Images of the two of them holding hands and kissing, ASR rising to Khushi's defense, and particularly, vivid images of the pair in bed made it hard for Payal to sleep a wink at night, haunting her as good as any ghost. Khushi had never ever deserved to be Mrs. ASR. Her cousin would never succeed in snatching Arnav from her! His heart, mind, and body belonged only to her. Only her!
RinnySR: agreed completely. If I had to see him with anyone, it would be Nicole. They had some sizzling chemistry back in the day and I think they still do if that recent interview is anything to go by.
Mrs.Chote: anyone is better than KKG. CAN'T STAND HER!
ARForever: Is she really that bad? I'm feeling a bit bad for all the stuff I said about her tbh. Especially with her being pregnant and all... What if she really dies?
A'sRedhead: oh please. Don't forget this is the woman who publicly cheated on him at Indigo. ASR may claim she was kissing and dancing with him, but I think he just doesn't want to admit the truth. I feel so bad for him. That woman has manipulated him so much.
Mrs. Chote: Exactly. She's changed him. Made him weak and unhappy.
Sexyzada: Bingo. The witch needs to die. I don't care if I go to hell for saying that but I can't help it. She's given ASR so much unhappiness! Taken him from his family and friends--even his sister! Something none of us would have ever guessed would happen. 
ARForever: Hmmm I guess so. But the twins? They're innocent in all of this.
Mrs.Chote: It's not in our hands. Who has to die, will die. It's life. Try and stop it. You'll only fail.
Sexyzada: You all need to cheer up. This is the night we've been waiting for! Where's the party tonight? RIGHT HERE! I'm staying up till the news comes in:)
RinnySR: high five S. But I don't know how you can stand the coverage. I couldn't watch more than a minute. They're saying now that ASR may have pushed her into the pool -_-
ARForever: I knew they'd blame him only:( It's not fair. He's innocent.
RinnySR: Duh. We all know that. It's that Khushi who led him on. Who got pregnant and trapped him. And he tried to make her happy, but she went and cheated on him in front of the whole world at that dance club. I hate her so much.
ARForever: even in death, kooshiii only gives him more problems.
RinnySR: His assistant, Aman, was just shown on the news and the reporters managed to get a statement from him. He said "speculations that Mr. Raizada was involved in his wife's accident are absolutely untrue and too disgusting to even consider." I've never seen him so angry.
A'sRedhead: Can't blame him. This is a serious accusation. I bet KKG's family is behind it. Those gold diggers...
Mrs.Chote: probably just the stepmother. She's always been a greedy bitch.
A'sRedhead: so true. Anyway guys, it's late here in Thailand. I'll log in after a few hours. Hopefully there will be more good news:)
Sexyzada: I'll be here. What about you Mrs. C?
MrsChote: I'll return in a while too. But let me be the first to say it: RIP KHUSHI KUMARI GUPTA... Scratch that actually. RIH. REST IN HELL.
A'sRedhead: LMAO. Hahaha. Perfect! RIH KKG!
Clicking the logout button, Payal smiled. Everything was finally as it was meant to be. Khushi, who should have died in that long-ago car accident that had killed her parents, was dying tonight, slowly by slowly, inching closer to death with every passing second. With any luck, she would not survive. Her head had struck the marble tiles of the pool after all, staining the water like a scene right out of Jaws.
"Payal!"
Her smile instantly vanished, the amusement in her eyes fading as footsteps ascended the stairs in a great hurry. Her husband looked bewildered as he appeared on the threshold, his gaze on the phone in his hands. She rose to his side.
"What is it?"
Akash stared at her from one eye. The other was bruised and swollen from Arnav's fists. "Your mother just called... She's asking us to come to the hospital."
"Why?" Joy threatened to burst but she managed to pull off a concerned expression. "Is Khushi..." Her voice broke off as if she couldn't finish the thought. The performance deserved an Oscar surely.
Akash was fooled completely. He took her hand as if to hold her steady. "She's not gone yet, but it can happen anytime. Your mother said to come and say goodbye. Just in case."
"Let's go." Payal headed past him, but when he didn't make a move to follow, her footsteps slowed to a halt. "What is it now?"
He hesitated, swallowing nervously. "I don't know if it's a good idea for us, especially me, to go over there. After everything that happened in the garden..."
Payal came close beside him, so close he could make out her features from the bent pair of glasses his cousin had broken in two. "Arnavji needs you." He needs me. It's my turn. Finally. My night of victory.Urgency bit into her and her grip on her husband's hand tightened to the point of almost painful. "We must leave now, Akash."
Wincing, he nodded, leading her down the staircase.
"RIH, Khushi," Payal murmured under her breath, a Cheshire cat like smile brightening her bony face.
*****
Khushi didn't know where she was, but she felt like she was swimming in an ocean of silent agony. Pain bit into her, sharp and knife-life and for a moment, she felt like she was back in the pool, struggling to breathe, struggling to survive.
She couldn't be there, part of her knew. As the pain ebbed and flowed, she surfaced from its darkness only to sink once more. Memories flashed past her eyes. The force of the shove, the chill of the water, and foremost, a voice:
"KHUSHI!"
The roar of Arnav's shout was never far from her thoughts. She remembered seeing the panic on his face before the water had closed over her head. Recalled her own terror as she felt herself plummet. One thing had been on her mind: to protect the twins.
In that moment of blinding fear, their wellbeing was all that had mattered to her. She'd tried to block the fall that was surely to come any second from striking her square on the stomach, but she hadn't known how to. It had happened so fast.
No, she'd wailed mentally. Please, someone help me! 
A splash had echoed above her and hope had ignited in her heart when she'd recognized the figure swimming frantically toward her. Her husband's appearance gave her newfound courage and she kicked her legs harder, her arms flailing as she tried to reach out to him. Her hand rose up in the water like a lifeline.
It seemed to work for a moment. In the dark depths of the pool, she lay suspended like a marionette, her back facing the rapidly approaching tiles, her face angled upward toward the man she loved more than anything. Her Arnav...
His eyes were wild with panic and part of her ached to console him, to tell him everything would be all right.
His hand descended towards her and as she struggled to reach him, she felt it. A terrible, shattering sensation as the back of her head connected with the pool floor. Pain exploded like a gunshot. Her vision swam black. Arnav's screaming face flitted in and out as the water surrounding them turned a dull, copper red. Part of her recognized it as her own blood, and panic lodged in her throat. Her legs crisscrossed hard. No! Not the twins... Please, God, no. Take me. Not them!
Through the haze of unbearable agony, familiar hands slid under her limp body, drawing her up. She could hear the raging echo of his heartbeat, could almost smell his fear, but she was helpless to respond. Darkness was closing in. A blackness so deep she didn't know if she'd ever be free of its clingy grasp. As they broke the surface, a pain-filled gasp escaped her blue lips.
"KHUSHI! LOVE, OPEN YOUR EYES! Talk to me! Someone call an ambulance! You, damn you, call! NOW!"
Arnav's shouts filled her ears, but she heard him as if from a great distance. She wanted to respond to him, to give him reassurance, but the struggle to open her eyes felt impossible to overcome. The pain at the back of her skull refused to ebb. It was getting worse, not better.
"Shit. Fucking shit. Why isn't she moving? WHY THE HELL ISN'T SHE MOVING!"
"Naanav! Naanav, oh my god. Khushiji..." NK's voice broke in with quiet horror.
"NK! NK, help me. Get the car. I'll take her to the hospital myself." He started to lift her but another voice interrupted, one Khushi did not recognize.
"Let me check her pulse. She's not breathing well. She needs--"
"Get away from my wife, Khan! All of you, get the hell away from us!" Khushi had never heard Arnav shout with such rage, such pain. Tears silently escaped her eyes, mingling with the blood and water drenching her body.
Arnav suddenly bent over her and his mouth, warm and achingly familiar, pressed to hers. "Khushi, love, please open your eyes. Please, babe." A hoarse sob tore from his throat. "Khushi, wake up! Are you listening to me? Wake up! You're scaring me. I can't... I can't handle this. I need you to open your beautiful eyes for me. Please, love. Please..."
The sound of nearing sirens cut him off. Running footsteps darted their way.
Arnav yelled out again, cradling her to his chest. "Don't! Don't you dare take her from me! STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM US!"
"Naanav, Naanav, you need to calm down. They're just trying to help Khushiji and put her on the stretcher..."
Khushi felt her husband's muscles relax against her. "I'll do it." His body sprang into action and she felt herself being lifted.
"Sir, we don't advise that and you need to step away and let us--"
Khushi vaguely heard someone being knocked to the ground.
"Naanav!"
"Mr. Raizada!"
"Don't tell me what the hell to do!" her husband thundered. "I will not leave her! Do you understand me?"
Voices filtered in and out, but Khushi heard the slam of the ambulance door. Felt Arnav's hand envelop hers, his grip tightening as a needle tore into the flesh of her left arm.
"Is she going to be all right?" he asked someone, his voice fearful and almost child-like.
"We're doing our best, Mr. Raizada."
"Don't give me those bullshit answers. Tell me the truth. Is she going to be okay?"
The person took a moment to respond. "I can't say for sure. Chances are fifty-fifty right now or slightly worse. She's lost a lot of blood. And head injuries are very complicated..."
As the voice droned on, Khushi felt Arnav brush his lips across her knuckles, his breath shuddering. Something wet fell against her skin. His tears, she realized. He's crying. For me... for us... He thinks he's losing me and the twins... And that's it's all his fault... oh, baby...
It was that realization that pulled her out of the darkness, her eyes flickering open. Her husband's gaze fell on her, wide and incredulous and glazed with tears.
"Khushi..." he whispered, shaken.
She struggled with the words. "Not... not your fault...mine..."
He clung to her hand, his hand shaking as he wiped her tears. "Oh God, love. No, it's not your fault. You're going to okay. Do you hear me? You're going to perfectly all right."
She ached to believe him, but the blackness was returning, getting sharper, its claws biting into her. She fought through it, clinging to her husband's hand though she could barely manage to hold on. If this was truly goodbye, she wanted to cherish every last second of it.
"I... I love you."
A choked sob escaped him as he bowed his head over her, his gaze wild. He knew. Knew what she was doing. "Don't," he growled. "Don't you dare say goodbye to me. You can't. Do you hear me? YOU CAN'T!" His voice broke and he cradled her to him, holding her gently as the ambulance swayed and teetered on its wheels. "I love you, Khushi. Love you so much." His hand smoothed her hair back, shaking so badly, she could feel its tremors. "Everything is going to be okay. Don't give up. You can't. You need to fight this. For the twins. For me."
More tears threatened. Her hands tried to move toward her belly, but she couldn't seem to make them move. "Our babies... my fault."
"No, love, no," he crooned.
The darkness was growing stronger, stabbing into her. She didn't know how much longer she could keep it at bay.
"Arnav!" she shouted as excruciating pain stabbed into her, stealing her breath, her every last ounce of energy. "ARNAV!"
As her body convulsed on the stretcher, he held her tight, screaming at the medical personnel to do something. His voice and face began to grow dimmer and dimmer. Khushi reached out to him as she realized with almost detached horror that this was it. The end of their journey, their love story.
"I'm...sorry," she whispered, her eyes closing.
As the world slipped into plunging blackness and she knew no more, the last thing she heard was her husband's tortured scream as he bellowed her name. 
*****
"I won't let you fall."
"I know you won't."
Arnav closed his eyes, his breathing harsh and uneven. Had it been just slightly over a day ago that he'd been on that runway, making love to Khushi, vowing that he'd never allow her to fall while he was alive and breathing? 
It felt so long ago. So out of his reach now. How he ached to be back there again. On that ramp, just him and Khushi, encased in each other's arms. How perfect everything had been... how calm...
He'd vowed to always protect her and their children. To not let one trace of darkness touch the one pure thing in his world.
And yet it had come to pass. Someone had pushed Khushi. Viciously. Brutally.
And this time, he hadn't been there to catch her. It had happened too fast, too suddenly, though that was no excuse. There was no excuse for this.
This was all his fault, Arnav lamented. All of it. 
He heard footsteps near him but he didn't look up, gazing down at the hospital's tiled floor in silent agony, memories of Khushi falling into the pool, saying goodbye to him in the ambulance replaying in his mind again and again. Aman and NK sat on either side of him. They knew better than to say anything and for that, he was grateful.
He didn't want to hear about how it wasn't his fault, how Khushi would be okay... He didn't think he could stomach any false promises until the moment he had her in his arms again and could see for himself that she was truly okay. Truly safe and sound.
The waiting room they'd been escorted to was small and private and the best Delhi had to offer. The sofas were plush and comfortable and tall windows, draped in thick, yellow curtains, allowed in some light. There was some artwork on the walls, all giving the room a deceptively calm appearance.
He felt like destroying every square inch of it. Breaking every piece of furniture and tearing down the cheerful looking paintings till they were nothing but shreds. To sit there with a facade of calmness when inside him everything was a fucking mess took all his strength. To remain still when his wife and children were battling life and death took everything he had in him and then some.
He'd never felt more useless. More helpless. How he wished it was him in that operating room and not Khushi. If only he could take her pain, her every last agony upon himself.
But he couldn't. He could do nothing. Absolutely nothing.
His phone rang and he raised it to his ear without much thought, his mind in tatters. "What?" he barked.
"Chote, it's me. I heard the awful news and I wanted to tell you how sorry I am. I know how much you loved Khushi and--"
"Love," he cut in, his voice edged with steel. "I love her. Don't use the past tense. And there's no damn reason to offer your condolences, Di. Khushi's alive. Do you understand?"
"Oh, really?" Anjali said flippantly and with the same amount of caring as if she was discussing the weather outside. "I thought she was no more. Dadi was saying she was finally gone from your life for good."
Arnav swallowed hard, his temper on the verge of exploding. "I don't give a damn what Dadi or anyone else says. But my wife is very much alive--despite all you people wishing otherwise."
"Chote, I never meant--"
"Put Dadi on the phone. Now."
"But--" Anjali struggled to make sense of things. Never had her Chote dismissed her so brusquely. "Dadi! Chote wants to speak with you!"
His grandmother came on the line with her usual acid-like tongue. "Please tell me you've called your lawyer, Arnav. That girl may be out of your life, but her family is already blaming you for her death. The news is reporting--" The harsh sound of her grandson laughing cut her off. Her lips compressed. "What is so very funny, Arnav?"
"You," he responded, no amusement apparent in his darkening eyes. "Sorry to disappoint you, Dadi, but like I told Di, my wife is alive. She's going to be okay. So you can stop worrying. But you weren't worried about her, were you? You were probably celebrating all of this."
"I will not respond to such rudeness from you. I don't care what happens to your dear wife, but it better not tarnish the Raizada name in any way. And Arnav, you should prepare yourself. She may be alive now, but who knows how long that will last? Call the lawyer now."
The call ended then with those taunting words and with a curse, Arnav flung the phone against the wall, breaking it.
"Boss..."
Ignoring Aman, Arnav turned to face Inspector Khan, his eyes shining with fury. "How the hell did this happen? You were supposed to be near Khushi the entire time. How could this have happened?"
The inspector, still dressed in a waiter's uniform, looked uneasy. "I was there, keeping an eye on her. But your wife noticed me. I decided to go change into another get-up, but before I could, I heard about her accident. I got there as soon as I could."
No part of that explanation was good enough for Arnav. "What's being done now?"
"AJ has been arrested. He was the only person near the scene who could have done it, though he claims it wasn't him."
Arnav said nothing, though for the first time in a long time, he found himself on the same side as his once-best friend. This wasn't AJ's doing, but someone who was far more calculative and bloodthirsty.
"Arnav bitwa!"
Khushi's parents and aunt hurried inside the waiting room, their faces panic-filled. "How is Khushi now? Any news?"
He shook his head, about to respond when two people he wanted nothing to do with appeared at the doorway.
Akash looked reluctant and afraid, but it was Payal who held his interest. For a brief moment, he'd been sure he'd spotted a smile playing on her damn mouth. It was the sight of that slight grin that made him lose all control. Pushing everyone aside, he shoved past Akash and grabbed his wife by the neck.
"I know you did this. I know it was you!"
Payal covered his hand with both of hers, holding him to her rather than making any attempt to push him away.
"Arnav!"
"Naanav!"
The room broke into total chaos as his grip tightened. Payal coughed dramatically, all the while stroking his fingers. He shoved her away, a look of disgust etched on his face.
The Guptas stared at him in silent horror. "How can you attack Payal like this?"
Buaji wrapped a soothing arm around Payal, who was now crying. It was all so fake, realized Arnav, her every expression. Why hadn't he noticed it before?"
"I knew we were right about you," Garima spat, poking a finger into his chest. "I knew you are nothing but a cruel and arrogant man. You think you can do anything you please, don't you? How dare you attack my daughter?"
Her hand rose to slap him, but Arnav caught it easily, his gaze turning hard. "I know this is very hard to believe, but your daughter is behind this, Mrs. Gupta. Payal is the one who attacked Khushi tonight. I know it was her. She's been jealous of my wife for God knows how many years and tonight she acted out on it."
The Guptas looked gobsmacked while Payal vehemently denied it. "What's gotten into you, Arnavji? I know you're upset but that's no reason to attack me. I love Khushi!"
"THE HELL YOU DO!" he roared. "You're nothing but a jealous, lying, conniving manipulator. You think you're smart, don't you? But you're actually far from that. You made a huge mistake tonight attacking my wife and trust me, I will not let you get away with it."
Payal withered slightly inside at the look of icy contempt and hatred she glimpsed in his gaze. She'd never wanted this. How had he figured it all out? It wasn't possible.
Her husband took hold of her hand, flinging his cousin an exasperated look. "Tonight you attacked me and now my wife. I don't know what your problem is with us, but I've had enough, Bhai. You will have to answer for this."
"Fuck off, Akask. I don't give a damn about you or your wife, though this woman is not fit to be called anyone's wife, sister, or daughter. She's a bloody monster."
"That's enough!" Buaji surged forward, her face an angry shade of red as she faced him. "We tolerated you for this very long only for Khushi's sake, but tonight you've crossed every line. Perhaps the news channels are right after all. Maybe you are involved in her accident tonight. Get out of here! Do you hear me? Just leave! As soon as Khushi wakes up, we'll have you formally kicked out of her life. You don't deserve her. You never have."
Arnav grinned in response, his smile as hard and cold as granite. "Kick me out of her life? And just who are you to decide that? WHO THE HELL ARE ANYONE OF YOU TO DECIDE THAT? Khushi is my wife. Mine! You can't keep me away from her. You have no right to."
Buaji started to speak up, but he turned toward his assistant. "Isn't that correct, Aman? Wouldn't the lawyers agree?"
Aman nodded, appearing quite calm given the circumstance. "Yes. A husband's rights trumps anyone else's."
"Exactly," Arnav said, "And by that authority, I'm ordering you to leave. All of you. There's another waiting room on the floor below where you can go if you wish. But I don't want anyone of you here or anywhere near my wife."
The Guptas stood silent and then another man appeared behind them, one Arnav recognized only too well.
"Buaji," said Karan, his eyes narrowing on Arnav with mutual loathing. "Don't waste your time arguing with him. We all know what type of man he is."
"Oh you're here as well. It's a fucking party tonight," Arnav declared, glaring at Karan.
Garima had never looked angrier as she turned away, leading a sniffling Payal outside. "I can't believe I trusted you for a single moment. We are not like your family, Mr. Raizada. We are good, decent people. Our daughters love one another. They'd give their lives for one another. I don't expect you to understand that though. You have no conscience. No heart. And as soon as Khushi wakes up, we will explain everything to her and I promise you, we will take her away from you. She'll come on her own accord, you'll see."
He smirked. "Don't be so confident, Mrs. Gupta. Not about my wife leaving me and especially not about your own daughter. Everyone has a bad apple in the family tree and in your case, it's her." He pointed toward Payal, who cried out in dismay.
"Amma!"
"Stop it, Payal. Don't fret. This man has clearly lost his mind."
"Not me, I assure you, Mrs. Gupta," Arnav replied smoothly, "But that daughter of yours has. Perhaps at DL. Isn't that right, Payal?"
Payal's face whitened but no one was watching her except for Arnav, Aman and the inspector. Garima frowned. "DL?"
"Ask your daughter," Arnav growled in a rough voice. "Now, get out. All of you, get the hell out of here!"
As they marched out, flinging him looks of contempt and hatred, Arnav stared blankly back, appearing cool and nonchalant. As soon as they were gone and the door had slammed closed behind them, he sagged down into the nearest chair, running a hand through his wavy hair.
NK was the first to approach him. "Naanav, what's going on? I know you wouldn't accuse Khushi's sister without reason, but this is serious. Her entire family hates you now."
"And she might too," he whispered. "Khushi won't want to believe her sister is capable of something like this, but I'm telling you, NK, it's her. I've been having her tracked for weeks. Just ask Khan."
The inspector nodded. "Payal Raizada is not what she appears, but still, we have no proof she pushed your wife tonight, Mr. Raizada. I was never far from her at the party. Your wife noticed me, but she didn't. I never saw Payal do anything unusual."
"She's too clever to get her own hands dirty, but she was involved. She has to be."
Aman took a tentative seat beside him. "We need more proof. We need evidence that proves she's the one."
Arnav nodded. "The security cameras. Shantivaan is monitored day and night. We just need the tapes."
Khan shook his head. "I've already checked. Someone erased them just as the party ended. There's not a single recording from tonight."
A curse escaped Arnav. "It was Payal. I know it was her!" He held out his hand toward Aman. "Your phone. I need it."
The security guard at Shantivaan picked up on the second ring. "Raizada residence."
"This is ASR. What the hell happened to the cameras tonight? Who turned them all off?"
"Sir," the man stammered. "Sir, we have no idea how that happened. We're working on figuring it out."
"If you want your job, you better figure it out. And do something else for me..."
"Yes, sir. Of course."
"Do not let Akash, Payal, or any of the Guptas into the house. Have they moved out their stuff?"
"No, sir. I've seen nothing so far. They left for the hospital a while ago and haven't returned yet."
Akash and Payal's thirty minutes were more than up. "Take their stuff and throw it all out. Every last thing."
"Even the furniture?"
"All of it," instructed Arnav. "I want no reminder of them. I don't care what you do with their stuff. Throw it in the street, burn it, whatever. I just better not see it when I get back."
"You're returning?" The guard sounded surprised.
"Yes, it is my goddamn house after all."
"Of course, sir. I never meant--"
"Make sure everything is cleaned up and my room especially. I'll be moving in with my wife there very soon. Get our things from the other house." The decision was intuitive and impulsive, but it made practical sense. Shantivaan was closer to the hospital than their house. And it was time he returned. Only one last thing needed cleaning.
"Is my brother-in-law around?"
"No sir, he drove off an hour ago."
"Good. Don't let him back in either."
"Done, sir."
Arnav cut the call, rubbing his temples. His sister would be hysterical once she found out, but he didn't have time to worry about that. For now, she was ignorant of his instructions and likely celebrating in Nainital with Dadi. His mouth twisted.
Why was everyone so against Khushi and him being together? Why could no one seem to stomach their happiness? 
Payal he understood--on some deranged level, she had some sick reasons to keep them apart. His grandmother he understood as well. No one but Sheetal as his wife would please her. Even the Gupta, he reasoned, had their reasons. They'd never liked him, and now that he'd publicly accused Payal of attacking her own sister, he doubted they ever would.
He didn't care about any of that. None of them mattered. He only gave a damn about one person. His wife. God, how would Khushi react? Would she blame him too? Would she call him crazy for going after her dear Jiji?
Sighing, he leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and closed his eyes. His heart tugged painfully in his chest as he recalled his wife's tear-streaked face, the agony lacing her every word.
"I...I love you."
He clung to those words. That promise. Khushi would have to believe him. She must. But what if she didn't? And could he really blame her if she didn't? He knew the answer to that. He wouldn't be able to blame her. He'd never been able to.
His mouth tightened at the corners. He'd wished to give Khushi nothing but happiness, but things were not that simple. Ever since he'd barged into her life, she'd faced things no one should have to. Stalkers, conniving ex-girlfriends, violence, threats...
And even if he ended this Payal chapter in their lives, perhaps even then it would not stop. It came with the territory of being CEO of AR Designs. There would always be someone or the other out there planning his downfall. He had more enemies than anyone should and there were far more people who were envious of his success, his marriage...
He'd tried to shut the world out. To keep Khushi safe with him in their own home, far from the darkness of Shantivaan, but tonight had proven how tenuous that blanket of security was. There was no point in running from this. He had to confront these threats. Head on.
And confront them, he would. He'd destroy anyone who threatened his wife and children's safety. He would make every last one of them pay. Beginning with Payal Gupta Raizada. Her downfall had already begun.
"Mr. ASR?"
The quiet voice broke into his thoughts and for a moment, he felt strangely disoriented. And then he recalled that this was no nightmare, but his reality. Khushi. God, Khushi...
He bounded up, his heart in his throat and his control in splinters. "Yes, doctor? What is it? Is my wife okay? The twins? They're okay, aren't they?" He couldn't voice the alternative. Couldn't bear to even consider anything else.
The doctor took his time in answering, precious seconds that made it difficult for Arnav to stay still, his hands fisting at his sides.
"Your wife is going to be okay. She just woke up actually. She's weak, but alive."
His lungs expanded with air and it felt as if for the first time since he'd dived into the pool at Shantivaan, he could breathe again. "And the babies?"
"Alive and well, just like their mother. You're all incredibly lucky. Things could have gone very wrong if she'd landed in that pool at a slightly different angle."
Arnav could have embraced the man, but he instead shook his hand. "I know. Thank you. Thank you for everything. I can't explain how much this means to me. How much they mean to me."
"It's my job, Mr. Raizada," smiled the doctor. "Now go, your wife is asking for you."
He didn't hear another word, sprinting out the door. Khushi had been taken straight to a private suite, the best the hospital had to offer.
Two guards stood watch there and at his approach, they moved out of the way. Arnav pushed past the door, his heart ricocheting in his chest as he spotted his wife.
She lay in a large hospital bed, swathed in blankets, looking younger than her age and so frail, he could only wonder how she managed to keep her eyes open. But under the bulky dressing wrapped around her forehead, her eyes gazed toward him, wide and teary.
"Khushi..." he breathed.
At his voice, she burst into sobs, covering her face with both hands.
*****
"That man!" fumed Garima, pacing back and forth in the waiting room on the tenth floor of the hospital. "That evil, evil man! I don't know we could have entrusted Khushi to him for even a minute. He's despicable!"
Buaji patted Payal's head. She was sitting beside her, crying hopelessly. "How could he blame Payalia of all people? Has he lost his mind?"
Akash made an angry noise, reiterating his stance. "Clearly. First he attacked me and now my wife. I won't let him get away with this."
Karan nodded in agreement. "We must do something. I don't care if we have to kidnap Khushi to get her away from him. She can't stay with a man like him. I knew he was wrong for her all along."
Garima frowned at her husband. He'd been silent so far. "Do you have nothing to say?"
He shrugged. "I'm more concerned about Khushi's state than Arnav Singh Raizada at the moment. I just hope she's all right wherever she is."
That quieted all of them. "She has to be," said Buaji, blowing her nose noisily. "My Sanka Devi is not one to give up. She's a born fighter."
Karan nodded. "She's going to be okay. The true danger she faces is from that ASR. He's the one who's wrecked her life ever since he entered it. I don't know what she ever saw in that man. He's messed up on so many levels."
Akash started to say something, but his phone rang then, jarring the silence. "Mother, I'm busy. Can you call back later?"
"There's no time for later! This is urgent, Akash! You need to get back home! The guards are throwing out all your and Payal's stuff outside and burning most of it."
"What?" He couldn't believe it.
"I wish I was lying, but I'm not. There's a large bonfire in the driveway and more stuff being added to it. I tried to intervene, but they said I had to leave Shantivaan too if I disagreed. Apparently, they're working on Arnav's direct orders."
Akash bit back a naughty swear word. "I'll be there in ten minutes." Cutting the call, he told the news to the Gupta.
Payal's gaze widened. All her stuff was being burned? Her collection of ASR souvenirs? Her pictures of him? Even her laptop?
Her fake tears forgotten, she hurried to Akash. "You can't let them do this! We have to stop it."
He nodded, taking her hand. "Let's go." His gaze veered to the Guptas. "Let us know if there's any news on Khushi."
"I'll drive you," murmured Karan.
Akash was grateful for the offer and it turned out to be necessary because as soon as they got outside, they saw their car being towed away.
"Where do you think you're going with my car?"
Aman stepped out of the shadows, his arms crossed over his chest. "Your car? That car is under my boss's name. It's no longer yours to use."
Akash started to grab him by the collar, but NK and Khan rose to his sides and his footsteps immediately faltered.
"He'll pay for this!" screamed Akash. "He can't keep humiliating me like this!"
Karan led him away. "Ignore these people. Let's get to Shantivaan first."
"You're not allowed there," NK broke in. "Naanav has ordered the guards to keep you and Payal out. I wouldn't even waste my time trying to get in."
Pain ripped through Payal at his words. Did Arnav truly hate her so much now that he'd thrown her out of Shantivaan along with all her stuff? Had he been saying the truth when he'd yelled at Akash earlier:
"I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT HER! Why should I? You certainly don't seem to care about my wife's well being. Why the hell should I care about what your wife loves? I don't!"
It had been those words that had spurred her into action. She'd paid a waiter a hefty sum of money to shove Khushi into the pool and within seconds of those harsh words being uttered, she'd given him the command to attack.
But this was too drastic even for ASR. Then again, she recalled his behavior in the waiting room. How rude and cold he'd been with her entire family and realized it could be true. He even knew about DL. What if she'd left behind some clue unknowingly... what if he could expose her?
For the first time in her life, Payal knew true fear. She had to do something. And fast.
*****
Arnav was at Khushi's side within seconds, taking her into his arms carefully. "Baby, hush. Why are you crying? Everything's fine now. You're safe and so are the twins."
"I know," she sniffled, cuddling closer. "I'm not crying about that."
He leaned slightly back, just enough so he could see her face. "You're not?"
Khushi cupped his cheeks, bringing him down for a lingering kiss. "No, I'm not."
He brushed his mouth over her lips again, then across her cheeks and forehead. "Then what is it, love? You scared the hell out of me tonight."
"I scared myself tonight." She shivered, her eyes closing as he stroked her face. "I thought everything was lost for a moment. That I'd never see you again..."
Arnav's grip tightened around her. "That'll never happen. I'm with you. Always."
Khushi managed a weak smile, meeting his warm gaze with quiet wonder. "And I'm with you."
He tipped her chin up. "Are you truly okay? Why were you crying when I walked in?"
Her nose wrinkled. "Didn't the doctor tell you?"
"Tell me what? He said everything is going to be okay. You're weak from the blood loss but you'll regain your strength soon. We just have to be careful from now on. Even more than before."
"Exactly," Khushi murmured unhappily, "And apparently that means no... no more sex."
"What?"
She nodded, looking miserable. "I can't believe it. What are we going to do? All we had was that one hour on the runway after days apart and now that's supposed to last me through four more months? How am I going to keep my hands off of you?" Arnav chuckled at the hopeless tone in her voice and her eyes narrowed at him. "Are you really laughing, Mr. Raizada? This is serious."
He pecked the end of her nose. "I agree, it is. Very serious."
"Aren't you upset at all? I thought you would be."
He shook his head, framing her face in his hands. "Having you safe and sound in my arms is all I wanted. I can live with this."
"Well, I can't," mumbled Khushi. "I thought we had a few more months still... I'm not ready to be apart from you like that."
Sitting beside her, Arnav slanted his mouth over hers. "Who says we have to be apart? I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"You know what I mean."
Arnav caressed her hair, part of him unable to believe he truly had her back. His eyes closed in silent thanks. "We'll make it work."
"How though? You should have heard that doctor."
"Forget about him. We'll be together the whole time, and love?"
"Hmm?"
"There are other ways we can still be together. The possibilities are endless..."
Her eyes shone and she hugged him to her. "Really?"
Arnav smiled, rubbing her belly. "Yes, really. You with me?"
Her gaze widened. "Right now? Here?"
He laughed again, shaking his head. "No, once you're stronger. I want to see you healthy again first."
"I am. Just have a horrible headache." His fingers glided over her temple and she gave a contented sigh. "I'm sorry," she whispered after a bit. "I don't know what you must have gone through."
"God, Khushi. Would you please stop saying sorry like any of it was your fault."
Her eyes blinked open, considering him for a long moment. "Who's fault was it then? AJ's?"
"No, not him... Someone else... Someone who's hated us being together for a very long time. All secretly of course. Behind the scenes, so to speak."
Khushi frowned. "Who are you talking about, Arnav?" He hesitated to answer, and she took his hand in hers, her eyes soft and imploring. "Please, baby. Tell me. I need to know."
"I want to tell you," he admitted. "So badly. But I wonder if it's too much, too soon. You've already gone through hell tonight."
Her grip tightened on his hand. "I know I probably look really weak right now, but I promise you, I'm strong enough to hear this. Who was it, love? Who pushed me? Whose after us and our children?"
He steeled himself, his muscles tensing. This was it. Holding her gaze, he whispered, "Your sister. Payal."
*****
Sitting inside Karan's cheap car, Payal sat crying, watching smoke spiral up Shantivaan's gates as all her valuables were burned or thrown into the street. Akash and Karan were arguing with the guard, but the man would not budge. They were not allowed in, he kept repeating, threatening to call the police if they continued to create a scene.
Her laptop had been destroyed, its charred remnants all that remained. Her pictures and souvenirs had been burned to a crisp, nothing to prove she'd once lived inside the decadent mansion she'd called home for over a year.
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head against the window, taking deep breaths. It didn't help much. It felt as if the smoke was here too, suffocating her.
Who would have guessed that one day it would be in Karan's car that she would have to hide? Karan, a man she'd dismissed as a nobody, just as she'd dismissed Khushi Kumari Gupta.
She didn't have very many weaknesses, mused Payal, but her one consistent fault had always been to underestimate her enemy. Khushi had proven to be much smarter than she appeared. She'd attained the position that Payal would have killed for with little trouble. It was she who was ASR's wife and lover. The mother of his children.
Hopefully Khushi and her brats died tonight, prayed Payal. It would make everything far more easier. ASR would gradually thaw in his hatred for her, realizing there was no solid proof against her. It had to be Khushi, that serpent, who caused him to doubt her in the first place.
Still, she couldn't take the chance of him exposing her. Not after the years of hard work it had taken for her to cement her image with her family and friends. She refused to be destroyed. It was time to use her final card. The ultimate card. One that would be sure to make ASR back off.
Her fingers darted over the buttons on her phone, her message brief but more than sufficient for the job.
ASR, 
A bit of advice: I would not accuse me of any more false claims as you've done today. I respect and care for you, but if this continues, I will be forced to take action. You must be laughing, wondering what I could possibly do to a man as rich and powerful as yourself. Well, I have one word for you. One word that will answer all your questions and silence you forever.
RITA. Yes, ASR, I know all about that. I know about that secret you've never shared with even your dear wifey or anyone else for that matter. Threaten me more and I will reveal everything you've kept hidden for so long. And not just to Khushi, but to the entire world. 
Yours truly,
Payal Raizada


Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 33: Darkness Descends
"Your sister. Payal."
The words, uttered in a low, unflinching tone, shattered something in Khushi. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared her to hear her husband name her own sister--her quiet, unassuming Jiji--as the person who'd callously shoved her into the swimming pool hours before. She jerked her hands free from his.
A pained expression filtered past his eyes, but Arnav didn't take back his statement, didn't say it was all some horrible misunderstanding. His jaw flexed as he studied her shock-glazed complexion, his gaze imploring. "Khushi, I know this is hard, but--"
"How can you accuse Jiji of such a crime?" she managed, struggling to even consider such a possibility. "Why would she of all people ever harm me or our children?"
His eyes closed. Our children, she'd said. At least she still thought of them as a family. He'd been prepared for a far, far worse reaction.
He'd imagined her saying he was insane to blame Payal for anything remotely so sinister, had pictured her ordering him out of the hospital room, saying she wanted nothing more to do with him. He'd envisioned her hysterical, wounded expression as she realized that perhaps everyone was right about him after all. There was something wrong with him.
But his wife had surprised him once again. Wrapped up in a voluminous hospital gown, her hair in tousled disarray about her face, she was remarkably calm, though the shock of his words was visible in her eyes, in the way her fingers trembled as they rested on her protruding stomach.
Despite all the stress she'd been through, her beauty remained undiminished, drawing him in, pulling him to forget about everything, every damn obstacle and last darkness in their lives. Staring at her, he felt his body harden, though this was not the place or time for it. His brain knew that, but his body and heart were a much different story. All he'd ever wanted was sitting right before him, within his reach.
After spending the past couple hours battling with the worst sort of fear and worry he'd ever experienced in his life, all he wanted was to take his wife, his Khushi, into his arms. He ached to lose himself in her, to claim and love every inch of her, to bury himself deep within her, so deep no one would dare to even think about separating them.
"Arnav. Answer me." Her pink tongue peeked out, wetting her dry lips.
His hands fisted at his sides to keep from dragging her to him and capturing those lush lips with his own. Forcing thoughts of tangled sheets and naked skin out of his mind, he met her gaze evenly. "Do you remember what the man following us in New York told the police before he died?"
Her eyebrows bent and then as she realized what he was hinting toward, her lips parted in a whisper. "Sister... His last word was sister..."
"Exactly." He took hold of her hand, grateful when she didn't make any move to retract herself from him this time. His grip tightened. "And naturally, everyone assumed it had to be my sister. But Di is too damaged to have played such games. I admit she has problems--several serious ones--but she's like...like a mirror. Her feelings and thoughts, no matter how twisted or bizarre, are never hidden. They're always there. Crystal clear." His voice lowered. "My sister has her faults, Khushi, but attacking you and our children is not one of them."
She shook her head. "What are you saying? That unlike her, my sister is capable of something like that?"
He was a quiet for a long moment, not turning away from the distress and outrage swirling within her. His hands as they rose cup her face where firm and yet exceedingly tender, mindful of the bandage wound about her temple. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to say." She began to shrink away, but he held on fast. "Khushi, baby, stop. Listen to me. I know this is difficult for you. Hell, I didn't want to believe it myself for the longest time but pieces began falling into place. Things I couldn't ignore."
She blinked up at him, confusion mixing with the tears shining in her eyes. "W-what things?"
"It started with that clue: sister. After that I was always on edge with both of our sisters," he admitted quietly, stroking her hair as if she were a child. "I looked at them both with some degree of suspicion, even though I knew Di would need someone guiding her to pull something of such scale off. She was easy to track and monitor. But Payal's behavior... I can't explain it Khushi. I first noticed something was off that day my sister and grandmother called me home when we were at the doctor's appointment. Remember? That false alarm? I was so furious that day, I almost missed it. It was on my way out of Shantivan that I noticed Payal stepping close to me, crossing the line in more ways than one." His wife went rigid in his arms and he smoothed an unruly strand of hair from her face, his face calm. "Nothing happened, love, but something about that encounter made me uncomfortable. And then soon after that, that whole fiasco at Indigo happened. Khushi, I've gone through every detail of that night a thousand times. That woman who was dressed like you... something about her voice, the sound of her moaning... I..." His lips thinned at the memory. "I recognized it. It was Payal. I would bet my life on it. And ask yourself, baby, who better than her to pretend to be you? You both are so similar in height and weight and--"
"She's my sister, Arnav!" she cut in, looking absolutely stricken. "My sister!"
He shook his head, wishing he could have kept her from feeling all the hell he knew she had to be going through. Damn you, Payal. You will pay for this. For her every tear, for your every game, I will make you pay."No," he said in a deceptively calm voice, "She's your cousin, and maybe for you that's as good as a sister, but Khushi, it doesn't have to mean the same for her! You should have seen her here hours ago. She grinned at me! She had the balls to do that. It made me lose control...I had her by the neck..." He glanced aside, his jaw working.
"W-what?" Her voice broke.
He nodded, taking her trembling hand in both of his and raising them to his mouth. In spite of everything, his featherlight touch left her reeling as always.
"I shouldn't have reacted at all perhaps, but in that moment, I couldn't just stand there and watch the person who'd attacked my family go unpunished." Arnav's face darkened as he recalled that evil smirk. "But do you know what she did? Instead of pushing me away, instead of calling for help, she stroked my fingers. Stroked them as a lover would. That's when I knew for sure. Khushi, please. Trust me. Payal is not what she seems. She's--"
"Stop right there, ASR."
Khushi's head swerved to the door just in time to see her parents and aunt barge inside, her mother at the forefront.
"Amma?"
Garima and the rest of the Guptas came to a stop at the opposite side of her bed, seeming hell-bent on ignoring Arnav though her mother's disapproving gaze fell on their joined hands, her frown deepening all the more. Their behavior would have seemed extremely peculiar to Khushi if not for the fact her husband had just admitted he'd had his hands wrapped around her sister's throat mere hours ago.
"Khushi..." Garima whispered a prayer, taking hold of her free hand. "Thank God, you're all right, bitiya. Now we can finally take you away."
"Take me away?" Her head whipped to her husband, but Arnav sat unmoving, his expression reminding her of sculpted granite. Something cold and dangerous flashed in his eyes and Khushi couldn't help but notice how his grip on her hand tightened to the point of almost painful.
She knew him well enough to understand he didn't even realize what he was doing. Though he appeared utterly unaffected and composed outwardly, she could tell how much her mother's announcement had pierced his carefully built control. If any one else had even suggested such a thing, he would have not let the person get another word out. Thankfully, he still had some boundaries where her family was concerned, though the same couldn't be said for the Guptas.
"This man... you husband..." her mother seemed to struggle over the words. "He attacked Payal! In the waiting room before all of us! I'm sorry to say this but I was right about him all along, Khushi. Arnav Singh Raizada is not the man for you. He never has been and he never will be."
Before Khushi could get a word in, Buaji stepped forward, her eyes fuming brightly. "Like your mother, I too wish things could have ended differently, Sanka Devi, but after all that's happened, we can no longer continue to turn a blind eye to this man's faults." Her angry gaze bore into Arnav, but he sat stone-faced still, not reacting in any way other than his hold on Khushi's hand, which tightened.
"Your husband is not just a ruthless, cold-hearted businessman and womanizer as the papers say," continued her aunt with rampant disdain, "But someone far more dangerous. You and the twins are not safe being anywhere near him."
"Exactly," agreed her mother with a stiff nod of her head. "Which is why as soon as the doctors say it's okay for you to leave this facility, you're coming home with us. Arnav Singh Raizada is nothing but an unfortunate chapter in your life--and one that closes today. This man deserves nothing but--"
"ENOUGH!"
The force of her cry startled everyone gathered in the room and it didn't go without repercussions. Her raw throat stung anew and her entire body shuddered as she coughed several times.
"Khushi!" Ignoring the dumbfounded stares and glares of her family, Arnav massaged her back, setting a glass of water to her lips. "Baby, take a sip. You'll feel better."
Through the wave of pain, she met his gaze and what she saw there made her heart freeze.
His eyes were dark and turbulent, clouded over with silent agony and such concern and vulnerability, tears pricked her eyes. Why could no one else see it? Why couldn't her family understand how much he loved her? Her husband's love was the purest thing she'd ever felt and right now, she was engulfed by it, drowning in it, the charged emotions in his gaze conquering her heart all over again.
Covering his hand with hers, she took another sip of the water. Her voice when she turned to face her parents and aunt was quiet but strong.
"The only place I'm going from here, Amma, is my own home. Mine and Arnav's."
Garima's face blanched and her gaze whipped to Arnav who smirked back at her. He raised his wife's hand to his lips, caressing her delicate skin. "Told you not to be so overconfident, Mrs. Gupta, didn't I? Do you understand now? Khushi and I are bound together in a bond so strong, so intimate, nothing in this world can tear us apart." His eyes glittered with challenge. "Not even you."
"Do you still not see it, Khushi? Just listen to him! I've never met anyone so arrogant and rude in my life! Why don't you understand, Khushi? This man attacked your sister tonight! HE IS NOT THE ONE FOR YOU!"
She couldn't quite conceal her flinch. "I was harmed by Jiji's husband as well tonight. He might not have physically assaulted me like that AJ or pushed me in the pool, but he stood there and watched. And choosing not to act is an action all on its own. Are you asking Payal to leave her husband as well?"
Her mother balked. "Of course not. Akash didn't strangle you, did he? He failed to act, but none of that excuses your husband and his actions tonight."
"True... Where is Jiji?"
"She and Akask left for Shantivan not too long ago," Buaji informed her in a hard, disappointment-laden voice. "Perhaps your husband failed to tell you that he kicked them out of their home tonight."
"I am quite aware about all that, Buaji, but what I mean is, why is Jiji not here? Admitted in the hospital? You both said Arnav attacked her, strangled her, so shouldn't she be here then?"
Her mother and aunt frowned and it was her father who answered, stepping forward. "Payal was not...injured like that. It was more a psychological and emotional blow to being called your attacker tonight than a physical one."
"But otherwise she's okay? No serious injuries?"
"No," Garima snapped, "She is doing just fine, but she'll be much happier knowing you've decided to leave this man once and for all. We all will."
Khushi threaded her fingers through her husband's, her tone one of steely strength and undaunted defiance. "Have you not been listening, Amma? I'm not leaving him. Not now. Not ever. I love him."
Her family looked to be at their wit's end, and Arnav couldn't keep a slight grin off of his face, his gaze warm and unabashedly proud as it rested on his wife. His hand squeezed hers and she smiled at him though her smile was faint and too brief for his liking.
"Besides," she said after a long pause, staring down at their entwined hands, "It wouldn't be the first time someone has accused Jiji of something so terrible, would it? Arnav's claims are not entirely baseless."
Her mother's face, which had been colorless moments ago, seemed to darken, her eyes burning with ill-concealed horror. She couldn't seem to speak for a moment and when she finally did, her voice was little more than a shrill screech, emanating with barely contained fury.
"How could you, Khushi? How could you mention that incident at a time like this? That was nothing but a tragedy. A horrible tragedy Payal was wrongly entangled in."
Khushi swallowed. "I thought so too, Amma, but what if we've been wrong all along? There's a limit to coincidence, isn't there?"
Her mother was so livid she couldn't seem to voice a reply and Arnav tugged Khushi to face him, ignoring the others. He'd only tolerated the Guptas thus far for his wife's sake but his patience was wearing thin. "What coincidence, baby? Payal has been blamed for something like this before?"
Khushi nodded, but Garima bellowed then, with a harshness that made everyone's ears ring. "THIS IS OUR FAMILY MATTER, MR. ASR! You have no right to ask about it! Khushi, don't you dare tell him anything."
"Why not, Amma? Arnav is my husband and therefore, as much a part of this family as anyone else. Besides," she continued with that same rebellious air, "I don't keep any secrets from the man I love."
"KHUSHI!"
"That's enough, Mrs. Gupta," Arnav growled, rising. "I've listened to you and whatever you had to say for far longer than was necessary, but I will not tolerate you or anyone else screaming at my wife. Have you forgotten? Unlike your other daughter, she was seriously injured tonight. She needs peace and quiet, not you yelling at her. I think it would be best if you all went home now. It's late anyway."
To his surprise, his father-in-law nodded in agreement. "I think that would be best as well. Try to rest, Khushi.  The past is in the past, and there's no point on arguing over it now. I will call you in the morning." He paused to shake Arnav's hand. "Take care of her."
"I will," Arnav said, meaning every word and then some. "Always."
Buaji put forward no further argument either, though she refused to speak to either one of them as she marched out, huffing something unintelligible under her breath. Unlike her, Garima couldn't hide her dislike. She glared at her son-in-law with obvious loathing as her husband led her toward the door. "Don't think this is the end of it, ASR. Don't for a moment think you've won."
He gave her a twisted grin. "Oh, but I know I have. Good night, Mrs. Gupta. Don't worry about Khushi. She's in good hands. My good hands..."
Ignoring her look of outrage, he shut the door, locking it to ensure no one else disturbed them. Leaning back against it for a moment, he closed his eyes. When he opened them, Khushi sat watching him from across the room, a troubled frown on her face. He approached her slowly.
"You know, I wouldn't have blamed you if you had decided to go with your mother." His gaze grew thoughtful as it traced over her delicate features. "Why didn't you?"
She exhaled, reaching for his hand. "Because I can't leave you... I love you too much and too deeply to walk away. I know you, Arnav. I know you wouldn't accuse Jiji without reason and I trust your judgment... Besides, there's a reason my father shook your hand just now instead of telling you how wrong you are. This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Jiji has a pattern of this."
He sat carefully beside her, taking hold of her hand with a possessiveness that he could not control. He'd never been able to where she was concerned. "You've never mentioned any of this before. Will you tell me now?"
She clung to his hands, her face etched with regret. "I didn't tell you because it was all in the past and honestly, we've all learned to not mention that incident, almost as if it never happened in the first place. But it did." Her body shivered. "It was a long time ago. I was in school then and Jiji was graduating from the twelfth grade. There was a business project she was working on for most of that year. A model design company or something like that... I didn't understand it much at the time, but it was all she talked about that year--how that project would clinch her a position in the best university, how she'd be named the top student at graduation... She had this whole plan..." Khushi's voice trailed off as she recalled those days long past. As she glanced at him, her eyes looked huge and dark, contrasting sharply with her pale complexion. "Baby, Jiji's fixation with that project was not normal. We were all so worried for her, especially me. I knew if she didn't get top honors, she wouldn't be able to bear it. She was practically obsessed with winning."
"Did she win?" he asked though he already guessed the answer to that.
She shook her head. "Second place. The winner that year was Lena D'Souza. She was a girl in Jiji's class so I never knew her too well, but the few times I interacted with her, she was very friendly and encouraging, always smiling. It was no wonder she was so popular in her class."
"What happened after that?"
"At first, nothing," Khushi recalled, sighing. "I thought Jiji was handling her second place finish really well all things considered. She was quiet, more so than usual, but overall, there was no other change I noticed. I thought I'd been silly to worry about her reaction in the first place."
"But..."
Her gaze grew shuttered. "But... the week before graduation, they found a body on our school grounds. It was Lena's. No one knew what had happened but the police concluded she'd jumped from the school's roof. There was even a suicide note found in her books, I believe. No one could believe it--least of all me. A girl like Lena had everything to live for. Her life had barely begun. But how could I say anything against all that evidence? I had nothing. No proof. No witnesses. Just a bad suspicion..."
"Payal..." he breathed.
She nodded miserably. "It made me feel so guilty, but I couldn't help it. I thought what if Jiji hadn't meant to harm Lena but they'd gotten into a fight on the rooftop or something? It amazed me how quickly everyone else seemed to accept the news of the suicide. The day of the graduation ceremony, it felt more like a memorial to Lena than anything else. Jiji did get the top prize in the end, but it wasn't how she'd wanted it. I felt sorry for her as she went up on that stage to collect her award amidst all that overwhelming grief. And then when things couldn't get much worse, Lena's mother stood up and began shouting that Jiji had pushed her daughter from the rooftop, that she was behind it all. Oh, Arnav, you should have seen her face. Even after friends and family took her away, apologizing for the disruption, I couldn't get her words out of my head for months. What was worse was how Jiji would break into sobs as soon as someone mentioned Lena's death. We all learned to avoid that topic, even though the whispers and rumors never really died down. It was so hard to find someone who'd marry Jiji knowing she was once questioned for a possible murder."
Arnav frowned. "There's nothing in her records about any of this. I know. I've gone through it all personally."
Khushi nodded up at him. "There wouldn't be. She was just questioned, never accused of any crime."
He was quiet for a moment before asking her softly, "Do you think she did it?"
She shrugged. "I didn't know then and I don't know now. It's hard for me to believe someone like Jiji could do something so horrific, but this keeps happening. The last time I could ignore it because I thought Lena's mom was simply heartbroken, but this time it's you accusing her, baby. And it's the same pattern: someone being pushed viciously each time. I fell into a swimming pool and Lena fell from six stories. I don't know if Jiji is behind it all. I hope she's not, but I take your words very seriously, Arnav. I will not take any chances, especially now when it's our children's lives at stake. But love, I can't believe you blindly either. There needs to be solid proof."
He pressed his mouth to hers, his tongue sweeping over her full lips. As they came up for air, he framed her face in his palms. "You trusting me even this much is more than I ever expected. I'll find more proof."
"More?" She eyed him with astonishment.
He nodded, pressing his mouth to hers again. "I'll explain later, but you need to rest. Tonight's been crazy enough as it is and--"
His phone made a beeping noise then and Khushi reached for it before he could. "Who's texting you at this time? Aman?"
He smiled tiredly. "Probably." As Khushi read the message, he watched her smile fade with every passing second. His brow furrowed. "Who is it, baby?"
His wife looked up at him with an ashen expression. "It's my sister. She's blackmailing you."
"What?" He snatched the phone from her limp fingers. What he saw there made his world come to a jerking halt. Everything seemed to fade into a dismal, black nothingness.
ASR,
A bit of advice: I would not accuse me of any more false claims as you've done today. I respect and care for you, but if this continues, I will be forced to take action. You must be laughing, wondering what I could possibly do to a man as rich and powerful as yourself. Well, I have one word for you. One word that will answer all your questions and silence you forever.
RITA. Yes, ASR, I know all about that. I know about the secret you've never shared with even your dear wifey or anyone else for that matter. Threaten me more and I will reveal everything you've kept hidden for so long. And not just to Khushi, but to the entire world.
Yours truly,
Payal Raizada
"Who's Rita?" Khushi breathed.
He was powerless to answer her, his limbs feeling heavy and a metallic taste filling his mouth as memories assailed him. Memories so dark and vivid it felt as if no time had passed at all. He realized he'd been a fool to believe he'd ever be free of their hold on him. His life was shrouded in darkness; it always had been. Khushi had brought with her a ray of light into the crushing void his life had once been, but was it enough?
"Arnav?"
He felt his wife's much smaller hand settle atop his, heard the concern and confusion in her soft voice, but he couldn't reply, his throat constricting as if invisible hands were choking him, stealing his very breath.
Khushi stared at her stock-still husband with growing worry. He hadn't moved. He'd barely breathed.
"Arnav?" She raised her hand to his face, but he wrenched himself out of her grasp, backed away as if he couldn't bear her touch. She could only watch open-mouthed as he retreated, his footsteps echoing in the silence that bridged them.
"Arnav? What is it? Who is this Rita?"
"I... I can't..." And then he was gone, heading out the door as if ghosts chased after him.
"ARNAV!"
She struggled to get out of the hospital bed, her only thought to follow after him, but a red-hot wave of pain assailed her, her hands shaking as they rose to her throbbing temple.
"Mrs. Raizada!" A young nurse darted to her side. "You must remain in bed. Your injuries--"
"My husband," she broke in, "Where is he?"
The woman frowned. "I ran into him near the elevator, but he seemed in a great hurry. He didn't even wait for the elevator, but took the stairs. I'm sure something important just came up, Mrs. Raizada. Now, please, no more attempts to get out of the bed. You need to rest."
Khushi heard her as if from a great distance, Arnav's panic playing out before her eyes all over again. What was he hiding from her? And who was Rita? She racked her brain but she was quite sure she'd never heard the name so much as mentioned before.
But judging by Arnav's reaction, Rita meant something to him--a great deal. Lying back against the pillows, Khushi felt as if something was tearing into her heart, playing with the very fiber of her being and all that she knew. She'd thought this night couldn't possibly get any worse.
How wrong she'd been...
*****
"I will not live here! I CAN'T!"
Akash was on her in seconds, his hand clamping over her mouth with far less than his usual gentleness. Soot stained his face and the smell of dust and smoke clung to his clothes, remnants of a blaze that had died out hours ago. "Be quiet, Payal! I don't want your parents to hear us arguing."
She glared at him, not bothering to hide her displeasure. "More reason not to be here. Please, Akash, let's go somewhere else. Anywhere but here." She frowned at their surroundings, but it was no cruel nightmare. She was truly back. Back to an ordinary, too tiny bedroom in her parents' middle-class home--her very own version of hell. If this wasn't rock bottom, she didn't know what was.
Her husband though seemed not to realize the degree of embarrassment he was putting her through. It had all been his not-so-brilliant idea to go to her parents. How much more humiliation did she have to bear, lamented Payal? She'd already lost all her worldly possessions tonight, including her laptop and precious mementos from Shantivan's most private and sought after bedroom.
"We have nowhere else to go," Akash reminded, dragging her away from thoughts of his older, sexy cousin. At her obvious dissatisfaction with his reply, he kneeled before her, his gaze beseeching. "Please, Payal, I know this is not easy, but for the short term, it's all we have. I'll see in the next few days if I can find somewhere suitable for us in Nainital. Bhai won't let me use his private plane after today."
The mention of Arnav deflated all the fight and spirit in her. She couldn't shake off the memory of the hospital, of the way he'd looked at her, with such anger and revulsion. She forced those thoughts aside, shuddering. "Why can't we go now? Or at the very least stay at a decent hotel? Even a four stars will do."
Her husband sighed. "We need to save all our money, every last cent. Without Bhai's backing, things won't be easy now, but don't worry, we have the Mookjai deal." As if remembering something, he suddenly stood.
"Where are you going now?" Payal huffed.
He wiped the dust from his face, righting his glasses. "To AJ. He should be getting bail soon and I need to be with him. It won't look right if I'm not there."
Payal said nothing as she watched him go. She fell back on the bedspread, her eyes drifting close as exhaustion weighed her down. The last 24 hours had changed everything. Gone was the decadence and luxury of Shantivan. In its place were faded, floral curtains and a mattress that made her back ache with its lumpiness. Gritting her teeth, she reached for her phone.
There was no reply yet from ASR and she was both disappointed and relieved in some ways. Logging onto her fan page, there was more bad news:
Raizada32: ASR isn't a widower after all:( The news channels are reporting now Khooshi is still alive and recovering tonight from "her dreadful near tragedy with her loving husband at her side."
Mrs.Chote: He's not with her. It's all PR.
Sexyzada: I knew it! Tell us more, Mrs. C! I've been so depressed ever since I heard she survived.
Payal's fingers hesitated. She knew that after her last text message, Arnav wouldn't have been able to meet Khushi's eyes, let alone remain in the hospital room with her, but there was no way of explaining that to anyone else.
Mrs.Chote: Let's just say, I have my sources. But trust me when I say he's not with her tonight. And hopefully, not any other night either.
Her announcement was met with instant glee and Payal did not realize how two hours came to pass, time seeming to blur as she lost herself in the page that had become her haven right from her initial days at Lucknow University. Her husband did not return and she did not miss him, though her thoughts drifted with predictable frequency to his older cousin. ASR...
Her free hand sloped over her heated skin beneath the scratchy blankets, her fingers pinching her nipple so hard tears sprang to her eyes. In her mind's eye, it wasn't her own hand eliciting the reaction, but Arnav's. His rough caresses marked her skin, delving deep, destroying her and devouring her... She bit her lip hard to keep from moaning aloud, but some noise must have escaped because a knock sounded.
"Payalia? Is everything okay in there?" called Buaji with her usual, too-loud tenor.
Payal was breathing so hard, it took her a moment to respond. "Yes, Buaji."
"Are you sure?"
Payal resisted the urge to silence her aunt once and for all. The meddling woman had a nasty habit of getting into matters that she had no involvement in. "Yes, Buaji," she repeated in a sugary sweet voice.
Buaji frowned. "I thought I heard something though."
"Must have been something outside. Maybe an owl."
"Oh, well good night then. Let me know if you need anything." As her heavy footsteps departed, Payal rolled her eyes.
Let her know if she needed anything indeed. Yes, Buaji, what I need is ASR, naked and on top of me...inside of me... She giggled as she imagined her aunt's reaction.
The phone buzzed then and her breath caught. Could it be? Her fingers trembled as she read the message. The sender, however, was not Arnav but an unknown number.
You haven't been seen in the Devil's Lair for several days. Your absence has been duly noted, Mrs. C.
She wet her dry lips as she typed: X? Is it you?
Wrong. Try again. Here's a clue: I know you on a far more intimate level than that woman.
You're a master?
Well done, Mrs. C. But which one?
She racked her mind for a name. She'd had four masters so far, but no one had ever contacted her before. She must have taken too long to respond because the man sent another message just then.
Forget that. Suspense has its advantages after all. Now tell me, when will you return to DL? I feel the need to punish you.
Her body twitched and throbbed at the promise she detected in his words. I ache for punishment, but I unfortunately won't be returning anytime soon to DL.
Why not?
The embarrassing truth was that with Akash suddenly watching their finances like a hawk now, there wouldn't be any money to spare for DL's pricey monthly fee, but instead of divulging that bit of information, she typed: I can't bear to return after my failed initiation. That was so very humiliating. I broke several rules that night.
That you did, but the consequences were delicious.
Her breath caught. Master Horatio?
Ding ding ding. Correct.
I never expected you to contact me. I'm a nobody and you're so high up in DL.
Yes, but dominating you excites me like nothing else.
Even after I called you ASR?
There was tense silence and she could sense his irritation and displeasure.
Never again mention that name to me.
She gulped. Yes, master. I'm so sorry for even mentioning it.
Good girl. Now here's a secret. Just like you, I too was imagining you were a different person the night of your initiation. As if I had in my control an entirely different woman...
Who?
None of your business, my sweet. I'll keep my fantasies to myself and you do the same. But do not, I repeat, do not voice them aloud again.
Never again, master.
Despite your last performance, I'd like to still meet you. We can take care of our fantasies together.
Payal's body ached and the scent of arousal reached her nostrils. I can't come to DL even if I wished. I'm going out of town shortly.
Where? I'll meet you wherever you go.
You would do that?
It's no trouble, Mrs. C. I travel routinely for business. Just tell me where.
Nainital, master.
Perfect. Text me when you get there and I'll send you all the details of where I want you to exactly meet me. It'll be a very private hotel suite. Arrive in just a robe and your mask.
Mask still? She was relieved to hear that.
Yes, because for me you remain the woman I crave. The woman I thirst for... A woman so like yourself...
I will be anyone you want me to be, Master Horatio.
As if you have a choice. You are mine to punish. Punish for every time you rejected me... haunted me...
Payal frowned down at the phone. When had she ever rejected him? Was he talking about her or the woman he imagined her to be? Before she could type a reply, he sent a see you soon' message and Payal knew she'd been dismissed.
Lying back down on the bed, she smiled at the prospect of meeting Master Horatio again. He was the cruelest master she'd had and she longed to be with him again, back in that penetrating darkness where pleasure and pain reigned.
She was drifting into a freeing, dreamless sleep when her phone buzzed again. The message was brief and yet each word seemed to lance her with its bite:
ASR: Tonight I set your world on fire. Make one more wrong move and I will destroy all that remains. That is a promise.
If it isn't already clear to your deluded mind, let me reiterate: after tonight DO NOT even think of coming near my wife or contacting her in any way. You are no longer a part of our lives. STAY. THE. HELL. AWAY. FROM. US.
And for your husband's and parents' sake, get well soon.
An animal like sound escaped her mouth and Payal flung the phone at the wall, watching as it splintered into pieces. "No, ASR," she whispered furiously under her breath, her gaze wild, "You cannot throw me out of your life like this. You love me! You belong with me! Not her!"
For Payal, sleep was now out of the question tonight.
*****
It started out innocently enough.
Khushi was standing in the back gardens of Shantivan, her arms wound her husband's waist as he watered the flowerbeds.
"This is such a boring hobby, baby," she teased, rising up on her tiptoes so she could trail kisses up his neck. Her teeth caught hold of his earlobe, tugging lightly.
He groaned. "Is that right, Mrs. Raizada? And what would you rather do?"
"This." As his burning gaze locked with hers, she trailed her hand down over his toned torso and took hold of his hardness with a boldness that came naturally after nearly a year of the most exquisite, soul-shattering intimacy.
Arnav's searing gaze scorched her. He leaned down to capture her mouth in a rough kiss and in the same breath, she snatched the hose from his unsuspecting hands, drenching him with water.
"Khushi!"
Laughing, she sprayed him from head to toe. The water did nothing to extinguish the heat flickering in her husband's sensual gaze and Khushi felt her heartbeat pound as he stalked toward her, his intention patently obvious. Yelping, she threw the hose at him and raced toward the other end of the house.
"Khushi! Get back here!"
She was still laughing as she rounded the corner and suddenly there was someone else there, pushing her, shoving her toward the pool. A woman of her height and build with waist long hair and one notable difference: she was not pregnant like her. Her face was covered by a strange black mask.
"No! No!" Khushi struggled in the grip of her attacker but the woman dug something sharp into her arm and she felt herself falter. Water surrounded her and a hard hand kept her head under, holding her down as she kicked and screamed. Her limbs flailed uselessly and fear clogged her senses.
"Khushi!"
She heard her husband's achingly familiar voice, but she couldn't respond. Water was filling her throat, her lungs burning in agony.
"KHUSHI!"
Something warm and firm pressed to her lips with almost bruising intensity, blowing air into her mouth. She moaned, her eyes blinking open. It took her a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness surrounding her.
Warm sunlight filtered in through the hospital room's single window, highlighting the grim sterility of the space. It was empty except for the man who stood at her side, dressed in a tailored designer blazer and dark jeans, his gaze turbulent.
"Arnav..." Her voice broke.
He smoothed his fingers over her lips. "Sorry to kiss you so roughly but I couldn't get to you in any other way. You were having a nightmare but I think it was more than that. It looked like a panic attack. You were struggling to breathe."
"I thought I was in the pool again..." she mumbled, unable to stop the tremors racking her body.
His jaw hardened and without a word, he pulled her into his arms. Khushi buried her face against his chest, taking deep, calming breaths. Ever since her near drowning, oxygen felt like the most amazing thing she'd ever tasted. So very precious.
"Where were you, baby?" she murmured, angling her head up. "Where did you go last night?"
His expression did not change though she could feel his body stiffen against hers. "I needed to clear my head and take care of some things. I came back to you, but you were already asleep by then. The nurse said she had to give you a sedative."
Khushi couldn't glance away from him. "You were here then? All night?"
He looked surprised by the question. "How could I be anywhere else but with you?"
She swallowed. "I don't understand... Why did you react that way? And who's that woman Jiji mentioned? Rita?"
Arnav appeared to have come prepared, no traces of the panic that had consumed him the night before apparent now. "I want to tell you everything, but I need time, Khushi. I'm not saying I won't ever tell you. I will. Sooner than you think. But I need some time... Can you give me that, Khushi? Can you hold onto the trust and faith you have in me a little while longer?"
She didn't have to think much on it; it was the blazing pain she glimpsed in his eyes that decided it for her. "Okay, but you have to tell me this. Is this Rita... is she someone who was in your life like Nicole James?"
Sighing, he brushed his lips across her forehead. "No, baby. It's nothing like that I promise you."
Khushi expelled the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "You didn't love her?"
"You are the only woman I have ever loved. And the only girl I could love other than you is if we have a daughter. Sappy, but true."
She felt much, much better, reaching for his hand. "When do you think you'll be able to tell me more?"
He took a moment to respond, his face unreadable again. "I don't know. Hopefully very soon."
She began to ask more questions but visitors appeared behind her husband then. People she recognized. NK's grin was wide and toothy as he drew near and even Aman appeared to be smiling. The two were not alone.
Along with them was a third man Khushi recognized though his appearance startled her. Her gaze swerved to her husband.
"Baby, what is the waiter from last night's party doing here?"
He didn't even attempt to deny it. "This is Inspector Khan. He's been overseeing your security for several months now."
"And you never told me?" she asked with no little amount of outrage.
Arnav didn't appear at all guilty. "I didn't want you to spend your time worrying about threats and potential stalkers. Everything was done only for your safety. Yours and the twins."
Before she could get another word in, the inspector stepped forward, extending his hand. "Bayaz Khan, Mrs. Raizada. We've met once before this too, if you remember."
"Yes, I do," she said, shaking his hand. "At the police station. I thought you looked familiar last night."
"Even the fake moustache wasn't enough to distract you," he agreed ruefully. "I hate to ask you more questions, but do you remember anything from last night? Specifically from that moment when you were pushed? Did you see the attacker? Hear anything unusual?"
Khushi had spent the night fretting over the name Rita and going over these very same questions. "Unfortunately, no. I wish I could help, but it's all a blur." A pain-filled, frightful blur.
He nodded, jotting something down on his notepad. Arnav took hold of her hand. "Khushi, there's something else. Remember last night when I mentioned having some proof?" At her nod, he motioned to Aman. "This was what I meant."
She watched with bent brows as his assistant pulled out a laptop from his bag. It looked ordinary enough but by the way all three men gazed at it, she knew it had to mean something.
"We recovered this from your sister's belongings on your husband's orders," Aman explained. "Payal thinks it was destroyed in the blaze and that's exactly what we want her to think. Because this might provide some much needed evidence against her or possibly clear her name. I've been working on hacking into it."
"Have you found anything?" Khushi asked, taking the device from him.
Aman exchanged a glance with her husband, who nodded. "Nothing incriminating yet. Everything is password protected and there are several levels of security, far beyond a regular laptop. However, lucky for us, Mrs. Raizada, your sister made one novice mistake. If you open the internet browser and go through the history, you'll see that she forgot to delete the records for the past three days."
Khushi scrolled through the list. A few she recognized as common tabloids and email sites, but the one that kept appearing most often was one she'd never heard of before.
"What's this?" she pointed.
Arnav frowned. "That's the one I wanted to talk to you about. It's a fanpage dedicated to me."
Surprised, she began to click on the link, but he caught her hand. "Khushi, don't."
"Why not?" He'd mentioned having fans before--there had been that one in Thailand--but she'd never guessed it went to such an extent.
Her husband's mouth compressed into a thin line. "Let's just say these people may be supposed fans of mine, but they don't exactly have the best things to say about you. Most of them are filled with hate."
"It doesn't matter to me what strangers say or think about me, Arnav. They don't even know me."
"I agree with her, Naanav," NK chimed in. "Besides, she needs to see how Payal is obsessed with this page. She goes on it every fifteen minutes according to the log. If only we could figure out her username and password. Then it would all be crystal clear."
"You haven't been able to get in?"
Aman shook his head. "Not yet, Mrs. Raizada, but hopefully very soon. Do you have any idea what her password or username might be?"
"Let me see..." Khushi bent over the keys, trying several combinations. Fifteen minutes later, she was almost ready to give up. Everything she'd tried had proven to be wrong. What could her sister's password be?
Arnav was the one to take the laptop away from her, closing it and passing it to his assistant with a look of distaste. "That's enough. You can try again later if you want, but I want to get you home now."
NK gave her another bright smile. "Ready to go home, Khushiji? Shantivan has been literally cleaned out and cleared out for your welcome," he laughed.
"Shantivan?" Khushi echoed, glancing at Arnav.
He nodded, squeezing her hand. "It's closer to the hospital and I think it's time we returned."
Frowning, Khushi started to tell him that although Payal and Akash would no longer be living there, there would be others she did not want to face on a daily basis, but he seemed to have anticipated her objections already.
"Don't worry, " he told her, "My slimy brother-in-law has been kicked out as well. He hasn't shown his face around the premises so far, but the guards have strict orders to keep him out whenever he decides to return."
Khushi's frown didn't lessen. "But what about your sister? You know how she'll react to this development."
It was NK who answered. "Di is blissfully unaware of anything so far. She's staying with Nani and Dadi in Nainital a few weeks more. She heard Payal and Akash are moving there and to quote her, she wants to resolve the misunderstanding between Akash and Chote before returning.'"
So Anjali would be occupied for months at least because there was no way the difference between the cousins would thaw so easily. Khushi couldn't help but feel a twinge of relief at the news. At least she wouldn't have to deal with Anjali's strange behavior and requests--like the time she'd insisted on sleeping with them and Shyam Jha had tagged along. She shuddered. "Who's left in Shantivan then?"
"No one," NK informed her with glee. "Like I said, it's been totally cleared out. Even Mami left for Australia this morning and I'm shifting into one of our luxury apartments near by. I believe you used to stay in the same building once, Khushiji."
Khushi exchanged a glance with her husband. He smirked at her, recalling too no doubt all their scandalous encounters there. She could never forget those days...or nights... Her cheeks tinged with color and she cleared her throat. "You don't need to leave, NK. You're more than welcome to stay with us."
"I know, but I'd rather not crash into you two lovebirds' private paradise. But I'm warning you now, Naanav, I'll visit you guys so often, you'll be sick of me."
Arnav resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Probably... Aman, is everything ready for Khushi to leave? I want to take her home."
"Yes, sir," nodded his right-hand man. "The doctors have already cleared her for discharge and the driver is pulling up at the front entrance. The nurse you appointed has already reached Shantivan as well."
"Nurse?" Khushi frowned up at her husband.
"Home care attendant," he clarified. "She'll assist you in everything you need help with. Aman and NK, can you both check if everything is ready downstairs? I'll bring Khushi."
As the two exited, Khushi narrowed her eyes at her husband. "I don't need a nurse 24/7, Arnav. I'm perfectly all right."
"The hell you are," he ground out. "Do I need to remind you what happened last night? You need to rest and recuperate."
Their gazes warred, neither looking away. "No nurse," Khushi insisted through clenched teeth.
"You can argue with me on the way home. We're leaving now." And without a word of warning, he lifted her in his arms, scooping her up as if she were a child.

Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 34: Walls and Paintings
A tense, twenty-minute long drive home and three spoonfuls of soup later, Khushi was still in a rather bad mood, propped up against a mound of pillows in Arnav's old bedroom.
Our bedroom now, she corrected, glancing around.
It looked the same as always with the exception of one glaring change: the four-poster bed was definitely brand new. A slight smile brightened her face as she recalled what had led to that change. They'd broken the previous frame months ago. Hopefully, this one would be better suited to their level of passion; although those activities were strictly forbidden now.
The nurse observed her frown with growing uneasiness. "How is the broth, Mrs. Raizada?" she asked. "Do you not like it?"
Khushi glanced down at the steaming bowl on her lap. She'd taken a few sips, but for the most part, she'd forgotten all about it--along with the nurse who'd hovered at her side ever since she'd arrived at Shantivan.
The nurse was young, in her mid-twenties with a short build and straight, ink black hair that fell to her shoulders. Khushi took another tentative spoonful of the broth. "It's wonderful," she said truthfully.
"Oh, good." The woman sighed with visible relief. "I was worried. This is the first time I've made this recipe outside of my own home and your kitchen here is so different and enormous compared to my old one in Lucknow."
"Lucknow? You're from Lucknow?"
The nurse nodded with a shy smile. "Yes, and so are you, correct? Mr. Raizada told me."
"Did he?" It wasn't like Arnav to tell anyone details about them, least of all strangers. "What did you say your name was?"
The woman looked taken aback, her eyes rounding. "Oh my goodness, I forgot to introduce myself, didn't I? I'm so sorry. I'm Rita."
Khushi felt the spoon slip from her hands, scalding her skin. The nurse tried to help her, fussing with napkins, but she warded her off, struggling to stand.
"Mrs. Raizada, please don't--"
Khushi flung an icy glare at her. "Do not tell me what to do. Now, please step out of the way, I need to speak to my husband immediately." Wide-eyed, the nurse said not a word more as she brushed past her.
Arnav was easy to find. He was exactly where he'd told her he'd be, in the study down the hall, working from home today. As Khushi approached the room, she didn't even bother to knock, slamming the door open.
Her husband glanced up from his laptop with a twisting of his mouth. His blazer was thrown over the back of a chair and his hair looked distinctly ruffled, as if he'd just run his fingers through the rich thickness. Sitting in a simple white tee and jeans, he looked younger than his age and way too good looking.
Something about his appearance set Khushi even more on edge. Beside him, she felt like an overweight pumpkin, dressed in an unflattering, orange maternity dress that made her feel the exact opposite of sexy. The only reason she'd bought it in the first place was because it was so very comfortable and she hadn't minded its flowing, bright orange shapelessness--until now.
"What are you doing here?" her husband scolded, glancing up from the computer screen with a frown. "Dammit, Khushi, what do I have to do to make sure you rest? Chain you to the goddamn bed?"
She crossed her arms over her chest, bristling with just as much irritation as him--if not more. "Never mind that. First tell me, what were you thinking to bring that woman into our home?"
His brow furrowed. "What woman? The nurse? I've explained it to you. You need someone to help you."
Her lips thinned. "But why her...Rita? Why is she here? Who is she?"
"What?" He stood up, coming around the desk to face her. "You're not making any sense."
Khushi glared up at him. Everything was finally making sense to her so why then did he look so very confused? "The nurse," she gritted, "Rita. Why is she here, Arnav?"
He stared at her for a good minute. "Her name's Rita?"
She sighed with frustration. "Didn't I just say that?"
His eyebrows bent. "I didn't know that was her name. I must have skimmed over it. I only made sure if she was the best or not and if her background check was okay."
Khushi felt the tension in her ease slightly. "She's not that Rita then?"
His face was once more an unreadable mask as he shook his head. "No, she's not."
She nodded, absently massaging circles on her abdomen. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going now?" he called after her. "I'll check on you in ten minutes and I better find you resting."
Khushi rolled her eyes heavenward. "Fine, do whatever you want. But first I need to apologize to the nurse. I was really rude to her."
*****
Rita, as it turned out, accepted her sorry with absolute graciousness, escorting her back upstairs to rest. She must have sensed how much Khushi hated being cooped inside the bedroom and distracted her by putting on one of her favorite movies and whipping up delicious Lucknowi snacks.
As Khushi munched on a handful of healthy, homemade chips and idly watched TV, she couldn't help but reflect that maybe her husband had been right after all. Though she hated to admit it, maybe she did need someone around to take care of things for the short-term. Because as much as she wanted to do everything, the truth was that wasn't possible right now. She felt so exhausted all the time and four more months of pregnancy loomed before her.
Though it all made perfect, logical sense, in the week that followed, Khushi found herself slowly losing her mind with all the hours of constant rest and mind-numbing boredom. She was tired of sitting around and there just wasn't much to do in Shantivan.
Even though it was a mammoth, maze-like home, there was a team of devoted servants who kept it sparkling clean at all times. And with Rita in charge of things, Khushi had no reason to even step inside the kitchen. Other than approve of the daily menu and renovation plans, she was not involved in Shantivan's upkeep.
She would have still gone to the kitchen every now and then, but Arnav had deemed it too dangerous, going on and on about accidents that might potentially occur. Even the gardens and poolside offered little distraction. Ever since her near drowning, that part of the house left Khushi feeling uneasy and she learned to avoid it.
Her one solace was decorating the babies' nursery. It would be in the room adjacent to their master bedroom, easily accessible through a connecting door. She'd selected two matching cradles, rocking chairs and star-inspired decorations with the help of an interior decorator, but none of that of course could be brought in till the walls were painted and the carpet installed.
Which sounded easy enough, but had turned out anything but. The interior designer was ready to quit, but Khushi would not budge. It had to be perfect shade of blue and green. And how exactly was it her fault if the small sample cards she was shown looked completely different once they were actually up on the walls?
The room had been painted and repainted four times now. A new color--hopefully the right one--had been ordered but it wasn't scheduled to arrive for another three days.
Just when Khushi thought things couldn't get any less dull around Shantivan, Arnav decided to return to AR Designs. Though she craved his company, having gotten used to it, she didn't stop him, knowing firsthand how much his workload had increased following the failed Thailand deal.
It was only for that reason she never complained when he arrived late night after night, looking thoroughly drained. Sometimes, she'd already be asleep by the time he returned home and it was only the slight dipping of the mattress and the familiar warmth of his body enveloping hers that would alert her of his presence. Other times they'd meet for dinner and he'd tell her how things were going at the office, but those occasions were growing rarer and rarer.
By the time three weeks rolled by from the night of her near drowning, Khushi couldn't help but dwell on how she barely saw her husband anymore. He was usually already gone by the time she woke up in the mornings and returned home so late, she was almost always asleep.
It was a frustrating pattern and one that she longed to change. She missed him--more than she could ever explain. In fact, the highlight of her week had become Saturday and Sunday, two days when Arnav would finally be home. But even those blissful days of respite had their shortcomings.
Sometimes, Arnav would be occupied with conferences and meetings even on a random Saturday, and when he was physically present to eat meals with her, to join her on walks in the garden, and accompany her to her bimonthly doctor appointments, she couldn't help but notice a strange aloofness in him, a distance that hadn't been there before.
She was convinced it had something to do with the mysterious Rita, but every time she tried to ask him about it, he would close himself off, making excuses. It was as if her husband had retreated back into an impenetrable shell all over again, hiding his emotions from her.
His strange behavior was never far from Khushi's thoughts and when she wasn't struggling with that mystery and the possibilities of who Rita could possibly be, there was also her sister to consider.
Payal hadn't made any attempts to contact her and for that at least, Khushi was grateful. For one, she didn't know what she'd say to her. Truth was, she didn't know whether she trusted her sister or not. It was all such a jumbled mess. But one thing was clear: until things became less tense, it was best for everyone involved if they maintained a distance--at least, that's what she told her parents whenever they called.
Her father accepted the changes with his usual quiet demeanor, but her mother had reacted in the exact opposite fashion.
"Why can't you just speak to her once and clear everything?" she put forward during her call the following morning. "Payal is not your enemy, bitiya. She's your sister and she loves you."
Khushi sighed, setting aside Payal's laptop. She'd been trying to break into it for weeks now with no luck. She had though learned a great deal about the site her sister had visited so frequently, creating an account of her own. As ArshiForever, she'd delved into her husband's fanpage just like anyone else.
Most of the people, Khushi learned, were simply curious about Arnav and his daily life, but there was a rather vocal group that was downright vindictive. The most vitriolic member was someone who went by the name Mrs. Chote.
"Khushi? Are you listening?"
The real Mrs. Chote forced herself to concentrate. "Yes Amma, but it changes nothing. Like I said, Arnav doesn't want me to contact Jiji right now and I agree with him. It'll only create more fights and misunderstandings."
Her mother's voice sizzled with unchecked anger. "That man controls everything, doesn't he? He's practically brainwashed you."
"Amma, please," Khushi cut in. "I've told you countless time now not to insult him. Please don't make me hang up again like yesterday."
"Fine." Her mother sighed with exasperation. "But try to understand, Khushi. I love you and I just want the best for you."
"Arnav is the best for me."
"Yes, yes, I've heard it a thousand times now, but all I'm asking you is to keep a slight distance from him. To think things through without him there to pressurize or influence you in any way. If you do that and still feel the same way about not contacting Payal, I won't bring the subject up again."
Khushi frowned. "I'm not leaving him, Amma."
"Your father and I are not asking you to. We just want you to spend a few days with us... away from him. That's all."
Arnav would never allow such an arrangement, Khushi knew and her own heart rebelled against it as well. Despite the tension that simmered between them these days, she couldn't imagine not being with her husband for a single moment. She loved him so much...
"Amma, I can't do that to him or myself. Please don't bring this topic up again."
"But bitiya--"
"I need to go now. I'll talk to you later." Before her mother could interrupt, Khushi cut the call, her eyes drifting close.
Everything was such a mess these days. Her every relationship--except for one. Smiling tiredly, she set her hands on her jutting stomach.
And sure enough, within seconds, a kick could be felt against her palm, followed by another. Her smile grew and she reached for her phone, typing a quick message: Mr. Raizada, your children are troubling me.
The response came within less than thirty seconds: What happened? Are you okay? Do you need me to take you to the hospital?
Taken aback, she fumbled to tell him no such thing was necessary, but a call came then. His call, of course. Cringing, she raised the phone to her ear.
"H-hello?"
"Why aren't you replying to me?" Arnav all but growled. "You can't say something like that and then not reply. I'm going crazy here."
"I was about to reply but you beat me to it. Everything's fine. I was just joking about how active the twins are. You should feel them kicking."
She could sense him relax. "So you're okay, then?"
"Yes, baby. I just miss you and--"
"ASR," she heard a voice she recognized well interject, "Is everything okay? Everyone is waiting for you."
"One second, Lavanya." His voice lowered. "Khushi, I'm at a board meeting right now and there's literally a room full of people staring at me. I'll talk to you later."
"Oh, no problem. See you tonight, love."
"Don't wait up. You need to rest and I'll be late most likely anyway."
Khushi wanted nothing more than to tell him how sick to death she was of resting--almost as much as she was fed up of his new working hours--but the line had already gone silent by then. Sighing, she set the phone aside, nibbling on her bottom lip.
Glancing up, her eyes were drawn to the massive mirror across the room. The woman staring back at her was the picture of health: her skin was glowing, her hair was long and shiny, swept up in a loose braid. The bandages that had once been wrapped around her head were all long gone and she looked almost like her normal self except for the noticeable changes of the advancing pregnancy. There was something else different too... a shadowy darkness in her eyes that hadn't been there before, a worry...
She'd been so patient with Arnav, mused Khushi. She'd listened to his every request, no matter how ridiculous. She'd taken naps daily, she'd kept out of the kitchen, she'd taken every prescribed vitamin and supplement at just the right time. When he'd told her not to question him about Rita at the hospital, she'd listened. When he'd asked for more time, she'd given him it. Weeks had passed, but her husband had not so much as mentioned that name again.
No matter how much she wished it wasn't so, fact of the matter was Arnav was ignoring her, pushing her out of his life for a reason that was beyond her understanding.
Well, she'd had enough of it. More than enough. With eyes blazing with determination, she swung her feet out of the four-poster bed, heading to the nearby closet.
Rita appeared at the door with a tray in hand. Seeing her up and about, she looked startled. "Is everything all right, Mrs. Raizada? Anything I can get you?"
Khushi pulled out a familiar emerald saree and matching flats, fighting back an impish grin as she imagined her husband's reaction to the outfit. "Can you please tell the driver to get the car ready? And make sure my husband is not informed. Oh and Rita, I've told you so many times not to call me Mrs. Raizada. I consider you a friend more than a nurse now."
"Of course, Khushi. But are you sure? Mr. Raizada will not be pleased..." she added, wringing her hands.
"I don't care what he thinks," Khushi declared, feeling fearless and equally furious suddenly. "He doesn't need to know."
"Where are you going though?"
Khushi applied mascara and a light lip gloss, deciding to keep things simple. The green saree would be more than enough. "To work. I've rested enough for today." Rita looked as if she'd argue, but she cut her off with a look. "Do not inform my husband."
Rita jerked her head in a nervous nod. "As you say, but how will you avoid him at AR Designs?"
Khushi grinned. "I have a plan. Don't worry."
*****
"I can't believe you're making me do this," NK whispered as he opened one of the back doors of AR Designs for her, sliding his ID card back into his pocket. "If Naanav finds out..." His voice trailed off and he glanced around with a sickly expression, looking half-convinced his cousin would jump out from one of the shadows surrounding them.
Khushi found his concern a bit over the top. "Why is everyone so afraid of my husband?" she grumbled aloud, walking past several locked storage rooms.
NK fell into step beside her. "Several reasons, Khushiji."
"Such as?"
"His infamous temper, for one. I thought he'd mellowed down a bit, but no, he's the same old Naanav. The past few days he's been even more on edge, barking at everyone."
Khushi's footsteps faltered. "He has?"
NK nodded. "I don't know what's got him so wound up and cranky. Everything okay between you two?"
"Yes," Khushi lied, evading his too curious gaze. "How are the preps going for the bridal show?"
If NK found her sudden change of topic strange, he didn't comment on it. "Things are slow with you not here," he admitted. "Several of the dresses have fit and design issues. If you want to take a look, they're in the basement workshop."
"Let's go, but remember--"
"--your hubby cannot find out. Got it." Winking at her, he led her toward the elevator.
*****
"Your ten AM meeting is on schedule and the Toronto client will be calling in right after that," Aman read off the midday itinerary.
Arnav didn't respond, staring down at the main floor from his glass cabin two levels above. His eyes were drawn as always to the empty desk and chair near the stairs. It was part habit and part obsession. Even though he knew Khushi was resting at home, his eyes still searched for her.
Damn, he missed her.
It had been so long since he'd had a decent conversation with her, just listening to the sound of her voice and laughter. And how long it had been since they had touched one another on a far more intimate level was something he needed no reminding of. Though the doctors had ruled out the rough, passionate lovemaking he craved, the restrictions hadn't forbidden anything else.
And yet, it had been days since they'd kissed or so much as held hands. And who was to blame for that? No one but him. This was all his goddamn doing.
"Mr. Raizada? Are you listening?"
He inclined his head. "Go on, Aman."
"As I was saying, there's then a conference call at two PM followed by a meeting and--"
He was cut off by the sound of a phone ringing. Arnav answered his cell without looking, his brooding gaze still trained on that empty chair below.
"ASR."
"Mr. Raizada, I'm calling from security. There's an issue."
He was instantly on alert, his fingers clenching around the phone. "What is it?"
"Nothing too serious, sir, but remember how you told us to always keep an eye out for Mrs. Raizada..."
His heart froze. His insides burned. Khushi had to be home safe and sound. She had to be. "What about my wife?" he managed in a clipped tone.
"The cameras caught her entering the building from one of the back doors."
"That's impossible," he barked. "She can't be here."
"Your cousin gave her access approximately an hour ago," the guard insisted. "We can send you the camera footage if you'd like or the live feed. They're both working in the basement."
"What did you say?" Arnav ground out. "An hour? My wife's been here for sixty damn minutes and I'm being informed of it only now?"
The guard hesitated. "Uh, well we tried to contact you, but they said you were in an important board meeting and--"
Arnav felt as if his head might explode. "If it's about my wife, none of that matters! I thought everyone working for me knew that!"
"Sorry, sir, it won't happen again."
"It sure as hell better not." He turned on his laptop with a punch of a button. "Send me the footage right away and turn off all the cameras in the basement immediately."
"Yes, Mr. Raizada."
Slamming the phone down, Arnav met Aman's gaze grimly as he waited for his computer to turn on. The damn machine was taking forever today! "Cancel the ten AM meeting and hold off everything else until I return," he ordered, stabbing the keys.
Within a few clicks, all thirty-five cameras of AR Designs were up and running on the monitor. The basement ones had been turned off and he clicked their folder, going back through the most recent recordings. And sure enough...
There was his wife--his Khushi--smiling and if he didn't know any better, giggling at something NK was saying as the two stepped out of the elevator and into the workshop. He felt an unwelcome surge of jealousy. How he ached to be the one to make her laugh like that.
In the recording, Khushi looked very pregnant and heartstoppingly beautiful, the most devastating, sexy combination in his eyes. His gaze shifted to the green saree she was draped in and froze. He remembered removing that piece of clothing vividly...
His mouth tightened as he realized she'd no doubt selected the dress to purposely taunt him. She knew better than anyone what seeing her in that slinky saree would do to him. And dammit to hell if it wasn't already working!
He felt like lashing out at her for not resting as the doctors had told her to and coming here without so much as informing him. But more than that, he yearned to tear the emerald dress out of the way, bare her to his greedy gaze, and claim her as his in the most primitive way possible.
"I'll be back soon," he informed Aman, snapping his laptop close. "No one is to disturb me."
"Yes, sir."
He could have sworn his assistant looked amused but he didn't have a moment to spare to dwell on it. Because right now, what he wanted...needed... was to get his hands on Khushi. Enough was enough.
*****
In the lowest and least used floor of AR Designs, Khushi appraised the row of designer wedding dresses with narrowed eyes. Though some progress had been made in the past one hour, it wasn't enough by her estimate. Not by a long shot. The bridal show was just weeks away and the dresses were only partly done with many having serious flaws--including the one she was currently wearing.
NK had held it up for her to inspect, deeming it perfect. How he could not see it was clearly eight sizes to big and more maternity wear than runway ready was beyond her. To prove her point, she'd tried on the dress and sure enough, it was a perfect fit.
"You have become a perfectionist just like your husband," NK commented as she pointed out an askew seam on one of the gowns.
"Oh, god, no," she moaned dramatically. "Anything but that!"
"I didn't realize being me was so terrible," a hard voice intruded.
"Nanaav!"
Spinning around, Khushi almost stumbled. Arnav caught hold of her elbow, steadying her. "Watch it," he scolded. "Damn it, how many times do I have to tell you to be careful?"
She frowned up at him. "Good morning to you too." Without waiting for his response, she turned away, but of course he wouldn't leave her be. NK had the good sense to give them some much-needed privacy, murmuring about having some work to do as he headed toward the elevator.
"You didn't answer my question," Arnav reminded in a mocking tone, coming up to her side just as the elevator doors shut. They were both left alone and the air felt charged with that heady awareness. "Am I that terrible to live with?"
Her fingers paused on the rack of wedding gowns. Glancing sideways, she shook her head. "To answer your question, we'd actually have to live together... but lately I feel as if we don't. I barely see you anymore."
His expression softened just a tad. "I know," he murmured in a low voice, the one that always made her virtual putty in his hands. "Work's been crazy..."
"Is it just work?"
He answered after a considerable pause. "Mostly... Now it's my turn to ask you some questions, Mrs. Raizada: what the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be home resting. How many times do I have to remind you?"
She couldn't keep the annoyed frown off of her face. "I'm perfectly fine and healthy as you can see. There's no reason to baby me all the time. I'm so sick of it!" She began to step away, but he took hold of her arm, dragging her up against him.
"Dammit, stop turning away from me. I'm not finished yet."
Their gazes clashed and his hand tightened on her, something hot and dark rising between them. Khushi felt herself quiver, her body reacting to his close proximity even though he was barely touching her. Her breathing grew unsteady and her nipples stiffened into hard points against his jacket, the thin fabric of the wedding dress hardly any barrier.
There was something about the way he was staring at her, in the way he towered over her, his strength engulfing her from all sides. She suddenly felt like an innocent who'd wandered right into a lion's den.
"You need to go home," her husband ground out.
She pushed against his chest, glaring up at him. "I'm not going anywhere. Do whatever you want, but I will not le--"
His mouth crashed down on hers, hard and unrelenting. She gasped in surprise and he used the opportunity to slide his tongue between her parted lips, stroking her as if he were starving for her taste. For the first time in weeks, his kiss was not chaste, but something altogether different, something rougher and more demanding.
It was the first time in what seemed like forever that he wasn't handling her as if she were made of glass and Khushi relished it. Throwing her arms about his neck, she raised herself up on her toes, kissing him just as intensely.
"I thought you were mad at me," he murmured against her lips, his hands fisting in her hair as he pressed her even closer to him.
Khushi shivered against his formal suit, brushing her mouth over his again and again. "I should be, but..."
He tugged on her bottom lip almost lazily, sucking on the pliant flesh there. "But?"
It took everything in her to focus. All her defenses were threatening to crumble--and fast. Leaning back in his hold, she met his gaze with complete sincerity. "You know I can't stay mad at you for too long--even when I have every reason to."
Groaning, he took her mouth again in a wild and unabashedly hungry kiss, his hands sloping over her bare back with possession. He lifted her up against him as if she weighed nothing. "I'm glad... You know, you look like an angel in this dress. I can't keep my hands off of you."
"I'm glad," she echoed, meeting him kiss for kiss. Pretty soon, she felt her husband's hands began to tug and pull on the wedding dress, deftly disrobing her. The soft fabric slipped to the floor, pooling around her ankles. "The door--"
"Locked," he replied in a steely tone, intent on undoing her braid next. He threw the hair tie aside, sliding his fingers through the long strands and marveling over their silky texture.
"The cameras--"
"I had them turned off. Don't worry." His lips trailed down her neck, his teeth nipping at the skin at the base of her throat.
Khushi spun out of his hold, stunned. "What? You planned this? You knew we'd..."
He approached her with a wolfish grin. "Fall into each other's arms? Yeah, I thought we might. At least I was hoping for it." His hand clamped over the side of her waist and he drew her to him, his mouth settling over hers like a thunderclap.
"Arnav..." Khushi moaned.
"You taste so good," he replied huskily, "I want to taste you everywhere."
Heart pounding, she eyed him with silent longing. "What's stopping you then?"
"Nothing," he replied, his hands moving to his suit and tie as he undressed in record time. Sitting down on one of the sofas, he gazed up at her with hooded eyes, fully aroused. "Take your clothes off, Khushi."
Heat, blazing heat shot through her. Her chest rose and fell in shallow breaths as her fingers went to the straps of her lacy bra, slowly lowering them. The material hit the carpet below with a rustling noise. It was a faint sound and yet it seemed to echo loudly in the emptiness of the workshop, making Khushi tremble.
"Take everything off," her husband commanded in a gruff voice, his gaze burning into her as it raced up and down her exposed curves. "I want you naked."
Something about his tone turned her trembling into a full-blown quake. It was as if he were seducing her just as he'd once done in this very same building, tearing down her every resistance till only one thought remained: to be in his arms.
Kicking off the last remaining slip of lace and her shoes, Khushi approached him on shaky knees, her right hand extending out to him. He grasped her hand and drew her onto his lap. Groans escaped both of them as she straddled him.
"You're so damn beautiful," murmured Arnav, framing her face in his palms. His gaze was so intense Khushi felt practically scorched by it. She began to say something but he kissed her then and all thoughts scattered. She was lost. Lost in the man she loved. He was all that tethered her. All she could hold on to as everything seemed to blur around them.
His kisses began with gentleness but it was as if he couldn't control himself. She could sense his restraint breaking apart. Within seconds, they were straining against one another on the sofa, pelvises aligning as he caught her lips in one fierce kiss after another, his hands smoothing over her belly before cupping and squeezing her breasts.
"I've missed this," he whispered, tweaking her nipples. "Your body's changing... It's so beautiful to see... To taste..."
Khushi threw back her head as his mouth closed around her softness, suckling on her with a hunger that matched her own. Her hand slipped between them, grasping his hardness.
"I want you so much, Arnav but..."
He raised his head from her chest, glancing up at her. The tips of her breasts were wet and rosy appearing--just like his mouth Khushi realized with a shiver.
"But what?"
She moistened her dry lips. "Don't you remember what the doctors said? About not making love..."
"I remember everything, baby." He stared at her hard and long and then turned on the sofa, lying back against it and taking her with him. She ended up straddling his hips while he lay flat.
"Arnav?" She tried to read his expression, but failed. His face was indecipherable once more, though his grip tightened on her thighs with purpose.
"Straddle me, Khushi."
"I am."
"Not like this. Higher."
Her heartbeat thundered, her gaze going wide-eyed. "You mean..."
Nodding, he smoothed her hair back. "Brace yourself against the arm of the sofa and position yourself over my face."
Khushi stilled. "What?"
He drew her down for a very thorough kiss, the kind that left her reeling. "Do it. Now. I need you."
"A-are you sure? Will it be safe?"
He pulled her to him. "I know what precautions to take. As long as I don't blow any air into you, there's no danger of any complications. Now, go on. Straddle me."
She couldn't refuse him, not when she wanted the same as well. Still, as she scooted up his lean, very male body, she felt her entire face redden. How it was still possible for her to blush around this man when he knew her body better than she did and had literally kissed every inch of her countless times was beyond her understanding, but there it was.
"W-what now?" she stammered, poised above him.
He pressed her down, his mouth possessing her, ravaging her. A wild cry pierced the quiet and Khushi realized it had come from her own lips. But she was heedless to stop it, her head falling backward as she rose and fell over him, again and again, following the guiding motion of his mouth and hands.
"Arnav!" she bellowed as his tongue slid between her folds.
"I'm here," came his muffled reply. "With you. Let go, baby... Let go."
Her knuckles shone white against the sofa and as he kissed her again, several times in quick succession, she felt herself rupture, felt as if the room had been charged with lightning and just as quickly extinguished. With his name on her lips, she collapsed on top of him.
He untangled their bodies, making her lie down on her side while he spooned her from behind, her head cushioned on his biceps. Khushi lay limply in the circle of his arms while he stroked and massaged her, his hands and mouth missing nothing.
"Khushi," he murmured after a while, nuzzling her nape. "Are you okay? Did you like that?"
She pressed his palm to her raging heartbeat and held it there. "Do you need to ask? That was... one of the most sensual things we've ever done and I... I loved it."
She felt his smirk against the skin of her back. "Me too."
"But, baby," Khushi mumbled as it hit her, "What about you? You didn't..."
"No..." he agreed.
She started to turn around. "I can do what you did to me..."
His hands though remained firm, keeping her from facing him. "I know, but...this time I want something else."
Her brow furrowed. "What?"
"This." One of his hands slipped from her protruding stomach to between her legs and then further backward. Khushi felt her heart slam against her ribs as his fingers teased her. She swallowed.
"Will it hurt?"
"Some," he told her. "But if you relax for me, it won't be that bad. You'll even enjoy it."
Khushi couldn't help but doubt that and he must have sensed her reluctance because his wandering hand was suddenly gone. "Love, it's okay. If you don't want to try it, that's fine. Till the twins are born, we can stick with mostly oral--"
"No," Khushi interrupted, taking hold of his hand. "I'll do it."
Arnav frowned. "I can tell you don't want to."
"It's not that," she tried to explain. "It's just that I don't know enough about it and I'm a bit apprehensive... Will it hurt as much as our first time together?"
He was quiet for a moment. "I tried to make things as painless as possible for you that night and the same holds true today. Once you relax, it won't be that bad. You just need to let yourself go. Your muscles are so stiff right now." As if to prove his point, he rubbed her back, easing the tension there. "Relax, baby. Relax for me."
Under his gentle massage, Khushi felt her body gradually loosen, her limbs feeling heavy as he pressed behind her, his teeth nipping her shoulder blade, his free hand coming around to knead her aching breasts.
"Tell me now, Khushi," he growled once he had her writhing against him, one hand wedged between her thighs. "Do you still not want to try it? Tell me the truth."
She shuddered in his arms. "I want to. Do it, baby..."
Her husband took her mouth in a hard kiss and his hands were suddenly everywhere. When the time came for him to enter her, there was pain, but it was a pain that bordered on such startling passion that Khushi didn't mind it as much as she'd assumed she would. She was suddenly just as caught up in it as her husband, who was thrusting, taking, giving and consuming.
As his much larger body shook behind hers and his mouth pressed down on her skin with near bruising intensity, she felt herself break apart too. And in that blissful moment of shared ecstasy, they were together. As they were meant to be.
*****
Sumitra frowned up at the clouds above Nainital. It was a nearly perfect, sunny day. She wouldn't have had too many complaints if it weren't for her granddaughter's equally troubled expression. Anjali looked more miserable than ever.
"You should see their house," she mumbled. "It's barely bigger than a cottage. The rooms are so tiny I felt claustrophobic inside and according to Payal, the electricity and water come and go nearly every day. How will she and Akash ever live there?"
"It's all Arnav's and his so-called Khushi's fault," Sumitra said. "Especially that wife of his. I swear she's brainwashed him. He was never like this before."
Anjali nodded, glancing up with a sullen expression. Her other grandmother had been quiet till now. "Nani, what do you think?"
"I don't know," Devyani murmured. "My heart says Chote and Khushi would not act this way unless Payal and Akash truly did something unforgivable."
Sumitra's mouth thinned. "Oh please. First that middle-class girl had me kicked out and now her own sister and brother-in-law! I'm warning you both, you are next. That Khushi will not rest till she has Shantivan all to herself."
"She can wish, Dadi, but she should realize first that Chote cannot live without me.  Our bond is unbreakable. I'm much more than a sister to him."
"Any news from your husband?" Nani asked, hoping to change the topic.
Anjali sighed, staring down at the cup of tea in her hands moodily. It had gone cold long ago. "He's still traveling through Europe."
"I don't understand this impromptu trip of his," Sumitra murmured with a shake of her head. "It makes no sense."
"Oh, Dadi, I've told you. He's visiting several art galleries there and it's all very tedious work. I'm so proud of him though. There's no one except my Chote who works harder than my Shyamji."
"Still," her grandmother continued. "How long will he be over there? And how long will you insist on remaining here?"
"Until I get Akash and Chote together again. It's terrible to see them not even talking and instead fighting like this."
"But someone needs to be in Shantivan. We have no idea what that Gupta girl is planning next. Do you want your brother to forget you, Anjali?"
"He can never forget me," she said in a small, but firm voice that left Nani feeling oddly uncomfortable.
"You both can try to keep them apart, but I've seen Arnav and Khushi," she interjected. "Arnav will never leave her and neither will she."
Sumitra's face darkened behind her gold-rimmed glasses. If only the other woman knew how wrong she was, she thought. Marriage was nothing more than a piece of paper these days. Easily torn, easily broken...
Her own husband had strayed, hadn't he? And she'd been the perfect wife to him. Even when she'd learned of the affair, she'd been calm and controlled. It had taken a sizeable amount of money to free her husband from that middle-class witch's clutches, but the Raizada name had not once been tarnished.
The woman had eventually left, but her stupid husband had turned out to be the bigger problem. The foolish man fancied himself in love. He had even gone so far as to suggest divorce. But she'd been resourceful, and with a minimal amount of effort had made him a puppet in her hands.
Arnav was no different. He would leave Khushi. It was only a matter of time before their marriage too fell apart.
*****
The basement workshop at AR Designs was filled only with the noise of harsh breathing. Arnav and Khushi lay entwined on the sofa, a fine sheen of perspiration covering their skin.
Arnav turned his wife gently to face him, cupping her cheek.  "Are you okay?" he murmured as he peered down at her.
She managed a nod, looking a bit shy and lovelier than ever with her face flushed and her eyes shining. Throwing her arms around him, she embraced him as well as she could. "Hold me."
He swept her into his arms, his lips finding hers. Khushi moaned into his mouth, nestling closer. Pausing between kisses, she told him what she knew to be true. "I gave you every last part of me today. All of me is yours."
"I know and I'm yours," he agreed. "Completely."
She smiled up at him, running her fingers through his hair. "What we share--what we've always shared--is so much more than just physical. I've given you my heart... my soul... my everything... You know my every secret, my every shortcoming and flaw and yet, you still love me."
"Of course I do. What are you trying to get at?"
She met his gaze evenly. "I don't want any secrets between us, Arnav. I can't bear it anymore. Please, baby, please tell me who Rita is."
His eyes locked with hers and for a moment, she thought she'd done it, pierced her way past the stonewall he'd built around himself these past few weeks. He seemed on the verge of revealing everything, but just as suddenly, he was up and standing, reaching for his clothes as if nothing had happened.
"Arnav." She grabbed his wrist. "Please. I need to know who Rita is. I can't live like this another second."
"And you think I can?" he snarled, wrenching himself out of her grasp. "Do you think I want to keep this truth from you? Do you think it's easy for me? I hate it, Khushi! It's why I can't bear to be around you... I can't face that accusation in your eyes."
She stood up too, reaching for his hand. "Tell me. Please. Whatever it is, I promise you, it won't change anything. You know as well as I do that what I feel for you can never change. I can stop breathing first, but I can't stop loving you. You're a part of me, Arnav."
"You're a part of me too," he whispered, his eyes haunted appearing. "The best part... I love you so damn much."
Tears stung her eyes. "Then trust that love, baby. Have faith in our love. Tell me the truth."
He pulled himself out of her arms, buttoning up his shirt. "I can't. You say it won't change things between us, but Khushi, that's just it. I knowit will. It'll change everything. You won't ever look at me the same way again once you know."
Khushi felt her heart sink. "You won't tell me." It was a statement--not a question. "But you promised me in the hospital that you would."
With his suit back on and his hair gelled back, he appeared an aloof businessman once again, the consummate CEO. His gaze was hard and unflinching. "I've changed my mind."
She struggled to understand. "And I'm supposed to live with that? Live with your secrets?"
"This is the only one," he pointed out.
"But it matters!" she cried. "It matters a great deal."
"I know," he agreed. "I don't blame you for being so curious, but you need to trust me that it's better for you and our marriage if you don't know about this part of my past."
"I've proven how much I trust you time and time again! It's your turn! Who's Rita?" Khushi grabbed him by the lapels of his coat. Unlike him, she was still bare, but none of that seemed to matter now. "An ex-girlfriend? A one-night stand? A child you had?"
His gaze grew midnight black and he shook her by the shoulders. "Stop it! Dammit, stop."
"I won't," she cried, stricken. "I can't just ignore this. Because no matter how much I wish it didn't matter, that name does matter. It's always there, between us." Tears burned her eyes but she blinked them back. She would not fall apart before him. She'd be strong--even if it killed her. "Maybe Amma is right after all... maybe we do need some time apart from one another to think things through..."
His face darkened into something frightening. His hold on her shoulders tightened. "What. Did. You. Say? You want to be away from me? YOU SAID YOU'D NEVER LEAVE ME!"
She flinched at the sound of his roar. "I don't want to leave you... It's you that's pushing me away."
"Don't, Khushi," he warned, his eyes flashing. "Don't try backing me into a corner. It won't work. I've made up my mind."
"And I've made up mine," she said softly. "A few days apart will perhaps help resolve this tension between us. I'll still come to work and see you everyday. This isn't something permanent, Arnav. It's just that... I don't know what else to do," she explained with utter truthfulness.
"You are not coming back here," her husband growled. "What the hell do you not understand about being pregnant? This isn't a normal pregnancy; according to the doctors, there are very high chances of complications, especially after the pool incident. I will not have you under any type of work-related stress when you should be home resting."
"But the bridal show is just weeks away and I need to be here to at least supervise--"
"I've decided to postpone it," he announced. "Effective immediately, the annual bridal fashion show will now happen after four months."
Her mouth fell open. "Y-you can't just do that! I've worked so hard for this show!"
"Perhaps you've forgotten, Khushi, but I can change anything around here as I wish," he replied smoothly, seemingly unperturbed by her outburst. "The fashion show will happen only once the twins are born and you've recovered."
She was so angry, she couldn't form any words, her hands shaking as she slipped on her clothes. As she reached for the doorknob, she sent a withering glare in his direction. "Do not look for me at home tonight. I won't be there."
And then she was gone and there was only silence. Silence that bit into him, stabbing him like the sharpest of knives. Closing his eyes, Arnav mentally counted backwards from ten.
Pulling out his phone, he dialed Bayaz Khan's number. "It's me. ASR. My wife will be visiting her parents for possibly a few days and I want every security added there. Stay out of sight but take every precaution as necessary. And what's the latest on Payal? Still in Nainital?"
"Yes, she's keeping a low profile but I feel she's planning something..."
His fingers fisted around the phone. "Keep me informed on her. If anything unusual happens--anything at all--I want to be the first to know."
"Yes, sir. Everything is being taken care of."
Those words should have reassured him, but Arnav felt more lost than ever. And he knew the exact reason why. He'd done it. After all this time, after all their fights and struggles, he'd succeeded in driving his wife away from him.
But he'd had no other choice!
Why didn't Khushi understand? He could never--ever--tell her about that part of his past. It would wreck their lives. And the shaky marriage they currently had would completely disintegrate.
Swearing, he threw his fist into one of the mirrors facing him, hating the reflection he saw there. Blood trickled, running in snake-like rivulets from his knuckles. Bowing his head, Arnav bit down on his lip, hard enough to taste blood, but the pain didn't lessen. It was still there, radiating from his heart, crippling him, breaking him...
He'd really lost her... he'd lost his Khushi... No! NO!
Shaking, he fell to his knees, crimson blood staining the carpet beside him.
*****
That day, if anyone noticed his dark mood, they knew better than to comment on it. As 5 PM rolled by, Aman observed with surprise as he stood, reaching for his phone and keys. It was the first time in weeks he was leaving for home on time.
Arnav was turning on the ignition of the white SUV when NK ran up to him, flailing his arms wildly.
"Naanav! Wait up, bro!"
He lowered the driver-side window with a press of a button, not looking his cousin's way. "What is it?"
"I have the key for you."
His eyebrow arched. "What key?"
"The key to Shyam's workshop!" NK said with palpable excitement. "It took a lot of work to get a hold of it, let me tell you, but I managed it in the end. Apparently Di has always had a spare, but she never uses it on her dear husband's command. I told Nani I'd forgotten something inside and she managed to make a copy and mail it to me from Nainital without Di finding out. Isn't that great?"
"Wonderful," he said dryly. "Thanks. I'll check it out."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
Arnav shook his head. "Not tonight. I want to be alone."
"No worries, Naanav. Let me know if you need anything. Although I'm sure you have your work cut out for you with Khushiji. She must not be too happy with the bridal show being postponed."
If only that was all she was upset about, lamented Arnav. "No, she's not happy at all..." he agreed, still lost in thought.
"It'll be okay," his cousin said with his usual sunny disposition. "Khushiji's love for you far outweighs her disappointment with your decision."
Arnav knew that to be true, but it didn't make him feel any better--only worse actually. Truth was, he deserved far worse than Khushi's anger after all he'd done and said to her. The Guptas had been right about something after all--he didn't deserve someone as good and pure as his wife. Hadn't he tarnished her enough with his darkness?
She had been right when she'd said a marriage and love like theirs had no place for secrets, but he hadn't budged and had no plans to. He should have foreseen this, he realized. He should have known his past would never leave him alone for long. There was no escaping it.
But when he'd run into Khushi all those months ago in Lucknow, the past had been the furthest thing on his mind. That chance encounter had changed everything. He'd become consumed by thoughts of her, wanting her as his with a powerful, selfish desire. She'd given him nothing but love and understanding in return, and today, he'd thrown all of that in her face.
As he drove to Shantivan, the memory of her upset, shaken expression as she'd left the basement workshop haunted him. He parked at an angle on the driveway, taking the stairs up to the house two at a time.
"Khushi!"
He didn't know what he'd been expecting. For her to magically appear before him? She'd told him not to look for her. But hell, it still hurt, the knowledge that she was truly gone slamming into him with more force than any physical blow.
"Mr. Raizada?"
The young, mousy looking nurse stepped out of the shadows, appearing surprised to see him home so early. "Khushi... that is, I mean Mrs. Raizada, left for her parents' house several hours ago."
Fuck. He ran a hand through his hair. "I know."
"D-do you still require my services?" Rita stammered, looking if she were a fly who'd stumbled into a spider's web. Arnav was used to people being intimidated by him, but this woman took the cake. She looked absolutely terrified of him. "I--I mean is this just a temporary arrangement or permanent?"
"Of course it's temporary!" He saw her cringe and he forced himself to lower his voice. "My wife will be returning home shortly."
"Shortly? Does that mean I have a few days off then?"
He shook his head. "No, Ms. Rita, it means you are not to go anywhere. Continue with your work as usual. Khushi will be back home later today."
"Tonight?"
He nodded, ignoring her stunned expression. "I'm going right now to get her. I just have to check on something first..." Pulling out the key NK had given him from his front pocket, he marched past her to his brother-in-law's workshop.
The room was on the ground level of the mansion, right next to his grandmother's vacant bedroom. He could still detect the scent of his Dadi's overly flowery perfume waft in the air there and his nose wrinkled at that remembered smell. With his thoughts firmly on getting his wife back home by any means possible, he inserted the key and turned the lock, walking inside.
The workshop was deathly silent with paintings upon paintings set upon giant easels, each one covered by a white sheet. He didn't see any threats and almost absently drew the cloth off the canvas closest to him.
His eyes froze on the image, a sickening sensation sweeping through him as he glimpsed the painting, recognizing the faces...
What the f---
He threw the canvas to the ground, angrily stomping toward the other paintings. They were more of the same, the images so hideous he wished to burn them and erase them both from reality and his memory. He could barely stand to look at them, his stomach rolling and twisting.
The one in the center of the room was blank, but something had been left behind. Arnav's eyes narrowed on the slip of paper stapled to its corner. He ripped it off, bile rising in his throat as he read the words.
My dear Saale Saab,
I knew you'd enter this room one day. What did you do? Break into it? I hope it required some sweat to pour out of you. I can imagine you standing in this room, sweaty and manly and so very, very angry.
I have angered you, haven't I? You must not have expected this but feelings have been declared in far more crass ways over the centuries.
Why did you expect, Saale Saab? Did you really think I stayed married to your sister all these years just for some pocket change? The money is a nice incentive, but I assure you that trapping another heiress--one who is not loopy like your dear Di--would be child's play for me.
I could have moved on to a far wealthier and saner woman easily. Did you ever wonder why I didn't? Probably not. Otherwise, you might have guessed this...
I stayed for YOU.
To be close to YOU.
Do you remember that night the four of us shared a bed: you, me, and our unwanted spouses? Who do you think it was that put that suggestion in crazy Anjali's head? Surely you didn't think it was all her brilliant idea.
And do you recall that time I called your wife delectable? Do you think I didn't know how you'd react to such a comment? I knew that you'd grab me, touch me and I long for your touch. Thirst for it...
I know my feelings for you will not change much, but I can no longer keep this desire hidden. I know one day you will come to me and I will wait patiently for that day.
Have a good day, my Sexyzada. Hope you have the loveliest of dreams tonight, filled with the images surrounding you.
I love you.
-SMJ
ps. I wouldn't share this letter or my paintings with your dear sister. Wouldn't want her already damaged mind to get anymore unhinged now would we?
Arnav fisted the letter in his hand and flung it aside, feeling his skin crawl. He had to get the hell out of here.
That was his only thought as he made it past the door but almost as soon as he crossed the threshold, he found himself on his knees.
Minutes later, the nurse discovered him there, vomiting violently. "Mr. Raizada!" She held his head up, her eyes wide and panicked. "I'll... I'll call Mrs. Raizada."
He shook his head, wiping his mouth. "No, don't."
Rita stood up, not appearing to know what to do. As he started to rise, she moved to help him up, but he threw his hands up to ward her off. "Don't."
"W-what can I do for you, sir?"
"Get me some water," he managed.
She nodded quickly. And then her eyes widened. Arnav turned to slam the door shut behind him, but he knew it was too late. He knew what she must be seeing: highly realistic, erotic images of two unclothed men, one whose face matched his own. He felt sick all over again.
****
Khushi curled her toes as the old swing behind her parent's house sent her flying upward. A warm breeze whipped across her upturned face. It was a beautiful day in Delhi, but for her, it felt as if dark clouds were closing in. Her conversation with her husband played again and again in her mind, the words growing harsher every time.
Why was she so disappointed, she wondered? What had she expected? That Arnav would come after her, begging her to return home?
It had been silly of her to expect such a thing. He was far more stubborn than her. He would not change his mind. He would never reveal to her who Rita was and what she meant to him.
Her lips thinned with frustration. The faint sound of her parents talking drifting in from the open window nearby and she could only guess what they must be discussing.
Her mother had been ecstatic to see her at their doorstep and her father and aunt had been pleased as well. They'd asked all sorts of questions the moment she'd entered: how long she would be staying for? How had ASR allowed it? Had she fought with him to escape?
She'd rolled her eyes at that last one. Arnav was not some big, bad wolf she needed protection from. In his arms, encased by his love, she'd never felt safer. If it was up to her, she'd never leave his side, but this time, she'd had no choice.
Why wouldn't he tell her who Rita was? Was she an ex of his? Or someone still in his life? She'd heard about wealthy people often having several lovers, but surely not her Arnav! She could have bet her life that he'd always been faithful to her.
But then why the hesitation? What was he so intent on hiding? She'd given him everything: all her love, her faith, her trust. She'd even let go of her every last reluctance and had anal sex with him, the vivid memories making her body grow warm all over. She shivered as she recalled those passion-filled, thrilling moments they'd spent together, wrapped in each other's arms.
"Khush?"
A masculine voice broke into the silence and her head snapped up, hope igniting in her chest. But it was not her husband. Instead, it was someone she had no wish to speak to.
"Karan?" She hopped off the swing. "What are you doing here?"
"Your mother told my mother you'd returned home."
Khushi frowned at that bit of information. "I thought they were no longer on friendly terms."
He shrugged, stepping closer, hands in his pockets as was his childhood habit. "They've made up apparently."
"Still, that doesn't explain what you're doing here. Please leave. I want to be left alone." It was no lie. A strange restlessness was building in her. It felt as if Arnav needed her, as if he was calling out to her. But that couldn't be true. He was no doubt still at the office, immersed in work. He had to be fine. He had to be...
Karan's hand rose between them as if to stroke her face and Khushi moved firmly out of his reach. His fingers curled at the look of contempt on her face. "You looked so sad sitting out here all alone," he whispered. His eyes flashed suddenly. "He's done this to you, hasn't he? That husband of yours?"
"It's none of your business. When will you understand that? You have no right to ask me anything. Our moms might be friends again, but we're not. I barely know you anymore."
"I'm the same, Khush. The same Karan you've always known. Your best friend. Your closest friend."
She shook her head. "Not anymore... That was a long time ago."
"It hasn't been that long. I still care for you. I wish nothing but the best for you."
Her frown intensified. "Oh, please, Karan. We both know you want nothing more than for my marriage to fail."
He didn't even attempt to deny it. "Only because it would get you away from that ASR. Why don't you understand? He's not right for you. I knew he'd never be able to keep you happy for long and tonight proves it."
"I am very happy," Khushi gritted through her teeth. "When will you stop interfering in my life? My marriage does not concern you."
His expression hardened. "It concerns me because I can't see you miserable like this. You were--are--my best friend. I love you."
Khushi whirled away from him. "It's best if you don't worry about me so much. I'm perfectly happy."
"Sure." He snorted. "Then what are you doing here at your parents? Did you finally have enough of that ASR's controlling ways?"
Her mouth tightened. "I didn't realize a daughter can't even visit her parents without such speculations. Just because I'm here does not mean my marriage is falling apart. I love my husband--now more than ever."
"It should have been me..." he whispered in a voice she had to strain to hear.
She spun around to face him. "What?"
Karan nodded, his eyes whipping over her with unconcealed longing and narrowing on the inky black tattoo on her wrist: Arnav's Khushi.Against her pale skin, each letter stood out starkly. "You should have fallen in love with me. We were meant to be together." His gaze fell to her stomach. "It should have been my children growing inside of you--not his."
Khushi clasped her hands over her abdomen in a protective gesture. "Karan, leave."
He stepped closer instead. "How do you know if it's real with him?"
"What do you mean?"
He didn't waver, staring at her as if he were trying to understand her and failing. "You've never been with another man other than that Raizada. You've never given me a fair chance. How do you know things with him are the best they can be? Khushi, don't you see? I can make you so much happier than him. I'll accept the children too. We can pretend their ours. Just as it was meant to be."
Anger and revulsion shot through her. "Why don't you understand? I've never once looked at you that way! The only man I've ever been attracted to like that has been my husband and I love him--very, very much. I can't function without him."
"You seem to be holding up just fine without him right now," he countered. "The truth is, you've never looked beyond ASR to consider another man. Have you even kissed someone other than him?"
"That is none of your business, Karan. Leave. Now." She pointed to the pathway behind him, but he would not listen, going on and on about how she couldn't be truly sure Arnav was the man for her.
Her body shook with anger, but for the twins' sake, she forced herself to remain calm. She would not let Karan of all people give her added stress. And then, just when she was on the verge of lashing out at him, the perfect plan occurred to her. Of course...
Straightening, she met his gaze head-on. "Is that what it'll take for you to believe me? We have to kiss? Is that what you're hoping for?"
As she took a deliberate step toward him, he swallowed nervously, glancing toward the house. "It is one way, but I don't think this is the right place or time for it, Khush. Your parents are nearby and--"
She cut him off by stepping right up against him, her anger swirling like a dark cloud as she glimpsed the hope that lit up his eyes. She'd wait till the last possible moment, and then, just when he thought she would kiss him, she'd shove him--right into the muddy ground below. That would show him his place.
Forcing herself to smile, she looped her arms around his neck. "Are you that afraid to kiss me? I thought you wanted to."
"I have... for the longest time." He gulped and then his head surely and steadily began to descend towards her. His lips were a few mere centimeters away. Her hands were ready to push him, inching higher.
"Relax, my parents are not here," she teased.
"Your husband, however, is."
Khushi froze as a familiar voice rang out-- a voice that was so icy cold and filled with such rage she felt her heart slam as she whirled around.
But it was not her imagination. Arnav stood before her, hands clenched at his sides with such force the knuckles stood out prominently. The look of betrayal in his eyes burned into her and she could only stare at him. She'd seen him furious before, but never had such anger been directed towards her.
"I can explain..." she began.
"The hell you can." And then he was charging past her, his lips twisted in a snarl as his fist slammed into Karan's unsuspecting face.

Secret Passion by TINA! & Satina
Episode 35: RITA
"HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU TO STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM MY WIFE?" he roared, throwing him to the ground. "You wanted her kiss, right? Kiss this instead." He viciously shoved Karan's face into the dirt and muck, holding him there.
Khushi feared he meant to kill the other man. She grabbed his arm. "Arnav, stop! Please! I was going to push him away. I wasn't going to allow him to kiss me."
His rage-filled eyes rose to her. "Get the hell away from me!" he all but barked. "I don't know what you were planning, but from what I saw, you were going to let him kiss you if I hadn't stepped in."
She shook her head, needing him to understand with a desperation that almost matched his fury. "Baby, that's not true. I was going to push him away. If you'd heard our entire conversation, you'd know--"
"I heard everything!" he cut in with a holler, stunning her into silence. He threw Karan to the side, ignoring his pain-filled groans and the blood pouring from his split lip. Khushi couldn't focus on him either because her husband was advancing towards her, reminding her of a dangerous predator with that steely look in his eyes.
"Y-you heard everything?" she stammered.
He nodded stiffly. "First, I was proud of you. I knew you'd show that rat his true place. But then..." His face darkened and he grabbed her by the shoulders. "How could you let him get that close to you? He touched your hand, your waist...You are mine, Khushi. Do you understand me? ONLY MINE!"
Before she could reply, dirt-streaked hands appeared from behind him, wrapping violently around his throat.
"Karan!" she yelled, trying to help Arnav pry his fingers off. "DON'T! Let go of him!"
Her once best friend looked half crazed as he choked her husband, dragging him backwards toward the old swing. As Khushi hurried after them, she felt her footsteps falter. She would have fallen if not for the support of the swing's flimsy rope.
A thunderous roar erupted.
With a forceful blow, Arnav sent Karan toppling backwards. "Do you realize what you just did? You put my wife's life at stake! My children's! She could have fallen!" His body shaking with fury, he stalked over to where Karan lay sprawled on the grass, coughing up blood. 
Khushi was trying to break up the fight when her parents and aunt appeared, their gazes rounding as they noticed Arnav beating Karan like a mad man.
"STOP!" Her mother shouted. "ASR, stop this right now! This very minute!"
Arnav didn't so much as react, his fist drawing back with dangerous ease. It was no contest, but more like a one-sided demolition and Karan seemed to realize he was losing--more like being systemically destroyed. As he was flung toward the trees, he rolled sideways, his hands finding and wrapping around a garden hose. He shouted something as he aimed it at his attacker, but it was not Arnav who was hit by the jarring spray of the water--but Khushi.
She'd run between the two men and as the water struck her square in the face, drenching her, pushing past her throat, she shuddered at its never forgotten chill. And suddenly, it was as if she'd been thrown in the pool once more... choking... struggling... dying...
"Arnav!" she gurgled as she felt her knees give away. He caught her before she could crumple, cradling her against him. His panic-filled voice filled her ears:
"Khushi! KHUSHI!"
Her vision was blackening. She couldn't breathe, couldn't respond... It was just like that time she'd had a nightmare at the hospital, only worse. The water was real. Too real.
Her husband cursed savagely and his mouth pressed to hers, firm and yet, exquisitely tender. Their lips aligned like the most natural thing in the world, two halves finally whole. Khushi breathed in his oxygen, drew comfort from his hard embrace, her hands tightening around him.
Her eyes slowly fluttered open. "A-arnav?"
He closed his eyes in silent thanks. His gaze swerved to Karan, but the other man was long gone.
"He climbed over the fence," her father informed them in a quiet voice. "Relax, son."
Khushi gazed from him to her mother and aunt--both of whom looked stunned speechless. Ignoring everyone and everything, she curled her arms around her husband's neck, laying her head over his raging heartbeat. "I want to go home."
Nodding, he lifted her up. "We're leaving. Right now." Her mother started to open her mouth, likely to protest, but he cut her off with a singeing glance. "Do not test me right now, Mrs. Gupta, because I promise you, you will not like the consequences."
"Just listen to him threaten me! Khushi, won't you say anything?" chided her mother. 
She only closed her eyes in response, nuzzling closer to her husband. Amid the chaos that inevitably followed, she felt herself being carried, felt herself being lowered in the passenger seat of the SUV, heard the seatbelt being clicked into place, but she couldn't seem to move. She felt so very tired. As her eyelids closed, the last thing she noticed was Arnav calling Bayaz Khan, his worried gaze trained on her face.
And then there was nothing.
After what felt like a long time later, she managed to open her eyes, blinked up at the darkening night sky. The road they were on was barren and bordered by thick, towering trees. She didn't know where they were heading, but surely not toward Shantivan.
A warm, familiar hand squeezed hers. A mesmerizing, dark brown gaze traced over her, observing her with piercing concern. "How are you feeling now?" Arnav asked quietly.
"As well as I can feel when I know I've hurt you..." She clung to his hand as fresh tears pooled in her eyes. "But believe me, love, it was never my intention to upset you. Whatever happened back there... I promise you I was not going to kiss Karan. At the very last moment, I was planning on pushing him away. You're the only man I want that way. The only one..." Her voice broke and a tear slid down her cheek, leaving a salty trail in its wake. 
Her husband considered her tear-glazed gaze for a long, wordless moment and Khushi had the uncanny feeling that he was peering right into her very soul. And then, with quiet understanding, he slowly nodded. "I know... I trust you. Just as you've always trusted me."
She found herself smiling for the first time all evening. Things were falling back into place in her world. "Where are we going, baby? Shantivan isn't in this direction."
"You're right," he agreed, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. "I'm not taking you to Shantivan, but somewhere else. You wanted to know the truth, didn't you? I think it's time you knew."
Her heart swooped in her chest. "You're going to tell me about Rita?"
He didn't turn away from her, his eyes haunted-appearing. "I'm not just going to tell you... I'm going to show you. And then you'll understand why I didn't want you to know about this. This secret will destroy us. Our love... Our marriage..."
She clasped his hand with all her strength. "I won't allow it to. Nothing and no one can come between us."
He looked far from convinced. "I hope you're right," he whispered. Closing her eyes, Khushi could only pray that she was as well.
*****
"Come, my pet..." drawled a silky, soothing voice. "Come for me now, Mrs. C." Unlike his tone, his touch was something all together different: rough, brutal, and icy cold.
Payal followed the order with a pent-up cry of longing, her body arching off the bed in a nearly perfect semi-circle as she gave herself over to the blinding hold of ecstasy. The man looming over her watched her shatter with detached, almost morbid interest, shoving the toy he was using on her deeper. The look in his eyes pushed her right over the edge--so similar it was to ASR's. 
Tonight, he is your ASR, Payal, her conscience whispered with glee. Yours. Not Khushi's. Yours. 
Biting her lip to keep from shouting her feelings for him, she clenched her hands on the sheets, clawing fitfully. Master Horatio stopped her fidgeting with a well-aimed slap to her aching breasts, making her moan out loud as the metal clamps he'd placed there jostled. A second slap quickly followed, this time across her stomach.
It was difficult for Payal to tell what he was thinking behind the red mask he wore tonight. She, on the other hand, was easy to read. Despite the silver, satin mask that covered much of her face, Payal had no doubt Master Horatio could figure out her response to him. He was after all an expert at this and it was painfully obvious how aroused she was.
As waves of passion washed over her, she fell limply on the sheets, feeling sated--for the time being at least. She still could not believe that she was truly here. That he'd come for her in Nainital of all places! Those text messages they'd exchanged had been no lie, he'd been telling her the truth when he'd said he'd arrange a secret meeting.
It hadn't been too difficult for her to escape the ramshackle apartment Akash had rented for the month unnoticed, finding herself in a matter of minutes, in one of Nainital's most exclusive hotels, in the executive suite no less.
"Come," the man said, tugging on the silver collar he'd made her wear as soon as she'd entered. "I'm not done with you yet."
His words were laden with promises. Dirty promises. Struggling to contain her excitement, Payal stood up, her head bowed down obediently.
A finger tipped up her chin. "Not like this. On your hands and knees."
I would do anything for you, ASR. Things your boring, little wife would never dream of doing.
As he tied a long leash to the collar, she posed as she'd been taught, head bowed, back angled, and every curve on display. He tugged hard and she followed after him, crawling on the fine, marble tiles with feline grace.
He hummed something as he walked, a tune she didn't recognize. But because it was her ASR, she found the sound pleasing. This was the true Arnav Singh Raizada: passionate, arrogant, and dominating. And tonight, he was hers.
He sat down on a winged back chair, gazing out at the hills of Nainital. "Lick me, pet. Work your way up."
"Yes, Master."
She started with his feet, kissing the arch, sucking on each toe before moving to his calves and then his knees. Her lips trailed higher, the sound of their mingled breathing filling the silence. She stroked the waistband of his designer pajamas and he rewarded her by opening the seam. Payal was about to take him whole when her phone rang. Startled, she gazed toward it with wide eyes. She recognized that ring tone...
"It's my husband. I have to answer it. He'll suspect something otherwise. Please..." she begged.
Master Horatio nodded with a severe bent of his mouth. "Go now before I change my mind."
She jumped up, fishing out her phone from her purse. With a look of apology, she started to turn away, but he ordered her back to him with a curl of his finger. Swallowing, she straddled his hips, raising the phone to her ear. "H-hello?
She didn't hear her husband's reply. Because at the same time, Master Horatio snatched the phone out of her hands, putting it on speakerphone. Akash's miffed voice echoed in the opulent suite:
"Payal? Where are you?"
"Umm..." It was hard to concentrate when Master Horatio was staring at her so, his eyes gleaming with lust and curiosity. She realized with a moment of panic that he knew her real name now--something she'd never wanted revealed.
"Payal?" Akash sounded more and more annoyed. Master Horatio's nails dug into her hips at her continued silence.
"I...I went to visit Anjali Di at the ashram."
Her husband sighed with exasperation. "Why would you do that for? Are you forgetting whose sister she is? If he's not concerned about her, why should we care so much?"
"I didn't think you'd be so upset," she said, genuinely surprised.
"Well I am. I expected you home tonight. I brought AJ along for a home-cooked meal, only to find my wife missing. I can't believe we missed out on this opportunity because of your foolishness." He was quiet then, and she could imagine him fiddling with his square-rimmed glasses, trying to find the right words. "Look, I'm sorry to be so harsh, but I don't want you to visit those people anymore. They're no longer family to us. The only person we need to worry about right now is AJ. We need him on our side--at any cost."
"Any?" For some reason, that word caught her attention.
Akash grew silent. "He wants you... Says you remind him of your sister and till he can't tame her, he wants you instead."
She was so stunned, she didn't even care that Master Horatio was listening to their every word. "And what did you say?" He didn't reply and her temper sizzled. "Akash, what did you say to him? Answer me!"
"I said I'd arrange it for him. Tonight. Only you weren't home, were you?" he accused mockingly.
Payal couldn't look away from the phone, her gaze unblinking. Her face twisted as she glared down at it. "I knew all along I married a coward, a spineless man who cared only about money and success, but tonight you've proven just how low you can stoop. Arnavji was right about you! You'd do anything to beat him, including using me!"
"Yes, I would!" he cried, sounding half-mad. "I'd do anything to beat him and witness his downfall. And darling, stop your fake crying. It's not as if we truly love each other. You think I don't know how much you despise me? You barely let me touch you."
Payal brushed aside the tears from her face, surprised to see their sheen on her fingertips. She hadn't even realized when they'd fallen. "I can't stand your touch."
He laughed, a harsh sound that made her hair stand on end. "Finally, some honesty. I know all about you, Payal. I'm not stupid and naive as you think I am."
"What do you know?" she managed, unable to meet Master Horatio's inquisitive gaze.
"About your affairs. You think I don't recognize another man's scent on you? The evidence of his touch on you? You try so hard to hide the bruises and marks, but I've seen everything. You haven't been faithful to me, have you?"
She felt her master's hand slip between her spread legs and she reveled in it, her head tossing back as she rode his fingers. She suddenly felt reckless and wild. "No...I haven't... Even at this very moment, I'm with someone else. Someone who is more a man than you'll ever be."
There was prickly silence and then he spoke, his voice a low growl. "And you think I've been faithful to you? Surely you're not that dumb Payal. I tried loving you once, but you pushed me away, time and time again." He sighed. "Look, we never could be husband and wife, but we can be business partners. Face it, Payal. Without me, you'll drown. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing."
She hated to admit he was right. Her degree would get her nothing more than a middle-class wage and she wasn't meant for such mediocrity. "What do you want, Akash?"
"Tomorrow, AJ will pick you up from the apartment at 8 PM sharp. I expect you to look pretty, dressed in your best outfit. Seduce him. Entice him. Do whatever it takes for him to join us. We can't have him thinking about ending the partnership. We need him."
She nibbled on her bottom lip. "I will think about it."
"You better be there," he ground out. "Have your fun tonight, but tomorrow, you will do as I say." The line disconnected then. Payal felt the phone slip from her numb fingers, tumbling onto the braided carpet. What had just happened?
Master Horatio watched her with his usual aloof air. "Now that was very interesting, indeed. You and your husband don't share a very conventional marriage, do you, pet? Or should I call you Payal?"
She tensed at the name and he smiled, a cruel, mocking grin. "Don't worry, I won't mention your real name again. Because like I've told you before, for me, you are someone else...someone whom I ache for..."
"Who?" she whispered.
But he didn't reply, grasping her hand and leading her to the majestic dining room two doors down. He made her lie down spread-eagled on top of the table, taking a thick, corded whip out of his suitcase.
"It doesn't matter," he murmured under his breath, his voice so low she had to strain to hear it. "Tonight, you are her... The woman who left me..." His eyes gleamed like hot coals as he towered above her. "How is it possible to both hate and love someone so much?" he wondered aloud, flicking the whip idly. "I will mar your skin. I will make you cry, beg, and plead. I will destroy you tonight, but I will restore you too. I will love every bruise, every mark..." He stared down at her. "Are you ready, my pet?"
Ignoring her uneasiness, Payal nodded. The whip slashed through the air, crashing down on her so hard, she couldn't hold back her scream. Master Horatio never paused, his face hard as granite as he continued to hit her, his eyes blazing. 
"You like this, don't you?" he said accusingly, striking the tops of her thighs, the fullness of her breasts.
She couldn't deny it. Not when her body was arching upward for each stroke like it was a lover's sweet caress. Yes, this was just what she needed.
Oh, ASR...
*****
It was close to 9 PM by the time Arnav took a turn off the main highway, his profile shrouded in shadows. Khushi studied the passing scenery as if it would give her some clue, some hint of what awaited her, but there was nothing but more trees, rows upon rows. More turns followed and the terrain grew rougher, more primitive.
She couldn't begin to riddle out what could possibly be out here when suddenly a building loomed ahead, nearly six stories tall. As the headlights struck its outer brick wall, Khushi saw that it was maintained well, with shiny windows and a massive clock tower. Her breath caught as she noticed a large, brass plaque near the main entrance: Sameera Raizada Foundation and Orphanage. 
Her eyes whipped to her husband. He sat gazing at the sign too, lost in thought. "I named it after my mother."
"You did this?" She struggled to explain how this orphanage could possibly connect to Rita. Was Rita a child here? An orphan?
Her husband refused to divulge any more information, coming around the car to her side. As he opened the door, for a moment, he just stared at her--hard. "I need you to promise me something before I take you inside."
His tone carried an unmistakable ominous note, something about it leaving her feeling even more uneasy. "Promise you what, baby?"
The familiar endearment seemed to calm him visibly. His hand rose to cup her cheek, his gaze trained on her upturned features with such intensity it was as if he were memorizing them. His voice when he finally spoke was gravely and rough with emotions. "I need you to promise me that no matter what happens, no matter what you feel or think inside, you will not leave me."
His fear broke her heart. She caught both of his hands in hers, squeezing. "I will never leave you, Arnav. Haven't I been telling you that all along? I can't leave you. I'm not capable of it. My love for you won't allow me to."
He inhaled sharply, his thumb grazing over her lips. "You have no idea how much that means to me. But this is serious, Khushi. Think it through. You can't go back on this promise. Even if you beg me to let you go after this, I won't let that happen. I will stop you by any means possible. Do you understand?"
Swallowing, she met his turbulent gaze. "Yes..."
"And?" he pressed, searching her eyes.
"I agree. For the thousandth time, I won't leave you. Please, stop worrying."
His mouth crashed down on hers, hard and possessive. "Trust me, if you were in my shoes right now, you'd be worried too," he murmured against her lips.
Keeping a firm hold on his hand, Khushi followed him out, entwining their fingers as if the act would seal them together for eternity. She leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked toward the building, taking comfort in his close proximity.
"Baby, do you remember when you ended things between us in New York?"
"How can I possibly forget that night?" he said, his brow furrowing at her unexpected question. "It was one of the darkest nights of my life."
 Khushi clung to his side. "For me as well. I was completely shattered, utterly heart broken. I thought I'd lost you forever... But looking back, I realize why you did it. Why you tore that contract between us. It had no place in our lives. You wanted me to love you without its shadow hovering over us. When I realized that, I found myself falling even deeper in love with you. Don't you see, love? The man who was selfless enough to do that, to let go of his ego and own feelings and put our relationship first, is not a man who could ever do something wrong. I trust you, Arnav. I trust you blindly."
He jerked to a halt, frowning at her. "You shouldn't trust anyone blindly--least of all someone like me."
"What does that mean? Why are you always so hard on yourself? Why can't you see yourself as I do? Yes, you're not perfect, you have flaws, but then, so do I. And you love me still, don't you?" She didn't give him time to answer. "Why won't you accept that you are a good man? A loving husband and soon to be amazing father? The man I can't live without..."
He drew her into his arms, pressing his forehead to hers. "You have me built up in your head as someone I'm not. Don't forget what I did to you. I snatched you only because I wanted you. I trapped you, took you away from your life in Lucknow, away from your family and friends. Hell, I even took your virginity. I am still that same selfish man, Khushi. I should regret my actions, but I don't. Not at all. Truth is, I'd do it all over again if it meant having you in my life...in my bed."
"I know you would," she said quietly. "I should resent you for it, but I can't bring myself to. Why should we let the past destroy our present? Our future? It's not like you only took from me. You gave me everything too." She framed his face in his palms, her gaze imploring. "You gave me love, the kind of pure, passionate, soul-consuming love I thought I'd never have. And whatever you took from me was freely and happily given--every single time."
"I've hid so much from you. First about Nicole and her pregnancy, then AJ, now this..." His face twisted, his hold on her shoulders tightening. "Khushi, do you remember the first time we went to Uncle's estate in New York? You called me a prince. You said it so easily, not realizing what it did to me. You have no idea how shaken I was by that. How shocked. I'm so far removed from that type of man, and yet despite every horrible thing I ever did to you, you saw the good in me, the human side of me...something I've always tried so hard to keep hidden."
"You are my prince," she insisted, brushing her thumb soothingly over his bottom lip. "You always will be. Please, trust me. Whatever is behind these walls stands no chance against a love like ours. Nothing in this lifetime can force me to leave you. Trust me, baby. Please..."
He yanked her into his arms, burying his face against the side of her neck and taking deep, heaving breaths. "I do trust you. Trust you more than myself. I can bear everything, Khushi, but I can't stand the thought of being apart from you. Not even for a minute. If I had it my way, I'd chain you to my side...to my bed..."
She tickled his side, smiling through the tears that stung her eyes. "Thankfully, you have no reason to resort to such extremes. I choose to be with you. There's nowhere else I'd rather be than with you."
"Kiss me," he mumbled, cupping her face. "I need to feel your lips on me one last time."
"It won't be the last time."
"God, I hope not," he agreed. "But humor me...kiss me, Khushi."
She could not deny him, not when her own heart was screaming for the same. Rising up on her tiptoes, she coiled her arms around his neck and slowly, holding his soulful gaze, pressed her mouth to his.
The taste of him, the heat, the jarring feel of his masculine body slammed into her, making her gasp. He stood still, letting her lead the kiss. Clutching him to her, Khushi grazed her lips over his, nipping and gently sucking. His hands tightened on her waist and suddenly, the tenderness was gone. They were kissing like two, wild teenagers, unable to get close enough, tongues entwining with feverish fervor. By the time she pulled away, she was breathless, her hair disheveled and her mouth feeling slightly swollen.
"C-can we go in now?"
Smoothing her hair, he pecked her mouth, his tongue soothing the dull throbbing there. "Now we can. Hold onto my hand. Don't let go."
Khushi followed his command wordlessly, her heartbeat pounding as they took the short flight of stairs to the main door. To her surprise, it was unlocked and they stepped inside together, hands tightly entwined. Khushi found herself in what appeared to be an ordinary school entrance, the maze of hallways that connected to the colorful room all glaringly empty.
"Arnav, what--"
Shrieks erupted behind her. A dozen footsteps raced their way. Arnav's hand slipped out of hers as he kneeled down, catching the first running kid in his arms.
He was tiny, with curly hair and wide-set, hazel eyes. Those eyes froze on Khushi as he gazed up at her. "Who's this, Uncle?" He suddenly grinned as he looked from her to Arnav and back again, calling over his shoulder: "Everybody, look! Arnav Uncle has a girlfriend!"
By now over thirty children of all ages surrounded them, most hugging Arnav and peering at her curiously. Their familiarity with him did not go unnoticed by Khushi. Her husband was no stranger to these children; in fact he seemed to know each one by name. She stood frozen as she watched him high five the older ones, pat the younger ones on their heads. A few clung to him, refusing to let go. He smiled at the adorable, chubby-faced toddler closest to him, lifting her in his arms and settling her on his hip as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Khushi could barely glance away from him, her gaze unblinking. What in the world?
"How are your classes going?" her husband asked. "Everyone studying hard?"
They nodded as a group, their gazes sliding to her once more. "Your girlfriend is very beautiful, Uncle," said one young girl. "What's her name?"
Still balancing the toddler on his hip, Arnav looped his free arm around her waist. "This is Khushi, everyone. And she's not my girlfriend." His eyes, warm and golden, met hers, the corner of his mouth tipping up. "She's my wife."
Ohhs and ahhs greeted the announcement. The boy who'd first raced up to them, pulled on her hand. "I knew you had to be special. Uncle's never brought anyone here before."
The others agreed, leading her down the main hall, insisting she tag along. She hesitated, glancing back at Arnav, but he simply nodded. And that was how, minutes later, Khushi found herself on a nighttime tour of the building.
The orphanage housed over twenty classrooms, she learned. There was also a large cafeteria, gym, swimming pool, library, dormitories, and even a fully functional clinic. She was introduced to the facility's small sized staff as well. They were teachers and caregivers, smiling men and women who seemed enthusiastic about their students and their progress.
"See Simon over there," said one, angling her face toward the naughty faced student who'd first greeted her. "He wasn't always like this. Two years ago his parents died in a tragic fire. Poor thing barely escaped. He was just five years old, and suddenly all alone."
"Didn't he have any relatives?" Khushi felt a pang in her chest as she studied the child. She'd been a couple years older when she'd lost her own parents, but thankfully Amma and Babuji had taken her in, giving her more love than she'd thought she deserved.
"He did," said the teacher, not bothering to hide her displeasure. "But they were absolutely awful to him. Simon went from being a pampered, much-loved child to someone who had to struggle for his next meal. He showed up here one night, battered and broken."
Khushi shivered. "How did you all find him?"
"We didn't. Your husband did."
"What?" Her gaze swerved to Arnav. He sat narrating a bedtime story to some of the younger kids. They cuddled around him, hanging onto his every word.
"He found Simon," the teacher said, "On the side of a road, bruised, crying, and hungry. He brought him here, gave him the best treatment, enrolled him in classes."
"And Simon's relatives?" Khushi knew her husband well enough to realize he would not have let them off so easily.
"They were convicted of child abuse--along with arson and murder. You see that fire that took Simon's parents' lives wasn't accidental."
"That's just--- just horrible. How can people be so cruel?"
The middle-aged woman shrugged. "I used to wonder about it too, but now I don't. I just deal with the aftermath and try to prevent it from happening in the first place. Every child here has a story, Mrs. Raizada, of too much pain and too many tears. We can't erase that type of damage, but we can try to counteract it. There may be cruelty out there, but here in this orphanage, there is only hope and understanding. And you know, your husband is the one who started it all. You're really very lucky."
Khushi swallowed the uncomfortable lump in her throat. "I know... I'm very fortunate to have him in my life."
Arnav looked up then, his eyes finding hers. At the tears he glimpsed there, he set the book aside, ignoring the protests of the kids. "Next time, everyone. It's getting late. You should all be asleep by now."
"Will you tuck us in?" murmured a shy five year old, hugging her doll and staring down at the floor. "Please?"
Arnav swooped her up in his arms, smiling at her. "Of course I will, Kiran. Come on." 
Khushi came by his side. "We both will." Their eyes met and clung as they tucked each child in. Simon reached for Khushi's hand as she drew the blanket over him, his gaze serious. 
"You'll be back, won't you?"
Arnav started to say something, but Khushi beat him to it. "Of course, I will," she promised.
Beaming, the child turned on his side. "Good night then, Uncle. Good night, Khushi Di."
"Good night," they said together, their eyes meeting again.
As the last child was tucked in for the night and the lights went off, Arnav led Khushi toward a different wing of the building, one that was noticeably vacant. She stopped him from going any further by taking hold of his hand. He instantly stilled.
"This is what you were so afraid to tell me about? This orphanage? Baby, I don't understand. What you're doing here, for these kids, is incredible. Why haven't you told me about it? Did you really think I'd stop you? That I wouldn't understand?"
"Of course not," he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I know you. I know you'd probably have joined me on my every visit here."
"Then why? Why have you kept this all a secret from me?"
He took a moment to respond, searching her face for something--something she didn't quite understand.
"Because a horrific part of my past would inevitably have come up and I wasn't ready to deal with it."
"What part of your past? Rita?" He tensed and she knew she'd guessed right. "Who is Rita, Arnav? How does she connect to this orphanage? None of this makes any sense to me."
He pulled her against him, holding her close. "I know, Khushi... I can imagine how confused you must be feeling right about now. But to understand everything, you first need to know that this building, this orphanage, wasn't always like this."
Her brow puckered. "What do you mean?"
Instead of replying, he led her past more rooms and then down a winding staircase, its steps so narrow, she had to hold onto his waist for support. The furnishings here were different. Older and worn. The wallpaper was torn and faded, and the rooms they passed were ridden with dust and debris. Even the air felt different, carrying with it the faint odor of something musky and stale.
"Watch your step," Arnav warned, paused at a spot near the middle of the corridor, one that seemed no different from the rest. "Not too many years ago, this building was something else entirely, Khushi. It was a place of cruelty and neglect. Children were sent here and forgotten."
"That's horrible..." A bad feeling began to seep into her, threatening to stifle her, but she forced herself to voice the question. "H-how do you know so much about it?"
He turned toward her and the moonlight pooling inside from a nearby cracked window revealed his hardened expression, his hands fisted at his sides. "Because I was one of those kids."
She felt her heart slam against her ribs as she read the truth of it in his eyes. But even then, she couldn't believe it. She didn't want to believe it. "No...it can't be... Why? You have such a large family... your grandmothers love you, your aunt and uncle genuinely care for you. They wouldn't have left you somewhere like this..."
"It's not that simple. You see, back then, this wasn't exactly an orphanage."
"What do you mean? What was it then?"
He grabbed her wrist, turning her around and held his phone's light up to a faded, old photograph.
It showed the same brick-lined building they stood in, but there were differences. For one, the entire building looked as if it was on the verge of falling apart, the windows boarded up, the roof stained and dented in places. The teachers looked meaner and sterner, one holding a rod in his hands, his eyes stone-like behind small, round glasses. The children looked different too--nothing like the ones that lived here present-day. These children were thinner and distinctly malnourished, their clothes hanging off their reed-thin bodies.
Khushi's eyes froze on a boy in the second row. He looked about ten or eleven years old and unlike most of the others, he had a spark of determination shining in his eyes, hinting toward an internal rebellion. There was something else about him, something that caught Khushi's attention. His wavy hair... those perfect, aristocratic features... She'd have recognized him anywhere.
"Oh my God," she moaned, laying her trembling hand over his picture. "It's you. You were here."
He nodded stiffly, his jaw set. "This picture was taken my first year here. The others had given up by then, but I never could. I fought this place, Khushi. I fought so hard. But when you're ten years old and they take your food away, your clothes away, when they beat you and harass you, you learn to shut down your emotions. You have no choice but to follow the rules. It was the only way to survive."
"T-they beat you?" she croaked, feeling her heart sink all the more. "Why?"
"Because it was allowed. Anything went here in those days. Experimentations, injections, electrocutions... The sick minds that ran this place got away with it all."
"But how? How was this allowed to happen?" she cried, outraged and at the same time, utterly devastated for him. "No one can do that to innocent children and get away with it!"
His gaze grew shuttered. "They can if the kids aren't considered worth saving. When they're considered a danger to society and punishment is seen as a means of controlling them."
"Every child is worth saving."
"I agree with you, but they didn't."
His hollow, lifeless tone shattered something in Khushi. "Who didn't, love? Who?"
With a look of pure hatred, he pointed to the picture behind her. "RITA."
She flipped about and saw that she'd missed something on her first inspection of the photograph. The plaque mounted on the outside the building was all together different too. Gone was the brass sign. In its place was instead a black and white inscription in a somber, cursive script: Rehabilitation Institute for Troubled Adolescents. Founded in 1943.
"Fancy name for a hellhole, don't you think?" her husband murmured beside her. "RITA, everyone called it. It was my life for most of my childhood, Khushi, and it wasn't an orphanage. You think most of my family is insane by now, don't you? My grandmother, my sister, my brother in law..." His mouth twisted and his eyes gleamed at her. "But the only one who spent time--years--locked up in a mental asylum is the man standing before you. The man you married. Now do you understand, Khushi? You think you know me, but you don't. You have no idea how damaged I am. How deep my scars run. My family didn't leave me here, Khushi. They sent me here."
*****
Trembling, Khushi grabbed onto the wall behind her, unable to look away from her husband. For a long moment, neither of them spoke and then she managed, "Why would anyone send you to a mental asylum?"
He shrugged, his stance deceptively casual. "It never made much sense to me, but maybe it will to you. After my parents died, I had very vivid daydreams. Nightmares, really. I was the one who discovered their bodies. Seeing your mother hanging from a noose is something you can never really forget, even if you want to. I was ten years old when it happened and that image still haunts me some nights as if it happened yesterday. In the days after her death, I'd see her everywhere...crying, bleeding, with that noose wound around her neck. Trust me, it really spoils family dinners when you start screaming bloody murder for no apparent reason."
His tone was calm, but his expression was anything but. Khushi struggled to understand. "I thought your mother was found in a pool of blood. I thought she was shot. You've mentioned gunshots before."
"No, it's far more twisted than that. It all happened at our family farm near Lucknow. Of course, we sold the property right after the accident, but before that, we used to spend a lot of time there. It was pleasant enough when my father wasn't drunk and Di and I stayed out of his way. My mom used to keep us occupied with stories and games. If she was sad or unhappy, she never showed us her tears. I could almost pretend we were a normal family during those days. But then..." His voice trailed off and he swallowed hard.
Khushi didn't think twice. She crossed the distance between them, winding her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. "What happened, Arnav?"
He breathed in sharply, his hands smoothing up and down her back. "I don't remember every detail of that day, but I do remember it being sunny. It started out as such a perfect day. I was heading to the barn to take one of the horses out when I heard it. My mother's screaming. I raced to help her, but I was too late. She...she was dangling from the rafters like a broken, rag doll."
Khushi shuddered and his hold on her tightened. "I...I thought I could help her still. That if I could only get her down, I could save her. That she'd be all right. I was trying to find a ladder when the gunshots sounded. My mother's body fell to the ground, laden with bullets. I didn't understand it, but suddenly my father was there, a smoking gun in his hands. He looked crazed. I barely recognized him. I must have made some noise because he turned the gun toward me, his bloodshot eyes finding me. He was going to kill me too, I realized. Kill me just like he'd killed my mother. And I could do nothing. I was defenseless...helpless..."
She clung to him, quivering. "You don't have to tell me anymore if you don't want to. It's all right."
He tipped her chin up, staring down at her. "I want to tell you. I need to... Honestly, I don't know what happened after that moment. I must have closed my eyes, you know, preparing for the worst. A gunshot exploded and I remember crying out. When I opened my eyes, my father was dead on the floor. He'd shot himself in the mouth. That's another image I could never get rid of even if I wished."
Khushi had no idea how someone shot in the mouth would look like, but that her husband--her Arnav--had seen something so horrific and gruesome at such a young age, shook her to the core.
"After that, the police arrived, then Nani, Dadi, Uncle, my aunt and her husband. Di and I were whisked off that very night to Delhi, right after a rather somber funeral ceremony. Dadi was understanding the first couple of months, but when my nightmares wouldn't stop, when I started seeing my mother in the daytime as well as in my dreams, she found this place and sent me here. To RITA."
"I hate her," Khushi said unapologetically. "I hate her for what she did to you."
He soothed her with a soft kiss to her forehead. "For the longest time, I hated her too.  To move on from that hatred took me years and I still think I'll never be able to forgive her completely. She may have thought she was helping me, but all she did was make things worse. I was trapped in this place, in this hell, for seven fucking years."
Her breath stilled. "Seven years?"
He nodded. "I was ten when I arrived. See that man with the glasses in the picture? He was the meanest person here and he hated me instantly. Called me a rich, spoilt brat. Said he'd beat the fight out of me, crush my spirit and fix my damaged brain."
"Please tell me he's dead." Khushi embraced her husband hard.
"He is. Died from a heart attack three years ago in jail. Why do you ask, baby?"
"Because I would have gone after him this very second if he was still alive," she said, dead serious.
For the first time, Arnav smiled, a faint, crooked smile. "I know you would have." He caught her hand, leading her down another flight of stairs. The light here was dimmer and Khushi realized they were in the basement. There were no windows, just doors upon doors.
Arnav paused in front of a corner door, pushing it open. It looked like an empty storeroom, a third the size of her bedroom in Lucknow. Windowless, with grimy walls and minimal furnishings, it made her a bit claustrophobic to be standing inside.
"What is this place?"
"This was my cell," he told her without any hint of emotion. "Where I spent most of my time from the age of ten to seventeen."
Her heart ricocheted against her heart. "What?" This place wasn't fit for an animal and he'd been kept here? Under lock and key? Her horrorstricken gaze flashed to the door. There was a lock there, just as she'd suspected, as well as a thin slot at the top and bottom of the door.
"That was where they'd keep an eye on me," he pointed, "And that was where the food trays would slide through--if I was lucky enough to get my next meal."
"Surely they let you out of here, right?" Please, say yes.
"Out?" His smile was gone, his expression hard as stone. "If the beatings and electrocutions count, then yes. But no, for the most part, this small space was my life. There were classes most of the others went to, but I was deemed too dangerous to leave my cell. They would throw in a textbook or two in here sometimes. Over the years, I stole more, soaking up everything I could get my hands on. I basically taught myself."
"How could Nani allow them to--"
"Nani could do nothing," he said dismissively. "Dadi was appointed my sole, legal guardian following my parents' deaths. It was all in the will. My father--damn him to hell--even when dead, controlled my life. And according to Dadi, this place, with its long history of success, was just right for me. To be fair, she never visited, so maybe she didn't know how bad RITA was, but I wouldn't slide anything past her. She's just as cold-hearted as my father used to be. She approved of every single one of those supposed treatments they inflicted on me. In fact, even today, she still maintains that RITA was the best thing to ever happen to me."
Khushi felt like attacking the woman. Taking a deep, calming breath, she walked further into the cell, setting her palms against the chipped, stone walls. They were rough and cold to the touch. Her heart twisted painfully as she imagined a young boy with wavy hair and solemn, dark brown eyes locked here, trapped all alone in a world of cruelty and pain and unending nightmares. Tears blurred her vision.
His strong arms wrapped around her waist, his chin settling on her shoulder. "You know, I used to imagine so much when I was locked in this room. I had nothing to do but read, study, and dream. And even though I tried to keep it out of my head, my mother's words would come to me sometimes. Her story about a princess that would show me what true love was. I thought it was all silly and childish, but that silly fantasy was all I had so many nights. As the years passed, I was no longer the same. I shut down. Mentally, emotionally. But that story was always in the back of my head. It gave me hope. The thought that even though I was here, alone and unloved, somewhere out there was a girl made just for me, living her life--hopefully, a far more beautiful life than mine. And one day, I'd find her and take some of that beauty, some of that goodness, and bring it into my own life. Our fates would entwine... Khushi, love, that girl was you. You are the princess my mom used to speak about, the one I never could stop thinking about. I just wish I was worthy enough to be your prince."
Not bothering to hide her tears, Khushi whirled to face him, enveloping him in her arms as hard as she could. "Don't you ever say that again, Arnav Singh Raizada! You are worthy. No one is as worthy as you! I love you so much. With all that I am."
"And I love you. I always have..."
They held each other in the same, bone-crushing grip, their tears mingling as he found her lips with his own. Khushi brushed aside his tears, pressing kisses to every part of him she could reach.
"How did you get out of here? I know you. You must have tried to escape countless times."
He kissed the tears off her cheeks. "You do know me well. Of course I tried to run away, but my plans never worked out. When I was thirteen, I jumped out of a window and ended up fracturing my arm and leg. The scars on my eyelid and knee are from that fall. And another time, I managed to steal one of the employee's cars and make it onto the highway. But of course, things turned out badly then too. I didn't exactly know how to drive and next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital with broken ribs and injuries to my face and neck. RITA put me on virtual lockdown after that. I wasn't allowed to go outside. I had no friends. No one but the silence and my nightmares."
"Then how did it end?"
"My grandmother's guardianship ended," he said matter-of-factly. "It was supposed to last until I was eighteen, but Uncle stepped in with his legal team and helped me get out of here a year sooner. RITA and my grandmother fought against it hard. They claimed I was still mentally ill, a danger to myself and others. But of course, they had no tangible proof. The last two years I was here, I didn't break a single damn rule. I didn't let them see any emotions from me. If I had nightmares, I kept it hidden. If I saw my mother with a noose, I learned to ignore it."
"Does that night still haunt you?"
He nodded slowly. "Sometimes... But ever since I met you, the nightmares have reduced and I no longer see the noose anymore. I still dream about my mother, but they're of happier times. I guess unlike RITA, you cured me, Khushi Arnav Singh Raizada."
She slanted her mouth over his, sliding her tongue past his and pouring all her love into the kiss. "Can I ask you one last question?"
"Anything."
She smiled. "Why were you so afraid of telling me about this? Why were you so sure I'd leave you?"
"I'm still afraid," he admitted, raising her hands to his mouth. "Finding out your husband was in a certified mental asylum for seven years has to change things, I imagine. I didn't want you to see me differently. I didn't want you to live in constant fear around me. And most of all, I didn't want to lose you, lose your love when I'm still getting used to it."
"I'm not going anywhere, baby." She cuddled her head against his chest. "And you are not crazy, Arnav. I am never safer than when I'm with you."
"Hmm, is that right?"
She nodded, pecking his mouth. "You do drive me crazy sometimes with your secrets, but that is a different story."
He laughed, sliding his hands into her hair and kissing her hard. "I can't believe you're actually here with me in this room. I used to imagine things like this... but I never thought it would ever actually happen. I never allowed myself to believe that there could be someone who'd love me, accept me, as I am."
She cupped his bristly cheekbone in her hands, angling his face toward her. "I wish I could erase every second of those seven years from your memory. I wish I could fill those years of loneliness with my love. Our love..."
He groaned, pulling her flat against him. "Oh, Khushi, you have. So much so I hardly think about those dark days anymore. It's all in my past. I have you now and..." His hands drifted down between them, molding to her abdomen. "...I have our children. You know if someone would have told me back then that after all that pain, you three would be my reward, then I'd have suffered through it all without any complaints, without any regrets. I'd do it all over again if it meant having you love me. In a heartbeat."
A sob escaped her and she threw her arms around him, shuddering. "I love you," she kept whispering, "Love you so much..."
He soothed her as only he could and Khushi's tears eventually slowed. She frowned at the grimy walls surrounding them. "This place must hold so much darkness for you," she whispered, feeling emotionally and physically drained. "So many demons..."
He nodded, his gaze curious. "It doesn't matter now."
"Of course, it does. You must still think about this cell. All you went through... How can you not?" She suddenly lowered herself before him.
He backed away. "What are you doing? Khushi, get up. Right now."
She held out her hand to him instead. "I can't take away those memories, but I can give you a new one. You had fantasies in this room, didn't you? What teenage boy wouldn't? All I'm trying to do is make one of them come true."
He stood frozen. "You don't have to do this. I don't want your pity."
"I don't pity you. I hurt for you and I hate everyone associated with RITA and especially that man with the round glasses and your grandmother. But this...what's I'm asking for is just for us. I want to, Arnav. Please, let me do this for you." He didn't move and she scooted infinitesimally his direction. "Do you want me to crawl to you? Because I will."
"God, no." He was kneeling before her in a matter of seconds, drawing her into his arms. His hands were gentle as he cupped the back of her head, his fingers weaving into her hair. "I'm not saying we can't, just not here. I can't stand to be in this room, Khushi. This is the first time since I left I could bring myself to come anywhere near it and it's only because you're here. With me. Let's get out of here."
She nodded, kissing him softly as she followed him out. She started to close the door, but then decided to leave it wide open, as if the lost spirit of his younger self could finally escape now. Arnav studied her with a troubled look in his eyes, wrapping his arm around her shoulders the moment she came up to his side. He didn't need to ask why she'd done that. He'd thought he'd cried enough tears in his life--years ago, in this very space, he'd vowed to never cry again, to never let anyone see his pain, his emotions--but his wife's one small action made his eyes sting anew.
Clutching one another, they made it outside, breathing in large gulps of the nighttime air.
"Why didn't you tear it down?" she asked him as he helped her into the front seat of the jeep. "RITA, I mean..."
He clicked her seat belt into place before coming around to the driver's side. "It took me a couple of years to start AR Designs and save enough to buy the property. Till then, all I'd planned on doing was bulldozing everything to the ground. But then I realized how temporary that revenge would be. I killed RITA the night I bought it, firing most of the staff and redoing most of the building, but I couldn't leave it behind. I wasn't the only person trapped there, there were hundreds of others. So I opened the orphanage and clinic. First, we had only ten kids, but steadily it grew. Now, we have eighty-nine. Hundreds more have passed through this place and gone onto other schools or been lucky enough to be adopted. No matter where they go though, each child that comes here knows that this is one place that will always be there for them. How can I possibly shut down that type of hope? I can't."
She couldn't look away from him. "You're really the most amazing man I know."
"You're pretty amazing yourself," he said, reversing the jeep deftly. "Most wives would be a bit alarmed to find out their husband spent time needing a strait jacket according to several people."
She reached for his hand. "Arnav, stop. You. Are. Not. Crazy. Even if you were mentally ill, we'd deal with it. But you aren't. You were a child who was badly traumatized and those horrible people made it worse. They'reto be blamed. Not you. Never you."
He drove in silence for a few minutes, his posture rigid, and then veered off the road, parking between a row of trees. As he circled the front of the SUV and came to her side, Khushi glanced around nervously. "Baby, where are we?"
"I need you and I can't wait any longer," he declared, his eyes whipping over her with searing intensity and mind-numbing urgency.
She stared at him with rounding eyes, her pulse picking up speed. "Someone might see us though..."
"No one will. The road to the orphanage isn't exactly well known. Hurry up. I want you. I need you so much."
He pulled out a blanket from the backseat, taking her hand. Khushi would have followed him anywhere. They stopped at the edge of a grassy slope, a good distance from the road.
He circled her waist, pressing his mouth to the side of her face. His stubble tickled her skin, his familiar scent teasing her senses. "How's this place?" he mumbled. "It's beautiful out here, isn't it?"
She could barely manage a nod. With a satisfied smirk, Arnav dropped her hand and lowered the sheet, spreading it open. Khushi swallowed as she watched him straighten and begin to undress, unbuttoning his clothes with his usual brand of cool confidence. Lean, muscular, and hard, he took her breath away.
"I love the outdoors," he told her, his handsome face sliding in and out of the moonlight. "There's nothing like it."
Having experienced the suffocating environment of his cell first-hand, Khushi could understand just how much being outside meant to him. Other things were starting to make sense to her too. Why he loved plants so much...why he was so possessive of her...why he'd been so fiercely guarded and cold when she'd first met him...why he had so very few friends... She even understood on some level his string of affairs before their marriage. After having been locked inside a 10x12 room for years, of course his personal life once getting out had been wild and colorful. No wonder the press had tailed after him.
She froze as it hit her. "No one knows about RITA? The media I mean?"
He gave her a confused look. "Of course not. I erased all information about it as soon as I could. Uncle helped me get into Harvard right after I got out and the rest as they say, is history."
"Then how did my sis--I mean my cousin know about it?"
His frown deepened. "I have no idea how Payal found out about it. Maybe from my sister, though even Di knows better than to speak about RITA." He shook his head, lying down on the blanket. "Does it matter? The only person whose opinion I give a damn about is yours. Payal can go tell the whole world for all I care."
"I won't let her do anything of that sort," Khushi said with righteous anger. Her husband had suffered more than enough, how dare Jiji blackmail him over this part of his past? How could she stoop that low? Was she truly her enemy and not her well-wisher?"
Her husband's gentle tug on her hand pulled her from those dark thoughts. "We can deal with Payal later. Right now, I want you--and with not so many clothes on. Hurry up already."
Fighting back a smile, Khushi slid the maternity dress off her shoulders, allowing it to pool about her swollen ankles. A few more tugs and she stood before him, completely bare.
These days, when she was nearing the end of her second trimester, she felt absolutely huge, but when Arnav gazed at her as he was now, as if she was all he'd ever wanted and dreamed of, she felt nothing short of beautiful. Clasping his hand, she lowered herself beside him. That distance though was too much for her husband and he pulled her across his lap, taking her lips in a none-too-gentle kiss.
"You taste so good," he groaned, his hands rising between them to knead and caress her breasts. They were fuller now, filling his palms more than they used to. "I could kiss you forever."
She trembled as he bent his head and laved her nipple with his eager tongue, back and forth, driving her wild. Just when she thought she couldn't stand another second of his teasing, he took her whole into his mouth, suckling hard, his free hand massaging her other breast.
It was passion that stole her very breath and Khushi didn't know how much more she could bear. Her hands drifted over his broad shoulders, bracing against the taut muscles.
"Arnav...I..."
He seemed to understand her every unspoken word, laying her gently down on the blanket. And then spreading her legs wide, he set his mouth against the very heat of her, watching her all the while.
Her shout pierced the quiet. His hands and mouth were tearing apart her self-control and he showed no hint of slowing down any time soon. As his mouth trailed higher along her inner thigh, his fingers stroking her moist flesh, Khushi felt herself shatter, incoherent cries escaping her, along with one word: his name. And yet, she still held on, her gaze pleading with his.
"P-please, I need you...with me..."
"You know we can't."
She grasped his hardness with bold fingers, earning a rough growl from his throat. "Then the other way. Any other way. Please..."
His searing kiss stopped her babbling, and he rolled her onto her side, tucking her in front of him. His fingers massaged the cleft between her legs as he aligned himself to her other opening. Khushi forced herself to relax.
"Are you sure, love?" he gritted out.
She rubbed up against him, grabbing his forearm with both hands. "More than anything."
And suddenly, he was there, plunging deep, stretching her and caressing her with each shallow thrust, his hands latching onto her breasts as his mouth came down on the side of her neck, biting lightly.
Khushi struggled to hold on, but it was all too much. As the first light of dawn shone over the horizon, she broke apart. And he was there, right beside her, catching her in his strong arms as he climaxed, his low groan sending her right over the edge.
Panting, Khushi struggled to lie still. Her husband started to pull away, but she wouldn't let him. "Don't. Don't leave me. I need to feel you."
Arnav didn't reply, shielding her body with his own. His hands massaged her abdomen. They were both silent, only the sounds of the forest surrounding them. She thought he'd fallen asleep when his gruff voice sounded.
"I want more children," he confessed, stroking her abdomen. "After the twins... We have the means and besides, I like you like this."
Khushi covered his hand with hers. "You mean you like me huge?"
"You're not that huge," he pointed out, sliding his hand over her cheekbone and tilting her to face him. "You have never been more beautiful than now. When that idiot, Karan, was talking to you, telling you how he should have been your husband, the father of your children, I wanted to rip him apart limb by limb."
"I would have pushed him to the ground if you hadn't intervened. It was all part of my crazy plan."
"Maybe I'm rubbing off on you," he said with a pained look in his eyes, no humor in those inky depths. "The crazy part..."
Khushi frowned. "Stop it. You. Are. Not. Crazy."
"Maybe not, but I do admit that I am crazy about you. I can't handle another man close to you, Khushi, least of all that Karan... You're mine. Only mine."
"Only yours."
For the first time, Arnav sensed that she truly grasped just how far his desperate need for her ran. She was not just his wife and lover, the mother of his children, but all that he had. All that he'd ever wished for. His family had given up on him in childhood itself. It was only in her arms that he'd found peace. It was only Khushi who'd fought for him. Who'd gone against her parents and left everything behind for him.
And why had she done it? Because by some miracle, she loved him back. Loved him more than he deserved truthfully. That love humbled him. It was enough to bring him down to his knees.
"I'll never let you go," he told her, dead serious.
She grinned at him, looping her arms around his waist as she snuggled against his bare chest. "That better be a promise, baby."
"It is." And he meant it.
*****
They must have dozed off shortly after that because when Khushi woke, Arnav was up and dressed, looking dazzlingly handsome in the early morning light. She smiled up at him, raising her arms as he settled the maternity dress over her head.
"Good morning," he said, his voice husky as he drew her up, right into his arms.
"Good morning," she flirted back, smoothing her hands along his roughened jawline. "Sleep well?"
He drew her flush against him. "One of the best nights of my life. My only regret is..."
"Yes?" 
He winked down at her. "That we slept at all. We should have stayed up all night, making love."
Khushi batted his chest. "You are insatiable, Mr. Raizada."
"For you? Guilty as charged, Mrs. Raizada."
Her stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. "Come on," he said with a charming grin, folding her against his side. "There's one of those roadside dhabas you love so much nearby. Supposed to be pretty good actually."
She stared at him with surprise and then raised the back of her hand to his forehead. He made an irritated noise.
"What are you doing, Khushi?"
"Checking if you have a fever," she informed him matter-of-factly. "Nope, no fever. So the question is who are you? Because my husband would never suggest eating at a roadside restaurant."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "I wouldn't but you like those type of places, don't you? And we are kind of short of options out here. I guess I can make this one exception. Just this once. Don't get used to it."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Raizada." Giggling, she slid her arm over his lower back, holding him in a rather possessive hold of her own.
Thirty minutes later, they were seated on matching cots, facing each other over plates of piping hot jalebis and freshly drawn milk. Arnav had hovered over the cook's shoulder the entire time, watching like a hawk as the man stirred and prepared his wife's meal. The man had laughed at his constant interference. "Would you like to take over, sir?" he'd said at one point.
Frowning, Arnav had been about to berate him when his wife had jumped in between, apologizing profusely and dragging him away.
"Relax, baby," she told him. "Just look around. All these other people are eating the same food, aren't they?"
"I was just telling him to keep things clean, that's all."
Khushi rolled her eyes, tossed her hair over one shoulder. The strands shone and gleamed as the sun's rays struck them. "Is that right? Because from here, it sounded like you wanted him to fry the jalebis in hand sanitizer."
He struggled to not smile back at her. "I just don't want anything to happen to you or the babies."
She raised a glass of milk to his lips. "You mentioned other children last night..."
He took a tentative swallow, a drop of milk sliding out of the corner of his mouth. "I meant it," he said evenly, holding her gaze. "If I had it my way, I'd keep you pregnant all the time."
Khushi wanted nothing more than to lick away that tempting drop of milk that clung to his lips, but cognizant of the people surrounding them, she instead brushed it off carefully with her fingers, bringing it to her own mouth. "Mmm... All the time?" she echoed with raised eyebrows. "You didn't react so enthusiastically the first time I told you I was pregnant."
"Because you shocked me and I'm not used to feeling that way." He slipped a jalebi into her mouth, making a face. "This is so unhealthy. As soon as we get home, you're eating something not so greasy."
"You know I have a craving for this particular snack though. Nothing comes close."
"I can think of something," he muttered wickedly.
Khushi's eyes rounded as she caught onto his meaning. She smacked his knee, glancing around with a blush staining her cheeks. "Stop it. Someone might hear you."
"I don't care. Do you?"
She shook her head, laughing. "I should, but I don't. Don't change the topic, why are you suddenly feeling so...fatherly?" It was not quite the right word, but it was hard to think when Arnav was like this, so light-hearted and carefree, his mouth bent in more smiles than grumpy frowns. It was one of those rare, beautiful days; moments she cherished more than she could explain.
"Fatherly?" His gaze whipped over her, lingering in places that made her blush intensify. "Trust me, I'm feeling nothing close to fatherly where you're concerned."
She batted his knee again. "You know what I mean... Why the change of heart? I thought you were still adjusting to the twins and now, you want more children?"
He took a bite of toast, watching her carefully. "Pretty much. Honestly, Khushi, I am still adjusting to the twins. I don't know what sort of father I'll make, but I know it'll turn out all right because you'll be there with me. Every step of the way."
She slipped her fingers into his. "Every step. Don't worry, you'll be the most wonderful father. Didn't you notice at the orphange? Those kids adore you."
He smiled wistfully. "I care for them too. I wish I could spend more time with them, but it's tough with running the company and everything. I'm lucky if I can make it up there more than twice a month."
Khushi smiled back at him. "We'll find more time. And one day soon, we'll take the twins with us. They could make their first friends there."
His heart tugged in his chest. "That sounds too perfect to be true. I can't believe that it's my reality. That I'm not still locked up in that cell, dreaming about all this. Thank God this is real, Khushi. I'd probably kill myself otherwise."
She stilled, frowning severely at him. "Don't say that again. Don't even mention harming yourself, even as a joke." Coming to his side, she threw her arms around his waist. "If anything happened to you--anything at all--I'd die too."
He kissed her forehead. "Stop it, love. Nothing like that will happen. We're no Romeo and Juliet."
"Thank God, we're not."
He drew her to his side. "But it is us against the world. Your sister, my sister, your mother, my grandmother..." He ran a hand through his hair. "Hell, even my brother-in-law..."
Khushi frowned at the mention of the man with the reptilian-like gaze. "What did he do now? I thought he'd finally left for good."
Her husband avoided her gaze. "Not exactly..."
"What is it?" she asked, bewildered by the sudden change in him. He'd been smiling moments ago. "What aren't you telling me?"
His entire body went rigid and he said in a rush, "Not here." Without further ado, he lifted her in his arms.
"Arnav?" she whispered, moistening her dry lips.
His gaze burned into hers, sliding to her mouth. He practically ran with her to the SUV. Only when they were settled in the jeep again, far from the crowd, and he'd kissed her a good eight or nine times, did he pull away, his breathing harsh.
Khushi shivered, leaning back in the leather seat and staring at him with surprise. "Are you going to keep distracting me or will you tell me what that man did this time?"
"Admit it," he murmured, pecking her lips again, "You like my distractions. Love them, in fact."
She pushed at his chest. "Arnav, please..."
He sighed. "Fine, you want to hear it? Fine then. Shyam...my brother-in-law...Di's husband... He--" He couldn't seem to continue, setting his forehead against the steering wheel and taking deep breaths.
Khushi gently stroked his wavy hair. "Baby? What is it? What's happened?"
He couldn't seem to answer her, turning in his spot and searching for something in the backseat. "I threw it back here right before I drove to your parent's house. I couldn't deal with it and losing you too. You were my priority. I forgot all about his note till now."
"What note?"
Arnav passed her a wrinkled sheet of paper. "This. Read it and you'll understand everything."
Her brow furrowed as she took it from him. Her eyes widened and a sickening feeling took hold of her stomach as she forced herself to read it, every last word.
"There were paintings too," her husband said as she lowered the love letter from Shyam. "Graphic paintings of me and him...I don't understand how he could have drawn me so realistically. He had me down to my pubic hair."
She shuddered. "Has he ever tried coming close to you before?"
"No, not that I can remember. I generally stay the hell away from him--" His voice suddenly broke off.
Khushi caught his hand. "What is it?"
Her husband hesitated. "There was this one time... right after Di's marriage to him... I was taking a shower and when I opened the door, he was standing there, naked. Said his bathroom had some problem and he had to use my shower. At the time I didn't think much of it, but maybe it was then that he started working on the paintings."
"I can't believe he used your sister to get close to you. How despicable is he?" Khushi wondered aloud. 
"My money and status attracts the worst sort of lowlifes. People like Nicole, Shyam, and Payal."
Khushi tensed at the last name. "You really think she's one of them." It was a statement, not a question.
He nodded. "I know she is. I felt her stroke my hand when I had her by the throat, Khushi. I felt her body mold against mine."
She closed her eyes, breathing hard. "I wish it wasn't true. How could Jiji do something like that to me? How could she stoop so low to go after you? It's not as if we're dating casually. You're my husband for crying out loud. She has to know how much we love each other. How could she even think of you in that way?"
He pulled her into his arms. "Listen to me, as long as we're together, Payal, Shyam, Nicole...none of these people matter. Not at all. They can't touch us. Are you with me, Khushi?"
She nodded against his shirtfront, her voice solemn. "Till my last breath and even after that."
Drawing her head up, he kissed her hard. "Stop talking like that. If I'm not allowed to than neither are you. I can't stand the thought of anything happening to you. When I saw you fall in the swimming pool..." He shuddered, his grip tightening on her. "I nearly lost my mind for real."
Khushi leaned forward, kissing him tenderly. "You saved us. Me and the twins. Please stop feeling guilty about that night." She nuzzled closer to him. "Don't you think we should start heading home now?"
"Why the rush? I'm enjoying this."
She smiled against his mouth. "I am too, but there's some important housecleaning I need to do...some paintings I need to burn down."
He laughed out loud, hugging her to him. "I think that's a bloody fantastic plan, Mrs. Raizada."
*****
An hour later, they stood in the room Shyam Jha had often holed himself inside, gazing with shock-filled eyes at the empty surroundings.
"What the--" Arnav cursed under his breath. "Where the hell are the paintings? They were here."
He phoned the security guard outside. The man appeared at the doorway, out of breath from his jog over. As Arnav questioned him, he appeared confused. "What paintings, sir? No one left or entered Shantivan with any paintings."
Arnav lunged at him, catching him by the throat. "You son of a bitch! Who the hell paid you? Was it Shyam? Or Payal?"
Khushi struggled to drag him away. "Arnav, stop! He can't breathe much less answer you!"
"Good," he gritted through his teeth, throwing the man aside. He spun toward her, his gaze wild. "Khushi, the paintings were here last night! All of them! No one could have moved them without the guards finding out!" He suddenly froze. "Wait a second..."
"What is it?"
He held up his hand toward her. "You're fired," he told the guard, who was clutching his throat and gasping for air. 
The man looked up, startled. "Please, Mr. Raizada, you can't. I've done nothing wrong. What paintings are you talking about?"
"Don't talk to me like I'm crazy," Arnav growled, looking downright dangerous in the small space. "Because. I. Am. Not. Crazy. I saw those paintings with my very own eyes. You're fired immediately and let every single one of those guards who works with you know that too. You're all fired. This very minute." As the man stood there, immobile and rendered seemingly speechless, he roared, "GET OUT! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE RIGHT NOW! I BETTER NOT SEE ANY OF YOUR FACES ANYWHERE NEAR HERE AGAIN!"
Khushi wrapped her arms around his waist as the guard marched out, her gaze fearful. "Baby, relax."
"How can I relax?" he cried. "Someone moved those damn paintings! But there's one other person who saw them too."
"Who?"
"Rita," he breathed. "She was here. She got me water when I got sick right afterwards. I didn't want her to see but she got an eyeful."
Grasping his hand, Khushi headed toward the door. "RITA!"
The nurse appeared within seconds, looking a bit more nervous than usual. "H-how are you, Khushi? It's so good to see you back. How was your visit to your parents?"
Arnav made an impatient noise behind her, but Khushi stopped him from intervening, squeezing his hand. "It was just fine. Rita, do you remember the paintings that were in this study last night? Do you know what happened to them?"
The nurse looked quickly to Arnav then back again at her, shaking her head. "P-paintings?" she stammered. "What paintings? I saw nothing."
Arnav looked ready to slam her against the wall. "You fucking liar! Who paid you? Who the hell paid you? ANSWER ME!"
Rita struggled to answer, her face twisting. "You're insane! There were no paintings! Khushi, trust me. It's true I found your husband here last night, vomiting. I tried to help him. The door behind him was wide open and I saw right inside. This room was empty when I looked in! There was nothing in here! I have no idea what paintings he's talking about! He's crazy, I tell you. Crazy!"
Before Arnav could do anything rash, Khushi pulled him away.
"Khushi, I don't know why the hell she's lying suddenly. The paintings were here. Trust me--"
His words cut off as his wife turned away, slapping Rita across the face--hard. "My husband is not crazy, Rita. Who paid you? Whatever they paid you, we'll pay you quadruple that if you just tell us the truth. Where did the paintings go?"
"THERE WERE NO PAINTINGS! YOU'RE INSANE! BOTH OF YOU!"
Khushi glared at the nurse, holding back a snarling Arnav from interfering. "Take your things and get of my house. This very moment."
Rita stared at them and then turned on her heel. Arnav swore savagely. "The entire staff has been bought over by someone. But who the hell has that kind of money? Can't be Payal or Akash. Last I heard, they're practically penniless. Could be Jha or possibly AJ." Khushi stood silent and his gaze narrowed on her face. "You do trust me, don't you? About the paintings?"
She took a moment too long to answer and he punched his right hand into the wall behind her, ignoring her broken cry of horror.
"This is why I didn't want you to find out about RITA!" he yelled. "For exactly this fucking reason!" He grimaced as she inspected his hand, his voice firm with conviction. "I knew that hellhole would do this to us. You'll question me now. You'll wonder if I am sane or not. Even if you didn't want to, you won't be able to stop yourself from doing it. This secret will change everything. How can it not?"
"ENOUGH, ARNAV! Just stop." Khushi pulled him from the room, taking him to the kitchen and searched the drawers for the first-aid kit. Rita had left something cooking on the stove and she dumped the pot's entire contents into the trash can. 
Finding the kit, she bent over her husband's hand, dabbing at the blood. "You're lucky this doesn't need stitches. What were you thinking? I was about to tell you that Rita looked guilty and nervous as hell even before we questioned her, but before I could say anything, you'd gone and punched the wall!"
He had the grace to look a bit guilty. "I was just so sure--"
"That I'd doubt you?" She cupped his face. "You need to trust me, baby. I think I'd know if my husband was sane or not."
His face softened. "I guess you do have a point there."
She secured the bandage on his hand with tape, pressing her lips to it. "What are we going to do about the guards? Anyone could walk into Shantivan right now--even Shyam Manohar Jha."
"He wouldn't get very far," her husband said with deadly calm. "I can keep you safe, Khushi."
"I know, but I don't want you to have deal with anyone, least of all that man. Remember how he said in his note he wants nothing more than your hands on him?"
Arnav stared at her wordlessly and then nodded. "Fine, I'll call Bayaz. It's technically his one day off, but it can't be helped."
Minutes later, they were settled down comfortably in front of the fireplace, Rita and the guards long gone. Khushi sat beside her husband, munching on popcorn, as she watched him dial Bayaz Khan's number.
"Eid Mubarak," he wished the officer as the line connected. "I know you must be busy, but something's happened." He briefly told him about how the guards and Rita had just been fired, leaving out the exact nature of the paintings.
"Of course, the doors are all locked and the security system is on too, but I'd like it if you could send some men over to watch the main gate. I can't take any chances where my wife and children are concerned."
"Don't worry, Mr. Raizada, they're already on their way ."
"Are these men you trust?"
Bayaz smiled with amusement. "Absolutely. No one can buy them off. They're my brothers, you see. They know exactly how much this case means to me."
Arnav relaxed, stroking Khushi's hair. "Great. We should have switched over to them right from the start, but I didn't think anyone would go to such lengths."
"The people against you are not going to back down easily," warned the officer. "It'll be a fight, but I assure you that our side is better prepared and far more armed than they'll ever be."
"True..."
"There's something else I wanted to talk to you about"
Arnav sat up, instantly alrert. "What is it?" Khushi rubbed his chest soothingly and he pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"My wife and I wanted to invite you for dinner tomorrow night," Khan said. "I've already invited NK and Aman, but your phone was unreachable last night."
"I was out of town, but..." Khushi beamed at him, nodding her head. She'd heard the request, nestled as close as she was to him. "We'll be there. We'd love to be there actually."
"Great, see you then. If anything else happens, I'm a call away."
"Thanks, good night." He set his phone aside, drawing his still smiling wife close. "You seem rather pleased about that phone call."
"I am," she said. "It feels so good to see you giving friendship another chance. I know AJ ruined that for you, but baby, not everyone is like that man. Aman, Bayaz, NK... All of them are good people who care for you in their own way.  You can't let someone like AJ keep you from forming a bond with them."
He stole some popcorn from her bowl. "How did you get so wise?"
"Oh I've always been wise."
Trying his hardest not to smile, he pulled at the end of her braid. "By the way, I like this look on you. A lot."
She looked startled. "A giant maternity dress, no makeup and my hair pulled back in a braid? It's not exactly sexy, baby."
"It is to me." He took her hand, pressing it to his erection. "Feel what you do to me?"
Her eyes fluttered close as he moved her palm, guiding her movements. The bowl of popcorn toppled, but neither of them seemed to notice. Khushi unzipped her husband's jeans and kneeled before him.
"Don't you dare stop me this time," she warned, glancing up at him with heated eyes.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he drawled in a husky tone that sent heat pooling within her.
And true to his word, he did not interfere, his hips arching off the sofa as she loved him, using everything he'd taught her himself and then some.
Sometime later that night, Arnav lifted her spent body in his arms, taking her to the poolside master bedroom that she'd once found downright daunting. It felt like home now. She was warming up to Shantivan, Khushi realized with a bit of surprise.
She began to tell Arnav so, but her eyes were threatening to close. Cuddling against him, the last thing she recalled before sleep claimed her, were his eyes, bright and shining with promise.
Her dreams though were something altogether different. Darker and harsher. She dreamed of him mostly. A younger version of him, crying behind a locked door, banging his fists uselessly. She dreamed of that man he'd pointed out, the one with the glasses and cruel, beady eyes. She dreamed of the nameless man hitting her husband, beating him mercilessly with an iron rod.
It was to the sound of his echoing scream of pain that she shot awake on the bed, her heartbeat thundering in her chest and a fine sheen of sweat drenching her skin. Her husband slept on and Khushi was thankful for that. She couldn't resist scooting closer to him, caressing his wavy hair.
She'd once thought of him as nothing more than an arrogant, rich man, used to getting his way. She'd never once considered that his childhood could be so full of horrors. Horrors she shuddered to be reminded of. If only she could erase them from his mind, she lamented, stroking his hair. If only...
Arnav rolled toward her in his sleep, settling his cheek over her breasts. Khushi smiled down at him, bending low to kiss his brow, her touch feather light. He smiled in his sleep, nuzzling closer.
A tear slipped into her hair as she recalled that dirty, cold, windowless room. How she wished she could destroy it and all the memories that clung to it. But life was not that easy...
Even now, there were more threats against them. Threats she'd never dreamed of. Her nose wrinkled as she recalled Shyam's note to her husband. She suddenly froze as something hit her...something she'd completely missed...
Shyam had referred to Arnav as Sexyzada in the letter... In her haste, she'd skimmed over the word, but now it dawned on her just how important that single line might prove to be. Because she was quite sure there was a member who went by that very same name on the fansite she'd been logging onto for weeks now.
Was it a coincidence? Or had Shyam given them a clue that he'd assumed no one would figure out?
It had to be him, she realized. Shyam's user ID had to be Sexyzada.  But then who was Jiji?
The list was endless and then, suddenly, it hit her too. The name of the most spiteful member. The group leader. Mrs. Chote...
No one outside their immediate family knew of the nickname Anjali had given her younger brother. Khushi tried to recall if any article or news report had ever mentioned it, but she was quite certain there had been none. The world knew him as ASR, but never had there been ever any mention of Chote.
She sat up, her body shaking. Slipping out of the warm bed, she padded over to the master bathroom, flipping on the lights.
For a moment, she thought she saw a dark-haired woman with blood on her clothes and a noose tied around her neck gazing back at her. A shriek almost escaped her, but the next second, the vision was gone. Only she stood there, pale and shaken, her body bare and marked in places by her husband's touch.
Khushi moistened her mouth and raised the cell phone she'd taken from the nightstand in her trembling hands, dialing one of the few numbers she knew by heart.
The call was picked up on the second ring. "ASR? I knew you'd call me one day! I just knew it! Had enough of that Khushi, did you? Did you finally realize we're meant to be together? Darling, I've waited so long for your call and--"
"It's not him, Jiji. It's me... Khushi."

TO BE CONTINUED...

Precap Secret Passion by TINA & Satina
EPISODE 36: Dinner and a Date

Thoughts on the chapter? Questions? Dying to find out what you all think!
--Tina

4 comments:

  1. Wow dat was amzng updt
    Loved it
    M so glad khushi and d babies r fn now

    Now who d hell is ''Rita'' !!!!!!!?

    Continue soon

    If-gowtu

    ReplyDelete
  2. wowwww......such a lovely story
    plz do update soon next part
    glad they both r fine now

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just to remind myself... the love Arnav has for Khushi... I re-read from part 24....

    Now the situation he saw that Khushi and Karan about to kiss situation....

    Well hope against hope... knowing you... and Arnav.... he would never doubt his Khushi

    How can he... he is a man in love... he loves Khushi like no one can....

    I just want Khushi to be more patient and Arnav to be a little more open... hiding past will only worsen the things

    I don't want Khushi staying in her parents house....

    I want Arnav to say " Shhh.... I trust you love" and then he wilk take her home...

    Then they shall face the world..... Rita... Shyam... Payal... anyone....

    I love this ASR/Arnav..... and I love the way Khushi fights for her love


    No separation please....

    LOVE
    KBS

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  4. Part 35

    I'm so happy u updated....
    I have commented on IF but couldn't stop myself from reading here again...

    I'm still reliving in the fact that they are together
    ...

    oh god RITA she was a criminal... please tell me she died a dog death

    Rita was a bitch... good she died... how can people torture kids... doesn't their heart melts... don't they fill love for those innocent children
    If I was in Khushi's place I would have killed Arnav's grandmother...

    Those kids loves Arnav so much... yes Arnav has a dark past and now I know why he had so much affairs... but glad he found his princess

    I know there is lot of fights stil remaining... but the promise they made to not leave each other I want that to be true

    And knowing them... the promise is true I know...


    I laughed so badly when Arnav mentioned his pubic hair & Shyam standing naked, please forgive me but I can't stop laughing... Shyam the despo...

    Ok but this is serious someone stole the painting... and trying to prove Arnav insane... maybe it Shyam... or dadi!

    Jeez Payal truth has come up... I want Khushi to fight tooth & nail... and to get rid of all scums in their life...

    Shock was Aakash... jesus he is a dirty man but Payal pushed him...

    Craving for next update already

    ReplyDelete

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