Copyright 2017 Atul Todi
Published by Atul Todi
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Table of Contents
I would like to express my gratitude to the many people who saw me through this book; to all those who read and assisted in the editing, proofreading. Without their help this book would have been a mess. With my limited experience with professional writing, their suggestions and feedback helped me make this novel readable.
While the novel is a work of fiction it drives inspiration from many incidents from my life. I beg foregiveness of all those who might think the novel refers to them. This story has no relation to any real life incidents. It is just my way to convey a message and share some of my life learnings with all those who care to read.
Last and not least: I beg forgiveness of all those who have been with me over the course of the years while I wrote this novel and whose names I have failed to mention.
Flashing lights and clicking cameras made the dark room light up. Rowdy reporters and their piercing glances made me uneasy. Hoards of microphones on the stage and a bulging crowd in the auditorium, made me a little nervous as I walked up the squeaky wooden stairs. Everyone had been patiently waiting; the curiosity in the air was electrifying.
The fabulous afternoon, hosted at the Hilton Palace Los Angeles, was nothing less than a grand red-carpet moment. I was in seventh heaven, feeling like a superstar. As I stood at the podium, relishing my moment of glory, the much-awaited questions started coming.
I had answers for absolutely none of them.
“Do you know who is Bugsy?”
“Is Bugsy living in Europe?”
“Why is Bugsy hiding and not revealing his identity?”
“Do you think Bugsy is in love?”
“Do you think Bugsy is a heart-broken woman creating fictional stories?”
The reporters were getting restless. They were anticipating a big revelation. I had nothing for them. All I could do was listen, put on a big fake smile and nod. It was an embarrassing situation to be in. But that was the best I could do and it was all because of Bugsy.
BUGSY! Yes, I was there to represent Bugsy and reveal his latest book – “Love at War”. Like all his other books, it was a work of fiction, dealing intricately with the topic of romance, passion, and heartbreak. Set in the fifteenth century, the novel took the reader on a journey from India to England, where an aristocratic British trader’s daughter falls in love with a banished prince. Infused with complex emotional turmoil, the novel was heavily doused with deep romance and elaborate visual imagery.
There was impatient anticipation amidst the literary world for Bugsy’s new book. It had been almost a year since his last novel – “The Forgotten Prisoner”, which became a New York Times bestseller, just like “Into the Dark”, “Lost in Paradise”, “The Silent Killer”, “Love in the Deep” and “Imperfect Perfection”.
My few moments of glory as Bugsy’s representative that afternoon, ended rather quickly. I revealed the limited edition book, a famous critic read a few excerpts from it and then I gave a short brief to the press, answering most questions with “No, I don’t know”.
Leaving the disappointed crowd behind, I was glad to be back in my office before sunset. It was another hectic Friday evening at Wordhouse Publications’ Los Angeles office. Our books were selling like hot cakes, and new promising writers were queuing up to get signed up on a daily basis. It was all thanks to our exclusive deal with Bugsy, the elusive writer no one knew about; we had the legal rights to print all his novels, licensing deals and merchandise. He had given us eight back-to-back best sellers in less than ten years, and we could not have asked for more.
Like every day, I was neck deep in work: reviewing endless number of manuscripts from amateur writers, giving interviews, expanding our distribution network to newer markets, signing deals to reprint our novels in multiple languages and handling movie licensing and merchandise business. Working fourteen hours a day, it felt like I had not slept for days. After postponing it for months, I finally listened to my wife and canceled all my weekend plans. I needed to catch up on some much-needed sleep and spend time with my son.
Before I could leave my office that evening, I had a very unusual guest: A teenage girl looking for the famous tragic romance writer Bugsy. In the past, people from all over to the world, men and women alike, had approached us to know about his real identity. It was the first time that a young girl waited the whole day outside our office to find Bugsy.
Bugsy’s love stories had made both men and women around the world cry. Some called his work trashy, while some called it piece-of-art. Dark and scandalous, his writing style was different. Set in remote parts of the world, his books had a message that could melt the readers’ hearts. But I couldn’t help but wonder why was a little girl looking for him.
So who was this Bugsy?
Bugsy was a writer who wrote under a pseudonym. He was a mystery in himself and forums around the world debated whether he was a guy or a girl. Media channels criticized his over-dramatic take on love and marketing gurus called him a genius. Book critics condemned his poor writing style, and blogs questioned his portrayal of romance. But, readers’ addiction to his extraordinary story-telling ability made his books sensational.
Thanks to Bugsy, we had just reported our best ever financial quarter at Wordhouse. Besides selling his books, we had signed deals with Fox Movies to produce movies based on five of Bugsy’s books. The deals were all worth millions in revenue and we just hoped Bugsy kept churning out new books. We even prayed that he remained a mystery, a writer the world loved and hated at the same time. His formula for writing, mixed with his secret identity was working very well for us.
While his popularity was skyrocketing in the literary world; no one in the world seemed to know who Bugsy was, besides me. Even at Wordhouse Publications, I was the only one who had ever met him and I had no plans to reveal his identity. Perhaps I was too scared to lose him as a client or maybe as a friend.
Almost a decade ago, Bugsy had trusted me with his secret identity and had assigned me as his publisher. I had kept my end of the deal: to never reveal his identity to anyone, while he continued to publish exclusively through my company. In the process, I had made a lot of money and had turned Wordhouse into a publishing powerhouse.
Like most other days, when fans and people from the literary world came looking for Bugsy, I asked my secretary to tell the teenage girl to leave. The clear instruction was to tell the visitors that we just publish Bugsy’s book, and we don’t know who he/she is.
I did not entertain anyone who was looking for Bugsy. I was just not in a position to help her; Bugsy’s secret was valuable for me. But, that girl did not leave. She insisted on meeting me.
On my way out of the office, I saw her still waiting at the reception. Wearing a pink sweatshirt, she quietly sat on the bench. Biting her nails, she looked worried. The puffy hair and sad smile, with which she looked up at me, made me stop. It felt like a strange connection.
Curious why a little girl like her would be looking for Bugsy, I decided to meet her.
Her name was Khushi and she was unlike any other fan of Bugsy. Khushi was the first person who knew his real name, Abhay Bakshi. Claiming to be his daughter, she had been searching for a long time and was trying to track him down. But she did not know where to find him; there was no information about him anywhere.
Khushi was a little girl on her quest to find her father. She had never seen him, but had evidence that he was her father. Her mother had remained single for all those years after Abhay left and Khushi believed that she was still waiting for him. Her mother truly loved him and it was left up to Khushi to find the truth. She had to find out why he had left, why he never came back for her.
Her quest was emotionally touching and left me in tears. I wanted to help, but there wasn’t much I could do. I knew as much about Abhay, aka Bugsy, as she did: his name and his past before he became a writer. I had not met Abhay since the publication of his first book ten years ago. Besides the inquisitiveness to know his story, there was just no need to meet him ever. He sent the novel through an unknown address and I simply had to put his part of the royalty in his secret bank account.
Long-time ago Bugsy made a deal with me: I would never go looking for him or divulge his real identity and he would publish only through me. If he ever had a question, he would call me from an unknown number. So I just had to wait for him to call and give me instructions.
Even that call had not come for a long time. He was happy with the arrangement he had going with Wordhouse publications. There was no need for any interference, he simply had to keep writing and we had to sell it to millions of his fans.
Getting paid royalty in millions, I was sure he was living in a palace and cruising around the world. However, for reasons known only to him, he wanted to stay anonymous. Maybe he did not want the world to know the real man behind all those lofty love stories. But, having read all his books, I knew that he was lonely and in great pain. There had to be a sad story behind the fictional romance he wrote about. Living in self-denial, he was looking for a reason to be happy.
Besides being his publisher, I was also his well-wisher. If she was indeed his daughter, she could help him find some much needed peace within. So I was compelled to help her in her quest, but there was not much I could do. I did not know which part of the world he lived in and where to start looking for him. There was no contact information or an address to go to.
So I told her what I knew.
There was an upcoming marriage ceremony; Jolly, a close friend of Abhay, was tying the knot in India. There was a glimmer of hope because they were best friends until something happened and Abhay decided to become a recluse and disappear. If Abhay found out about the marriage, there was a possibility that he might show up for it.
Giving her Jolly’s address, I set sail to Khushi on her quest to find Bugsy, the tragic romance writer.
CHAPTER 1: FALLING IN LOVE
“Love is like grapes; it gets better with time. If you eat it too soon, it is sour. But if you take time to nurture it, it becomes sweet. Yet, it is still not at its best in its sweet form. If you are patient enough to cultivate it, slowly letting it ripe and ferment, fighting the hot sun and cold rain, it eventually turns into fine wine.”
Plucking a bunch of burgundy grapes and admiring it under the sun, Abhay, the raggedy winemaker of Cumbum Valley said, “With both love and wine patience is of essence.”
He was giving a lesson on love to the entranced group of visitors, who had come down from France.
Inspecting the ripe grapes, he continued, “Good wine can help you drown all your sorrow and awaken your senses, often both at the same time. And that is what I call true love: ageless and imperfectly perfect.”
Pleased with the colour and smell of the beautiful round grapes, he knew they were ready to be plucked and made into wine. He handed out the grapes to the group of French visitors who had come to evaluate the quality of the grapes growing in his vineyard.
With a shaggy peppered beard and long hair, he had the charm of an aging rockstar. His deep husky voice and dark brown eyes had mystery written all over it. The spark of life in his eyes was like that of an enlightened yogi, but his cheeky smile had mischief written all over it. His six foot two inch built, broad chest and leather boots made him appear like a Texan Cowboy, yet his calm demeanor had no ounce of aggression.
Besides the eccentricity of an arrogant and rich winemaker, the hardship of working on the vineyard was clearly evident on his face. His caustic expressions made him appear heartless, unconcerned about the world, but the deep scar running down his left eyebrow made him look humane. He was charismatic, yet he looked aloof.
“So you are not growing grapes here; you are cultivating love. Is that correct?” Smiling at Abhay, Anna, the youngest amongst the French examiners, spoke in her exquisite accent. Smitten by his rugged charm, she flirted with him while taking a tour of the lush green plantation.
He did not reciprocate to her admiration, but he did reply back:
“You are absolutely correct; we are promoting love and appreciation for finer things here in Cumbum Valley. Away from crowded cities and clogged minds, we are encouraging people to challenge their senses.”
After a small pause, he added, “We all need to experience the good things in life and unclog our cluttered minds. We all need to learn to live a little and let go.”
His hand gestures and the intensity with which he looked made the listeners agree with every word he said. Still, the visitors were confused, trying hard to digest what the winemaker was saying. He seemed to be in his own convoluted world.
Anna was amused and found it difficult to hold back. Looking sharply at him, she said, “Are you living a little? Are you experiencing the good things in life here in Cumbum Valley?”
The hint she was dropping was subtle, but she was charmed by the strange winemaker. His muddled looks and mysterious persona made her extremely intrigued. He on the other hand, was not interested. He had seen many tourists come and go, and she was no different.
Ignoring her question, he continued with the tour.
Located on the eastern side of the Western Ghats in South India, his vineyard was unique. With an elevation of around 1200 meters above sea level, it was situated on the edge of the Periyar Tiger reserve and was surrounded by sloping hills and mellow rivers. The region’s red soil, rich in iron, was known for growing cardamom and other spices for centuries. Abhay was the first person to experiment with growing grapes in that tropical climate. No one believed that he would succeed; the skeptics hedged their bets against him.
With years of hard work, Abhay nurtured his sprawling vineyards in Cumbum Valley. Spread across one hundred and fifty acres, it was the only wine-making property in the region. The moderating effects of the Mullaperiyar River, Suruli waterfalls and Megamalai forest gave the area a distinctive climate that worked in Abhay’s favor. The riverbed that encircled the valley helped keep the surrounding air temperatures cool which was vital for the vineyard. The plantation area got enough rain to keep the soil well irrigated, allowing Abhay to successfully grow quality grapes.
More than the favorable climate, the scientific methods of crop management that Abhay incorporated helped him grow many grape varietals. His unique ways allowed him to make wines like Shiraz, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon that had never been tried before in Cumbum Valley. Besides the climate and the technology, it was Abhay’s relentless hard work that allowed him to create some exceptional wine.
Relatively unknown in the wine circles, his Cumbum valley vineyard had very limited wine production. It was considered a boutique winery, making very selective handcrafted wines. As a master wine-maker, Abhay did not believe in making his wine too commercial and losing the quality in trying to make money. Instead, he focused on making the best wine possible that would make the drinker fall in love with every sip.
The selling point of his wine that made it standout was its spicy after-taste. With hints of peppercorn, cardamom, and other spices, his wine was a treat for a connoisseur. It was deep and intense, like a monsoon sky drenched in colours of crimson and magenta; every sip of his wine made the drinker want to let go and get soaked in the magical rain.
That afternoon, giving the examiners a tour of his vineyard and the wine-making facility, he invited them to feel at home and enjoy the various facilities on his property. The French examiners were representing a wine company that was in talks to purchase and market his wine all across Europe. If the deal went through, it would give Abhay an avenue to showcase the high quality wine he was making and also to stay afloat financially.
His vineyard was a work of love, to which he had dedicated more than a decade of his life. While he was happy just being in the midst of the surreal plantation, running the huge estate took more than two hundred and fifty farmers for the upkeep. They were family to him and depended on him for their living.
With the vineyard in major losses, year after year, Abhay had already lost a fortune to keep it going. Even after pouring millions of dollars for the upkeep, with wine not being a big seller in India, it had been difficult to sell. The international market had been tough to break into. Being patient, he tried to stay positive.
Having already lost all his wealth in developing and maintaining the property, Abhay was still adamant to not sell off the vineyard to people who were keen to turn it into a coffee plantation. He believed that good wine was like art; it just had to reach the right audience to demand it true value. Adamant to not let go of the vineyard he had created, he desperately needed a solution. Collaborating with the French company that the examiners were representing was his final hope.
To make sure everything went smoothly, he was giving them a personal tour of the whole property. He even arranged for their stay at the guesthouse on the hill, reserved for special people visiting his winery. Unlike other visitors, he was giving them personal attention because he desperately needed the deal to go through. If the delegation recommended his wine, it would give a new lease of life to his vineyard and introduce his wine to a global audience.
Reserved and aloof, Abhay did not venture out too much. He liked living a secluded life on the vineyard, disconnected from the chaos of city life. With a few visitors and wine connoisseurs dropping by every now and them, he had enough company to keep himself entertained throughout the year. However, being cut-off from the world and his unwillingness to venture out restricted his ability to market his wine and severely affected the business. So in order to continue running his estate, he had to either go out himself or find a business partner to sell his wine.
While many opportunities came knocking in the past, his cold demeanor did not go down too well with potential investors. He burnt many bridges and lost many opportunities. Yet, he was unwilling to change to please the conniving capitalists. To him they were all crooks trying to make a quick buck.
On the other hand, Anna, a beautiful young French examiner in her twenties, was smitten by Abhay. Intrigued by the winemaker, she was unable to control her blushing. The whole day she hardly took her eyes away from him. Pretending to be looking around the beautiful plantation, she was trying hard to decipher the deep secrets the winemaker was hiding. Listening to his voice, a masculine raspy tone that had been hardened by years of hard work, she was hypnotized.
Inside her head, he was like a mystery waiting to be unraveled; inside her heart, he was creating an emotional turmoil like an unstoppable whirlpool. She was insanely attracted to the winemaker and there was little she could do to hide her feelings. No man had ever moved her so profoundly within hours of meeting. She had no explanations for the way she felt.
She was hardly the type that believed in love at first site. It was a very strange attraction, completely out of her control.
Tucking her golden blond hair behind her ears, fidgeting with her nerdy glasses, she pretended to be normal. Her broken and hurried sentences, made her sound childish. Other examiners accompanying her giggled, clearly aware of her state of mind. They had never seen the perfectionist Anna lose her composure, at least not in front of a man. She was always too proper and composed.
While she spoke perfect English for the winemaker, she quietly hushed the other examiners with her impeccable French. She was surprisingly ok with the rude behaviour of her newfound fascination, but could not stand being the source of amusement for the other examiners.
Elegantly dressed in a white floral dress and a matching sun hat, she clearly was no ordinary winemaker interested in grapes. Her fair skin looked too used to pampering, and her perfectly manicured nails looked sophisticated. Her turquoise-blue eyes were striking and her slender legs perfectly toned. Decked in Jimmy Choo heels and carrying a Gucci handbag, she had an exquisite fashion sense and was up-to-date with her style. Her red lip-gloss, shinning under the sun, gave her a sensual touch.
Strikingly beautiful and extremely smart, she was not used to being ignored and the rude Indian winemaker was doing just that. It was clearly a turn-on for her. Pretending to not have noticed her, he purposely ignored her, while showing the rest of the team the different grape varietal he was cultivating on his hundred-fifty acre plantation.
He gave the visitors a tour of his ten thousand liter, state-of-art facility and the surrounding areas he had developed. Building the Cumbum Valley plantation, which employed more than two hundred fifty people, took him years of hard work and every single penny he had. He was proud of his achievement but needed help.
The examiners looked impressed with the upkeep of the crops and the latest technology being implemented to make the best possible wine in those weather conditions. They were pleasantly surprised, but before making a final decision they had a couple of days to do further in-depth examination. They had to decide if the wine being made there would sell in the global market.
On their way back from the winery, to get Abhay’s attention Anna said, “Besides your irresistible wine, I really do love your property. So secluded, it is quite a hidden treasure. You have made this into a lover’s paradise, unlike any vineyard I have ever been to. Well done Mr. Winemaker!”
Abhay did not respond, but was amused by her calling him Mr. Winemaker.
Unconcerned with Abhay’s lack of response, Anna continued talking. She said, “If you don’t mind, I have a proposal. I would like to talk to you about opening this place up for people looking for a unique experience. I am sure a lot of wine connoisseurs from Europe would pay a fortune to come spend a couple of days here. Have you ever heard of wine holidays? This would be a perfect spot for Honeymooners.”
There was no response from the winemaker.
Abhay’s silence was provoking Anna more, but she waited for him to reply back. She knew that she had gone a little overboard with trying to get his attention.
After the tour that evening, the guests were driven on golf-carts to the hilltop guesthouse. Abhay trotted on his horse alongside, stopping every once in a while to give instructions to the caretakers scattered around the plantation.
Reaching the hilltop, the guests admired the beautiful view of the valley from above. Anna stood at the edge, admiring the serene surrounding. She had not spoken since Abhay ignored her proposal; his deliberately ignoring her cheesed her off a little.
Stopping his horse, he went towards her. Looking into her mesmerizing eyes, with a stern look on his face, he said, “This is not a tourist spot and I like it the way it is. It’s not a holiday destination, and I hate honeymooners.” The look on his face was frozen like a cold mountain. He continued, “admire the vineyard, examine the wine, and be on your way back. I don’t intend to part with my solitude.”
He was clearly not impressed with her proposition and was fuming. In his head he was screaming at her: “Who the hell do you think you are? Making my vineyard into a tourist spot.”
Having made Mr. Winemaker finally respond to her, in her excitement she was hardly listening to what he said. She was suddenly not mad at him anymore. Like an excited teenager, she continued from where she had stopped – “The air here is so romantic and the sunset, it is just so overwhelmingly calm.” Pointing at setting sun, she said, “look at that. I think I can live my entire life here and fall in love every single day. Is that why you live here by yourself? Hiding this paradise from the world.”
Speechless, Abhay could not believe that Anna was for real; she did not hear a word he had said. Surprised by her enthusiasm, he did not know what to make of her behaviour. Shaking his head in despair, his anger subsided. Looking at the innocent look on her face, he couldn’t stop a rare smile from showing on his face.
Anna’s appreciation for what was so dear to him, made him loosen up a little.
She strangely reminded him of someone, someone who was also full of life and carefree. In that moment, he made an unexpected gesture: “If you want to see more, I can give you a ride in the morning. Can you wake-up at 5am?”
She had heard stories about the hardened winemaker of Cumbum Valley from some of her friends who had previously visited the vineyard. Crude and impolite, his reputation had travelled amongst the wine community through other wine delegations that came to the plantation. Stories talked about how he single-handedly killed a tiger that entered his vineyard. Rumors also had it that he was hiding on the plantation after murdering his wife and the man she was having an affair with. But, no one knew the real story of the uncanny winemaker and no one ever mentioned his offering anyone a ride.
Dumbfounded, she had not expected him to offer to take her around. As she stood there expressionless, no excitement showed on her face. Not sure how to react, she wondered what sort of a ride he was offering and controlled her imagination from taking wings. She was scared and thrilled at the same time.
Without waiting for her answer, he turned around. Facing the rest of the team members, he said, “I need to go take a look at some of the grapes that are being harvested this week. So I am going to take your leave. See you all for dinner at my house.”
Instructing the attendants to bring out some fine wine, cheese and appetizers in the garden outside the guesthouse, he excused himself. That evening he found himself being a lot nicer to the examiners than he had been to any other visitor in the past. Partly it was because he desperately needed the deal to go through and partly it was because Anna’s charm captured his imagination.
Something about her struck a chord with him. He felt strangely amused by her, and the curiosity in her eyes. She was not as simple as she appeared and was quite different from the other visitors who came to his plantation in the past.
Leaving the French guests behind, Abhay disappeared amidst the lush vineyard. The sound of his trotting horse filled the dry summer air. With the sun slowly descending behind the Western Ghats, the sloppy green hills started to turn purple and the white cloud in the sky, intoxicated with the freshness of the vast vineyard, soon turned deep grey.
The whole panoramic view of the plantation from the guesthouse was breathtaking. Stepping back from their hectic examination of the vineyard and the facility, the examiners sat on the chairs outside and tried some of the latest Cumbum Valley wine varietal. To complement the wine, the attendants brought out local appetizers that perfectly paired with the different wines.
Teasing Anna, Roger, who was one of the older examiners said in his thick French accent, “What happened to you today? I have never seen you like this. You seem quite attracted to this winemaker, Anna. But frankly I don’t think he is any good. His wine seems as unrefined as his behaviour. Living here in the middle of nowhere, he is quite strange and clearly not your type.”
Staring at her glass of red wine, she swirled it, took a sip and admired the complexity of the wine and its after-taste. Finally, with a grin on her face, she spoke in French and said, “Roger, come on now, he is not all that bad. There is something about him that is captivating. A good-looking man like him living all alone in this vast vineyard, with no friends or family, there must be a reason. It seems like a very interesting story; something very deep and intense. Just like his wine, it deceives you with its sweet undertones before unleashing the complex spicy flavour. It’s refreshingly different!”
Gulping down her glass of wine, she analyzed it: “It has so much character; the taste of apricot and blueberry on the tongue and the spicy pepper in the throat; isn’t it magical?”
Anna was lost in her thoughts, but Roger, the fatherly figure, looked concerned. Taking a sip from his glass, he said, “Living here all alone, I am sure he has a very sad story. But don’t get too carried away. Remember, we are here to buy this vineyard and not become friends with this psycho. Have you not heard the stories about him? So do me a favor and please stay away from any fancy adventure of yours. You will get us all fired. Please!”
“I know Roger, but what’s the harm in having some fun. I want to see what this winemaker is made of; he looks so passionate about his wine, I wonder if he is equally passionate about love. He has made me curious; I have never wanted to get to know a man as much as I want to get to know him. There is something about him, something very intense like a burning fire. He is like this wild adventure I have always craved.”
Anna could not put on finger on what attracted her to the unruly winemaker.
Lost in her thoughts, she sipped on another glass of wine and gave wings to her thoughts. The other examiners were worried. They had never seen Anna act like that before. She was always very focused and men hardly ever amused her. While she had her share of affairs and heartbreaks, business and profitability meant everything to her.
Anna was no ordinary examiner; she was the daughter of one of the biggest French winemakers, Louis Philippe. His company was looking to enter the Indian market and was scouting for a suitable property to buy and expand his wine production beyond Europe. The team was inspecting all the vineyards in India, and Anna was overseeing the whole process. Due to the unique taste of its wine, Cumbum Valley was a highly valued but extremely under-rated property.
Louis Philippe was known for turning ‘grapes into gold’. He would buy properties at huge bargain, use his expertise to refine the wine and then sell at extremely high margins. He was interested in buying the property and had sent Anna to do the due diligence on its financial viability. His decision to invest or buy the vineyard was going to be based on the recommendation of Anna and his team of French examiners.
After sampling a few bottles of wine, the team went and freshened-up. Later that night they all had to go over to Abhay’s house, a large wooden bungalow. Situated on a higher elevation than the rest of the plantation, it overlooked the entire valley.
As they headed towards the house, in the dark wilderness, the clear sky twinkled with stars. Driving through the plantation and surrounding woods in golf-carts, they were accompanied by Abhay’s guards. The dimply-lit house looked haunted from afar. The howling wolf calls from the nearby forests added to the mystery of the place.
The team had heard about the man-eater tigers from the nearby Mudumalai National Park coming into the small hamlets surrounding the plantation and they were scared. Even though there were no known incidents in the Cumbum Valley, to make the team feel safe, the guards accompanying them carried burning lanterns and whistles. They were told that the loud whistling noise and fire kept wild animals away.
Walking inside Abhay’s mansion, the team was greeted with freshly filtered coffee from a nearby plantation. The house was lit with soft yellow light and smelled of sandalwood essence. With antiques and sculptures from around India, the place was done up quite artistically. The winemaker might have looked unsophisticated, but he had an aesthetically pleasant taste.
The French contingent felt genuinely surprised.
Enormous in size, the two-storied house was airy and had large windows in all directions. Waiting for the host, the guests walked around the empty house. On the ground floor, there was a humongous living room, a modular kitchen, a well stocked bar and a cozy guest room. On the first floor, there were three rooms and a big balcony. It was apparent that besides one room in the house, all others remained vacant most of the time. Abhay did not have too many guests over; he liked his privacy. He had one old maidservant who looked after the house and a cook who came by every day.
Besides a few haunting paintings on the walls, there were clearly no pictures of any friends or family. Looking around, Anna noticed that there was nothing anywhere around the house that connected with his past. There was no hint about who he was and what he was doing there in the middle of nowhere. The winemaker was turning out to be more mysterious than she expected. His wooden bungalow looked artificial and pretentious, like a house without a soul or one barred of any relationship.
Finally after a short wait, Abhay appeared in a long-comfortable white robe. Looking at him, Anna told herself, “This man really has no sense of fashion; he could use a makeover.”
After the greetings and short conversations, supper was laid out for the guests. Abhay did not talk much; he inquired about the team’s stay and further plans. While eating, he asked the examiners about their experience at the plantation and their views about his wine. Everyone discussed the different wines they tasted and how it could be sold in the European market. Anna, on the other hand, had her eyes fixed on Abhay the whole time. She meant more than business; wine was hardly of any interest to her anymore. It was the winemaker that had caught her fancy.
Without saying a word, she tried multiple times to get his attention. He seemed aloof and cold; but she knew that he was knowingly ignoring her. How could any man ignore a beautiful girl like her?
Anna was used to getting what she wanted, and his indifference was fueling the curiosity inside her. Sitting and staring at him, she could not help but fantasize. What would she do with an untamed man like him, or rather what would he do to her.
Feeling the intoxication of the wine slowly taking over her senses, she wanted his strong farmer arms around her waist and his lips dancing up and down her neck. Staring into his dark brown eyes, she wanted to experience the philosopher hiding behind those mean and cold appearances. Looking at his long curly hair, she imagined her fingers entangled between them, like a bee happily stuck in a spider’s web.
Without saying a word, she allowed the looks on her face do all the talking. Abhay, on the other hand, even though he had noticed her, chose to ignore.
After entertaining the guests for a short while, Abhay excused himself and disappeared in his big mansion. He had some urgent work to take care of and asked the guests to stay back and enjoy the evening. Two male helpers, who were incharge of catering, gave company to the visitors. They answered Anna’s questions regarding their strange boss and life in the beautiful valley with smiles and nods.
The French team lingered around for a bit, looking at the abstract artwork around the house. Anna tried to look around for Abhay, but he was nowhere. Finally, after an hour and a couple of more bottles of wine, the group was escorted back to the guesthouse.
Cumbum valley wine was unlike any other; it had a strong aftertaste and strangely more intoxicating than most other wine from other parts of the world. Maybe, it was the location and the weather, along with the alcohol that left the drinkers in a very calm state of mind. Everyone was happy.
The happy feeling the wine was giving seemed to have had no effect on Anna. Upset with Abhay’s peculiar behaviour, she was clearly not pleased. He did not have to disappear without talking to her. Back in her room, sitting next to the fireplace, she wondered if Abhay remembered his offer to take her on a ride in the morning. Unsure about the early morning plan, she tried to not overthink. Twisting and turning in bed, she helplessly fantasized about the wild, mysterious winemaker.
At dawn in Cumbum Valley, the sun was still hiding behind the hills, making its presence felt by an orange reflection in the drowsy grey night clouds. The dark night was slowly scampering away, leading to a bright new day. The birds were awake and filled the air with their whistling and chattering. Morning dew covered the entire landscape, making the air outside chilly.
Snuggling inside the warm blanket, Anna was fast asleep when there was an unexpected knock on the door.
Falling out of bed, wearing nothing but her tiny nightgown, she was clearly not expecting an early morning visitor. Wrapping the blanket around herself, she opened the door.
Standing outside was a man who was wide-awake; ready for another day in paradise.
“I am sorry to wake you up.” Abhay said. With a hint of sarcasm in his voice, the look on his face showed that he was not sorry for having caught her by surprise.
Abhay stood outside the door in his tracksuit and sneakers; he looked fresh and beaming with life. The early morning had transformed him into a ball of energy, like a carefree child.
Seeing the confused look on Anna’s face, he continued “Guess you didn’t take my offer too seriously.” He teased Anna for not being ready with his snarky comment.
With her messy hair and dazed morning eyes Anna looked adorable. Fumbling with her words, her French accent became more prominent early in the morning. In her broken English mixed with French words, she asked Abhay to come in and give her a second to get ready.
Trying to wake herself up, she tried to take deep breaths. Abhay smiled but did not say a word.
While she helplessly looked for her glasses in the room, the big blanket she had wrapped around her body slipped and fell on the floor. Leaving her in a state of embarrassment, she stood there in front of him in her tiny satin nightwear.
The silhouette of her beautiful, voluptuous body was clearly visible through the translucent fabric. Being rude, Abhay did not care to look away and admired the French goddess in her morning beauty.
Finally, sensing that she was embarrassed he said, “I think I will just wait outside; please take your time.”
Abhay excused himself to allow Anna to gather herself together.
Even though Anna’s confused state of mind made Abhay smile, his strong overpowering persona made her nervous and excited at the same time. He, on the other hand, found her amusing. Besides being extremely pretty, the curiosity in her eyes, made him want to get to know her.
Taking a few minutes to get ready, she came outside in a loose pink track pant and a sweatshirt. With her hair tied back and running shoes on, she was ready for the adventure Abhay had planned for the morning. But she carried her phone along to be on the safe side; the winemaker could not be trusted yet.
Standing outside brushing the long mane of his white horse, he said, “Hope you don’t mind riding a horse.”
Taking a moment, Anna said, “Oh no, not at all. I would love to ride a horse.”
Anna smiled, as Abhay helped her up on the horse. It was unexpected, but the offer was exciting.
Sitting behind him, she held onto him tightly as the horse soon took off in the direction of the plantation. It was quite dark outside; the early morning air had a charm as they rode through the vineyard. It felt like the grapes had intoxicated the whole surrounding; the sun was slowly rising from behind the hill in a drunken, lazy state.
Trotting through the meandering vineyard, up and down the slopes of the valley, Abhay took her through some dark parts of the nearby forest. With long pine-trees, hanging weeds and loud early morning animal calls, Anna felt shivers all over her body. She was scared thinking about the murder stories she heard about him. Breathing heavily, she used her hands to make sure he did not have any knife on him.
She did not know what to expect from the strange winemaker, but was anxious to know where he was taking her. With drops of morning dew falling on her warm skin from the tall trees above, she felt strangely aroused. Her breast bumping against his back as they rode and her thighs rubbing against the leather saddle, made her moan silently.
Holding on to his wide shoulders, wild thoughts ran through her mind as she sniffed his manly odor. She imagined everything inappropriate: a dangerous mix of fear and carnal desires. To be with a stranger in the middle of a forest, halfway across the world from home, was not the smartest thing to do. But her curiosity got the better of her; the control-freak inside her had to let go.
There was no one to judge her, and no one had to know what happened in Cumbum Valley. Excited but scared, she had no one to call and nowhere to run; the wine maker could do anything to her.
Her father would not have approved of her risking her life with an unsophisticated winemaker.
Finally, the sunlight pierced through the dark forest; Abhay had taken her to a secluded lake, north of the plantation. There was no motorable road that could bring tourist there, only a dirt road through the hills and the forests. With the blue lake, surrounded by jungles, hills and a beautiful waterfall in the backdrop, it was a hidden treasure.
The place looked magical.
Anna held on to Abhay’s chest tightly, anticipating his next move. Her nails dug into his skin, and she said, “Are we safe here?”
Thinking she was scared of wild animals that might be around, he stopped his horse and said, “This place is safe; I come here every morning. It is part of my property, but I have left it untouched to preserve its beauty. This place brings me peace.”
After an invigorating ride through the forest, she was not expecting him to be serious. She had imagined him throwing her off the horse and making love to her on the wet grass, but he seemed lost, oblivious of her aroused state of mind.
Jumping off the horse, Anna stretched and took a deep breath. She tried hard to hide her sexually aroused state. Looking around in disbelief, she said, “This is unreal. The air has so much sweetness here. It is really fabulous: wild yet peaceful. I can see why you like it here.”
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Searching for a father who she had never met, Khushi stitched together clues that lead her to Bugsy, a famous novelist. After eight back to back best-sellers, Bugsy remained a mystery, as he wrote under a pen-name. His romance novels with deep emotions and irresistible storytelling were a rage in the literary world. Hiding from the limelight, Bugsy ran a vineyard in the southern part of India. With help from Anna, the beautiful daughter of renowned French winemaker, Philip Louis, he tirelessly worked to save his serene plantation. Mesmerized by the rugged winemaker, Anna couldn’t help but fall in love. With help from Bugsy’s friends, Khushi plotted a way to find him. Making him come out of his self-imposed exile, she blackmailed him into telling her his true love story; the inspiration behind all his novels. She hoped somewhere in the story she would find her father, who still loved her mother. Giving into the little girl's request, Bugsy told her about how he feel in love with Tia, a girl he met in college. Their story could not blossom, as he choose a path that took him far away from her. Chasing his dreams, he did not realize how much he loved her until it was too late. He left the US to come back and run a tech-startup in India, while Tia remained in the US, to focus on her career. A romantic at heart, she hoped he would come back for her. When his startup failed, he lost his confidence and was left with nothing. Having given up on her wait of his returning, Tia was forced to get engaged to someone else. Heartbroken and with nothing to lose, Bugsy was on the verge of committing suicide. A divine intervention stopped him and persuaded him to find purpose. Breaking all worldly-ties, Bugsy started working on a vineyard. Unable to forget Tia, he started writing fictional stories to express his love for Tia. Alone and miserable in the wilderness, he realized that his whole life he had been chasing the wrong thing. Money, power & success meant nothing. It was only when he had lost it all that he realized that all he ever wanted was happiness. Tia made him happy, but she was long gone. Yet, her memories kept his hope alive. Convinced that Bugsy still loved Tia, her mother, Khushi got on a mission to reunite her with the only man she ever loved. Her chase has begun!