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The Independent Girl

p.

The Independent Girl

Sneha K

Published by Sneha K, 2016.

The Independent Girl

By

Sneha K

2nd Edition

Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2016 By Sneha K

All rights Reserved. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Second Edition June 20th, 2016

ISBN-13: 978-0-9973953-0-3

Published by AnaSesha Books

PO Box 49205, Charlotte, NC 28277

First Edition 2014

Published on April 6th, 2014 By Sneha K

ISBN-13: 978-1-3111845-2-8

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Prologue

Background

Chapter 1 – Sandhya

Chapter 2 – Leaving Home

Chapter 3 – Akash

Chapter 4 – Crush

Chapter 5 – Attraction

Chapter 6 – Shock

Chapter 7 – Love

Chapter 8 – Bliss

Chapter 9 – Happiness

Chapter 10 – Disturbed

Chapter 11 – Scared

Chapter 12 – Separation

Chapter 13 – Varun

Chapter 14 – Safe

Chapter 15 – Attack

Chapter 16 – Waiting

Chapter 17 – Revelation

Chapter 18 – Heartbreak

Chapter 19 – Survival

Part 2

Chapter 20 – Content

Chapter 21- Haunting Past

Chapter 22 – The Encounter

Chapter 23 – Meeting

Chapter 24 – Interest

Chapter 25 – News

Chapter 26 – Avoidance

Chapter 27 – Want

Chapter 28 – Truth

Chapter 29 – Outrage

Chapter 30 – For Divya

Chapter 31 – Living Together

Chapter 32 – Memories

Chapter 33 – Hidden Feelings

Chapter 34 – Agony

Chapter 35 – Compromise

Chapter 36 – What I Feel For You

Chapter 37 – Hidden Love

Chapter 38 – Tell Me the Truth

Chapter 39 – Unbearable

Chapter 40 – Finding Love

Chapter 41 – Adjustment

Chapter 42 – At Last

Acknowledgement

About the Author

 

To my father-

For guiding me, inspiring me, supporting me, being there for me.

Most importantly, for educating me.

Prologue

“It can’t be her,” Akash told himself, feeling a crack form in the thick layers of protection built around his heart. He observed the elegant young woman sitting with a handsome man in a suit, talking with ease and smiling in between. It was difficult to see her features as she sat in the opposite far corner of the dining area. Her hair was neatly set in an expert French knot. She wore a classic gray skirt that reached a few inches above her knees and a jacket over a white blouse. Sandhya was way too shy to wear short skirts, he remembered.

But that was the Sandhya that he thought he knew, he recalled with a jolt. The agony in his eyes switched to rage.

He saw her walking towards him with her companion. She was only ten feet away from him now. For a split second, her eyes shifted and landed on him. Her brown eyes constricted as soon as they met his pitch-black eyes; her step halted for a split second, after which she walked normally as she held the man’s arm and disappeared into the elevator.

Akash froze in his seat. He sat staring at the now closed elevator door and felt as if life had closed its doors upon him. There was no question about it. It was her.

It was a few seconds before he regained his senses and wondered if he should follow her. He held himself from rising from his seat for a few more seconds. His frustration built up with each passing second and then he snapped. He shot up, not bothering about Vivek or the client, took the stairs and entered the lobby. He searched for her around the lobby, then walked out onto the street and looked around. There was no trace of her. Slowly, he walked back to the lobby area and sat on the sofa. It wouldn’t be difficult to track her down. He pulled out his cell phone and then halted. What was he doing? Why now? There was a reason why he had not searched for her earlier. That reason was still valid. Wasn’t it obvious that she had moved on with her life? She seemed to be leading an expensive lifestyle. Maybe she had married or was in a relationship with a rich person. His heart constricted at the thought. He walked back up to the dining area.

~

Her eyes unconsciously roamed beyond Phillip towards the rest of the people in the dining area, the tasteful décor, the waiter taking orders, and then rested back on Phillip, all within a second.

She was looking at Phillip but her mind was not hearing what he was saying. The whole room turned white and there was only Phillip and a certain person who had just entered the room from the elevator. She had not looked at him carefully and was not even sure if it was him, but she did not have the courage to look again and confirm her doubts.

Her outer self still projected the image of a confident woman but inside, a storm raged. She tried her best to conceal her rapidly beating heart and her shaking hands. After about a minute, she glanced again towards where he had settled himself with two other men. It seemed to be him, but she was so far away.

Was he looking in her direction now? She quickly averted her gaze from him and tried to look only at Phillip and talk sensibly. Thankfully, they had already discussed the major topics. She recited the usual pleasantries that wind up a meeting as her brain frantically tried to figure out how she should handle the situation. She had to walk towards him to reach the elevators. Should she confirm that it was him? What if he recognized her? What if he stopped her? She decided that she would not look at him. So what if it was him? It should not matter anymore. She had moved on with her life; there was no way that she would let him impact her life now. She was finally happy and content with her life. No. She did not care if it was him or not.

The meeting ended and Sandhya got up with a firm decision. She walked confidently with Phillip, trying her best not to look at Akash. As she approached his table though, her eyes automatically shifted to where he was, as if wanting to take a quick snapshot of him, hoping that he wasn’t looking at her.

As soon as her eyes landed on him, a shrill ran through her body. It was the same face, the face that she had tried to remember countless times, the face that she had tried to erase from her mind countless times. Those black eyes were on her, their coldness still intact, still piercing through her as they used to. She quickly looked away and hoped that no one noticed her reaction. She held Phillip’s arm for support as her chest tightened and she found it difficult to breathe. As soon as they were in the elevator, she noticed the surprised look on Phillip’s face. She removed her hold on him, apologized and told him that she was feeling dizzy. Phillip offered her a ride home but she refused, saying that she would take a cab. Sandhya bid good-bye to Phillip, got in a cab and gave the driver her home address. She would not be able to handle changing two trains to go home today.

She looked at her trembling hands; she could see the blood pounding through the veins on her wrist. “Damn! I should not care! I should not react this way!” she screamed within herself in frustration.

She looked out of the window in order to distract herself. To her dismay, she caught the view of the sun setting over the Arabian Sea. She shut her eyes tight and looked away. She was able to get away from a lot of things but sunsets were something that she still hated.

Background

This story is set in India and the names of the characters are Indian. Sandhya means “Evening” and Akash means “Sky”.

Here are some important aspects of Indian culture: [_

  • Most Indians are conservative (compared to western culture) and intimacy before marriage is strongly discouraged.] [
  • A girl child, especially among rural and poor populations, is usually deprived of education.] [
  • College students are generally fully supported financially by their parents. It is very rare for a student to work in order to sustain his or her studies.] [
  • Most marriages in India are arranged._]

Chapter 1 – Sandhya

S

andhya gazed out of the bus window, admiring the passing fields colored by the hues of the setting sun. She loved sunsets, with the sky painted in a multitude of colors as the world slowly stepped into darkness. Letting out a deep, satisfying breath, she smiled, absorbing the fact that she had crossed a major milestone in her life. She had completed her degree in business administration and landed a permanent job offer. Soon, she wouldn’t have to worry about how to survive the next month; she wouldn’t have to live in a house where she would be a burden. Finally, she would be independent. A sense of excitement engulfed her. She felt ready, eager to prove her mettle to this world, to stand on her own feet.

She observed her surroundings, wondering at the contrast in this life to that of fast-paced Mumbai. Most of the people surrounding her were poor, yet they seemed happy—not content, but happy, as in, they seemed to be filled with hope and aspirations. She noticed the young, frail woman in a worn-out cotton sari, clutching her baby with utmost care and love; the two old men chattering away about the pathetic state of Indian politics; the young man who was sneaking shy glances at her; the girl, thirteen or fourteen years old, listening politely to her father as he lectured her.

Sandhya’s eyes rested on the father and daughter. Her heart skipped a beat and a nostalgic feeling engulfed her. Swallowing hard, she resumed staring at the sunset. Her papa would have been proud of her. He would have run around the neighborhood, distributing sweets and announcing her achievement to everyone. Her papa…he used to be such a warm person with a bit of endearing quirkiness. Sometimes he would be aloof, and sometimes overly social. And how would her uncle have reacted? He would have placed his hand on her head and said, “Well done, my dear.” A tear escaped her eye.

She had few memories of her mother, who had passed away when she was seven. With her father, there were ample happy memories, some still fresh in her mind. Lack of money and comfort did little to lessen her blissful days in their two-room rented house in the village where he worked as a clerk. He pampered her in all aspects except for studies, for he believed that her future could be secured by education alone. She was a stubborn kid though, and argued many times about his strictness regarding her studies. Her father’s untimely death in an accident, when she was at the tender age of thirteen, left her terrified of not having a home, of being an orphan left on her own. A lot of relatives came to pay their last respects to her father, spoke kindly to her, and left. Except her uncle, who took her to his home in their native village, Amarpur, where he and her father were raised. Her aunt and two cousins welcomed her then.

Sandhya’s cell buzzed and she smiled looking at Asha’s name on the caller id.

“Have you reached your village yet?” Asha  asked.

“No. Two more hours to go.”

Two more hours before Cinderella faces her stepmom.”

Sandhya shook her head.

“She is not that bad, and she is my aunt, not my stepmother.”

“Whatever! Call me when you reach your village.”

“OK.”

She held on tightly to the phone for a few seconds, blessing her stars for having a friend like Asha. The first few months of college life were terrible for her, despite the vibrant culture and energy in Mumbai. She felt alienated among the sophisticated crowd around her, and though she tried her best to concentrate on studies and ignore her feelings of inferiority and her fears, it was difficult. That was until she met the warm and friendly Asha, who never appeared to have any feelings of superiority, despite her affluent background. They developed a friendship that was so special, she was afraid to lose it. She was skeptical about Asha roaming with Ashok, a shy boy in their class, even though he was a fine person. Thankfully, their parents consented to their marriage after considerable persuasion. For four years, they were together through all the joys and stresses of a demanding college curriculum. Now, Asha and Ashok were headed to the United States for higher studies and their lives were moving in different directions. She tried to brush off the sadness that threatened to shroud her.

She closed her eyes and dozed off. After a while, she heard the name of her village being called out and jerked her eyes open. She got up, removed her suitcase from the rack above her seat and alighted from the bus. A few heads turned in her direction. With her jeans and her long, wavy, layered hair set loose, she stood out amongst the other girls there. She did not see the two young men standing by a tea stall who were observing her.

Dragging her suitcase on the dusty tiled floor of the bus stop, her eyes wandered in search of an auto rickshaw. She noticed a few shops and stalls that hadn’t been there when she lived in the village. Memories of the days before she left for Mumbai started to cloud her thoughts, and the uneasiness returned. She reminded herself that it was only a matter of three months.

~

“Who is she? She doesn’t seem to be from here,” Varun said, not moving his gaze from Sandhya.

“Not sure…but her face looks familiar,” Dhiren replied, deep in thought.

“She looks smart.”

“Yes…she does,” Dhiren affirmed.

~

Sandhya was pleasantly surprised to see the mud road leading to her aunt’s home replaced with a concrete one. However, nothing had changed about the old structure itself. She stared at the entrance with apprehension as she clutched her suitcase tight.

“Sandhya… Is that you?” She heard a quivering old voice from her left.

She turned her head, and a grin appeared on her face.

“Still alive, Grandma?” she mocked as she walked over towards the old woman sitting on a concrete bench across the house. The woman held her hand over her eyes, trying to see her better under the dim street light. She caught Sandhya’s wrist with her wrinkled hands, and her face lit up with a huge smile, revealing her toothless gums.

“Why? How can I die without seeing your marriage!” the old woman mumbled back. “And look at you!” She touched the cloth of Sandhya’s long top and then turned her around to get a better view of her hair. “My, my! You seem so different—like a movie heroine. Jaya certainly doesn’t have to worry about dowry^1^ for your marriage!”

For a moment, Sandhya wondered if her aunt ever thought of her marriage. Not likely, she determined, considering that she had not called her even once during her four years of staying in the city. The few times they spoke, it was always Sandhya who made the effort to call.

Right then, an old man came out of the house, smiled at Sandhya, and sat by the old lady. The woman pulled Sandhya down and whispered in her ear.

“There is a boy I know. Want me to talk to his family?”

Sandhya laughed and whispered back, “Actually, I was thinking of asking your husband to marry me. I think he is still handsome enough for me, like a movie hero.”

The old man chuckled at her comment. The woman slapped Sandhya’s arm, laughing aloud. “You are eyeing my husband, eeh?”

Right then, the door of her aunt’s house opened and Sandhya stood upright.

“Got to go, Grandma, see you around.” She winked at both of them and walked towards her aunt. Her aunt opened the door wider to let Sandhya in, her expression showing no specific emotion. Her hefty frame stooped a little, and her graying hair was tied into a bun. A slight feeling of guilt crossed Sandhya’s mind for not visiting her during vacations.

She forced a smile. “How is everything?”

Her aunt gave her an indignant look as a reply. Sandhya cringed. She washed her feet, walked inside and looked around.

“Where are Ajay and Vijay?”

“They are with their friends in the back lane. They will be back in a few minutes.”

She walked up to a section of the wall lined with photos and stood before her uncle’s portrait.

“Sandhya! When did you get back?” She heard her cousin Ajay’s voice and turned.

Ajay and Vijay stood smiling at her.

“Just now,” she replied with a smile.

“You look so…so different!” Vijay exclaimed. She shrugged her shoulders.

“How was college?”

“Everything went well.”

“Dinner is ready. We can all talk later. Sandhya, can you get the plates and food out?” her aunt interrupted.

Sandhya took a second before replying, “Sure, Auntie.”

She dragged her tired legs to the kitchen and started serving the food. Her cousins relaxed as they squatted on the hard concrete floor and waited for dinner to arrive in front of them. If there was any lingering thought about whether her aunt and cousins were happy to see her, she dismissed it. She did not want to hope, she did not want to have expectations or the pain that came with them. She served the rice and lentil curry to her cousins and then sat on the floor to have dinner with them.

“I will be working in the village orphanage for three months. After that, I have to go back to Mumbai. I start a new job there in September.”

“Nice,” Vijay mumbled with his mouth full of food. Ajay nodded his head in agreement. Her aunt looked in her direction for a second, but gave no response.

She wondered if it was jealously that kept her aunt quiet, considering that she would soon earn well while her cousins would still be unemployed. She noticed her cousins from the corner of her eye and knew that they did not harbor such feelings. They seemed to be back to their old selves, busy discussing the next movie release. They were never the protective, caring, brotherly types she saw in movies. When they finished dinner, she spread the mat out on the floor by the bed where her aunt slept, then lay down and tried to relax. The wall in front of her was covered with patches, screaming for repair. The inside of the house might never have been painted since it was built.

As she tried to sleep, she wondered for the umpteenth time whether she should send money to her aunt once she started her new job in Mumbai. It would have been altogether different if her uncle was still alive.

“Maybe I will give her just a little,” she thought. She would rethink her policy when she owned her own company and had lots and lots of money at her disposal. She shook her head, smiled at herself, and closed her eyes to fall into a blissful sleep.

~

Sandhya walked up to the orphanage and met Mr. George, a gentle-looking elderly man who was in charge of running the place, and the two ladies who took care of the chores. She also met Gajanan, who worked part-time to tend to general repairs and to drive the children for their excursions.

Mr. George showed her the office and relevant documents.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” he said, starting to leave.

“I was hoping to see the kids,” Sandhya replied.

Mr. George raised his eyebrows in surprise. None of the earlier project managers put any real energy into their jobs, let alone showed any interest in the kids.

“Sure, I will introduce you to them in an hour. They…err…like some heads-up time to make themselves presentable, especially when meeting someone new.” He winked at her.

She smiled in response.

After he left, she got busy with the details of the new building. She was going through the list of the people involved in the project. Her eyes halted at the name “Akash Rai, Architect.”

“Akash Rai…sounds familiar,” she wondered. She dug through her brain and recollected the image of a tall thin boy with deep dark eyes in her school. He had an air of self-importance and always moved around with his select group of friends. He was a good volleyball player, belonged to a rich family, and lived in the mansion in the south side of her village. She did not hear much about him after he moved out of school for higher studies. When she was in high school, he coached volleyball for kids during vacation. She spoke to him once then, when Miss Vijaya, her math teacher, asked her to take Akash to Miss Vijaya’s office. For no clear reason, she felt uneasy speaking to him, looking into his jet-black eyes, and was relieved when he walked away. Perhaps it was her poor, baggy uniform clothes that she used to wear that made her uncomfortable, while he looked classy with his smart clothes and motorbike. That was almost five years ago.

“But this Akash cannot be that Akash. Surely, he would not work here with all his fortune,” she reasoned. “Why do you even care, Sandhya?” she scolded herself. She hoped it would be easy to work with him, whoever he was.

She found Mr. George standing in front of her, smiling. “The kids are ready!”

Outside, there was a line of about twenty-five kids standing in ascending height order; some were smiling, some twisting their legs shyly, and some scrutinizing her with narrow eyes. She whispered something in Mr. George’s ears.

“Yes, sure,” Mr. George whispered back.

“Hello, kids!” she greeted with excitement.

She got no response. She took a deep breath and spoke in a high-pitched tone.

“I am Sandhya, but you all can call me Didi.” Again, there was no response.

“But this Didi is very strict. So strict that if I see any…anyone not following my rules, then…THEN,” she raised her voice.

She noticed all their eyes widen, except for one girl in the middle of the line, dressed in a blue frock, who stood unmoved.

“You will all realize the consequence with time.” She lowered her voice for maximum effect.

“Do you all know what I want you to do?”

No one spoke for half a minute.

“Maintain silence.” One boy spoke up.

She raised her eyebrows.

“No jumping around,” a girl said.

Sandhya shook her head.

“Wrong! This afternoon, you all can shout, scream, and jump as much as you want. We are going to have a dance party with ice cream!”

One by one, the kids started grinning and laughing. Even the girl in the blue frock had a faint smile. Sandhya held her palm high, and the kids gave her a high five one after the other.

Sandhya knelt down before the girl in the blue frock. “Hello, pretty girl. What is your name?”

“Roja.”

“Which grade are you in?”

“Fourth.”

“Awesome. Are you ready for fun time this afternoon?”

“Yes,” the girl replied softly. “Didi,” she added after a pause.

As expected, her plan went well, and they had a blast at the dance and ice cream party. The kids became friendly with her and spoke to her openly, except for Roja, who seemed to be more reserved. Sandhya sensed something wrong with her. She was aware of orphans having emotional issues, and wondered if that could be the case with her, too.

~

“Found out who she is!” Varun declared with excitement.

“Who are you talking about?” Dhiren questioned.

“The girl who got off the bus yesterday.”

“Oh that… I forgot about her. What did you find out?”

“She is Sandhya…she was your classmate, Dhiren!”

“You mean SS, Studious Sandhya?” Dhiren asked, surprised.

Varun nodded.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it? If only I had known that she would turn out so pretty then.” Varun sighed. Dhiren laughed.

“I am planning to ask her to join us for lunch tomorrow and catch up on old times. After all, we were schoolmates, and for you, she was even a classmate. She is working at the orphanage.” Varun’s eyes twinkled with excitement.

Dhiren thought for a few seconds before replying, “Sure, let’s do that.”

~

The next day, Sandhya heard a knock on her door.

“Come in,” she said.

She found two young men with vaguely familiar faces standing in front of her.

“Hi, Sandhya. Remember us?”

“Hi… I…I guess you do look familiar.”

“I am Varun. I used to be your senior.” Varun extended his hand with a charming smile.

“And this is Dhiren.”

Sandhya shook their hands one after the other.

“Oh yes. I remember now. Varun, you always used to win prizes in debate competitions. And Dhiren, I remember you being the math wizard in our class.”

“I could never beat you though,” Dhiren said.

“Gosh…you have both changed so much. I am sorry that I couldn’t recognize you!”

“We didn’t change as much as you did. I mean…look at you…you look fabulous. To tell you the truth, it took a while for us to recognize you,” Varun replied, smiling.

Sandhya smiled.

“We don’t want to take a lot of your time. We know you are working. But do you mind having lunch with us to catch up on old times?” Varun asked.

“Sure, let’s do that!” Sandhya replied with a hint of excitement. Her visit to the village was turning out to be surprisingly pleasant.

~

Akash parked his motorcycle outside the restaurant and walked in. He quickly found a table in an uncrowded area of the restaurant and waited impatiently for someone to take his order. The cheerful voice of a girl distracted him. He turned to his right and saw a girl sitting with Dhiren and Varun a few feet away. The girl was sitting with her back to him and he could see her beautiful black wavy hair. She was engrossed in conversation with them, and they all seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. He wondered about the girl, who wasn’t afraid of being seen with men in broad daylight in this village. People were pretty conservative here. Why was she being so careless? She turned her head sideways, and he got a glimpse of her profile. He finished his food quickly and got up without looking in her direction.

~

Sandhya got back to her office and smiled, thinking about the great time she had with her schoolmates. She learned that Varun was an aspiring politician and was involved in the youth section of a political party. Dhiren was teaching math at the high school and was also trying to get through the Indian Administrative Exam. If he passed it, he would have the opportunity to get into high-ranking government jobs. Varun was a charming young man with an outgoing nature. Most girls would consider him good-looking. Dhiren was the shy one with chocolate boy looks.

She felt good and wondered if she could consider them her friends. Again, she thought of Akash Rai. Would he be as friendly as Dhiren and Varun?

~

“Sandhya, Akash will meet you at 4 pm here,” Mr. George informed her.

“I was hoping to check out the building myself. Why don’t I stop by there?”

“In that case, I would suggest that you start early, otherwise it will get too late for you to return. He should be available anytime until five.”

“Sure, that should be fine,” Sandhya replied.

She was at the construction site by half past three. Work seemed to be going on in full swing as men and women carried materials up and down the rectangular structure. She informed a worker that she was looking for Akash Rai and waited at the construction site’s temporary shed. It had a rough wooden table and a couple of metallic chairs at the center. After a few minutes, she heard footsteps behind her and turned around.

For a second, her mind went blank as she took in the person standing before her. It seemed that he had the same reaction. Composing herself, she extended her hand.

“Hi, I am Sandhya.”

He shook her hand.

“Akash.”

By now, she had no doubt that he was the same Akash Rai from her school. His piercing jet-black eyes were proof enough. He’d grown into a tall man with broad shoulders. His face, with a strong jawline, had a mature look. He was wearing a yellow construction helmet, and his hands and clothes had patches of dirt. It was definitely not the image of the man in an Armani suit that she had imagined. She did not feel comfortable enough to introduce herself as his schoolmate just then. He was her senior by four years, and they hardly knew each other. She noticed him standing there silently, as if expecting her to explain the purpose of her visit. Sandhya realized that she was early for their appointment.

“I’m the new project manager.”

“What?” He turned sideways and muttered something that she could not hear. Sandhya took a deep breath, wondering if his reaction had anything to do with her being a woman.

“I guess we could get started if you could take a seat,” Sandhya said firmly and sat on the chair.

“Could you let me know what you want so I can get back to my work?” he replied with urgency.

Sandhya maintained her calm appearance.

“I was hoping to get a tour of the site and some documentation.”

“I have people waiting for my orders right now. You will have to make another appointment or wait until four.”

She pursed her lips tightly and wondered what was making him act this way. There was nothing wrong with asking her to take another appointment or to wait, but she hated his tone and intimidating mannerism.

“Fine. I will make another appointment. Also, I want the financial report, architectural report, and the timeline of the construction phases of this building by tomorrow evening,” she replied in a steady professional tone, then stood up.

“I can get those to you by tomorrow morning. Where are you working?” he asked, his voice softer.

“At the orphanage.”

“They will be on your desk by nine tomorrow morning. Anything else?”

She noticed his eyes scanning her from top to bottom. She was used to people doing that, yet she couldn’t help but shudder.

“No. Thank you for sparing me your precious time. Good-bye.”

She grabbed her purse and walked off briskly from there, wondering how her future encounters with him would turn out. Once she arrived back at her office, she immersed herself in work.

~

Akash kept staring at Sandhya as she walked away from him.

He ran a hand through his hair, sighed, and sat down on the bench.

“Damn, Akash! You have no sense sometimes. What was her fault in this? And why are you upset seeing her walk off when you are the one that did not have the time to spare?” he cursed.

He pulled out his cell phone.

“Shekhar, why the heck did you hire Sandhya for the project ma—” he started but was cut off.

“Why not?” Shekhar’s cool tone irritated him even more.

“What do you mean? Do you have any idea how much of a hassle it has been with the previous project manager? And now, you hire a girl straight out of college to take charge of this project. What the heck would she know about managing a project this complex?”

“Well, she is the best one I have, even though she is straight out of college.”

“How do you know she is the best when she doesn’t even have any experience?”

“She has been working for me at our orphanages during her summer and winter vacations. I’ve seen and heard about her work and have at least a dozen people vouching for her competence. Now, do you need any other assurance?”

Akash remained silent.

“Believe me, Akash, you will be disappointed when she leaves after three months. Chill your head and enjoy your evening, like a young man your age should. Bye.”

Akash thought about what Shekhar had said. Sandhya had worked while studying? Maybe she was competent enough. He recalled her angry eyes and her long black hair blowing in the wind. An uncomfortable feeling engulfed him. Yes, it must have been Sandhya that he saw in the restaurant with Dhiren and Varun.

~

The next morning, Sandhya was surprised to find all the reports that she requested from Akash on her desk when she came in for work. She started studying them. They were detailed and perfect, beyond her expectations. Her mental image of Akash as an arrogant and angry man changed into an arrogant and angry man who was excellent at his work. There were certain points in his design that troubled her, and she wanted to discuss them further.

She met Varun and Dhiren, or ‘DVs’ as she had nicknamed them, for lunch regularly. Most of her school friends were married and moved out of the village. Her cousins and aunt were back to being their normal indifferent selves. It was not considered normal in the village for a girl to go out with men, but she didn’t care. They were her friends, and it felt good being with them. She did not notice the man watching her every day from the far end table in the restaurant.

Chapter 2 – Leaving Home

S

andhya sat in the front row seat of the bus and wondered how long it would take to reach the nearby town. She had a meeting with the contractor today. A deep, familiar voice filled her ears. Instinctively, she turned back and found Akash talking with someone. He moved his head in her direction and as soon as his piercing black eyes met hers, she turned her head to the front. She was in an odd situation; she didn’t like him enough to greet him, yet she couldn’t ignore him.

“Why the hell is he traveling in a bus when he can afford to go in a car; just to spoil my mood?” she muttered to herself. When Sandhya got off at her destination, she wondered if Akash was getting off too, and gave a quick glance back. She found him right behind her, looking at her.

Sensing that it would be inappropriate to go without talking to him, she threw a curt, “Hi.”

“Hey there, Sandhya.”

She wondered if she was dreaming. Was Akash smiling?

“What are you doing in town?” he asked.

“I have some work with the contractor.”

“I have work in the same building. We could walk together.”

She hesitated a little.

“Sure. I forgot to note down the address and was about to call the contractor anyways.”

“That may not be a good sign for a project manager.”

She looked at him sharply.

“It might be better if you stopped judging the people around you on every occasion.”

She waited to see his reaction. To her astonishment, she found him smiling. He remained silent though, and it felt as if he was deliberating about something.

“I almost didn’t recognize you yesterday,” he finally said, his eyes forward.

Sandhya raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“You remember me?”

“Yes, and I take it that you also remember me,” he replied, looking at her in amusement.

Sandhya smiled and looked ahead. “I do,” she replied in a low voice. “I was studying in Mumbai for four years. You could say that the city life transformed me.”

“Seems so.”

They reached their destination, bid good-bye to each other, and separated. Neither of them asked when they were planning to leave.

~

Sandhya was tired by the time she was done with her work. It was getting dark and the bus stop was a good twenty-minute walk away. She looked around for a second and wondered if Akash had returned to their village already. She took a deep breath and started walking.

“Sandhya!”

Her heart skipped a beat. She turned around and found Akash standing a few feet behind her, chatting with a couple of men. He raised his hand, indicating for her to wait for him. She nodded and waited. She could not help but wonder at how friendly and easygoing he seemed now compared to their earlier encounter. After about a minute, he bid good-bye to his companion and sprinted towards her. They started walking towards the bus stop together,making small talk.

When the bus arrived and they got on, Sandhya chose not to sit with Akash. It was normal in Mumbai to sit beside men, but not here, especially when the bus had empty seats.

After a long ride, they got off the bus.

“Have a good night,” Sandhya said, knowing that his house was on the opposite side of the village.

“Let me drop you off,” he said.

“No. It’s already late and it will take a long time to walk to your house.”

“If that is your concern, then you need not worry.” He smiled as he walked towards his motorcycle that was parked nearby. Sandhya bit her lip; she was not expecting this. Unable to think of an excuse and being tired, she got on the bike hesitantly.

As he rode on the dirt roads, she sat sideways towards the edge of the motorcycle’s seat and held on to the handle. She gave directions to her house and within five minutes they were before her aunt’s house.

“Thanks, Akash.”

“My pleasure.” He smiled and drove off.

She watched him disappear in the street. Maybe it won’t be that bad working with him, she thought to herself. His change in mannerism confused her, but there was something else bothering her; something that her mind did not comprehend, or perhaps did not want to comprehend. She entered her aunt’s home to find her with another lady. They both seemed to be eagerly waiting for her.

“Here she is.” Her aunt smiled at her.

“Sorry, I stayed late at work.”

“It’s alright, dear. Here, come sit by me. I need to talk about something important with you,” her aunt said, patting the chair by her side.

“What is it?” Sandhya wondered why her aunt was sweet talking her out of the blue.

“We have a wonderful marriage proposal for you,” her aunt shouted in excitement.

A surprised Sandhya did not know how to react. A part of her was happy because her aunt thought about her, just like her parents would have if they were alive. But another part of her dreaded the idea of marriage in general, especially with someone she did not know.

“I…I don’t want to marry for a while, Auntie.”

It was true. She wanted to stand on her own feet before thinking about marriage.

“You will never feel ready for marriage, my dear. That is just how it is. And when you feel ready, your age will leave your side and it will be too late,” her aunt said as she placed her hand on her head. “Vasu is well settled and is a doctor in the UK. He has a big mansion with six bedrooms in it. What more can you expect?”

“Why would he want to marry me?” Sandhya asked.

“Well, Laxmi here is his relative. She saw you the other day and asked for one of your photos. I gave her one from your college album. Well, guess what! Vasu loved your picture and is eager to get married. Laxmi, can you show her the picture of Vasu?” her aunt asked.

They showed her a picture of a handsome man, maybe in his 30s. Sandhya considered the photo. She turned it around, and saw the faint letters of the year it was taken. They were showing her a picture that was taken sixteen years ago.

“Is this his first marriage?”

There was sudden silence for a few seconds.

“He is a divorcee.”

“Does he have children?”

“Yes…three children.”

“Are they going to school or college?”

“Two are in school, one is in college.”

Sandhya’s heart clenched as this information sank in. She sat there unmoved, stunned, with the picture in her hand as she fought back tears. Her heartbeat increased as anger and pain shot through her.

“Well then, what do you think?” her aunt asked her hesitantly.

Sandhya took a deep breath and swallowed the lump in her throat.

“I don’t want to marry at this time,” she said, standing up.

“But… But…”

“My decision is final,” she replied firmly as she met her aunt’s gaze.

Laxmi rose from her seat.

“My Vasu has a lot more girls in line waiting to marry him. She doesn’t know what she is losing,” Laxmi blurted in a huff and left.

“What the heck have you done? He was ready to give us a reverse dowry of fifty lakhs. You could live like a queen. Imagine! Both of your cousins can get settled with that money. Don’t you have any gratitude for what we have done for you?” her aunt snapped.

“You were trying to sell me for fifty lakhs then!” Sandhya shouted back, her face red with anger.

“If you refuse to marry him, you have no place in this house!” her aunt screamed.

“I will not marry him. Would you have done this if I were your own daughter?” Sandhya choked on the words as tears streamed from her eyes. How could she do this to her? She was her aunt! She was supposed to be her well-wisher.

“My own blood would never have been as selfish as you,” her aunt shouted, tears soaking her cheeks.

Sandhya fell silent, her heart squirming at her aunt’s harsh words.

The anguish that she’d been suffering through for many years bubbled up. For once, she wanted to know why. Why did she hate her this much? Why, despite doing every big and little chore that she gave her, did she never like her?

She looked at her aunt and whispered, “Why, Auntie? Why? What did I do wrong? Why do you—” She halted as the words got stuck in her throat. She composed herself and wiped her tears. There was no use in talking. If her aunt understood her, they wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“I have a job now. I will earn and pay you back. I will take care of—” Sandhya started, but was cut off by her aunt.

“Do you think I will take a penny from you, after all that you have said? I take care of you, thinking that you are an orphan and you talk back to me like this? Get out of my house and my sight! You have taken a fancy to those young boys with whom you are roaming about every day. This is not a place for characterless girls like you!” Her aunt’s voice roared like never before.

Sandhya stood in shock. Her aunt had been indifferent and cold to her, but never said anything about her character. She stared at her aunt for a minute in silence. This was it; she did not care anymore. She started packing her bags as her body and mind trembled with anger and agony. Her aunt stood like a stone, unmoved. She walked out of that house into pitch darkness, knowing that she might never return.

Chapter 3 – Akash

S

andhya considered her options. It was too late in the night to look for a place to live. She went to the orphanage and asked Mr. George if she could spend the night with the kids at the orphanage. Mr. George gladly agreed.

The next day she looked for places to rent and found a nice little house. It stood in a secluded location, but Sandhya fell in love with it. It had a small living room, a bedroom with an attached bathroom, and a kitchen. There was a lot of open space in front of the house. A mud wall went around the structure, providing a good amount of privacy. She especially liked the neem tree before the house. Someday, I will have my own house, she thought. The house was furnished and even had kitchen utensils. Everything seemed perfect.

She considered whether she should continue to go for lunches with DVs after what her aunt said; she decided that she shouldn’t fear anything as long as her conscience was clear. She went through the documentation provided by Akash and added her comments to them.

The next day, she went to the site to discuss the things that were bothering her with Akash. This time, she set up an appointment, and arrived on time. Akash gave her a smile as he walked towards her. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing his well-defined muscles.

“Hi.” He greeted her with a smile.

“Would you like a tour of the site today?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s get started.” He seemed excited to show the building site as they walked from area to area. He explained every detail with such perfection that she was seriously impressed.

“Can we sit here? I need to discuss something with you.” She sat down by a wooden table and opened her folder.

“Sure.”

She wanted to say how much she liked his work, but refrained after remembering how he always seemed to doubt her project management skills.

“I wanted to discuss a few concerns with the design.”

Akash’s smile disappeared, and his face became rigid.

“I never said I would change my design. What the hell do you know about construction to point out issues?”

The sudden fierceness in his mannerism startled her. She didn’t expect it after how pleasant he was a few seconds earlier.

“Just hear me out.”

He stood in place, his arms folded across his chest. Sandhya was aghast as she noticed his chest rising and falling. Why the hell was he so upset?

She kept the folder on the table and said, “I thought you were a sensible man, but I was wrong. You don’t even have sense enough to hear out what I have to say before you blurt out words from your…mouth,” she said scathingly and got up to leave. She was about to say, “damn mouth,” but her mind stopped her at the right time. She was far too decent with words. Anger flashed inside her and she felt in total disarray as she walked back. His design felt almost perfect and she had been so excited for the beautiful space that he had imagined for the kids. It was so very different than the usual large room with beds lined up kind. A few minor things bothered her and she couldn’t hold herself back in speaking her mind, though she was well aware that she had no say in the design. Would it kill him to listen? How the heck do you work with such an unpredictable person?

She went back to her office and got herself busy to get Akash out of her mind.

~

Akash’s mind was raging. “How dare she? I am tired of people who have no idea about this job trying to poke their heads into my work. I was very clear that I wanted complete freedom before taking this job. And yet, this happens again and again.”

He’d had terrible experiences with the previous project manager and hoped that Sandhya would be sensible.

What was it that made him want to be with her? He sensed his attraction to this dusky girl ever since he saw her at the restaurant. She looked gorgeous with perfect features and flawless skin. But then, it must be just that: attraction. He did find himself going to the restaurant at lunch to see her, even though he did not like the company she had. So far, he had resisted his urge to meet her on his own, hoping that this was a phase that would pass. After what had happened today, he wondered if that time had had arrived. He could not concentrate on his work and left early, leaving behind the file that Sandhya had put on the desk.

Later that evening, a worker from the site came to his house.

“I think you left this on the desk,” he said as he gave the file to Akash. He left after getting no response from Akash.

“Damn it!” Akash threw the file on the floor. The pages flew out from the force.

Before going to bed, Akash saw the file with the pages scattered on the floor and cursed. He started picking up the papers and stacking them. One of them had Sandhya’s comments in green. His eyes glanced through a few words that she had written. He then picked up all the papers and went to his desk, reading the comments on his way. She had only written comments in three places. One of them said, “Love the privacy this design gives but wish there was some open area as well”. He recalled how he had checked into five orphanages and interviewed the people before taking on this project. Almost all of them had large rooms with beds lined up and he had hated that design. He wanted the children to feel that they have a personal space to go to, a place that isn’t shared with anyone. But it was a challenge considering the large number of children and the little area available. In the end, he had used geometric designs where each child’s  bedding area would be blocked by the other, yet the space taken would be negligible. He requested for a little more funding for additional space but of course it was turned down. He was bitter for a few days but let it go thinking that he did his best. Sandhya had commented exactly on that spot, as if magically she knew his mind. He read her other comments and had the same reaction. She did not mention what needed to be done, only listed down the points that concerned her.

He had thought that the imperfections in his design were his imagination, a result of his desire to always be perfect; but if two people saw the imperfections in the same spots, then his worries were valid. His mind started working and a vague solution started forming. Quickly, he picked up a paper and started sketching. It was 4 am when he was done. He was tired physically but his mind was in bliss. He had managed to tweak the design to create pockets of open spaces in between the personal spaces, and also a large area at the center of the room. His design was perfect, and he had to thank Sandhya for being the catalyst in getting it there. How had he judged her so wrong? And how did she have such a good insight at her age? His heart filled with admiration for her. I should apologize to her somehow, he thought as he closed his tired eyes and sank into a deep sleep.

Chapter 4 – Crush

S

andhya found herself in a foul mood the next morning. Her efforts to forget the incident with Akash were in vain. She looked at the document and tried once more to form the sentence she had been struggling with for fifteen minutes.

She heard a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Sandhya uttered in a wary tone.

A startled Sandhya found Akash standing in front of her with an expression she could not fathom. Remaining silent, she stared at him with a questioning glare, knowing that she would only blurt out something rude that she might regret later if she opened her mouth then. His hair was ruffled, and he looked tired, with dark circles around his eyes. At least he didn’t seem to be angry now.

Taking a couple of steps towards her desk, he placed the file in his hands on the desk.

He looked at her and attempted to speak with effort.

“Sandhya… I… I…”

Sandhya waited with patience as to what would come after the ‘I’ but all she got were another couple of ‘I’s with pauses between them. He seemed to be in considerable discomfort as he said the ‘I’ and whatever was supposed to come next.

“I…wanted to get together to discuss the board meeting presentation.” Words finally came out of Akash’s mouth.

Sandhya composed herself for a few seconds.

“Sorry, I might not be worthy enough to get together to discuss ‘work’ with you. It’s better to work on our presentations individually and keep our ‘comments’ to ourselves,” Sandhya replied in a sarcastic tone, looking straight into his eyes.

Akash stood still for a few seconds. Suddenly, his expression changed. He had a mischievous look now and a glint in his eye. “Whatever you say,” Akash said as he left with a smug smile on his face.

She stared in his direction in disbelief and sat down at her desk, wondering what was wrong with him. Maybe this was some kind of mental disorder? She picked up the file that he had left, expecting it to contain the contents she had given him. As she turned through the pages, she noticed something different and halted. She studied the pages one by one and noticed the changes.

Realization dawned on her and she gasped in joy. The design looked perfect now! So…he had paid heed to her comments. What surprised her more was how well he had solved her concerns with his new updated design. How did he do that in such a short time? He must have been up all night; that explained why he looked that way.

She picked up her phone. There was an important board meeting presentation to be prepared for after all.

“I won the bet,” Akash said seriously.

“What bet?”

“That you would call me within ten minutes to beg me to discuss the board meeting.”

Sandhya let out a laugh.

~

Sandhya sat with Varun and Dhiren at lunch as she discussed how the kids at the orphanage were tired of going to the same nearby park for outings.

“Why don’t they take them to a different location?” Varun mused.

“I guess they never thought about it. Can you think of any other place nearby where I could take them?” she asked.

“You know what? I could arrange for an excursion for the kids to Ooty, if it’s OK with you. I have a few friends there and can make the reservations,” Varun exclaimed with sudden energy.

“Thanks, Varun. But I am not sure if the budget will be approved.”

“You can consider it a donation on my part. As a budding politician, it will enforce my image too. Although…” Varun paused, looking at her eyes. “I will do it only if you return the favor.”

“What is it?”

“How about going to a movie with me? Dhiren isn’t interested in movies and I am bored going on my own,” Varun replied with a smile.

She was apprehensive for a second. She did not want to go to a movie, but it seemed to be a small price to pay for what the kids would get in return. “Alright, as long as it’s not a late night show,” she replied, smiling.

“I will also join you guys,” Dhiren said. Varun raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Sure,” Varun said after a pause.

Sandhya spoke about the trip to Mr. George, who seemed to be pleased as well, and the plan fell into place.

~

Sandhya was acutely aware of his hands resting on the table, the strand of hair that had fallen over his brow, the stubble on his face, the refreshing smell of his cologne. She sat across from Akash in a small conference room, discussing the presentation. He was excellent as he expertly discussed his ideas, but she was not being herself. She would be too aware of his gaze on her and in an instant, lose her train of thought. Something about him made her think that way, not like DVs; she never had any problems with them. With Akash, she was more aware of his attraction and proximity. She cursed herself. How could she be so unprofessional? As a project manager, she needed to have control over her thoughts.

Sandhya was glad when the meeting ended; she was not getting much done anyways. She thanked Akash, picked up her purse and started to leave.

“I can drop you home. It will get dark by the time you get there on foot,” Akash suggested.

Sandhya thought for a second. The road to her home went through a cornfield for about a quarter mile. It felt wonderful to walk over that path in daylight but it got scary at night.

“Sure. If it is not too much trouble for you,” she replied.

“Not at all.”

She sat on the bike comfortably as she gave directions to her new place. Akash seemed surprised when he saw where she lived. “Isn’t it too secluded?” he stated with concern.

“A little. But I love this place,” she replied, getting off the bike.

“I guess that’s what matters. Take care, Sandhya.” He turned his bike around and drove away. She wondered if it was impolite of her not to have invited him inside as a courtesy. And why did she have so much trouble concentrating with him around? Was she attracted to him? Was this something that people call a ‘crush’?  Like any girl, she hoped to find someone who would take all her miseries and loneliness away. She never hoped or expected him to be rich or good-looking. She always thought of that person as being similar to her in terms of stature; someone who would love her for who she was. It worried her that she had these feelings for Akash. Sure, they were peers at work but in the society they lived in, they were far apart in status. She hoped that this was just a crush and she would snap out of it soon.

~

A myriad of thoughts engulfed Akash as he drove home. The image of Sandhya’s expressive brown eyes lingered on within him. He parked his bike by the side of a field and tried to settle his thoughts as his shirt fluttered in the cool breeze. She was the perfect blend of intelligence and beauty that was so rare. Was this why his heart pulled towards her? To say that he found her attractive would be an understatement. He had smartly suggested meeting in the evenings, knowing that it would give him a chance to drop her off. But was that wise? Where would all this lead? He’d had his share of brief affairs in the past, a secret that would give his mom a heart attack if she knew. With Sandhya though, he could not, should not and would not attempt such a thing, for he knew her mindset and that she came from a family where that would never be acceptable. He wondered if she was interested in any of the guys she went to lunch with, and his eyebrows arched with worry. Though sensible and smart, she was also, in some ways, very innocent.

~

Sandhya did much better the next day in the meeting; she was able to look at Akash straight in the eye and talk sensibly. She mentally patted herself on the back. Way to go, Sandhya. Perhaps you are getting over this crush already. Mr. Akash, I am not afraid of you anymore. I can handle you, she smiled in her thoughts. When Akash dropped her at her home, she felt confident enough to invite him in for tea.

Akash raised his eyebrows. “Tea sounds great,” he replied with a pleasant smile.

They climbed the steps that led to the porch and she opened the door. After switching on the TV and asking him to make himself comfortable, she went to the kitchen to make tea. She turned to the side to reach for sugar when she bumped into Akash, and would have almost tripped had Akash not caught her arm on time.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize that you were here,” she exclaimed.

“Don’t be. I kind of snuck up behind you,” he replied with a grin as he peeked inside the boiling teapot. Sandhya was pleasantly surprised when he started helping her in making the tea and setting the snacks for both of them. She tried to appear calm on the outside, but her original thoughts about him had returned ever since he entered the kitchen. She was acutely aware of his navy blue shirt and black trousers and how smart he looked in them. Had she really gotten over her crush? Had she made a mistake by inviting him in? She realized that she did not regret inviting him in at all. To have someone as pleasant as him for company was more than she could ask, compared to her everyday boring evenings.

They settled with their tea and snack on the steps that led to the porch. The moon shone brightly, and the wind blew softly. The jasmine plant in front was in full bloom, giving out a mesmerizing fragrance. The neem tree swayed gently in the cool breeze.

She told him how much she loved gardening and how she planned to replant the flowering pots in the new orphanage’s building.

“I will be moving away from here soon.”

Akash stopped chewing when he heard that. “Where will you be moving?”

“Mumbai. I have a job offer there. This was a temporary job.”

Akash was silent for a few minutes and then replied, “That’s good…congratulations.”

He told her how much his parents hated him taking up architecture and how they had wanted him to run their finance business instead.

“That’s too bad. I wish they knew what a brilliant architect you are,” Sandhya said.

Akash turned to look at her and gave her a quick sideways hug, wrapping one arm over her shoulder.

“Thanks,” he said quietly.

His gesture made Sandhya rethink her crush for him. He felt so adorable and affectionate.

“Shekhar told me that you worked for him during your vacations. What prompted you to take up a job while studying?” he asked.

She was lost for words. “I… I had to work to maintain the cost of my living. The scholarship paid for fees, not the boarding and food.”

He seemed to be taken aback, embarrassed at not guessing this obvious reason.

She looked up at him and asked, “Did you finish your masters?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “No way! I had a hell of a time working for my bachelor’s degree.”

She fell silent as she stared into the night. Bitter memories flooded her mind. Her aunt had opposed her education, saying that a girl child needed to be married off anyways. Had it not been for her uncle’s insistence, she would not even have gone to school. She would get up as early as four to study, for she was made responsible for cooking and cleaning during the after-school hours by her aunt. Her cousins, being boys, got to live like kings, not having to move a thing in the house. In his final days, when she was in high school, her uncle had mentored her and asserted that she was big enough to take care of herself. Perhaps she had coped with losing him better than her aunt, who became colder and quieter. When she got accepted at a reputable college in Mumbai, she had hoped to take a loan using her mother’s jewelry. But of course, her aunt would not allow it. It was her beloved teacher Miss Vijaya who helped her with the scholarship applications. Even then, her aunt had bluntly refused to allow her to go to college, citing that city life would spoil her. It was only after Miss Vijaya and the village president intervened that she had relented.

“You seem to be lost in thought.”

She came out of her thoughts and shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

“What did you study in college?”

“Business administration”

“Appropriate field for you.”

He seemed to deliberate about something and said, “I should head home. It’s getting late.” She nodded, finding herself disappointed that he was leaving.

“This was a lovely treat, Sandhya. I enjoyed every moment of the time spent with you,” he said as he started his motorbike.

“Me too,” she replied, and watched him drive away.

She closed the door, feeling happy. There was none of the gloominess she usually felt.

~

The next day, Sandhya decided that even though she had enjoyed being with Akash, she had reached a point where she had to protect herself. She had invited him into her house thinking that she could get over her crush, but it just did the opposite. Now, she thought about him even more. The only option left was to spend as little time as possible with him. She had a lot of office work and she would stay back at her office after her meeting with him. That way, he wouldn’t have to drop her off. She had handled the eerie quarter mile walk in the night before. She would be able to do it again.

Akash smiled as he entered the conference room. Sandhya wore a flowery skirt and a pretty yellow top that day. Her hair was left loose, with a small bobby pin fastening it partially on one side.

The meeting went smoothly, and they were finally done with their work.

“I have some work that I need to take care of. I will leave later. You carry on,” Sandhya explained, trying to sound casual.

“What time are you planning to leave? I can wait for a while.”

“I am not sure. Eight…maybe even nine,” she replied, hoping that he would let it go.

“In that case, why don’t you call me when you are done? I will come and pick you up. The road gets deserted at that time and it may not be a good idea walking alone then.”

He was not letting it go, was he?

“I… I will call you if it gets late.”

Akash mumbled a reluctant “OK” and left with a doubtful look on his face.

Sandhya sighed in relief. She did not have any more meetings with him. This meant that she would not have to deal with him that often. Good.

She entered the scary quarter mile walk and prayed, trying to be brave. It was almost ten. She had been so hell bent on finishing a task that she hadn’t noticed how late it had become. The cornfields swayed in the dark night on both sides of the road, freaking her out. She peered ahead and saw no one; she glanced behind and saw no one.

Just ten more minutes and this ordeal would be over, she told herself, walking faster. She now regretted not letting Akash drop her home. Just then, she heard a bike coming from behind. Turning around, she saw it coming to a stop beside her. She gave a sigh of relief when she noticed that it was Akash. Her relief was short-lived.

His face was furious and intense; his eyes were raging with anger.

Chapter 5 – Attraction

S

andhya was frightened by his demeanor. “Why didn’t you call me?” Akash asked with clenched teeth. Sandhya’s mind raced as she considered how she should reply.

“I… I didn’t want to give you trouble,” she mumbled. He continued staring at her with his piercing eyes.

“Will you sit now?” he fumed.

She sat on the bike nervously. Did he come all the way here just for her? Why was he so angry about such a small matter?

They were silent throughout the way.

Sandhya’s ego kicked in and she did not thank him when they reached her home. She had done nothing wrong. Why should she take this treatment from him? She turned to walk towards the gate without saying anything.

“This stretch is not safe for you to walk alone. I am dropping you home starting tomorrow,” he said in a serious, firm tone.

Sandhya halted, dumbfounded. Did she hear him right? She turned around and glared at him. His face was stern and his eyes seared through her with a look that seemed to imply that she had done something terrible. Who was he to tell her what was safe? She opened her mouth to blurt her thoughts but her mind wouldn’t let her. He still looked furious and her instincts told her that she should let things cool down before she dealt with him. She slowly turned around, walked to the door and unlocked it, all the while feeling his burning gaze on her back.

He rode off once she was inside, and she shook her head in confusion and worry. That night, she kept thinking about Akash’s behavior. Why was he so angry? Was he truly concerned about her safety? Or had he decided that he could control her just because she had invited him for tea once? Or could there be the slightest chance that he liked her and was being protective? The last thought, unexpectedly, troubled her, thrilled her, and frightened her at the same time. She brushed off the thought, thinking that she was speculating too much. Why she was being paranoid about him? Any other person and she would not have hesitated one bit to make them eat their own words. Perhaps, she was afraid of losing the faint bond that they had formed by now. That evening she had spent chatting with him on the steps was one of the best evenings she remembered; it was something she would always cherish. Their lives would split into different paths in a few weeks and she did not want to spoil the remaining time here with a cross and angry Akash.  She decided that she would let him drop her off if he arrived at the same time that she left every day, but she would never ask him to come inside her house.

~

Akash sat by the lake and threw a pebble into the water, the ripples disrupting the moon’s perfect reflection. What was happening to him? What right did he have over Sandhya that he had behaved in such a manner? Yes, he was genuinely concerned because it was unsafe for her to walk on that road that late in the night. He would have done the same if his sister was in her place. But it was her life, damn it! She had lived all alone for four years. Couldn’t she handle herself? Why did he feel this strong of a need to protect her? Would she think that he was trying to take advantage of her? He shuddered, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing to do now other than hope that she did not misunderstand his intentions.

~

An amazed Sandhya saw Akash back to his charming self the next day, when he arrived. Gone was the arrogance and anger. He smiled and behaved as if nothing had happened. She managed not to smile back at him and remained grim. She sat on his bike silently and kept mum the whole way, still questioning why she was letting him control her like this.

When she got off, she muttered a curt good-bye to him and walked away. She heard a “take care” from him before he drove off.

The same sequence followed for the next few days, except that Sandhya was again smiling and talking to Akash. She did however keep her resolve not to invite him into her house.

~

Sandhya tried to ignore the penetrating glances of people around her as she waited anxiously for Varun and Dhiren. It was Saturday evening, and they were supposed to meet near the ticket counter by 6:20 pm at the theater. She arrived early and was regretting it.

She smiled in relief when she saw Dhiren approaching on a motorbike. Cool! She did not know that he had a bike.

“Hey, Sandhya!”

“Hi, Dhiren. I am so glad to see you. I was feeling self-conscious here,” she responded in relief.

“I know what you mean,” Dhiren replied, looking at the people around her.

“Tell you what, it will be late by the time the movie is over. If you don’t mind, I can drop you home,” Dhiren proposed.

“Sure. That would be great. I was planning to ask one of you to drop me.”

A little while later Varun joined them and they all went inside the theater. Sandhya sat in between Dhiren and Varun and got curious glances from men and women alike. A girl going to a movie with men was not normal here. That was the main reason why she did not want to go to a movie. She enjoyed the movie though.

As they were leaving the theater, Varun said, “I can drop you off, Sandhya, since it’s getting late.”

“Oh, thank you, Varun, but Dhiren is dropping me off.”

Varun narrowed his eyes and turned in Dhiren’s direction.

“Dude, you don’t have a bike.”

“I borrowed it from a friend,” Dhiren replied with a smile.

“Amazing, considering that you never did that before,” Varun replied in a doubtful tone but did not say anything further.

Dhiren and Sandhya rode on the bike while chatting non-stop. Dhiren explained how he needed to concentrate on his exams soon and might not be able to join her for lunches often. She admired people like him who worked hard to achieve their goals. He had to make some tough decisions to progress towards his goals and she had given him moral support during their brief lunch meetings. The affection she had for Dhiren and Varun was purely platonic and she hoped that things remained that way from their side because she valued their friendship. After all, friends were all she had at this point of her life. Dhiren, with his chocolate boy looks, looked and behaved so cute that she sometimes wished that she had a brother like him. He dropped her off and drove away.

~

Akash was in an extremely bad mood ever since he heard his mom talk about Sandhya. She had apparently spotted her with Varun and Dhiren at the theater and had detested her.

“What does that girl think she is doing, going out with two men in broad daylight like that?”

Akash’s mom had ranted with two other ladies in the living room. “I tell you, girls like these get the corrupt culture from the cities and are polluting the pure atmosphere here.” She went on and on.

“Stop it, Ma! What is so wrong with a girl going to a movie with men! How could you think wrongly of her just because of this reason?” Akash spoke angrily and stormed out of the room before getting a response from his mother.

His mom stared at him in disbelief. He generally never poked his head into such topics, so why was he so concerned now, she wondered.

That evening, Akash saw Sandhya smiling as she walked towards his bike and he felt better at once. Let everyone think whatever they want, I don’t care, he thought. But deep inside, he still fought the nagging thought that she liked going out with Varun and Dhiren.

~

Sandhya was angry. Gajanan had brought the tarp, but had not secured it on the roof. Being the monsoon season, it could rain anytime. She looked up at the cloudy sky and got worried. A part of the orphanage’s roof near the kitchen leaked. She took a ladder, climbed up and tried to secure the tarp on her own. A drop of rain fell on her cheek. Oh no, she needed to hurry.

“What are you doing up there? Are you out of your mind?” Akash shouted, looking up at her. He had already climbed halfway up the ladder.

“I should be done soon,” she shouted back just as the tarp gave way again. This wasn’t as easy as she thought.

Akash climbed up the roof just as it started to drizzle.

“Get down, Sandhya, I will take care of it,” he ordered.

“I will help you,” she replied firmly. She could not let him handle it all alone, getting wet, when she could help him get this done faster. They both tried frantically to tie the tarp again. Right then, Sandhya heard a sound of something tearing. She noticed that Akash’s shirt was torn at the back. He must have brushed against a nail that protruded from the wall that went around the roof.

“It’s fine,” he muttered as he continued to work.

They were slightly wet by the time they came down and she had to head home before it started raining heavily. She sat on the wet bike behind Akash and held his shoulder absentmindedly. As he rode the bike, she wondered how ugly must she be looking in her dress? It had become dirty because of the roof work. The pink salwar kameez^2^ that she wore clung to her body because of the slight wetness. Feeling vulnerable, she covered the white dupatta over her chest.

Halfway through the way, she noticed that the torn part of Akash’s red shirt was wetter than the other parts. She ran her finger near the shirt slit and gasped.

“Akash, you are hurt! There is blood on your back!”

“Oh, really? I didn’t realize. I am fine though. Might be a slight scratch.” He brushed it off.

Sandhya pulled the slits apart to observe the wound. 

“It’s not a slight scratch,” she replied, worried. She got off of the bike and turned to him. “Come inside, I have first aid supplies.”

Akash kept still without getting off from his bike and responded, “Sandhya, I am fine…really.”

“Just get off of the bike. You can’t see it, I can. It’s pretty bad,” she replied with a hint of anger.

“Are you sure you want me to come inside?” he asked her teasingly.

“Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing; you behaved as if I was a lion and you were a mouse the past few days when I dropped you off,” he replied, grinning.

Sandhya smiled at his statement. “You are mistaken, mister. I might look like a mouse but I can turn into a lion if I want to.” She raised her voice mockingly.

“Oh, I have no doubt about it!” he smirked. He parked his bike and walked inside with her.

~

Akash wondered if he should sit on the sofa. Maybe the wound was bad, and if he was bleeding then he didn’t want to stain the sofa. He stood there, trying to reach the source of the burning pain with his hand, but in vain.

Sandhya came with the first aid kit. “Why are you still standing? Lie down on the sofa,” she ordered.

He lay down on his stomach, his hand still trying to reach the wound.

“Lie still. Your hand won’t reach there,” she said as she tried to roll up his shirt to get to the wounded flesh. That did not help her to access the wound.

“You will need to remove your shirt,” she said.

“OK, Doc.” Akash smiled as he sat up again and started undoing his buttons, starting from the lower end. His fingers shook, and it was taking him a long time to unbutton.

Sandhya started removing the buttons from the top end in haste. Akash shuddered when her fingers touched his chest. He tried his best not to show the way his body was responding to her touch. Her face was full of concern and oblivious to his reactions. A drop of water trickled down a strand of hair on her cheek. She looked absolutely ravishing to him as her half wet dress clung to her, revealing her beautiful curves. He looked away.

Once his shirt was off, he lay down again. She gasped when she saw the wound and the blood that had flowed down his waist. Taking a cotton ball, she cleaned the wound, then applied medication followed by a band aid. She stood up.

“There, all done now. But you should get a tetanus injection just in case.”

He didn’t reply and tried to button up his shirt in haste, looking down.

“Are you listening?” she asked with concern. Did he lose so much blood that he was dizzy or something?

“Huh… Yes,” he replied. “I think I should leave now. Thank you, Sandhya,” he said, standing up.

“Actually, I think you should have something before you leave. You don’t seem to be yourself,” she said with concern as she went inside before he could reply.

“How about chocolate cake?” She got out a piece from the fridge.

Akash hesitated. “Alright.”

He sat on the sofa and ate it quickly. He got up to leave.

“Are you feeling better now?” she asked.

He stopped and turned around to say something.

She noticed a bit of cream stuck on his cheek and pointed her finger, “You have something here.”

“Huh?” he said, trying to wipe his cheek but missing the spot. She hesitated a little before her thumb went up to his cheek and tried to get the cream off. Suddenly, Akash held her hand on his cheek with his hand.

Startled, she looked at his face. She found him looking straight into her eyes as he slowly kissed her palm with his lips. Sandhya felt her body reverberate with the touch of his lips on her hand. His other hand moved up to her face and tenderly moved a wet strand of hair from her face. She closed her eyes as she felt his thumb moving over her cheek delicately. Her heart thumped rapidly. She felt his hot breath close to her and the next thing she knew, his lips were on hers.

Sandhya felt as if she was under a spell. Despite her mind ordering her to do the contrary, she could not move. She was in shock…shock that she was being kissed by this man and that she loved the sensation. Frozen, she just stood there as he caressed her lips with his mouth. Her hands slowly wrapped around his neck and her fingers dug into his hair. She felt him shiver with pleasure when she kissed him back. In a swift motion, he grasped her waist and pulled her against him so tight that there was no distance between their bodies. The force made Sandhya come out of her trance and she opened her eyes. She pulled herself away and pushed him off with her hands on his chest.

Akash opened his eyes and let go of her.

She looked away, trying to gather her thoughts.

“You were right. You should be going,” she muttered.

“Sandhya…” Akash attempted to say something.

“I want to be left alone,” she replied in a distressed voice.

Akash stood looking at her helplessly for a few seconds. He turned around reluctantly and left. Sandhya locked her door, walked in silence towards her bed, sat on it and clutched the edges of the bed with her hands. Tears appeared in her eyes without her knowledge.

Chapter 6 – Shock

S

andhya’s mind was agitated, frustrated. True, she liked Akash’s company and was attracted to him. But what had happened was wrong, totally wrong. They could never belong to each other and she would never want or tolerate a casual relationship. She shuddered that that was probably what he was after. That had to be it since there was no possibility of them ending up together. She could not undo whatever had happened. What could she do to make things right? She looked around the house and the empty silence engulfed her. She wanted the warmth of her father’s hug, the tender hand of her uncle on her head. Why…why did she have to have these feelings for Akash? She walked up to the cupboard and got a wooden box out. It contained her mother’s silk sari, her father’s watch and glasses. She touched the items tenderly with her fingers, then pressed the sari to her face as she tried to absorb her mother’s fragrance. She finally slept clutching the box that night.

~

Akash could not sleep. His mind constantly reminded him of Sandhya. She seemed to be extremely disturbed when he left her and it pained him that he had caused it. If only she had spoken to him instead of avoiding him. Her thoughts possessed his mind; thoughts that he thought he would be able to shrug off. But the more he got to know her, the more he wanted to be close to her. He wanted to be with her so strongly right now that to even think that he would not think about her was unthinkable. He had not expected her to invite him in for tea the other day, though he had hoped that she would someday do that. Just being with her on the porch steps that night had been so blissful. The temptation had been present on that day as well. Thankfully, he kept his resolve then. But yesterday, he couldn’t. What could he do? He felt so comfortable, so light and ecstatic with her that all reason seemed to leave him.

~

Sandhya glanced up from her laptop when she sensed the presence of someone. She stiffened as she found Akash standing at the door of her office, staring at her. The slight dark circles around his eyes indicated that he hadn’t slept that night.

“We need to talk,” he said with a serious tone and soft eyes.

“Yes, we do,” she replied with equal seriousness.

Akash opened his mouth and attempted to say something but words again seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“You…don’t have to explain,” Sandhya spoke as she stood up and turned to look out of the window, her eyes sad.

Akash took a few steps towards her.

“It’s better if we don’t meet unless our work demands it,” she said firmly.

Akash stopped as if he didn’t expect her to say that.

“Why?” he asked with a hint of anger as he took another step and stood in front of her.

She looked away, trying to avoid looking into his eyes, but his close presence and sharp gaze made her heart thud rapidly. Be strong, Sandhya, you need to be strong now, she told herself.

Unable to find the right words to respond, she kept silent.

In a swift motion, he held both her arms in a tight grip and shook her as he demanded, “Look at me, Sandhya.”

She took a couple of seconds before her eyes met his with a determined gaze.

“Why did you kiss me back?” Akash asked.

Her face turned red, and her eyes flashed with anger.

“What are you trying to imply?” she screamed as she shook his hands off her arms and took a step back, away from him.

Akash stepped back, took a few deep breaths and spoke.

“That maybe…there is something strong between us. That maybe we should both give us a chance,” he replied, trying to sound as calm as possible.

“I don’t want to give us a chance,” she shot back.

“But why?”

Sandhya did not reply for a few seconds.

“I am not obligated to answer,” she replied calmly.

Akash stood frozen for a few seconds, as if trying to control his temper.

“As you wish,” he remarked in a sarcastic, subdued, irritated tone, then he turned around and slammed the door with force as he left.

~

Akash wanted to kick his bike. So she did not want to see him! She did not want to give them a chance! So be it! The anger, frustration and irritation that filled his brain might cause him to blow away anything that came before him. Why the heck wouldn’t she tell him what was bothering her in that little head of hers! Damn it!

He did not go to the orphanage to drop her off that evening. With difficulty, he stopped the strong urge to drive to her house and catch a glimpse of her.

~

It had been two days since Sandhya had seen Akash. A part of her was relieved but a part of her was in despair. He might never come, ever. Isn’t this what you wanted? her inner voice questioned. She would perhaps never get to sit here on the porch steps with him anymore. Ever since he left her office, she had not been able to work; every second that passed felt like a burden. His words, “We should give us a chance” rang in her mind again and again. She had done the right thing. Then, why was she feeling terrible? Why was she feeling as if she had made a huge mistake?

Wrapping her arms around herself, she reminded herself that she did not belong here, or at her aunt’s house. There was no place she could call her own and she needed to accept it, live with it and move on. She had not known that she would feel this dreadful without Akash. Once she left this place, she would be able to get over this. She remembered that she had promised Varun that she would meet him and Dhiren at a restaurant at eight. It was supposed to be her treat for getting a job in Mumbai. She made an effort to get ready and started at half past seven, preparing herself for the eerie walk alone.

~

Sandhya looked at her watch for what seemed to be the hundredth time. It was 8:30 and there was not a trace of DVs. She had called up Varun and he had said that he was on his way fifteen minutes ago. The call to Dhiren went to a voice message. When no one turned up by nine, a frustrated and angry Sandhya got up to leave. She found Varun behind her when she turned around.

“Where the heck have you been? I have been waiting for more than an hour here,” she questioned angrily.

“I am very sorry, Sandhya. I got caught up with something on the way.” He tried to calm her in his charming voice.

“Where is Dhiren? He is not picking up his phone.”

“Change of plans at the last minute. He told me that he can’t make it.”

“We could have met another day then.”

“Why? Is my company not enough?” Varun asked teasingly.

Sandhya’s irritation reached its peak.

“I am in no mood for this, Varun. Frankly, I should be going. It is already late and I have lost my appetite,” she replied in anger.

“Hey, chill, Sandhya. I won’t let you leave without eating. I will drop you off before it gets too late…OK?” he requested in a pleading tone.

Sandhya sat reluctantly. Why had they become so irresponsible all of a sudden? She tried to control her anger. Maybe this was unintentional on his part; maybe she was being too harsh. She tried to compose herself and be normal as they ordered their food.

“So, Sandhya, why don’t we have dinner here every night, instead of you cooking your dinner, you know?” Varun asked casually.

“No, Varun. I like being home in the evenings. Cooking for one person doesn’t take a long time, you know,” Sandhya replied, trying to sound calm. Dinner every day…huh? She was having a bad enough experience this one time.

She had hoped that some lively time with them would help her in getting rid of thoughts about Akash. But, she was having an unexpectedly bitter experience. Varun became silent for a few minutes. She caught him gazing below her neck and realized that the dupatta of her salwar kameez was at her neck. She quickly used the dupatta to cover herself, breaking his gaze.

Varun had never done anything like that before but she tried not to be too judgmental. After all, he was a guy. But her mind was disturbed; something about this whole experience was not resting well with her. She finished her food fast, and found Varun taking his own sweet time in finishing his meal. The clock struck ten and she got concerned about getting home. Her instincts warned her that walking was preferable to Varun dropping her off. Sandhya’s hand rested on the table as she waited for him to finish. Suddenly, Varun held her hand. Too shocked to even remove her hand, she looked at him with a questioning glare. Since it was late at night, the restaurant was sparsely occupied with customers. He smiled at her as his thumb caressed her hand. She immediately removed her hand from his. He stopped smiling.

“What are you doing, Varun?” she asked firmly.

Instead of replying, he called the waiter and ordered a drink. Sandhya glared at him in disbelief. He was ordering alcohol at this time? She called the waiter and paid the bill. After all, it was her treat, she thought sarcastically.

Varun watched her pay in silence, gulping the liquor down his throat.

She picked up her purse and tried to get up, only to find Varun grabbing her hand again, this time tight enough so she couldn’t get away from him.

“I like you, Sandhya,” he said, looking into her eyes.

Another jolt of shock hit Sandhya. She sat down, her hand still in his. Her initial reaction gave way to a sinking feeling. Her heart sank because she knew that her relationship with him as a friend would not be the same again.

“Varun, I am sorry, but I never thought of our relationship that way. I have always thought of you as a good friend,” she explained.

“But that can change, can’t it, Sandhya?”

“It’s not going to change, Varun. I am sorry, but friendship is all I can offer.” She tried to be gentle while trying to free her hand. He did not let go of her hand.

By now, a few people at the restaurant watched them as she got desperate to free her hand.

“There is someone else in the picture, isn’t it?” His question and the look in his eyes made her shudder.

What could she tell him? Technically, she was single but she could not deny to herself that her mind was filled with thoughts about Akash right now.

“Let go of my hand, Varun. People are staring at us,” she demanded coarsely.

“Since when are you concerned about people staring at you? You never had any issues roaming around with guys, you know,” he replied sarcastically.

“Enough of this, Varun,” Sandhya shouted angrily as she freed her hand with all the force that she could muster.

She stood up and started walking out.

“You cannot escape me, Sandhya,” Varun muttered behind her.

Her body trembling in anger, she increased her pace, feeling the need to get away from him as soon as possible. She glanced back and breathed in relief when she saw that Varun had not followed her out of the restaurant. Walking alone this late scared her but there were no auto rickshaws in sight. She cursed herself for not having saved enough to buy a two-wheeler yet.

Just then she saw a familiar figure walking into the parking lot.

“Akash!” Sandhya felt a sharp pang in her heart.

She hesitated. Would he not even look at her? The awareness that he saw her and yet turned the other way caused a fresh wave of pain to crash into her heart. Maybe he did not miss her at all and here she was, all messed up and depressed with thoughts about him. Her heart sank at the thought. She deliberated if she should ask him to take her home. Right then, she heard footsteps behind her. Varun was walking towards her, his drooling eyes and sinister smile pointed at her.

She ran towards Akash but slowed down as she approached him and called, “Akash.”

Akash turned around and stared at her with a coldness that made her shudder. Ignoring his unfriendly gaze, Sandhya took a step towards him in desperation, hoping to escape the current situation.

“Could you…please drop me home?” Sandhya requested in a hesitating tone.

Varun’s footsteps got closer. Akash glanced behind her and his eyes became darker for a second. He turned his bike around and halted before her. She got the hint and sat, hoping that they could escape before Varun caused more drama.

Both of them were silent throughout the journey. Sandhya felt terrible. How did she make such a huge mistake in recognizing Varun? Did Varun invite Dhiren at all?

She was with only Varun when they had talked about the treat. Maybe this was a plan of Varun’s to get her out with him alone at night. He felt creepy. She hoped that he would come back to his normal senses, but she knew that she would not meet him or go out with him, nor be his friend again after the way he had behaved.

A road bump caused her to hit Akash’s back, and she jerked out of her thoughts. She was holding the handle at the back and not holding his shoulder as she used to do. Her heart cried in despair as she realized the silence and the distance that had crept between them. She wanted to talk to the pleasant and friendly Akash. But no, she shouldn’t. This was her choice, she realized in dismay. The bike came to a screeching halt in front of her house and she came out of her gloomy thoughts.

“Thanks,” she muttered in a low voice after mustering up the strength to look at him. Who knew when she would get to see him again? The circles around his eyes had become darker.

Not getting any other response to her thanks other than his cold, indifferent stare, she started walking.

“Don’t expect me to drop you the next time you want to flirt with someone late at night. Is that clear?” His sharp voice rippled through the silent night.

She turned around and stared at him in disbelief. How dare he? The blood within her pulsed faster in agitation. She’d had a bad day already, and now it was worse. Controlling herself, she turned again and started walking towards her house. All she wanted was to be left alone.

In a second, Akash was off his bike, standing in front of her. He held her arms tight in an iron grip, turning her to face him.

“How dare you go without answering me?”

She was afraid for an instant. The next moment, it was replaced with anger.

“What do you want?” she replied angrily.

“You won’t be seeing Varun or the other guys,” he ordered in a commanding voice mixed with anger.

She stood staring at him in disbelief, her patience reaching its limit.

“Is that so? I will go with whoever I want, whenever I want. Who are you to control me? I don’t belong to you,” she shot back while returning his stern stare, her eyes wide open and her face red with anger.

His grip loosened. She pulled herself away from him and walked to the front door. He simply stood there, his hands hanging by his sides. She unlocked the door, sensing his strong gaze on her back. Her head might just blow up with the pressure she was dealing with. She switched on the lights and turned around to close her door. Just as the door was about to close, Akash pushed it open with a sudden thrust. In an instant Akash was inside and closed it shut.

He seemed more furious than ever. She was terrified. He sprang onto her, held her head in an iron grip and bent it upwards so she was gazing straight into his blazing dark eyes. His other hand pressed her back so strongly that she was smashed against him.

“Don’t you dare say that you don’t belong to me.” It was almost a coarse whisper.

He crashed into her lips and kissed her brutally, viciously. She tried to push him off but her efforts were in vain; he was way too strong for her. He continued kissing her so intense that she finally winced in pain. He must have heard her, as the next instant, he let go of her and took a few steps back.

Sandhya tried to catch her breath, her body trembling with fear; her eyes swelled up with tears.

Chapter 7 – Love

S

andhya stood still, her heart beating rapidly, her stunned and angry eyes not leaving Akash, as if she needed to be prepared for his next attack. He looked more shocked than angry now. His eyes softened.

“Sandhya.” He took a step towards her with one hand outstretched.

Sandhya held her hand in front of her. Akash halted.

“Just leave me alone. Get out of here!” she screamed.

Akash’s expression changed into an infuriated one.

[_He’s going to hurt me again! _]her mind warned.

He stood still, staring at her. “Why are you doing this, Sandhya?” he asked grimly.

“What! What did I do?”

“Why don’t you want us to be together?”

“This is not the time to talk about it. Leave!” she demanded as she sprang to the door and opened it. Akash pounced at the door at the same time and slammed it shut, his hand over hers as it held the knob.

“Like it or not, I am not going anywhere until we talk,” he hissed with his face close to her.

“I already told you what I had to,” she replied, trying to hide her panic. Her body shivered, ever since he was near her again. He still seemed furious, and she had no clue what he would do next.

“I am not going to hurt you, Sandhya. I just have to talk to you,” he asserted, still looking at her.

Sandhya slowly freed her hands from under his and took a step away from him. It was obvious that he wouldn’t leave her without getting her explanation. Her body trembled in shock and fear. Suddenly, Akash left her and walked into the kitchen as she stood still, trying to understand what he was doing. He came back with two glasses of water.

“Here, have water first.”

Sandhya took the water reluctantly and took a few sips.

“Sit on the sofa,” he ordered.

Sandhya did not know why, but she followed his instructions and sat on the sofa with the water.

Akash stood a couple of feet away and slowly finished his water, taking deep breaths. A few minutes passed in silence as their minds relaxed. He knelt before her, his eyes looking straight at her. He was closer to his original self now. She felt uncomfortable with him sitting there with his gaze on her but weirdly, she was not angry or afraid of him now. She looked away.

“You need to understand, Sandhya. I am not able to let you go from my thoughts. I need to know why. I thought you liked me. I thought you wanted me like I want you in my life. But I could be wrong.”

She stared at him with discomfort.

“These two days were no less than hell for me. I thought that what I had for you was attraction, nothing more. But I got some time to think and straighten my thoughts. Now I know for sure what I want. But I need to know what you want.”

“Tell me that you don’t like me. Tell me that you don’t want me or that I am not worthy enough for you. Whatever may be the reason, I need to know to let you go.

“I am not sure if I can let you go even if I want to, especially after…after how I behaved a few minutes ago. But I will ensure that I won’t bother you again. I will take up another job and leave here,” he said in an agonized tone.

A sudden fear crept within Sandhya as his words sank in. She stared into his pained eyes, knowing that he meant what he said. He would go away, forever. The thought was unbearable; it torched her within as if life itself would be moving away from her, leaving her with no spirit or soul.

“But before I leave, I want you to know that I…I love you.”

Sandhya froze. Did she hear him right? Her eyes met his and her heart, which seemed to have stopped a second earlier, started pumping so fast that her body shook uncontrollably. Did he mean what he said? Could he really love her?

“Don’t worry, Sandhya. It’s my problem. I will deal with it. But I need to know that you don’t have such feelings for me.”

She looked away. Tears streamed down her cheeks with no desire to stop. His expression softened with sadness as he bent closer and gently wiped her tears.

“Don’t cry, Sandhya. If telling me the reason is so painful for you, then don’t. I can’t see you crying like this.”

She held his hands, pulled them down and mustered the strength to speak.

“It’s me who is not worthy enough for you. You have everything to offer me and I don’t have anything. I am just a girl trying to survive and make ends meet. You belong to the wealthiest family in this place. Our upbringing, our backgrounds, in fact everything about us except these feelings for each other, are totally different. We are not equals in this society, rather we belong to the opposite ends of the spectrum.” Her voice quivered.

He looked shocked by what he heard.

“So that’s the problem? Me being from a wealthy family?” he asked as he took her hands into his tenderly.

“I want to be with someone with whom I won’t feel little so I can live with my head held high,” she explained in agony.

“Why do you think that way, Sandhya? My family might be wealthy, but I did not earn that wealth. I am just a struggling architect who doesn’t earn much. And with your intelligence, I am sure you can beat anyone in terms of being rich.”

She looked at him softly. Her heart soared high, and she realized that she loved him more than ever, at that instant.

“But should you even give that aspect so much importance? Think, Sandhya. Do you want to let go of whatever we have between us and regret it for the rest of your life?

“I am happy when you are around and that is all that matters to me. Without you, nothing would make me rich, I would be the poorest man on this earth.”

A silent Sandhya kept staring at him in awe before her face became rigid again.

She hesitated before speaking up. “I cannot tolerate imposition of rules just because…” She halted as if trying to search for the right words.

He understood what she was after and replied grimly, “I was only concerned about you.”

She narrowed her eyes. He exhaled in resignation.

“Well…OK…I was deadly jealous of them.”

A tiny smile threatened to dance on her lips. Her mind cleared up as a few seconds passed in silence.

“OK,” she finally said, looking away from him.

“OK what?” he asked, his voice shaking.

“I will never say…that I don’t belong to you,” she said slowly and quietly, gazing at him with a faint smile.

Akash took a couple of seconds to fully register her words. His eyes sparkled with tears as he smiled. Sandhya stood and pulled him up.

They stood staring into each other, smiling, their hearts filled with love, their hands held together. The next instant, they crashed into each other’s arms in an affectionate embrace.

Akash’s warm chest gave her solace that she had not felt in years. Her eyes closed as she wrapped him tighter, feeling their hearts beating together. She wanted to hold on to him forever, never wanting to let go of him even for a moment.

Chapter 8 – Bliss

W

as this a dream? As Akash held Sandhya, he soared into an unknown, unexplainable bliss that he had never experienced. She was his! His and only his! The mere thought made his heart race with joy. Her arms loosened around him and he let her come out of their embrace. Without warning, he held her waist, pulled her thin frame up in the air and twirled her around. She held his shoulders and laughed until he put her on the ground.

“Sandhya!” he whispered and touched his forehead to hers.

She stared at him with moist eyes, too lost for words to explain her own happiness.

He caught her glancing at the clock; it was close to midnight. Awkwardness crept between them and they stood not knowing what to do next.

With a weak smile, he managed to say, “It’s very late, I should leave.”

To his dismay, she nodded with a sad smile.

“I will see you tomorrow.” He held back the urge to kiss her, knowing that he had hurt her enough. With every cell in his body wishing against it, he walked out to his bike. She leaned against the door and gazed at him softly as he waved his hand and disappeared on the road.

~

Sandhya stared at the ceiling as she lay on her bed, not wanting to lose this ecstasy by sleeping. Akash loved her! This was true! Was she destined for this much happiness? Could this be the end of her suffering and loneliness? She wasn’t sure of how, why or what pulled her towards Akash, only that it felt much stronger than the word ‘love.’ A blissful sleep enveloped her as she closed her eyes, with her arms cuddling a pillow and a smile on her face.

~

The morning rays shone softly as Sandhya switched off the alarm. Sleep wore off just a bit and the excitement and joy returned; she fought the urge to meet Akash, as if she needed to confirm that what she remembered was not a dream. A flicker of apprehension passed through her; she hardly knew Akash, yet she trusted him and his words. Though he made everything seem so easy and simple, the practical thing to do was to take more time to get to know him better. She shrugged off her apprehensions. For once, she wanted to follow her heart, pushing all her doubts aside. Now she understood how Asha must have felt for Ashok. She smiled and hugged herself. He had said that he would see her today; did he mean in the evening? How could she wait so long?

She remembered Varun and her happiness gave way to uneasiness. Lunches with DVs were out of the question now.

She took extra time searching for a dress, finally settling for a long skirt and top. Sandhya opened the makeup set that Asha had given her and applied the contents lightly, standing longer than usual in front of the mirror. Normally, she would only use her strawberry-flavored lip-gloss and face powder. When ready, she picked up her purse, opened the door and gasped. Akash sat on the porch steps with his back towards her. He turned to her and smiled, looking fresh as the morning dew with his hair neatly set in place. The jeans and black T-shirt fit him perfectly and he exuded a casual, classy appearance.

“Good morning,” he greeted cheerfully.

“G-good morning,” she stuttered and smiled, pulling the stray locks of loose hair on her face behind her ears.

“Why didn’t you ring the doorbell?”

“Didn’t want to alarm you too early. I enjoyed sitting on the steps, viewing your garden in the morning sun and…feeling your presence,” he added slowly.

Sandhya shifted on her feet nervously, amused and elated by his poetic words. Why did her heart beat this rapidly just at his appreciative eyes on her? Her classmates had complimented her many times in her college days. She had shooed a few of the boys who had shown interest in her without batting an eyelid.

“I wanted to drop you at work if it’s OK with you.”

Hmm…So, he is asking for permission after all the bossing around, she thought, smiling.

“I would love that,” she replied.

~

As they rode to the orphanage amidst the cool breeze, Akash’s heart fluttered in happiness. As soon as he had seen his sweetheart’s shocked and joyous eyes, he was reassured. He wondered whether he should ask her to go to lunch with him; he did hate her going out with that Varun and Dhiren. But of course, he would not tell her that.

“So…I will see you…” He halted, wondering if she would get the hint.

“I will be ready by five in the evening for you to pick me up,” she replied hesitantly with a faint smile.

“Sounds good.” He smiled, hiding his disappointment.

~

Sandhya ate lunch at her desk and as expected, her cell phone vibrated.

“Hi, Dhiren.”

“Hey, Sandhya! Where are you? We are waiting for you.”

We? That means Varun must be there too, acting all innocent, she thought bitterly.

“Sorry, Dhiren. I have extra work to finish at the orphanage and I cannot spare the time to go out for lunches for a few weeks,” she lied, swallowing the guilt. She wasn’t comfortable revealing the true reason to him.

“Oh!” He paused and continued, “As you say, Sandhya. Call me if you ever need anything, OK? Remember that you do have your friends out here.”

“Thanks, Dhiren. I will,” she replied and ended the call. That wasn’t fun, but at least Varun’s case was handled. She glanced at the clock; four more hours before she saw Akash again.

~

Akash was pleased that Sandhya did not go out for lunch with Varun and Dhiren. Thank goodness…she was sensible enough not to be with that stupid drunkard Varun and his friend. When he picked her up, he could sense her excitement to meet him, just like his. He wanted to hug her, but it was broad daylight in a conservative village. Even otherwise, he resolved that he wouldn’t touch her without her consent. It would be as difficult as walking on a tightrope, but he needed to endure the sweet pain.

The next few days flew by blissfully as they spent most of their mornings and evenings with each other. Sandhya became more comfortable with him and shared almost everything about her life. She told him that she had to move out because she could not agree to marry according to her aunt’s wishes; she did not mention the type of match her aunt had gotten for her.

Akash shared details about his family; his intellectual dad who was generally busy with work, his conservative mom whose current obsession was to get him married. And of course, his adorable little sister Puja. Sandhya could clearly see his affection for her.

“You are so lucky to have such a family by your side,” she said as she snaked her arm into his.

“Maybe…but they can get on my nerves sometimes,” he replied, grinning.

~

Akash eyed her from top to bottom with a weird look on his face.

“Is a sari alright for wherever we are going?” she asked nervously. It was the weekend and Akash had requested Sandhya be ready as he wanted to take her to a place which he wouldn’t reveal. She had decided on a simple cream-colored chiffon sari to wear.

He took a few seconds before answering.

“It should be alright,” he replied with the same strange expression. He had come in a car rather than his usual bike.

“Where are we going?” she asked, wondering what was wrong with him.

“You will know in a couple of hours.”

“Couple of hours!”

He smirked. “My, my! Is the little tigress afraid?”

She smiled. Phew! He was getting back to normal. Good.

The drive was smooth and enjoyable as they passed through many villages and scenic hills. By evening, they were on top of a mountain with dense trees enveloping them. Akash led her to a walking trail among the trees. Suddenly, the trees cleared up and she found herself in a beautiful open space with lush green grass hugging her feet and exotic flowering plants in full bloom scattered in all directions. They were overlooking a river with crystal-clear blue water and mountains all around. Bright colors splashed in the sky, amidst scattered clouds bathed in the evening sun.

She gasped with excitement, spread out her arms, tilted her head up and circled around while Akash watched her with satisfaction. He held her hand and led her to a bench.

“Like it?”

She tugged his arm and exclaimed, “I have never seen such a beautiful place before. This is paradise! Of course I love it!”

The sun started to set, painting the sky in layers of red, orange and lavender.

“How did you know that the sky at sunset was my favorite?” she asked, overwhelmed.

Akash smiled and she looked at him, puzzled.

“It symbolizes us,” he murmured, then brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. It was then that it hit her.

Akash meant “Sky” and Sandhya meant “Evening.” The sky at sunset symbolized them; they were meant to be. That moment, everything fell in place. The world was perfect and life could not be better. Akash placed his head on her lap and watched the sunset. She looked at his face, and got a sudden urge to touch it. Involuntarily, she traced her finger from his temple to his cheek to his chin. He turned, his dark eyes meeting hers. She did not know what made her do what she did. With her palms cupping his face gently, she bent down and kissed him tenderly on his lips. Instantly, she sat upright and looked away. Akash sat upright, held her chin and turned her face towards him. She could not look into his eyes.

“Kiss me again…” His tone did not sound pleading. Her shy eyes suddenly shot up.

“Is that an order?” she asked sternly.

“Of course. You have admitted that you belong to me. So I get to order whatever I want from you,” he replied, maintaining his serious tone.

Sandhya sat still for a second.

“Yes, sir.” She inched her face towards his. When it was a quarter-inch from his face, she pushed him and ran away, laughing her heart out.

“You think you can get away with that?” he shouted teasingly as he ran after her.

He soon caught her wrist and pinned her against a tree. Breathing heavily, she stood still as he towered over her, his gaze magically encapsulating her.

She knew what was going through his mind and smiled. As his lips found hers, she reveled in the gentle sweetness of their kiss and how it grew intense as he held her tightly, as if his passion, bottled up for so long, had been unleashed. Sandhya was amazed by the power he held over her. He was right; she belonged to him.

Chapter 9 – Happiness

T

heir arms intertwined, Akash and Sandhya took a pleasant walk on the trail by the river as the sun slowly disappeared behind the mountains.

“Let’s get back to our car before it gets too dark,” Akash said.

Akash drove down the mountain and stopped at a restaurant. They settled in an outdoor dining area, enjoying the moonlight by the river. A couple of young girls giggled amongst themselves as they checked out Akash, irritating Sandhya. She observed him; he was an attractive man, perhaps the definition of ‘hot.’ One couldn’t blame the girls but couldn’t they see that she was with him? She grabbed his hand and glanced at the girls. It worked, she thought, smiling.

Akash glanced sideways towards the girls and let out a chuckle.

Damn…I get caught so easily, Sandhya mused to herself.

After dinner, they walked on a local street with various vendors on the roadside. Sandhya stopped by a stall where an old lady was selling exquisitely designed glass bangles that seemed to be priced low for what they were truly worth. She picked up a beautiful set of red bangles and started to open her purse to pay.

“What are you doing? How could you think about paying when I am around?” Akash shouted, pulling his wallet out. Taken aback, she stood still, not liking that he had shouted at her in public. Why should it matter who paid?

“Fine, pay for it,” she replied curtly. Akash dug through his wallet and cursed, realizing there was no change left. He looked around for an ATM station nearby.

She pleaded, “Akash, why does this bother you so much? Your money or my money, it doesn’t matter to me. Please let me pay.”

Akash looked at her, disturbed. “Fine.” He gave in.

Sandhya handed over the money, took the bangles and put them in her purse with glee.

He was silent as they walked towards the secluded area where the car was parked.

“Why does this bother you so much?” she asked, trying to shake off the silence.

It was a few seconds before he replied in a low voice, “You wanted something for the first time, and I couldn’t give it to you. I wonder if I can make you happy.”

Sandhya halted, bewildered. “You…” Her voice broke off as she tried to find the right words to make him understand how absurdly he was thinking.

“You…will never know what you have given me, Akash. It’s something that I cannot explain or show you,” she replied, her words quivering with the emotions running within her.

“You have given me genuine love and affection. A sense of belonging for which I have been yearning for I do not remember how long.” She took his hands within hers and continued, “So please, don’t think this way. I would never want to be the cause of misery in your life. If you want me to be happy, then don’t give yourself painful thoughts because it will pain me more.”

He stared into her eyes in understanding.

“As you say, sweetie,” he replied, his lips curling up in a gentle smile.

Once inside the car, Sandhya took out the bangles from her purse, removed the wrapper and touched them with her fingers.

“They match your sari. Wear them now.”

She looked at him in amusement. “Do you always make a habit of bossing people around or is it just with me?” she asked with fake anger.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I can and would be bossy around anything that’s mine,” he replied with mock arrogance. Sandhya rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. Guess she had to live under his command for the rest of her life. The thought made her smile.

Taking her hand with one hand and the bangles with another, he started sliding them onto her wrist. Sandhya remembered something and asked, “What type of dresses do you like? I already know that you don’t like traditional ones like saris.”

He frowned as he continued to slide the bangles on. “You look good in anything you wear. And I don’t know why you think I don’t like saris,” he said with a curious and concerned expression on his face.

“Well, you gave me a strange look when you saw me today in this sari, and you said, ‘It’s alright’ or something like that,” she recalled.

Akash stopped sliding the bangles. His now dark eyes searched through her face, and the same weird expression that she had seen earlier appeared on his face. He looked away.

She gulped. What did she say wrong?

He looked back at her and said hesitantly, “You were looking extremely…extremely sensuous.”

She gasped. He started sliding the bangles on again.

“I knew that every second that I spent with you today without touching you would be silently killing me.”

It was then that she saw the intense desire written all over his face, the desire that he was trying hard to hide. The atmosphere was suddenly charged with electricity. She became acutely aware of the touch of his fingers over her hand, his simple touch creating a frenzy within her. She closed her eyes, her heart beating unevenly. Oh no…she had not expected this at all. He had to stop touching her. She opened her eyes and tried her best to control her breathing as she waited for him to finish sliding on the last bangle.

To her dismay, instead of leaving her hands alone, he started running his fingers up and down the bangles on her wrist, making a jingling sound. He kissed the bangles and then her hands, making her shudder at the sensations going on within her.

Afraid that her eyes would give away what she felt, she looked away. She gently tried to nudge her hand out of his. His hands gripped hers tighter, not allowing her to free herself. She looked at him questioningly, certain now that he must be hearing her loud heartbeat.

The moment her eyes met his penetrating dark eyes, her heart melted. A nerve beat rapidly on his neck as his hands moved up her arm, sending tingling sensations throughout her body. Akash leaned towards her, and started kissing her neck. She shuddered and clenched her hands into a fist, trying to resist the urge to feel his body with her hands. Unable to move, she fought within herself as his lips sent waves of pleasure through her that she had never felt before. His hand ran through her hair and he inhaled the scent of her long, dense tresses.

“Do you know how bewitching you are?” he muttered, breathing heavily as he cupped her face and kissed it all over.

Her attempts to push his hands away were in vain as his strong hands continued to rake her body with desperation. His hands explored her bare waist as he kissed her mouth passionately. She felt the hidden desire within her emerge. This seemed so right and yet…this was wrong. A part of her desperately wanted him to continue but another part of her was screaming that they needed to stop. His hand moved up to her shoulder to remove the drape of her sari. She held his hand with all the strength that she could muster.

His eyes flashed in anger as he pushed her hand aside with force and removed the drape in a split second. She saw him ravishing her body with his eyes. He was about to crash into her again when she shrieked and placed both of her hands on his chest, pushing him away.

“Stop… please!” she screamed with tears in her eyes.

He froze, his heart beating rapidly under her palm. He looked at her with pained, questioning eyes. Taking the opportunity, she quickly draped the sari over her shoulder and looked away, wiping her tears.

The seat creaked as he settled back in his seat. After a few moments of intense silence, she heard the engine start. He was hurt and disappointed and she hated the feeling.

The silence was killing her. They had not spoken for the past thirty minutes. She opened her mouth.

“Akash.”

He did not reply for a few seconds. Was he still angry at her?

“Mm,” she finally heard him say.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she tried to explain, “but I am a bit old-fashioned.”

Again he was silent and kept looking ahead. Uneasiness built within Sandhya with his non response.

“Please understand, Akash.” Her voice quivered.

He turned to look at her; there was no anger in his eyes. He took her hand in his.

“Of course I understand, Sandhya. You want us to wait until we are married,” Akash said softly.

“I can wait for you forever.”

Her heart jumped. One moment it seemed that he didn’t understand her and the next, he acted like he knew her inside and out.

Sandhya gripped his hand tightly and pulled it towards her, unable to contain her happiness.

She did not let go of his hand until they reached her home.

Chapter 10 – Disturbed

A

kash and Sandhya were having lunch under a banyan tree near the orphanage as the kids played nearby.

“What are you doing? Two for me and one for you!” Akash exclaimed.

“I am not that hungry.”

“Look at yourself. Do you know how thin you are?” He gave a chapatti back to Sandhya.

“Fine…we will split it evenly.” She tore the chapatti into two pieces and gave a piece to him.

He frowned but did not fight.

“Am I too thin?” she mused.

Akash paused chewing. “Hey, I didn’t mean it in that way. You will always be beautiful to me, even when you get fat like a balloon, if that’s your concern.”

She laughed. Akash smiled within. She could put on a few pounds for the better though, he thought, but didn’t say it out loud. He had meant what he said. She was the most beautiful woman for him. He loved the person she was inside and it was something beyond appearances.

A girl ran after Roja shouting, “Hey! That’s cheating!”

Sandhya smiled as she watched Roja running around. She was behaving just how a ten-year-old should, mischievous and cheerful. Only two days ago, she had seemed distraught. She had discussed Roja’s behavior with Mr. George and the ladies that worked at the orphanage, but they all declared that it was her natural behavior. Not satisfied, Sandhya had decided to note the events happening and track Roja’s mood swings every day.

Akash gripped her hand. “Sweetie, you are lost again.”

Sandhya immediately retracted her hands from his.

Akash shook his head. “Are you scared of being with me in public?”

“More than me, you need to be the one concerned. Imagine how your family would react if they find out about us!” Sandhya replied in anger.

“Maybe not too well. But I don’t care.”

She shook her head. “At least we should make sure that they don’t get humiliated. It’s better that they find out about us from you than someone else.”

“I guess you are right,” he sighed.

~

Sandhya waited for Akash on the porch steps. It was Sunday morning and he had asked her to keep her day free. She heard his bike and ran out into her front yard to greet him.

“What’s this?” She pointed to the packet in his hand with curiosity as they walked inside.

“Open it and see for yourself,” he replied, closing the front door. She opened it.

“It’s a dress? How can I wear that? I can’t be myself in it, and you must have spent a lot of money on it. It will all be a wasted if I don’t wear it. Can’t we exchange it and get some other dress?” Sandhya blurted with no pauses in between as she held the dress up. It was a one-piece black dress—simple yet classy—but what got most attention from Sandhya was how skimpy it was. She saw Akash’s expression as he stood against the wall with his arms folded, and mellowed a little.

“Fine. I will tell you the shop address. You can return it and get whatever dresses you want,” he said curtly and turned around.

“Wait.” She held his arm. He shrugged her hand off.

“I am asking you to wear a simple dress on my birthday and you won’t think twice before—” He halted, and started walking out as Sandhya stood dumbfounded. It was his birthday! How was she supposed to know that? She ran and stood in front of him.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she pleaded and gave him a kiss on his cheek. “Happy Birthday!”

He folded his arms. She pulled the bridge of his nose, smiling. “Fine, I will wear it.”

She grabbed his hand and dragged him inside, before disappearing into the bedroom to change. The dress was off shoulder and it only reached a few inches above her knees. It hugged her body perfectly and seemed to be made for her measurements. She pulled the dress down so that her legs would be covered more but that only resulted in pulling the top portion of the dress even lower, making her feel even more exposed. Akash knocked for the third time. She took a deep breath and opened the latch.

Clutching the hem of the dress, she stood rooted to the ground, severely conscious of her exposed skin. He stood motionless at the door for a few seconds before taking a step towards her. Her heart beat like a drum, and she felt as though she would melt in his gaze. She shut her eyes tight. His finger touched her neck and traveled towards her shoulder until it reached the sleeve. The next moment, she was engulfed in an embrace.

“Akash,” she murmured, trying to breathe.

“I know… I know, sweetie,” he whispered back. He kissed her forehead and pulled himself back. She breathed easy. They looked at each other in silent understanding, their eyes twinkling with dreams of their future together. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, touched his cheek with hers from the side and exclaimed, “You look like a model, sweetie…and really…hot!”

She smiled. “Why do you call me sweetie?”

He laughed and pulled her cheeks. “Because, you are very, very sweet, sweetie!”

“By the way, I have something else for you.” He dug in his pocket and got a small box out. She opened it and gasped. It was a thin gold necklace with a single round diamond pendant and must have cost a fortune. Her brows knitted in apprehension.

“Akash, I know it is your birthday, but I am not comfortable taking this.”

“Shhh, Sandhya. I bought it with my own pay; please don’t spoil my mood,” he said, sliding the necklace on her neck as she stood reluctantly.

“This is weird and unfair. It is your birthday and you are giving gifts to me when I should be the one giving you gifts. Why didn’t you tell me that it was your birthday before?” she asked angrily.

He laughed and pinched her nose. “Because this is exactly how I wanted this day to be.”

They spent the rest of the day at her house watching movies and playing board games. In the evening, they sat by the porch steps, their favorite place, having snacks and tea.

Her mind drifted away. She saw a vision of their children playing around in the garden. There were two of them running after each other and Akash was playing with them.

“Hello?” Akash nudged her. “What are you thinking?”

Sandhya smiled and replied, “About our kids.”

“Sweetie, we need to get married before having kids, unless—” he started.

Sandhya poked him with her elbow. “It doesn’t hurt to dream.”

Akash laughed. “If we have a girl, I want to name her Saanya,” Akash declared.

“What does it mean?” Sandhya turned to look at him.

“Don’t know, just like the sound of it.”

“I always liked the name Divya. Short, sweet and it has such a beautiful meaning: divine,” Sandhya mused.

“Isn’t it an old name?” He frowned.

She slapped his arm.

“But if we have a boy, I have already decided on one name: Arnav Singh Raizada Rai,” she exclaimed excitedly.

Akash opened his mouth in a big O. “What kind of name is that?”

Sandhya rolled her eyes.

“Since we are in future mode, there is one thing that I will not compromise on when you become my wife,” he declared. “A morning bed coffee, straight to my bed!”

“No way!” she exclaimed.

“That is my demand if you want to marry me!” he stated in mock arrogance.

“Fine, then I won’t marry you,” she challenged in the same mocking tone.

He frowned. She shook her head, laughing, and wondered at how the world seemed much more colorful and vibrant ever since he had entered her life. Just two months ago, she was this ambitious girl who wanted to stand on her own feet and be independent. Now, her ambitions didn’t matter that much. As long as she had him in her life, she would be happy; she didn’t need anything else. She could imagine living happily in this small house with him and their children.

“When do you have to leave for Mumbai?” Akash asked, breaking her train of thought.

“In about four weeks,” she replied, saddened by the awareness.

“Sandhya, why don’t we get married right now?”

Sandhya looked at him, speechless. Was she really this close to her dream?

She laid her head on his shoulder as he stroked her hair with his fingers.

“I want to wait a few months, Akash. That would be the right thing. I need to start work in four weeks in Mumbai and you have to go back to Pune. Even if we get married, we can’t live together, unless I quit my job, which I don’t want to do,” she replied and sat upright. “Also, I need some time to settle down and save. There are rituals in which a girl’s family is supposed to provide some minimal things in a marriage. Although my parents are not here to bless me, I want to make sure that things happen the way they would have wanted, if they were alive.”

Akash was silent as he gazed at her softly.

“But…if you strongly want to marry right now, I won’t object,” she continued.

He kissed her forehead and replied, “I can wait for six months. Meanwhile, we can try to search for jobs in the same city.”

She did not know whether she was happy or sad after hearing Akash; she was dreading the separation that was imminent between them.

“Akash, will your parents accept me?” she whispered.

Akash was silent for a few seconds. “I think my sister would readily accept you. My dad, he might be neutral. It’s my mom that I am worried about. She is conservative, but at the same time, very unpredictable too. But it’s my problem to convince them. I don’t want you to worry about it, OK?”

“OK,” Sandhya replied, praying that everything would work out as she hoped.

~

“What are you doing here, Varun?”

Sandhya returned from her break and found Varun inside her office.

“Hi, babe, I just came to see you. I was worrying about you, you know,” he replied, grinning.

She tried hard to compose herself and folded her hands.

“Firstly, you need not be concerned about me. Secondly, you are not calling me “babe” again. Thirdly, you will not enter my office without my permission!” she screamed.

“Ouch…that hurt!” Varun exclaimed mockingly, clutching his heart.

He looked at her seriously. “It’s Akash…right?”

She gasped. How did he know about Akash and me?

Seeing that he was observing her, she quickly masked her feelings.

“Gajanan! Gajanan!” she shouted.

He took a step towards her. “Why, Sandhya, why don’t you like me? What’s there in Akash that I don’t have?”

“I am not listening to your gibberish, Varun. You are poking your head into my life much more than you should. I am warning you, stay away from me,” she hissed with her index finger pointed at him.

Varun suddenly sprang and stood between her and the office door, his face furious.

“You think he has more money. Is that why? Let me tell you this much. Within a year, I will be the richest guy in this district.”

“I don’t care how rich or poor you plan to be, Varun.”

“Are you dreaming about marrying Akash? Stop dreaming about him, babe, he will never marry you. You are just a convenient toy for him. He will throw you out of his life in no time.”

Sandhya was stunned as his words hit her. She shouldn’t believe him, but she still felt a painful sting in her heart. Her hands held the chair tightly, hoping that this moment would pass and her head would clear up soon.

“Did he ever mention Kavya to you? No? I expected as much. The beautiful one and only Kavya has been selected as his future wife since childhood. And you would also love to know that she belongs to a very wealthy, well known, well respected family, with a lot of dowry set for her marriage.” Varun continued his attack.

Sandhya gripped the chair tighter, finding no air around her.

“Sandhya, madam, did you call me?” She heard Gajanan’s voice.

Varun left swiftly as soon as Gajanan came.

With difficulty, she got the words out of her mouth. “Leave me alone for a while.”

She closed the door and slumped on the chair.

“Breathe, Sandhya, breathe. This is not true. He was just making things up. Your Akash will never desert you. This moment will pass,” she kept on telling herself as she tried to take deep breaths.

Chapter 11 – Scared

S

andhya held back her desperation to know more about Kavya and decided that she would not question Akash about it. Why should she doubt Akash just because of what Varun had said? Her hands held the file where she maintained the details regarding Roja’s behavior and the events at the orphanage. She sighed after looking at them for the third time. A thought crossed her mind and she froze; there was a pattern that she could see. She gasped, hoping that her observation was not true. A person’s life could be destroyed if she took one wrong step; she had to be absolutely sure before coming to any conclusions. Maybe she was thinking too much; maybe this was just a coincidence. With her hand on her forehead, she decided on a plan that would probably provide the answer.

~

A bored Akash sat among the guests. He had tried to avoid the Sangeet ceremony of the village president’s daughter’s wedding. All he wanted was to spend as much time as possible with Sandhya but his mom was adamant this time and he had run out of excuses. It frustrated him to go without seeting Sandhya even one day; how would he tolerate the separation when they both moved to different cities? He recalled the way she had continually tugged at the dress he had bought for her, trying to cover her shapely legs. He smiled. [_My Sandhya…my cute and innocent Sandhya. _]He caught his sister Puja dancing merrily to the Bollywood songs that the DJ played.

He blinked a couple of times. There was this gorgeous girl wearing a classic turquoise Ghagra with embroidery all over the dress, standing shyly among all the girls on the stage. Her eyes shifted and met his; instantly they sparkled, and a smile lit her face. His heart skipped a beat. This girl never ceased to surprise him. He smiled widely, his heart filling with joy. His Sandhya was here! Seated far from the stage, he started enjoying himself as he watched Sandhya dance to the music along with the others.

He found some guys checking her out and gritted his teeth. A few of the guys joined the girls on the dance floor. Sandhya danced gracefully with his sister Puja and a few more girls. She signaled for him to join them. Akash moved his head sideways. Nah. He wasn’t into dancing, that was all girly stuff. He looked sideways to check if his parents were taking notice of Sandhya; it would make his life so easy if they liked her. But, as he suspected, his mom was staring at Kavya. Kavya looked beautiful as usual as she danced among the group on the stage. She was his mom’s friend’s daughter and his mom had been trying for many years to convince him to marry her. There was nothing to dislike about Kavya, but he dreaded that his life might end up like his parents’ if he married her, where everything looked perfect on the outside but there was no true happiness in the relationship. He had rarely witnessed his parents being amicable with each other, other than when their kids or others were around. Their whole life seemed like an act. Of course, there was no question about anyone else after Sandhya had come into his life. He smiled at the wonderful future he imagined with her. His smile disappeared when she started dancing with Dhiren, looking far too comfortable for his liking. He sensed that she was having a good time with him. Anguish overtook his happy mood, and he grabbed the chair tightly to control himself. He overheard Dhiren’s parents.

“Who is that pretty girl talking to Dhiren? Is that Sandhya? She looks like a good match for Dhiren.”

Paranoia hit Akash like a bullet. His own parents were staring at Kavya when other parents considered marriage proposals with Sandhya for their sons!

A short while later, he saw Varun dancing with her on the stage. The look in his eyes…was that lust? Akash clenched his fist. Sandhya moved towards the area where his sister danced but Varun danced his way towards them. That was it! Akash stood up, kicked his chair back and started walking towards the stage, taking big, fast strides. Someone bumped into him and by the time he looked back at the stage, Sandhya had disappeared and Varun was dancing by himself.

He turned sideways and caught her speaking to Dhiren’s parents! Towards his left, his parents headed towards the garden with Kavya’s parents! How could he introduce Sandhya to his parents with Kavya’s parents around?

He saw Sandhya walking into one of the corridors and followed her. She must have heard his footsteps as she halted, turned back and smiled. He did not smile back as he walked towards her. How could she be so happy when the whole world seemed to be plotting against them?

“What happened? You don’t seem to be happy to see me,” she teased. He held her hand and pulled her towards him into a hug. She immediately pushed him off and said, “Akash! Someone might see us!” Anger surged within him and he stood glaring at her. Taking deep breaths, he cooled himself but felt desperate to be alone with her.

“Let’s go to your home,” he stated.

“What? What are you talking about? The ceremony isn’t over yet. I promised that I would stay back and help later,” she replied, agitated.

He grabbed her wrist. “The ceremony is almost over; what else is here other than—” He halted and then continued. “Am I not leaving with you?” he questioned seriously.

Sandhya shrugged his hand off. “I am not coming!” she responded, angry and frustrated.  She took a few deep breaths before asking, “Why do you want me to leave?”

He froze, surprised by her resistance. Why the hell did she care about this dumb ceremony? Gritting his teeth, he took a step towards her and said, “People are talking about alliances for you!” Somewhere at the back of his mind, a tiny voice said that he was acting stupid and crazy but his mind was overcome with a weird anxiety that removed all sanity from his thoughts. She stared into his eyes for a few minutes, her chest rising and falling abnormally, her jaw tight. “You want me to leave for that reason?” she whispered bitterly.

“Is that not enough? Do you want to socialize more so that your marriage gets fixed right here?” he blurted out. Her eyes turned red in anger.

“Maybe I should,” she shot back. “Maybe I should get my marriage fixed with somebody, because you are behaving like an obsessive maniac!”

The words hit him like thunder. They both glared at each other with reddened faces for a couple of minutes before he turned around and walked away, taking long, fast strides. She stood staring in his direction, her heart thudding, for a few minutes. Big droplets appeared in her eyes and she traced her steps into an empty room, her heart gripped with anger, her mind disturbed by the words that she had uttered. It was obvious that he was jealous, just like she was when she had seen Kavya. Knowing that Akash and his family were attending this ceremony, she had borrowed the costume with excitement, wanting to look her best to make an impression on his family. She also knew that Kavya would be attending it. Her heart sank the moment she got introduced to Kavya; she was so beautiful. They had spoken briefly and she seemed to be a knowledgeable girl too. Then why didn’t Akash want to marry her? Why would he love her rather than this gorgeous Kavya? She had seen Akash’s parents observing Kavya and jealous, bitter thoughts consumed her mind. Why was she not like Kavya? Why was she not from a wealthy and huge family like hers? Anguish. Frustration. She wanted to see Akash; she wanted to know how he really felt about Kavya. Could there be some segment of truth in what Varun had said? She had frantically looked around the seating area for Akash. When she saw him, looking stunning in his attire, his eyes fixed on her, immense relief flooded her. His eyes…they seemed to convey everything. She decided that she would never question him about Kavya, for that would mean insulting their love for each other.

She had been so eager to meet and talk to him. And what happened? He had to ruin everything. Why did Akash act so stupidly?

Wiping her face, she got up and walked towards the hall, knowing that every minute that she spent at the ceremony would be a burden and not a celebration. The dress that she had borrowed and worn with so much eagerness didn’t look elegant anymore; instead, it felt tight and uncomfortable.

Akash did not come to her home that evening, nor did he show up the next day to pick her up. He didn’t think that she was serious, did he? Even though her heart got heavier with each passing minute and her hands fiddled with her cell phone countless times, she didn’t call him.

She walked to her home from the orphanage, lost in thought, when halfway through, she heard the sound of a bike, the sound that she longed to hear, like rain in a dessert. Akash stopped beside her but did not speak or look at her. When nothing came from him after waiting for a minute, she silently sat on his bike. Once they reached her house, she got down, but he remained on his bike, looking ahead. She waited patiently before turning off the ignition and grabbing his bike keys. The silent drama continued as he got down and walked with her into the house. Once the door was closed, they stood staring at each other before Akash lost the battle and pulled her towards him. She melted in his arms, her heart a thousand times lighter and happier. They remained there, hugging and kissing each other for a long time.

“Why do you do this? Why do you treat me like trash? I am a human being. I have a heart and feelings too,” she whispered in anguish against his chest.

Akash closed his eyes and replied, “I didn’t mean to. I saw Dhiren’s parents talking to you and I could not handle it. I wanted to scream to everyone that you are MINE and that they should leave you alone!”

Her brow crinkled as she looked up. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I trust you!”

“Then all the things that you just said wouldn’t have mattered to you,” she said, freeing herself.

Akash stood silent for a few minutes and replied, “It’s not like that, Sandhya. It’s just that, I don’t trust everyone else! I don’t know what fate has in store for us! What if…” He could not finish his sentence as she placed her index finger on his lips.

“What are you saying? I cannot control what others say or do. All I can say is that I will not accept anyone in my life other than you.”

“Sandhya!” He took her hands in his. “I don’t know what happens to me sometimes and I behave like a beast.”

“No…you behave like a jerk.”

Akash smiled in relief. “Go on, call me anything that you want. I totally deserve it,” he declared, smiling.

“I will save them for another day.”

“I think I still deserve punishment. How about I cook for you today? Tell me what you want to eat,” Akash asked.

She thought for a second. ‘“Biryani,” she replied, knowing that he did not know how to make it.

“Oh.” He frowned. She laughed and said, “You committed, so you have to make it. But I can tell you how to make it.” She sat on the countertop of the kitchen and gave instructions which he happily followed.

“I wonder if the way to a women’s heart is through her stomach too,” he said, smiling as he fed her a spoonful.

“It does seem to be true…at least in my case,” she replied, enjoying his presence and the love that he showered on her. Akash was possessive and drove her insane sometimes, but his affection was magnetic and she craved it. For many years, she had locked up her emotions within herself, a result of circumstance as well as her introvert personality. She recalled the initial days of her teenage years at her aunt’s house. Once, she had walked into the living room after washing the utensils, wiping her hands on her cotton skirt. The strong aroma of kheer hit her and her empty stomach growled. She saw her aunt seated by a container and handing bowls of the dessert to Ajay and Vijay. Sandhya stood by the pillar, fidgeting and wondering whether she could help herself or not. Her aunt glanced at her a few times but did not say anything. She stood like that for about twenty minutes before her aunt said, “Sandhya, why are you not eating? Do you need a servant to serve it for you?” She immediately poured some kheer for herself and ate. Her taste buds were satisfied but somewhere deep down, she knew that she was a burden, an unwanted burden. She came out of her thoughts and observed Akash. Perhaps life was indeed fair and she had happy days ahead.

“I have to leave for a conference in New York in three days.”

“What? For how long?” she asked, startled.

“A week.”

She remained silent and nodded.

“I have something for you.” She stood up, went to the cupboard and got a palm-sized box out.

Akash opened it and found a smart-looking watch inside.

“Wow! But you didn’t have to buy it.”

“It’s your birthday present, although belated. Put it on, I want to see how it looks on your wrist,” she said excitedly. She had found this watch in one of the stores in the town but had initially not purchased it as it was beyond what she could afford. But the more she searched, the more her mind kept returning to this watch. She finally gave in and purchased it. It would mean that she would only have enough money to go on for a couple of weeks. But then she was expecting her paycheck before she left for Mumbai. So she should be fine, she decided. Akash struggled to strap the watch on his wrist. She took it from his hand and tried to clasp it with her hands. It just wouldn’t work. She got worried and tried hard to clasp it.

Tut. She heard a sound. Sandhya gasped in shock as she saw the clasp broken into two pieces. Her hands shook as she kept staring at the watch in dismay.

Why did this happen? Oh, why did this happen when she had bought something for him for the first time?

Akash looked at her distressed expression. “Hey! It’s just the clasp that is broken. I can get it fixed.”

He cupped her troubled face. “Look at me, Sandhya! You got something for me and that means a lot. Why do you worry about such a small thing?”

“I don’t know, Akash. You are leaving in another three days and now…this happens. I was hoping that you would wear it when I am not with you.” She hugged him, pressing her face to his chest, her tears soaking his shirt.

Akash ran his hands through her long, wavy tresses and said, “Tell you what, I will try to get this repaired before I go and if I can’t get it repaired before I leave, I will still keep it with me all the time, OK?”

“OK.”

“There’s something else I need to tell you. I won’t be here to pick you up from work tomorrow, I have to go to the town. You have to leave work early, before it gets dark.”

She felt even more miserable and clutched him tighter, feeling a pit form in her stomach.

“Will you be coming later, once you come back from town?”

“I will try my best, sweetie. I will call you.”

“Please, try.” Her voice quivered.

~

Sandhya had been watching him discreetly since she arrived at the orphanage. He was smiling and going about his job; nothing unusual so far. She hoped that the remainder of the day would be like that.

The kids came out into the play area in the evening. There was Roja sitting in the swing, looking blank and nervous as ever. Gajanan worked in the garden a few feet from her. She felt a jolt in her heart. To anyone else, it seemed like he was stretching but to Roja, it was a signal. Gajanan looked around and Sandhya quickly bent her head over the file. He went inside the orphanage and a couple of minutes later, Roja followed. Her heart beating fast and sweat streaming down her face, Sandhya followed them, making sure that she was not visible. He walked past the orphanage and into the servants’ quarters. As soon as she saw him closing the door of his room, she had no doubts. She ran to the door, knocked hard on it and called out Roja’s name. The door opened in a few seconds. She found Roja in front of a biscuit jar with a biscuit in her hand.

“Sandhya, madam, did you have any work? Roja insisted on me giving her, her favorite biscuit. I told her that I had work but you know how little girls are. I will go back to my work now,” Gajanan said, a bit too fast. Before she could respond, he left the room.

Roja stood like a stone with the biscuit in her hand. Sandhya ran up to her, knelt before her and hugged her. Roja dropped the biscuit. She understood why Roja was so bottled up. She was at such a tender age that she knew that what was happening to her was wrong and yet could not say it out in the open.

“You did not do anything wrong, Roja. YOU DID NOT DO ANYTHING WRONG!” Sandhya tried to shake off her blank expression and make her understand.

Roja looked into Sandhya’s eyes. Suddenly, her eyes swelled up with tears and she started crying. Sandhya hugged her little frame protectively. Gajanan watched them from a distance before running away. The two ladies who worked at the orphanage were summoned and informed. As expected, they were shocked. Mr. George was out of town and would not pick up her call. They all decided to wait till the next day to write a police complaint about Gajanan. If Roja gave a testimony, then he would be put behind bars, but she was too shaken to go through all that right now.

Sandhya stayed back until late at night and instructed one of the ladies to sleep with Roja for protection, just in case. Akash had asked her to leave early but the circumstances were different today. Walking alone in the dark night, she reached the dreaded cornfield. She was about halfway through when she heard something from the cornfield. Her heart started beating fast as she increased her pace. Something glistened in the cornfield and it was moving! There was someone in the cornfield! Her sixth sense screamed “Danger!” That was when she saw the person jump out of the cornfield with a glistening object in his hand, which she figured was a knife. She ran as fast as she could; she could hear the footsteps behind her but she did not look back. The footsteps grew closer and suddenly, her hair was grabbed roughly from behind, pulling her back with force. She cried out in pain and tried to free herself but stopped as soon as the cold metal of the knife touched her throat. This was it! She was going to die! She would never see her Akash again!

The attacker loosened the hold as she heard the sound of a bike approaching, Akash’s bike! The headlights blinded her sight for a few seconds. It slowed down for a couple of seconds before increasing its speed again. In an instant, the attacker cried out “Aah!” and fell sideways, freeing her. She recognized him. Gajanan!

She knew that it was Akash on the bike, based on the silhouette under the moonlight. He turned his bike around and charged towards Gajanan, who was up by now. As soon as Akash neared him, he caught Akash’s shirt and pulled him down off the bike. The bike fell sideways and slid down the road. Sandhya gasped as she witnessed both of them having a fist fight, punching each other like animals. Gajanan got a hold of the knife. Akash’s life was in danger! She grabbed a wooden branch lying on the road and ran towards them.

“Stay out, Sandhya!” Akash screamed. She ignored him.

Just as Gajanan was about to slash the knife across Akash’s chest, she hit him hard on the head. Gajanan clutched his head and looked back at her viciously. She hit him repeatedly with the stick as hard and fast as she could, but he seemed to be made of stone and sprang onto her. Akash caught his neck and pulled him back, causing Gajanan to fall down with a thud. Akash quickly placed his foot on Gajanan’s neck, cutting off his air supply. Gajanan grew weak as he struggled for air.

“Quick, Sandhya, Give me your dupatta!” Akash screamed. Sandhya grabbed her dupatta from where it was lying on the road and handed it to Akash.

“Hold the knife on his throat,” Akash ordered her as he handed over the knife to her.

With shivering hands, she did as told. Akash tore her dupatta into two long pieces and tied Gajanan’s hands and legs tightly. They both breathed in relief. Akash called the police and told them that Gajanan was trying to attack someone and he had stopped him. He turned to Sandhya and told her that the police would be there in ten minutes.

“Why didn’t you tell the police my name?” she asked.

“You don’t know the police here. You are a young woman. I don’t want you to get involved in police affairs. Plus you may not be allowed to go to Mumbai until the case is cleared.”

“But I had to give a complaint…regarding Roja. That was why he attacked me. I found out that he was abusing her.”

“What?” Akash was shocked.

“Yes…it is true,” Sandhya replied slowly.

“That bastard!” Akash cursed. “But still, I don’t want you to be involved in this matter. I will make sure that he gets punished. We will decide again tomorrow about the next steps…OK?”

“OK.”

Akash took a deep breath and said, “Now…I want you to walk home and wait for me.”

“No! I am not leaving you here. What if this guy attacks you again!” she protested, clutching his arm.

“Please, Sandhya…go! The police will be here in five minutes! He is all tied up. He cannot harm me!”

She reluctantly nodded and walked away from him. Once she reached home, she tried to calm herself and waited for Akash. The distant police sirens indicated that Akash must be safe. Getting rid of her dirty dress, she took a shower, slipped into her nightgown and waited restlessly, each passing second feeling like hours.

After a couple of hours, she heard Akash’s bike and ran out.

“Did they arrest him?”

“Yes, not only for the attack but for the abuse on Roja too. You see, he was already a wanted criminal and had joined the orphanage using a fake ID. He will be in jail for a long time. So relax.”

Sandhya was badly shaken. Akash took her inside, made her sit on the sofa and sat beside her. Her breathing evened out and she placed her head on Akash’s lap, clutching his hand. “You could have been killed because of me.” She pressed her face on his legs.

He ran his hand over her head. “Don’t say that… We are both safe and sound, that’s what matters.”

She wondered about the turn of events, the watch breaking off when she had bought it with so much affection. And now, they had both almost been killed today. She never believed in superstitions but she couldn’t help but think that this all felt like a bad omen. She shuddered at the thought and clutched his hand closer to her chest. Without her knowledge, she drifted off into a deep sleep.

Akash looked at her tenderly. He had almost lost her today. What would he have done if something had happened to her? He picked her up and her lethargic eyes opened with worry. She looked at him, smiled faintly and kissed his chest before closing her eyes again. Akash shuddered. Much as he wanted to comfort her, it was difficult for him to have her so close and keep a lid on his desires. He placed her on the bed and pulled the blanket over her. He tried to wriggle his hand out of hers, but she clutched him tighter.

“Please don’t leave me alone today. Please?” Sandhya pleaded.

Akash patted her hand. “I am not going anywhere, sweetie. I will be sleeping on the sofa in the living room. OK?” he said softly.

Sandhya nodded and drifted off into a blissful sleep holding his hand. Once she was sound asleep, he grabbed a blanket and lay down on the sofa in the living room. He was tired and soon drifted off to sleep.

~

Akash awoke with a jolt.

“Akash!” Sandhya shrieked from her bedroom. He sprang up from the sofa and ran to her.

Sandhya sat upright, her body shaking uncontrollably, her face terrified.

Chapter 12 – Separation

S

andhya ran as fast as she could in the dark and cold night. Tall dense trees surrounded her. She did not dare to look behind; something horrible that did not have a face and could not be comprehended was following her. She ran for her life, crying for help.

Her mother stood at a distance, smiling, with her arms open for Sandhya. She did not look scared, as if she did not care about whatever was following Sandhya, as if she could handle it easily. Sandhya ran towards her, but saw her mother’s image disappear slowly.

She cried out in dismay and ran faster. Her father appeared and stood just like her mother had stood, with his arms open for her and a smile on his face. Fear gripping her heart, she ran towards him. Just when she was nearing him, he disappeared slowly, torturing her.

She did not have the energy to run any further, but she still ran, mustering all her remaining willpower, sensing that the faceless thing was almost on her and she would soon be its victim. Then she saw Akash, smiling and with his arms open, simply standing as if he would take care of everything if only she could reach him before the faceless thing hit her.

“No! No!” She cried out in terror as she saw Akash’s image disappear mercilessly at the same time as the faceless thing behind her engulfed her.

“Akash!” she cried out loudly and sat up on the bed, her body trembling from head to toe, her brow covered in sweat.

Akash switched on the light, ran to Sandhya and cupped her panic-stricken face.

“Sandhya!”

He could see that she’d had a terrible nightmare. She looked at him with a blank expression for a few seconds before her eyes turned red with anger. She shrugged him off, surprising him.

“Why did you leave me? Why did you disappear! Why? Why? Why?” she screamed fiercely as she clutched his shirt.

Aghast, Akash shrugged as he tried to make her understand.

“Sandhya! You had a bad dream. I am right here! Calm down!” He hugged her.

Realization dawned on Sandhya and she slowly wrapped her arms around his back. She remembered each and every detail about her nightmare, the worst nightmare she’d ever had.

Why did she have that dream? Did it mean that—Sandhya stopped her thoughts right there, closing her eyes tight.

It was just a stupid nightmare, nothing else, she told herself as she held Akash for several minutes.

Akash tried to comfort her, but wondered if he could go on longer without losing to the want that his heart was screaming for inside. He loosened his hands from her back, hoping that she would do the same, but she held him closer and tighter in response.

“Promise me that you will never leave me,” she whispered.

“I will never leave you,” he whispered, trying to resist the exotic fragrance of her hair.

Sandhya removed her hands from around him and looked into his dark eyes for a long time, deep in thought. She cupped his cheek with one hand and kissed him gently on his lips.

“Sandhya,” Akash murmured in agony.

“Mmm?”

He tried to pull away. She looked at him with moist eyes, not loosening her grasp on him. He stared back at her in confusion. She caught hold of his hands and wrapped them around her waist.

“You are torturing me,” he muttered.

“I don’t intend to anymore,” she replied softly.

He stared at her in disbelief. “Sure?”

“As sure as I ever w…” She stopped abruptly as Akash pulled her towards him and crashed his lips into hers.

~

The bright sun rays fell gently on Akash. His hand searched the side of the bed, his eyes still closed, hoping to embrace Sandhya’s delicate body. Not finding her beside him, he rose abruptly.

Was she up already? He walked towards the kitchen and found her busy with cooking. She looked as if she had taken a head bath as water dripped at the edges of her long hair, slightly wetting the red cotton sari that she wore.

Akash leaned against the wall and kept watching her. She looked so lovely; he just needed to make her his wife so that he could enjoy this view every day of his life. But why was her face troubled? Was she regretting what had happened last night? He shuddered.

He walked up to her and held her waist from behind. She gasped in surprise and caught his hands with hers. A sweet smile appeared on her face as she looked at him, erasing the worried expression on her face.

“Up so soon?” he asked.

“We both have jobs,” she said, running her finger over his cheek lovingly.

“Sandhya…” He hesitated.

She looked at him questioningly.

“Do you regret…” he started but was cut off by her.

“Of course not!”

He breathed in relief.

~

Sandhya fiddled with the diamond pendant on her neck, deep in thought about her nightmare and the events that had followed. Akash was her family, her everything now, even though she may not be his wife yet in the eyes of society. Though they were determined to fight anyone that might come between them, the anxiety and restlessness within her wouldn’t go away. Her parents would never have been happy with what she did. Now, with the new turn in their relationship, her earlier resolve not to marry for six months was less important. They should get married soon; they could plan for the consequences, their jobs and such, later somehow. But how should she convey this to Akash? She had rejected his proposal earlier to get married immediately. If she asked him now, he might think that she did not trust him. That was not what bothered her; she was bothered that society would stamp her relationship with Akash as illegitimate, as a stigma. She could not bear that. To her, her relationship with Akash was a pure and sacred one. Her cell phone rang and a smile lit her face when her eyes fell on the caller name.

“Hi, Miss Vijaya!” Sandhya said excitedly, realizing how much she missed her teacher. If Miss Vijaya had not been transferred to a different village, she could have visited her often.

“Hello, dear.”

Her teacher was not sounding that excited; something was wrong.

“Is everything alright?” she asked worriedly.

“Yes…I mean…I am fine,” Miss Vijaya replied. There was a long pause. “My father passed away a month ago.”

Sandhya stood dumbfounded with shock and guilt; Miss Vijaya was going through the worst phase of her life and she had not even called her during that time.

“Sorry, madam,” Sandhya replied, her voice escaping the knot in her throat.

“Would you like to come and stay with me for a few days? I will be here for two or three weeks before I leave for Mumbai,” Sandhya offered.

“Thank you, my dear, I will definitely come and visit you soon. But, I actually called you for something else. I am considering adopting a child—a slightly older child. I cannot adopt a small baby at my age. Since you worked in a few orphanages, I thought you might help me with the process.”

“Yes, of course!” Sandhya cried out in excitement. Miss Vijaya would make a great mother. She was the most affectionate woman she had ever encountered in her life. “Were you thinking of a boy or a girl?” she asked with hesitation.

“Either is fine. Doesn’t matter that much to me.”

Sandhya had hoped to hear that. The one person who had come to her mind as soon as she heard Miss Vijaya was Roja, but she kept a lid on her excitement, hoping that things would work out for the best.

“I will talk to Mr. George. He will give you a call back soon,” she replied before bidding her good-bye.

~

Sandhya bit her lip as she stepped into her home with Akash, who had come to pick her up half an hour early, surprising her. Her mind debated the best way to approach the topic of marriage with him. He was surprisingly silent the whole time.

“I will start making the tea.” She threw her purse on the side table, preoccupied with her thoughts, and started walking towards the kitchen, her brain tired.

The next moment, his warm hands encircled her waist and dragged her into the bedroom swiftly.

“What are you doing?” she protested. He threw her on the bed and before she could protest, he had removed her sari drape and torn off her blouse.

“What the?” she screamed, recalling the money she had spent on getting that blouse stitched.

“What the?” Akash hissed with clenched teeth, his black eyes piercing though her as if she was doing a crime by thinking about the damage to her clothes. She lost her mock fight soon, as she became weak against the sensations that stormed through her at his passionate kisses on her bare skin.

~

Sandhya lay with her head on Akash’s chest, her long, soft black curls flowing down as she drew circles on his forearm. Eighty more minutes, she thought as she checked the clock ticking on the wall, eighty more minutes before Akash would leave her. She closed her eyes trying hard to keep her tears at bay.

She needed to talk about marriage, but was this the right time? Her brow wrinkled as she stressed over this.

“Sandhya?”

“Mmm?”

“Should we get married as soon as I get back?”

She pulled herself up on her elbows and stared at him in disbelief. Akash raised his eyebrows in confusion. She wrapped her arms around him tighter, interlaced her hands with his and nodded, feeling immense relief.

~

They sat on the porch steps and enjoyed their tea. Akash had to leave in a few minutes.

“I will miss the exotic taste of your tea.”

“Right, you will miss my tea but not me,” she said mockingly as she pinched him on his side.

“Be careful what you eat… I heard that it’s difficult to get water in America. You only get sodas. Try to find and drink water, otherwise your stomach might get upset.”

Akash laughed at this and replied, “Yes, madam!”

Sandhya was hardly smiling the whole time.

“Oh come on, don’t look like that! You are behaving as if this is the last time you are going to see me.”

Sandhya looked at him, stunned. He was joking of course, but she wished he had not said that. She had not told him about her dream. The tears that she had tried hard to keep inside were now flowing uncontrollably. Taken aback by her reaction, Akash placed her head gently on his arm and said, “I will be back before you know it, sweetie.”

~

The red bangles jingled as Sandhya walked to the orphanage. It had been ten hours since Akash left; it would take a while before he would reach New York and call her. She had decided to wear those bangles until Akash returned, even if they did not match her dress. They reminded her of him, made her feel more secure.

As soon as she entered the orphanage, she found the kids standing before her, all beaming with bright smiles. Even Roja looked as cheerful as ever.

Mr. George stood in front of them, with a huge grin on his face as well.

Sandhya was pleasantly surprised. “Go on. Spit it out. What are you all up to?” she asked teasingly.

“We love you, Sandhya Di!” everyone shouted at the same time.

“Thank you! I love you all too! Now tell me what’s going on,” she asked again as she pulled a boy’s cheek lovingly.

“Thank you for taking us to Ooty!” a little girl exclaimed.

“Ooty?”

“Sandhya, we are so blessed to have you with us, my child.” Mr. George spoke. “You arranged the trip to Ooty with Varun’s help. It’s something that I never even dreamed of. I wish all politicians thought like him; he’s such a nice young man. He was here a few minutes ago confirming the plan,” he said with his eyes twinkling

His words hit Sandhya like a ton of bricks. Acid formed in her throat as she recalled her conversation with Varun at the restaurant, back when she was friendly with him. She had forgotten about the whole incident.

What had she done…just what had she done! But maybe she could work something out. She gave a fake smile to Mr. George and said, “Yes. It is exciting. I was wondering if Geetha could go with the kids instead of me, since I have things to wind up before I leave.”

Mr. George’s smile disappeared. “Geetha has a small baby to look after. She won’t be able to go,” he replied, worried.

“How about we hire someone from outside to escort the children?”

One by one, the children’s faces fell, making Sandhya feel terribly guilty.

Mr. George turned sober and replied, “I cannot trust outsiders, especially with what happened recently. If you don’t go, then we will have to cancel the plan.”

A couple of kids were in tears by now. Sandhya cringed.

“OK, Mr. George. I will go,” she said, trying to sound as excited as she could.

The kids stood silently with blank expressions.

With her hands up in the air, she shouted with full force.

“Yay! We are going to Ooty!”

The smiles returned to their faces and the kids shouted back, “Yay! We are going to Ooty!” They took turns hugging her and disappeared for their breakfast. Sandhya slowly traced her steps to her office and closed the door. She went to her desk and buried her face in her hands. How was she going to spend two full days with that Varun in Ooty? What was Varun up to? She shuddered.

Chapter 13 – Varun

A

fter considerable deliberation, Sandhya decided to call Varun. She was responsible for the kids and couldn’t risk anything being out of order for this trip. She pulled out her phone and called his number.

“What’s up, Sandhya?” Varun answered, sounding casual.

“I needed to talk about the trip, so that I can plan ahead.”

“Oh yes. Right. We will be starting tomorrow, early morning.”

Sandhya thought for a moment. Could there be the slightest chance that he was doing this for the kids?

“Yes, that sounds good to me. Regarding the overnight stay, I can check for hotels,” she said.

“No need for that. My friend has a hotel and I can have everything looked into. I just need the number of kids and their names.”

She gave him the necessary information.

“See you then, Sandhya.”

“See you.”

Sandhya held the phone for several seconds; she was confused, skeptical, but a little relieved as well. He seemed like the Varun that she had met and made friends with, not the creepy Varun that he had later turned into. If only he behaved that way for the whole trip, she might actually enjoy the trip with the kids. But past experience had taught her that she trusted people easily, she was too naive and he might be taking advantage of the same fact. She had to be extremely careful.

~

Sandhya counted all the money she had and wondered if she should have given in when Akash had persuaded her to take some money. Hardheaded and stubborn as she was, she never accepted monetary assistance from him. Akash made it clear that he did not like her attitude in this regard but he did not push it. She closed her eyes, smiled and kissed the bangles, each of which he had so lovingly slid onto her wrist; how much she longed to hear his voice, feel his touch.

She had gotten so used to having Akash with her that her house felt eerie now. Moreover, fear was added to her loneliness after Gajanan’s attack. She checked whether she had locked the door multiple times, kept bowls filled with chili powder behind the window curtains, under the bed and other secret locations; she even kept a knife under her pillow. Gajanan was in jail and would not harm her but taking these steps made her feel a little better.

~

“Hey, Roja! Do you know, there is boating there and lots of tea gardens?” Rohit exclaimed as he got into the minibus. Roja smiled back, her eyes twinkling.

Sandhya watched the kids, all dressed up in their favorite dresses, and sighed. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea. Akash would call her tonight as soon as he disembarked the plane. What would he say about her going to Ooty with Varun? She dismissed her apprehensions. He was fine with her working in Mumbai on her own, he would be fine with this too.

She found Varun walking towards them and took long, deep breaths.

“Good morning, Mr. George. I see that everyone is ready.” Varun greeted Mr. George with his trademark charming smile. He wore light blue jeans and a white shirt with the top two buttons open. She couldn’t deny that he looked dashing, but at the same time, she felt extreme repulsion towards him. Hate was a strong word that she never wanted to apply to anyone, but he was going to be an exception.

She realized that his gray eyes were looking at her and came out of her thoughts.

“Shall we, Sandhya?” Varun said, with a faint smile playing across his lips as he gestured for her to board the bus. Sandhya nodded and followed him to the bus. She froze as she saw him moving her suitcase that she had deliberately placed beside her chosen seat to the luggage section above. But she breathed in relief seeing him sit in one of the other empty rows of seats in the bus.

She glanced at the chirpy kids and at Varun, who remained silent, as they rode. This was better, she thought; better than him talking all that rubbish he had recently. She dozed off without her knowledge.

A sudden halt caused her to open her eyes. Even before she was awake, she had registered Varun watching her, his eyes fixed on her before looking away, making her bitter and uncomfortable with the knowledge. She rubbed her eyes and checked the time just when the driver announced that the bus would be halting for breakfast. The kids got down and ate heartily at the garden restaurant. She was about to pay the bill when Varun intervened and paid it. “I told you, Sandhya. This trip is on our party,” he stated.

Sandhya reluctantly put the money back in her purse. Varun was being polite; he had not uttered a single inappropriate word so far. Why did it bother her that he was being nice?, she wondered.

[_Because it all seems like an act, _]her inner voice said.

Once the kids were back in the bus, Sandhya climbed up and settled on her seat. To her astonishment, she found Varun sitting beside her in a flash. It all happened so fast that she did not even know what to do. He looked ahead as if everything was normal. Her brow wrinkled with worry and discomfort; she did not want to create a scene with the kids and the driver around. He looked straight into her eyes with his steel gray eyes and an expression that made her freeze.

“Can’t even tolerate me sitting beside you?” he uttered in a low, sarcastic tone that only she could hear.

“Glad that you know my feelings,” she replied in an irritated low voice, while thinking of ways to move out of this trap. She could have shoved his hand away but that would mean that she would have to touch him. She gathered her dress closer and slid towards the window so she could be far from him. He responded by sitting more comfortably as he spread out his legs, his knee touching her thigh. Sandhya gritted her teeth as disgust crept over her.

“Why are you wearing those bangles? They don’t match your dress,” he said, looking at her wrists, his face not hiding his displeasure.

“I did not ask for your opinion,” she responded acidly.

“I am giving my opinion,” Varun responded and continued, “Tell me, babes, did lover boy give you those? Is that why you are wearing those cheap bangles?”

Sandhya’s jaw tightened, but she remained silent. No matter what she said, it was obvious that he would infuriate her more with his responses. She suffered his presence for the remaining two hours until they reached their destination.

~

She waited in the lobby as Varun spoke to the person at the front desk, Ramu. They seemed to know each other from before as they spoke as friends. Ramu glanced at her and she stiffened. The look on his face was weird; it wasn’t exactly lust but something similar that she did not like. Varun returned and gave her the room keys for the kids and her. She led the kids to their respective rooms and asked them to freshen up before they started their tour.

She finally walked to her room. Weirdly, her room was on a different floor altogether. Since she wanted to be close to the kids, she requested a different room from Ramu, but he refused, stating that all the rest of the rooms were booked and he couldn’t do anything. Sandhya reluctantly returned to her room and freshened up. They all started their tour with Ramu, who also happened to be the tour guide. They stopped at a breathtaking tea garden where Ramu took pictures on Varun’s camera. Thankfully, Varun said he had some work and left them on their own. Sandhya relaxed in the chilly air as she watched the joyful faces of the kids and the scenic beauty around her.

In the evening, they all headed towards the lake for boating. She sat on the edge of the lake as the kids rowed their boats. The magnificent view of the sun setting by the lake overwhelmed her with memories of Akash. She stood up, closed her eyes and recalled her first trip with Akash on the mountaintop. A smile crept onto her face as she sensed his presence; he was right there, somewhere close to her.

A hand encircled her waist. She exclaimed, “Akash!” with a smile and placed her hand on top of the hand, her eyes still closed. No sooner had she held the hand, she opened her eyes and pushed it away, her brain registering the touch that was not Akash’s. She quickly turned around to find a furious-looking Varun behind her.

Anger flashed inside her as never before. Before she knew what she was doing, she slapped him hard on his cheek. He stood still for a few seconds with his hand on his cheek, his mouth set in a thin line, his face in utter shock. The next instant, he caught her arm in one hand and held her hair with his other in a tight grip. A terrible pain shot up through the roots of her hair.

“You bitch! I have never been as patient with anyone as I have been with you! But you are testing my limits. I wonder why you are so proud. Not a penny in your pocket but so much pride? Is it the dream of being queen to the lover boy making you forget where you belong?” Varun said with gritted teeth, his words only audible to Sandhya. Even with her hatred towards him, his words still shocked her. No, she shouldn’t bother about what this devil was saying, she told herself, and tried to free herself.

She looked around and found that a few tourists were watching them and a man started walking towards them. Varun followed her eyes to the people around them and released her. The man stopped and walked away, perhaps assuming they both knew each other and that the issue was resolved between them.

Varun gave her a look that clearly conveyed that he would get back at her, before walking away with his fists clenched. Sandhya’s breathing eased a bit. If only the remaining night and the next day could fast-forward somehow and she could be far away from him. Better still, if only she could fast-forward her life until Akash was back. Luckily, this was a public place, but Varun would try something again. She wasn’t afraid though; she wasn’t done with him either. The next time he tried to touch her, he would get more than a slap, she thought bitterly, holding back her urge to find him and wring his neck. Could she inform the police about Varun? No, after all the negative news about Police atrocities that she heard on the news, that was risky as well. It would be better if she told Akash first. She just needed to be extremely careful until then.

~

Sandhya ensured that all the kids were in their respective rooms, reminded them of the rules and told them her room location in case they needed something. She went back to her room and closed the door, making sure that it was bolted properly. Was Varun’s room adjacent to hers, she wondered. There was a door that seemed to be connecting her room to the adjacent room. Her first thought was, of course, that she could lock it, but she gasped as she noticed the absence of any bolt on it. She marched to the front desk. “There is no bolt on the connecting door of my room, room 205. You have to give me another room,” she said firmly to Ramu. He gave a surprised look. “Connecting door? Oh, that! That’s not a door. It’s fixed to the wall so that no one can open it from either side.”

Sandhya considered him for a few seconds. Could he be lying? Her further protests went in vain as the boy repeatedly told her that no other room was available and there was nothing to be concerned about.

Frustrated, she went back to her room and tried to move the door; it wouldn’t budge. Hoping that he was telling the truth, she picked up her nightdress and closed the bathroom door to change. Thankfully, it did have a latch. Once changed, she lay on her bed waiting for Akash’s call as she felt the diamond pendent with her fingers. He should have reached New York by now; she had checked the flight status in the hotel’s computer room. She glanced at the connecting door and felt uncomfortable again. Oh crap! She might not get a wink of sleep tonight. After a few minutes, an idea popped into her head. She got up and pulled the side table so that it was right in front of the connecting door, then placed a glass filled with water at the edge of the table. If the door opened, the glass would fall down with a crashing noise. After trying her best to stay awake for Akash’s call, she drifted off to sleep without her knowledge.

~

She was running on the mountaintop by the river, laughing. Akash was after her.

Creak…creak…creak. She heard a distant noise.

Where did Akash go?

[_Clink! Clink… Clink…clink clink clink. _]She heard a crashing sound that died after some time.

In a flash, she remembered the connecting door, the side table, the glass of water!

Chapter 14 – Safe

I

n a split second, Sandhya sat up on her bed, her heart pounding. In the dim lighting, she saw the silhouette of a man standing behind the half-open door to the adjacent room. Instantly, she dashed towards the outside door, opened it as fast as she could and stood in the lighted hotel corridor, all within two seconds. She turned around and glanced back into the room, blood racing through her veins in terror. The man took a step forward and his face came into view. Varun! There was a mix of lust and vengeance in his eyes as he checked her out. She realized that she was in her short-sleeved, knee-length nightgown which closely hugged her figure and cursed herself.

“Stop right there or I will scream,” she shouted.

“There is no one on this floor to hear you,” he replied in a cold voice.

She gasped as he took another step towards her. She looked left and right along the empty corridor. The stairway was just a few feet away from her. Before he could realize what she was doing, she closed the door from outside, ran towards the stairs and climbed down the stairs as fast as she could. A few seconds later, she heard his frantic steps behind her. She reached the floor where the kids slept, sped to the nearest room and banged on the door as loud and fast as she could. “Open the door!” she screamed.

She glanced back and froze. Varun would catch up to her in less than ten seconds!

He was six feet away from her when the doorknob turned. The door opened and a sleepy Roja stood before Sandhya. Varun stood rooted to the spot, his face dark and furious. Sandhya jumped inside and bolted the door in no time.

“What happened, Sandhya Di?” Chitra sat on the bed rubbing her eyes.

Sandhya looked at the two girls and thought of a convincing story.

She widened her eyes and said, “I had a BIG nightmare!” The girls looked shocked.

“You get nightmares too?” Roja asked in amazement. “But you are a grownup, you should know that there are no ghosts in this world.”

[_What about the devil residing inside humans? _]Sandhya thought bitterly, but did not say it aloud.

“I know! But I still get nightmares,” she replied and then continued, “Can I sleep with one of you?”

“Yes, Di. But you have to tell us what the nightmare was about!” Chitra said excitedly. Sandhya stiffened and then composed herself. “Of course. I am not sure if you are brave enough to hear it though,” she replied mischievously.

She glanced at the clock; it was almost midnight. Oh no! Her phone was still in the room. What if Akash called her? She could get back to her room with the kids but no, she shouldn’t risk it. With a heavy heart, she slipped in beside Roja, pulled the bed sheet over her and started narrating an eerie haunted hotel room story. The kids listened to her wide-eyed and finally fell asleep with their blankets completely covering their faces. She tilted her head back with worry, her body still shaking. What a huge mistake she had made by coming here with Varun. How stupid of her. She remembered his insulting words earlier at the lake and her chest tightened. The tears that she had held back so far trickled down her cheeks. She missed Akash and yearned to hear his voice now as never before. A sob escaped her throat as she wrapped her hands around her arms and struggled with her thoughts. What could have happened if she had not taken some precaution and woken up in time?

~

As soon as Roja and Chitra woke up, Sandhya went to her room with them. She checked her phone. Oh no! There was a missed call from Akash. She listened to the voicemail with bated breath.

“Sweetie!” She heard his voice and her heart skipped a beat. “I have arrived safely and the long flight wasn’t too bad. I know you must be asleep now, but could not stop myself from calling you. I am not touching sodas and only drinking water, as you instructed. Funny, whenever I see bottled water and sodas, it reminds me of you. There is a lot of work needed for my presentation at the conference. I will call you again at a more sensible time.”

She smiled though her hands were shaking. He must have felt disappointed that she did not pick up his call. She tried to call him. Damn! The call wouldn’t go through. She tried five more times before giving up.

The day was filled with tension for Sandhya; she could not even stand near Varun, who seemed to be in a bad mood himself and was being unpleasant to the kids. When it was time to leave, she checked the rooms one by one to ensure that the kids did not leave anything behind. When she was in the last room, she found Varun standing against the door. She gasped. The kids were still running around in the corridor; he would not do anything stupid, she hoped. Sandhya walked towards the door and ordered, “Get out of my way.”

He responded by closing the door and glaring at her. She trembled with fear and anger; why did this have to happen just when she thought her ordeal was over?

“You are acting like a child, Varun. Stop this stupidity,” Sandhya said, trying to get some sense into his head.

“Marry me,” Varun said flatly.

A bewildered Sandhya stared at him in shock. He was mad, completely mad. How dare he say that after everything that he had said and done!

“You are crazy! Let me go!” she said again, not prepared to listen to him.

“I shouldn’t have said whatever I said yesterday. I did not mean it.” She kept staring at him as he continued, “You have no idea what I face every day, Sandhya. This politics, it’s like drugs; you know that what you are doing is wrong, but you are stuck in it and can’t get out of it, however much you want to. It has changed me into a person that I don’t want to be. I want to change, Sandhya, and I will change if I have you by me.”

Sandhya looked at him, astonished.

“Marry me, Varun? A girl who doesn’t have a penny in her pocket but has so much pride? A girl who needs to be shown where she belongs?”

“I didn’t mean it!” he exclaimed.

“Then what was that about, you coming into my room last night?” she shot back.

“I was not planning to harm you. I just wanted to be with you, alone for a while.”

Sandhya looked up at him, trying to understand how many layers of deceit he had on his face.

“It doesn’t matter if I trust you or not. My answer is NEVER.”

Varun stood still, his jaw tight. “You are making a hasty decision. Give it some time.”

“NEVER,” she repeated with gritted teeth.

“I am asking you one final time, Sandhya. This is the best deal for you,” he said sternly.

“Deal? What kind of person are you? Why am I even listening to you?” she screamed, and tried to move him by his arm. He did not budge.

“Akash will NEVER marry you.” He emphasized the word ‘never.’ “He is using your innocence. The only difference between me and him is that he is acting like a saint and I am being myself,” he continued.

To his astonishment, Sandhya let out a laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” he asked with gritted teeth.

“Thinking of your plight when Akash finds out what you did,” she replied coolly. His eyes narrowed.

“Sandhya Di! Where are you?” Chitra’s voice echoed from the corridor.

“I am here!” Sandhya shouted before Varun could respond. The door opened and Varun took a step back. Sandhya quickly walked out of the room holding Chitra’s hand.

~

Varun kept to himself throughout the return journey. They reached their village late at night and the kids climbed down sleepy and tired. Sandhya smiled at Mr. George and noticed Varun returning to his charming self as he spoke to him.

Varun turned to Sandhya with a pleasant smile. “Thanks for everything, Sandhya. We should do this more often. It was fun!”

She gritted her teeth and calmed the fury within her. Her phone rang, and she pulled it out eagerly. It was Akash calling her! Her face brightened.

“Sorry, Mr. George, but I need to take this call.” She escaped to a secluded location.

“Sweetie!” Her heart pounded on hearing Akash’s voice. She was not into nicknames and such and if anyone had told her that her fiancé would call her ‘sweetie’ a few months ago, she would have laughed until her stomach hurt. To her amazement, she loved it every time Akash uttered that word. It had never sounded as sweet at it did now.

“A…!” she choked, unable to control her emotional turmoil.

Both were silent for a few seconds.

“There were so many beautiful women at the bar yesterday that I didn’t miss you at all!” he declared, breaking the silence.

Sandhya laughed as a tear fell from her eyes.

“I…did…not…miss…you…either,” she replied with difficulty.

They remained silent for a few seconds again.

A few kids passed by Sandhya, chattering among themselves.

“Are you still at the orphanage at this time?” Akash asked with a hint of anger.

Sandhya smiled. He was cute, even when he was angry at her.

“We went on an excursion and just returned. Don’t worry, I will be sleeping here at the orphanage tonight,” she replied, wondering if she should mention that she had gone as far as Ooty. She desperately wanted to bare her heart to him about Varun but held herself back.

“OK. Be careful, Sandhya. You hardly take care of yourself once you jump into work.”

“I am and I will, boss,” Sandhya teased. He chuckled.

“How is it going so far for you? Apart from the fun at the bar, that is,” she asked mischievously.

“Mmm—someone seems jealous.”

“Not at all,” Sandhya replied proudly.

“Really?” Akash said

“Really.”

“Wow—that means I can enjoy going to the bar for the rest of my life. I am so lucky!”

“Stop it or I will kick you.”

“Sweetie, we are talking over the phone—you cannot kick me.”

“Then I will double kick you when you are here, with interest,” she retorted.

“Looking forward to it—as well as getting back at you—with interest,” he replied, lowering his voice. She blushed at what he was implying.

She continued, “I tried calling you many times but the number just didn’t go through.”

“Could be because the signal is bad inside the building here. I might not be able to call you often either; I have to put up with a bunch of crazy guys here who are not leaving me alone in the evenings. Didn’t want to reveal our relationship to them. We can get married and give them the shock of their lives.”

Sandhya smiled at his light mood. “Hey, I don’t mind if you tell them about us, if that is worrying you,” she responded, and added, “You are not thinking of marrying secretly—are you?”

He replied slowly, “Sandhya, I am not sure if everything will go smoothly. I will ask my parents to bless us, but if they choose to disapprove, we should still go ahead with our plans.”

“I will do everything in my ability to make them happy,” she replied.

“Sweetie, think about making your husband happy first, will you?” he teased.

She chuckled.

“I have my presentation in a couple of hours.”

“Nervous?”

“A bit.”

“You will do great!”

Akash was silent. He must be really tensed up, Sandhya guessed, relieved that she had not blurted anything out about Varun. If she had, he would be disturbed and worried about her rather than his presentation.

Mr. George interrupted, “Sandhya—did you see Rohit’s suitcase? We can’t find it.”

Sandhya signaled to Mr. George apologetically to give her two more minutes to talk.

“Seems like you have to go. I have to get started here too.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Later then, sweetie.”

“Akash!” she cried out.

“Yes?”

“I…I miss you,” she managed to say.

Akash replied after a few seconds of silence. “I miss you too.”

~

Akash surveyed the tall buildings around downtown Manhattan. He had been able to break free from his buddies for some time to talk with Sandhya alone. It pained him that he could not call her when they were present. How could he tell her that he had no hope of his mom agreeing to their marriage? He recalled the conversation between his parents that he had overheard before he left for New York.

Flashback

“They backed off from the idea,” Akash’s mom stated.

“But why? They were so interested in her before,” his dad said.

“People say that she refused to accept the marriage proposals that her aunt got. Moreover, she even left her aunt’s house and lives on her own.”

Akash wondered if they were talking about Sandhya and smiled. Thank goodness she refused those proposals!

“I advised them right then to back off from this crazy idea. You can tell that she is a rebel,” his mom continued. “Then they found out from Gayatri that she is always accompanied by one young man or the other. You know Gayatri, right? She lives near the cornfield. That’s it; they completely gave up on the idea. These things only happen in the cities. Now, we are seeing this in our village too.”

Akash felt a pang in his heart when he heard his mother’s scathing remarks regarding Sandhya. He was to blame for maligning her name. She had told him many times that they needed to be careful in public, but it was clear that he wasn’t careful enough. If only people saw her with his eyes—how simple, pure, innocent, and yet remarkably intelligent she was.

“They are hoping that Dhiren never finds out that they even had this idea. But they are concerned that he still has a good impression of her.”

“Enough, Vaidehi! You women are spoiling her future by spreading these rumors. One bad word is enough to destroy her chances of ending up with a good marriage. How can you judge her just like that?” Akash’s dad shot back at his wife.

“What more can you expect from her? She lost her parents at a young age and grew up under her aunt who, by the way, claims that she was never a normal type of girl. Then she went to the cities for studying.” His mom did not stop.

“What are you trying to imply?”

“I am not blaming her entirely. Maybe circumstances led her to be like she is. She never had a stable childhood; the social and cultural umbrella that you grow up under also matters in building a person’s character, don’t you think?” She tried to convince his dad.

“I think you are reading too much into this. It’s better if you leave the girl alone to her fate and let me sleep,” he replied, getting impatient.

“You are always like this. I am never right, am I!” his mom fumed before ending the conversion bitterly.

Akash had held his temper with great difficulty. Had his dad not cut off the conversation, he would have barged into their room.

Flashback end

Akash did not want his friends to know about Sandhya before he returned. He was pissed off with himself for having done enough damage already, although unknowingly. Not anymore; he would correct his mistake by marrying her as soon as he returned. He started walking towards his buddies, who stood at a distance.

~

Sandhya sprinted home happily like a little child. Akash would be back tomorrow evening!

Not only that—she had many other reasons to be happy. Miss Vijaya had visited her and had decided to adopt Roja! It was a matter of days before Roja would leave the orphanage and live with Miss Vijaya. Her best friend Asha had called her and told her she was going to be engaged to Ashok in a couple of months. She had hinted about Akash to Asha but did not reveal his identity completely, despite Asha’s threats. They planned to get married after a couple of years, once they finished their master’s degrees. Dhiren also called her and informed her that he had passed his exams and interview and had a prestigious job offer at hand. He had wanted to talk to her about something important but she had to cut him off since she had a conference call right then. They made a plan to meet for lunch the next day to catch up and talk. And the best news was, Akash’s presentation had gotten him many compliments, and he had a few job offers from companies in Mumbai!

All in all—Sandhya was in bliss at this moment as she gazed through the cornfields into the beautiful sunset breaking over the sky. She wore her long flowery skirt and a yellow top that matched her cheerful mood. Her skirt blew softly against the cool evening breeze.

The past few days, she had left her office early when there was light and walked over the path in haste. As soon as she reached her home, she would bolt the doors and windows and stay inside, fighting her fears. For the first time, she had regretted leaving her aunt’s house. But today, she wasn’t scared; she had too many things to be happy about and her apprehensions took a back seat. She opened the lock on the front door, went inside and bolted it from inside. It wouldn’t hurt to be careful for one more day. And then Akash would be back! She smiled at the thought.

She had finished the majority of the work at the orphanage so that she could enjoy the few days she had in this village with Akash. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to walk towards the bedroom. She halted. The TV remote was lying on the table. She always placed the remote in a container by the TV. Her brow crinkled with concern for a few seconds before she shook her head. She must have put it there.

A soft hum escaped her lips as she entered the bedroom and pulled a stool from the corner. The company that had hired her in Mumbai had asked her to provide some information about her certificates. The certificates were in a box that she had placed on the top rack, which was out of reach. She gathered her skirt, climbed on the stool and searched for the box.

Right then, a hand slid up her thigh.

Chapter 15 – Attack

S

hivers ran down her spine as Sandhya looked to her left, fearing the worst. Her eyes met Varun’s gray eyes staring straight at her with an expression that clearly conveyed his intentions. She jumped from the stool, her heart pounding vigorously, her breath stuck in her throat. Screaming would be of no use; no one would hear her. She glanced at the door for a split second, trying to figure out how to get past him. He stood between the door to the living room and her and seemed to have read her mind as he sprang towards her at the same time. She jumped to his right and tried to run past him towards the door but he was too quick. He caught her wrist and pulled her to him, embracing her forcefully in his arms. She wriggled with all her might but realized that it was of no use against his strength. Bending her head towards his arm, she bit him until she tasted his blood. He grunted in pain, grabbed her head by her hair roughly and hit her face hard, the impact making her fall a few feet away on the ground, right by the window.

Her vision blurred and she was delusional for a few seconds. She reminded herself that she had to regain her senses—she couldn’t black out. She shook her head and her vision cleared.

He stood still. Her hand ran up the wall until it reached the windowsill, hoping that she would be able to reach the bowl with the chili powder behind the curtains before he got to her.

There was nothing. Her hands searched frantically all over the windowsill, trying to find the bowl, her eyes on Varun the whole time. He watched her with amusement, as if he knew what she was doing. She realized in dismay that he had probably removed it.

Before she could think of anything else, he grabbed her arms, pulling her up, and held both of her wrists, adorned with the red glass bangles. He pinned her wrists on each side of her and smashed her into the wall. Her back was thrust against the wall and his face was a couple of inches away from her. There was lust written all over his face, but there was something else. Was it hatred, vengeance or revenge? Or all of it? Whatever it was, she was terrified like never before.

He pulled her wrists away from the wall and hit them against the wall with such force that a few of the bangles from both the hands broke. Tears escaped her eyes in dismay as she cried out, “NO!” With a satisfied expression, he observed her face and repeated his actions with one of his legs bent over her legs, trapping her and making more bangles break.

Sandhya haplessly endured the physical and mental pain as the bangles broke, a few at a time, and closed her tearful eyes when she realized that there were none on her hands anymore. She opened her eyes when she felt him kiss her wrist eagerly. She tried to pull her hands away, but he held his steely grip. Spots of blood stuck to his lips; she did not realize that a few glass pieces had cut her skin. He held both her wrists in one hand behind her and her head with the other. He stared at her lips and her heart twisted with disgust and fear. She tried again to wriggle free with all her might, realizing that her body was weakening. Her mind went blank with dismay when she felt his lips on her, despite her attempts to free herself.

There must be a way out…there must be…think, Sandhya! _]she kept telling herself. [_The knife! The knife under the pillow! Did he remove that too?

The next instant, he threw her on the bed. This was her chance! She kept her eyes on Varun as she quickly placed her hand under the pillow with bated breath. Her fingers felt something hard and sharp. It was there! Varun’s eyes shifted from her face to her hand; she had to move fast. She grabbed the knife swiftly and pulled it out, only to realize that she was holding the sharp edge and not the handle! Varun’s eyes landed on the knife. Before he could reach her, she quickly used her other hand to grab the knife correctly and pointed it at him.

Varun took a step back cautiously. The knife was sharp enough; it had cut through her palm when she had held it the wrong way. Their eyes stayed on each other and she sensed that he would make a move despite her threat. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that she was prepared to cut him to pieces.

As soon as she saw him spring closer to her, she moved her knife swiftly to his chest. Varun moved back just in time. A red line formed across his chest, spilling blood on his now torn shirt, but she knew that the knife had only scraped through his chest.

Mustering courage, she moved towards the door with the knife pointed towards him at all times. He was a few feet away from her, but kept following her at a safe distance. She reached the front door and ran her left hand up to remove the bolt, holding the knife with her stronger right hand. The bolt would not budge. She cursed herself. It was sometimes a pain to open. He stood right before her, with only half a foot between him and the knife edge.

She had to make the risky move. She carefully transferred the knife to her left hand and tried to open the door with her right hand. The bolt had opened halfway when Varun caught the wrist of the hand holding the knife and pulled her other hand down.

He tried to shake the knife out of her hand but she would not let go of it, clutching it as if her life depended on it. Her back pressed against his chest and the knife cut into her right arm. Sandhya did not feel the pain as the only thing on her mind was to not let go of the knife.

They both stopped struggling for a split second as they heard a motorbike approach them.

“HELP!” she cried out just before Varun closed her mouth.

The bike stopped before her house and there were footsteps on the porch.

Sandhya bit Varun’s hand, freed herself and shrieked for help again.

“Sandhya!” Dhiren shouted outside her front door. “Open the door!” He banged on the door. The bolt was giving in and would be opened soon. Varun cursed, pushed her on the floor, away from the door, and ran towards the kitchen. The front door opened just when she heard the back door of the kitchen open and Varun’s footsteps as he ran away.

Dhiren looked around the living room for Sandhya, and found her sitting on the ground, her hair a mess, her tearful eyes looking up at him. Blood flowed from her right arm. There were traces of red on her palm and lips.

“Oh no!” he cried out and ran to her.

Chapter 16 – Waiting

D

hiren held Sandhya’s shoulders and tried to pull her up. “You are hurt!”

She wouldn’t budge. Instead, she stared at the sofa in front of her in a trance, her breathing fast.

“Where is the first aid kit?” he asked with urgency.

She did not reply. Frustrated, he looked around the living room. Not finding it there, he ran into the bedroom and opened her closet door hastily. He found the first aid kit on the top shelf and ran back to her. Seeing that the gash in her arm wasn’t deep, he cleaned her wounds, applied medication and tied a bandage around her arm. Her breathing returned to normal but she sat still. Worried, he opened the windows to let the cool breeze in. He needed her to get back to behaving normally. Suddenly, she sat upright; her fists tightened as she wiped her mouth with her arm, her eyes gleaming with determination. With a sharp force, she got up and stormed towards the door, ignoring Dhiren’s cries behind her.

He caught up to her on the porch steps, held her arm and pulled her back.

“Where are you going?”

She halted and looked at him. “To the police station,” she replied aggressively, shrugging him off.

“Stop—listen to me, Sandhya. You need to calm down first; don’t do anything in haste without thinking it through,” he pleaded.

She glared at him as if he was mad. Guilt flashed within Dhiren but he was sure that reporting this to the police would do her more harm than good.

“Please? Come inside and listen.”

The determination in her eyes faded a little; her face became troubled as she swallowed and dragged her legs back inside. She sat on the sofa, and covered her face with her hands.

“The police in this village have a huge nexus with the political party in which Varun is involved. He’ll most likely get off scot free despite you and me trying our best to prove the truth.”

“What are you talking about? The police put Gajanan behind bars within no time,” she retorted.

“That’s because Gajanan is a nobody here; he’s not wealthy nor does he have the backing of any politician. Plus, I heard that Akash Rai, the architect guy—he apparently turned a lot of levers to get him behind bars as quickly as they did.”

Sandhya raised her eyebrows in surprise; Akash had never mentioned all this to her.

“This is the election season. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else. These politicians will try to make use of your issue to gain the advantage over each other. They won’t care about your justice—only their advantage. Think about this. What would you do if Varun pressed charges against you? What if he claims that you played him for the trip to Ooty, that you trapped him for your own advantage?”

A dumbfounded Sandhya opened her mouth and closed it.

“They might put you in jail, Sandhya. I have seen too many injustices like these here. I would suggest consulting a lawyer at least, someone that we can trust, before you file a complaint,” Dhiren said.

“A lawyer?” Sandhya muttered. She only had enough money to support herself for a couple of weeks. How could she afford a lawyer? Akash would help but could she wait till he returned?

“And…” He hesitated before continuing, “You are a young girl at a marriageable age. This will lead to a public scandal and impact your marriage prospects.” He hated himself for saying that but unfortunately, that was the truth in the community that they lived in.

Slowly, Dhiren’s words sank in for Sandhya. Akash had wanted to keep her away from the police station. Perhaps he didn’t trust the police either. She only needed to wait for one more day and Akash would guide her. The last thing she wanted was public attention. No, she didn’t want to be humiliated with questions in public. And, she couldn’t risk being held back here and losing her job in Mumbai.

Moreover, Akash’s family was well known in this region. He was marrying her despite her humble background and she had no doubt that his family would have trouble accepting her as it was. It wouldn’t be fair for them to be pulled into any scandal because of her.

“You are right,” she replied.

Dhiren breathed easy. Suddenly, Sandhya’s brow crinkled as if something was not sitting proper in her brain. She pointed her index finger towards him and questioned him with a quizzical expression.

“How do you know that it’s Varun? He was not here when you opened the door.”

Dhiren’s face turned red. A thought hit her and she shrieked at him accusingly, “You knew it! You knew Varun’s intentions right from the beginning! And yet, you did not once warn me? I went to lunches with you for so many days. You had so many opportunities to tell me!”

Dhiren’s stomach twisted with guilt.

“I am sorry, Sandhya, I had no idea that he would go this far. I did get suspicious about his interest in you, but I did not have anything concrete to prove it. And then, you stopped having lunches with us and he seemed to be fine with it. I assumed that I had been afraid for nothing. Then you went to Ooty with him. I again grew suspicious but by the time I learned about it, you were already back. When we spoke after you returned, you sounded pretty cheerful and I was glad that all was well. But I saw that Varun was not his normal self. He was very irritated and hardly spoke to me. I decided to keep a watch on him and also warn you about him whenever we met next. When I saw him driving towards your house a while ago, I got worried and decided to check on you. It took a while to borrow this bike from my friend and reach your house, or else I could have saved you in time,” he said guiltily.

“You did save me,” she said slowly.

Dhiren remained silent.

Sandhya looked up at him; Dhiren had worried about her, borrowed a motorbike and come to her house just based on his instinct that she might be in danger. Her eyes softened as she realized that her bond with Dhiren had just got a lot deeper. She felt a little more at home in this world; she had the love of Akash and the friendship of Dhiren.

“I wonder how he got inside though; the house was locked,” Sandhya thought aloud. She then exclaimed, “Oh! He must have made a cast of the key when he snooped in my office.”

“We should get the lock changed,” he suggested. She nodded and glanced down at her clothes, which were dotted with patches of blood. She sighed and said, “I will get changed.”

Once she got ready, they went out and bought a new lock. Dhiren ordered food parcels for dinner despite Sandhya pleading that she wasn’t hungry.

“Do you want me to talk to a lawyer?” Dhiren asked as he spooned the food onto the plates as they sat on the sofa in the living room.

“No, I will decide tomorrow,” Sandhya said.

“What’s going to happen tomorrow?

Sandhya bit her lip, wondering how to divert the topic and hoping that her face did not give away Akash.

Dhiren stared at her, surprised, then smiled mischievously.

“Oops, the cat is out of the bag. Tell me! Who is it?” he asked with a toothy grin.

Sandhya’s face brightened with a smile. She wanted to tell him about Akash but perhaps she should wait until he returned. “You will know soon,” Sandhya replied.

Dhiren frowned. “Fine, then I won’t tell you about my girl,” he said, folding his arms in mock anger.

It was Sandhya’s turn to be surprised. “What! Dhiren! Tell me, who is it?” she demanded.

“Wow! You are so demanding, Sandhya! You won’t give your guy’s name but you want my girl’s name.”

“I have some reason for not telling you,” Sandhya explained.

“Well, I have a reason too,” he said.

“OK, fine,” Sandhya said, dejected.

“Actually, I haven’t asked her yet,” he said, getting serious.

“Is that it? Why?”

“I wanted to make myself worthy of her first. But now that I have a good job, I think I should ask her soon,” he said, looking away.

Sandhya could see that he was a tortured soul inside, tortured by the fear of rejection.

“Only a foolish girl would reject a cute chocolate boy like you.”

“What? Cute! Chocolate boy!” Dhiren exclaimed with widened eyes.

“Yes! That is the description I have in my head for you,” she replied, laughing.

He had a huge frown on his face.

“I forbid you to imagine me as a certain ‘cute chocolate boy’! I am a grown man for God’s sake! And… And… Chocolate is brown in color. I am fair-skinned!” he protested.

“Oh please! What color is milk chocolate?” she responded, not letting him go so easily.

Dhiren stood up, trying to search for a better response.

Although angry, Dhiren was grateful for the fact that it had at least diverted Sandhya from her disturbing thoughts.

“So, when are you going to propose to her?”

“Soon,” Dhiren said.

“Soon is not enough. Tell me a date,” she said.

Dhiren hesitated. “Perhaps, in a week.”

Sandhya squealed in excitement. “That’s my boy, chocolate boy!” she said again and Dhiren rolled his eyes but smiled.

“Sandhya! What should I tell her? I have been pulling my hair out for the last two years thinking about this.”

“Just tell her your thoughts, truthfully, honestly. I am sure she will understand.”

He hesitated. “I am not very good with words. Can you help me? How about this?”

He knelt down before her and said:

“Oh my princess! My breath, my heart, my life,

Please accept me and I will show you a future most bright!”

Sandhya laughed at his attempt and pulled him up.

“Is she into poetry and stuff like that?”

“Not sure.”

“How the hell do I know what she would like if you won’t tell me who she is!”

“I will just talk to her.” Dhiren smiled, still not giving up the information.

After dinner, Dhiren considered the situation. Sandhya was traumatized and it did not sound like a good idea to leave her there all alone, even though they’d had the lock changed.

Sandhya sensed his dilemma.

“I will sleep at the orphanage today. Give me five minutes and I will pack some clothes,” she said, and went inside her bedroom.

Dhiren breathed in relief. It was sad that he could not take her to his house. He did not like the way his parents had spoken about her. He had confronted them about her but to no avail. No, that was a bad idea. They would hurt Sandhya’s feelings for no reason. Her plan was far better.

Sandhya came out with her bag packed.

“Maybe you should plan on staying at the orphanage for the remainder of your stay here,” Dhiren said.

Sandhya looked at him and said, “Don’t worry, Dhiren. He will figure out a way to keep me safe.”

“Oh yes, right. Forgot about the mystery guy,” he laughed.

Dhiren bid her good-bye once he saw her go inside the safety of the orphanage.

She gave an excuse to Mr. George that the water pipe was not working in the bathroom and hence she would like to be in the orphanage until it was fixed. Mr. George gladly invited her to stay as long as she wanted.

Sandhya lay in the orphanage’s guest room and looked at the ceiling. This was it; this was her last night without Akash. Tomorrow night, she would be in his arms. How much she longed for his deep black eyes to look at her with all their warmth and tenderness. How much her body longed for him to hold her, support her! How much she wanted to lean on his shoulder and let him take care of all her agonies!

One more night. He had said that he would get back by three in the afternoon.

Fifteen more hours to go. Each second felt like a minute; time seemed to have expanded mysteriously.

~

It was 2 pm. Sandhya resisted her urge to call Akash with all her might. It was torturously sweet, this wait for Akash, and this wait for the clock to strike three. He would call her if he arrived sooner. It felt like her heart would stop when the clock struck three. She immediately called Akash. To her dismay, it went directly to his voicemail.

Maybe he still hadn’t arrived. Maybe his battery had run out.

She could not control her urge to call him and kept calling him continuously for the next few minutes but got the same result. She heard a bike approaching and her heart leapt with joy. She ran out. Alas, it was not Akash but someone riding a bike on the road. She was getting crazy—unable to work, unable to think about anything else but Akash.

When would he call her back?

When would he come to her and pull her into his arms?

When?

When the clock struck five and his phone still went to voicemail, she was tenser than ever.

What was she supposed to do now? He’d specifically said that he would pick her up at her office. Then why? Where was he? What was he doing at this time? Her brain tried to search for these answers frantically.

She waited in her office, each passing second torturing her heart. She had called up the building site and was informed that he hadn’t been there either.

She glanced at the clock; it was six. Her heart sank. He would be expecting her to be home, not in her office, at this time. Perhaps he was late for some reason? But, he could at least have given her a call and informed her. Angry and frustrated, she felt like pulling her hair. Didn’t he know what he was doing to her?

She finally left her office and walked home, while calling him every minute on the way. She had lost count of how many times she must have called. Her body shaking with fear, she opened the door and inspected each room carefully. Yesterday’s tormenting memories were still raw but Akash would expect her to be home at this time. She had to overcome her fears and wait for Akash here. Once she was satisfied that no one was there, she closed the front door and waited.

Waited for the one call to come.

Waited for the one sound to come.

Waited for that one man to come.

The man who seemed to possess her ability to breathe. Time seemed to have stopped as she sat like a stone on the sofa and stared at her phone. It was 8:30 when the phone rang. She almost jumped out of her sofa and scrambled for the phone.

It was Dhiren. Disappointment flushed on her face and she felt like smashing the phone to pieces. Thankfully, Dhiren could not see her face. She didn’t want to talk to him. What if Akash called?

[_How selfish of you to think this way, Sandhya. He saved you yesterday and you are thinking this way, _]she reprimanded herself.

She glanced out of the window into the pitch-dark night, swallowed and clicked on the answer button. “Hello.”

“Hey, Sandhya.” She noticed a slight tremor in his voice.

“Hi, Dhiren. Is everything alright?” she asked with concern.

“Yes, I guess, it’s alright. It’s just that—Varun was found badly beaten and has been admitted to the hospital. No one knows who did it to him yet,” he said.

“What?” Sandhya exclaimed in shock. “How could that be? Who would do that?”

“It could be his political rivals. At least that’s what the police are thinking.”

Sandhya was silent, trying to digest the information.

“The good news is that he is in no position to harm you now,” he continued.

“I guess,” Sandhya said, her brow still crinkled with worry.

“By the way, is your guy there?” Dhiren asked.

Sandhya’s heart twisted in agony.

“No, he is on his way.” That must be the only reason why Akash wasn’t here yet, she reasoned.

“Alright. Say hi to him from me, and I want to meet him—just want to ensure that he is good enough for you,” he said mockingly.

Sandhya smiled and replied, “Oh! He is good enough for me, although, I am not sure if I am good enough for him.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

“Gee. Thanks for your confidence in me, chocolate boy!” she replied, imagining how Dhiren must be rolling his eyes.

“Don’t start it again! I am putting the phone down,” he replied in mock frustration.

Sandhya chuckled.

“Good night, Dhiren.”

“Good night, Sandhya.”

She felt a little better after speaking to Dhiren. Her mind was diverted from her tormented wait for Akash for a few minutes. But now, she was back to staring at her phone, disturbed. The news of Varun being beaten troubled her for some reason. Suddenly, she shot up from the sofa, her breathing fast, her body shaking. Had Akash found out what Varun had done? Had he beaten him up? And why was he not calling her? Did he get hurt too? Was he in the hospital? Was he safe? In a flash, she remembered the nightmare she’d had just before Akash left. Her heart might stop beating if she didn’t see him soon. Unable to hold herself back any longer, she grabbed a few pieces of documentation about the orphanage building, and stormed out towards Akash’s home.

Chapter 17 – Revelation

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andhya stood still, staring at the giant gate that guarded The Mansion, as everyone referred to the place where Akash’s family lived. A lush green lawn with a beautiful garden extended beyond the gate towards the majestic white two-story building. The ground floor had bay windows overlooking the lawn, while the upper floor had windows and doors all around the building, with each door extending to a spacious balcony. The building looked traditional and ornate, like a palace. Her one-bedroom rented house was a complete contrast to what she was viewing now.

She wondered how Akash had never made her feel as if her house was below his status. He seemed like he belonged with her in that little modest house. How could that be? How could a person who was used to living in this mansion, with his lavish lifestyle, also be comfortable at a place like hers? She was overwhelmed just looking at it from a distance. Her hands and feet were cold with nervousness. What was she doing? How could she simply barge into their home and ask about him, especially this late at night? She held her forehead, frustrated. If only he would pick up the damn phone! She called him again. This time it did not even ring and she got a message indicating that the phone was switched off. She grew even more worried. What if he was in some sort of danger? Was he somewhere with no communication?

There was no way she could rest in peace without finding out. She took a deep breath, said a silent prayer and walked to the gate. She had opened the gate a little when an elderly man, who must have been the watchman, came out from a small hut that stood at the side of the gate.

“What do you want, madam? Do you need to meet somebody?” the watchman asked politely.

“Err…yes. Can you inform Akash that Sandhya wants to meet him? I have important work with him…regarding the orphanage,” she quickly added.

“One minute,” the watchman said and called from his cell.

“Madam, a girl, Sandhya, is here. She says she wants to meet Akash Babu.” There was a pause as the watchman listened to what was being said on the other end.

He looked at Sandhya apologetically and said, “Madam said that he is not feeling well and is taking rest.”

Sandhya’s fear heightened. Akash was not feeling well? Was he so unwell that he was unable to answer her calls?

“Please…let me go in. I will only take two minutes. This is very important!” she pleaded.

The watchman stood still, with a worried expression on his face and the cell phone still in his hands.

“Madam, she says that—” The watchman tried to talk again, turning away from her. Sandhya could decipher from the watchman’s expression what the outcome would be. Slowly, she sneaked inside the gate and hid behind a tree. The watchman ended the call only to find Sandhya no longer in front of him. He looked around at the lawn and when he couldn’t find her anywhere, assumed that she must have gone back and closed the gate.

Sandhya breathed in relief and started walking towards the entrance. As she neared the main door, she suddenly became aware of her clothes and appearance. She quickly ran her hands over her hair to ensure that her loose hair was not haywire. Paying attention to her looks or dress had been the last thing on her mind when she left her house. She wished she had worn a better one. The light blue cotton salwar kameez looked too plain and cheap considering that she was stepping into her future in-laws’ house for the first time.

A weird guilty feeling engulfed her. Was it right to even hope to be the daughter-in-law of this house? Her heart screamed that she did not belong here. She reminded herself about how, when she had mentioned her apprehensions to Akash initially, he had made everything seem so simple, so possible.

I just need to see Akash and all these apprehensions will go away, she thought to herself as she waited for someone to come to the door. The door opened and she saw Puja standing in front of her. A bright smile lit Puja’s face as she exclaimed, “Oh my God! Sandhya! What a pleasant surprise! Come, come, come inside!”

Sandhya was not expecting this warm reception at all, especially after what she had overheard from the watchman, but she was relieved to find Puja smiling and cheerful. She wouldn’t be like that if Akash was terribly sick.

“Hi, Puja,” she said, smiling faintly. She removed her sandals and hesitantly placed her trembling feet on the pure white marble floor. Her eyes traveled around the large living room adorned with exquisite teak wood furniture. The high ceilings had intricate carvings at the corners with a huge, breathtaking chandelier in the middle. Towards her right, a wide stairway curved and led to the upper-level corridor that seemed to lead to the other rooms.

She looked around for Akash. There was no sign of him.

“Have a seat, Sandhya,” Puja said.

“Oh no, actually, I needed Akash’s signature on a couple of documents. It’s very urgent, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you at this time. I heard that he was not feeling well, so I thought I would come myself,” she replied, showing the file in her hand to Puja.

“Yes, I think it’s the jetlag,” Puja replied, beaming at her.

Jetlag! Sandhya screamed within herself. So Akash was not ill and she was almost panicking for nothing. He would have to pay for every minute of her torment, she resolved, suppressing her fury within.

She observed Puja, looking so pretty and adorable in her figure-hugging red salwar kameez. It seemed to be made of some kind of expensive, rich silk material and had intricate embroidery over the neckline. Sandhya again glanced at her plain cotton dress and wondered why she had walked from her house in this way without thinking about her attire.

Akash’s mom walked into the living room and halted as soon as she saw Sandhya there. She was a petite woman, and must have been very beautiful in her younger years. Her clothes and jewelry screamed class and wealth. Her eyes narrowed with a frown as she scrutinized Sandhya from top to bottom. Scared and uncomfortable in her continued gaze, Sandhya joined her hands and said “Namaste, Auntie,” respectfully. His mom continued her scrutiny without replying. Sandhya felt her stomach churn at her situation.

“Didn’t I inform you that Akash was not well? Can’t you understand plain language? Is this the time for office work?” she questioned Sandhya ruthlessly.

Sandhya stood miserably as his mom’s insulting words seethed through her. She was such a contrast to Akash and Puja.

“I am very sorry, Auntie. I need Akash’s signature on some important documents. It’s very urgent,” Sandhya explained while feeling guilty for her lies.

Akash’s mom stood looking at Sandhya with scorn. “Fine. Puja, take these papers and get the signatures from your brother,” she ordered.

Sandhya’s heart sank. What was she supposed to do now? Maybe all was not lost. If Puja told Akash that she was here, he would come down.

Just then, Akash’s dad, Prem Rai, walked into the living room and stopped when he saw all three of them and their expressions. He was a large man with broad shoulders and his hair had grayed considerably but he looked healthy and in shape. She observed his features closely; Akash did not have his father’s brown eyes but he did have his angular jaw and the chiseled face. His eyes landed on Sandhya and she quickly joined her hands and said “Namaste, Uncle,” respectfully. He nodded and replied, “Namaste,” and kept staring at her inquisitively, perhaps wondering what she was doing here at this time of night.

“I had some urgent work, needed some signatures from Akash,” Sandhya quickly muttered, hoping that she sounded genuine.

He shook his head sideways. Was he going to reprimand her like his wife? Sandhya feared the worst.

“You are just like your dad, huh! Workaholic,” he finally said.

A jolt of surprise hit her at the mention of her father. She did not know if he was saying it in a positive way, but the faint hint of a smile on his face indicated that he was.

“You knew my father?” Her curious eyes sparkled.

“Of course! He grew up in this village!” he replied as if this was the dumbest thing to ask.

A smile lit up Sandhya’s worried face; she sensed a faint connection forming between her and Akash’s dad and it made her feel good. She noticed Akash’s mom had become somewhat sober after he had arrived. An uncomfortable silence followed. His dad broke the silence and said, “What are you waiting for? He must be in his room upstairs. He seems to be too tired to come downstairs. It’s the second room to the right.”

Akash’s mom opened her mouth to say something but Sandhya quickly took this opportunity and started towards the stairs. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Prem Rai giving a stern glare to his wife and she shut her mouth.

Sandhya’s excitement knew no bounds as she started walking up the stairs. She turned right and stopped before the door of the second room on the right. Her wait was over; she would be in his arms in a few seconds. Her heart pounded but she reminded herself that she needed to be angry at him despite her urges. She took a deep breath and slowly turned the knob of the door and entered the dimly lit room.

She looked around for Akash. His room looked modern, with contemporary furnishings. It was a bit untidy, with the sheets thrown carelessly on the bed and papers lying scattered on the computer table. A few clothes lay strewn by the large closet on the left side of the bed. The door to the balcony was open. She placed the file on the computer table and walked towards the balcony. She froze.

He stood with his back towards her as he held the railings of the balcony. His hair was ruffled and his pale shirt was rolled up to his elbow; he seemed to be lost in thought as he gazed at the distant fields in the darkness of the night

Sandhya felt alive again as blood rushed through her veins. What a relief it was to see him hale and healthy after all the negative thoughts that had invaded her in the last few hours. She did not even remember that she was supposed to be angry at him right now; her heart was too overwhelmed with joy as her eyes took in his image.

She walked towards him quietly and stood right behind him; she could almost feel his body’s heat radiating towards her. Unable to hold herself back anymore, she threw herself on him. Her hands wrapped around his waist, her face and chest pressed to his back as she breathed in his masculine scent. She closed her eyes. Her torment was over. The mere touch of his body melted all the tears that she had held back so long. She kept quiet and enjoyed this moment; she would choke on her words if she opened her mouth.

She continued to hold him as she slowly moved her head and pressed her lips to his back. His body trembled and she smiled. His warm hands held her hands and she gasped with joy. He moved her hands apart and slowly turned around. Sandhya was desperate to see him, hear him, feel him…

She looked up at his face. What she saw shocked her beyond words. It was not her Akash standing before her! It was someone else! He had the same features as Akash, the same jet-black eyes and the same thick black hair, but the expression on his face was something that she had never seen before. It terrified her.

“A-Akash!” she exclaimed with her hand on her mouth.

She saw his eyes narrow and look at her sharply.

“What…What happened?” she muttered after reminding herself that he was still “her” Akash.

“Why are you here?” she heard him say in a cold tone.

She stared at him in disbelief.

“I…I came for you. I got worried since you were not answering your phone,” she replied, wondering why her voice felt so weak and low. It sounded as if she had actually committed a sin by coming to his house.

“If I was not answering the phone, it means that I did not want to talk to you!” he replied harshly.

Sandhya felt as if everything around her was spinning. She shook her head and tried to think sanely.

“What do you mean?” she questioned, a bit louder this time as her brain slowly returned to sanity.

He did not reply but kept looking at her with his cold, stern glare.

She glared back at him, reminding herself that she should be the one reprimanding him, not the other way around.

But his expression…it was making her feel intimidated. Domination and superiority were clearly showing in his face. There was no trace of the gentleness or love that she was used to. She gathered that he was extremely angry at her. Maybe this was how he reacted when his anger reached beyond a certain level, she tried to convince herself.

“You may go now,” she heard him say.

“What did you say?” she asked him in disbelief.

“I said you may go now! Leave!” he said again in a commanding tone.

“What the heck, Akash! What do you mean ‘leave’? I am not your servant that you can treat me like this! I can understand that you are upset with me for something but please…please don’t talk to me like this!” she screamed back.

There was silence for a few seconds as they both looked at each other with furious eyes.

“It would be better for you if you leave,” he said, gritting his teeth.

Anger rose like a storm within her.

“I am not leaving anywhere before you tell me why you are behaving like this! I was worrying like hell about you these last few hours and you don’t even want to talk to me? Why, Akash? Why?” she screamed furiously.

She frantically thought of what the reason could be. Had he found out that she went to Ooty with Varun? Was that why he was mad at her? Yes…that must be the reason.

“Are you angry that I went to Ooty with Varun?” she asked him bluntly after mustering some strength. His face muscles tightened at the mentioning of Varun’s name. She instantly knew that it must be the reason. She held her forehead, wishing she had informed him about Varun earlier. The corner of her eye caught torn bits of paper on the ground. She picked up the pieces and gasped in shock. With trembling fingers, she held two of the pieces together and found the image of herself smiling back at Varun with her eyes closed. Someone had taken a picture of her with Varun in Ooty! If the photograph had been taken even a split second later, it would have showed her slapping Varun but as luck would have it, the picture did seem to indicate that she was enjoying being with Varun. She noticed Akash’s gaze on her and looked up at him. Yes, it hurt that he did not trust her, but then she had never told him about Varun and his intentions. What was he supposed to think after seeing a photo like this? Of course! His reaction was natural.

“Is this why you are behaving like this?” She pointed to the photo.

He remained silent. She observed him carefully, realizing the depth of hurt that he must have gone through ever since he saw this. Ignoring his earlier insulting words and his present insulting gaze, she slowly walked up to him again and looked at him tenderly.

“I can explain, Akash. Please don’t put yourself through this pain. I can’t see you like this,” she pleaded as she placed her palm on his cheek softly.

“Don’t touch me! You…” He pushed her hand away.

She found it difficult to handle herself; she could face rejection and repulsion from anyone, but not him! He was her support, her love, her life. Why did he not get it?

“Please, please don’t behave like this, Akash,” she pleaded.

“You are lucky that I am letting you go like this!” he declared harshly.

“Letting me go? Letting me go? Letting me go…Akash?” she repeated in shock.

Was he saying that it was all over between them? How could he say that for this stupid of a reason? No, he was just acting like this because of the stupid photo. He could not live without her just as she could not live without him! She had to make things right, tell him everything before it was too late.

“Could you hear me out first? I can explain everything. I wish you had placed a bit of trust in me and told me that this was what was bothering you!”

“Trust? It is ironic that you are talking about trust! I trusted you even after hearing everything that people have been saying about you. I used to wonder why they couldn’t see you with my eyes. I was so wrong; it was I who was not able to see the truth! I was blinded…blinded by my love for you!”

She gasped as she heard those words.

“Love? What kind of love is this, where you want to leave me at the slightest test of faith? Where you make me believe you, trust you, depend on you and then, one fine day, you simply say that you are ‘letting me go’?”

His eyes narrowed. Suddenly, he held her arms in a tight grasp.

“How dare you!” he said and halted as he saw her wince from his hold on her arm. She wore a long-sleeved dress and her wound was coved beneath her dress. His hand was right on her wound. He immediately removed his hand from her. A shade of softness and concern spread over his face, but it did not last long. It was immediately replaced with his blazing anger and his fierce eyes bored into her. The next second he grasped her arms again, this time tighter.

“Aah,” she cried out in pain and looked at him in terror, searching his face for whatever demon was causing him to be so cruel to her.

“Are you feeling the pain, my dear?” he said sarcastically. “Have you imagined how much pain you have caused me? What you are feeling right now is nowhere near that! This is just a glimpse of how it feels!”

“Get your hands off me!” she muttered under her breath as she glared into his eyes. She didn’t know if her arm was hurting more or her heart, which felt like it was being slashed with a knife.

He removed his grasp from her arms.

“You are behaving like an animal.” Sandhya whispered as she held her arm as the removal of his hold on her arm caused a shot of blood to flow through her wound, causing another jolt of pain.

She stared at him in disbelief. How was it possible? How could Akash cause this much pain to her? Her Akash, who was supposed to be relieving her pain right now.

He replied, “If I am an animal, then what are you? What should I call a person like you? Your mind was probably always busy making devious plans about how to trap eligible bachelors.”

“What are you taking about!? Don’t say anything that you will regret later!” she shouted.

He took a step back and said, “I wish I had paid attention to what you had said. It didn’t make any sense to me at that time but it makes complete sense now. We do belong to opposite ends of the spectrum; we can never belong to each other. I wish I had seen the truth in those words then.”

Sandhya closed her eyes, unable to accept the sentences that came out of his mouth. What was he saying? Why was he saying this now? Her brain was in frenzy.

“You are realizing this NOW? After…after everything that transpired between us? After… After…” She was lost for words.

“After being intimate?” he cut her off. “You want to use that as an excuse to hang on to me?”

She looked at him in shock. That fact had not even crossed her mind. His words would have hurt her the same even if they had not been intimate.

“You said that my background did not matter to you,” she whispered.

“Well, it does…now,” he replied coldly.

Her shaking legs grew weak and she wondered if she could stand anymore.

“Go ahead, Give me your explanation! I want to hear what kind of an explanation you have to maintain a relationship with all the eligible bachelors in this village!” he demanded.

Sandhya wondered if she had heard him right. “What are you talking about?” she questioned him again.

“I am giving you one last chance to explain why you schemed to trap me, Varun, Dhiren and God knows how many other guys at the same time!”

Sandhya felt dizzy on hearing his words. “Hold on. You are talking crazy… Dhiren and I…”

“Are good friends?” he cut her off sarcastically. “Cut the crap and tell me the truth!”

She looked at him with confusion, not understanding what he meant by the real explanation.

“Was it the trauma of a poor childhood that caused you to do this? Or was it that you saw this happening in the cities and you thought you could try fooling around here? Is that why you never said those three words, “I love you,” because it was reserved for someone else, someone with whom you wouldn’t be acting with?” He blasted her with questions.

“Love you?” Sandhya muttered under her breath and looked up into his eyes. Yes, she had actually never used those words. But didn’t he know that she loved him?

He continued, “Was it your upbringing? Did your parents leave these traits in you or is it that their upbringing was this abhorable?”

The mention of her parents made the frustration inside Sandhya blast out like a volcano.

She clutched his shirt strongly with both her hands as she glared at him bitterly.

“I never gave you permission to talk this way about my parents or my upbringing. Yes, we are poor. Yes, we do not belong to the same social class as you. But you will not dare point a finger at their traits or my upbringing,” she warned with gritted teeth.

He caught her hands on his shirt and pulled them away with force. He pushed her away from him.

“Permission? What makes you think that I need permission to talk about people like you? Do you realize who you are talking to? You are talking to Akash Rai! I can hire and fire a thousand people like you and your family!” he screamed back at her.

Sandhya stared at his hatred-filled eyes, dumbfounded.

How had she fallen in love with him? How had she ended up loving a person who made her feel as disgusted and humiliated as she felt right now? How had she let herself end up in this situation?

She closed her eyes and recalled…

[_“I want to be with someone with whom I won’t feel little so I can live with my head held high.” _]

“Why do you think that way, Sandhya? My family might be wealthy, but I did not earn that wealth. I am just a struggling architect who doesn’t earn much. And with your intelligence, I am sure you can beat anyone in terms of being rich.”

She opened her eyes and saw the person standing before her.

At that moment, she knew that she had lost more than her love for Akash.

She had lost her ability to trust.

She needed to get out of there. She walked backwards into his bedroom, all the while looking at his eyes, which were not leaving her either. She could not breathe in this mansion. The plush carpet, the rich teak doors, the exquisitely carved cabinet door, each and every piece of richness that caught her eye caused a pricking pain in her heart.

She turned around and started walking towards the door.

“Wait,” she heard him say, and she stopped. He was inside the bedroom.

“You…did not give your explanation,” he stated in a low voice layered with hesitation and desperation.

What could she tell him? There was no point. She took a deep breath.

“There is none,” she replied without turning back. She reached for the door and opened it, knowing that he was still watching her.

She slowly shot her eyes up and looked at his face one final time before closing the door.

Oblivious to her surroundings, she walked down the stairs in silence. She did not notice that there was no one in the living room, nor did she notice Puja calling out her name from the adjacent dining room.

She opened the front door and stepped outside. There was no pain at this time, only a deep void inside of her. She walked towards the gate, opened it and was on the open road now. Her pace increased bit by bit; she started walking fast and then started running as fast as she could in the pitch-dark night. She did not know where she was running, but she had to run. Otherwise, her heart might explode at any time. She noticed some people watching her run from a nearby tea shop.

Their gazes hurt her. [_Don’t look at me! _]her heart screamed as she ran away from them into the cornfields. The same cornfields that once felt eerie to her at night felt welcoming now. The tall corn stalks swayed to and fro as the cool wind blew in the dark night. They were calling out to her, into the field’s dark interior, where no one could find her. Her mind accepted the invitation as she turned her feet towards the cornfield and lost herself within the giant stalks. She continued running inside; she wanted to run until she ran out of the last bit of energy, the last bit of breath remaining in her.

Her foot caught something on the way and she fell down. Her head hit a stone and she lay there, unconscious, in the middle of the cornfield, in that dark night.

Chapter 18 – Heartbreak

A

kash stood like a stone staring at the closed door. Was this the end? Why did his heart still pull towards her, pleading him to stop her? His heart! It was the root cause of all his problems; it did not let him see the things as they should be. It blurred his mind to such an extent that he had fallen into a deep trap from which it was difficult to escape.

No, he would not listen to his heart anymore!

Slowly, he walked towards the balcony and watched as she walked out of his house. He looked at his hands, the hands that had harmed her a few seconds ago. If he could harm her, he could forget her. Of course! He could forget her and put this behind him. A sharp pain pierced through him as soon as the thought crossed his mind. The thought that he could forget Sandhya made him despise himself. His love for her had been true, even if she’d never had any love for him.

He closed his eyes and looked up at the dark sky. Why? Why did she do this to him? If she was after wealth, then no one else was on par with him. She would have easily gained it if she had married him. Was that not what she was after? Was it power that she was after, that she could gain from Varun? Or was it fame that she wanted, that she could have gained from Dhiren? Was she a confused soul trying to figure out what she wanted? Maybe he should have pushed her for an explanation. He remembered her pained face when he had held her arm and shut his eyes in agony. How did she get hurt? He had wanted to ask her, but instead, all the pain and agony that he felt took control of him, urging him to punish her, if only for a few seconds before letting her go. How he wished he could undo that.

He dare not give her any chance to weaken his mind. If she was capable of betraying him, she was capable of blurring his mind again. He had to be cautious. But the fact that he did not know what she was about to say and how she was hurt was tormenting him. His eyes spotted the torn photo and his brain became furious again.

He slumped on a chair and held his forehead in frustration.

What should he do now? How should he handle his life after the torturous events that he had obsessed over since yesterday? He had thought that he had everything a man could want yesterday. But today, he had lost everything and was left with nothing but an empty soul.

Yesterday, his heart had been in bliss at the mere thought of reuniting with his love. He had planned to surprise Sandhya and had told her that he was going to arrive a day later than he was.

Flashback. One day ago

Akash arrived at his house, refreshed himself and was about to head to Sandhya’s house when his mother stopped him for tea. He reluctantly stayed back. It was then that she mentioned Sandhya going to Ooty with Varun. He was shocked, but wondered why his mother was mentioning it to him.

“The whole village is gossiping about her. That Varun, he was obviously hitting two birds with one stone; being with her and gaining political clout at the same time. I have never seen anyone disguise a trip this shamelessly!” his mom said with a disgusted face.

Akash held his teacup tight and gritted his teeth. If only he could make her and the villagers shut up! “I don’t have the time to hear this. My friends are waiting for me. I have to go.” He rose swiftly and walked out.

His mood turned sour, angry. Why the hell did Sandhya go with Varun? Why didn’t she tell him? Didn’t she know how people would interpret this? Careless woman! His heart pounded in frustration and anger as he rode to her house.

He stopped by a deserted petrol pump to refuel the bike.  Someone leaned on a wall a few feet away. Varun! He had a bottle of alcohol in his hand and seemed drunk.

Anger blazed through Akash as his gaze met Varun’s. Varun took a few steps away from him. Did he see fear in his eyes? Akash held himself back and minded his own business. Weirdly, Varun stopped, turned around and stared at him. He glared back at Varun in warning. A smirk appeared on his face, enraging Akash.

Varun muttered, “Going to Sandhya?”

Akash narrowed his eyes.

His smirk widened. “Isn’t she something?”

Before he could finish, Akash’s fist connected with his chin and he fell sideways.

“Hey!” he screamed.

“I know exactly what you are trying to do, smartass! You think she is alone and vulnerable. It’s so easy to malign her name, right? A few gossips are enough for that in this village!” Akash shouted.

Varun smiled at him wearily, his lips bruised and bleeding by now. “So! You are also a gone case! Just like Dhiren! Looks like I was the only one playing safe. I was playing her just as she is playing with everyone. She is truly amazing, I have to say, with her strawberry lips and her…”

Before Varun could finish, Akash lunged at Varun and kicked him hard. Varun, though mostly lucid, was drunk enough that his body could not respond with equal strength.

He screamed in pain as he tried to stop Akash from hitting him.

“I was only trying to save you,” he pleaded as he held his hands before him to make Akash stop.

Akash was about to hit him again when he cried out, “Wait!” and dug out a few photos in an envelope from his pocket.

“Look at this.” He shoved it into his hands, catching his breath.

Akash opened the envelope and found a bunch of photos in it from the Ooty trip. He flung the photographs in his face. “So what if she went with you? I know her enough,” he growled.

His eyes landed on one particular photo lying on the ground. It had Sandhya smiling by the lake with Varun behind her, his hand on her waist. His heart almost stopped and the next instant, he picked it up, tore it and put the pieces in his pocket. He could not let anyone see that. He searched through the other twenty odd photos hastily to see if there were any similar. Varun sat on the ground, amused at what Akash was doing. His smile disappeared when Akash turned towards him. Akash lunged at Varun and kicked him again.

“Why did she go out with a guy like this,” he cursed within himself. “Stupid, stupid Sandhya! She just trusts everyone.” He decided to get married to her that day itself, before she and others had any clue about what Varun said.

Leaving a bruised Varun on the ground, he started his bike and turned towards Sandhya’s house, feeling uneasy and restless as he drove. A cloud of darkness engulfed him and he could barely breathe. Little did he know that the seed of doubt buried deep inside him had begun to sprout. He remembered the torn photo in his pocket. Of course it was fake! He had heard many times about the use of digital technology for mixing photographs.

Varun’s words crossed his mind:

Her strawberry lips. How did he know that—? He stopped his thoughts right there. Damn it, Akash! What are you thinking? How can you doubt your Sandhya! Just go and see her, and everything will be alright.

He continued riding towards her house, his mind in conflict, his heart drenched in acid. Cursing himself, he turned his bike around towards the nearby village. Once he validated that the photo was fake, he could meet Sandhya with a clear mind. He knew that he would regret this action but he would never let her know about this. He went to a person who owned a photo studio, gave him the photo fragments and asked him to verify.

“This is real,” the studio guy said.

“Yes. This is fake, right? I knew it!” Akash exclaimed the words that circled in his brain.

The studio guy looked at him grimly. Akash turned silent as his words sank in. He grabbed the pieces and retreated from there quickly. He felt as if a storm had just destroyed the world that he knew.

There must be some mistake. There must be some mistake. She wouldn’t do this to me. Why would she?

He wandered on his bike over the streets for an hour trying to figure out what was happening. He finally decided to confront Sandhya herself, hoping that she had some explanation. It was pretty late by then. As he approached her house, he was stunned to find a bike in front of her house. A sharp pang tore through his heart. Someone was there this late at her house. No one had ever visited her when he was around. He parked his bike at a little distance and walked over, his heart racing with frustration. The light was on and he saw her laughing with someone. Who was it? The person turned around and he saw him. Dhiren!

He was about to smash into the house when he saw Dhiren kneeling before her and…proposing to her! He expected Sandhya to be upset and angry, but she held him and pulled him up, laughing all the time.

Akash held on to the mud wall, unable to stand on his feet, his body shaken. A pit formed in his stomach as a nauseating feeling overtook him. He slid down the wall and closed his eyes, blood pounding in his brain. He might not behave like a human if he went inside now. Why? Why? Why would anyone play with him like this? Anger flooded over him suddenly. Who was she? Why had he blindly fallen for her?

He recalled his mother’s words: “The social and cultural umbrella that you grow up under also matters in building a person’s character.”

What could he do now? It was clear that he wasn’t in her heart. There must be only one reason why she befriended him: for his money. But she was close enough to achieving that. Then why trap others as well?

What the heck—why should he bother? To hell with her and her life! He would have nothing to do with a person like her. Thinking that, he slowly walked to his bike and started towards his home.

He ignored his mom’s reprimanding questions and starting towards his room but halted when she sharply said, “Don’t you think that I don’t know where you have been? I know that you have been out with Sandhya.”

Akash felt a sudden sense of fear. He had been prepared to fight everyone till the end of the world for Sandhya till a few hours ago. Now, he was afraid of his name being associated with her.

“It’s nothing like that, Ma. We went out for work, that’s it,” he replied, and escaped to his room. He drank himself to sleep that night. Everything felt different when he woke up in the morning. There was nothing to look forward to except for figuring out how to deal with his pain. Should he take revenge on her? It would be pretty easy. He had the money to do whatever he wanted. He finally decided not to keep any contact with her. Dealing with her was dangerous. He had gone out many times with her and a few people may have started gossiping about them. It was better to keep her as far away from him as possible. Plus, he was afraid of another fact. He knew he had a weakness for her. What if she dropped a few tears, built up a nice story and trapped him again? She was definitely capable of doing that.

With that decision in his mind, he drank throughout the day. When he saw her call coming at three in the afternoon, a sudden pang in his heart told him to pick it up and talk to her. But he stopped himself from answering the calls, gave an excuse of jetlag to his family and dealt with this pain alone in his room.

Flashback end

The sun rose over the horizon. Raindrops fell on Sandhya’s face and her eyes fluttered open. She looked at the cloudy sky and around her in confusion. Darkness filled her in a flash as she recalled the events of the night before. She stood up and walked out of the cornfield towards her house. Her legs trembled as she sat on the porch steps, recalling her moments with Akash there. After a while, she went inside, closed the doors and windows and sat on her sofa in the now dark living room. She slowly slid down the sofa, feeling tired and worn out, wanting to close her eyes and lie still in the darkness.

Working here wasn’t an option; she could not face him any longer. She had to get out of here. She still had to work for a couple of weeks at the orphanage and her pay was also due after that time. Paycheck. How pathetic her life was. She did not even have money to go to Mumbai and survive there for a couple of weeks. How did she even think that she could marry someone like Akash? Her brain trailed off to accusing herself for her foolishness.

There was a bus leaving for Mumbai every evening in the village. She decided that she would quit her job and leave that evening. But there was one problem. She could not survive for a month in Mumbai, not without her paycheck, which she would only receive if she remained here.

After thinking hard, she called up Dhiren and asked if she could borrow some money, citing that she needed to start working in Mumbai earlier. Though she tried hard to sound normal, she suspected that Dhiren perceived her turmoil, based on his questions and concerned voice. Thankfully, he did not press the issue too much and gladly agreed to lend her some money.

Once the call was over, Sandhya dialed Mr. George and informed him that she wanted to quit. He was surprised and shocked at her decision and asked her more questions than she imagined he would, but finally, he gave in.

She again sat quietly on the sofa. If only she had the money to clap her hands and let everything happen automatically. But no, she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She did not have the privilege of crying in peace. She took a deep breath and walked over to her bathroom.

She looked at herself in the mirror and observed her disheveled hair, dirty clothes, and sunken eyes. How could anyone love her? Of course, how did she even think that she was capable to be loved? She smiled wistfully. Maybe her aunt was right. She was ugly. Her aunt— her mind trailer off to her. She recalled a memory that she had always cherished when she had visited them with her father; she must have been nine years old then. Her aunt had hugged and kissed her. She even presented her with a beautiful frock. Sandhya had liked her then, and it seemed as though she liked her too. Then why did she not love her later? Was it her face? Was it her nature? What was wrong with her? Her aunt had never hit her physically. She simply never said anything affectionate to her. Sure, she had loaded her with a lot of work for her age but she would not have minded that if she had been loving to her. Maybe she was just destined to be like this, she thought as she splashed water over her face.

Half an hour later, she sat on the same sofa, wearing a different dress, trying to focus on the next things to be done. The doorbell rang and she knew that Dhiren must be there with the money. She took a deep breath and opened the door with a smile pasted on her face.

“Hey, Sandhya!”

“Hi, Dhiren.”

“I got what you asked. Do you think it will be enough?”

“Yes, I think this will be enough, thank you,” she replied sincerely as she took the cash from him and added, “I will repay you as soon as possible.”

“Take your time, Sandhya. There is no urgency,” he said, smiling.

She was silent for a few minutes, hoping that he would take the hint and leave. Guilt entered her mind at being so rude to him but he would have no idea how difficult it was for her to act normal. Dhiren did seem to get the hint. He told her to keep in touch, wished her luck and left.

~

Sandhya was drowning in the river, screaming for help. Whenever she managed to get her head out of the water, her pleading eyes were on him, but he just stood there. Why was he not saving her? Why was he simply standing there, watching her drown! [_What are you thinking, Akash! It is your Sandhya in the water. Save her! _]his conscience shouted at him, but he stood rooted to the ground and stared at her with a detached expression. He turned around and walked away from her.

“No! You promised that you would never leave me!” she cried out, but he did not seem to hear it.

He turned around after some time and there was no Sandhya there.

“NO!” Akash woke up screaming, his whole body trembling and drenched in sweat, his face distorted with stress.

Sandhya! His Sandhya was drowning and he would not help her. He looked around his room and yesterday’s events flashed in his mind. A wave of despair rushed over him. A quick glance at the clock showed that he had barely slept for a couple of hours.

“Promise me that you will never leave me.”

Her cries tormented his mind, urging him to see her right then. He would not break his promise. She needed him! He rode towards her house as fast as possible, his heart pounding within him. As he approached her house, lightning struck him when he saw the bike in front of her house. Dhiren’s bike! He turned his bike around in despair and frustration. She did not need him. He had to get away from this thought that she needed him. However much pain it gave him, he had to learn to live with this agonizing truth. He drove back to his house and sulked in his dark room.

~

Sandhya paced towards her bedroom and started to pack. She saw the black dress that Akash had given her hanging in her closet. Fresh tears swelled in her eyes as she recalled her moments with him. Each and every item in the room reminded her of him. Would she ever be able to let go of him as easily as he had let go of her? She stared at the broken red bangles on the floor. They seemed to symbolize her life now; like a beautiful dream that was shattered. She collected the broken pieces and placed them in a small box.

She took out a cardboard box, placed the dress gently at the bottom of it and then put the necklace that Akash had presented to her on top of it in another small box. To conceal the contents within the box, she covered them with papers that looked official, closed the box and wrote Akash’s name on it. She walked to one of the construction workers’ house and asked him to give the box to Akash.

Sandhya personally apologized to Mr. George for her unexpected resignation from the job and asked him to use the potted plants in front of her house in the new orphanage. Mr. George seemed concerned by her sudden departure but did not push her to explain further. She finally bid a tearful good-bye to all the kids and Mr. George.

Returning to her house, she packed her bags and waited for evening to arrive, wondering if some miracle would happen to return her life to the way it was with Akash. The new job would divert her mind. She had coped with bigger tragedies; she would be able to cope with this too, she reasoned.

Sandhya finally sat on the bus, her spirit and soul shattered. In less than three months, her life had been completely altered. She looked out of the window and caught the sunset. She immediately turned her head and closed her eyes. Sunsets would never be the same for her anymore.

Chapter 19 – Survival

S

andhya got off of the bus, feeling dizzy and nauseated, having not eaten anything for more than a day. She bought a biscuit packet and a bottle of water from a shop in the bus station. Sitting on a bench, she stared at a biscuit with disinterest before forcing herself to eat it mechanically. She walked towards the working woman’s hostel where she planned to stay. The warden showed her a small ten-by-eight-foot room with a bed, a desk, a closet and an attached bathroom.

She closed the door and sat on the bed. Finally, she was alone. She had two weeks to cry and get over Akash; she would let herself brood over him for this much time. Maybe it would reduce the heaviness within her. Once she started working, she wouldn’t have the time or freedom to despair.

A few days later…

Sandhya opened her eyes. Her attempts to go back to sleep failed and she pulled herself up with difficulty. Her stomach felt like it had acid in it. It must be her body needing more food. She looked around for the loaf of bread and saw the wrapper lying on the floor. Damn, the bread was gone.

What time was it? There wouldn’t be any shops open if it was late night. She concentrated on the tiny hole in the window and saw light shining from the hole. It was still daytime.

Not bothering one bit about her disheveled dress or hair, she dragged her feet out of the room. She had not spoken to anyone other than the owner of the small grocery store on the ground floor of the hostel where she went to buy bread.

The hostel stood in the middle of the crowded and busy city. The canteen in the hostel served breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sandhya could not imagine going there amidst the crowd; she did not want to face any human being, let alone a crowd at this time.

A few minutes later, she was back in the room with a packet of bread. She ate a couple of slices, drank some water and lay on her bed again; this was the only food she’d had since she arrived here. She did not know exactly what date it was but she knew that her two weeks had not finished yet. Conflicting mood swings consumed her whenever she was awake. At times, she would be so angry that she would want to throw things; other times, she would be morose and sob for hours.

Now, she was calm. This was very rare. Suddenly her heartbeat increased. What did he look like? She closed her eyes and searched her brain. His faint image appeared before her eyes, but it wasn’t clear. Could she not even remember what he looked like? She opened her eyes in panic. Why hadn’t she at least taken a picture of him?

She grabbed a piece of paper and began sketching. She was not an artist but she was desperate. When she was done, she found a pair of dark eyes watching her from the paper.

She kissed the paper. “How do I live without you?”

She remembered his words.

“Is that why you never said those words, ‘I love you’?”

She clutched her forehead.

“You are angry that I didn’t say I love you? Here, I am saying it now.

“I love you.

“I love you.

“I love you.

“I will say it a thousand times more. You will come back for me, won’t you?

“I know you will come back to me and beg me to forgive you. You will, I know you will.”

She clutched the paper and lay down on the floor.

A few more days later…

She ignored the knock on the door and lay still on the bed. Moving her lethargic body even for slight tasks pained her. She heard the knock again, this time louder.

Who would bother her now? She pulled herself up with effort and opened the door. The owner of the hostel was standing before her with a serious expression.

“Yes?” Sandhya asked with a weak voice.

“You haven’t paid the rent for this month. It was due two days ago. You are supposed to pay before the month starts, I thought I had made that clear to you.”

“I am sorry. I…I just forgot. I can pay you now. How much is it again?”

She pulled out the money from the purse, paid her and closed the door.

She hit the bed again but was unable to sleep. Something was nagging her. What was it that bothered her?

Sandhya sat up on her bed, a gasp escaping her mouth. It had been two days since the month had started. It was September 2nd! Or was it the 3rd? What had she done? She was supposed to begin work September 1st! Could she convince her employer to accept her? Getting a job was difficult enough in the current economy, and with her mental situation, it would be impossible for her to succeed in an interview for another job. She found her cell phone on the desk and tried to switch it on. Damn. It did not have any charge. After a few minutes of searching in frustration, she found the charger at the bottom of her suitcase. When it finally turned on, the screen displayed September 3rd, 1 pm. Her heart sank. Never had she been so irresponsible when it came to her work.

Instead of waiting for the next day, she decided to report that day itself at her job. Her plan to purchase formal clothing for the first day at her job had never materialized. Though her body did not cooperate, she forced herself to continue doing what had to be done. None of her clothes were ironed and she did not have an ironing board. She stared at all of them with disgust before she grabbed the least crumpled brown-and-cream salwar kameez and walked to the bathroom to take a shower.

The knots in her hair frustrated her as she struggled to make herself presentable as quickly as possible. She packed her certificates in a folder, grabbed her purse, stood before her door and took a deep breath.

This was it. It was time for her to face the world again.

As soon as Sandhya stepped out of the hostel, the bright sun blinded her. Slowly, she adjusted to the light and observed the people around her going about their daily chores in the hot midday sun. The cobbler, who was soberly trying to stitch a torn shoe on the pavement; the vegetable vendor trying to attract customers; the lady driving her scooter on the road, trying to reach her destination. All types of people doing all sorts of things. She walked towards the train station, bought herself a two-way ticket and sat on the uncrowded train. Her mind contemplated her situation. What she was going through was a result of her experiences over the last three months. All she had to do was wipe the memories of that timeframe. She’d had a life before that and she would have a life after that. Surely she could do that. She would move on.

But it was difficult to convince her heart. It felt impossible to get back to the Sandhya that she was before she met Akash. She cursed herself. Even when she lost her own family, she had always had hope. And now, she was losing herself because of a certain person who should actually mean nothing to her. She had not even known him three months ago. How could she let him and his thoughts control her life? Why was she letting herself lose her hopes and ambitions over him?

~

Rosie, the receptionist, scrutinized the young woman standing before her. Everything about her felt dull; hair that seemed to have been combed in haste, eyebrows and nails that were not trimmed. Her crumpled brown salwar kameez added to the dullness. So, this was the newcomer who had not turned up. Why was she so careless? Disgusting! Some people think that no matter what they do, everything will be fine.

She picked up the receiver and dialed a number. “Sameer, the newcomer, Sandhya, is here.” Pause. “Yes, yes, the one who did not turn up for orientation. Alright then.” She put the phone down.

She looked at Sandhya again, who was lost in staring at the pens on the pen stand. Does she even care about her job? Pathetic!

“Why did you not come on your start day?” Rosie asked in a sour voice.

Sandhya turn her head towards her, but instead of answering, she simply stood there with a blank expression for a few seconds.

Rosie’s contempt grew. Who the hell did she think she was?

“I was not well,” Sandhya replied in a weak voice.

“You could have at least informed us. One phone call would not have killed you, would it?” she asked in frustration.

Just then, they heard the door on the left of Rosie’s desk open.

A handsome man of medium build in formal trousers and a maroon-colored shirt stood at the door. He was very fair and had a goatee that made him look smart. His smile momentarily disappeared as soon as his eyes caught Sandhya, before returning to his face. He walked to Sandhya and held out his hand. She shook his hand with a forced smile.

“Hi, Sandhya, I am Sameer. Let’s go inside.” He led her inside to a conference room with a table and four chairs and motioned for her to sit. She sat nervously.

He hesitated. She spoke up.

“I was not well. I am sorry; I should have at least called and informed you.”

Sameer observed her. He had been a bit shocked when he saw her at the reception. All the newcomers had dressed up in smart formal clothes; some even wore blazers. He had expected another newcomer, dressed sharply, with a wide smile pasted continuously on her face. What he saw was a complete contrast. She wore everyday clothes and rarely smiled. She would look good if she took a little care in her dressing and etiquette, but as long as she worked hard, the higher ups should be fine with her.

“I will put down that as a reason,” he said as he jotted down notes. “I will be your resource manager. You won’t be working under me but I will be your point of contact for any type of issues that you may want to discuss. Your manager is Alok. He is in a meeting right now, but you will get to see him before you leave today.”

She nodded. Sameer wondered if she even heard what he was saying and worried how long this girl would survive under Alok.

“Alright then, I will put in a request for your orientation and I will give you a tour of the office tomorrow,” he said and rose. “Alok will be here shortly.” He winked and left.

Sandhya stood up. Work would be a good distraction; she already felt better. She waited patiently for about an hour before the door opened. A tall, middle-aged man stood before her.

“You must be Sandhya?” he asked with a serious face.

“Yes,” she replied as she watched the man sit briskly in the chair in front of her. Perhaps she should have shaken his hand. It was too late; he was busy looking at the papers in his hand.

“Tell me about your experience.”

Sandhya explained as best she could. He scribbled notes in his file.

“You can start working on a new project venture that is starting next week. I am making myself clear right now: I don’t take any excuses for work not being completed.”

She simply nodded. Normally, she would have said that he wouldn’t be disappointed, but now, she herself was not sure.

“I want you in the office by 9 am sharp.” He rose swiftly and slammed the door.

Sandhya stared at the door for a few seconds. If she was supposed to be hurt by his behavior, she wasn’t. She slowly got up, gathered her purse and walked out of the room and then out of the front desk area in silence.

~

Two months later

Sandhya tried to listen to their CEO, Mr. Roy, an overbearing man in his fifties, giving a speech. Everyone referred to him as ‘Roy, sir.’ Sandhya had never been introduced to him; this was her first encounter with him.

“We should make our clients feel pride in having us as their partner!”

“Not a penny in your pocket but so much pride?”

“We have a plan to hire around sixty more resources this year alone. We are in a growing phase…”

“I can hire and fire a thousand people like you and your family.”

“We need to hang on to our core values.”

“You want to use that as an excuse to hang on to me?”

“Sandhya, can you answer Mr. Roy’s question?” Sameer nudged her in the side.

She returned to reality with a jolt, looked around the room and then at Mr. Roy, who was staring at her with a questioning expression. Why was everyone staring at her? She recalled Sameer’s words. Mr. Roy had asked her a question. What was the question? Her face became red with embarrassment. She got up from her chair, said a meek, “Sorry” and ran out of the room. She was about to tear up and she could not let that happen before everyone. The room filled with murmurs as soon as she left. Nobody behaved that way with Roy, sir.

Sandhya walked quickly up the road as warm tears soaked her face. They had been very patient with her, and yet she was unable to get her job done, unable to concentrate. Why should she expect them to pay her? Did she want her pay as charity? No, she had to work and prove herself. She had to find her focus again, the way it was before.

~

Prem Rai looked around the dining room. Where was Akash? Was he planning to skip having dinner with them today too? What was wrong with him?

“Puja, go get your brother. Tell him that I am not going to take any excuses today.”

“Yes, Papa,” Puja said as she got up from her seat.

Akash was acting different lately. He was spending too much, something that he had never done before. Not that it was a problem; Prem Rai was not bothered about the money. As a father, he tried his best to instill good values in them and he thought that he had succeeded. He was always proud that his children were modest and humble. Until now.

He saw Akash climbing down the stairs with Puja. He sat at the dining table and ate silently.

“How is work?” he asked and Akash stopped chewing.

“It’s alright. I am quitting. I am going back to Pune to work on a venture with my friend,” Akash replied in a serious tone, not looking up.

Akash’s mom, his dad and Puja raised their eyebrows in disbelief. When was he planning to tell them?

The elderly maid poured water in Akash’s glass. The water jug slipped from her hand and water spilled on his shirt.

“Can’t you do one job right?” he screamed at her, then got up and went up to his room.

The maid froze in terror as tears appeared in her eyes.

“Now look what you have done. He was eating with us after such a long time and you had to spoil it,” Vaidehi shouted.

“Stop it, will you?” Prem Rai reprimanded his wife and asked the maid to go into the kitchen.

He was concerned for good reason. Akash had never treated servants like that before. What had happened that caused this sudden change in him, he wondered.

~

She saw the meeting notice and wondered if this was it. They were going to fire her. Alok was not happy with her work and he had made it explicitly clear to her, sometimes in front of others. She had tried her best but she just did not have any focus. The rest of the newcomers were all doing a great job. She had become sort of an outcast to them. She did not smile at them or talk to them unless it was work related. A few young men who were initially friendly with her soon started ignoring her.

She walked into the room preparing herself for the worst. She should be scared as hell right now, yet she did not care. Sameer and Alok sat grimly beside each other, whispering amongst themselves.

Sandhya sat in front of them.

“Sandhya…I am sorry,” Sameer started gently.

“You are letting me go, aren’t you?” she asked directly.

They looked at each other for a few seconds, perhaps hoping that the other person would speak up. Just then, the door opened and they saw Mr. Roy standing at the door.

“Sandhya, I want to speak to you right now, in my office,” he ordered, and left.

All three of them looked at each other in surprise. Sandhya walked to Mr. Roy’s room. He had never spoken to her; what would he want to talk to her about? She went inside, unsure of what to expect, and stood in front of him. She wore a normal salwar kameez and had still not shopped for better formal clothes.

“Have a seat.”

She sat in front of him and waited. Maybe he had another criticism about her pathetic job skills.

“Tell me. Did you cheat in your school and your college during the exams?” he questioned.

She was aghast.

“No,” she replied firmly.

“Did you fake your experience at the orphanages?”

“No.”

“Did you fake the experience letters that you provided during your interview?”

“No.” She squirmed in her seat, not liking this interrogation.

“So, you are saying that you are the same person that used to be brilliant at one time,” he stated as a matter of fact.

She looked at him, shocked and lost for words. Tears swelled up in her eyes but she managed to prevent them from flowing out of her eyes. She looked away and stared at the wall.

“What’s the point of this discussion when…” she started, but was cut off by Mr. Roy.

“I don’t want to let you go, Sandhya, I know that you have a lot of potential.”

She looked at him, bewildered.

“I know that Alok has been hard on you considering your…situation. I can sense that there is some reason for your behavior.”

He continued, “I am not trying to be selfless here. I am a businessman; I know that I will gain a lot from your skills eventually. All I want from you is a promise that you will deliver your best. That is all I am asking.”

She sat still for a few seconds.

“I cannot promise that I will deliver my best.” She paused. “But I can promise that I will try my best to deliver my best.”

“That’s good enough for me. You may go now. Take today off. Go home and relax; I will tell Alok.”

She got up and walked towards the door, halted and turned around. She waited until Mr. Roy looked up at her.

“Thank you, sir,” she said before closing the door.

Mr. Roy stared at the door that had just closed. He had already approved her release yesterday after getting multiple requests from Alok. People had to work in his organization. Releasing non-performing employees was one of the tasks that he hated the most but he did it nevertheless.

He had been going home late yesterday after some tiring work when he happened to notice Sandhya sitting before her computer. What was she doing this late at night? He was a bit curious, especially since he had just approved that she be let go. Her face was troubled and frustrated. She was trying to work, he could sense that. But Alok was not impressed with her work, and he had to trust Alok. He sighed and walked out.

He had difficulty sleeping that night.

As soon as he had reached his office today, he checked on Sandhya’s file. He was astonished by what he found. No wonder she had been recruited by his company. Surely she deserved another chance. Sometimes, a little guidance and encouragement can work wonders. Maybe that was what she needed.

Now, he was feeling good about himself. Was it really the right decision for his company? Only time would tell.

Part 2

Three years later

Chapter 20 – Content

S

andhya looked around her new office room. Finally! Her hard work and meticulous efforts had paid off! She had been promoted to the position of Senior Project Manager and with it came better compensation and better office space. The room was adorned with a sleek desk, a contemporary cabinet, and sturdy yet comfy black chairs. Behind the desk, a majestic window provided a breathtaking view of the Arabian Sea beyond the office buildings of cosmopolitan Mumbai.

The windows reflected the image of a confident woman, wearing a black jacket over a deep red shirt and black trousers that fit her perfectly. She took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling. This was just another step towards her goal, she reminded herself.

She smelled the fresh flower bouquet on her desk and read the note on it.

The lion has laid the bait,

The work he has can’t wait,

So, my dear Sandy,

Don’t be so dandy.

From,

Moment Spoiler

Sandhya chuckled; she knew it was Sameer. They had nicknamed Roy, sir “the Lion” and Sameer referred to her as Sandy despite her threats, pleadings and bribes to make him stop. She settled in her chair and tapped on the table; it was time to start working in the new role, although she knew that there would only be minor changes in her daily duties. She had already been handling the responsibilities of a senior project manager for more than a year.

She glanced at the file with a post–it note in front of her:

Can’t decide between the two. You decide. – Sameer

P.S. Have pity towards the male species.

She smiled again and opened the file. There were two resumes inside. The first one was of a fresh graduate, Gayatri Gupta. She glanced at her bio.

Hmm…impressive, she thought.

She already wanted to make her decision before even looking at the other resume.

God save the male species, she thought, smiling as she pulled out the second resume, knowing that it would be from a man. Her smile faded as soon as her eyes landed on the bold letters glaring at her.

Name: Akash Sharma

She shut the file and got up. Her heartbeat had increased and she despised herself for that. She glared out of the window. This was a real moment spoiler. Walking back to the desk, she took out a pencil and a post-it note and was about to write something before stopping herself.

What was she doing? She was rejecting a candidate without even looking at his resume just because he shared his name with a certain person whose name she did not want to remember.

She sighed. First day in her new role and she was already going to commit a sin by making a biased decision. Opening the file again, she tried to ignore the name and concentrated on the remaining sections. This candidate was not advertising himself properly but his achievements were promising. She decided that they should both be given another chance with another round of interviews before making a decision. Better still, she could convince Roy sir to hire both of them. It was difficult to get good candidates when they needed them.

~

Akash noticed his little nephew, who had come to visit them, struggling to finish the puzzle. His tiny hands moved around the pieces a little too hastily.

“Can you help me, Uncle?” He looked up at Akash.

Akash smiled, set his laptop aside and squatted on the marble floor. He pulled the boy onto his lap and started providing him with clues so he could solve the puzzle himself. The little one clapped excitedly when he was done and kissed Akash on his cheek, surprising him.

“Uncle! I wish you were my daddy! My daddy never plays with me!”

His smile faded. He was twenty-nine, just one year away from the dreaded thirty. His mother’s ranting had increased with every passing year regarding his marriage. Perhaps he would never get to enjoy the simple pleasures of marital life, the joy of playing with his children.

He had almost married Kavya. There was nothing wrong with Kavya; everything about her had been just right—other than the fact that he did not love her the way he had loved a certain girl. Frustrated with his non-consent, his mother had fixed a date for his marriage without his knowledge. He had wanted to cancel the alliance as soon as he found out about it but fought within himself as backing off from an alliance was considered bad for the girl’s family and Kavya was in no way to blame for the mess that his mom had created. But the guilty feeling that he was spoiling her life pricked him every minute. He decided to talk to Kavya to see if there was a way to break off the alliance without hurting her or her family. When he tried to strike up a conversation with her, he noticed that she was not acting normally. He pressed her to tell him what was bothering her and she revealed that Harish had proposed to her a month ago, but she had rejected him as her alliance with Akash had been confirmed. Her silence when asked about her true feelings for Harish confirmed his doubts.

An indescribable wave of relief hit him upon knowing about Kavya and Harish. He was free, free to let his thoughts wander without any guilt. That moment, he knew that marriage was not an option for him, not with Kavya or anyone else. The only problem was convincing his and Kavya’s families. Harish was well settled but his family was below Kavya’s family in terms of wealth and status. He came up with a plan and convinced Kavya and Harish to participate in it. He demanded his parents that his marriage with Kavya should happen within a month. They happily agreed. Ruining the wedding was a piece of cake. All he had to do was end up at the wedding drunk and badmouth the girl’s family. Harish’s acting was very convincing when he confronted Akash, and everyone instantly fell in love with him. The plan was executed perfectly, and Harish married Kavya at the same, with the wholehearted consent of both Kavya’s and Harish’s parents.

Of course, Akash had to face the wrath of his parents for a long time.  It took months for his parents to even be on talking terms with him. His mom was in panic mode now; her son would soon be thirty and unmarried!

His business venture in Pune with his friend had been a huge success. A similar venture had started in Mumbai, where he had moved a few weeks ago to work. The city reminded him of a certain woman, a woman that he was still fighting hard to forget. Whenever he returned to his village, he could not help but drive up to the little home where he had spent time with her. The house was barren now, with dried leaves all over the front yard. He would sit on the dust-covered steps, sometimes for hours; there he felt a certain solace in his heart, as if she were back here with him, sitting right there, with her head resting on his arm. He tried to remind himself that none of it was true, that everything was a dream. But still, he wanted to live in his dream. He ended up spending every evening that he was there in his village on the porch steps. It was like his daily dose of medication.

He started towards the new orphanage to bid good-bye to Mr. George; it would be quite some time before he would return to his village.

“How are you doing, young man?” Mr. George greeted him with a smile and hugged him.

“I don’t think I can be called young now,” Akash replied with a smile.

“Oh! You will always be a boy to me,” Mr. George said cheerfully and started chatting about the new developments in the orphanage.

Akash halted while chatting with him as his eyes caught something familiar. The jasmine and the rose plants in full bloom reminded him of something.

Mr. George glanced at the plants and said, “Sandhya left them with us when she left. May God bless her. Miss Vijaya said that she is doing well in Mumbai. I hope to visit her sometime when I go to the city.”

Akash’s breath stuck in his throat when he heard her name. He regained his composure and trying to sound as calm as possible, asked, “Oh…so she is still in touch with you?”

“Me? No. I haven’t heard a thing from her since she left. But Miss Vijaya met her after she moved to Mumbai with Roja.”

“I see.”

Akash bid farewell to Mr. George, feeling heavy. She was in Mumbai, doing well.

~

“Roy, sir,” Sandhya called out the second time.

“Oh! Yes, Sandhya?” Mr. Roy replied, coming out of his trance.

“Would you like to review the proposal before I send it?”

“Proposal? Oh yes, the proposal. No…not required. Send it out.”

“What happened, sir? You seem to be a bit off today,” she asked cautiously.

“Me? No, nothing. I am normal, just like every day,” he said a little too fast.

Sandhya observed him for a few seconds.

“OK, sir.” She turned around and started for the door.

“Actually…there is something. Maybe you could help me.”

Sandhya halted and turned to face him.

“I…I think the employees are not opening up to me. They feel like I am…kind of…not approachable, you know, like a lion or something.”

Sandhya suppressed her giggle.

“I never thought about it but now I want all employees to know that I am approachable and that I won’t eat them up if they talk to me.”

Sandhya controlled herself and thought of a solution.

“I think you are right, sir. Perhaps I could help. I have an idea.”

“What? Tell me!” Mr. Roy said, excited, with a childish glint in his eye.

She knew that he wouldn’t accept her idea that easily though.

“I will tell you only if you agree that you will implement the plan,” she challenged.

“No…how can I commit without you telling me what it is? What if you ask me to double the salaries of all employees or something like that?”

She rolled her eyes.

Talking like a true businessman, she thought to herself and said aloud, “It won’t cost you a penny.”

“Alright.” He gave in.

“Yes!” she squealed and almost jumped in excitement. She told him her plan.

“What? No way! You are out of your mind!” Mr. Roy exclaimed.

“You committed,” she exclaimed and escaped out of the room with a big grin on her face.

“Oh no! What have I gotten myself into?” Mr. Roy clutched the desk, his face tensed up.

~

“Are you sure he won’t chicken out at the last minute?” Sameer said around a mouthful of rice.

“No. I won’t let him,” Sandhya replied. They were having lunch at the crowded office cafeteria.

“Well, I have been practicing like hell. I hope my efforts are not in vain.”

“Really? Let’s see. The last time that we tried to work on this, you did not even get it halfway,” she said doubtfully.

“You will be shocked with my progress. So much so, that everyone will be watching me and no one will be watching you.”

Sandhya coughed artificially and grinned. “I am so looking forward to seeing this happen for real. And even if you do a good job, I know who should get credit for it.”

“What the! Why should you women get all the credit?”

“Because we deserve it,” she replied, rolling her eyes. She was referring to Sameer’s wife, Priya.

Sameer and Priya’s was an arranged marriage. When Sameer first saw Priya, he liked her cute face. He thought that she was a bit on the heavy side, but that he could persuade her to lose a few pounds after marriage and she would look perfect.

To his dismay, she ended up gaining a few pounds after marriage!

Sandhya’s first impression of Priya was that she was chubby, cheerful and cute. They both clicked within a few minutes as if they had been friends for many years.

Priya confessed to Sandhya about her weight problem and how it was creating a rift in her relationship with Sameer. Sandhya jumped to the rescue and came up with creative ideas to lose weight so that it felt like fun rather than a burden. In the little time that Sandhya could spare, she went to salsa classes as well as dance clubs where they would dance like anything. To Sandhya’s surprise, she had loved that experience. It was an excellent way to take away all the pain buried within her as well as relieve her frustrations with work and stress.

Priya had just started losing weight when she realized that she was pregnant and had to stop. Sandhya knew that Priya’s sweet nature and good heart had already ensured her a place in Sameer’s heart, even though he did not admit it as often as he should.

“Hey, by the way, there is an American client that I need to meet tomorrow evening.” He paused and continued with a pleading voice, “And I forgot about the doctor’s appointment.” Sameer looked at Sandhya with pleading eyes.

Sandhya glared at him with narrowed eyes.

“Sameer! How many times have I told you that I am trying to get some balance in my life too? You can cancel the appointment. I am not going this time; I don’t understand why you set up any appointments in the evening!” she shouted.

Sameer shut his eyes and ears tight.

“Hey, I am sorry, OK. This guy will be leaving for California the day after tomorrow, and he only had an opening in the evening. He would be a good fish to catch, mind you. We can get a pretty hefty export assignment to the USA if we manage to convince him.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I should be in sales,” she muttered bitterly.

“You could be anywhere, my lady, and you would shine. You are like a bulb—ahem—I mean a star, that would light up anywhere.”

“Don’t start buttering me up now. Alright, but this is the last time I am doing this for you.”

“Yes, madam!” Sameer replied in relief.

“Where is the meeting?”

“Taj Hotel. He will meet you, Sandy, in the lobby.”

Sandhya stopped chewing and glared at him with threatening eyes. She pointed the sharp teeth of the fork in her hands towards him. “You! You told him that my name was Sandy again?” she said through gritted teeth.

“Relax! You can always tell him your real name if you want. I don’t understand what you see in your name. ‘Sandhya’; it’s so old and common, versus ‘Sandy,’ so modern, just like how you look. And by the way, you will love the name Sandy when I tell you the client’s name.”

“Why?”

“His name is Phillip Huck.”

“So?” She drank a mouthful of water.

“Dumbo. His company’s email system is like ours. First letter of first name followed by last name.”

Sandhya thought for a second. Her eyes grew big, the water still in her mouth. She managed to swallow.

“Oh my goodness! Sameer! That’s so mean of you!”

Sameer laughed. “Hey! I think it is funny!”

Sandhya rolled her eyes and shook her head.

~

Sandhya sprinted up the stairs, humming softly. She noticed Shanta Mausi’s sandals in front of her apartment door. Good, Mausi^3^ was already here. She removed her shoes and went inside. Mausi was cutting vegetables. “Where is—?” Sandhya started but was cut off by Mausi.

“At Gauri Shankar’s,” Mausi replied with a grin.

“Whoa! What?” Sandhya shouted in surprise and added, “Talk about transformation!”

“What are you making for dinner?” Sandhya put the kettle of boiling water on the stovetop to make tea.

“Okra curry and sambhar.”

The middle-aged, frail-looking Shanta Mausi was Sandhya’s maid. She loved Sandhya’s tea and would leave that one task to her.

“When are you going to make chole bhature? You know I am dying to eat that!”

“It’s not healthy, dear!” Mausi replied.

“Oh please, Mausi. You know I always eat healthy, but chole bhature should be considered healthy. They make me happy and happiness is needed for your good health. Please, please, please, Mausi, tomorrow, please?” she requested, making a puppy face as she wrapped her hands around Mausi’s waist and placed her head on her shoulder from behind.

Mausi laughed and pinched her cheek.

“How about this weekend?”

“Oh fine,” Sandhya muttered. She slowly approached the dreaded topic.

“Mausi?”

“Mmm.”

“I have a meeting in the evening tomorrow.”

“What? Again? I don’t understand why you are still working for that company. Are they not ashamed to make a woman work like this, especially after knowing your situation?” Mausi’s voice rose like a tornado.

“Mausi! Please don’t get started again. I cannot leave this company. If I leave, it would be to start my own company. That is final.”

“Whatever,” Mausi muttered, shaking her head in disapproval.

~

Sandhya chose a formal gray skirt and a crisp white shirt to wear for the meeting with Phillip. She generally took meticulous care to look professional, both in terms of clothes and her attitude. One of the reasons that she had utmost respect for Mr. Roy was the fact that he had believed in her when she was going through a vulnerable phase in her life. Many people only noticed her outer appearance and how she worked at that particular point of time, but Mr. Roy chose to concentrate on who she was and what she could become. He was her role model in many ways; he had provided the push and encouragement that she desperately needed at that low phase in her life, and for that, she would always be indebted to him.

~

Phillip Huck turned out to be a blue-eyed, blond-haired, medium-build man, dressed professionally in a navy blue suit. They sat at the dining area of the Taj Hotel as they chatted about the pros of being partners. Sameer was right: he was seriously interested in partnering with her company. The deal could be a win-win situation for both the parties.

Her eyes unconsciously roamed beyond Phillip towards the rest of the people in the dining area, the tasteful décor, the waiter taking down the orders, then rested back on Phillip, all within a second.

She was looking at Phillip but her mind was not hearing what he was saying. The whole room turned white and there was only Phillip and a certain person who had just entered the room from the elevator. She had not looked at him carefully and was not even sure if it was him, but she did not have the courage to look again and confirm her doubts.

Her outer self still projected the image of a confident woman but inside, a storm raged. She tried her best to conceal her rapidly beating heart and her shivering hands. After about a minute, she glanced again towards where he had settled himself with two other men. It seemed like it was him but she was so far away.

Was he looking in her direction now? She quickly averted her gaze from him and tried to look only at Phillip and talk sensibly. Thankfully, they had already discussed the major topics. She recited the usual pleasantries that wind up a meeting as her brain frantically tried to figure out how she should handle the situation. She had to walk towards him to reach the elevators. Should she confirm that it was him? What if he recognized her? What if he stopped her? She decided that she would not look at him. So what if it was him? It should not matter anymore. She had moved on with her life; there was no way that she would let him or his thoughts impact her life now. She was finally happy and content with her life. No. She did not care if it was him or not.

The meeting ended and Sandhya got up with a firm decision. She walked confidently with Phillip, trying her best not to look at him. As she approached his table though, her eyes automatically shifted to where he was, as if wanting to take a quick snapshot of him, hoping that he wasn’t looking at her.

As soon as her eyes landed on him, a shrill ran through her body. It was the same face, the face that she had tried to remember countless times, the face that she had tried to erase from her mind countless times. Those black eyes were on her, their coldness still intact, still piercing through her as they used to. She quickly looked away and hoped that no one noticed her reaction. She held Phillip’ arm for support as her chest tightened and she found it difficult to breathe. As soon as they were in the elevator, she noticed the surprised look on Phillip’ face. She removed her hold on him, apologized and told him that she was feeling giddy. Phillip offered her a ride home but she refused, saying that she would take a cab. Sandhya bid good-bye to Phillip, got in a cab and gave the driver her home address. She would not be able to handle changing two trains to go home today.

She looked at her hands, which were still trembling; she could see the blood pounding through the nerves on her wrist. “Damn! I should not care! I should not react this way!” she screamed at herself in frustration.

She looked out of the window in order to distract herself. To her dismay, she caught the view of the sun setting over the Arabian Sea. She shut her eyes tight and looked away. She was able to get away from a lot of things but sunsets were something that she still hated.

~

Shanta Mausi pressed her forehead, trying to control her headache, and glanced at the clock. There was still time before Sandhya would be home. Should she make the tea herself or wait for Sandhya to make her exotic tea? The door swung open and Sandhya walked inside.

“So soon? I thought you had a meeting.”

“I came in a cab,” she replied grimly and drank the glass of water that Mausi handed over to her.

[_What is wrong with her today? _]Mausi wondered.

“I am going to rest for a while,” Sandhya said as she closed her bedroom door.

“Do you want some tea?” Mausi asked, worried, from outside the closed door.

“No, Mausi.”

“Hmm. Guess I have to make the tea myself,” Mausi muttered to herself as she switched on the stove.

Chapter 21- Haunting Past

A

kash gave a stern look to Vivek, his friend and business partner. He wasn’t interested in meeting any clients but Vivek was adamant that Akash join him at the Taj Hotel to meet their newest client. They met their client at the elevator and went up to the dining area. The elevator opened up to a large room with neatly set, sparsely occupied tables, and they settled at a table. Vivek did most of the talking and Akash was thankful for that. Out of boredom, he glanced across the room.

It felt like his heart stopped beating. His eyes narrowed and his brow crinkled as his gaze focused on a specific person.

“It can’t be her,” Akash told himself, feeling a crack form in the thick layers of protection built around his heart. He observed the elegant young woman sitting with a handsome man in a suit, talking with ease and smiling in between. It was difficult to see her features as she sat in the opposite far corner of the dining area. Her hair was neatly set in an expert French knot. She wore a classic gray skirt that reached a few inches above her knees and a jacket over a white blouse. Sandhya was way too shy to wear short skirts, he remembered.

But that was the Sandhya that he thought he knew, he recalled with a jolt. The agony in his eyes switched to rage.

He saw her walking towards him with her companion, her eyes not observing Akash.

She was only ten feet away from him now. For a split second, her eyes shifted and landed on him. Her brown eyes constricted as soon as they met his pitch-black eyes; her step halted for a split second, after which she walked normally as she held the man’s arm and disappeared into the elevator.

Akash froze in his seat. He sat staring at the now closed elevator door and felt as if life had closed its doors upon him. There was no question about it. It was her.

It was a few seconds before he regained his senses and wondered if he should follow her. He held himself from rising from his seat for a few more seconds. His frustration built up with each passing second and then he snapped. He shot up, not bothering about Vivek or the client, took the stairs and entered the lobby. He searched for her around the lobby, then walked out onto the street and looked around. There was no trace of her. Slowly, he walked back to the lobby area and sat on the sofa. It wasn’t a difficult task to track her down. He pulled out his cell phone and then halted. What was he doing? Why now? There was a reason why he had not searched for her earlier. That reason was still valid. Wasn’t it obvious that she had moved on with her life pretty well? She seemed to be leading an expensive lifestyle. Maybe she had married or was in a relationship with a rich person. His heart constricted at the thought. He walked back up to the dining area.

~

Akash pulled out a wooden box from the cupboard. Taking a deep breath, he opened the box. His fingers caressed the black dress inside, the dress that she had once worn; the dress that she wasn’t comfortable wearing even when he was the only one with her. He closed his eyes in sorrow and opened them. The necklace with the diamond pendant shone brilliantly, inviting him to touch it, feel it. Numerous times, he had wondered why she returned these. Maybe she did not want anything to remind her of him. Maybe they were worthless to her. There was the broken watch, glaring at him, pleading to be repaired. He had not known how much he would regret his actions when he had smashed it on the wall in rage.

Memories flashed in front of his eyes as if it had all happened a few minutes ago. The wounds that he thought were healed were open and raw again. He sat on the bed and slouched. It was better not to run across her again. It was difficult to let go of thoughts of her when she wasn’t present before him. It would be impossible if she stood in front of him. He lay down on the bed and watched the ceiling fan turn for many hours before his eyes closed for a much needed rest.

~

Sandhya sat upright on the floor in the dark room to meditate, her legs crossed and eyes closed. No matter how much she tried to focus, she couldn’t let go of the thoughts bothering her. She gave up her efforts and lay on the bed. Shanta Mausi would think that she was meditating, which was good. She did not want her or anyone else to see her true condition.

Her mind wandered to her past, when she was almost fired from her job.

Flashback

After the meeting with Roy sir, Sandhya headed home, feeling relieved, but at the same time obligated to perform better. What could she do to become “normal” again, she wondered. She got off the train and walked slowly towards the hostel under the blistering sun. Suddenly, everything spun around her; her stomach churned and her legs gave in. Her body hit the ground with a thud and her eyes closed, plummeting her into darkness. Faint murmurs surrounded her and hands grabbed her body. She was picked up and carried into a cooler place, but she could not open her eyes or talk. Tiny droplets of chilly water kissed her hot face. She opened her eyes and found an elderly woman looking at her. Behind her, a few men and women stood. She was inside a small hut, lying on a mat.

“I must have fainted from fatigue; sorry to have bothered you all,” she managed to say as she got up and picked up her purse.

“Drink some water first,” the woman ordered, offering a glass of water.

Sandhya gulped down the water. The women instructed everyone else to stand outside and checked her pulse.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked.

“What? No!” Sandhya cried out without thinking.

She struggled to remember the date of her last period; she had been so depressed that she had not noticed that she had missed it. The realization that she could be pregnant terrified her.

“Get yourself checked out by a doctor,” the woman suggested. She probably understood Sandhya’s silence and turmoil. Sandhya nodded, trying to prevent the tears from flowing out of her eyes.

“I will ask my husband to drop you off on his bicycle,” the woman said before going out to call him.

A short, thin elderly man appeared with his bicycle and Sandhya sat on the rear seat. He did not bother to speak a single word to her. She got down and turned around to thank him. Her heart cringed. The man’s unforgiving, abhorring, judgmental eyes stared at her briefly before he turned around and sped off. Shaken, she sat on the steps and watched him disappear, unable to muster the physical or mental strength to get up the stairs to her room. What was she going to do now? She was struggling to keep her life together; she had almost lost her job today. How could she take care of another life? Terrified, she hoped against hope that this was a case of some hormonal imbalance and she wasn’t really pregnant.

Her hopes were in vain. The doctor quickly confirmed that she was indeed pregnant. Thrust into a land of fear, uncertainty and loneliness, she wondered if this was a bad dream that she would wake up from. She did not want the baby yet she couldn’t imagine letting it go. What about Akash? Shouldn’t she inform him? Ever since she came to Mumbai, she had not called him or any of her friends; she had only called Dhiren once to inform him that she had mailed a check to repay him.

She had not provided her explanation to Akash. Perhaps she should have swallowed her pride and told him the truth when she had the opportunity. People say that your true nature comes out in times of difficulty. Akash’s insolence, ego, arrogance and his sense of superiority had come out only at the time of crisis. Somewhere, deep within him, those traits were always present, and were strong. But whatever he was like, she still had his baby inside her. Her thoughts and wants were not a priority now; she had to think of what was best for their baby. She finally decided to call Akash.

With trembling fingers, she dialed Akash’s number and held her breath; she was going to hear his voice after a long time.

“Hi, Sandhya!” Puja answered, surprising Sandhya.

“Hi, Puja.”

“Where have you been? You just disappeared without even saying good-bye to us. This is so not fair!” Puja said accusingly.

“Sorry, Puja. I did not have your number, only Akash’s. I should have spoken to you before leaving.”

“It’s alright. You called at the right time! I am so excited. Akash is getting married to Kavya today! This is the day that I have been dreaming about for so many years!” Puja shouted excitedly.

The cell phone dropped out of Sandhya’s hands. She could not comprehend Puja’s words from the phone. Her world turned into complete darkness. She sat against the wall for the next few hours, unable to move; she was wrong in thinking that she did not or could not want him. The pain that she was experiencing was evidence of that. The thought of Akash being married to another woman killed a part of her.

It was not a thought, it was reality. It had not even taken him two months to move on with his life. This was the bitter reality which she had to somehow face. Her time spent with Akash flashed before her eyes like a movie. He had always met her at her house and had never invited her to his house, let alone introduced her to his parents or friends. Sure, he acted as if he did not care about people looking at them together sometimes, but maybe he had mentioned marriage just to make her believe in him. Maybe he never had any plans to marry her. He might have been lying to her from the beginning. Was she just an object of desire for him? Was Varun right about Akash the whole time?

Her body shook in anger at the sudden realization. How could a person be so deceitful? If felt like the hatred for him within her would burn her alive. The anger within her turned to self-loathing for falling for a man like him.

After a few days of frustration, Sandhya signed up for yoga and meditation classes that would help her cope. Slowly, she started to let go of her anger. Hating Akash meant that she still had a part of him within her, even if it was in the form of hatred. She would not give him any place in her heart or mind. She would face this world on her own and never depend on a man the way she had depended on him. Never, ever. She would never let his name enter her mind.

Contrary to what she felt initially, the knowledge of having another life inside her gave a whole new meaning to her life. There was a life depending only on her. She felt powerful; she had the power to mold the life of her child the way she wanted to. Her baby, who had not even entered this world yet, became her single priority and obsession in her life.

Just when she thought that she had found her focus though, she started getting sick. She threw up multiple times a day and could not keep food down. Was the baby getting enough nutrition? She had survived on bread and water for a month, being depressed. Could that end up having a negative effect on the baby? Scary thoughts engulfed her. She also worried about her performance in the office. Though her focus was back, she got sick too often. She decided to confide in Sameer about her situation.

~

“Sameer—I am pregnant,” she said, not looking into his eyes. This wasn’t something that a girl could exclaim proudly, not if she was unmarried.

Sameer was silent for a few seconds, stunned; he knew that she was unmarried.

Sandhya saw him shift on his legs in discomfort, probably unable to find the right words. Perhaps he was wondering if “congratulations” was an appropriate word to use.

“I see,” he finally said. She was thankful that he did not ask any further details.

“I have been feeling sick lately but I should be better in a month or two. I wanted you to know that I may not be performing my best now, but I will make it up later.”

“I appreciate you telling me this,” Sameer replied understandingly.

She was surprised when she was moved to a different team with a much more understanding manager than Alok. After about a month, her health improved dramatically and she worked hard with renewed energy.

She moved into a two-bedroom apartment. Her neighbors were friendly initially, but not after finding out that she was pregnant and unmarried. She did not hold any grudge against them; perhaps her own parents would have behaved the same. It did not matter to her anymore. She did not care. All she cared about was her baby, her future. She was happy and was smiling at people again. There was a glow in her face and a hint of happiness.

The world might think that her baby was a curse, but for her, her baby was divine.

Flashback End

Sandhya heard the knock on the door and came back to the present.

“Coming, Mausi! Give me two minutes!” she shouted and took a few deep breaths. She was right; she was happy and content being a single mother. She did not need a man to depend on and she was proud of that. The few friends that she had were like a close-knit family and were enough to keep her occupied. Nothing would interfere with her life and her child’s life now. She would ensure that.

What if she encountered Akash again? She did not want even his shadow to fall upon her child. Maybe she was worrying for nothing; he would be happy to avoid them.

[_Wouldn’t he worry about his dear wife Kavya now? _]she thought sarcastically. Just in case she encountered him in the future, she thought of a few strategies to keep him out of her and her child’s life.

~

“Akash, remember the contract from the manufacturing company for a residential complex?” Vivek asked.

“Yes.”

“I had a meeting with a couple of managers there. Here, the details are all there in this file. See for yourself. I will submit our bid after your review,” he said as he handed over the file to Akash.

“I thought you said you were not interested in this contract?” Akash replied casually, scanning the file.

“I wasn’t. But I am now,” he replied, winking.

Akash gave a questioning look to him and after getting no further response, shook his head and started scanning the contract details. His eyes caught the notes in the file written in freehand. A sharp pain pierced through his heart. The handwriting looked so similar to hers. He scanned the pages in desperation to see if there would be a reference to her name. No. It was nowhere. All he could see was the name of a certain Mr. Roy. He turned the pages again and again and again. Beads of sweat formed on his brow.

“Hey, Akash. What happened? Careful, you will tear the pages,” Vivek said, surprised by Akash’s demeanor.

Akash stiffened but quickly composed himself.

“So, with whom did you have a meeting?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

Vivek smirked at him.

“A guy called Sameer. There was another woman, Sandy, who joined us towards the end of the meeting,” he replied with a glint in his eye.

“Do you know who wrote these comments?” he asked, trying his best to pose the question professionally.

“Not sure. Why? Is there anything wrong with them?”

“No. I was just curious.”

[_Why is this happening? Why is fate trying to remind me again and again about my painful past? Why did these notes in her handwriting turn up before my eyes out of nowhere? _]his mind cried out.

[_It was probably someone with similar handwriting, _]he thought to himself. “Let’s bid for this contract, we will see what happens,” he said aloud to Vivek.

~

Mr. Roy cursed himself again for accepting Sandhya’s idea and pressed the handkerchief to his forehead to wipe away the sweat. Though he had given many presentations before to audiences with more than a thousand people, he was never as nervous as now.

Sandhya walked up to him.

“Sir, take deep breaths. It will help you.”

He took her advice and started taking deep breaths.

~

“Hey, please, Akash. I really want to go. It is just five minutes away from here,” Vivek pleaded.

“Why don’t you go on your own? I am not interested,” Akash replied curtly. It was already dark and he was not in the mood to go to a boring party.

“You will get to meet the key people that you will need to work with. We will start back early, I promise.”

“Fine, you have half an hour.”

Akash and Vivek entered a park brilliantly lit with colored lights. A lot of people mingled around while others chatted casually around the tables. This was the famous annual event called ‘Rave’ that their client company held. Vivek was excited and wondered if he would get a chance to find out more about Sandy.

They sat at a table. Vivek looked around to see if he could find Sameer or Sandy.

There was a stage on one side, where someone was giving a speech.

After about ten minutes, Vivek spotted Sameer, dressed in a traditional sherwani.

“Hey, Sameer!” Vivek shouted.

Sameer gave a bright smile as soon as he saw Vivek and walked up to them.

“Hey! Good to see you. I am glad that you could make it. Congratulations on the contract,” Sameer said and turned to Akash with a curious expression.

“This is Akash, our chief architect,” Vivek introduced Akash.

“Hi, so you are the person behind the success of your company,” Sameer said as he shook Akash’s hand.

Akash simply smiled in response.

Sameer was impressed by Akash; he seemed modest. He could work as a model for his physique, he thought to himself.

“Where is Sandy?” Vivek asked.

“She is backstage, assisting with everything as usual. The program is about to end though, and everyone could have dinner. She should be free in a few minutes. You should have come a bit earlier, most of the fun programs are over,” Sameer replied.

“Well, I had a hard time convincing Akash to even come here,” Vivek said, glancing at Akash and earning a glare from his friend in return.

“Sameer, you are needed backstage,” the anchor on stage called.

“I will join you both soon. Enjoy!” Sameer replied and headed towards the stage.

Akash glanced at his watch.

“Ten more minutes,” he warned Vivek.

Vivek looked at Akash pleadingly. He was really enjoying the lively atmosphere there, and he had not seen Sandy yet.

There was another announcement.

“And now, we have the final event of the night. What you are going to see is something that no one has ever seen. Behold!” the anchor declared and left the stage.

Akash was sitting sideways, checking his phone, wondering when he would be able to get out of there.

Suddenly, there was silence everywhere as the stage went dark. He continued to look at his phone. The next instant, there were whistles and loud cheers from every direction.

He looked up. Everyone’s eyes were on the stage. All the people had an expression of either awe, shock, curiosity, amusement or all of them.

Akash automatically followed everyone’s gaze to the stage. What he saw made him freeze in his seat.

Chapter 22 – The Encounter

W

as his brain playing tricks on him? Was this Sandhya? Akash’s heart pounded. She stood in the middle of the stage, looking stunning in a light pink and green Ghagra. He had never seen a dress as beautiful as that, or perhaps, it was beautiful because she was wearing it. She looked heavenly with the jewelry adorning her neck and hands and her silky hair left loose. The ghagra hugged her body perfectly, accentuating her figure, and her eyes sparkled with excitement and enthusiasm. A spotlight shone to her left, and there stood Sameer, looking amazingly suave on stage in his sherwani^4^[_. _]The crowd cheered again. A third spotlight appeared to her right, revealing a tall elderly man, also wearing a sherwani, oozing authority and dignity. This time the crowd started cheering loudly. The music started.

It was a famous Bollywood song, “Kajra Re” from the movie Bunty aur Bubli. All three started dancing to the tune. Sameer and Mr. Roy’s steps were comical as Sandhya tried to keep them in sync. Mr. Roy imitated Big B’s^5^ steps and the crowd went berserk with excitement and awe.

This was their CEO, Mr. Roy, who wouldn’t even give as much as a smile to others.

Sandhya was elegance personified; she could compete with Aishwarya Bachchan with her graceful steps, though they were more conservative than the movie considering that these were employees dancing with their CEO. Nevertheless, the crowd cheered nonstop with their encouraging claps.

The hesitant Mr. Roy was almost ready to escape through the back door but somehow, Sandhya and Sameer dragged him back. The crowd cheered more, and started chanting “Roy sir, Roy sir, Roy sir,” giving Mr. Roy some much needed confidence. Towards the end, his performance was no less great than Big B himself.

When the song and dance ended, the loud cheering and claps continued for a long time. Sameer and Sandhya laughed excitedly while Mr. Roy, though smiling, breathed heavily from all the physical exercise that he’d gotten in the last few minutes. He grabbed the mike and spoke.

“Dear colleagues! I love you all. I love you all to such an extent that I even entertained you all today. By the way, if watching me dance made you want to kill yourself, blame it on Sandhya! She was the cause of the torture to you fellows tonight!”

Loud whistles erupted when Mr. Roy mentioned Sandhya’s name.

“We should all remember that amidst the office work, travel, housework and running around to get things done, we all are living. And once in a while, we should celebrate what we have. Life! I hope that our beloved company will continue to offer you all a lifestyle that gives you professional and personal fulfillment; a lifestyle that allows you to celebrate each and every day of your life. Thank you all!”

Loud applause followed and the lights went off on the stage.

Akash was dumbstruck. This was not the Sandhya that he knew; she looked so happy and content. A dark cloud of bitterness engulfed him. She had moved on so easily without him, having fun and living her life to the fullest. And here he was, still stuck with her memories and brooding over her.

How could she do it? How could she destroy someone’s life and then be so happy with herself?, he wondered bitterly.

He noticed Vivek staring at the stage with admiration in his eyes. Akash knew Vivek inside and out. Would Sandhya become his new fancy? His jaw tightened at the thought.

Vivek looked at Akash.

“I know the time is up, but I really want to be here for another fifteen minutes,” Vivek started pleading and Akash came out of his thoughts.

“It’s fine. We can have dinner and then leave,” Akash managed to mutter.

Vivek gave him a big smile.

“Great! I am glad you are talking sense today,” Vivek replied, smiling.

Vivek would of course not know that now Akash did not want to leave this place either.

Sameer approached Akash and Vivek, and introduced Mr. Roy.

“Roy, sir. This is Vivek, Sales President and this is Akash, Chief Architect.”

Mr. Roy shook their hands vigorously with a big smile.

“Hello! I finally get to meet you young men. Sameer told me about your company and how much he liked your work.”

Mr. Roy sat at the table and started chatting about his plans for the residential complex of his employees. Akash tried his best to concentrate; he needed to gather the requirements from Mr. Roy and understand how to approach this project. And yet, his brain was not cooperating. His heart raced. Would he get a chance to talk to her today? Would she disappear like she had the other day? Sameer seemed to be close to her. His hands became sweaty and a multitude of thoughts swirled in his mind as he sat rooted to his chair, while his eyes searched for her in between his chat with Mr. Roy.

He caught her talking with another woman a few feet away. The other woman wore a pretty salwar kameez and seemed like she was in the final stages of pregnancy. She clutched her waist for support and seemed tired, yet chatted nonstop with Sandhya. Sandhya and the other woman turned and their eyes landed on the table where Akash and the others were present.

Sandhya’s smile disappeared and her face lost all color. She must have recognized him. The other woman smiled brightly while looking in the direction of their table. She then looked at Sandhya and distracted her with a question, it seemed. Sandhya looked at her and her smile partially returned. They both started walking towards Akash’s table.

“Sameer! Roy, sir! You did such an awesome job! I swear that if I did not have the little one inside, I would have danced right here. Even the baby was jumping inside.” The lady started talking excitedly.

“Hello, dear! How are you feeling? How many days more for the little one to arrive?” Mr. Roy asked her affectionately.

“Two more months to go.”

“Guys,” Sameer interrupted.

Akash looked away from Sandhya for the first time. She had avoided looking at him until then and had fixed her gaze on Mr. Roy or Sameer.

“Meet my wife Priya. Priya, this is Vivek and Akash.”

“Hi!” Priya shook hands with Vivek and Akash.

“And this is Sandy—aka Sandhya. Vivek, you have already met her. Sandy is a senior project manager and will be assisting me in this project. Sandhya, this is Akash.”

Sandhya shook Vivek’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you again, Vivek.”

She walked towards Akash’s chair and stretched out her hand towards Akash. “Nice to meet you.”

“Careful!” Sameer shouted out but it was too late.

Sandhya’s outstretched hand hit a glass of orange juice on the edge of the table and the juice spilled on her dress.

“Oops,” she exclaimed as Vivek and Sameer grabbed a bunch of napkins and handed them to her hastily. She started dabbing her dress with the napkins to get rid of the juice. In the process, she had moved away from Akash and sat in a chair between Sameer and Vivek as she continued to wipe her dress. Akash looked away, wondering if this was a deliberate act. He dismissed his thoughts. Who would want to spoil such a dress to avoid a simple handshake?

She sat opposite him. So close. He could see her features clearly. There wasn’t much change really, other than that she looked more sophisticated and seemed to have put on a few pounds. She was not overweight; many would still consider her slim. She was just not as thin as she used to be.

Her hands were adorned with beautiful bangles that jingled as she moved them. Her dress was a complete contrast to the dress she had worn to the Taj Hotel the other day.

“What happened? You seem to be awfully quiet,” Sameer questioned Sandhya.

Sandhya smiled and replied, “Just a bit tired.”

Akash took a deep breath. He was seeing her, hearing her. Was this really happening and not a dream?

“Let’s start with the dinner. It’s getting late,” Sameer said as he signaled a waiter.

They started having dinner amidst the chitter chatter of Sameer, Priya, Vivek and Mr. Roy.

The only ones silent were Akash and Sandhya.

Mr. Roy excused himself to go around and chat with the rest of the employees. Sandhya picked at the food, lost in thought and barely eating anything. Akash looked up from his plate and caught Sandhya looking at him, just for a split second before she looked away towards Vivek.

“So, Vivek, how is your search for a new car coming along?”

“No luck so far. I am still new to the city and trying to get familiar with the different areas. It’s no fun searching in an alien city alone, you know.”

Akash stirred his soup, slowly moving the spoon in circles, and only looking at the bowl in front of him.

“It would be much more fun if I had someone as charming as you with me while shopping,” Vivek replied with a grin.

The stirring stopped.

Sandhya appeared to be taken aback by Vivek’s words but soon recovered. She smiled and chose not to respond to Vivek.

Akash grabbed another spoon.

Suddenly Sandhya choked on her food and started coughing. Vivek quickly got up and started rubbing her back. The coughing subsided and Sandhya kept telling him that she was fine. Vivek, nevertheless, still rubbed her back for a few more seconds before settling back into his seat.

Akash sat still, observing them.

~

Sandhya dug her fork into a potato piece, finding it hard to hide her frustration. Out of all the companies in the world, Mr. Roy had to choose the company where he was the architect? Ever since she had seen him at the Taj, she had been haunted by the thought that he might reappear. And like Murphy’s Law, he did. He could not have appeared at a much worse time than this. When she was dressed up like a princess; when she had danced on the stage and entertained everyone. She shuddered at the thought that he might have seen her dancing.

Sandhya observed that Akash looked more tanned and muscular. When she had been with him years ago, she had found him attractive. Her mind had never wondered about his physique, abs or anything like that, which was weird as that seemed to be what girls generally noticed. What made her fall for him was perhaps the connection or bond that she felt with him. He had made her feel comfortable, wanted, loved. It was more at a mental level than at a physical level, for her.

For whatever reason, she was noticing his physical presence more now. She had no doubt that under his suit, he must have a great body, with perfect abs and chest—the chest where she used to rest her head and be at peace. She turned her head and stared at the distant buildings, disturbed by her thoughts. Would she ever be able to connect with any man at a physical or mental level anymore? “No” was a glaring and painful answer received instantly by her brain.

She hoped that no one noticed her inner turmoil. Priya, unfortunately, was very attentive and could read Sandhya like an open book. She had to be careful.

What now? How could she work with him? She would have to somehow convince Sameer that he should handle this project on his own. Yes. That would be the best thing to do.

“I must say, Sandy, I am impressed by your achievements. I mean, look at you. You are so young and so talented. And you are a senior project manager. That is quite an accomplishment!” Vivek exclaimed.

“Thanks, Vivek. Please call me Sandhya,” she replied modestly.

She looked up and her eyes met Akash’s cold dark eyes again. Was he trying to intimidate her? She did not look away and held his cold glare boldly for a few seconds, challenging his piercing eyes. He opened his mouth for the first time, his eyes still fixed on her.

“So, Sandhya—or should I say Sandy? I wonder how many strings you had to pull to achieve this much success at such an early age,” Akash said with a hint of sarcasm.

Vivek looked at Akash in bewilderment. Priya and Sameer looked at Akash, then at Sandhya, then at each other with worry.

And I thought this guy was modest, Sameer thought within himself.

To their surprise, Sandhya let out a laugh.

“Just a few less than however many you had to pull to reach these heights at your age, Mr. Rai,” she replied with more sarcasm.

That’s my girl! Priya thought to herself.

For some time, there was a glaring contest going on between Akash and Sandhya.

Vivek looked angrily at Akash; he was spoiling his chances with Sandy.

“Did anyone taste the dessert yet, it looks delicious,” Sameer said, trying to move the conversation into a pleasant direction.

“Don’t have an appetite for dessert now, Sameer. It is getting late. I will have to leave now,” Sandhya replied.

“We will drop you off,” Priya suggested.

“No, actually, I came with Pappu.” She got up hastily.

Pappu? Who is Pappu? Akash wondered.

“Bye, Vivek. It was a pleasure meeting you too, Mr. Rai,” she said, looking Akash straight in the eye.

“Can’t wait to start working with you, Miss Sandy,” he replied, stressing “Sandy.”

Sandhya’s face turned red as she glared at him with pure displeasure.

Just get out of here, Sandhya, Sandhya told herself as she turned around and walked towards the parking lot briskly.

~

A short while later, Akash and Vivek also left.

“What happened? You did not do any talking today. You were so quiet,” Sameer asked Priya.

“Oh, was I? Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? You always want me to shut up when I talk, and when I don’t talk, that’s also a problem?” Priya replied with a frown.

“That’s not what I meant! I was worried that you were not normal, you know, with the baby and all.”

“Speaking of not normal, did you see how Sandhya was acting weird with that guy, Akash,” Priya said in her detective tone.

“Yes, I did. But I guess it happens. You don’t have to like someone the first time you meet,” Sameer reasoned.

“I think there is something cooking between the two. I can’t make sense of it,” she mused.

“What do you mean by something cooking? Are you putting on your matchmaker hat again? Even then, didn’t you see how hostile they were to each other? Vivek seemed much nicer. But I don’t think Sandy is interested, as usual,” Sameer said.

“I know. When will she like someone, I wonder?” Priya replied wistfully.

She bent down to pick up her purse and caught something glistening on the ground where Akash had sat. She picked it up. It was a spoon that was completely bent. Priya and Sameer stared at it and then at each other with quizzical expression.

~

Akash showered and slipped into his bed. His mind went back and forth over the events of the evening. She did not have any mangalsutra or other marriage symbol on her. Sameer was married to Priya. Did that mean that she was still single? And who the heck was Pappu?

They were going to meet at Sandhya’s office in a day; he would find out soon enough. He remembered how she had reacted to his words; he could see that she was hurt, although she covered it up well. How the next days were going to turn out he did not know, but life seemed lively and interesting again. For the first time in years, he slipped off into a blissful sleep within minutes.

~

Chapter 23 – Meeting

S

andhya sat with Mr. Roy and Sameer in a conference room. “I am swamped by my current projects and am overwhelmed. I would like someone else to take over the residential complex work.” They had always listened to her, so this should also be a smooth glide, she hoped.

“Oh! I was counting on your help on this particular project. You have experience with such work and I don’t. How about we swap some other project from you?” Sameer suggested.

Sandhya quickly thought of her response.

“It was long ago that I handled this type of project and I don’t even remember anything. Moreover, I will have to travel to the site which I don’t want to do.”

Is she telling the truth or trying to avoid working with that Akash fellow? Sameer wondered. If that was the case, he should not let Sandhya leave that project. He was curious as to what bothered her about him. He had seen her handle many types of people. Some had been extra sweet to her simply because of her charm. Some had been rude to her just because she was an unmarried single mom. She had faced negativity, jealousy and all sorts of office politics. Despite everything that she’d had to face, he had not met anyone as ethical as Sandhya in his profession.

Akash’s remark must have touched a raw nerve, but he hadn’t expected her to avoid working on a project because of such a small incident.

“I can work something out so that you are removed from two other projects, but I need your help on this one. We can work something out so you don’t have to travel to the site,” Sameer pressed.

Why was Sameer suddenly being difficult, Sandhya wondered.

Mr. Roy cleared his throat and spoke.

“I can agree to your request if you agree to take on another project that I had in mind for you.”

Thank goodness! Sandhya breathed in relief.

“You will have to lead the California project. Phillip Huck is visiting us this week and we need to stir things up.”

“Sure, I can take it up,” she readily replied.

“You will need to work from California.”

“What! How is that possible? I cannot travel. I have a kid!” she protested.

“You don’t have to travel back and forth. We will provide you with accommodation and make all the arrangements. You can take the little one with you. I cannot send Sameer because his wife is expecting a baby. You are my next preference. Think about it.”

Think about it? What was there to think about it? He wanted her to leave Shanta Mausi, Sameer, Priya, Miss Vijaya, Roja, MUMBAI! And start fresh in a new country? What the heck? Why couldn’t life stay perfect as it was until a few days ago? And why should she leave everything and everyone that she loved. Because of him? No way. She wasn’t going to lose everything because of him again. She wasn’t afraid. Nope. She just had to make sure that she only interacted with him professionally and kept him away from her personal life.”

Sandhya shook her head.

“I can’t leave Mumbai,” she replied.

“Then you will have to remain on the residential area project,” Mr. Roy said firmly.

“Fine.”

The meeting ended.

Sandhya stared at the pattern on the wooden conference-room table as anger raged within her. She had worked so hard for this company, and Mr. Roy would not grant her even a simple request. He had never done anything like this before. Maybe she should plan on starting her own business venture sooner rather than later. Then she wouldn’t have to listen to her boss all the time. She would have the power to hire or fire— Stop, Sandhya! What are you thinking? Why would you even fire anyone? You would only hire people when you have your own company. _]Her thoughts went to her dream of establishing her own business. If only Akash had not appeared in her life at this stage, but when she had her own establishment, when she was as wealthy as— [_Stop again! You are not doing all this to prove anything to him. You are doing this for your own sake and for your child! Remember that, Sandhya!

~

Sandhya was late. She rushed into the elevator, which was about to close, her laptop bag and purse dangling by her side. Thank goodness! Catching her breath, she looked up, smiling, to greet the person standing next to her.

“Good—” She halted as her smile disappeared and her eyes met Akash’s dark eyes. “Mooorning,” she finished in a far less cheerful tone. He nodded but did not reply.

She looked away and noticed Akash looking away too.

The elevator doors opened and she walked out quickly.

He followed and disappeared into Sameer’s office.

~

Sandhya attempted to concentrate on the task at hand. Akash was leading a discussion about the residential complex and all the important stakeholders were present in the conference room. He wore a sky blue shirt with black pants and Vivek had a gray suit on. Sandhya had simply walked into the meeting and sat in the farthest chair after greeting them.

The good thing was, Akash was acting professionally. He asked important questions and steered the discussion in the right direction. Just like with everyone else, he would glance at her occasionally to ask a question or discuss something. Good. If things went as smoothly as this, they would only need a few more meetings.

~

“The meeting went quite well, didn’t it?” Sameer said and sipped some water. They sat in the cafeteria, waiting for their lunch to arrive.

“Yes.”

She spotted Akash and Vivek walking into the cafeteria.

Don’t look in that direction, Sameer. Please don’t call them here, Sandhya prayed in her mind. But Murphy’s Law proved to be true again.

“Hi, Akash! Vivek!” Sameer shouted and waved his arms.

Sandhya closed her eyes in frustration and gritted her teeth.

“Sameer. Why did you have to ask them to join us?”

“What’s bothering you, Sandhya?” Sameer asked seriously.

She was taken aback. Was she so obvious?

“No, nothing. I was hoping for a quiet lunch with you, that’s all,” she replied as she heard footsteps from behind.

The table had four chairs and Sandhya and Sameer sat opposite each other. Akash took a seat to her left and Vivek to her right.

“Thanks for sharing the table with us,” Vivek said, smiling.

“Our pleasure. We’re both tired of having lunch together with just us,” Sameer replied.

Akash and Sandhya were again silent as they both dug into their food, while Vivek and Sameer chatted.

“Why didn’t you order today’s special?” Vivek asked, looking at Sandhya’s plate.

“Oh, she doesn’t like biryani,” Sameer answered for Sandhya.

Akash raised his eyebrows.

“Oh!” Vivek replied.

“Is that so?” Akash asked, looking at Sandhya.

“I used to like it once but I don’t care for it now,” Sandhya replied, looking at him.

“I presume that you are a woman with quick changing tastes.”

Sandhya kept her mouth closed for a couple of seconds, but her eyes never left Akash’s.

“You know me too well, Mr. Rai,” she finally replied coldly.

[_What is wrong with these two? _]Sameer wondered.

Sameer excused himself to chat with another client at a nearby table.

Sandhya was left with Akash and Vivek.

“So, Sandhya, I was wondering if you were free this weekend and if you would like to help me out looking for a car.”

Sandhya swallowed her food slowly.

“You shouldn’t depend on me to buy a car, I am very ignorant about them,” she replied, hoping that he would take the hint.

“I don’t need help in choosing the car, I just want you to keep me company, that’s all,” Vivek asked again with his charming smile.

Akash chewed on his food with extra deliberation.

Sandhya did not answer for a few seconds. She finally looked up at Vivek and asked, “When were you planning to check out the car again?”

Akash looked away. Was she really going to go out with Vivek? He suddenly got up and walked to the counter.

“This weekend,” Vivek replied with a hint of victory in his voice.

“This weekend? It would be extremely difficult. I have something going on.”

“I see,” he said with disappointment. “Sandhya? Do you mind me asking you something? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“What is it?”

“Are you—are you seeing someone?”

Sandhya struggled with how best to convey that she wasn’t interested. She got an idea.

“Mmm,” she started. “It’s too soon to say anything. We have only gone out twice but we might have something,” she replied.

“I see,” Vivek replied, dejected.

Sameer joined them again and a short while later, Akash did too.

Akash and Sandhya were silent again and seemed to have found new interest in admiring the minute details of the food on their plates.

Amidst the chit-chat, Vivek said, “Sameer, you never told me that Sandhya was seeing someone.”

Sameer almost choked on his food and stared at Sandhya with a quizzical expression. Sandhya looked up at Vivek and then at Sameer, her face red.

Akash also stared directly at her, his face drained of all color.

Sandhya looked down at her plate of food.

“Sandhya is seeing someone?” Sameer said aloud. “Sandhya! You never told me. Who is the lucky guy? Priya will be so happy to hear this!” he said excitedly.

“Oh! It’s—it’s—Phillip.” Sandhya blurted the first name that came to her mind. Phillip was in California and would never know that she had said this. He rarely visited India; he was a perfect candidate for this situation.

“What! Phillip? You mean Phillip Huck?” Sameer exclaimed in shock. “In spite of his email being—”

Sandhya kicked Sameer’s leg from underneath the table.

“Aah, I see. It’s Phillip. Good choice, Sandhya. Have to say—he is handsome with his ocean-blue eyes,” Sameer said, grinning.

Akash’s jaw tightened. So she liked someone—someone with ocean-blue eyes. He recalled the man at the Taj with Sandhya. Was he the guy? He finished his lunch quickly and excused himself.

Sameer was the last one to get up from the table. Out of curiosity Sameer removed the tissue paper that hid Akash’s spoon on his plate. He raised his eyebrows; there was a steel spoon, completely bent, lying under the tissue.

~

Akash opened his laptop and googled Phillip Huck. In a few clicks, he found the same person that he had seen at the Taj Hotel staring back at him, with his particularly attractive blue eyes, from the computer screen. Akash shut the laptop down with force, leaned back on his chair and closed his eyes.

What are you thinking, Akash? Why are you bothered? She never loved you and will never love you. It’s you who is still hanging on to her. You have to let go of her, his mind instructed him. But could he manage to do that? It had been three damn years! Why had she even come into his life? He opened his eyes. The hatred and bitterness within him came to the surface once again. He had left her alone. Now that she was in front of him again, thoughts of hatred and revenge again threatened to overpower him.

~

“Akash? Is that you?”

A startled Akash turned around to find Miss Vijaya beaming at him. 

“Miss Vijaya? How are you? Mr. George did tell me that you had moved to Mumbai with Roja,” Akash said, pleasantly surprised. He had stopped by the shopping mall to make a quick purchase in the electronics section. Who knew that he would get to meet his beloved teacher like this?

“Yes. I am doing great. You seem to be doing pretty well yourself. I see that you have lived up to your dreams and become what you wanted to be. You are one of my students that I will always be proud of.”

“Thank you. Do you live nearby? I live about five miles south of here,” Akash asked.

“My apartment is just a few blocks away. I am done with my shopping. Why don’t you come with me and we can spend some time together for old times’ sake? Roja would also be happy to see you.”

Akash hesitated.

“Come on. You have not changed a bit in your mannerisms.” Miss Vijaya caught his hand and walked him out of the shopping complex.

Soon, Akash found himself in Miss Vijaya’s modestly furnished apartment.

“It has three bedrooms and it’s bright and airy. I like this place,” Miss Vijaya said.

“It is good,” Akash replied, observing his surroundings.

“Roja! Roja! Look who is here,” Miss Vijaya called out.

Roja came out from one of the bedrooms, wearing jeans and a T-shirt that said ‘I am awesome! Deal with it!’

She had grown a lot taller, taller than even Miss Vijaya.

“Hi!” She smiled shyly.

“Hi, Roja. Good to see you. How’s life in a new city?” Akash asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I like it.” She paused. “I need to get my homework done.” She excused herself and went inside.

Akash smiled. She behaved like a typical teenager.

“Come inside to the dining room. We can chat as I make tea,” Miss Vijaya said.

Just then, an elderly woman came out from the kitchen and stared at Akash inquisitively.

“This is Akash. One of my students,” Miss Vijaya introduced. “Akash, this is Shanta. She helps me out with chores.”

“Namaste.” Akash folded his hands with respect.

“Namaste,” she replied and then looked at Miss Vijaya. “I have to go now.”

“Yes, thank you, Shanta,” Miss Vijaya said and shut the door after she left.

Akash sat at the dining table comfortably and looked around as he chatted with Miss Vijaya. She had always made him feel at home, even when he was a kid. She had encouraged him when he was struggling to keep up his stance against his parents to take up architecture. He loved his mother but there were occasions when he wished that she understood him like Miss Vijaya did. He recalled how Sandhya had appreciated his work and a sinking feeling again engulfed him.

Something tugged on his thigh. He glanced down and saw a tiny hand. The hand tugged at him again and his eyes moved up. His pitch-black eyes met the sparkling black eyes of a little girl. She wore a simple white cotton frock. Her baby-soft curly hair was left loose and reached a little below her neck. With her chubby cheeks and cute nose, she was the most adorable being he had ever seen.

He smiled at her. She continued to look at him seriously and tugged at his thigh again.

“Mine,” she said.

Akash’s heart skipped a beat. What did this little muffin mean by that?

“Divya? Are you awake, darling?” Miss Vijaya came out of the kitchen with two teacups.

Divya looked at Miss Vijaya but did not answer.

She looked back at Akash and this time she looked angry.

She tugged at Akash more forcefully and again said, “Mine!”

“I am sorry, Akash. Would you mind sitting on this chair? Divya always wants to sit on the chair that you are sitting on. She won’t let anyone else sit there,” Miss Vijaya explained.

“Yes, of course,” he replied, smiling, and moved to the adjacent chair.

Divya soon climbed on the chair where he had been sitting.

Miss Vijaya gave her fruit pieces and milk. Divya clutched a fruit piece with her chubby fingers and started eating.

Divya stared at Akash.

“What is youl name?”

“My name is Akash,” he said, bending his head before her lovingly and touching her nose.

“Aathaash?” she repeated and went on munching her fruit pieces.

Divya looked at Miss Vijaya.

“When is Saanu thoming?”

“In another hour, my dear,” Miss Vijaya answered.

Miss Vijaya explained to Akash, “They live nearby. In fact, she is—” Miss Vijaya started but was cut off when Akash’s phone rang.

Akash excused himself to the balcony to take the call. He finished his call and was about to turn when he felt something on his legs.

He looked down and found Divya tugging him again.

“Aathaash, thome with me,” she said as she caught his hand and pulled him inside.

She made him sit by her as she played with her toys. Dimples appeared on her cheeks whenever she smiled. Akash struggled to absorb the unknown happiness that he experienced whenever he saw her smile. Her face looked familiar, but he couldn’t figure out who she resembled.

An hour later, he bid good-bye to Miss Vijaya and Roja.

“Ale you going?” Divya asked.

Akash picked her up in his arms.

“Yes, princess.”

“Ale you going to thome again?”

“Do you want me to?”

She cupped his face with her tiny hands and observed him.

“Umm—yes, thome again. Divya lithes Aathaash.”

She planted a kiss on his cheek. Akash’s heart skipped a beat.

“Aathaash likes Divya too,” Akash said, smiling at her tenderly, wondering if he would get a chance to meet this little girl again.

Chapter 24 – Interest

S

andhya stood in the crowded train feeling tired and hungry. She had skipped breakfast, hoping to grab something from the canteen. Her cell buzzed.

“Hey, Sameer. What’s up?”

“Sandhya, I need your help. Can you please attend the meeting in Vivek’s office?”

“What the hell? I have almost reached our office. You are telling me now that I have to turn around?”

“It’s Priya. She had contractions today and I had to go to the hospital. I am sorry, Sandhya.”

“Priya had contractions? What did the doctor say? She is not supposed to have contractions this soon.” Sandhya panicked.

“I don’t know yet. Hey, the doctor is here. Talk to you later.” Sameer hung up.

Sandhya clutched the support bar in front of her and prayed that everything be alright. There were bigger issues in life than worrying about being in a meeting with Akash. Worry took over her hunger. She climbed off the train and took another train going in the opposite direction. After a grueling hour, the train reached its stop. Her phone buzzed again.

She listened to Sameer and she breathed in relief as she walked. Priya and the baby were safe and there was nothing to worry about.

“Take care of her, Sameer. Please. She needs you as never before. Tell her that you love her,” she said without thinking.

Sameer was silent for a few seconds.

“I will…Sandhya.”

She ended the call, disturbed. She had no business meddling with their lives but those words had come out spontaneously. Once she reached the destination, a posh high-rise building, she asked the receptionist for Akash and Vivek. A few men turned their heads towards her as she was led inside. She must have looked fine in her black pencil skirt that reached her knees and the white blouse.

She was in a contemporary conference room with six chairs around an oval cherry wood table. Her weakness returned and she dug a chocolate bar from her purse that she kept for emergency situations like this. Some sugar should help her stay put till the end of the meeting.

She was about to open the wrapper when Vivek entered the room.

“Hi, Sandhya!” Vivek shook her hand.

“Hi, Vivek.”

“Good to see you in our office. Hope you found it easily.”

“Yes. It was easy.”

“Great. Akash should be here any minute. We have another client visiting us and I will have to handle them. I don’t think I am needed anyways for today’s meeting.”

Sandhya let his words sink in. Did it mean that she had to be in the meeting with Akash only?

“I see,” she replied in a low voice.

“See you later,” Vivek said and left.

She slumped in a chair and sighed. It didn’t matter. She would be professional and try to do a good job. This project was important to Roy, sir and she would do her best in assisting him in achieving his goal. She herself had planned to purchase a property in the complex, but after knowing that Akash was the architect, she was having second thoughts.

She saw the chocolate in her hand and her weakness returned. Better eat it before Akash came. She opened the wrapper and started eating it in haste.

She had popped the last piece of the chocolate in her mouth when she heard a knock. The door opened and she saw Akash. He halted as soon as he saw her, then cocked up his eyebrows.

Her mouth was full of chocolate now. She turned her head away and tried to chew and swallow quickly. Her eyes searched for tissues. Damn, no tissues?

She wiped her lips with her tongue and turned towards Akash.

He was still watching her, except that now, he had a faint smile on his face. Involuntarily, she smiled at him clumsily. The next instant, both of them stopped smiling. He walked next to her and started connecting the laptop to the projector. There were no introductions. The projector was not working as expected and he started fiddling with it.

“Maybe this connection is loose,” she said as she stood up and held a cable coming out of the projector. At the same time, he attempted to hold the same cable, resulting in their fingers touching just for a second. She removed her hand at once and sat on the chair, but not before noticing him stiffen for a second before tightening the connection. The projector worked this time. He sat two chairs down from her and opened his document.

“Shall we start?” he asked. He looked straight into her eyes initially but after a second, his eyes were on her lips. She cringed and wiped her mouth with her hand. As she suspected, there was a bit of chocolate remaining on her lips.

“Is there a washroom nearby?”

“Yes, take a left and then a right.”

“I will be back in two minutes.”

He nodded in understanding.

Sandhya stared at the mirror in the restroom and closed her eyes in frustration. She splashed water on her face, hoping that it would also wash away her memories with him—memories that had rushed back to her mind at the mere touch of his fingers.

~

Akash stared at his laptop and wondered how he would be able to work today. Images of her rosy, full lips with a bit of chocolate on them flashed before him. Damn! He felt an unstoppable desire to feel her lips and her body. He wanted to run his fingers through her silky hair; he wanted her hands roaming over him.

She was mine. Only mine! an inner voice screamed. He clutched his laptop and cursed within himself. Yes, she was yours long ago, but not now! He closed his eyes and reminded himself that he needed to act responsibly; he needed to control his desires.

He heard her footsteps and took a deep breath as he moved his chair away from her.

She sat down.

“Let’s start,” she said.

“Alright, here are some sample models that I had in mind. This is a model of a two-story house for the younger generation. This one is for middle-aged people. Do you know if Mr. Roy is interested in allotting a few for senior citizens?”

“He never mentioned it to me, but I think that it’s a great idea. I can check with him and get back to you.”

Suddenly, the ice between them was broken and they started discussing the project freely. There was no sarcasm in his words and she was careful not to let her own bitterness show. She felt that it would be easier to concentrate on her work if they were a bit more amicable. This was not the case in reality, she knew that, but it would work until the meeting was over.

When the meeting ended, she got up in relief and gathered her stuff.

“Bye, Mr. Rai.”

Akash’s face turned dark and he glared at her, clearly irked.

“This is the last time you are referring me like that,” he said sharply as he took a step towards her.

Sandhya was surprised but was not afraid.

“You have a reputation for treating your clients with respect, don’t you, Mr. Rai?” she replied, narrowing her eyes as bitterness returned with full force.

“You have a reputation for testing my patience, don’t you, Miss Sandy,” he replied sarcastically.

She chuckled. He was furious. Was this all a joke to her?

“It would be good for your own sake if you stopped,” he warned in an icy tone.

“And what would you do if I did not?” she shot back.

He stood still for a few minutes. So this was a game for her? Fine. He could play games too. He walked slowly towards her, his eyes fixed on her. When he has standing right in front of her with just a few inches between them, he raised his hand up to her face and traced his index finger from her forehead to her cheek.

She stood rooted to the ground, stiffening in shock. He watched her reaction to his touch with interest. Her face was a deep red and her breathing was quick.

“There are a lot of things that I want to do. And since you are giving me enough reasons…” he said as he ran his thumb over her lower lip.

She jerked back before he could finish his sentence. The next instant, she grabbed a glass of water from the table and threw it in his face, wetting his shirt in the process.

“There are a lot of things that I want to do too. Oh! Wait a minute. I just did one of those things! ” she shot back and stormed out of the room and out of the building.

Sandhya’s blood boiled in anger as she sat on the train. She clenched her fist. Why couldn’t she move back in time? Why had she let him touch her? Her brow crinkled with tension. Any other person and she would not have hesitated to report him to the management for misconduct. But Akash? The same Akash who had ensured that a criminal like Gajanan was behind bars? Who was Akash really? He had proven unworthy once but never in her dreams did she think that he could stoop so low. Her heart went out to Kavya. How must she feel with a womanizing husband like him?

~

Akash stood before the mirror in the restroom as he wiped his face. A smile formed on his lips. Slowly, the smile disappeared. Realization dawned on him as his behaviour played before his eyes and he stood staring at himself in confusion.  

~

“Divi! Divi, Divi, Divi! Whele ale you Divi?” Sandhya called out to Divya. “Mausi, hold this please. She must be in her room. I will get her,” she said as she handed the neatly wrapped gift box to Shanta Mausi and went into Divya’s room. The room was quiet. This could only mean that Divya was up to something. She caught a glimpse of tiny feet behind the bed.

“Divya! Where are you?” She slowly walked to where Divya was hiding.

“Caught you!” she said as she tickled Divya.

Divya giggled.

“Come on. Quick. Pappu is waiting for us. It’s Roja’s birthday, remember?”

“Loja’s bilthday! Yeah!” Divya clapped.

Divya ran to her dressing table, checked her dress and adjusted her headband.

“Mommy, am I thute ol not?” she asked, smiling.

“You are very very very very cute!” Sandhya hugged her from behind and kissed her cheek. She looked at both of them in the mirror and smiled. Divya was growing fast. She needed to take more pictures and videos of her.

“Hello! If the makeup and hugging is over, shall we start?” Mausi fumed at the door.

“Let’s go!” Sandhya said, pulling Divya. They walked out of their apartment.

“Whele is Pappu?” Divya asked, looking around.

“There he is!” Sandhya replied, pointing to their left.

Divya’s eyes brightened as soon as she saw Pappu. She freed herself from Sandhya, ran up to him and kissed him.

“Aah, Pappu! How I missed you, my darling,” Sandhya exclaimed as she too kissed him, trying to wrap her arms across his broad body.

Shanta Mausi looked at both of them as if they had just got out of a mental asylum.

Pappu was the grand white secondhand ambassador car that Sandhya proudly owned.

How had he ended up getting the name? No, Sandhya had not thought of that name. He had apparently got it from his previous owner. Considering that there was no male presence in their household, the name Pappu was more than welcome to Sandhya. She had bought the car about a year ago, although she would not drive it to work. Trains were faster and more relaxing than driving for hours in the hectic traffic, but they would go out with Pappu on weekends and for small errands. Pappu needed a few attempts before starting, and was a bit noisy, but other than that, he was functional.

~

“Happy birthday!” Akash congratulated Roja as he entered Miss Vijaya’s apartment.

“Thank you!” Roja replied shyly and went inside her bedroom where a bunch of her friends were present.

“Hello, Akash! Come, sit here and have some snacks.” Miss Vijaya welcomed him.

Miss Vijaya had invited him for Roja’s thirteenth birthday. He did not want to disappoint her. His plan was to wish Roja and escape the party before it began. He was not much of a party person.

His phone rang.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Where are you? You are not home!” his dad exclaimed.

“Yes. I am not. But how do you know that?”

“Because I am standing in front of your house.”

“What? You are in Mumbai?”

“Surprise!”

“I am at Miss Vijaya’s place.”

Miss Vijaya, who had overheard the conversation, indicated for Akash to hand over the phone to her.

“This is Vijaya. How are you doing, Prem Ji?”

“Doing great. Good to hear your voice, Miss Vijaya!”

“Likewise. Why don’t you join us and give your blessings to Roja?”

“Sure, I would love to!”

“Great.”

She handed over the phone to Akash and said, “Can you assist him with the directions?” before she disappeared into the kitchen.

After a few minutes, the doorbell rang and Roja ran out to the living room.

“Sandhya Di!” Roja shouted in joy.

Akash’s ears perked up. Had he heard Sandhya’s name? He stood up in hesitation and walked to a corner in the dining room from which the living room was visible.

“Happy birthday, darling!” Sandhya hugged Roja. He gasped at how beautiful she looked in the exquisite purple-colored salwar kameez. Part of her hair was held up using hairpins and the rest was let down free.

A few seconds later, Shanta Mausi came in with the little girl, Divya, whom he had met earlier.

“Happy bilthday, Loja.”

“Thank you, my dear!” Roja laughed as she picked up Divya affectionately. Divya was wearing a cute fluffy party dress.

Sandhya disappeared into Roja’s room. She seemed to be really popular among the girls and started playing recent Bollywood dance numbers from the stereo. The girls pulled her in to dance with them. She had obviously not noticed Akash watching them from the dining room.

A few minutes later, Divya walked out of the room and saw Akash.

She smiled and ran up to him. Akash automatically smiled at her and knelt down. She hugged him tight. Miss Vijaya noticed them hugging and laughed.

“I see that you have become close friends already.”

“Fliends! Yay!” The little one clapped with excitement.

Miss Vijaya closed her ears because of the noise from Roja’s room. “Sandhya is no less than a kid sometimes!” she exclaimed as she closed the door to their room. “You do remember Sandhya, right? She is from your village,” Miss Vijaya asked Akash.

Akash was taken aback for a second. What could he say? That he had almost married her?

“Yes. I do remember. In fact, we have met a few times for work,” Akash said looking out the window.

“Have you? I had no clue.”

Akash nodded and picked up Divya, trying to break away from the topic.

“So, Divya? Mommy and Daddy did not come?”

“Mommy thame!”

“Oh, Mommy came?” he said, wondering where her mommy was. He secretly wanted to see Divya’s parents. They must be so happy to have this little bundle of joy with them.

“Thome, I will show you!” she said as she slid down and dragged him towards Roja’s room.

Her mom was inside Roja’s room? He had only seen Sandhya and the kids inside the room.

Divya pushed the door open and all the girls and Sandhya turned towards them.

“That’s my mommy.” Divya pointed her tiny finger at Sandhya.

Sandhya looked at Akash, her face drained of color.

Chapter 25 – News

A

kash stood lifeless, the piercing pain in his heart growing every second. Sandhya was Divya’s mother?

That meant…

Sandhya was married!?

Sandhya was married!?

SANDHYA WAS MARRIED!?

He repeated this sentence because his mind rejected the thought again and again with its full might. He stood staring at her for a long time; she did not utter a word or move either.

“Sandhya, can you come and help me in the kitchen, dear?” Miss Vijaya called from behind Akash.

The tense atmosphere got slightly diluted. Sandhya walked past Akash and Divya, but not before observing Divya’s fingers holding Akash’s hand. Time seemed to have halted for Akash. He kept looking towards the kitchen until Divya pulled his hand. He came out of his trance.

“Divya, how about you play with this train?” Akash said as he picked a toy and managed to walk with his shaken body into the living room with her. Divya gleefully settled on the floor and clapped as the train moved. Akash slumped onto the sofa and dealt with his agonized heart. He was desperate to talk to Sandhya but was also dreading it.

“Wait a second. Didn’t she say that she was seeing Phillip? How could that be? Could it be that—that she was divorced?” He couldn’t ask her in front of everyone here. But he will need to find out soon before he died of suffocation.

~

Sandhya started cutting the onions as her brain worked frantically. She had expected that this day would come, but didn’t expect that it would come so soon. Considering that Sameer never discussed Divya at the office, as per her request, she had hoped that Akash would not find out about her. Nevertheless, she had her strategy thought out and planned, but it wasn’t easy to execute. What if he did not believe her? What if he pestered her with questions? Of course, there was the option of telling the truth, but she had long decided against it. She did not want her past with Akash to get in the way of his married life. Even otherwise, she was happy being a single mother to Divya and did not want to give him a chance to mess with their lives in any way. They were perfectly happy the way they were.

“Sandhya?”

She came out of her trance and looked at Miss Vijaya. Miss Vijaya hesitated a little.

“Akash’s dad is going to come to the party. He will be here in a few minutes.”

She felt the room whirling around her and the ground beneath her giving away as she stared at Miss Vijaya with her mouth open. Akash’s dad was coming? Was the current shock of dealing with Akash not enough? She wanted to disappear into thin air. Akash’s dad had spoken to her so lovingly the last time they met. Whatever faint affection he had for her would all be turned to dust now.

She clutched the countertop for support as she tried to breathe. She looked at Miss Vijaya pleadingly.

“Please, madam. I will leave with Divya before he arrives. I will make it up to Roja some other time.”

“No, Sandhya. How long can you hide from everyone? You decided that you would face everything the moment you decided to have Divya? Isn’t that true?”

Sandhya nodded with a troubled face.

“But he is from my village. The news will spread like wildfire. I will become the topic of gossip. And my aunt! How she will react?”

“So what! It will be difficult initially but it will get better afterwards, trust me. He is a decent man and he will keep it to himself if you ask. To tell the truth, it hurt when I found out about you and Divya a year ago. You hid from me for two whole years. You did not answer my phone calls, emails, nothing. Do you have any idea how worried I was? You think that I like the fact that you gave birth to Divya all alone?”

“I wasn’t alone. Shanta Mausi was there with me.”

Miss Vijaya shook her head in disapproval.

“Whatever. You are staying here and that’s it.” Miss Vijaya gave the ultimatum to Sandhya.

Sandhya looked at her sweaty hands, then up at the ceiling and silently prayed. It seemed like she was approaching the worst exam of her life, and she wasn’t prepared at all. The doorbell rang. Prem Ji was here!

“Come with me.” Miss Vijaya held Sandhya by her arm and almost dragged her into the living room.

Akash opened the door. His dad stood in front of him, beaming at his son, before his smile turned into a frown.

“Haven’t you been shaving?”

Akash shook his head but managed to smile in return, his brain too troubled to reply.

Meanwhile Miss Vijaya entered the living room with Sandhya. Sandhya’s eyes met Akash’s for a second before turning over to his dad.

“Nice to see you!” Miss Vijaya said.

“Good to see you too, Miss Vijaya!” Prem Ji eased himself onto the sofa.

“Sandhya! Is that you?” Akash’s dad exclaimed, his eyes narrowing with curiosity.

“N…namaste, Uncle. Yes. It is me,” Sandhya answered, forcing a faint smile as she folded her hands to greet him.

“It’s been so long since I last saw you, dear. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”

Sandhya looked at Divya, who was busy playing with her toy.

“Been working in Mumbai for the last three years, Uncle.”

“Very good. Your dad would have been very proud of you!”

A sharp pain pierced through her heart. How she wished for that to be true. She knew that her parents would have been ashamed of her. Had they been alive, she could not even imagine what they would have gone through.

Miss Vijaya went into the kitchen and Sandhya also escaped, citing work before any more questions could be asked. Shanta Mausi had already left for home.

Akash’s dad saw Divya looking up at him and smiled.

“Hey, kiddo!” he said as he bent and pulled her cheeks affectionately.

“Hey, thiddo!” she replied, pulling his cheeks with her little hands.

He laughed out loud, picked her up and placed her in his lap.

“Whose daughter is this cutie pie?”

Before he could answer, the doorbell rang and Akash opened the door.

“Hey, Akash! What are you doing here?” Sameer asked teasingly, standing beside Priya at the door.

Akash remembered to smile and let them in.

“I should ask you both that question.”

Sameer and Priya chuckled.

After the introductions to Akash’s dad, Priya too disappeared into the kitchen.

She mischievously poked Sandhya with her elbow.

“What’s up, babe? Did you ask that Akash guy to come? Is something cooking between you both?”

“What? Why would I ask him to come? You are thinking absurd. Miss Vijaya invited him,” Sandhya replied, irritated.

“I wonder how Miss Vijaya knows Akash.”

Priya luckily continued talking before Sandhya could think of an answer.

“Sameer told me about Phillip. I saw his picture; he does look hot. But, I have to say, I like Akash. My heart says that something is there in him. Although you hate each other; it’s almost like—opposites attract or something.”

Sandhya turned the other way so Priya could not see her perturbed face. She wanted to tell Priya that Akash was married but couldn’t get the words out.

“That is nonsense, Priya. Come, let’s call everyone for dinner.” She diverted the conversation. She wondered why Kavya had not come to the party but was relieved that she had not. As soon as they reached the dining room, Roja lifted Sandhya up in the air—she had grown strong enough to be able to do that.

“A laptop, Sandhya Di?” Roja screamed in happiness.

“Roja, put me down please!”

“You are spoiling her like anything!” Miss Vijaya reprimanded her for her choice of gift as Roja placed Sandhya on the ground.

“Mom!” Roja rolled her eyes at Miss Vijaya.

Everyone smiled at Roja’s childishness, except for Sandhya, who smiled faintly, and Akash, who stood lost in thought. A short while later, an excited Roja left for a movie with her friends.

Miss Vijaya, Akash, Prem Ji, Sameer, Priya, Divya and Sandhya sat around the dining table.

Akash kept glancing at Sandhya as he attempted to solve the puzzle. She looked tense.

Priya as usual chatted nonstop.

“So, Miss Vijaya! How do you know Akash?” she asked.

Sandhya’s heart skipped a beat as she swallowed the food and held onto her spoon tightly.

“He was also my student, just like Sandhya.”

“Oh!”

“They went to the same school?” Sameer asked, raising his eyebrows. Priya also looked puzzled.

“Yes, of course. Sandhya and Akash are from the same village, where I taught for fifteen years. Akash was a lazy brat as a kid and I had to be after him all the time. Sandhya was the obedient one,” Miss Vijaya said, laughing.

Sameer and Priya looked at each other and then at Sandhya accusingly.

“We hardly knew each other though, since Akash was my senior.” Sandhya tried to cover up before they asked any further questions.

Akash glared at Sandhya. How smoothly she managed to convey that there was nothing in the past between them.

“I am sure you do not remember much but I vividly remember the time when we worked together at the village orphanage,” Akash said with a subtle bitterness in his voice as he looked straight at Sandhya.

He observed her face turn scarlet and his burning heart received a drop of satisfaction.

Sandhya resisted the urge to respond to him; she couldn’t risk exposing her past.

She inserted another spoonful of food in her mouth and chewed slowly. Sameer and Priya sensed the tension and looked at each other. Miss Vijaya and Akash’s dad also looked at them curiously. No one spoke about the issue any further.

“The food is delicious! I am so glad that I came here or I would have missed all the fun and food,” Prem Ji complimented.

Sandhya was seated beside Divya, who wasn’t eating at all.

“Divya, eat,” Sandhya whispered.

“I want theth!” Divya demanded.

Sandhya placed a piece of the birthday cake on Divya’s plate.

Divya dug her spoon eagerly into the cake and managed to put a mouthful into her mouth.

“Yummy theth!” she exclaimed after she was done with the bite, the colorful cream from the cake’s frosting spread all over her cheeks.

Prem Ji smiled warmly at Divya.

“You know, she resembles Puja so much when she was little. Puja also had the same dimples and the same sparkly black eyes,” Prem Ji said.

Sandhya went numb for a few seconds. She glanced at Akash and found him looking at her intensely. She quickly averted her eyes.

“So, whose is this little girl?” Prem Ji posed the dreaded question.

Sandhya took a deep breath and replied, “She is Divya, my daughter.”

“What? That is wonderful news. She is adorable!” Prem Ji exclaimed in surprise. “Tell me! When did you get married? What does your husband do?”

Sandhya felt like all the air inside her body had been sucked out by that question. She composed herself in a couple of seconds and breathed deeply, aware of Akash’s continuous gaze. The room fell silent.

“Her dad and I—we are separated,” Sandhya replied.

Akash let the words sink in. Prem Ji’s brow crinkled, but he steadied himself and remained silent.

Sandhya prayed that he wouldn’t press this issue with any further questions. Ninety percent of the time, people would leave her alone as soon as she mentioned this.

“Sorry to hear that. What about Divya? Do you have joint custody of her?” he asked.

“No. I have sole custody of her. He married soon after we separated and didn’t want custody,” Sandhya continued. At least part of her story was true.

Thankfully no one pressed her further as to whether she had been married or not.

“How old is she?” This time it was Akash questioning. Sandhya knew why he asked that question.

“She just turned two,” she replied. Divya was actually two years and four months old, but she did not want Akash to even remotely think that Divya could be his daughter.

Sameer and Priya left soon after dinner. Sandhya went out to the balcony and looked up at the stars in the night sky. Maybe she had been scared for nothing. Maybe she need not have hidden from her friends, her aunt and everyone else.

She had not planned to hide forever; she knew that however conservative the society was, the rules automatically favored the rich. If you were rich, everything about you is right. Divya would not be rejected by this society if she had money, and Sandhya was determined to make a lot of it. That was her ultimate goal.

“What are you doing here, standing all alone?”

A startled Sandhya turned around and found Akash’s dad standing at the balcony door.

“Nothing, Uncle. Just wanted to breathe the fresh air.”

“That is a rare commodity in Mumbai, isn’t it?” he said, smiling.

“Yes, it is. I miss the pure fresh air and open space that we have in our village. But I have grown to love this city as well.”

They stood holding the railings on the balcony, facing outwards from the apartment.

“How is everyone doing in the village? Did you see my aunt or cousins recently?” she asked in hesitation.

“Everyone is fine. Your aunt was unwell for a few months, but she got treated and is fine now. Both of your cousins are married and have moved out.”

“What!” Sandhya exclaimed, astonished. So much had happened, and she had no idea. She had not given a single call to her aunt although she had sent her money every month. All she knew was that the money was being received.

A lot of times, Sandhya had felt bitter towards her aunt, but her conscience had always told her not to stop sending money. Her aunt had provided shelter to her at a critical time in her life. She had opposed Sandhya’s studies, but it was quite normal in that village to object to a girl receiving education. Many of her female friends had stopped going to school because of their own parents, and were married off early. When people behaved that way with their own children, could she expect more from her aunt? She felt good that her aunt had accepted the money that she had been sending. She could not blame her cousins for not inviting her to their weddings when she herself had disappeared from their lives.

Akash neared the balcony but froze at the door on seeing Sandhya and his dad in deep conversation. He turned around but something that Sandhya said made him stop.

“Uncle, I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. Did you know my dad well?”

“We were good friends, back when we were young. Your father was very ambitious. He would have been very successful if he had gone to college. You see, he was not much of a businessman. He was more into science and technology.”

“Yes. He used to tell me that he couldn’t make it but he would see to it that I went to college,” Sandhya replied.

“I know that he was planning to go to college later, but after your mom died, I think he lost his desire.”

Sandhya stood silently as she listened. Her father had never mentioned this to her. Memories of her happy times with him flooded before her eyes, threatening to bring a surge of tears. It was weird. She had stopped crying a long time ago.

“How is Puja doing? She must have finished her studies,” Sandhya asked, trying to dwell on a more cheerful topic.

“She is done with her studies in fashion designing and working now. Like Akash, she is also not in the least interested in managing my business. Now I am looking for a suitable young man for her who can also look after our business.”

Sandhya hoped that he would give a lot more significance to the “suitable young man” part rather than a man who would look after his business. But he was intelligent enough and would definitely make a decision that would be good for Puja.

“They are lucky to have you as a father,” she whispered.

“I hope they think so too,” he replied, smiling.

They went inside after a few minutes.

Sandhya assisted Miss Vijaya in the kitchen and by the time she came out, she found Divya asleep in Akash’s arms as he sat on the sofa. Divya was around Akash a lot more than normal. What could she do to keep her away from him? A frown appeared on her face. Divya would generally take a few days to get accustomed to people. Why was she getting attached to Akash this quickly? This was not good. This was not good at all, for any of them.

Akash ran his hand over Divya’s soft hair, clearing her face of her curly tresses. He kissed her forehead tenderly and watched her sleep. Sandhya’s heart pricked. Why was he behaving like this? Why couldn’t he live his own life and leave her and Divya in peace.

She walked up to Akash.

“I can take her.”

“It’s fine,” he replied sternly.

She froze, not liking his tone. This was her daughter that he was holding. Divya was hers and hers alone. He had no right over her. Not wanting to create a scene before everyone, she swallowed her temper.

“Do you live close by?” Prem Ji asked Sandhya.

She hesitated, as she did not want Akash to know where she lived. Though she wanted to invite Prem Ji to her house, there was no way she would let Akash step into her apartment.

“Yes. It’s pretty close, about five kilometers from here.”

“Oh, Shanti Nagar colony?”

“No, Suryodaya colony.” She gave in.

“I see. Why don’t we drop you both off?”

“Thanks, Uncle. We came with Pappu.”

Akash’s eyes narrowed.

“Pappu?” Prem Ji also had a curious expression.

“Yes, Pappu is our car,” Sandhya clarified. Akash’s brow cleared.

“Ha ha, amusing name, Alright then, let’s walk to the parking lot together,” he replied.

Sandhya saw Akash watch her intensely. He still had Divya with him and she resented it to the fullest. They bid good-bye to Miss Vijaya and started walking.

“I can take her.” She again tried to pull Divya from him.

Akash stepped back, surprising her.

“She may wake up if we switch hands now. You can take her in the parking lot,” he replied firmly.

Sandhya flinched, not liking his tone. She did not want him nearby. She did not want him looking at her and talking to her. She did not want him holding Divya.

They reached the parking lot.

“Bye, Uncle,” she said, touching his feet^6^

“God bless you.” He placed his hand on her head. Sandhya closed her eyes, trying to grasp the aura of affection around him that she used to feel around her father.

She opened Pappu’s rear door and Akash placed Divya in her seat. Divya clutched him tighter, not letting him go in her sleep. Sandhya pressed her teeth tight, her patience running out. Akash managed to pull her tiny hand out of his shirt, put her seatbelt on and shut the door.

~

Akash’s mind grew restless as he sat in his car with his dad. She had mentioned separated, not divorced. Did that mean that she was never married? The thought troubled him. No, that could not be the case. His absurd thinking would be clarified as soon as he spoke to her alone. It pained him that Divya did not have a normal life like other kids. Even though he had met her only twice, he felt a sweet bond with that little girl. He did not know why; maybe it was because she looked just like his sister Puja when she was little.

His mind turned to Sandhya. When his dad had mentioned Puja and Divya’s resemblance, he’d had this crazy thought that Divya could be his daughter. But he had soon brushed the thought aside. If she was, why would Sandhya never tell him? She would have gotten child support with which she could have led a lavish lifestyle. And would she dare to not tell him about his own child? No. That logic was absurd and needed to be ruled out.

If Divya was now two, that meant she had been in a relationship soon after their breakup. He could not understand how she could be so irresponsible. And Divya’s father, how could he not want a precious girl like Divya in his life?

“What are you thinking about, son? Ever since I saw you today, you seem to be in deep thought.”

“Nothing, Dad. I was thinking about Divya. I wonder how she will do without a father.”

“Oh, she will be fine. Times are changing. Although, I do hope Sandhya finds a good man and moves on with her life; someone who can take the place of Divya’s father. And with her intelligence and looks, it shouldn’t be difficult. There are many broad-minded young men in Mumbai, unlike in our village.”

Akash’s mind did a somersault. Was she considering Phillip to be that man? An uneasy acidic feeling engulfed him. He remembered the warmth with which she had interacted with his dad. For a moment, he thought it was the Sandhya that he had fallen madly in love with. Uneasiness gave way to guilt. Sandhya was a single mother, dealing with everything on her own. Whatever the reasons for her behavior in the past, he should have stayed in touch with her. And what had he done? He had insulted her and her family and had not even bothered to find out how she was doing. He recalled his harsh words on that fateful night, his brow knitting with remorse.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I happened to overhear your conversation with Sandhya. You said that her dad was not a good businessman. Do you know what he wanted to become, had he gone to college?”

“He aspired to be an architect. Just like you.”

Chapter 26 – Avoidance

A

kash sat with Sameer in the office cafeteria and looked around. The latest meeting invites from Sameer did not include Sandhya. He wanted to have a normal conversation with her and at least catch up with her past if nothing else. So far, she seemed to carry a shell around her and their conversations were edged with bitterness. Of course, he was also partly responsible for that. He remembered Divya, and a smile formed on his lips. Perhaps he could find something out from Sameer.

“Is Sandhya busy with some other project?” he asked Sameer casually.

“Ah yes. Didn’t I mention it to you? She is in charge of the California project with Phillip Huck. He is visiting this week,” Sameer replied.

Akash’s heart twisted.

“Phillip? Isn’t he the one that she was going out with?”

Sameer stared at Akash for a good long minute.

“She just made it up to avoid Vivek. Since he found a girlfriend, I think it is safe to let it out now.”

“What? Did she tell you that?”

“No. I just know. I have known her for more than three years. What do you expect?” Sameer said proudly with a smile.

Akash smiled back, relieved.

“And did you know Divya’s father?”

Sameer shook his head.

“If she ever got married, then I do not know about it. I have never seen the guy nor did she ever mention him. I asked her once, but she did not reveal anything. I have never pressed her since. Whoever he was, he did not deserve Sandhya and Divya. Can’t imagine what kind of creep would do that to her. I can’t even relate the person that she was then to what she is now. Totally dejected, depressed. Alok almost got her fired for non-performance, but luckily Mr. Roy saw the potential in her and trusted her capabilities. I tell you, she is one terrific fighter; I have never seen anyone with as much willpower as her.”

Akash’s heart twisted in anguish. Sandhya had gone through all this and did not call him even once. Couldn’t she have considered him as a friend at least?

Sameer continued talking.

“I suggested to Sandhya before Divya was born that she should give her to an adoption agency and then adopt her. That way she could have gotten away from the stigma that our community stamps on an unwed mother. She told me then that she would consider it, but she seemed to decide otherwise after Divya was born. I wasn’t that close to her then. It’s in the past two years that I, Priya and Sandhya got close.”

Akash was in deep thought. At the back of his mind, a doubt started forming; a doubt that he was finding hard to accept.

~

Akash asked his driver to drive to the colony were Sandhya lived. He had no rhyme or reason for going there other than that he simply wanted to see the place where she and Divya lived. He got out of his car and observed the apartment complex. It looked like a decent place, with a park in the middle where kids were playing. He started walking towards the play area, knowing that Divya could be there. As he neared the play area, he saw Divya in a light green cotton frock, swinging in the swing set and laughing. He looked around to see if Sandhya was nearby. Instead of her, he found Shanta Mausi, the lady that Miss Vijaya had introduced, watching Divya from a distance as she chatted amongst other ladies.

He leaned against a pole with folded hands and watched Divya play carelessly with her friends. His mind at peace, it was vacation time for his worn-out heart.

A boy swung high as Divya walked to the front of the swing. He would hit Divya in no time if she did not move away. Akash ran towards her shouting, “Divya, move!”

Divya turned to Akash and smiled at him before being hit. She fell down with a thud. The next second, Akash pulled a crying Divya up and placed her on his lap as he kneeled on the sand.

“Aathaash! Owie! I got an Owieeeeeeeee. It hults!” she cried out, pointing to the bad bruise on her knee.

Shanta Mausi ran towards them.

“Divya, baby. Are you alright? Why don’t you play carefully?”

An angry Akash glared at Mausi.

“She is just a little girl,” he said curtly as Divya clung to Akash, crying.

“Come to me. I have to apply medicine to you, darling.” Mausi persuaded Divya to leave Akash.

“No! You sthold me!”

Mausi looked at Akash apologetically.

“I am sorry. She is a bit stubborn sometimes,” she said and then narrowed her eyes at him.

“Are you not Akash? I met you before.”

“Yes. We met at Roja’s birthday party,” he said, smiling, his anger disappearing.

“Aah. Yes. Why don’t you come in for tea? I have to take Divya to the apartment to apply medicine anyways.”

“Sure. I would love that,” he replied, not wanting to leave a crying Divya. And he would get to see where they lived. He wondered if the lioness was in her den now and what she would do if she saw him there. They climbed the steps to the second floor of a building. Mausi opened the door and they went inside. The kitchen was located on the left side, a spacious living room at the front and two bedrooms on the right side. The apartment looked neat and clean with comfortable furniture. Except for Divya’s toys strewn around everywhere, every item was in its place—just like it used to be, in her little rented house in the village.

Shanta Mausi came out of the bedroom with a first aid box. Both consoled Divya and applied the medicine and bandage. Divya clung to Akash and rested her head on his shoulder as she whined.

“She sure seems to have gotten attached to you in a short time,” Mausi said, smiling.

“Yes. This is only our third meeting,” Akash said as he observed Divya’s pictures on the walls. “Where is Sandhya?” he asked, unable to resist.

“She went for a jog around the trail, should be back in a few minutes. She is obsessed with losing weight.”

“Losing weight? She looks perfect now,” he blurted out without thinking. He closed his mouth tight. Careful, Akash!

Shanta Mausi looked at him and smiled.

“How do you know Sandhya?”

“We are from the same village. We worked together for a short time as well. Even now, I am working on a residential complex project for their company.”

“I see. What do your parents do? Do you have any siblings?” she started asking as she put the tea kettle on the stove.

Akash wondered why she was so interested to know about him but answered all her questions patiently. He did like Shanta Mausi and the certain warmth that surrounded her.

He recalled this one time at the orphanage when Sandhya was sharing lunch with him. She had questioned him on whether he thought that she looked thin. He had dismissed her worries but had imagined her with a few pounds more. Now, she looked exactly as he had imagined. Why the heck was she trying to lose weight now, he wondered.

He carried the now sleeping Divya to her room and placed her on the bed. The small room was tastefully decorated with plush toys. 

He heard running footsteps and knew that the lioness was here.

“Mausi, what happened to Divya? Someone told me she got hurt. Whose shoes are these?” He heard her asking question after question.

Akash appeared from inside the bedroom and she froze. She wore a black tracksuit and had tied her hair in a high ponytail. Sweat streamed down her neck and her crinkled brow.

“What are you doing here?”

“Sandhya! Is that the way to talk to guests?” Mausi reprimanded.

Sandhya glared at Mausi in anger. What the heck was going on?

She walked past Akash into Divya’s bedroom, inspected the knee and breathed easy. She placed a quick kiss on the wound and then on Divya’s forehead. She walked out of the room, folded her hands and glared at Akash.

“Here is your tea, son.” Mausi gave a teacup to Akash. She had already supplied him with some tasty snacks earlier.

“Thank you,” he replied as he looked at Sandhya with amusement. It was obvious that she did not like seeing him here.

“You did not answer my question,” she demanded with gritted teeth.

“Sandhya! I invited him in,” Mausi replied sternly.

She walked up to Mausi in the kitchen angrily and whispered,

“Why did you invite him in?”

“Why not? Divya was hurt and was not leaving him. And he is from your own village,” Mausi whispered in reply.

“Yeah right. Why don’t you ask him to be here for dinner also then,” she whispered bitterly.

“Oh! I didn’t think about it!” Mausi said, scratching her head. “Son, why don’t you stay for dinner?” she asked, walking out from the kitchen before Sandhya could close her mouth.

“Actually,” Akash started. “I would love to.” He saw her looking at him with daggers in her eyes and smiled. “But maybe on some other day.”

“As you say. If Sandhya had arrived ten minutes earlier, you would have tasted her tea. She makes really good tea and I always wait for the time when I can get a cup from her hands.”

Akash’s face lost its smile, and he looked away, realizing how much he missed her tea and spending evenings with her.

“The other day, one foreigner came. What was his name? Yes—Phillip. He was praising her tea as if it was the best tea in the world.”

Akash looked at Sandhya sharply.

Phillip has been here and she even gave him tea made with her own hands, he thought bitterly.

He got up with a jerk.

“Thank you for the wonderful tea,” he said genuinely, looking at Shanta Mausi, and left. Sandhya stood glaring at the door before closing it and turning her attention to Shanta Mausi.

“What was all this?” she shouted.

“I already told you,” Mausi replied soberly. Sandhya continued to glare furiously at her.

“Fine, I won’t invite anyone in from now on. Who am I to decide whom to invite and whom not to? I am just a maid for you,” she stated as her eyes started tearing up.

Sandhya ran to Mausi.

“God, Mausi. Why do you say that? You are like a mother to me, and don’t mother and daughter fight?” she replied, hugging her.

Mausi smiled. “You always know how to butter me up. But I like this Akash. He likes you,” she started.

Sandhya loosened the hug.

“Mausi, please, I don’t want to talk about my marriage proposals again,” she said seriously and went into her room.

Mausi stared at the closed door of Sandhya’s room with worry. When will this girl move on with her life? Why won’t she let anyone into her heart?

~

Sandhya lay on her bed, trying to get some sleep. Sleep was a necessity since her responsibilities required her to be alert at all times, both in the office and at home. But her mind was resisting rest, always dragging her thoughts towards Akash. She had responded to his bitter remarks with her own bitter responses but had regretted her actions later. They were not teenagers, and she should be able to keep a lid on her anger. He had dared to cross his limits during their last confrontation at the meeting. She recalled his actions and shut her eyes tight. She knew that he had no remorse for his actions. Her brow knitted with worry as she turned onto her other side. Did he think that he could behave however he wanted with her because of their past? Her senses warned her of an impending storm. He had entered her professional life and now he was entering her personal life. What would Akash do if he found out the truth? She had no idea, but there was one thing that she was absolutely sure of: she would not let him hurt her and her daughter. She would do whatever it takes to keep him away from their peaceful lives. She sat upright and sighed, then got up and walked to Divya’s room. Her tiny form slept peacefully in the dimly lit room. Sandhya sat by her and took her little hand in her right hand. Divya automatically curled her fingers around her index finger. Sandhya caressed her fingers tenderly and kissed her hand.

She slid in beside Divya and snuggled up with her arm wrapped around her, her chest feeling the warmth of Divya’s back.

“Mumm,” Divya muttered.

“Yes, darling—it’s Mommy,” Sandhya whispered as she kissed Divya’s head and closed her eyes. She was sound asleep five minutes later.

~

Phillip Huck was visiting for a week and Sandhya was assigned to work with him until Mr. Roy found someone to go to California and lead the project. Phillip turned out to be a hilarious, easygoing and down-to-earth man and Sandhya had a tremendous time working with him. Sameer had taken over the residential complex work and she had avoided all meetings with Akash. It had been four days since she had seen Akash. If there had been a tiny thought that she had missed him, she buried it. If she had a stray thought that wondered if he would suddenly turn up at her office, she did not acknowledge it. Since it was a Friday, she had worn jeans and a light pink short-sleeved T-shirt. As soon as she entered her office, she halted, sensing something different. Why was she feeling his presence? She brushed off her thoughts.

“Hi, Sandhya!” Phillip stood at the door.

“Hey, Phillip! Come in. Have a seat.” Sandhya smiled.

Phillip strolled in and sat in the chair in front of her.

“Since I will be leaving in a day I was hoping to convince you to take up our project in California,” he said.

Sandhya smiled. “I can’t, Phillip.”

“But why? It’s a great place to be. I will make all the arrangements so that there won’t be any problems for your daughter. She will have a great time there.”

Sandhya stood by the window trying to get the right words out.

“If you are worried that you won’t get as much attention from American men as you get here, then you need not be.”

Sandhya shook her head, smiling. Somehow she could never be angry at Phillip, even if he openly flirted with her.

“It’s only for four months. You can always be back after that.”

“I cannot uproot my daughter from everyone that she knows here,” she replied, looking out the window with sadness. Perhaps life could be better in America, but she could not imagine dragging Divya or herself away from the few people that she had gotten so close to.

“Alright. Alright. Don’t look so gloomy. We’ve got a lot of work to do before I leave. So come back to cheer land please,” he said as he waved both of his hands.

They both started their grueling work and continued for a couple of hours in the closed room.

Phillip went for lunch with his friend and she was about to get something from the cafeteria when Sameer poked his head into her room.

“Hi, Sandy!”

Sandhya looked up and smiled at Sameer by the door.

“It’s Vivek’s birthday today and he invited us for lunch. He is bringing along his new ‘girlfriend’ as well,” Sameer said as he made quotes with his fingers in the air around “girlfriend.”

“Oh, wow! When did that happen?”

“Not sure, but my guess is, soon after you told him about Phillip,” he said, smirking.

Sandhya smiled.

“But I can’t, I have to go home early today.”

“It’s his birthday. Let’s not disappoint him.”

“Who will be there?” Sandhya asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible. What if Akash was also there with him? They were always hanging out together.

“As far as I know, it’s Vivek and his girlfriend.”

“Fine, let’s go,” she replied.

They both walked inside a mall where a few workers were painting a store. Sandhya froze as the smell of wet paint engulfed her and her stomach churned.

“Let’s take another route.”

“Sure. Let’s go this way,” Sameer said, guiding her to a different route

By the time they reached the restaurant, Sandhya was better but slightly dizzy. Vivek sat at a table with two young women on either side of him.

“Hey there! Thanks for coming. This is my girlfriend, Anne, and this is my sister, Aisha,” Vivek introduced.

Sandhya spoke a few words and settled beside Aisha, secretly relieved that Akash was not around. Vivek glanced behind her and smiled. Sandhya froze. She knew that he was behind her. She knew his cologne; she knew the feeling of the air changing around them when he was around. Why wouldn’t the devil leave her alone? Sure enough, she saw Akash walk up to Vivek and hug him.

“Happy birthday, man!” He then shook hands with Vivek’s girlfriend.

Acidic thoughts engulfed her as soon as she saw him. Thinking about him as the “devil” in her mind would not change how he looked. Why should he look so stunning in those navy blue jeans and the close-fitting black T-shirt? His muscular abs and arms, his sturdy stomach, were so evident in that shirt. And his hair! Why did it have to be the exact length she preferred, longer than usual, giving an otherworldly look to his face? How many times must Kavya have felt his hair with her fingers?

Sandhya closed her eyes slowly and swallowed as she tried to take control of her agony. Why was her heart always thinking about him? She could and should never have him in her life. She should stop having these thoughts. He had caused enough damage to her already, simply because she let him.

To her surprise, Aisha got up, hugged Akash and placed a kiss on his cheek. Her actions seemed to stun Akash as well. Akash walked around and shook hands with Sameer. Sandhya was too deep in thought to realize that he was extending his hand to her now.

“Hi, Sandhya,” he greeted her with his alluring deep voice as she looked up at him questioningly. She extended her hand, realizing that everyone was looking at her. She would always give a firm, brief, professional handshake to others but today, her hands were soft and delicate. His handshake was just like three years ago, firm, as he squeezed tighter than what she considered normal; she knew that it wasn’t intentional. She stared at their hands, lost in thought. After a while, Akash released her hand. She had forgotten to let go of the handshake. What was she doing? She was losing her mind.

“Are you alright?” Akash asked her.

“Huh? Yes.”

To her dismay, Akash grabbed a chair besides her and eased himself into it.

“By the way, guys, I wanted to invite you all to Priya’s baby shower party this weekend. Sorry for the late notice,” Sameer said.

Sandhya’s heart sank. Sameer had ended up doing what she was dreading the most. She had even thought of the sari, jewelry, as well as Divya’s dress to wear at Priya’s baby shower. She had requested of Priya that they could have a private baby shower just with her later after the main event but Priya would not listen. She had reluctantly agreed. Some people might not like her being there but it was Priya and Sameer that mattered to her. But now Sameer was inviting Akash to the shower. Was he so close to Akash already?

“Sorry, Sameer. We have a wedding to attend on that day,” Vivek said.

“It’s fine. I understand,” Sameer said and then looked at Akash.

Sandhya prayed that he wouldn’t come.

“I will come,” he replied. Sandhya held her forehead. Great.

“Wow, Sameer. I am impressed. I have to try hard to get him to parties. You won’t believe it but he celebrated his birthday by working twenty hours continuously,” Vivek said, laughing.

Sandhya’s heart stopped pumping. Memories flashed before her eyes. The way they had celebrated his birthday in that small house, just the two of them; the black dress, the necklace, their time on the porch—she had not forgotten a single detail.

She caught him looking at her. Their eyes locked for a few seconds before she looked down at her plate. She knew that he was remembering their time together too. Would he ever know what place he had in her heart? With a jolt she realized that she would never reveal it to him. He did not deserve even a tiny portion of her love and she knew it now better than ever.

“So what gift did you get from Annie?” Sameer asked.

“Everything that I am wearing is from her!” he replied, beaming with happiness. He seemed to have finally found his soul mate. “Check out this Rolex watch. I just love it!” he said as he displayed his watch proudly to everyone.

Sandhya smiled. Vivek seemed to genuinely love her; more importantly, he was not hiding her from everyone. He was proud to show her off to his friends.

Unlike Akash, who—who—

Her eyes secretively traveled to Akash’s wrist. He wore a sleek branded watch. She cursed herself.[_ What were you expecting, Sandhya? Were you hoping that he would still have the cheap watch that you gave him which broke before he even wore it?_]

She recalled the day when she had called him a million times and he had ruthlessly not picked up a single call.

Our backgrounds are different.

Did your parent’s leave these traits in you?

You should be happy that I am letting you go.

All the raw emotions and anger came to the forefront suddenly, making her pulse fast. Her heart was crying uncontrollable tears but there were none flowing out of her eyes for the outside world to see.

She got up with a sudden thrust, feeling suffocated.

“Hey! What happened?” Sameer stood up. Akash also stood up at the same time but did not say anything.

“I am not feeling well—a sudden headache. I’m very sorry, Vivek, but I need to rest. Enjoy your birthday.”

“It’s fine, Sandhya. I hope you feel better soon.”

“I will come with you. I have a meeting in a few minutes and I was planning to work from your office this afternoon anyways,” Akash said before Sameer opened his mouth. Sandhya had neither expected nor wanted Akash to volunteer.

“I can manage. Don’t trouble yourself,” she stated firmly, wondering why Sameer was silent.

“As I said, I have a meeting starting in a few minutes,” Akash countered, irritated.

She glared at him, annoyed, but did not reply.

“See you all,” she said, then turned around and walked fast towards her building. She heard footsteps from behind and increased her pace, knowing that Akash was following her. The powerful smell of wet paint hit her. She had forgotten to take the other path. She walked past it in a hurry with jittery legs and was finally in a clearing outside. She tried to breathe in the fresh air quickly. She clutched her tummy and dragged herself to a nearby bench before she slumped on the bench and took deep breaths.

“Sandhya?” She heard Akash’s concerned voice as she felt his hand on her shoulder. She was too dizzy to talk. Her heart was still angry, but she had no energy right now to convey it.

She held her forehead with her hand and closed her eyes. Darkness was good. She felt better and calm. She remained like that for about a minute.

“How are you feeling now?” She heard Akash and opened her eyes. She stood up and started walking towards her office without replying.

“I can drop you home if you want.”

“I thought you had a meeting now,” she replied sharply, her senses and bitterness back.

“I lied. And you very well know that.”

She paused for a moment before walking again.

“Why?”

“You know that too,” he replied calmly.

Sandhya glared at his deep, penetrating eyes, eyes that were looking at her firmly with no repentance or guilt. She looked away and continued walking.

“I will drop you home.” He did not ask this time.

“No thanks. I have an important meeting today. I feel fine now.”

“I will drop you home after your meeting.”

Sandhya glared at him in disbelief. Why did it feel like history was repeating itself?

“Thank you for your offer, but I will not need your help,” she said bluntly and shut the door of her office. She was still standing near the door, trying to control her fuming anger, when the door opened.

Akash stormed inside and closed the door.

She glared at him in warning, suddenly feeling suffocated on finding them both in a small office room. Slowly, she took a few steps away from him.

“Are you avoiding me?” He was still sounding calm.

She did not reply.

“I was just trying to help. Why is it that you are scared to even talk to me?” he asked, his patience withering away.

“I am not scared.”

“Then what is it? Why don’t you want me to drop you off?”

“You know why.”

Akash remained silent for a few seconds.

“I don’t see any harm in treating each other normally.”

Sandhya took a deep breath, and replied.

“I don’t care. I don’t want you in my life.”

Fury slowly built up within Akash. This was not the Sandhya that he knew. She would think twice before making scathing remarks like this.

“All I was asking was for us to be amicable with each other, and you dare to speak to me like this! You are a living example of what success does to a person,” he declared with venomous eyes.

To his astonishment, she chuckled.

“Really? Why do I feel that it is the disappointment that you, Mr. Rai, are not in a position to hire or fire a thousand people like me now?”

Akash gasped. She remembered. She remembered each and every bitter remark spoken between them. He took a few steps and closed the distance between them. Grabbing her arms, he shook her, his eyes piercing through her. “I told you many times not to refer to me like that. I understand that you remember the bitterness. Do you remember anything else?” His voice rose. He pushed her against the wall and looked straight at her, his face an inch away from hers.

“Do you remember telling me that you belonged to me?” he whispered coarsely.

Sandhya looked at him, stunned. Her shock turned to bitterness and there was no fear in her eyes.

“I remember every damn thing that you and I said to each other. It is you who are forgetting that you were the one who did not want us to be together,” she said between clenched teeth.

“I was angry, damn it! What would you expect me to do after—?”

“Don’t you think it’s too late for us to have this discussion?” she said as she wriggled her arms free and took a step sideways.

Akash stood still for a minute.

“Fine. Just answer this one question. Who is Divya’s father?”

Chapter 27 – Want

A

stunned Sandhya stood rooted to the ground, hoping Akash would not notice how hard her heart was pumping. She forced a laugh.

“You really think that the world revolves around you, don’t you? You are scared that you might be Divya’s father?”

Akash narrowed his eyes.

“Does it kill you to know that I moved on with another man within a few days of leaving you?” she said bluntly, observing the look on his face. She did not know that revenge could be this sweet. “I wish she was your daughter though. Imagine how easy my life would have been with all the child support.”

Akash’s face seemed disturbed as he took a step back and looked away.

“I wish Divya was my daughter too,” he finally whispered.

Her heart sank. She had not expected that answer from him. She should be happy that he believed her, but she wasn’t. He stood deep in wistful thought for a few seconds before he turned around and walked away.

Sandhya looked at her sweaty hands, guilt engulfing her from all sides. How long could they go on like this? She closed her eyes, breathed deeply and came to a resolution.

With shaking hands, she dialed Roy, sir’s number.

“Hi, Sandhya, what’s up?”

“Hello, sir. I want to lead the California project.”

“But Sandhya, you did not want to move to California.”

“I am prepared to move Sir. It will do me and Divya good in the long run.”

“Well, I am happy that you took this decision. How soon can you move?”

“As soon as possible.”

~

Akash sat on his bedroom’s balcony with his drink. She was right. He could not accept that she had moved on so easily. She had every right to move on with her life. For the millionth time, he wondered what her explanation could have been, three years ago. Why couldn’t she be happy with him? He tried to recall each and every wrong thing he might have done. He had behaved stupidly at the village president’s daughter’s wedding, had shouted at her for paying for those red bangles in public. Did she resent him because of his behavior, his possessiveness? He had hurt her that night, when he broke up with her. She had tried to hide her pain, but he knew that her arm was hurting. He had squished his concern then, believing that she had been unfaithful to him. Why did that thought seem absurd now?

He swallowed the lump in his throat as he realized what he wanted. He wanted Sandhya. He wanted Divya. Even if Sandhya did not love him, she could let him be with her, support her. He could live with that much for this life. Maybe, just maybe, someday, she would love him. Could he not have a glimmer of hope? He had hurt his Sandhya, the woman he had wanted to protect with his life. He had to know the real Sandhya. But how? The look on her face in her office, it had no love for him. She had bluntly said that she did not want him in her life. She had rejected him. Rejection. What a horrible, terrible feeling it was. She had smashed his heart into a million pieces when she said that.

If only Divya had been my daughter, he thought morosely as he poured himself another glass of whisky.

~

Akash arrived at the posh apartment of Sameer and Priya on time, not wanting to miss the opportunity to see Sandhya and Divya. The baby shower was a traditional ceremony and all the women were dressed in rich, colorful saris. Priya looked lovely beside Sameer, wearing a rich dark blue silk sari and surrounded by her parents, in-laws, relatives and close friends. He was searching for Sandhya when he saw Divya run into the living room from the kitchen, wearing a cute gold-colored blouse and a long purple-colored lehenga^7^ made from rich, silky material that reached her ankles. It was the prettiest kids’ traditional dress he had ever seen. Not noticing Akash, she disappeared into a room where other kids were playing. Disappointed, he sat on the sofa and wondered where Sandhya was. After ages, Sandhya came out of the kitchen with numerous food items arranged on a huge platter and his eyes brightened. The next instant, disappointment filled him. She wore a salwar kameez and not a sari as he had hoped. No doubt she was beautiful in the exquisite yellow-and-green dress, but his heart wasn’t satisfied. He sat right in front of her but she seemed not to have noticed him. Priya sat in a grand chair behind a large decorated table while Sandhya and a few others ladies started filling the table with sweets, fruits, flowers and other items.

The elderly women were sneaking weird glances at Sandhya. The guests spoke with each other but no one in particular was speaking to her, except for Priya and Sameer. A few young men observed her, but their eyes did not have admiration for her. It did not take long for Akash to realize that she was not wanted in this ceremony by anyone other than Sameer and Priya. He felt the pain that she was going through as she continued to smile for Priya and Sameer’s sake.

She whispered something to Priya and stood by the kitchen door when the ceremony started. All the married women were participating in the ceremony, standing around Priya. Priya glanced apologetically towards Sandhya who smiled back at her.

She still had not glanced at him and Akash wondered if she was purposefully avoiding him. Not being acquainted with most people there, he was getting frustrated in the crowd and Divya was also nowhere to be seen. The door opened and to Akash’s astonishment, Phillip walked in with a big bouquet and a bigger smile. He spoke a few words with Sameer and Priya, offered the bouquet and then smiled at Sandhya.

She returned his smile as he stood beside her and both whispered continuously. Bile formed in Akash’s throat. Divya ran out of the room into Sandhya’s arms, crying. Sandhya pulled her up in her arms and tried to soothe her. All three of them walked past Akash towards the balcony. Akash was very sure now that Sandhya was purposefully ignoring him. The room was not that big to not notice him. His heart increased its pace.

A few minutes later, Phillip walked back in with Divya and Sandhya followed them.

“Aathaash!” Divya ran smiling to him.

Akash smiled and hugged her. This time, Sandhya would not have the choice of ignoring him. Phillip looked at Akash and Divya inquisitively.

“I think I might have seen you somewhere.” Phillip extended his hand to Akash.

“You must have seen me in the office.” Akash shook his hand, forcing a smile and observing his attractive blue eyes.

“Oh yes. I remember seeing you with Sameer. Nice to meet you. I am Phillip Huck,” he said, smiling genuinely. He seemed like a good fellow; if not for Sandhya, they could even have been friends.

Akash took out a packet and gave it to Divya.

“What is it, Aathaash? A Balbie doll? Fol me?” Divya asked with excited, wide eyes.

Akash nodded.

“Thanthuu!” She hugged him tighter.

Sandhya observed them with a disturbed look on her face and walked up to him.

“Hi. This was not necessary, but thank you. If you don’t mind, I need to take her for dinner.”

“I am not hungly,” Divya said, not getting off from Akash.

“Divya, you should eat on time,” Akash said as he pulled her up and made her stand on the floor. Sandhya held a reluctant Divya’s hand and walked out of the apartment with Phillip towards the open area where dinner was being served. Akash wondered if there was truly nothing between Sandhya and Phillip; they were always together. He had hoped to spend some time with Sandhya but that was not happening. Dejected, he too went out to have dinner and looked around.

Sandhya, Phillip and Divya were having dinner at a table. He sat at another table a few feet away and watched them as he sipped his soda. He had lost his appetite.

Priya and Sameer stopped by Akash’s table.

“Hi, Akash! Thanks for coming. Did you have dinner?”

“Yes,” Akash lied.

“Why don’t you have some ice cream?” Priya handed him an ice cream cup and plastic spoon before he could protest.

“And let me clear the table for you,” Priya said sweetly as she picked up the exquisite spoon that was skillfully wrapped in a napkin from the table.

“Sure.” Akash forced a smile, though he was in no mood for ice cream. After more small talk, they moved on to another table.

Sandhya, Phillip and Divya looked good together; so good that his eyes and his heart hurt. He sipped his can of soda and felt it burn his mouth. He slowly swallowed the liquid and pressed his teeth together, anger and agony rising within him. She was slipping away, and he was silently watching it happen.

He took a deep breath; he did not care about what was wrong or right now; he wanted her back and he would have her back.

“Click.” He broke the spoon without his knowledge. Cursing, he threw the pieces away and continued watching them. Sandhya seemed busy chatting with Phillip and assisting Divya with her food. He sat directly in front of her, yet she had not looked straight ahead once.

Wait a minute! She was looking at him now. What was that look on her face? It was not the usual look filled with confrontation and bitterness. This time it was FEAR. Why was she afraid? What was she afraid of?

Once the dinner was over, Phillip got up to greet other people and Divya escaped to play, leaving Sandhya alone at her table. This was his opportunity to talk to her.

Just when Akash got up, she also got up and started walking fast towards the apartment.

Akash quickly caught up to her.

“Sandhya.”

“Yes?” She did not stop walking.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Go ahead.” She had almost reached the door.

He caught her arm and stopped her.

“Alone,” he said sharply.

There was a brief hesitation within her.

“Go ahead.” She stood still, facing away from him.

Akash understood that this was the only time she was giving him. He removed his grasp on her arm.

“Sandhya, I know that you must have reasons for whatever happened in the past.” He paused to see her reaction. She stood still.

“I will not blame you. I want to get to know the real you.”

This time she turned around to look at him.

“The real me?” She raised her eyebrows. “You think I am not real?”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean that I want to get to know you again,” he tried explaining.

She stood staring at him, her feet frozen to the ground.

“I know I have been harsh with you. I am not perfect. But I cannot deny to myself any longer that I—I still want you, Sandhya.” His eyes traveled from her eyes to her lips and back to her eyes.

Sandhya stared at him, astonished, for a few seconds. She smiled wistfully.

“I get it now. I am a single mother, boycotted by this society, living a life on my own. You think that I am an easy catch,” she said calmly.

Akash took a step back, stunned.

“What are you talking about? Why—why would you say that?” he screamed in frustration, running a hand through his hair. His face turned vengeful.

“How could a woman with a twisted brain like yours ever think straight?” he stated with clenched teeth and left.

~

“That was a risky move, Priya. What if Akash had noticed that you were practically trying to get rid of the silverware from his table? I saw what you did,” a tired Sameer asked Priya as he relaxed on the sofa after the party.

“Oh please! You have no idea how much my mom spent on that set; I couldn’t see my precious spoon being destroyed in front of my eyes. I am pretty sure he did not notice anything. He was so lost in giving envious looks to Sandhya. I was practically counting in my head after I handed him the plastic spoon. Believe it or not, the poor spoon saw its end by the time I had counted ten.”

“Hmm—I tend to agree that your analysis is right, Priya. There is something between them. The other day, Akash was asking too many questions about Sandhya and for some reason, I gave him all the answers that I knew. But I wonder if I did the right thing now. I mean, he seems to be interested in her, but Sandhya doesn’t. We don’t know much about him, you know.”

“Let’s find out then. I think he is perfect for our Sandhya. Good looks and I also like his nature so far. He seems a bit jealous but isn’t that a sign of liking someone? As for Sandhya, she may seem like she is not interested, but she is always like that. She hardly shows her true feelings to anyone,” Priya replied thoughtfully.

“There was something else that crossed my mind,” Sameer said, deep in thought.

“What?”

“Never mind.” Sameer brushed it off. He had this absurd thought that Divya could be Akash’s daughter.

~

Sandhya sat at the dining table as she watched Shanta Mausi work while humming a song. She did not know how to tell her about her decision, but she had to. She only had two days to pack and prepare for her move. How was she going to live without her? Sandhya’s heart sank at the thought. She still had to tell everyone about her decision to move to California. She was holding it back because she did not want Akash to know about it. She recalled the way Akash had stared at her at Priya’s baby shower. His continuous glances had frustrated her and she kept telling herself that she needed to go through this agony for just three more days and he would be out of her life forever. The spiteful, envious expression on his face had terrified her. It was obvious that he was still obsessed with her and would not leave her alone if she remained in Mumbai. There was no doubt that she had made the right decision. It was time to let Mausi know.

“Mausi?”

“Yes?”

“I have to move to America for four months.”

Mausi stopped her work and turned around, stunned.

“What? You are kidding, right?”

“I am serious, Mausi. The pay is good and I couldn’t say no.”

“The pay is good? What will you do with all the money that your stupid company pays you? It won’t get you true happiness. What are you running away from? That company is the worst thing that happened to you. If I see your boss, I don’t know what I will do to him. He wants to send a young woman with a kid to a foreign land?”

“Mausi, it’s my decision. And it’s not as scary as you think. We will be fine.”

“Why are you doing this to yourself? Why can’t you accept anyone into your life and live happily? Can’t you think of Divya at least, if not yourself? Doesn’t she need a father?”

Sandhya listened silently; she had prepared herself for this outburst.

Her silence made Mausi even more furious.

“Do whatever you want. Spoil your life. No one is good enough for you. So many good men showed interest in you. Who could be better than that—that Akash? He was behaving so respectfully despite being so wealthy.”

The mention of his name caused a dormant volcano to erupt inside Sandhya.

“That Akash is the whole reason why I am leaving you all!” Sandhya screamed and got up, fuming.

Mausi was dumbfounded.

“What do you mean?”

Sandhya looked at her in agony.

“He is the one, Mausi,” she whispered.

“He is the one?”

“He is the one.”

Mausi closed her mouth in shock.

“He is the one!” Mausi exclaimed with her eyes wide in shock. “He looked so nice and charming on the outside,” she blurted out bitterly as she recalled Akash’s face.

Sandhya smiled wistfully.

“Yes. I also fell for his sweet words and charm. I was so stupid…I thought my whole world could start and end in his eyes.”

“Maybe all is not lost. I will talk to him and convince him to marry you. He may not be a perfect person but he could change. You have to think about Divya too.”

Sandhya’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I know, Sandhya. It doesn’t sound fair. But a woman has to compromise. That is just how life is.”

“Mausi! He is married!” Sandhya shouted as she got up from her table, hoping that Mausi would see sense.

“What?” Mausi screamed and started cursing Akash nonstop. Sandhya had to literally beg her to stop. Finally Mausi sobered a bit.

“Is he causing you trouble again? Is that why you are leaving?”

“Not yet. But I know he will soon; I know him well enough to be sure about that.”

Mausi recalled how Akash had said that Sandhya looked perfect and her blood boiled. Sandhya was right, he was trouble. Mausi’s family consisted of her husband, a son and a college-going daughter, but neither of her children were in Mumbai. Her son was earning enough so she need not work anymore. She continued to work only at Sandhya’s, as she had grown attached to her and was bored at home. Her husband was a taxi driver and would be out of the house for his job in the mornings and evenings.

Sandhya was thankful that Mausi had not stopped working for her. She had filled the void of not having any family for her and Divya.

“When do you have to leave?” Mausi asked, wiping her tears.

“Tuesday.”

~

Tuesday evening

Mausi sat in a corner in Sandhya’s living room and wiped her tears. They were gone. She and her husband had left Sandhya and Divya at the airport and bid them good-bye. Sandhya had hugged her for a long time. Mausi knew how difficult it was for Sandhya to leave her and everyone else, even though she looked tough and would not cry. Her husband had surprised her by offering to drive them to the airport. Perhaps his initial contempt towards her being a single mother had mellowed a bit. Divya had hugged and kissed them happily, not knowing what she was leaving behind.

Mausi recalled the day when she met Sandhya for the first time.

Sandhya was in her seventh month of pregnancy when she had hired her for household work. Unlike her other customers, Sandhya was completely silent. She would instruct her about what she wanted to be done and would lose herself in her work or yoga.

Mausi had easily deciphered that she was having a child out of wedlock. She could not deny that she disliked Sandhya in the beginning. How could she end up in a shameful situation like that? Her daughter assisted her after school sometimes, but she made sure that she never came to Sandhya’s apartment. She was afraid of the bad influence that she might get from her company. Her husband was even more conservative than her and demanded that she stop working for Sandhya.

One day, she was trying to soothe her crying daughter on the phone while working at Sandhya’s. Her husband had a good marriage proposal for her. She was about to finish high school and would soon be eighteen but she had always wanted to study further.

Mausi was torn between her husband and daughter. They were already facing difficulty in paying for their son’s fees and the marriage proposal was very promising.

She switched off her cell phone and continued to work.

“Does your daughter study well?” It was the first time Sandhya had spoken about anything other than the chores to Mausi.

“Yes. She does.”

“Then what’s the problem? Why don’t you send her to college?”

Mausi wondered why she wouldn’t mind her own business.

“Age-old problem. Money,” Mausi replied curtly.

“But there are lots of scholarships for good students.”

As if she cares, Mausi thought bitterly and did not speak further. She hated people giving advice and behaving as if they knew everything. Maybe she should consider not working here anymore.

The next day, when she turned up for work and started her chores, Sandhya had walked up to her and handed her a stack of papers.

“What is this?”

“These are applications for scholarships that I know. Give them to your daughter. She will know what to do.”

“All this is only on paper. It doesn’t work in reality,” Mausi replied harshly as she put the papers on the countertop.

“It worked for me,” Sandhya replied calmly and went into her room.

Mausi did not want to give any false hopes to her dear daughter. However, she did take those papers and gave them to her. Her daughter was excited, seeing the opportunity and the support from her mother. She secretly applied for the scholarships without telling her father.

Mausi’s opinion about Sandhya changed the day her daughter excitedly told her that she had got the scholarship. The next day, she made kheer at her house and took a portion for Sandhya.

She had wondered though if it was appropriate, since she was a maid.

“I have something for you.” She placed the bowl of kheer reluctantly before her.

Sandhya had looked up at her without moving for a long time.

“I am sorry,” Mausi said as she took the bowl back in her hands, thinking that she did not want food from a servant’s house.

Sandhya caught her arm.

“For me?” She spoke with difficulty.

Mausi nodded. She saw Sandhya’s eyes fill up with tears before she looked away and took the bowl of dessert into her room and locked herself inside.

Mausi was shocked. For the first time, she understood what this young girl must be going through.

From that day onwards, both of them opened up slowly to each other and eventually developed a sweet bond. She and her daughter managed to convince her husband to send her to college, now that money was not a problem anymore. Her daughter was on her way to becoming a doctor now.

~

Akash paced in his room. He had stopped himself from trying to meet Sandhya ever since she had made that nasty remark about him. How could she think so cheap of his love for her? It pained him that she didn’t understand him. Why did she hate him? Why couldn’t Divya be his daughter? Why did he feel such a deep affection for her?

A thought entered his brain.

What if—what if she is lying?

No, she wouldn’t do that. She hates me but she is not that hardhearted. She would not resort to this much injustice, his mind said.

He remembered how freely she had acted with Phillip and how she had avoided him. What did she think of herself? That he did not have any choice? There were countless women who would agree to be with him. Aisha had been swooning over him ever since he had stepped into this city. One call and she would be at his doorstep in a few minutes, willing to be in his arms. With a swift motion, he switched on his cell. He found Aisha’s number and was about to press the call button. His finger resisted. He threw his phone on his bed as he ran his hand over his head in frustration. He sat on his bed and closed his eyes.

“Sandhya,” he whispered in agony.

[_“Avoid me however much you want. You will come back to me, _]he thought to himself, grinding his teeth. He sat down on the desk and opened his laptop. He saw an unread email and read its contents. His eyes popped out. Sandhya was taking over the California project and was relocating! She would no longer be involved in the residential project!

What! Why? She was going away?

The disturbing thought that Divya could be his daughter entered his mind again. No! He would not let them go anywhere!

He stormed out of his house, got in his car and drove as fast as he could to her apartment. He banged on her door until Mausi opened it.

“Sandhya!” he shouted impatiently.

“Sandhya is not here,” Mausi replied sternly, giving a cold look to Akash.

“What do you mean she is not here?” he shouted in frustration.

“She is GONE! To California,” she shouted back.

“GONE? Why? Why?” he screamed.

“What the hell did you expect her to do, you fool? After what you did! I can’t believe that you have the guts to come here like this. Men like you should be beaten up and locked up in a police station.”

Akash stared at her in disbelief.

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“Is there anything else you need to do? Getting her pregnant and leaving her on the road was not enough? Do you even have any idea what she had to go through?” Mausi blasted.

Akash froze.

She looked the other way as she continued to pour out her anger.

“I don’t want to see your face. If she had told me before, I would not even have let you drink a drop of water from my hands. Everyone points a finger at her. No neighbors talk to her. They have somehow accepted Divya but never her. All because of you! You men get away with everything; it’s always the woman who has to deal with consequences.”

Mausi turned around. Akash was not there.

Chapter 28 – Truth

A

kash dragged his feet to his car with difficulty. His heart felt like it had been dipped in burning acid.

“Getting her pregnant and leaving her…”

Mausi’s words swirled in his head again and again as he fumbled to open the car door. A storm raged in his mind. Sandhya had been pregnant when they separated? Why had she hidden this from him? Why had she suffered the stigma of being an unwed mother all this time? He would have accepted her and Divya. Was she afraid that he would question the fact that Divya was his daughter? But she could have easily proven the truth using a DNA test.

Was it his fault that she had never informed him about this?

His mind wandered to Divya. His daughter; she was his daughter! An overwhelming warm sensation swept over the acidity in his heart. A tear escaped from his eye as he leaned on his car with one leg bent, looked up at the sky and closed his eyes. He recalled Divya’s face and her tiny fingers that had tugged him when he first met her. More tears escaped his eyes. Why hadn’t he figured this out sooner, especially with her resemblance to Puja?

He had asked Sandhya point blank and yet she had lied to him. She had held his daughter away from him for over two years? Now he would never know how it felt to hold her when she was born; when she walked first; when she spoke her first baby words.

He wiped his tears. He was desperate to touch her soft cheeks, to hear her say “Aathaash” in her sweet voice, to hug her.

Based on what Mausi had said, they were already headed to California and were enroute on an airplane right now. But he would get them back as soon as possible. As soon as he gets in touch with Sandhya, he would convince her to come back.

He drove back to his house with shaking hands, reminding himself to be calm until his daughter was in his arms.

~

Sandhya opened the curtains of Hotel Marriott in downtown Los Angeles. They would stay there for a week before moving into an apartment. Divya had become restless and hyper towards the end of the journey. She had said five times that she wanted to go ‘home.’ Little did she know that this city would be her home for a long time. She was sound asleep now, clutching the Barbie doll that Akash had given her. The kid had no idea that her mother was trying to get rid of all the memories attached to the person who had given it to her.

Phillip had picked them up from the airport and had been very helpful so far. She knew no one here and had to start her life from scratch, once again. Sandhya admired that view of the city. She was here. Away from her beloved country; away from her beloved city; away from the few people that loved her—all because of one person who would not leave her alone.

She lay on her bed. More than anyone else, she missed Shanta Mausi. She had been with her through thick and thin for the past two plus years and had done everything for her like her own mother. Even scolded Sandhya freely with no inhibitions, just like you would with your own children. Her own aunt had not checked on her even once for the last three years. It’s weird how relationships develop in this world.

She sighed, depressed and reminded of her initial dark days in Mumbai, alone at the women’s hostel. She couldn’t let it get to her; she had to think about Divya. It was only a matter of time until Divya would be frustrated and demand that they go ‘home.’ She had to do something to get out of this gloominess for both of them.

She opened her laptop and searched for malls and play areas in a walkable distance from the hotel. Her fingers fidgeted before she opened an email window. It was Asha’s email, her best friend from college. Asha and Ashok were the only two people that she was acquainted with in the United States. All she needed to do was email Asha to get back in touch with her. She had been disconnected from Asha, Ashok and Dhiren in the last three years, though they were some of the few friends she had.

Her phone buzzed. It was Phillip.

“Hi, Sandhya. How’s it going?”

“Fine so far, Phillip.”

“You need to find daycare for Divya.” Phillip went on talking about everything that needed to be done. Once the call was over, Sandhya breathed in relief. She was amazed by how supportive Phillip was. He had a solution to all the issues that had been bothering her a little while ago. Perhaps he understood the loneliness and had invited her to his home that evening. He had told her that he had a three-year-old son. Divya would be happy to be around another kid.

In the evening, Phillip picked them up to take them to his home. He had a beautiful house in a suburban area. Sandhya stood in awe of the open floor plan, the cherry wood hardwood floors, and the contemporary furniture—almost everything about his house. She especially loved the kitchen and the appliances in it.

“How do you like it?” Phillip asked as he finished the tour of his house on the main level.

“It’s beautiful,” Sandhya said, smiling, her mind cheerful to some extent again. Divya ran around, freely playing with the toys in the living room.

A little boy ran down the stairs.

“Adam, come here,” Phillip called out.

Sandhya kneeled by the cute boy with the same ocean-blue eyes as his dad.

“Hi, Adam. I got something for you,” she said as she got out a toy car from her bag.

“Thank you!” Adam smiled at her shyly and joined Divya to play with his new car.

“And that’s my mom, Andrea.” He pointed at an elderly woman with brown hair who was also climbing down the stairs. Sandhya was about to shake her hand but his mom surprised her by hugging her warmly. She smiled and returned the hug. She wanted to ask about his wife, but held back. They all had a pleasant time having dinner.

“Does your mother live with you?” she asked.

“Yes. She used to live on her own. But when I got divorced, I asked her to come and stay with me. My ex-wife and I have joint custody of Adam. He comes over on the weekend and stays with his mom on the weekdays. She had something going on this week, so I have him for the whole week.”

“I see.”

After spending that evening with Phillip and his family, Sandhya felt a little more at home in the unfamiliar country. She returned to the hotel room and put a sleeping Divya to bed.

She opened her laptop and gasped. There were three emails from Akash.

All of them said “Call me immediately. Need to talk. Urgent.”

Sandhya’s heart pounded as she held her forehead. The cheerfulness was replaced with apprehension and fear.

Why? Why wouldn’t he leave her alone? She had come as far away as possible on this earth from him and yet he wouldn’t leave her be?

She took a deep breath, selected his emails and pressed the delete button.

After a few minutes, her phone buzzed. The number was unknown and only Phillip had her new number. Was it Akash calling her? Her hand trembled as she stopped herself from answering the call. Soon, it went to voicemail.

“Sandhya. This is Akash. Call me. I need to talk to you.”

Sandhya threw the cell phone away and threw herself on the bed, her face pressing down on the pillow, her hands digging into the mattress. The phone rang three more times in the next five minutes before she switched it off in frustration. He would have stopped her from coming here by hook or crook if she had told him. She had hoped that he would let go of them if they were far away from him. Even though she wasn’t afraid of Akash, and was confident that she could handle him, he did disturb her. She hated to admit that she still found him to be attractive. Somewhere, somehow, a tiny part of her still desired him. For the first time, now that there was no risk, she let herself admit that there wasn’t a single day or night when she had not thought about him ever since he came back into her life. Yes, she could not deny that she was attracted to a married person who had in the past convinced her that he loved her and then thrown her out of his life like trash. There was no question of falling into his trap again. But the problem was, there was still an inner war going on, when there should have been none. Being far away from him would definitely help her in keeping a clear and sane head.

~

Akash called Sandhya for the hundredth time. Why would she not pick up the phone or answer his emails? Frustration built within him. He wanted to tell her that he knew the truth and wanted to persuade her to come back. But he did not want to do that in email or via a voice message.

Why didn’t she respond? Should he let Sameer know that he was Divya’s dad? Maybe he would try to put some sense in her head. He backed off from the idea after some thought. She hadn’t told him about his own daughter even though she could gain a lot of child support. She went away to California and had cut off all communication with him. It meant only one thing. That she hated him; she did not want to be with him and she did not want to share Divya with him. This was all just speculation but he couldn’t figure out any other plausible reason. If he told her now that he knew that he was Divya’s dad, she may never return. Forcing her to get back would be a difficult task since she was in a different country. He had to be careful.

Finally, he decided to hire someone to monitor her movements. The good thing was, he had money, which meant that he could do anything—well, almost anything.

~

Divya and Adam ran excitedly into the sand. They reached a spot by the beach that seemed untouched and pure. It was Sandhya’s second day in America and Phillip had taken them to a nearby beach. Both kids ran into the water and Sandhya ran after them, afraid that they would go too far.

“Relax, the water is only two feet deep for a long distance,” Phillip said, smiling.

Her hands started fidgeting. The sun would be setting soon and she did not want to witness it.

“You know, I just love watching the sun set from here. This is my favorite spot,” Phillip said.

Sandhya forced a smile, not wanting to disappoint him.

The sky turned into a colorful array of yellow, red and blue.

Sandhya closed her eyes, perturbed, as if…as if Akash’s dark eyes were still watching her here. She dismissed her thoughts. [_Forget him. You don’t have to feel guilty, Sandhya. You are not doing anything wrong, _]she told herself.

“So what do you do as a hobby?” Phillip asked.

“Don’t have much time to do stuff, but I used to love gardening. Lately, I have started to enjoy dancing.”

“Really! What kind of dance do you like?”

“Mostly Bollywood but I also learned some salsa. What about you?”

“I love dancing too. Other than that, I like swimming and outdoor fun,” he replied, beaming, and continued, “Tell you what! There is a dance club near my house. I will take you there tomorrow. You will have a nice time.”

“Oh no! I cannot. Sorry. Divya—”

“My mother can take care of Divya and Adam. Look at them, they are getting along so well, Divya will be fine. I swear that you would love that experience. We will just go for a couple of hours.”

“But—”

“No buts.”

Sandhya wondered if she was being too lenient with Phillip. But, he had been nothing short of a gentleman so far. Perhaps he was getting interested in her. How else could she explain that Phillip wanted to spend every evening with her and Divya? Though uneasy about the whole thing, she didn’t object.

~

It was her third day in Los Angeles. Sandhya sat on the bed of her hotel room and checked her outfit. The sleeveless red dress reached just a little above her knees. No doubt, it was gorgeous and she had fallen in love with it as soon as she had seen it. It had looked even lovelier when she had tried it on. She wondered if this could be called a date with Phillip, even though they had never used that word. She quickly put on the dress and looked at herself in the mirror. It did look very good on her, although she was a little too exposed to be comfortable around Phillip. She cursed herself. No use thinking about it now. She quickly tied her hair up in a french twist. Nervousness gripped her. She was going to be out in a dress like this in a dance club in an unknown city in an unknown country with Phillip. Once she was ready and waiting for Phillip, her eyes wandered to her phone and laptop.

There were no phone calls or emails from Akash since the first few times that he had called. It relieved her and made her apprehensive at the same time.

Why are you so worried, Sandhya? You should only be afraid if you have made some mistake. You are not doing anything wrong by going out with Phillip. Maybe this is your chance to get rid of that man from your life once and for all. Maybe you need to let someone else into your heart so that there is no place for Akash in there, she thought, frustrated.

~

Phillip got out of his car and stood still for a couple of seconds. Sandhya blushed uncomfortably as she held Divya’s hand in hers.

“You look amazing,” Phillip stated, his eyes admiring Sandhya from head to foot.

“Thanks.”

Phillip looked no less handsome in his blazer, his brownish hair set in a stylish sort of way.

“I will not say no if you want to praise my looks.” Phillip smirked.

She chuckled nervously.

“You look very sweet too, little princess.” Phillip smiled as he picked up Divya playfully.

They dropped Divya at Phillip’s house and headed towards the club.

Sandhya loved the dance club; the bright lights, the music, the ambience, the people, everything made her mood cheerful. After a few minutes of small talk, Phillip forced her to go to the dance floor with him. He took her hand in his and both started moving to the beat. Sandhya still sensed Akash’s dark eyes glaring at her. Out of nowhere, anger rose within her.

I wouldn’t care even if you were right here, Mr. Rai. Who are you to stop me? Why shouldn’t I move on? This is my life and I will live it the way I want to, she screamed within herself.

Her eyes glowed with determination, her body got more confident in the moves. Phillip was surprised by the sudden change in her demeanor. He was a great dancer and rarely had the opportunity to dance with someone who was as expert as him at dancing. He slid his hand around her waist and twirled her around. They both rocked the dance floor as if they were the only couple on the whole stage, song after song. Sandhya hardly smiled the whole time. Her eyes blazed and she danced to her heart’s content with zeal and energy. When the music ended, the floor resounded with claps from all around.

There, Akash! You are no one to me. You have no place in my heart or head, she told an imaginary Akash.

She looked at Phillip and came out of her trance. He was breathing hard and smiling at her. She swallowed the lump in her throat, realizing that she was dancing to prove a point to herself rather than enjoying this moment with Phillip. It was just so wrong on her part.

They sat at their table to have dinner.

“That was some dancing, Sandhya. You are really good. It’s been years since I danced like that with anyone,” Phillip said admiringly.

Sandhya was lost in her thoughts and did not answer.

“Sandhya,” he prompted to get her out of her thoughts.

“Hmm?”

“What’s bothering you?” he asked seriously.

“Nothing. It’s just…I am trying to forget something,” she replied truthfully.

Phillip stared at her for a long time.

“I understand. You will feel better soon—I promise,” he said, placing his hand on hers for a second to give her assurance.

Sandhya smiled at him genuinely.

“Thanks, Phillip. You are a true friend.”

“Friend?” he chuckled.

Sandhya looked at him, unsure, her cheeks a bright pink.

~

Phillip carried a sleeping Divya up to their hotel room, placed Divya on the bed and headed out. Sandhya came out of the room to bid him good-bye. There was a man at the far end of the corridor speaking on a phone.

“Thanks for the wonderful evening.”

“Don’t thank me, Sandhya. I enjoyed it much more than you. You are an awesome dance partner. We should do this more, what do you say?” he asked casually.

“Sure,” she said before thinking or processing his question. She regretted her answer immediately. He was looking at her differently, his intent eyes a deeper shade of blue. She instantly knew what was going on in his mind and felt uneasy.

“Phillip, I—” she tried to speak but before she could finish, he had placed a quick kiss on her cheek.

“Have a great night.” He smiled. “And don’t think too much,” he shouted as he disappeared from the corridor.

Sandhya kept staring in his direction, stunned. He had taken the liberty of kissing her. She was surprised, but not angry, since this was normal in the Unites States. But the fact was, Phillip was not going out with her as a friend anymore. She needed to decide if it was right to continue going out with him. There was none of the excitement that she had initially felt when she had met Akash. But Phillip was a good person, a gentleman actually. She might eventually have feelings for him if she went out with him more.

~

Akash paced in his room, waiting for the phone call. Even though he looked calm on the outside, he was raging with anger inside. It had hurt him to know that Sandhya was spending almost every evening with Phillip. He opened his email and checked the pictures that he had received. Divya at Phillip’s house. Divya at the beach. Divya. His Divya! When would he get to see her?

He had a plan in place to get her back to India, but was hoping that he did not need to implement it. Just then his phone rang. Maybe there was a better option.

“Yes,” he said sharply.

“Hi, they went to a dance club today.” The agent started giving specific details about Sandhya’s whereabouts to Akash.

“Was Divya there with them?”

“No.”

Akash’s jaw tightened.

“Did she dance?”

Pause on the other end.

“Yes.”

“Alone?” he asked, but regretted asking immediately.

“No. With Phillip. I have pictures and videos.”

“No! I mean, no need to send me the pictures—and the videos,” Akash exclaimed suddenly.

“Oh! But I have already emailed them.”

Pause.

“It’s fine. Your full payment will be sent tomorrow.”

Akash remained still for the next five minutes before he reluctantly opened his email. His hands trembled with hesitation as he moved the laptop’s mouse to point to the attachment.

He took a deep breath and double clicked it. His eyes burned as he saw the first picture. She was leaning backwards, with Phillip grabbing her waist and slightly bent towards her. He was smiling at her and she was looking at him with a certain zeal. He mustered the courage to move over to the next picture, and the next, and the next.

That dress was killer. Any man would fall for her in that. Phillip’ admiring eyes were all over her. He saw the last picture and time stopped at that moment.

Phillip was kissing her.

With a swift motion, Akash closed the laptop. Half an hour later, he lay on his bed, two full bottles of alcohol by his bed, emptied.

“How could she? How could she take away my daughter from me and—and—go dancing with that—” His heart burned with rage.

[_This is it. I don’t care anymore. She may dance and be with anyone she wants. But she is a fool to think that she can keep me away from my Divya. You did not do the right thing, Sandhya. You had no right to take Divya away from me. You do whatever you want, be with whomever you want. But now, even God cannot stop me from getting my daughter back to me, _]he thought to himself with vengeance.

He picked up his phone and dialed a number.

“Implement the plan at once,” he ordered.

~

It was almost midnight and Sandhya was still unable to sleep. She tossed and turned and finally switched on her laptop in frustration.

As soon as she logged on, she saw an email from Roy, sir.

Please call me ASAP. Roy.

That’s all it said.

A perplexed Sandhya dialed Mr. Roy’s number; it was daytime in India and he would be working.

“Hi, sir. Sandhya here.”

“Hi, Sandhya, how are you doing? Did everything go fine with your journey?” He was trying to sound calm but she knew him too well and sensed that he was hiding something.

“What’s wrong, sir?”

“Sandhya, it’s nothing. It’s just that we need you here immediately. I am really sorry but I want you to come back as soon as possible for a few days. You can go to California later.”

“But why, sir? I just arrived here and—”

“We are close to losing our major client, the Sanjay Group. I removed you from that project without giving enough notice and now they are threatening to go with another competitor unless you are back. It was a bad decision on my part; I should have sent you after a few days,” he explained.

Sandhya listened. It all seemed too strange. She had personally bid good-bye to her clients and they had not shown any concerns then. Why now?

“I can get back, sir, except that—” She hesitated. She could take as much as she could upon herself but how could she make her Divya go through the ordeal of a long journey again? “I—I mean—I am just thinking about my daughter, sir. Can’t I work with them remotely? I have done that effectively before,” she asked.

“I know—I know, Sandhya. I wouldn’t have asked you if it was not important. We really need you here; it’s not going to work remotely,” he replied seriously.

“That’s fine, sir. I will look for flights.”

“Don’t worry about that. You will get your flight details in a few minutes in your email,” he replied, sounding relieved.

“Oh! Alright then. Thank you, sir.”

She was surprised to see an email pop up within five minutes with the flight details. She was even more surprised that the flight was for the next morning. It could only mean that the ticket was already booked before she had called Roy, sir.

~

Chapter 29 – Outrage

T

he next morning, Phillip drove Sandhya and Divya to the airport.

“I hope you take care of whatever issue it is and come back soon,” Phillip said, trying to hide his disappointment. Sandhya smiled faintly at him and glanced at Divya, asleep in the stroller.

“Thanks for everything, Phillip. You have no idea how much I appreciate all that you have done for us,” she said sincerely.

Phillip opened his arms for a hug and she reciprocated, but was startled to find him hugging her tighter and longer than expected.

“Come back soon ’cause I am eager to do more for you,” he said, smirking mischievously as he pulled out of the hug.

“I will be back soon if everything goes as planned,” she said and turned to walk towards security. Her attempt to turn around before he could think of kissing her was successful. A mix of relief and guilt filled her as she looked back at him from the security check line. He waved at her, smiling cheerfully as usual, and her heart constricted. He was good at hiding his emotions, just like her.

~

Akash caught a glimpse of Sandhya in the crowded Mumbai airport, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He had felt all sorts of emotions until now for her, ever since he found out the truth; anger, frustration, guilt, sympathy, love, joy, anxiousness, everything.

As soon as he saw her, his anger melted. He wanted to run to her, hug her and help her with the luggage. But he held himself back and his eyes searched desperately for Divya. Where was she?

His heart skipped a beat. Divya stood a few feet away from Sandhya, clutching the Barbie doll that he had given her. She seemed hyperactive, running around here and there. With utmost difficulty, he stopped himself from running up to her.

Just a few minutes more, he thought to himself.

Shanta Mausi and her husband greeted them; Sandhya hugged Mausi emotionally. He suddenly felt guilty, finding it hard to be upset with her. He quickly called someone from his cell.

“They are here. Implement the rollback plan now,” he ordered, hoping that Sandhya would not even know why she had been called back. If Mr. Roy had any sense, he would not let her know. Everything should get back to normal in an hour. He noticed that she had caught a separate cab, leaving Divya, Mausi and her husband behind. He got anxious, hoping that she would not go to her office now. One of his men followed Sandhya’s cab while Akash followed the car in which Divya traveled with Mausi.

~

Sandhya knocked on Mr. Roy’s door.

“Come in.”

She was surprised to find Alok, Sameer and two other top executives in addition to Mr. Roy in that room.

“Hi, Sandhya,” Sameer and Mr. Roy said at the same time. There was certain grimness in their voices and no one was smiling.

“Hi.” Sandhya’s forehead knitted with worry. “What’s the matter?”

“Sandhya—I know there must be some mistake,” Mr. Roy started in a hesitant voice.

It took her all of five minutes to understand what was going on. Her brain was slow to admit it, but eventually, it registered. One of their clients was accusing their company of fraud. Sandhya was in charge of the contract so essentially, she was being accused of fraud—of having manipulated a contract for her personal benefit.

Alok and the two executives shot question after question at her. Her mind went numb and she couldn’t feel or sense anything for a few minutes. Sameer and Mr. Roy looked at her with worry and tension. Alok had a satisfied glint in his eye and she knew that his jealously had reached a level that could not be considered normal anymore. The other two executives were anxious and angry. She desperately searched her brain to remember and understand what could have happened as she read the contract documents again. This deal had happened only a month ago, but she hardly remembered anything. Could she have made a mistake on her part unknowingly? Or, was someone trying to trap her?

She always scanned and stored a copy of all her contracts in a shared network drive. No one knew about it as it was her personal backup. She immediately switched on her laptop and connected to the shared drive. The backup copy was there. She opened it and compared it with the document in front of her.

Her eyes narrowed. It was very clear that someone had manipulated the paper and electronic copies of the contract. She felt immense relief and breathed easy; she had not made any mistake in her job. She showed the proof but Alok and the two executives still questioned her backup copy. Mr. Roy and Sameer were more at ease now.

“What’s the proof that this backup copy is not the manipulated one?” Alok asked shrewdly.

Sandhya looked at him, astonished, bile forming in her throat.

“That’s enough, Alok!” Mr. Roy raised his voice. “I trust Sandhya completely. I will leave no stone unturned to find out who tried to frame our company. We are lucky that the client did not file a legal compliant yet against us. We have to resolve this issue before it is too late.”

Just then Mr. Roy’s phone rang and he listened attentively for a long time to the other end. Once the call was over, he looked at Sandhya and then at everyone else.

“Gentlemen, the culprit has been identified. He is an employee who works for our client. He ran away to Dubai before he could be questioned. Fortunately, our client did not incur any losses as they found everything out before any damage could be done. They have requested for us to drop this investigation.”

Sandhya breathed in tremendous relief. “You should have told me when I was in California, sir. I could easily have pointed out the backup copy from there,” Sandhya blurted.

She saw the color drain out of Mr. Roy’s face. In a split second, she realized why Mr. Roy had not mentioned this before. He had doubts that if she really had committed the fraud, she would not return. He had not trusted her. A lump formed in her throat as she kept staring at Mr. Roy with her questioning eyes. Mr. Roy looked away. She swallowed and tried to ignore the dark feeling that she was being pulled into.

“May I leave now?” she asked, looking at the floor.

Pause.

“Yes, of course. Your daughter must be needing you and you have both been through a long journey.” Mr. Roy replied.

“Thank you.” She collected her things and opened the door.

“Sandhya—” Mr. Roy’s voice stopped her. “I am sorry.”

“Don’t be, sir. I understand,” she replied, looking at him blankly.

She walked out of the office, her heart screaming in agony. The urge to cry was overwhelming, but no tears came to her eyes. She heard footsteps beside her and knew that it was Sameer.

He walked with her for a few seconds. “Sandhya…” He tried to start a conversation. She did not stop and continued walking, looking down.

“You know how Alok is. Mr. Roy did trust you. He was about to tell you but that Alok, he involved all the other executives and the majority of them were questioning his trust in you. I was also forced to keep this confidential.”

Sandhya stopped walking. “It’s fine, Sameer. I need to get back to Divya. She must be tired and needing me.”

“I will drive you home.”

She halted and looked up at him, her eyes holding no emotion.

“I want to be left alone.”

Sameer looked shattered. “I am so sorry, Sandhya.”

She nodded, walked off out of the building and hailed a cab.

~

As soon as Divya and Mausi were inside Sandhya’s apartment, Akash and two other men followed them inside. Mausi was alarmed. “Why are you here?” she demanded.

Before he could answer, Divya came out of her bedroom and ran up to him, smiling.

“Aathaash!”

Her sweet voice was music to Akash. Her tiny body hugging him, gave him unending happiness. How could one’s love for their child feel so sweet and pure? He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her for a long time. Mausi shouted and cursed but his mind did not register anything. He quickly took Divya inside her room and instructed his men to keep Mausi away until Sandhya came back; he needed some time alone with his daughter. Mesmerized by her cuteness, he gazed at her features for a long time before kissing her forehead and cheeks, overwhelmed with emotion. His eyes had turned glassy as he fought his tears and enjoyed her presence and her sweet voice. He knew not what his men said to Mausi but she was very silent now.

~

Sandhya sat in the cab, lost in thought. She had put Divya through so much trouble. She had thought that staying away from Akash would solve her miseries. But fate was always pulling her back to where he was. She shuddered to think whether she would encounter him before she left for California again. Mr. Roy’s guilt-ridden face flashed before her eyes. Mausi was right. I should not have burned myself out for this company. How many hours have I given for my job instead of my dear daughter? Maybe it is right that one should not get emotionally attached to their work. Bitter thoughts engulfed her as she closed her eyes and tilted her head up. It felt as if another chapter of her life was closing. She simply could not be trusted. Not in her personal life. Not in her professional life.

It was surprising that her heart was aching. After all the things that had happened in her life, she should not get upset about anything. It was ironic that events like these still affected her. A thought flashed within her. This all felt so sudden and so strange. She was framed so suddenly and was relieved of the accusations quickly. Did someone do this intentionally? Only one man’s name came into her mind. She shook her head. [_You are speculating too much, Sandhya, _]she told herself.

~

“Did you like America?”

“Yes—I lithe Adam and Phillip unthle. Phillip tooth me to beach,” Divya said excitedly.

Akash’s face darkened but he quickly masked his emotions.

“I can take you to a beach too,” he said, taking her tiny hands in his.

“You will?”

“Yes! And the zoo and the park and wherever you want to go.”

“Thanthu Aathaash!” She hugged him.

“And I will buy you lots of toys. You know what! When you come to my house, I will have a big beautiful room full of toys, just for you.”

“Oh! You will have a big loom in your house fol me.” She looked at him with her big eyes.

“Yes!” he said, laughing

“Mommy won’t let me thome with you,” she replied morosely.

“She will let you if Aathaash asked her,” he said, pinching her nose.

Just then he heard footsteps and knew that Sandhya must be here. He remembered about the rollback plan. Did they manage to implement it before she went to her office? He got worried. In any case, she must be cleared of the fraud issues now. What could he do if she did not even want to talk to him? He had to do something to get her back soon. Everything will be back to normal soon for her, he assured himself. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself to face her. He should be angry at her for not informing him about Divya, but he decided to let go of his anger and try to be normal with her. He came out of the room holding Divya’s hand and stood at the door.

Sandhya stood still, staring at him in shock. Then she glanced at the other two men and then at Shanta Mausi, who was huddled up frightened on the sofa.

Mausi got up from the sofa, ran to her, hugged her and cried out, “Sandhya!”

Sandhya was shaking, her anger-filled eyes glaring at Akash. This wasn’t going to be a smooth meeting as he had hoped.

“Mausi, please take Divya to her room. I need to talk to Sandhya,” he said firmly, looking at Mausi.

Mausi, trembling with fear, immediately followed his instructions and closed Divya’s room. Maybe his men had frightened her more than necessary. One was a policeman and another was a lawyer. Both were good at their work and both would do anything for money. He was impressed so far.

“Have a seat,” he instructed her.

She remained standing. He sighed. He walked towards her and stood about a foot in front of her.

“Very well, if you want to make this difficult for yourself, then you may have your wish,” he said calmly.

Her jaw tightened and her eyes threw daggers at him.

“I know that Divya is my daughter,” he said, looking into her eyes.

She gasped in shock, her eyes wide for a few seconds. Her eyes narrowed, looking alarmingly vengeful.

SLAAAPPPP!

Her palm landed on his cheek so hard and loud that the whole building might have heard it. Akash’s face turned sideways with the impact.

Chapter 30 – For Divya

A

kash stood stunned. She had slapped him? The policeman charged towards Sandhya, but Akash raised his hand, indicating for him to stop.

“YOU SCOUNDREL! Where will you stop? When will you stop? How many games will you play to get to me?” Sandhya screamed.

Akash’s face turned red at her words. Anger returned in full force.

“GET TO YOU?” he exclaimed hoarsely as he took a step towards her. He brought his face closer to hers and whispered coarsely in her ear.

“Listen to me carefully. I don’t give a damn if you go around with Phillip or Dhiren. But you will not dare keep me away from my daughter with any more of your dramas and lies.”

She stood frozen in terror for a few seconds before dragging herself a few feet and slumping on the sofa. Shanta Mausi opened the door of Divya’s room and walked in, her face full of concern.

“Mommy!” Divya appeared at the entrance of her room. “Why ale you shouting?”

Sandhya stared at Divya, perplexed.

“It’s nothing, Divya. Can you go and play in your room for some more time?”

“Come. I will switch on the TV and you can watch Mickey Mouse,” Mausi said as she took Divya inside again. As soon as Divya was gone, Sandhya hid her face behind her palms.

Akash softened. Was she crying? She removed her hands from her face and looked straight at him. No. She wasn’t crying.

“Who told you?”

“What does it matter?” Akash shot back, annoyed. Mausi came out of Divya’s room.

“What makes you think that she is your daughter? You have no proof,” Sandhya whispered bitterly.

“I have all the proof here,” one of the men with Akash said as he handed over the file to her.

She opened the file, looked over the documents one by one, her face full of concern and astonishment. He had all the proof but it was obvious that it was made up. She stared at him with a strange look for a long time, then got up and went inside her bedroom.

After about three minutes, she walked out of her room with a document.

“I never wanted to disclose this to anyone, but, I have no choice now. I adopted Divya. Here is the proof. Too bad you went through all this trouble for nothing.” Her voice trembled as she threw the document in his face. She had wondered if this day would come many times and had rehearsed exactly what she would say to him.

Akash’s jaw tightened as he narrowed his eyes at her. He picked up the document that had fallen on the floor, read its contents and to Sandhya’s astonishment and dismay, tore it into pieces.

“What are you doing?” she screamed.

“It’s a good thing that Sameer already told me that you had planned to give her up to an adoption agency and adopt her.”

A stunned Sandhya opened and closed her mouth before looking to Mausi for support. Mausi herself was going through enormous stress and guilt right now. She was the one who had told Akash that it was him who had impregnated Sandhya.

“Mausi, tell him!” Sandhya said with desperation.

“Ahem—yes…she…she did adopt Divya.” Mausi’s voice did not sound convincing. Akash wondered if Mausi was secretly pleading with him not to tell Sandhya that she was the one who had leaked this information to him. He stood still, scrutinizing both Sandhya and Mausi.

“I think I have seen enough and heard enough. I am taking Divya with me. If you want to fight, your lawyer can contact my lawyer,” he said curtly, before swiftly going into Divya’s room. He came back a few seconds later with Divya in his arms. Divya looked at both of them in confusion, her eyes wide.

Sandhya stood up. There was real fear in her eyes.

“Ale you tathing me to show my big loom?” Divya asked, holding Akash’s cheeks.

“Yes, my dear,” he replied seriously.

He turned around and walked up to the front door.

“Wait,” Sandhya uttered in a weak voice.

He halted.

“Maybe we can work something out,” she whispered.

“Now you are talking,” he said sarcastically as he turned around.

“Mausi, please take Divya inside.”

“No! I want to go with Aathaash to see my big loom with toys!” Divya cried out.

“I will take you later, puppet,” Akash told Divya.

Mausi took her inside her room again and came out after a few seconds. Akash asked the two men to wait outside.

“Go on,” he said.

“Divya will be in a state of shock if…I am not with her. Why don’t you give me a week’s time to prepare her mentally?” Sandhya stated with no emotion or feeling in her eyes and voice.

“What do you mean exactly?” he asked, a little impatient.

“I mean, we can discuss who has her for how many days and such after a week.”

“Then she will stay with me for this one week,” he said sternly.

“No! She is not used to you. You don’t know what food she should eat and not eat.” She started a long list of reasons.

“I will manage. I have hired a couple of people who can take care of her. You don’t have to worry about her.”

“How can I not worry about her? Do you know that she has tree nut allergies?” she exclaimed, irritated.

“Tree nut allergies? What is a tree nut?”

“See, you have no idea about what she needs to eat and not eat. You don’t even know what a tree nut is. How are you going to protect her from eating any? This is just one case but there are many others. She has never been without me for a whole day; we shouldn’t make her go through this,” she tried to reason.

Akash fell silent for a few minutes. “Fine. You can stay with us at my house for a week until she gets used to me and we figure out a plan.”

“WHAT?” Sandhya exclaimed in shock but composed herself. Shanta Mausi watched them in worry from a corner of the room.

“B…but how can I come to your house? What will Kavya think?”

Akash raised his eyebrows. “Kavya? What will she think? And why would she care if you are staying at my house?”

“What do you mean? She is your wife!” she exclaimed.

He looked at Sandhya, stunned. “Wife? How can I have a wife without being married!” he replied, irked.

Her eyes narrowed.

“You are lying. I called you on your wedding day. Puja herself told me that you were marrying Kavya.”

Akash stared at her for a few seconds.

“That marriage never happened. Kayva got married to Harish at the last minute,” he replied, looking away. He did not mention that he had made the master plan to get Kavya married to Harish. Guilt engulfed him because he had, at one point, consented to marrying Kavya.

A shocked Sandhya staggered to the sofa again and sat down, her body shaking with full force. She stared at the coffee table silently while Mausi also stood frozen in shock.

Akash realized that Sandhya had been thinking that he was married all this time. Was that the reason for her hatred towards him? Was that why she rejected him? Did that mean that she would consider starting from scratch with him again? A lot more questions rose in his head. But for now, his first priority was Divya. There was no way he would be without her for even a day; a week was out of the question.

“But still, I can’t,” she said after what felt like an eternity.

“Then just write down what she can eat and what she can’t. I will handle it.”

“Her daycare is nearby. She is used to Mausi being with her all the time. Her pediatrician is a few blocks away from here.”

His face grew agitated.

“And none of these things bothered you when you took her all the way to California?” he muttered with clenched teeth.

“I had no choice then. But now, we have a choice. Your house or my house,” she replied, irritated.

Akash wondered if she was planning something in her mind.

“How about you spend the evenings with her here at my house for a week?” she asked.

“How about you do the same at my house?” he countered with a hint of anger.

“I can’t come and stay at your house!”

“Well! Then I will come and stay here for a week. No daycare problem, no doctor problem, and your beloved Mausi will also be right here. What do you think about that?” he shot back sarcastically.

Sandhya looked at him, bewildered.

“What? How could you stay in my apartment? This is a middle-class society. People will ask questions.”

“When did you start caring about society?” he said icily.

Her face instantly changed at his words and he immediately regretted blurting those words. He was being insensitive to her feelings. He was responsible for her situation and he wanted to help her but somehow always ended up losing control.

“Look, Sandhya. You have kept her away from me for over two years. I think it’s fair for me to want to be with my daughter for a few days. I…I just need to be with her now,” he said slowly and cautiously. “It’s either you staying at my house or me staying at your apartment for a week. We can figure out the details about custody of Divya during this week.” His voice was again stern.

She breathed evenly as she stared at the floor.

She looked at Mausi and they both looked at each other for a long time. She turned to face Akash and whispered,

“You can stay at my apartment, but there are only two bedrooms. You can use Divya’s room but there is no adult-sized bed in there, and you will obviously have limited luxuries.”

“You don’t have to worry about all that,” he replied and added, “I will go get my stuff.” He walked into Divya’s room and came back with Divya in his arms.

“Where are you taking her?”

“To my house. We will be back soon.” He disappeared out of the apartment with a smiling Divya.

~

Sandhya closed her eyes and covered her face with her palms. Her instinct about an impending storm was right. The storm had hit her and she had to muster up the strength to fight it. Mausi walked up to her and placed her hand on her head as she sat beside her. She laid her head on Mausi’s shoulder, hoping it would give her the strength that was needed.

“What is happening, Mausi. Why is this happening?” she muttered wearily.

“Don’t think too much. You are tired. Take some rest,” Mausi said as she patted her head.

“Rest? I can never rest until—until I get him out of our lives!” She suddenly sprang up and sat upright.

“Shh, Sandhya. That much anger is not good. It seems to me that everything was a misunderstanding between you two. You thought he was married and you did not contact him all this time.”

“He was going to marry Kavya and that is a fact. Anyways, what does it matter now, Mausi? It changes nothing. I have moved on now. All I have is Divya. Why can’t he let me have any happiness that is remaining in my life?”

“He never said he would take her away from you. And…well…he really seems to love Divya. Even before today, I noticed that he always seemed to have a special bond with her. Maybe you should tell him everything with an open heart. Maybe he will understand you,” Mausi started hesitantly.

“Love, my foot! That man is incapable of loving. I know him inside and out. What he doesn’t know is that I am not the Sandhya that I was long ago.”

She picked up her purse. “I am going to see a lawyer, Mausi. Tell him I went on an errand when he comes back.”

“Wait, Sandhya. Is there any need to do this? Lawyers are expensive and you don’t want to spend your savings on this issue. You wanted to start your business with that money. Any man would react like this if he discovered that he had a daughter and was not informed. You don’t have to play with his emotions like this,” Mausi said with concern.

Sandhya’s eyes narrowed.

“What I am doing is nothing compared to what he did and is doing to me. I can sense that you have started to take his side. But let me tell you something, Mausi—married or unmarried, I will always hate him. I have moved on so far that there is no scope for letting him invade my life anymore.”

With that she strode out of the apartment.

~

Akash and Divya returned with his clothes and work items. A couple of men carried a bed inside Divya’s room.

“Is it fine if Aathaash stays in Divya’s room?” he asked Divya, wondering if he should ask Divya to call him Papa. Maybe it could wait, he thought.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Divya clapped her hands and jumped with joy.

“Where is Sandhya?” he asked Mausi.

“She went on an errand,” Mausi replied. “Would you like to have tea or a snack?”

Slightly taken aback, Akash replied, “Tea would be fine.”

He was alarmed when he saw her smiling back at him. She was being warm to him after how his men had threatened her. Guilt consumed him as he stood in the kitchen, unsure.

Mausi gave him an enquiring look.

“I hope the policeman did not scare you.”

“I think you brought them with you to scare me,” she replied lightly.

“In some ways, it is true. But I think they went way overboard.”

Mausi continued to look at him, wondering if he would say anything more.

“It will not happen again.”

“Don’t worry about it, son.” Mausi smiled.

Akash gulped. She was calling him “son” after all he did. Was she a follower of Mahatma Gandhi or what?

“So, you said that your marriage was canceled with Kavya,” she stated carefully. “But that was three years ago. Why didn’t you marry in that time?”

His smile disappeared but he managed to mask his feelings. He simply shrugged his shoulders with a faint smile and disappeared into Divya’s room.

~

Sandhya strode up her apartment stairs, deep in thought. She was able to get hold of a reputed lawyer, someone who could be a rival to the one that Akash had. However, just as she had suspected, they did want some time to accumulate proof against him and the whole process could take from four to ten days. She hoped that she would have everything sorted out before she needed to discuss sharing Divya’s time with him. One week. She would have to bear living with him for one week under the same roof. Argh! This was going to be so difficult and uncomfortable. Was he back in here already with his stuff, she wondered as she opened the door.

The smell of her favorite dish, chole bhature, engulfed her as she entered, making her realize how hungry she was. She had not eaten lunch and it was dinner time.

Divya ran up to her, now bathed and changed. Sandhya pulled her up in her arms and hugged her tight for a long time.

“Mommy! Whele wele you, Mommy?”

“I had some work outside, Divi,” she muttered, straightening Divya’s hair.

“You know, Mommy, I saw Aathaash’s house. It’s so big! I have my own loom there! And Aathaash said that he would buy me lots of toys too!” she said with her eyes wide.

Sandhya gazed at her daughter with concern and apprehension. What could she tell her? She wanted to tell her that her mom would leave no stone unturned to give her those luxuries. But she was too little to understand. She kissed Divya’s forehead. Kids generally get attached to people and things quickly. But then, they also forget them faster than adults. She hoped that it would be the case for Divya with respect to Akash.

She saw Mausi cleaning the kitchen.

“Looks like you made my favorite today,” Sandhya said, smiling.

Mausi smiled back at her.

“Did your work get done?”

“Partially; it will take time.”

She walked up to the dining area and gasped.

Akash was devouring the food that was sitting before him. He was licking his fingers fast when his eyes caught hers. He slowed down the licking. Multiple savory dishes were placed on the table, even dessert. She gritted her teeth and marched towards Mausi.

“Mausi? He is not a VIP guest here!” she whispered angrily.

“But we can’t let him starve. How can we eat without giving him any food? It is so impolite.”

“Why did you have to make so many items?”

They heard a loud burp from Akash. Sandhya shook her head.

“Why are you treating him like he is a special guest—like a son-in-law or something?”

“It’s nothing like that. I just wanted to make some special dishes since you are back and—and—you have been asking me to make them for a long time.”

“Yeah, right. You want me to believe that? I have been asking you to make chole bhature for a long time and out of nowhere, you have to make it when he is here?”

Mausi ignored Sandhya and continued with the kitchen cleaning. Frustration built up within Sandhya.

“You are not serving him any food from tomorrow.” She whispered her order and went to the dining room. Mausi stared in her direction and shook her head.

The exotic smell of chole bhature made her stomach growl. She picked up a plate and sat with a huff in a chair opposite Akash. She glanced at the container of bhature and gasped. There was only one left.

She cursed and took the last piece out of the dish at the same time as Akash grabbed it. It was a tug of war between both of them for that piece. She ground her teeth and pulled it towards her but he wouldn’t let it go. Finally, he let go of it with a devilish smirk on his face. She threw it on her plate in frustration.

“Looks like someone is enjoying his free dinner,” she muttered sarcastically.

Akash stopped eating and glared at her. Great, she had managed to piss him off. Good, ’cause she was very much pissed!

His smirking resumed.

“I was—until I saw a lioness ready to attack me. Very amusing,” he said before inserting another mouthful.

She shook her head and concentrated on eating in silence, looking at her plate.

Once they were done, she started cleaning up and he tried to assist with carrying the dishes back to the kitchen.

“Thanks for everything you have done for me today, Mr. Rai.”

His expression hardened and his eyes grew darker. Hell! Was he reacting like that just because of what she called him? What should she do to him for involving her in a fraud scandal to get her back to India? Would he ever understand the consequences of his actions?

He remained silent and still with a grim expression.

“You just enjoy the services for this week and leave me with the chores,” she said sarcastically as she tried to take a dish away from his hands. For a split second, her hands were over his and she immediately adjusted her hand and fingers so that she did not touch him. She quickly turned around and went into the kitchen, cursing herself. Ugh! Why did fate always put her in such a difficult spot?

She was upset with Mausi too and did not speak with her for a long time. She knew what was going on in Mausi’s mind, and it disturbed and aggravated her. Strangely, Mausi was also silent for a long time.

“Mausi, you are only making one dish tomorrow. This is not happening again. He is not staying here to get pampered,” she muttered seriously.

“Actually, I forgot to tell you. My husband will be home this week in the evening. So, I want to take a break for a few days.”

Sandhya stared at Mausi with pure panic on her face.

“What? What are you saying? No, Mausi! Please, not now. Take a break any other time but not now!” she pleaded.

“Sorry, Sandhya. I need to make time for my husband too,” Mausi replied, not relenting and continued, “I will come by whenever I can. And I will continue picking up Divya at her daycare if you want.”

Sandhya stood silently for a long time, her angry eyes boring into Mausi. She dragged Mausi out of the apartment, so that Akash couldn’t overhear their conversation.

“I know why you are doing all this. Believe me, it won’t happen. What you are thinking is never going to happen,” she declared in a tortured and angry voice. Sandhya looked away, afraid that her face would give away her inner turmoil. “I am already in a difficult spot. Please help me out now. I don’t want to stay with this maniac alone for so long. Please, Mausi. I beg you.”

“You won’t be alone. You will have Divya with you.”

Sandhya’s jaw tightened. “Fine. Do whatever you want. I will deal with this myself,” she scoffed and left Mausi standing there.

Mausi hesitated for a few seconds, wondering if she was doing the right thing. Akash was a complex character. Probably one who made rash decisions without thinking about consequences and didn’t know how to apologize. Perhaps, this very trait was the cause of Sandhya’s misery.  But he also had some kind of genuineness in him. It just wasn’t visible outside. Years of living had given Mausi insight into human behavior. She hoped that her intuition was true; that he would change and Sandhya would understand and forgive him eventually.

What she was doing was risky, but necessary; she had no hopes of Sandhya opening up on her own. She shook her head and left the building.

Chapter 31 – Living Together

S

andhya sat on the sofa and held her forehead in frustration. She heard Akash playing with Divya in her room. She went inside her room, took a head bath and changed into the most conservative set of night pants and shirt she had. It was a combination of pale yellow cotton pants and a short-sleeved top. All of her other dresses were nightgowns and she sure did not want to walk in front of him in a nightgown. She hoped that she would get time to purchase appropriate nightdresses the next day.

She sat on her bed, frustrated. [_I can’t even wear the clothes I want anymore. God, please help me! _]she thought before getting up and walking out of the room. It was bedtime for Divya.

Akash was having a mock sword fight with a giggling and laughing Divya.

He heard Sandhya clearing her throat. He looked up and gulped. She looked seductive in her nightclothes. She must have just had her bath now, he figured. There were still a few drops of water on her neck and shoulders. She seemed like a yellow rose that had just bloomed, with a few drops of morning dew on it.

It sure was going to be torture to stay in the same house as her and behave like a stranger.

“Divya. You need to sleep now,” she said sternly.

“No! I want to play mole,” she replied adamantly.

“You have played enough. You have to get up early and you won’t have enough sleep if you don’t go to bed now,” Sandhya demanded. “She will sleep with me for this week,” she said, looking at Akash.

He rubbed his neck. “Does she sleep alone in her room?”

“Generally, yes. But sometimes, if she has a nightmare, she sleeps with me. Since you need this room for this week, she will sleep with me.”

“Alright, I guess that works for me,” Akash replied, thinking he himself did not know how to handle Divya completely yet. He had a lot of things to learn.

“I need to understand her food needs and whatever other things you were saying, you know, tree nuts and stuff like that. I will be waiting in the dining room. Can you explain after you put Divya to sleep?”

“I—I am a bit tired after the long journey. I will explain everything tomorrow,” she replied.

Akash considered her words. Was she truly tired or was she avoiding spending time with him? He gave her the benefit of the doubt. She’d had a grueling journey twice within a few days and must be very tired.

“Alright. We can talk tomorrow. Good night,” he said.

“Night,” she replied as she picked up Divya and walked away to her room.

As much as he enjoyed his time with Divya, he was getting more and more disturbed regarding Sandhya. It was obvious that she had found out about the means through which he had forced her to come back to India. Would she ever understand why he had to take that step? Would she ever understand his frustration? He was drunk and upset when he had hastily taken that step. By the time he had his senses back, it was too late. It was unfortunate that she was not absolved of those charges before she found out about it. Now, he actually felt good that she slapped him.

Her mentioning Divya’s nightmares reminded him of the day when she had a nightmare at her house in the village. He recalled how she had clutched his shirt and was upset that he had left her in her dream. She had made him promise her that he would never leave her. Was all that an act? No, it couldn’t be. She seemed genuinely afraid of whatever happened in her dream. That was the night that they were intimate for the first time. It was obvious that it was her first experience. She had been extremely shy and scared and it had taken him a torturously long time to get rid of her fear and inhibitions and make her his.

He gazed at the wall that separated her bedroom from his. She had gone out with Phillip. It was not wrong considering she was single. But back then, three years ago, what she had done was wrong. But he had forgiven her. He had forgiven her a long time ago. Or else, he would have never told her that he wanted to start from scratch. She did not know that he wasn’t married then. But she did now. Would she reconsider his proposal now? They could make a cute family. He still loved her. And the fact that he was Divya’s father had brought new energy into his life. He sure would hate to have Divya juggled between her mom and dad’s time.

He had lied when he had told her that he did not care if she went out with Phillip or anyone else. Hell, it was those pictures that had made him act the way he did. He did care; he cared much more than he should. Her cold and bitter attitude towards him was expected considering what he had done but he would end up convincing her. He would make her much happier than that Phillip would.

He changed into his pajamas and T-shirt, sat on his bed and opened his laptop. Over the past week, he had neglected his work and his deliverables were piled up. He rubbed his tired eyes and started working. After half an hour, sleep was overpowering him. He grunted and walked over to the kitchen, thinking that coffee would help. He opened the cupboards one by one as quietly as possible and found the ingredients after a painful search. A steel vessel dropped from his hands. He quickly grabbed it and placed it back.

Sandhya’s bedroom door opened. She rubbed her eyes and looked at him in surprise.

“What are you doing in the kitchen at this time?”

“I—was trying to make coffee,” he replied.

“Now?” she asked, bewildered.

“Yes. I need to work tonight and was trying to fight off sleep.”

A tiny part of him hoped that she would come and make the coffee for him.

She stood glaring at him, then walked past him and checked the kitchen.

“You have all you need. Don’t make any more noise. I badly need to sleep,” she said, irritated, then walked to her room and shut her door.

Akash sighed and switched on the stove. It was good that he had gotten training with her three years ago. Otherwise, he would have had to go without coffee.

~

Sandhya woke up with a start. Why was she being such a light sleeper tonight? She wrapped her arms around Divya and glanced at the clock. It was 3 am. She saw from under her door that the light was still on outside her room. Was he still working?

She got up from her bed, fuming and ready to give him a piece of her mind. She opened her door and gasped. He was lying on the bare floor of the living room, his mouth open as he breathed evenly. His laptop was still open and his fingers were on the laptop’s keyboard.

She found herself staring at him for a long time as she placed her hands on the wall and leaned against it. He was still the same Akash when it came to work. He took his work seriously, just like her.

Walking up to him, she knelt beside him and was about to shake him but halted. He would probably start working again if she woke him now. Better let him sleep here. A strand of hair had fallen on his brow and she felt the urge to remove it from his face. Of course, she did not. An ant crawled towards his face on the floor. She took a piece of paper and placed it so that it crawled onto the paper. Once she had thrown the ant out of the window, she got a blanket, covered him with it and left him sleeping like that.

[_You don’t feel anything for him. You would have done this for anyone, even a stranger, _]she told herself and drifted off to sleep.

Sandhya woke up at 5:30 and got ready for work while Akash still slept in the same position.

It was time to wake up Divya.

“No! I want to sleep!” Divya demanded.

After about ten minutes of using different tactics, Divya was awake. She made Divya brush her teeth and gave her a bath. They were out in the living room, ready to have their breakfast.

What? Akash was still sleeping on the floor? It was 7:30 am. When was he planning to get ready?

Divya ran up to Akash, climbed on his tummy and began beating his chest with her hand.

“Aathaash! Wathe up! Play with me!”

Akash rubbed his eyes and caught hold of Divya’s tiny hands. He sat upright and hugged Divya warmly.

“Princess is already ready?”

“It’s 7:30 am.” Sandhya spoke from across the hallway. “I have to leave at 8 am sharp,” she said flatly. “Here is the spare set of keys to the apartment.” She pointed to a set of keys on a key holder on the wall.

Akash nodded, woke up swiftly and noticed the blanket on him. He stared at her inquisitively while she acted busy arranging the food on the table. He went to his room and shut the door.

It was 7:50 am and Sandhya and Divya were almost done with their breakfast. A surprised Sandhya saw Akash come out of his room dressed in a sleek light blue shirt and dark gray formal pants. She had not expected that he would get ready that fast and had hoped to leave the apartment before he got ready.

He briskly came and sat on the chair opposite Sandhya and next to Divya. He picked up a spare plate and started helping himself to bread while Sandhya ignored him and focused on Divya’s eating.

“Aathaash… eat the fluit. Mommy will not let you get up if you don’t eat your fluit,” Divya said as she pushed the fruit bowl towards him. Sandhya closed her eyes in frustration. This wasn’t going to be easy, just as she had expected.

“Divya, I will eat it later… OK?”

Sandhya gritted her teeth. Couldn’t he eat something healthy for Divya’s sake? How could she learn healthy eating habits if the adults around her didn’t eat healthily.

“Mommy! Aathaash is not eathing fluit. I won’t eat fluit. I hate fluit!” She started her tantrum.

Sandhya glared at him, irritated; she would miss her train if she did not start within a few minutes. He looked at her blankly and scratched his neck.

“Oh, well…you know I don’t like…” he started but stopped after looking at her expression.

“OK, fine.” He placed a spoonful of fruit pieces on his plate. “Divya, I am eating fruit now. You are right. Mommy won’t let me get up from here if I don’t eat fruit,” Akash said, smiling at Divya and then at Sandhya.

Sandhya’s face hardened. Did he think that his health concerned her? She did not give a damn. He never drank water and always had soda whenever she saw him eating. It was obvious that he did not care about his food habits.

Akash finished his breakfast in record time so that all three were done with their breakfast at the same time. She walked out of the apartment with Divya, flustered when she found him walking with them.

“So, where is Divya’s daycare?”

“It’s in that building.” She pointed to a distant building. It would take them at least ten minutes to walk there. “You can start for work. I will drop her off at her daycare,” she replied.

“Hold on. My driver will be here any second.”

Before Sandhya could respond, a sleek silver-colored BMW stopped in front of them. The driver got out and opened the door for them.

“This is not needed. I am used to this.” She hesitated. A few neighbors observed them curiously.

“I can’t have Divya walk there when I have my car,” Akash said sternly as he took Divya in his arms and placed her in a car seat inside. “And I have to get added as her father in her daycare so that I am also eligible to pick her up and drop her off.”

Sandhya felt blood drain from her face. “Fine.” She got in his car.

Akash was busy with Divya’s little friends at her daycare when Sandhya quickly enrolled him as an authorized person to pick up and drop off Divya. They bid good-bye to Divya and got out of the building.

“There is one thing,” she started.

“What?”

“I don’t want to inform everyone about… all this yet.” She hesitated. “People will question our staying together and I am not comfortable with that. I would like to wait until the end of this week before we communicate this to everyone. What do you say?”

Akash thought for a few seconds, his expression disturbed.

“That’s fine with me. It’s only for a week.”

Her face brightened in relief. “See you in the office,” she said as she started walking briskly towards the train station.

“I will be working at your office this week,” he said, looking at her, puzzled, as he walked by her side.

“I see,” she said and continued walking. His car followed them a few feet away.

“Don’t be stupid, Sandhya. I am going to the same destination. Why are you so adamant?”

Sandhya was mum for a few seconds again. She sighed.

“I prefer the train to the crowded traffic on the roads.”

“It’s a soundproof car,” he said through gritted teeth as he caught her arm.

Her jaw tightened as she looked at his face and then at his hand that had caught her arm.

He quickly removed his hand, glared at her with his piercing eyes for a few more seconds before he turned around, walked up to his car, sat in it and slammed its door shut.

Sandhya watched his car disappear and took several deep breaths. She shook her head and started walking.

~

Akash tried to keep his head cool. Why was she acting so hardheaded? He was surprised when she asked him to hold off telling everyone about them for a week. He himself was worrying about how to give this news to his own parents. His mom for sure would have the shock of her life. But it had to be done somehow.

This one week would give him some time to figure out how to inform his parents without hurting them. For sure, he would not be able to bear his mom uttering anything against Sandhya. And the only way that would happen was if he married her. His goal for this week was to understand Sandhya better and convince her to accept him. But how could he do that if she hardly spoke to him and didn’t spend any time with him? He reached his office and was astonished to find Sandhya already settled in her office. Maybe that was why so many people used the trains. He should try it out sometime.

As expected, she had her lunch inside her office that day.

It was evening and time to leave. He knew that she would not go home in his car but he had to try. He asked his driver to stop the car a few feet in front of her, got out and opened the rear door of his car. She ignored him and walked away. This time he did not get angry but simply shook his head. At least he could predict her actions.

~

Sandhya reached her apartment and unlocked her door just when Akash walked up the stairs.

She chuckled. “What happened? Was your soundproof BMW not fast enough?” She could not resist mocking him.

“Well, at least I was comfortable with the cool atmosphere and silence,” he shot back.

They went inside and Sandhya was suddenly anxious for Mausi to arrive with Divya. She wasn’t comfortable being with Akash alone in that apartment. Escaping to her room, she threw her stuff in a corner and sat on her bed. She heard him close the door of his room and relaxed. Her body and mind were craving tea but she did not want to make it. Having the tea that she made with him was a reminder of their time together in the past. Nope. She wasn’t going there.

She came out of her room, dug around for snacks and placed them on the dining table. Mausi was on vacation and would not be cooking today. She was physically and mentally tired but she had to cook. Why was Mausi so late in bringing Divya?

Akash came out of the room with a can of soda and looked around. His eyes met hers and she quickly looked away.

“If you are hungry, there’s something on the table.”

He nodded and went to the table to help himself to the snacks. She was not surprised that he chose the unhealthiest snacks from them and not a single piece of fruit. And that soda, couldn’t he live without that even at home?

She shook her head, got up and walked to the main entrance, looking for Divya and Mausi.

She looked back and saw Akash was pacing restlessly. What did he want?

“Did you want something?” she asked.

“No…I mean yes…actually no… nothing,” he replied and sat on the sofa awkwardly.

What was wrong with him, she wondered, and sighed. Six more days to go.

Mausi arrived with Divya and she breathed in relief. But of course, she did not greet or smile at Mausi.

Sandhya opened up her arms to hug Divya but she ran past her and hugged Akash.

“What the!”

Mausi came inside and searched inside the kitchen. “Where is the tea?” she demanded. Akash turned his head to look at them.

“Didn’t make it today,” she answered sharply.

“Sandhya! I have been dreaming of your tea ever since the clock struck five. I am desperate, dear. Can I have a cup of your handmade tea? Please?” Mausi pleaded.

“I am tired today. It’s fine if you don’t want to make it, since you are on ‘vacation,’” Sandhya shot back sarcastically.

“Fine. I will make it for today,” Mausi sighed and started making tea for them.

The doorbell rang.

Who would come at this time? Sandhya thought and opened the door.

Sameer and Priya stood before her. Sandhya’s face fell. Did they have to come now?

“Come inside,” she said, faking a smile.

“Hi, Akash! What are you doing here?” Sameer asked.

“I…I…” Akash stuttered.

“He just stopped by to spend some time with Divya,” Sandhya interrupted.

Except that ‘some time’ is actually a week, Sandhya thought. Akash glanced at Sandhya uncomfortably.

“Oh.” Sameer and Priya looked at each other.

Sameer started, “I wanted to explain, Sandhya. Roy, sir was worried about you. I agree that he should have trusted you and not called you back in such haste, but you have to understand. He is a businessman and he has to think about pleasing everyone.”

“I told you, Sameer, I am fine.”

“What happened? Why is your beloved Roy, sir so concerned about her?” Mausi asked Sameer sarcastically as she handed over the tea to everyone. She had never met Mr. Roy but had so much anger for him that, God forbid, if she ever came face to face with him, she may cut him to pieces.

“It’s nothing,” Sameer replied, avoiding her gaze.

“Tell me! Why was Sandhya called back so soon?” Mausi demanded.

A reluctant Sameer explained everything that happened in the office.

Akash’s heart twisted in agony as he realized that Sandhya was accused and interrogated harshly, for a few minutes at least. He should have implemented his rollback plan at least an hour earlier. Who would have thought that she would go to her office straight from the airport? Workaholic woman!

Mausi’s voice rose like anything. Sandhya and Sameer tried to calm her down, saying that everything was back to normal now and that the real culprit was caught.

“How dare he accuse our Sandhya of fraud? I am telling you, whoever tried to frame her will rot in hell!” Mausi cursed uncontrollably for the next fifteen minutes.

Everyone in the room could do nothing but endure her burst of anger. Sandhya noticed how Akash’s face grew dark with panic as he tried to digest each and every curse uttered.

At one point, Mausi got so excited with her curses that she suddenly stood up with force.

Akash was so freaked out that he spilled tea on his shirt. He looked at Sandhya with a panic-stricken face. Sandhya suppressed a laugh. Maybe she should video record this whole scene.

“Mausi, I think you can stop now. You have cursed so loudly and with such pure heart, that whoever needed to receive those curses must have already received them,” Sandhya said smoothly.

Mausi’s outburst stopped in a few minutes after which Sameer, Priya and Mausi left.

Divya played silently while Sandhya caught Akash glancing at her and the whole awkwardness returned. He seemed sober. Anyone would be if they were the target of Mausi’s curses. For once, she was happy with Mausi. Her own vocabulary in such matters was weak. Not that this was enough punishment for what he had done, but it did give peace to her heart.

“Sandhya, I…I…” Akash started to say something just as she was about to turn around to walk to her kitchen.

“Yes?”

“I…I was desperate to be with Divya. You did not pick up any calls and did not reply to any of my emails. What was I supposed to do?”

[_Oh, so now it’s entirely my fault! _]Sandhya thought bitterly but kept silent.

“I could have come to California but the way you were behaving, I was sure that you wouldn’t agree to come back.” He halted.

She stared at the wall before her, taking deep breaths.

“I should have looked for other options but…I can’t explain Sandhya. I was blinded…I was so desperate to have Divya with me and…to… see…you.”

“Stop it!” she glared at him, her heart beating rapidly. “I let you stay here for one week only because you wanted to be with Divya. It’s best for you if you realize that,” she muttered with gritted teeth.

“Fine…Fine…cool down,” Akash sighed, raising both his arms in the air.

She walked to the kitchen, her mind in disarray. As her instincts suggested, he was starting to show his hidden intentions. What should she cook? Damn it. Mausi had spoiled her. She took out vegetables from the fridge and placed them on the counter.

“Need help?” She heard his voice behind her.

“No. I can manage.”

“I insist. We will be done much faster if I…”

“No,” she replied firmly as she washed the vegetables.

“Then we can go out for dinner. Or, I can order food to be delivered. You don’t have to cook.”

Sandhya closed her eyes. He was getting on her nerves now.

“No.”

“Then I am helping you,” he declared as he picked up an onion and a knife and started peeling it.

Sandhya shook her head, frustrated. Akash fumbled with the onion.

She started cutting the veggies, the frustration within her showing in the way she cut them.

Akash stared at her with a worried expression.

“You will cut yourself. Why don’t you go and relax? I will cut them and call you once I am done,” he said seriously.

“Yeah, right. At the rate that you are cutting the onion, we will have our dinner at midnight.”

“I haven’t been into cooking recently. Alright, just be careful. You are taking your anger out on the poor veggies.”

Sandhya observed the veggies, which were definitely not cut in the shape that they should be.

She switched on the stove and poured oil in a cooking pan, all the time cautious to stay away from him while moving in the kitchen. The oil heated up and she grabbed the bowl with the cut onion pieces. To her dismay, he walked over to her side by the sink and started cleaning the utensils.

Was she supposed to feel bad for him? That he was doing all these tasks despite being filthy rich? Surely, he was doing all this only to impress her, she thought bitterly.

She dumped the onion pieces in the oil with such force that a few drops of oil splattered out.

“Careful!” Akash shouted just when she exclaimed, “Ouch!”

She blew on a peanut-sized pink spot on her forearm.

The next instant, Akash grabbed her upper arm with one hand and her wrist with the other, pulled her towards the sink and forced the water to spray on her forearm on the spot where the oil drop had fallen on her skin. His demeanor surprised Sandhya. Worse than the pain of the burn was the discomfort that she felt because he was touching her and and was so close to her that she could feel his breath on her neck. Glancing up, she found him staring at her arm with concern.

She yanked her hand away from his grip and took a step back. Akash looked at her, surprised.

“Sandhya!”

She raised her hand up, warning him not to talk. He stood frozen near the sink as the water continued to gush down the pump. She switched off the stove, walked over to the sofa and sat on it, taking deep breaths. Her wound started burning now that the soothing water was not touching it.

“Mommy! Are you hult?!” Divya ran up to Sandhya.

“You need to apply some medicine to it.” Akash walked over to where they were but stood a few feet away.

“No. It’s minor. I will be fine in a few minutes,” she replied.

“Where is the first-aid box? I will get it for you.”

“I said, there is no need,” she said, looking at him sharply.

“I know whele it is! It is in the cupboard in Mommy’s loom,” Divya exclaimed with pride.

Akash went inside her room and came out with the first-aid box.

He took out a tube of ointment and handed it to her, holding the edge of it, allowing her to grab it without touching him. She reluctantly took it and applied the medicine.

“I can make the curry. You stay here.” He disappeared into the kitchen before she could reply.

Sandhya swallowed and closed her eyes, battling inside as she was reminded again and again of the Akash that she had loved so dearly. She grasped her forehead in despair, wishing that this ordeal would be over soon. After a few minutes, she walked over to the kitchen. He seemed to be doing alright although she hoped that the food would be edible enough for Divya.

“No! Not that much chili. Divya cannot handle it.”

“How about this much?” He showed her a smaller quantity.

She nodded.

He mixed the powder in and switched off the stove.

The curry came out fine, contrary to what she expected. Divya also ate without any complaints and she breathed in relief. She remembered that she had not bought any pajama pants and cursed herself. There was a shop in their apartment complex and they carried some clothes there.

“I have some work and have to go out. I will be back in a few minutes.”

“Sure.”

As soon as Sandhya had stepped out, Akash closed the door and hesitated for a few seconds before he entered Sandhya’s room. He shouldn’t intrude in her room like this but he couldn’t control himself. Opening the cupboard, he found a wooden box right in front of him. It had fallen on the floor when he was searching for the first-aid box. Some of the contents in it had spilled out and he had hastily put everything inside without noticing much. It was only later when he was cooking that he recalled what he had seen. Something red and familiar. Could it be what his mind was saying? No, it couldn’t be. How could it be? She hated him!

He grabbed the box with trembling hands, sat on the bed, took a deep breath and opened it.

Chapter 32 – Memories

A

kash pulled out a pair of glasses and then a green sari from inside, his eyes desperately searching for something red. At the bottom lay a small plastic container with broken pieces of red bangles. A few pieces had fallen out of the container, probably the pieces that he had put back in haste when the box had fallen.

His heart pounding, he picked up a piece, brought it closer to his eye and checked out its design. Yes. There was no doubt. They were the same bangles that he had slid on her hand. He closed his eyes and bent his head upwards. Images flashed before his eyes. How lovingly he had slid them on her hand. How desperate he was to get closer to her on that night. How their souls seemed to have gotten closer despite the physical distance that she had wanted. The final image that flashed in his mind made him open his eyes with a jerk.

It was of Varun’s hand on her waist and her hand, adorned with these same bangles, over his. He closed his palm over the bangle piece, the pricking pressure cutting his skin. How did these bangles break? Why did she treasure them even after they were broken? Questions plagued him to no end. He dug deeper in his brain. She was generally very particular about wearing matching accessories. Why would she wear these bangles with that dress?

Could there be the unlikely chance that she was treasuring their moments together? The thought made him shake with agony instead of happiness. Because, if it was true, then it meant that she had feelings for him. For once, he hoped that she never had any love for him. That way he would not feel the overwhelming guilt that he felt. He pulled his hair. Why? Oh, why did he not stop her then? Why did he react before hearing her out? Why didn’t he look for her and see how she was doing?

Although he had the urge to search for her every day, his reasoning for not doing that had always been that he would be weak as soon as he saw her and fall for her again. He wanted to protect himself from her. His reasoning proved true, since that was what was happening now. But when? Three years later? Only to discover that she had a daughter with him? Only to realize the possibility that she may even have had feelings for him?

He started placing the contents back in the box, guessing that the sari was her mother’s and the glasses her father’s. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Her father would have been an architect, just like him, if he had the means to achieve it in his time. He closed the box and took a deep breath. “What’s the use of thinking about the past, Akash?” he told himself. He walked over to the cupboard and placed it back. Watching Divya play lightened his mood a little.

~

Sandhya returned and saw that both Akash and Divya were not at home. She called his phone.

“Where is Divya?”

“We are at the park. Would you like to join us?”

“No. Just come back in the next fifteen minutes. It’s almost bedtime for Divya.”

“Sure.”

She switched off her phone and searched for her nightclothes. Damn. The store was closed and she had to do with a nightgown. As soon as Akash and Divya returned, she closed her bedroom door and gave Divya a children’s book. It was safe to change into the nightgown. She changed, walked back to Divya and ran her hands over her head. What were the coarse particles in her hair? Sand! She ran her fingers through again and more sand came out.

“Divya, why did you put sand in your hair?” Sandhya said, trying to control her anger.

“Aathaash said I could,” she answered.

Sandhya frowned. Gosh! Didn’t he know that she shouldn’t play in the sand at this time? Now she had to give a bath to Divya. Not only that, but the dreaded head bath.

“You need to take a bath now.”

“No!” Divya cried.

After about five minutes of persuasion, Divya was in the bathroom. She hated head baths, especially at night. Sandhya held her breath and poured water on her head.

Divya started crying uncontrollably and threw the mug out of Sandhya’s hand.

“Divya! Behave yourself!” Sandhya was already frustrated and she was in no condition to deal with a cranky Divya. She started washing her hair quickly. Divya continued crying hysterically.

Akash’s mood had returned to normal after he had taken Divya to the park. But he couldn’t bear her continuous cries that were coming from Sandhya’s room. He sat in his pajamas and folded his fists, trying to control his urge to barge into Sandhya’s room and ask why she was crying. What was wrong with her?

Unable to hold himself back any longer, he got up from his bed and knocked on Sandhya’s room. No answer. Divya’s cries continued.

“Sandhya?” he shouted but again received no response.

He slowly opened the door and found that the cries were coming from the bathroom. From the door that was slightly ajar, he saw that Sandhya was giving a bath to a hysterically crying Divya.

He walked over to them and slid the door ajar.

“Divya! Why are you crying?”

Sandhya looked up at Akash, surprised.

Divya started crying even louder when she saw Akash.

“She hates head baths. You should go. She is behaving worse now that you are here,” Sandhya said, pouring another mug of water over Divya.

Instead of leaving them, Akash stepped into the bathroom and tried to console Divya. Sandhya did not seem too enthusiastic about him in her bathroom but the sole priority on her hands was to make her stop crying. He tried various tactics to make her stop. Finally, he managed to soothe her by playing “Peekaboo” in an innovative way.

He asked Divya to shut her eyes when he said “peekaaa” and asked her to open her eyes when he said “boo.”

Divya started enjoying the game and Sandhya quickly poured water whenever her eyes were shut. Phew. Finally, washing her hair was done. They breathed in relief.

Divya was back to normal and Sandhya started washing her body. It was then that he noticed. Sandhya was dressed in a sleeveless nightgown that reached above her knees. There were thin straps that ran over her shoulders. Divya’s tantrum had resulted in water spilling on her clothes and he could make out most of her curves. Why did she have to be this enchanting? In an instant, every nerve in his body desired her.

He found her big brown eyes staring at him and he looked away. He noticed her pulling her dress to cover her legs from the corner of his eye.

“I guess she is fine now. I will go to my room,” he remarked, not looking at her.

“Yes.”

“Good night, princess.” He blew a kiss to Divya and stepped out of the bathroom.

He went back to his bed and lay down. The way she had pulled her gown, it reminded him of the Sandhya that he knew, the shy Sandhya, his Sandhya. Would there be another day in his life when she would again be his? He closed his eyes in agony and turned on his side. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, he suddenly sat upright and shook his head. He walked into the bathroom to take a cold shower.

Chapter 33 – Hidden Feelings

A

kash was up sooner the next day, but the rest of the sequence was the same. Once they had dropped Divya off, he offered Sandhya a ride in his car by opening his car door. She declined and walked away.

At lunchtime, Sandhya purchased her lunch and was walking back to her office when Sameer caught her and dragged her to sit with him and Akash. Of course, she was not too excited to join them.

“By the way, Sandhya, how was the time spent with Phillip?” Sameer asked casually.

She glanced at Akash before replying.

“It was good. He is a gem of a person…very hospitable,” Sandhya replied, smiling at Sameer.

Akash’s face darkened.

Sameer smiled at her mischievously.

“He sent a few pictures. I thought whatever lie you told was actually true. I mean, it looked like you were going out or something. I know you so I knew it was nothing like that. But seriously, those pictures were awesome and telling another story.”

Sandhya looked at Akash and her challenging eyes met his dark, jealous ones.

“Just imagine, Sandhya, what your email would be if you ended up with Mr. Phillip Huck!” Sameer exclaimed, and giggled. “It would make an amazing pairing of words!” He laughed out loud.

It took time for Sandhya to understand what Sameer was laughing about. She shot up from the table angrily.

“Stop it, Sameer! Sometimes you cross your limits! I consider Phillip a far better gentleman than many people who carry charismatic name tags or heavy price tags because of the wealth that their ancestors accumulated!” she screamed, grabbed her lunch and walked away to her office.

A stunned and paranoid Sameer and a disturbed Akash stared in her direction as she disappeared from their view.

~

Sandhya had important work assigned that day and she had to stay late that evening. She called up Mausi and asked her to take care of Divya. As expected, Mausi burst out against Sandhya’s job and she listened silently for the next five minutes.

“I will work a short day tomorrow at the office, Mausi. Please understand,” she replied and Mausi cooled off a bit.

~

Akash paced outside Sandhya’s room. It was six and she was still working. Even though it was late monsoon season, there had been a heavy downpour of rain for the past six hours and it had become dark outside. He was seriously worried about getting home in time. And what about Divya?

He finally knocked on her door and opened it.

“I will be late today,” she said before he could open his mouth.

[_What about Divya? _]he thought but did not say anything aloud.

He wasn’t comfortable leaving Sandhya in the office this late in this weather but Divya needed someone to be there with her.

“Alright. I can take care of Divya until you get home.”

“No need for that. I have asked Mausi to take care of her until I reach home,” she said, looking at him calmly.

He breathed deeply, controlled his anger and walked out. The rain was still lashing down but Sandhya seemed unfazed by whatever was happening outside. Why was she working so hard for a company that had just accused her of fraud? He sighed. She was weird. But hell, he was weird too when it came to work. Hmm—some similarity there.

He decided to wait for her. He settled in a conference room from which her room was visible, opened his laptop and continued working.

The clock struck 7:30 pm. He shook his head.

“Is she crazy or what?”

Five minutes later, her door opened and he breathed in relief. He quickly packed his stuff and came out, aware of what her reaction was going to be once she saw him.

Yup, a frown.

He returned her frown because he was in a matching bad mood too and accompanied her downstairs silently. She wore a knee-length skirt and a blouse today, looking smart as usual. As soon as they got out on the open road, she opened her umbrella and started walking in the ankle-deep water that flowed on the streets.

Akash’s car pulled up beside him as water gushed over its tires. He wanted to stop her but it would mean walking in the ankle-deep dirty water on the roads. He hesitated for a second before sinking his feet into the water and started walking towards her.

“Sandhya!” he shouted from behind her.

She turned around.

“Listen. It is very late and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go via the train. Come on, it would not kill you to ride in my car for once.” The drizzling rain began to soak into his deep purple shirt and black trousers slowly.

He was surprised to see her smiling.

“So, you think you will get there faster in your car? With this much water, it will surely take much longer than the trains. Let’s see who gets home first today.” She winked at him. Akash looked at her in frustration and worry. He could drop her off at the train station at least, but for some reason, his instinct was saying that tonight was trouble and he shouldn’t leave her alone.

He cursed, turned around and walked up to his car, which was following him. He gave instructions to his driver and walked back to Sandhya.

“What are you doing?” she asked, surprised to see him walking beside her.

“I want to reach home faster too. And according to you, the trains are faster,” he replied, smirking. He saw the priceless look on her face and suppressed his laugh. She was probably thinking about how she would be able to endure him for so long. Why didn’t he think of this earlier? He could have traveled with her to the office every day! Yes, he did dislike crowds and had heard that the trains were generally very crowded, but he could do that much to be with her.

“You don’t have an umbrella,” she said, looking puzzled. It was still drizzling.

Akash had not thought about that. He looked at Sandhya blankly, wondering if she would share her umbrella, but he knew the answer. She walked quickly in silence and Akash had no choice but to walk with her. Not an easy task on a road filled with ankle-deep water and with poor visibility. They finally reached the train station and the train arrived after about three minutes of waiting. He breathed in relief to see that it was not crowded at all.

Sandhya got into the train and he got in after her. Suddenly, everyone stared at him with their eyes as big and red as tomatoes. Even Sandhya.

“What are you doing? This is a ladies’ compartment!” Sandhya exclaimed.

“Ladies?” he asked, puzzled.

“Yes, get down the train and go to the adjacent compartment. Mark my words, these women here will not hesitate to throw you from a moving train,” she warned in desperation.

Akash looked around. Yes, there were only women all around him and some of them were ready to attack him. But a few of the younger women were blushing and smiling at him.

“Got it,” he said quickly, got off the train and managed to get into the adjacent compartment.

He held onto a rod and leaned out of the train as the wind blew. This was a different experience for him. “Wow! This is fun!”

~

Sandhya watched Akash lean out of the train and cursed.

“Doesn’t he know how dangerous it is?” she cursed, secretly worried about his actions.

Her phone rang. It was Miss Vijaya.

“Hi, Miss Vijaya!”

“Hi, Sandhya. I just called for a chat.” Miss Vijaya started talking casually with Sandhya.

After a couple of minutes, her teacher’s voice got more cautious and hesitant.

“Sandhya, I wanted to talk to you about—about you and Akash.”

Sandhya stiffened, her heart pounding.

“What?” she asked.

“I know that you are living together. And if I may say so, you should get married. You know how our society—”

Sandhya closed her eyes and clutched her forehead.

“Ma’am, the signal’s weak. I am not able to hear you. I will call you later,” she managed to say and switched off her phone. Her blood boiled. How much did Miss Vijaya know? How did she find out? Suddenly, she felt extreme anger at Akash for having barged into her life like this.

“I wish he would simply disappear from my life!” she told herself bitterly.

It was not their stop, but she got off at the next station, not wanting to travel in the same train as Akash. She walked over to a bench and sat on it for a few minutes.

“Looks like someone fell from the train,” she heard someone say.

Her mind went blank and her heart stopped beating. Akash’s image leaning out of the train flashed before her.

She frantically dug the phone from her purse and dialed Akash’s phone with bated breath. It rang a few times before it went to voicemail. Her legs grew weak. “Maybe his phone is on silent,” she kept saying to herself as she walked around and searched for anyone or anything purple in color in the crowd around her. She pulled her hair in dismay, cursing herself for getting off the train like that.

Her eyes caught him standing by a magazine shop and she felt that there was air around her to breathe again. A drop of sweat trickled down her brow and she realized how badly she was shaking. She breathed and managed to walk towards a bench, sat on it and hid her face with her trembling, cold hands.

Why did she still care for him this much?

She pulled her hands down, opened her eyes and found Akash standing right in front of her, staring at her.

“Why the hell did you get off here?” he fumed.

She remained silent.

“What the hell, Sandhya? It’s 8:30 now. And you are behaving like this? What about Divya?” he screamed.

“Divya is fine with Mausi.” Akash shook his head, his face red with anger. They waited for twenty more minutes only to find that the trains were delayed because of the rainwater.

“There are buses from here. Let’s try that,” she said, walking out.

“If you had come in my car, we could have been with Divya by now.”

“You think so? Why don’t you check with your driver?” she replied challengingly.

Akash called up his driver and found that he was also stuck somewhere near Sandhya’s office.

“Well, Miss Know-It-All, why the hell did you work so late when you knew that reaching home would be so difficult?”

“I don’t always know it all. This is the first time that the trains have stopped in my three years here.”

They walked out of the station and gasped. The water was knee deep on the roads. In places, it came up to the waist. They were stuck!

A few buses moved slowly.

“We have to walk in this water.”

“What?” Akash exclaimed.

“Or else stay here for the night,” she replied.

He sighed and they both entered the water. Luckily, the rain had stopped. After a few minutes of grueling walking, they reached the bus stop, only to find that the buses were also canceled for the night.

Akash shook his head in frustration and anger.

“Sandhya! You are not working this late on a rainy night ever again!” he warned.

She remained silent. Normally she would shoot back something bitter at him but tonight she was responsible for landing both of them in a deep mess.

“I have a guest house nearby. We can spend the night there if…that is alright with you,” he asked cautiously.

She considered his suggestion. She was dead tired and was desperate to get into warm clothes and sleep.

“What about clothes?”

“There are generally spare nightclothes there, or there were when I checked in last.”

“That seems to be the best option we have.”

She called up Mausi and told her their plan. Divya was already asleep at her place. Mausi was worried initially but was relieved to know that Akash was with her. They both waded through the knee-deep water towards the guest house.

Suddenly something sharp scraped her leg under the water, causing a sharp pain. She was about to lose her balance and fall in the water when she felt his strong hands on her waist. She attempted to pull herself up but in the process Akash lost his balance. The next instant, they were both in the water. Akash got up quickly and pulled Sandhya up. Their clothes were completely wet and dirty. Anything that could go wrong was going wrong tonight.

They breathed in relief as they reached the guest house. It was a posh apartment on the first floor. Akash opened the door using a security code and they both stepped inside. They were in a large contemporary room with a single large bed straight in front of them and a small dining table with four chairs to their left. There was a door to the right. Must be another bedroom, she thought, eager to take a shower and change into clean clothes.

“Where are the clothes?”

“In the closet. Let’s wash our hands first,” Akash said as he entered the room to the right. Sandhya followed him.

It was a huge bathroom! What? That meant that this was a single room?

She reluctantly walked into the bathroom and washed her hands. Her feet were sore and she knew that Akash’s must be too. She checked herself in the mirror and saw Akash’s image beside her. Gosh…they were both so dirty right now. Yuck!

He opened a closet and checked for any clothes. She narrowed her eyes as he handed her new extra-large red checkered men’s shorts and a white T-shirt.

“What? You want me to wear this? Show me what else you have there!” she demanded.

Akash considered her for a second.

“Want to exchange?” he said playfully, hiding something behind him.

“First show me what you have there.”

He laughed and showed her another pair of shorts, the same as the one he handed to her.

“Is this all you have? And this is a single room? What do you do with all the millions or billions that you have? Huh?” she shouted.

He simply shook his head, amused.

“No one is forcing you to wear anything here…OK?” Akash replied, cocking an eyebrow and smirking.

Sandhya’s face became red with embarrassment. She grabbed the clothes angrily and went into the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, she walked out, feeling clean and refreshed and looking like a comedian in those oversized red checkered shorts and the T-shirt.

Akash laughed. “It suits you well. Perfectly matches your attitude.”

She rolled her eyes. However the clothes were, it felt heavenly to be in warm clothes and on dry land again.

Akash went for his shower. She grabbed sheets from the closet and spread one on the floor, a few feet away from the bed, then snatched a pillow from the bed and threw it down. She then covered herself completely with another thin sheet, wondering how funny and vulnerable she must be looking in those boxers and that T-shirt! And since she wasn’t wearing anything else underneath, she was glad to hide beneath the sheets.

She saw Akash coming out of the bathroom and gasped. He was only in those shorts and no shirt! The shorts was also the exact replica of what she wore. He turned in her direction and she closed her eyes. She slowly opened her eyes and found his dark eyes staring at her. He was kneeling besides her.

“What the? What are you doing?” she said, sitting.

“Nothing. Was just checking if you were asleep or not,” he replied, smiling. He was so close that his cologne was hitting her hard. This was not good at all.

“Why are you not wearing a shirt?” she said, frowning, looking at his bare chest and then back at his face and wet hair.

“Does it bother you?”

“Not at all.”

Good. Because there isn’t an extra T-shirt here anyways,” he replied with a fake smile.

Sandhya suddenly giggled.

“What?” he asked, annoyed.

“Our clothes, it reminds me of our school uniform.”

He smiled back and their eyes locked. A couple of seconds later, their smiles vanished and they both looked away.

~

Akash climbed on the bed, covered himself with the cozy, thick blanket and tried to sleep. He opened his eyes and saw Sandhya tossing and turning.

“Sandhya? It is a large bed. We can sleep on either side without…touching each other. You won’t be able to sleep on the chilly floor. The sheets are too thin.”

“No, I am fine.” She turned the other way.

It was already past midnight. Akash shook his head and drifted off into a blissful sleep. After half an hour, he woke up with a start to see that she was still turning uncomfortably.

“Sandhya?” he said sleepily. She opened her eyes.

“You sleep on the bed. I will sleep on the floor,” he said, getting up.

“No, it’s fine.”

“If it continues like this then neither of us will be able to sleep.” He got up and inspected the bed, lifting the mattress.

“Actually, there are two beds here attached as one. I can separate them.” He started moving the bed from one side, then the other. Finally, the two beds were separated about a foot apart from each other.

He saw Sandhya breathe in relief and smiled.

“There is only one thick blanket though and I don’t want to rip it into two,” he warned.

She smiled and climbed onto the bed as they both shared the same blanket across the beds. Luckily, it was large enough.

Akash watched her drifting off to sleep. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and smiled. What a stubborn woman! The light was still on and he got up to switch it off.

He observed her sleeping face and his heart felt warm with affection. He tried to adjust the blanket on her feet when he noticed blood just below her knee. She had scraped herself badly. He got medicine from the bathroom and after hesitating a bit, held her leg to apply the medicine.

As soon as he touched her leg, Sandhya sprang up and was out of the bed in a split second. She had a terrified, furious expression on her face and was breathing heavily. Her eyes were blazing red.

“I’ll kill you!” she said harshly, pointing her index finger threateningly at him.

Akash froze.

“Sandhya! I was just trying to apply medicine,” he said, astonished. She stood still.

“Sandhya!” he screamed. Her expression changed and her eyes got back to normal. She looked at him, confused, and then looked down at her finger. She pulled her hand back.

“You have a wound on your leg. I was trying to apply medicine. I…I wasn’t trying…” Akash tried to make her understand his intentions.

“I know,” she replied, her voice quivering. She was trying to breathe evenly.

“I thought it was… I just… Forget about it.” She shook her head, took the medicine from his hands and applied some to her leg.

Akash continued standing by her, wondering what made her act like that.

“Don’t do that ever again,” she muttered before drifting off to sleep.

A confused and worried Akash went to sleep after another half an hour.

~

Akash woke up early and found Sandhya sound asleep. It was 8 am. He quickly called up Mausi and made sure that Divya was fine. For a few minutes, he enjoyed watching a sleeping Sandhya. She looked so innocent and serene when her cute mouth was closed and no bitter remarks escaped from it. Who knew when he would get this chance again?

They would probably have to take off from work today. His legs were still hurting and he knew that Sandhya also had a grueling time yesterday. They would have to get clothes from Sandhya’s apartment too. An idea struck him and he smiled. He called up his administrative assistant, a stylish elderly lady who could get any work done magically.

~

Sandhya woke up, spreading her arms and yawning.

“Good morning.” Akash smiled at her from the small dining table.

“Good morning.”

She called up Mausi and spoke to Divya for a few minutes and ended the call.

“What about clothes to get back home!” she suddenly exclaimed.

“Relax. I have asked someone to get them for us.”

“Oh.”

After half an hour, a man delivered a bag with clothes to their doorstep.

Akash took the bag inside the bathroom and took his shower.

“Your turn,” he said, sounding innocent as he came out and added, “I will order breakfast by the time you get ready.”

“Alright.”

Akash waited for her to explode from inside the bathroom. He himself had not checked the clothes that were delivered for her, wanting to surprise himself. Strangely, he did not hear any curses or abuse directed towards him from inside. Hmm. What could she do? She probably realized that shouting wouldn’t help. She had to wear what he’d got delivered. He could ask for this much after everything that he went through since yesterday night, couldn’t he, he thought, smiling at himself.

~

Sandhya checked the clothes and gasped. The deep green chiffon sari’s material was smooth and felt expensive. She was expecting anything but a sari. The blouse was sleeveless. She breathed heavily, frustrated. Why?

What about underwear? She dug inside the bag further and got out the lingerie. She gasped in horror. The lace-trimmed black underwear was meant for seduction. She picked up the bra with her index finger and glared at it with a frown.

[_AKASH!!! _]She wanted to burst out of the bathroom and strangle him. She opened her mouth to shout at him but stopped. What would she shout? Why did you get this type of lingerie for me? Oh no. That sounded so…whatever.

She decided to let it go. It wasn’t like he was going to see her in them. She took a shower and wore the clothes. She was amazed at how perfectly the blouse fit her. The back of the blouse was far too open for her taste and the front was also a bit deeper than her preference. But overall, it was not indecent. She wore the sari as conservatively as possible and looked at herself in the mirror. She gasped. How could she go in front of him like this? It was hugging her in the right places and for once, she herself was amazed at how good she looked. She remembered her past with Akash and got even more disturbed. Her heart sank at her situation. Why was he playing such cruel games with her? Did he think that she didn’t have any feelings? Her brow knitted with despair.

What are you thinking, Sandhya? You really think he would care? He has grown more handsome and you…you are looking much worse than how you were before.

She realized what she was thinking about and shook her head.

What the heck? It doesn’t matter now, does it? It’s only for a few minutes. You can change as soon as you reach home. Just act normally until then, she told herself, then took a deep breath and opened the door.

~

Akash had set the breakfast on the table and was waiting eagerly to see Sandhya in a sari. She would be very cross with him for sure, but it was worth it. The bathroom door opened. He had a ready smirk on his face as his excited eyes landed on her. In a flash, his smirk disappeared. His mouth opened as he took in her image from head to toe. What the heck had he done? Why did he have to do this? This was a bad idea—a very bad idea. How stupid could he get? He cursed himself. [_This is called digging a hole for yourself! _]He suddenly noticed that she was looking at him now and their eyes locked for one second…two seconds…three seconds…before she looked away and walked towards the bed.

His body was on fire. Every cell in his body was pulling him towards her. Her long wavy tresses were loose and his hands were itching to feel them. She looked like an angel; she was the most beautiful woman on this earth for him. This was too much torture for him to bear.

She seemed busy making the bed and turned away from him, but this view was also killer. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on the breakfast on the table. It was dangerous to ask her to eat with him. But, he had already set the table. He tried to control his shaky hands.

“Sandhya! Let’s eat breakfast first. We can take care of all that later,” he managed to say.

She turned around and he immediately looked at his plate in front of him.

“OK,” was all he heard before noticing her walking towards him.

She took a seat opposite him and looked at the food on her plate. She looked anywhere but him. They started eating silently. Not a word was spoken. The whole room felt like it was charged with invisible energy.

~

She cleared the table in silence with him. Akash was exceptionally silent and she wondered if the reason was what she thought. She did not dare to look straight at him. He had changed into a deep maroon shirt and light gray pants. The moment she had come out of the bathroom, she had caught him looking at her. One look at his darkened eyes and her apprehensions were confirmed. She knew this look. She simply knew.

Just a few more minutes and we will be out of here, she thought. She walked back to the bed and gathered the extra sheets that she had got from the closet. Walking back to the closet, she tried to place the sheets on the top rack. The rack was too high for her to reach and she attempted to jump to place them there.

“I can do that for you.” She heard his deep voice behind her.

His arm extended from her side. He grabbed the sheets from her hand and leaned over her to place them on the top rack. She was practically imprisoned between his chest and arms and the closet.

The slight touch of her back and her arm caused his desire, which he was trying so hard to control, to rear its head again. His feet froze even though his mind screamed to retreat from behind her.

[_Say something, Sandhya! Shout, curse…just say something, _]he screamed within himself, hoping that it would help him keep a lid on his desire.

She simply stood there, not moving. A few seconds passed like that.

His desire overwhelmed him. Unable to control himself any longer, he bent slightly and buried his face in her hair, his breath grazing her neck. The current moment felt like a delicate dance between fire and ice. He breathed in the scent of her hair and marveled at the satisfaction and torment that he was receiving at the same time.

He looked for any sign from her that told him to stop, although it would kill him to stop now. He saw her close her eyes in pain or…was it pleasure?

Sandhya’s heart beat hard and loud as she closed her eyes tight, trying to ignore his cologne, his chest touching her back, his arm touching her arm. She sensed his heart beating rapidly next to her back and pressed her teeth tight in agony. With his face nestled in her hair, she did not remember anything other than the ecstasy that she was feeling. Her past, present and future were nowhere in sight. All she knew was that her Akash wanted her and she wanted him as never before.

His warm hands held her waist and she gasped, trying to breathe. His hand moved her hair to one side, exposing her back. His fingers touching her back slightly were causing sensations that she did not want to get away from. She wanted him. She wanted him badly. What she was feeling was something that she had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity.

His hot breath on her neck and shoulder, then on her bare back, burned her within. In a sudden motion, she turned around and held his hands with hers. She looked up at his face, his deep, dark, desirous eyes looking at her with love and want. Those eyes…those eyes that she had been dreaming about for so long were right before her. The man that she loved from the depth of her heart was standing in front of her. Her eyes pleaded with him to kiss her, telling him that she could not hold herself back any longer. The next instant, both of them crashed their lips into each other and kissed viciously, their passion and desperation completely unleashed. Sandhya broke from the kiss and started kissing him all over his face. Akash held her hair and pulled her back so he could kiss her again.

Their hands roamed over each other unhindered, as if they were each other’s property, as if they had belonged to each other since the beginning of time.

Suddenly, Akash embraced her tightly and pulled her up in the air as he continued to kiss her neck and jaw. She dug her hand into his hair and kissed his forehead.

“I knew you would come back to me, sweetie!” he whispered.

Something snapped in her head. Her kisses slowed. She loosened her grip and came to a complete halt.

Akash wondered what was wrong. He held Sandhya closer and tighter in his embrace and kissed her again and again. She was suddenly so motionless and cold. He ended his embrace and put her down to look at her. Her expression shocked him like hell. She was looking at him with ice-cold blank eyes, eyes that held none of the passion and need that was present a few seconds ago.

“Sandhya?” He held her arms and shook her. Her blank expression changed into shock and astonishment. She held a hand to her mouth and retreated back into the room with a tortured expression.

She adjusted her now disheveled sari in haste. Then she grabbed her purse, walked out and slammed the door shut. The whole time, she had not looked at him once.

Akash’s world crashed. He had been in heaven for a few minutes and was back in hell now.

Chapter 34 – Agony

A

kash felt an indescribable despair as he watched Sandhya turn into a cold stranger. A part of him wanted to shake her and make her somehow return to how she was a few seconds ago. But the expression on her face made him stay frozen to the ground. Her face—it conveyed extreme agony and anguish and was a complete contrast to the passionate and zestful face that he had witnessed a few moments earlier. How should he handle the deep sinking despair that he was feeling? Sandhya had the ability to take him to the high clouds of blissful happiness and to plunge him into the deep sea of tormenting pain, all within a split second. He battled between running after her and dealing with his own suffering. He ended up staying rooted to the ground, knowing that going after her at this time would be of no use. It was clear that she wanted to be away from him at the moment.

He dragged himself to the bed and sat on it. His body was normal now but mentally he was wretched. To know that she desired him as much as he desired her was a shocking revelation to him. And the intense passion that she displayed was new and unexpected. She had always been shy and he would be the more passionate and demanding of the two in the past. Of course, they had hardly spent any time with each other and then they had separated. Why had she behaved so strangely later? What had he done wrong?

“I knew you would come back to me, sweetie,” was all he had said.

He would have to talk to her. Not now, when she was disturbed, but soon enough. He would help her with whatever issues she was dealing with, even if it meant learning about any dark secrets that she may have.

~

Sandhya walked fast in an unknown direction on the busy road. She could hardly breathe; each beat of her heart screamed at her with fury and no mercy.

The roads were still wet, with the potholes and the lower areas filled up with water. She ignored the dirty roads and took the same hasty steps into potholes and normal ground alike. Passersby looked at her curiously, wondering why she did not care about dirtying her beautiful sari and why she looked so distressed and on the verge of crying.

She looked up at the sky in agony.

HOW COULD I? she screamed at herself.  She called a cab and got in. After an agonizing half an hour, she was back in her apartment. She threw her purse on the floor, ran into her bedroom and stood before the full-length mirror on the wall. Her eyes narrowed with utter hatred at her own image in the mirror. Never had she fallen as low as she had today. What she had done was unforgivable.

How could you do this? You have proved that you have NO SELF RESPECT! NO PRIDE! NO SELF ESTEEM! You have let yourself and your family down. They will never forgive you. I…WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!

You despicable woman! I abhor you! she exclaimed in rage within herself as she threw the bedside clock at the mirror, breaking it into pieces. Her image vanished before her eyes and glass pieces lay everywhere before her.

She sat on her bed and dug her nails into the mattress, desperate to cry.

You are nothing but a toy in his hands. You are never going to be free from him. You are stuck; stuck with thoughts of him forever! Disgusting! Do you hear me? You are disgusting! You will let him destroy you again and again and again! she screamed in her mind.

She let out an agonized cry from her mouth but no tears came to her eyes. She crashed onto her bed and cried aloud, but her efforts to shed tears were in vain.

Her eyes caught a picture of a smiling Divya on her side table.

No! I have to be strong. I cannot let all this affect me. I have to take care of Divya. Divya! My angel! She will help me overcome this again. I made a terrible mistake that could never be corrected. But I will ensure that there is no question of it happening again.

With a swift motion, she got up from her bed, took off her sari and changed into a salwar kameez. She stormed out of the apartment. She acted normal to outsiders, but internally, she faced extreme turbulence that did not seem like it would settle down soon. She hesitated for a second before entering a paint shop and purchasing a sample can of paint. Sitting on a nearby bench for a few minutes helped her get rid of the nausea she felt because of the smell in the paint shop.

She called her lawyer.

“How soon can you get the papers ready?”

“Six days.”

“I will pay you double if you get them ready in two days.”

Pause on the other end.

“I will see what I can do.”

Divya was still at Mausi’s but she was not in a situation to handle her anyways.

She couldn’t have Akash living in her apartment. Not after what happened. She considered all the options she had to make him move out without letting Divya go. Determined, she got up.  Mausi would be mad at her and Akash may not believe her, but it was worth a try.

~

Akash saw the apartment door open and knew that Sandhya must be inside. A creepy uneasiness crept over him. He hoped that she would give them some time and think sensibly. She sat at the dining table, looking at an album. She glanced up and her eyes turned cold. Akash could not understand her. If only she would speak up and tell him what was bothering her. But right now, she was not ready to talk and he also needed time. He walked into Divya’s room when, from the corner of his eye, he caught Sandhya putting a round can inside her purse. The silence was killing him. A few minutes later, he came out of his room to ask about Divya. He could go to Mausi’s place and get her. Having her around would definitely cheer them up. He hadn’t seen her since yesterday morning and was eager to hear her bright, chirpy, cheerful voice. Did she miss her papa? he wondered.

Sandhya was not around the living room. He walked over to the dining table and opened the album lying there. He gasped. A tiny Divya, completely wrapped in a cloth, was sleeping on Sandhya’s chest. It seemed like they were in a hospital and Divya was just born. She looked so small and blissful as she slept. His eyes turned to Sandhya’s tired face looking at Divya with a faint, mesmerizing smile. The guilt of not having been there for her at that difficult time returned, making his heart heavy. He turned the pages and saw pictures of Divya when she was more grown up. The photos were arranged chronologically and he dwelled on each and every photo.

He noticed Sandhya’s purse half open on the floor by her bedroom door. He walked over to it and opened the purse to see what the round can he had seen was. It was a small can of paint. Why did she have that in her purse when she did not like the smell of wet paint? He put the purse back in its place.

He was about to knock on the door of her room when it opened.

“I have something to talk to you about,” she said bluntly before he could ask about Divya.

“What is it?” he asked, realizing too late that his voice was blunt too. His mission to be nice to her always failed whenever she was bitter with him.

She handed him the envelope in her hand.

“I…” Her face softened for just a second before it hardened again.

“I ordered a DNA test using your hair sample. The results have come. You are not Divya’s father,” she said calmly, turning away from him.

Akash stood frozen on the ground. He stared at her hard and long, standing before her silently for about a minute. His face had hardened like stone; his eyes pierced through her.

He turned around, walked into Divya’s room with the envelope and closed the door. He packed his stuff in a few minutes and stormed out of her apartment, not looking at her once.

~

Sandhya was shocked that he had believed her so easily; she had expected that he would not believe her, move out and order a test for himself. By the time he received the results, her lawyer would have been ready with all the documents necessary. She sat on the sofa and hid her face behind her palms. Images of Divya and Akash flashed before her eyes and her stomach churned. Divya and he fighting a mock fight; Divya on his tummy; Divya in his arms!

“I am sorry, Divya,” she muttered to herself with guilt.

A few minutes later, Sandhya composed herself and called Mausi.

“Mausi, I am very sorry that you had to take care of Divya for so long. I will come and get her now.”

“Oh! But Akash just came and took her.”

Sandhya froze.

“What? Why did you let him take her?” she screamed.

“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I let him take her?” Mausi replied, worried.

Sandhya fell silent, frozen with fear for a few seconds.

“Mausi, I made a huge mistake!” she cried out and told her everything, trembling with fear and uncertainty. All she could think of was Divya’s face and whether she would see her again.

Mausi paused for a few seconds. She could not get angry at Sandhya now although she did not approve of what she had done.

“Calm down, Sandhya. He won’t do anything rash. Just call him and apologize. Tell him the complete truth and then he will understand. He needs to know why you are acting this way. You can never run away from the truth, dear.”

“He may not believe anything now, Mausi,” she whispered in agony and cut the call.

She called up Akash multiple times but he did not answer. After about fifteen agonizing minutes, he answered.

“Akash!” she exclaimed.

Silence on the other end.

“Listen, Akash. Don’t separate Divya from me!”

Again silence on the other end.

“Akash! Please say something! I will accept all of your demands. You can stay at my apartment for as long as you want. I will not say anything. I can’t live without Divya!”

“Then how did you think that I could live without Divya?” He spoke for the first time, his voice laced with bitterness.

She fell silent.

“I would never want to separate you from Divya. I have a heart, unlike you,” he said coldly.

Though his words were bitter, Sandhya breathed in immense relief.

“So you’re giving Divya back?”

“No.”

“What do you mean?”

“After what you said, I cannot stay in your apartment anymore. I am taking Divya with me.”

“Where?” Her apprehension returned.

“To my house! Where else?” he exclaimed, irritated.

“B…but I’m sorry, Akash. Can’t you forget what I said? I have no issues if you stay here!”

“Good-bye, Sandhya.”

“No, wait! When are you going to send her back?”

“What’s the urgency? We can talk in a week,” he replied sarcastically and added in a stern voice, “Until then, she is staying with me.”

“Can I talk to her?”

The line disconnected before she could finish her sentence. Sandhya sucked in a breath. He wouldn’t even let her talk to her own baby? She squatted on the floor with her back supported by the wall. The phone slid from her hand and fell on her lap.

Her body shook in agitation. She had an unstoppable urge to see Divya.

Her phone rang. It was Mausi.

“What happened, Sandhya? Did you talk to Akash? Did he come back home?”

“Mausi, Mausi,” Sandhya choked.

“You are making me scared, Sandhya!”

“He spoke to me.”

“Thank God! What did he say?”

Mausi listened to Sandhya patiently.

“What are you going to do now? Shall I talk to him? I can try to make him understand.”

“No, Mausi. I don’t think he will listen to anyone now. He needs to cool off. I will talk to him in a couple of days.”

“Do you think Divya will be fine without you?” Mausi asked.

Sandhya’s heart sank. How was she going to live without seeing her daughter for two days? Now, she understood the agony that Akash must have gone through when she showed him the papers. But what could she do?

“I think she will be fine. She has become very attached to him.”

“Sandhya, Divya’s cough was getting worse and she had a fever when Akash took her. I didn’t tell you earlier because…”

“What? Divya had a fever! Why didn’t you tell me?” Sandhya stood up, paranoid.

“Calm down. It was mild. I checked her temperature right before Akash arrived.”

“Oh, my baby!” she cried out. Every nerve in her body was aching to see Divya, wrap her in her arms and comfort her.

“I have no choice now. I will go and stay at his house. I don’t care what anyone thinks,” she said, disturbed.

“Are you sure, Sandhya? I mean, it was another matter if he stayed in your apartment. But you going and staying at his house? People will talk. He is rich and…”

“I don’t care, Mausi. I only care about my daughter. It’s only for two days—forty-eight hours. I can endure that much. I have to.” Her words seemed to be an attempt to convince herself.

There was a pause from Mausi’s end.

“Sandhya, my husband is here with me. He says he will drop you in his taxi at Akash’s house. I don’t want you to go alone in this condition.”

“No! No need, Mausi. I am fine!”

Mausi’s conservative husband hardly spoke to her and she always felt uncomfortable around him, knowing how much he resented her. She was surprised that he came forward to help her. No. It must have been Mausi insisting he drive her.

“He has already left. He will be at your doorstep any minute now.”

“What? Alright.” Sandhya gave in.

She stood still after switching off her cell. Why was life so harsh? Why was she forced to face and do the exact things that she dreaded the most? Her body shook with resentment as she packed a few clothes of hers and Divya’s. Her mind was turbulent and she had no doubt that the next two days were going to be worse. She called up her office and requested time off for the next few days; she could not work sanely in this situation. Sandhya opened her laptop and noted down Akash’s address from information that her company maintained. The doorbell rang and Sandhya found Mausi’s husband, Gopal Ji, looking grimly at her. She quickly said a namaste and went inside to fetch her bag. He didn’t greet her.

“Let me take the bag from you,” he said, surprising her. Before she could reply, he had grabbed the heavy bag from her shoulders and started walking down the stairs. They drove silently towards Akash’s house and her apprehensions returned as they approached their destination. She couldn’t help but recall the insults she had faced the last time she had been to his mansion in their village. Her body trembled and her hands became sweaty. Anything for Divya, she thought to herself.

“We have arrived.” Gopal Ji announced and Sandhya jerked out of her thoughts.

Chapter 35 – Compromise

S

he got out and stared at the beautiful two-story house before her. Although its size was small compared to their mansion in the village, it was big according to Mumbai’s standards, where living space was highly expensive. It was located in a posh colony where only high-profile people could afford to live. The open space in front of the house had a well-maintained garden with a few shrubs. Three granite steps led to the porch. She stood before the large entrance door and took a deep breath. Suddenly, she was glad that Gopal Ji was there with her. There was some invisible strength that she drew from him although he was simply standing with her bag by her side. It almost felt as if her father was standing there to support her. She shook her head. She was losing her mind. Mausi must have forced him to come and here she was imagining all these stupid thoughts.

The door opened and a woman, who seemed to be the maid, opened the door.

“I want to see Akash.”

A few seconds later, she saw Akash carrying Divya in his arms. Her heart skipped a beat. How much she wanted to step inside and run to her daughter.

~

Akash’s pace slowed down as he walked towards the door. He stood before them, showing no emotion.

Divya, who had been looking the other way until now, saw Sandhya and leaped towards her.

“Mommy!”

Sandhya wrapped her in her arms, hugged her tight and kissed her multiple times on her cheeks. Akash stood watching them. She stared at Divya to her heart’s content and placed a hand on her forehead. The fever seemed to have subsided.

“Mommy! Thome inside. I have to show you so much!” Divya shouted as she dragged Sandhya towards the door.

“Wait, Divya! I will come in a few minutes, dear. You go inside.”

She turned to Akash and got the dreaded words out of her mouth.

“Do you mind if I stay at your house for a few days?”

Akash was silent for a few seconds as he held her with his cold, sharp gaze. She closed her eyes. Would he tell her to get out of his house? Would he insult her again? Coming to his house and begging him to let him stay in his house was insult enough. She could not take any more degradation.

She opened her eyes and saw him still staring at her. He stepped aside, indicating that it was fine with him.

“This is Mausi’s husband, Gopal Ji,” Sandhya introduced.

Akash’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh! I did not know!” Akash exclaimed in a warmer tone. He was about to extent his hand to shake but instead folded them for a quick namaste to greet him.

“Namaste,” Gopal Ji replied.

“Please come inside.”

Sandhya and Gopal Ji entered the wide living room with contemporary cream-colored leather sofas. The entire house had granite floors. A staircase went up on the left side. Behind the staircase at the far end was the kitchen. On the right side on the farther end, there were two rooms. One seemed to be used as an office. A sleek black dining table adorned the area across from the kitchen. Right behind the dining table was a door that led to a backyard. Although the ambience was pleasant, Sandhya stiffened with suffocation, wanting to run back to her safe two-bedroom middle-class apartment. She did not belong here and every cell within her reminded her of her torment when she had stepped into his house in the village. Just like sunsets. They were beautiful to normal people, but she dreaded them. She dreaded the utter darkness that followed after that beautiful experience.

~

Mausi’s husband observed Akash. He had noticed the initial shock on his face on seeing Sandhya. He had also observed the flicker of happiness that had passed through his face, which soon got replaced with cold bitterness. Complex man, just as his wife told him.

“Mommy! Thome, I will show you my playloom!” Divya exclaimed as she dragged Sandhya to the closed room on the right.

“Gopal Ji!! You too! Thome, See my playloom!” Divya called out.

Akash smiled as Divya opened the door and ran inside excitedly.

The room was a paradise for a little child. Scenic pictures adorned the yellow walls all around with princesses and fairies all over. Pink curtains covered the windows and many toys were arranged neatly in a corner.

Sandhya breathed heavily. The room was newly painted and the wet paint smell was still very strong. She turned around and walked out of the house as fast as she could. Akash’s smile disappeared and his face turned red as he walked out of the room, muttering something to himself.

Gopal Ji could not hear much but caught one word: “jealous.” His heart twisted at what Akash must be thinking about Sandhya. He was nobody compared to Akash’s stature, but he was older than him and he felt it was his duty to speak up for Sandhya.

“She doesn’t feel well around wet paint.” Gopal Ji spoke up.

Akash turned to him, taken aback.

“I worked with her before. She never had any aversion towards wet paint. And she carries wet paint in her purse,” he said bitterly as he walked to her purse, opened it and got out the small sample of wet paint.

It was Gopal Ji’s turn to be surprised.

“That is disturbing.”

“What?”

“That she is carrying this can with her,” Gopal Ji replied. They were both silent for a few minutes. “I know why she cannot handle wet paint.”

“You do? How? I am dying to know why she is behaving so strangely. How can I help her if she doesn’t tell me anything?” Akash pleaded, his voice showing his frustration.

Gopal Ji swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Sandhya was in her final stage of pregnancy. I did not know her that well other than my wife speaking about her occasionally. We had met only once. I did not approve of her…being pregnant…you know.”

Akash held on to the table.

“I knew that she had made arrangements for the delivery. My wife had to go out of town unexpectedly that day. I happened to be around Sandhya’s apartment when I saw her walking towards me, dragging a suitcase behind her.

“They were painting an adjacent building and the entire place smelled of wet paint.

“She was halfway when she halted and clutched her stomach in pain. I knew right then that she was having a contraction.”

“Contraction?” Akash interrupted, still holding the table tight.

“It’s a kind of tightening that happens and results in immense pain right before delivery. It comes and goes at frequent intervals.

“I simply sat in my taxi, watching her, not once considering that I could walk over to her and help her with the suitcase. I was just—cold. Once her contraction subsided, she walked towards my taxi. I was hoping that she would pick another taxi. But no, she chose me to drive her to the hospital. She had just settled herself in the taxi and breathed in relief when she exclaimed that she had forgotten her purse. She looked up to me pleadingly.

‘Uncle, please, could you get my purse? It’s on the third floor, apartment 31B,’ she pleaded.

“I knew that her next contraction would hit her soon and she was in no condition to climb up three stories. And yet, I had some beast inside me that kept me seated. I was battling inside, debating whether I should go or not. Maybe, if she had asked once more, I would have gone. But stubborn as she is, she never did. She endured her next contraction and as soon as it subsided, she rushed out towards the apartment. It must have taken her another twenty minutes of torment to go up the three stories and come down. She again halted on the road. This time the contraction seemed stronger. I could see her pain as tears streaked her cheeks. Once again, my conscience pricked me. Just then, I received a call from my daughter’s hostel. My heart stopped. Was my daughter alright? I breathed in relief when I was informed that she only had a mild fever. I again looked at Sandhya, sitting on her knees on the road, enduring her pain alone amongst the smell of the wet paint, as passersby watched her with pity or curiosity, but none stopped to assist her. My whole perspective changed. I saw my own daughter sitting like that in the middle of the road. That image was enough. I immediately got out of the taxi and ran to her. I was of course of no use to her then since by the time I had reached her, her contraction had subsided and she was able to walk to the taxi on her own.”

“I haven’t been able to forgive myself so far for not having helped her on that day. You are the first person I am disclosing this to. I am sure my wife would hate me if I told her about what I did. Please don’t tell Shanta about this. I told you because your conclusion of Sandhya’s actions pained me. She deserves better.”

He noticed that Akash stood still, his face devoid of all color, his eyes moist.

“I appreciate you telling me this,” he mumbled with difficulty.

Gopal Ji left a short while later, leaving Akash alone with these thoughts.

~

Akash noticed the wetness on his cheek and wiped it away. [_You could have called me once, just once, Sandhya! And I would have been by your side, _]he cried within. He instructed his maid to keep an eye on Divya and walked out of the house. He wanted to embrace Sandhya, tell her that he would never leave her alone ever again, never let any pain touch her; he would protect her with his life. He found her standing on the terrace. The sunset’s beautiful view covered the sky on her left. She stood looking into the barren sky on her right. He had wanted to embrace her a little while ago, but now, he sensed an invisible barrier around her. What he experienced in the guest house was a brief let down of the barrier. It was back up with much stronger walls now.

He extended his hand to touch her shoulder but pulled it back.

“Sandhya.”

She turned around.

“I was just about to come down,” she replied and started walking.

He followed her down the steps.

“Divya’s playroom is beautiful,” she said as they entered the house, causing a pang of guilt within Akash.

She glanced at her bag uncomfortably.

“You can stay in the guest room. It’s right by Divya’s bedroom upstairs,” he said, understanding her concern.

“Yes, Mommy!” Divya ran up to them.

He took her bag and she followed him upstairs with Divya holding her hand.

Akash opened the door to the guest bedroom. It was three times bigger than her bedroom in her apartment and furnished with a medium-sized bed, a closet, and a dresser with a mirror.

Akash placed the bag in a corner of the room.

“Come, Sandhya. Let me show you Divya’s room and around the house,” he said in a more cheerful tone. She silently followed him and a jumping Divya.

Divya’s bedroom was next to hers. It was also big and furnished with kids’ furniture. Akash looked at Sandhya with a hint of excitement and wondered if she liked it. She was smiling at Divya, who was showing off everything to her excitedly, but her smile did not reach her eyes. She was behaving awkwardly, probably feeling out of place, he thought.

“Do you have a thermometer? I want to check Divya’s temperature. Mausi said she might not be too well,” she asked as they came out of Divya’s bedroom.

“Yes. She had a mild temperature. I called the doctor in.”

“What did the doctor say?”

“He suspected a viral infection. It should go away on its own. This is the master bedroom,” he said as he watched Sandhya. She seemed to be taken aback by the size of it.

“It is nice,” she said, choosing not to enter the room.

They went downstairs and checked Divya’s temperature. She still had a mild fever, although she was visibly active. Akash asked his maid to set up the dinner. Although it was not that late, he was hungry and he knew that Sandhya might also not have eaten anything for lunch, just like him.

He did not like the uneasiness that she was showing but he tried his best not to show his displeasure. He was glad that Sandhya ate well and was talking freely over dinner, although she was talking mostly with Divya and Padma, the maid.

“My tummy hults!” Divya cried after dinner.

Sandhya made Divya go to bed early as she needed more rest when she was sick while Akash went to his office room to finish his work.

~

Sandhya crept into the bed, closed her tired eyes and slept.

Something woke her up at 2 am. Sandhya rubbed her eyes and gasped at the unfamiliar surroundings. Realization dawned on her. She draped herself in a robe that she found in the closet and tiptoed to Divya’s room.

She gasped! Akash was sleeping in the lounge chair by Divya’s bed. Why was he sleeping here? Did Divya wake up?

She checked her temperature and tried to make Divya swallow the fever medication.

“No, Mommy!”

Akash woke up with a start.

“Does she have a fever now?” Akash asked.

“Yes. 102. I just gave her the medication. I will stay with her. You can go and sleep in your room.”

“I am not sure if this chair is that comfortable for sleeping,” he said, holding his neck, which seemed sore now.

“I can sleep by Divya. This bed is big.”

“Alright then, wake me up if you need anything. My door will be open,” he said nonchalantly, then kissed Divya on her forehead and went to his room.

Sandhya crept in beside Divya, wrapped her arm around her and closed her eyes.

~

Divya was doing alright the next day with medication and Sandhya hoped that Akash would go to the office for work. She could not be normal around him after what had happened at the guest house, but was relieved that he did not talk about it.

To her utter dismay, Akash announced that he had taken off too.

The doorbell rang and Sandhya opened the door.

A man stood before her and behind him there was a small trolley full of her favorite plants, including jasmine and rose.

“I came to deliver the plants, ma’am.”

She turned around and looked at Akash questioningly. Akash ignored her glance and paid him.

“I thought that the garden needed more color and fragrance,” he said casually.

“Wow! Ale these my plants?” Divya said excitedly.

“Yes, princess!” Akash said, placing a kiss on her cheek.

He started digging in the front area to the left of the porch to plant them.

Sandhya wondered why he was doing it all himself when he could have asked someone to get it all done for him. Was he trying to impress her? A shiver ran down her spine. Is that what this was all about? To make her come to his house so he could impress her and trap her again? Was there any truth in the love that he showed to Divya? Was all his love towards Divya a show, an act? Was this man even capable of loving anyone? she thought to herself bitterly as bile formed in her throat.

She retreated inside the house, not wanting to see him.

~

Akash observed that the initial excitement of seeing the plants dwindle away in Sandhya. He had hoped that she would come and lend him a hand. He knew how much she loved gardening. Instead, she had gone inside. But he did not lose hope and finished the task himself, sweating like hell. The plants would cheer her up eventually, he was sure of that.

Sandhya seemed to get even quieter and he didn’t know what else to do. With Divya’s condition, he couldn’t even take them out. They were having their lunch and Sandhya’s silence was killing him.

“I am wondering if I should call the doctor again to check up on Divya. She doesn’t seem to be improving. What do you think?”

She looked at him coldly. “Sure.”

Akash took a deep breath. How long would it take for Sandhya to open up to him? He had to be patient, but he also felt a sense of urgency. He had very little time. Once she went back to her apartment, he might never get another chance to spend even a few minutes with her.

After what he had heard from Mausi’s husband, he was determined to make up to her for all the pain that she had suffered. But he could never do that if she distanced herself from him. He could not let her go. Not for her sake, nor for his. And of course, it would be the best thing to happen for Divya too.

Even with her indifference and coldness, she still drove him crazy. How could he not like the way a strand of hair played on her forehead, how her eyes became warm whenever she looked at Divya. This woman was technically only the mother of his child, but in reality, she was the only woman that he ever wanted and would want to share his life with.

~

After dinner, Sandhya sat on the sofa trying to pass time with a magazine while Divya played around in the living room. Although she pretended to be reading the magazine, her mind was thinking hard. Things had to be sorted out soon before Miss Vijaya, Priya and Sameer got involved in this matter. What if someone in her village found out about this, especially Akash’s parents? She remembered his mother and shuddered. All hell would break loose if she found out. She would definitely blame Sandhya for everything. But what worried her more were the insults or humiliation that might be directed towards Divya. No. She couldn’t bear it and had to see that it never happened.

The doorbell rang. Sandhya got up warily and opened it. She saw the person standing in front of her and gasped.

Chapter 36 – What I Feel For You

W

ere her eyes betraying her? She stood frozen on the spot as she stared at the person in front of her in shock.

Was she really looking at her aunt?

“How are you, Sandhya?”

Oh God! It was her aunt!

She’d become thin and her hair had grayed even more. But other than that she seemed to be in good health. Sandhya realized what was happening and panicked! Her aunt was at Akash’s house? Why was she here? What was she supposed to tell her about her relationship with Akash?

“Who is it, Sandhya?” She heard Akash’s voice from behind her as he appeared at the doorstep.

Her aunt kept looking at them in hesitation and then at the ground.

“Aren’t you—Sandhya’s aunt?” Akash asked quizzically.

Her aunt nodded.

“Oh! Why are you still standing out there? Please come inside,” Akash exclaimed.

Her aunt smiled at him and followed him. Sandhya stood to the side and watched, feeling a myriad of emotions. Was she happy to see her aunt after three years? She herself didn’t know. If this had been her apartment, she might have been more welcoming. A part of her felt guilty for not being happy to see her after so long. Maybe that was a lie. A part of her was happy to see her. Despite how she had treated her, she was family. She had always hoped for some affection from her; maybe that hope was still alive somewhere. Although why she chose this exact timing to reappear in her life was beyond Sandhya’s comprehension.

“Please have a seat,” Akash asked her aunt and instructed Padma to get her some water. Sandhya came out of her trance.

“So, how was your journey?” Akash started talking. Sandhya wondered how he could be so cool. But then she realized that he was doing the right thing. Whatever situation they were in, it was inevitable that they had to face it. Her aunt must have traveled a long distance and must be very tired.

“Did you have lunch?” Sandhya spoke for the first time to her aunt.

Her aunt’s eyes lit up at her simple question. Her aunt was happy when she spoke to her. Was she dreaming?

“Yes, dear. I did. I would like a snack though,” she replied, smiling.

Did my aunt just call me dear? Sandhya tried to comprehend.

She smiled faintly at her aunt. This all felt completely surreal to her. She had expected her to blast her for being an unwed mother, for staying with Akash and destroying their family’s reputation. But instead, her aunt was smiling at her and calling her “dear.”

She was getting some snacks from the kitchen when Divya ran out of her playroom and saw Sandhya’s aunt.

“Who ale you?” she demanded. Before Sandhya could think of what to tell Divya, Akash said, “This is your grandma, Divya.”

“Glandma?” Divya replied with a confused expression.

Sandhya’s aunt smiled warmly at Divya. By now Sandhya was sure that she was dreaming.

“Come here, darling.” Her aunt summoned Divya and hugged her for a long time.

“You are so cute!” she exclaimed as she took Divya in her lap.

She talked some baby talk with Divya for a while, after which Divya went back to her room to play. Why was her aunt behaving so lovingly? How did she know that she was at Akash’s place?

Akash was trying to engage her aunt in small talk.

“How are Ajay and Vijay?” Sandhya asked.

Her aunt’s face hardened, but she quickly came back to normal.

“They are doing great, Sandhya. Both are married. Ajay has a baby due. And yes, both are settled, thanks to you,” her aunt said.

“Thanks to me?” Sandhya was bewildered.

Her aunt looked at her for a few seconds.

“They started a travel service and it’s flourishing now. The money you were sending me was more than enough for me, so I gave them whatever I saved from it for the initial investment.”

Sandhya was surprised. Her shock turned to happiness and pride. She remembered her uncle and how his soul must be at peace now. She smiled widely at her aunt and her eyes sparkled. Her aunt smiled back at her. Sandhya almost felt like hugging her, but she held back. Hugging her aunt! Wow, what was happening?

“How did you find the address?”

The environment in the room turned uncomfortable. Even Akash seemed tense.

“Miss Vijaya told me. She also told me about Akash…and Divya,” her aunt replied hesitantly.

Sandhya was astonished.

What did Miss Vijaya know about her and Akash? What did she tell her aunt? Who else did she talk to about this? She nervously intertwined her fingers.

Her aunt didn’t say anything further and the room fell into an eerie silence.

“I will ask the maid to make some tea,” Sandhya said and got up to escape to the kitchen to straighten her thoughts. Something was holding her back from being happy. Maybe it was just the situation she was in. Why had her aunt arrived like this? Had she just come to see how she was doing? Or did she have any other motive? The last thought troubled her greatly.

She shook her head and started walking out of the kitchen with the tea. She froze at the entrance as she overheard what Akash and her aunt were talking about.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but as Sandhya’s aunt, I…” She hesitated and continued, “When are you both planning to marry?”

Akash was taken aback by the question.

“I…we…” he struggled for an appropriate answer.

Sandhya could not believe her ears. Her aunt appears in her life after three years and she asks this?

“I know that it may not be a big deal in the cities, but in our village, it will be a big issue. And since I am the only relative that Sandhya has, it’s my responsibility to ask.”

Sandhya’s mind raced. Her aunt! She was not here because of her love for her but because of her greed. Otherwise, why would she not check on her even once for the past three years and then suddenly reappear when Akash was with her? Was she eyeing Akash’s wealth that she would have access to via her if she married him?

Her face turned red as she marched into the living room to face her aunt.

“We have no plans to marry,” she told her coldly, standing in front of her.

Akash stood up, looking worried at Sandhya’s changed demeanor.

“Sandhya, she was only…” Akash tried to reason.

Her aunt also stood up, looking worriedly at Sandhya.

“Sandhya, I am asking for your own good. You are too young to know what is right for you,” her aunt said.

“Too young! You realized that now? Didn’t you know that I was too young when you told me to get out of your house in the middle of the night for not agreeing to marry on your terms? Didn’t you know that I was too young to be left all alone these three years?”

Her aunt was visibly shaken.

“I tried looking for you. No one knew where you were. How could I have helped if you did not tell us?”

“I don’t believe you! I know why you are here! I know why you are suddenly showing so much love for me! You would do anything for money!” she screamed

“SANDHYA!” It was Akash, commanding her to shut up with his glaring eyes.

Her aunt had tears flowing continuously now.

“Is this the way to talk to your aunt?”

Sandhya glared at him and then at her aunt, her fury not dimming a bit.

“No! Don’t shout at her. She has every right to tell that to me. I haven’t been fair to her,” her aunt said in a low voice.

Sandhya glared accusingly at her aunt in the extremely charged atmosphere.

“I will take my leave now.” Her aunt grabbed her bag.

“What? You just traveled so many hours. You can leave tomorrow after taking some rest and spending some time with us,” Akash exclaimed.

Sandhya remained silent.

“No, I will be fine. Thank you though. There is a bus leaving in a couple of hours.” She walked to the door and halted.

“I forgot, there is something that I got for you. And Ajay and Vijay also sent something for you.”

She got out a bulky white packet and placed it in a corner, seeing that Sandhya was not coming forward to take it. She then walked over to Sandhya.

“I am sorry, Sandhya. I was trying to help you.” Sandhya kept looking the other way. Her aunt placed her hand on her head. Sandhya closed her eyes tight.

“God bless you.” She turned around and walked out.

“Wait! I will leave you at the bus stop. I will ask the driver to get the car.” Akash got up and walked out with her.

~

It took Sandhya half an hour to let go of her bitterness and anger and become calm. Her phone rang. It was an unknown number. She was in no mood to talk but what if it was her lawyer?

“Hello, this is Sandhya.”

“Hi, Sandhya! How are you? Recognize me?”

Sandhya stood in shock.

“Dhiren?”

“Wow! I thought you forgot about me!”

“How could I forget you?”

“Yeah, right. That is why you never called me and never kept in touch with me, huh? Do you know how much trouble I had to go through to get your number?”

“Oh did you? How did you manage finally?” she answered, hoping that she did not sound too interrogative.

“Your friend Sameer. I met him at a party.”

“Oh!”

“We should catch up sometime then.”

“Yes…sure.”

Why not? she thought. She was strong enough now to face everyone.

“Tomorrow?”

“How about in two days? I am not at my place for two days.” she said.

“Sure.”

“Talk to you later.”

“Bye.”

She saved his number.

~

After about an hour, Akash returned. He was pained to see Sandhya’s aunt crying silently. She hardly spoke to him and had asked him not to reprimand Sandhya for her behavior. She probably did not know that Akash was in no position to do that anyways. She must have thought that they were living together. He was upset with Sandhya. How could she bluntly accuse her own aunt of greed? The old woman was deeply hurt. Where were they headed next? Who else would come and question them about their relationship?

The door was half open and he walked into the living room. Sandhya sat on the sofa with her hand on her forehead. As soon as she saw him, she switched on the TV.

“Where is Divya?”

“Sleeping.”

Perhaps this was the right time to talk to her. Sandhya’s aunt had been respectful but if it had been his mom, there would have been a hurricane there.

“Sandhya?”

Silence for a few seconds.

“What is it?”

“I want to talk to you.”

Her face tensed up for just a second before she covered it up, her eyes still glued to the TV. She was acting pretty convincingly as if she was watching the drama with rapt interest.

“What’s up?” she said casually, still not looking at him.

~

Sandhya’s heart beat wildly. This was what she was afraid of. Why hadn’t she escaped to her bedroom before he came back? She hoped that Akash had something casual to talk about.

Her heart pricked when he grabbed the remote and switched off the TV. It was his house. What could she say? Finding no escape, she took a deep breath and looked at him. He was looking at her keenly as he stood before her, but wasn’t speaking.

“Can we talk later? I want to rest for a while,” she said as she got up from the sofa and took a couple of steps towards the staircase.

She halted when she felt Akash holding her wrist. She wriggled out of his grasp and stood glaring at him.

He looked at her, frustrated.

“Divya will be awake later. Let’s talk now,” he said sternly. Sandhya hated this. She did not want to talk. Why was he forcing her? But ignoring him and escaping to her room would only infuriate him more. Reluctantly, she took a step back towards the sofa and sat. Akash sat beside her. He wasn’t touching her but was too close for her comfort. What came from his mouth next was completely unexpected.

“How did you get hurt on your arm there?” He pointed to the scar on her inner arm. She wore a short-sleeved salwar kameez and the scar was exposed.

She almost jumped off the sofa. What should she tell him? She did not want to tell him anything about Varun. There was no point, no use. It would only make it more difficult for her to get Akash out of her life. In fact, it was better if he thought that she never loved him.

“I don’t know. It was always there. Maybe something that happened in childhood.” She shrugged her shoulders, hoping that he would buy her lie.

“It was not there before, when we…” He halted.

Sandhya shut her eyes tight. An uncomfortable silence followed.

She opened her eyes when Akash took her hand in his. He caressed her fingers tenderly. She stared at him, stunned, her heart pounding. Her senses returned and she immediately pulled her hand out of his. She tried to get up but Akash caught hold of her arm and pushed her down to sit. She was feeling more and more uncomfortable.

“I am not your enemy, Sandhya! Why are you acting like this? Please talk to me. I want to help you. I want to see you happy. Can’t you at least trust me as an old friend?”

[_Trust? No, I can never trust you! _]she screamed within, but remained silent.

“Why didn’t you contact me all this time? Why did you suffer in silence? I would have been there for you. I would have,” he said with a slight hint of frustration.

Seeing her non-responsiveness, he continued, getting more and more restless.

“Alright, I won’t bother you with any of these questions. But I need to know one thing, Sandhya. I hope you understand.” He paused and continued, “What was your explanation for what happened three years ago? I have been dying each day thinking about that night. I need to know, Sandhya. Tell me the truth. I swear that I will not hate you. I can never hate you. I will not judge you. The truth, Sandhya, just the truth.” He looked straight at her face and waited for her answer.

She stiffened at his questions but remained silent as she stared at the design of the granite stone on the floor.

“ANSWER ME, DAMN IT!” he screamed and stood up.

Sandhya stood up and folded her hands. He ran a hand through his hair and took deep breaths.

“Fine, fine, I lost control,” he muttered, trying to calm himself.

“What’s the point of this discussion? What is the use of raking up the past? We cannot change it,” she said calmly.

Akash breathed easy. At least she had spoken.

“We may not be able to change it but we can ensure that we understand each other better by knowing our past,” he shot back.

She took several deep breaths. “I don’t think there is a need. I do not want to go there. I hope you understand,” she said sarcastically.

“I think that there is a need for us to understand each other. For Divya’s sake at least.”

“What about Divya? I am here only temporarily because she is sick. After that, I live my life and you live yours. Then no one will give any unwanted suggestions as my aunt did today!”

With that she shot up from the sofa and started walking towards the staircase. She was near the stairs when she heard Akash say in a low voice,

“What’s wrong with her suggestion?”

It took a few seconds for her to understand what he was meaning to say. Her eyes grew wide in shock. She turned around and stared at Akash. Did she hear him right?

“What are you talking about?”

Akash was silent for a few seconds. He slowly walked up to Sandhya and stood a couple of feet away, his face completely serious.

“I think we should get married.”

She let out a gasp.

“You are insane.” She shook her head in distress and took a step to climb up the stairs.

He placed his hand on the wall, blocking her way.

She closed her eyes and swallowed in frustration. Anger was rising within her and she was finding it hard to control it. She opened her eyes but kept her gaze on the railing on her left, not wanting to look at him.

“I know it all seems sudden. Today it was your aunt, tomorrow it could be someone else. What if my mom finds out about us?”

Sandhya turned her head to look at him.

“What if she does?” Her voice was laced with bitterness.

His eyes became darker and his jaw tightened.

He drew closer to her, his face a few inches in front of hers.

“You may not have any feelings or emotions, but I will not tolerate anyone questioning whether I am Divya’s father. Believe me, I will not think one bit about what is right or wrong when it comes to her welfare.”

Sandhya took a few more deep breaths.

“This is not something that you can decide instantly. You need to think it through,” she said, hoping that she could push this discussion off.

“We don’t have much time! You think your aunt won’t inform my parents now?” he screamed in frustration. Sandhya almost jumped because of the force of his voice.

“Things will sort themselves out in a day or two. You are contemplating things that may never happen!”

“How? They are going to know one day anyways. It would be so much easier for me to tell them about Divya if we were married.”

“Stop talking stupid, Akash! I know that ‘us’ marrying will do Divya no good. I will move out of your house tomorrow. I only came to stay here because she is sick.”

She saw his expression change from anger to something that she couldn’t make out.

“Sandhya! I know you love her. Can’t you do this much for her?” He searched her eyes.

“Loving her doesn’t mean we should end up in a loveless marriage!”

Akash was stunned. His face had a shocked expression for a few seconds. Suddenly, his eyes became soft and tender. He looked at her face with utmost gentleness for a long time.

Sandhya was confused and scared by the change in his demeanor. It was better when he was angry. She desperately wanted to go back to the safety of her room but he was still blocking her way. A deep suffocating feeling engulfed her. Her heart pounded as she realized how close he was standing to her and thinking about what he was about to say.

He raised his hand and was about to touch her face when she closed her eyes tight and moved her face sideways, holding her breath. He observed her reaction and swallowed the lump in his throat. He retracted his hand. She opened her eyes and breathed in relief.

She looked up to his face. His deep, dark, sad eyes were looking straight at her. He took a deep breath.

“It won’t be a loveless marriage, Sandhya. I promise you that I will give you as much love as ever existed on this planet.”

Sandhya stared at him in shock.

Before she realized what was happening, he cupped her cheeks with both of his hands softly.

“Sandhya… Sandhya.” His voice quivered. Her heart twisted. For a moment it got weak but she reminded herself to be strong.

“Don’t you know…?” He halted as if it was difficult to get words out of his mouth.

“Don’t you know that I can’t live without you? You are like the breath that I need, to really live this life as it should be lived.” He struggled for words as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. He looked at her with expectation as he caressed her cheek with his thumb.

Sandhya stood frozen and stared at him for a long time before speaking up.

“For three years…three years you have been breathing without me, living without me. For three years, you did not bother to find out if I was living or dead. If it had not been for a chance encounter, we would still be living our separate lives. And now, you are telling me that you can’t breathe without me, live without me!”

Her face became red with raw emotion.

Her outburst astonished Akash.

“You cannot call that living! Yes, I breathed and survived, but I was not living, Sandhya! There was not a single day when I did not think about you or wonder about your wellbeing.”

She shook her head.

“You have to believe me, Sandhya! What do I do to make you believe me?”

“It doesn’t matter if I believe you or not. I have moved on and I don’t want to—” She halted as she tried to find the right words.

“It takes two people to marry, and I am not interested,” she finished.

Akash’s eyes narrowed.

“Why?”

“Why? Why should I want to marry you? I can’t imagine marrying you. That’s all!” Her voice rose.

“Then what were you doing yesterday in my arms? What was all that about?” he muttered under his breath, gritting his teeth.

“It was a moment of madness! How can you use that as your argument!” she screamed.

He held her arm in a steely grip and muttered, his face an inch away from hers,

“You do realize that I will never let you go, don’t you?” His voice was cold and stern.

She stared at him as a terrifying, dreadful sinking feeling engulfed her. She found it difficult to breathe. She couldn’t bear this. It was not because she was afraid of Akash. It was because his mannerism reminded her of someone. Someone called Varun. And she could never picture Akash falling as low as him. Her body shook with this agonizing thought.

“Are you saying that you won’t give me a choice?” Her eyes searched through him, hoping that he would say something that would resurrect his image.

“You made your choice three years ago when you said that you belonged to me,” he whispered coarsely, tightening his hold on her arm.

Sandhya swallowed the lump in her throat.

“What else can I expect from a person like you?” she whispered, her eyes venomous.

“A person like me? Yes…right… A person like me who is willing to marry a woman like you! A woman with no morals, no character whatsoever!” he screamed and realized a bit too late what exactly he had uttered.

Her face did not show anger now. Instead, it was broken…shattered. She kept staring at him with empty eyes as if she no longer had any will to fight. Guilt and remorse immediately returned to Akash. He removed his hold on her arm.

“I didn’t mean it, Sandhya!” he exclaimed. But the damage was done. No matter what he did, he couldn’t take back the words that came out of his mouth.

She moved away slowly, one step at a time, reached her bedroom and closed her door.

~

Akash pulled his hair and cursed himself. He walked out of the house to cool himself off and straighten his thoughts. Somewhere inside him, he still had those negative thoughts about her that had come out automatically in his anger. He made a promise never to point a finger at her again and do something to correct his mistake. He was surprised that Sandhya came out of her room after an hour and behaved normally as if nothing had happened between them.

Late at night, when Divya was asleep, he mustered the courage to speak to her again.  She sat on the porch steps, looking out into the dark night. He hesitated for a few seconds, took a deep breath, walked over to her and sat beside her on the porch steps.

She continued staring into the night, ignoring his presence. He remained silent for a few minutes.

“Sandhya,” he said softly. “It will never happen again. I promise. I lost my mind. I am human. I make mistakes.”

She did not move. Except for her chest raising and falling, nothing moved in her. He hesitated a bit and placed his arm around her protectively. She did not flinch.

“You will not regret it. I can’t let you be alone after what you have been through. Just say yes, Sandhya.”

He touched the back of her neck and stroked it tenderly with his fingers.

“Say something, Sandhya.”

She spoke up, her voice calm and soothing. “You want to know the truth, about what I feel about you?”

He was taken aback. “Yes.”

“Will you believe me?” She turned her head and looked at him, her eyes showing no emotion.

He hesitated for just a second.

“Yes,” he replied firmly.

“I loathe you. Your fingers are causing nothing but repulsion within me.”

His fingers stopped moving on her neck. He retracted his hand, his breath stuck in his throat, and sat like that for a few more minutes, staring ahead of him. She kept staring into the night, still, unmoved. He got up, went into the house and climbed the stairs to his room.

His mind went blank and wouldn’t let whatever had just happened sink into his brain. It might kill him. He grabbed a bottle of whisky and was about to open it, but remembered that he had decided not to drink when Divya was with him. He slammed the bottle into the wall. He took another bottle and threw it at the wall…then another…then another.

Sandhya heard the smashing sounds from upstairs. She remained still on the porch steps as she looked ahead, into the dark night.

After an hour, she went into her room, changed into her nightgown and lay with her stomach down on the bed, feeling calm within herself. She had not lied to him; she had told him the absolute truth that she was feeling at that time. He would not bother her anymore. Chapter closed.

Her eyes caught the plastic bag in the corner of her room, the bag that her aunt had left. She hesitantly got up to check what was in there.

Her hands trembled as she pulled out a yellow sari and felt its material.

She grabbed a small box and opened it. It had a simple kid-sized gold bracelet in it. Probably for Divya? Finally, she took a wooden box out of the bag and opened it. She put her hand over her mouth in shock. Her mom’s jewelry! Her aunt had returned her mom’s jewelry! She checked each and every piece of the jewelry in awe. There was a ruby necklace, bangles, a ring, and a few pairs of earrings. Her body trembled and her mind replayed her aunt’s visit. Could she have misread her aunt’s intentions? Had she really meant to look out for her wellbeing?

Did she make her aunt, who had come to see her after three years, cry and leave the city without even letting her take a rest from her tiring journey? She clutched her head. What had she done? She had turned into an animal, not caring about how much her actions hurt others. Her aunt’s image reappeared before her.

“Marry him, Sandhya! It is in your and Divya’s best interest.”

She saw her mother, father, uncle appear before her and say the same thing.

“Marry him!”

NO! I am sorry! I can’t! she shrieked in her mind and clamped her hands over her ears tightly. She breathed deeply and put the jewelry back in the box. She switched off the light and tried to get some sleep.

Chapter 37 – Hidden Love

J

aya sat deep in thought as the bus sped along the highway. Her mind was far away, in distance and time. She had just married and had arrived with her husband in their village to start her life; a life full of hope and aspirations. Just like most women undergoing an arranged marriage, she had learned to love her husband. He was a kind man with a soft heart. During her initial years of married life, that was what had captivated her about him. But later on, the same fact caused her immense distress. He had too soft of a heart to be a good businessman and experienced losses in every venture that he attempted. If any of his friends or relatives needed any help, which was mostly financial help, he would be the first to offer it, even though they were barely able to provide for their two children. Her husband may have been a saint for everyone else, but for her, he was a ruthless man who had no will to even provide a single piece of jewelry for his wife.

Slowly, she began to resent his helping nature but could not do anything to change him. Instead, she changed into a cold-hearted woman. All she could think was how she could provide more for her two sons and how she had to protect whatever she had. She loved her sons more than her life and devoted all her attention to them. She had hoped that they would grow up and do what their father never did. Never had she meant to be so cold to Sandhya when she had arrived after her father’s death. Sandhya simply had nowhere else to go and knowing her husband, she knew that having her in the household was inevitable. Maybe, if her husband had been a little more considerate of his own wife and sons, she might not have turned into the heartless woman that she had become. Alas, you only realize your mistakes in hindsight.

She had thought that the marriage proposal from the doctor in England was a win-win for everyone at that time. Her sons would be settled and Sandhya would be living a life full of wealth. Sure, the groom was a little older than normal for her, but they had to compromise somewhere. That’s what she had thought then. It is weird how we sometimes see things only as we want to see them.

She sighed. Maybe, if she had not been so harsh with her that night, Sandhya would have not ended in this situation. She had always thought that Sandhya was doing fine somewhere. When she received money from her the first time, she had wondered why she had sent it. Not in her dreams did she imagine that she would continue to send her money every month. Her own sons were well settled in life because of that money and most often, they had no time, money or love for their own mother. Her hope of getting love from her daughter-in-laws was smashed soon. They simply did not love her. It was then that she had wondered. Why would anyone love any other person unconditionally? She did not love Sandhya because she was not her own daughter. Why should her daughter-in-laws love her when she wasn’t their own mother? Maybe she was being punished for her own sins. It was ironic that Sandhya did what her sons didn’t do for her. Maybe it was her husband’s helpful nature that ultimately changed her life and her sons’ life.

When Miss Vijaya told her that Sandhya had a child and that she was unmarried, she was filled with remorse. After knowing that it was Akash because of whom Sandhya was in this situation, she did not think twice. She wanted to make sure that Sandhya got a good place in society and she was determined to fight for her. Never in her dreams did she imagine that it was Sandhya who did not want to marry him. At least that’s how it seemed. Akash told her at the bus stop that he had no objections to marrying her. She hoped that they would marry soon and her guilt would be reduced a little.

~

Akash sat on the floor amidst the mess around him. His heart ached with the deep and raw wound inflicted a few minutes ago. If only he could kill the section of his heart that yearned for affection from Sandhya. There was his dearest daughter Divya, who loved him. He would live for that. He walked up to Divya’s room, saw her sleeping figure and settled on his knees by her bed. “You are my angel, Divya. You will help me through this,” he whispered as he ran his hand through her hair.

“I am sorry, I cannot give you a normal life with a mom and a dad under the same roof. But I will give you everything else, anything else, for your happiness.” He kissed her forehead and left for his room.

~

“Mommy!”

Sandhya woke up in the middle of the night. Divya was crying terribly.

“Aathaash! Mommy!”

She sprang up and ran towards Divya’s room. She found that the light was switched on and Divya was resting her head on Akash’s chest. She had thrown up a bit and Akash’s face was panic-stricken. Sandhya quickly grabbed a bowl by the bedside and placed it before Divya’s mouth. She threw up a little more and felt better. They consoled her, cleaned her up, and changed her clothes.

Sandhya saw Akash’s soiled shirt sleeve and unconsciously grabbed a paper towel.

“Sorry about that.” Her hands approached his sleeve but Akash grabbed the towel from her hand and cleaned it himself.

“What for?” he replied coldly.

Akash called the doctor. Within half an hour, a doctor and a nurse had arrived at the house.

“We have to draw some blood and send it for tests,” the doctor said.

As soon as Divya saw the needle to draw blood, she panicked and became hysterical.

“It will be quick, Divya. It won’t hurt that much, my baby!” Sandhya tried to soothe her.

It took three people to hold Divya still while the nurse poked Divya’s wrist.

Akash shut his eyes tight. Divya’s cries resounded through the whole house. He opened his eyes and found the nurse was poking her wrist again!

“What are you doing? Don’t you know how to draw blood?”

“It’s difficult to find the vein in little kids.”

“Leave my baby alone!” he screamed and the nurse moved away, terrified.

He hugged a terrified and frightened Divya tight.

“It’s alright, it’s alright.” He stroked her hair and tried to soothe her, his own body shaking with anger and nervousness.

Sandhya knew what he was going through. If only she could take all the pain in her body instead of Divya’s! If only!

“But, sir, we need to get the blood to test.”

“There has to be some other way, damn it!” he shouted.

“We can try her foot,” the nurse said.

“Are you going to poke all over her body or what?”

“It’s going to hurt her just a little. Nothing else.” The doctor tried to convince Akash.

“It is for Divya’s good, Akash,” Sandhya said, her eyes glassy as she tried to handle herself.

Akash swallowed hard.

Divya’s arms and legs were held tight by them as the nurse poked her foot. She drew the blood on her second attempt as Divya cried at the top of her lungs, terrified.

As soon as they were done, Akash hugged Divya for a long time and lulled her to sleep. The doctor gave them the medication and told them that he would send the test results in the morning. Sandhya closed the front door after the doctor and nurse left and walked back to Divya’s room.

She stared at both of them from the door. Something within her had stirred in the past few minutes. This was the first time she had ever seen tears in Akash’s eyes. He had cried, unable to bear Divya’s pain. A pit formed inside her stomach. She wasn’t feeling the hatred that she had felt for him a few hours ago.

Akash noticed her and his expression changed from tender to hard.

“I will take the recliner. You sleep by Divya,” Akash said sharply.

Sandhya flinched a bit because of his tone but snuggled beside Divya.

Divya woke up a lot more times that night and to Sandhya’s wonder, Akash would be by Divya’s side before she even woke up.

Sandhya woke up in the morning and found him sleeping while resting his head and upper body by the bed, and his lower half on the floor. One of his hands was over Divya. Sandhya swallowed the lump in her throat. Akash was getting so close to Divya in such a short span of time. How would he react to the separation that he would have to handle once the legal papers were ready? Until now, she was looking forward to the time when she would have Divya for herself. Now, she shuddered to think about that event.

She clutched her heavy, spinning head. Perhaps it was a headache because of lack of sleep. Her feet wobbled as she placed them on the floor and she held the headboard to steady herself. What was going on? She went to her room, brushed her teeth and showered with much effort. All she wanted to do was to hit the bed and give her heavy head some rest. But she remembered something and fumbled with her phone. Her lawyer answered and informed her that everything would be ready by evening. She breathed in relief. The sooner she handled this stuff, the better. She was tired of dealing with this situation.

She walked to Divya’s room slowly, holding the wall for support. Was she sick or what, she wondered. [_No… Not now. I can’t get sick now. I need to get the papers and… _]Her mind halted, stunned as she stood in the doorway of Divya’s room.

Akash was sitting on the recliner and Divya was hugging him tight. Akash had tears in his eyes again. This time they were flowing freely.

“What did you just say, Divya?” His voice quivered, his eyes moist.

Divya pulled back from the hug, cupped Akash’s face and said “Papa.”

“Papa, why ale you clying?”

He looked at her tenderly.

“Sometimes people cry when they are happy. And Papa is very happy right now,” he said, smiling, and pinched her nose.

Sandhya’s heart stopped. She slowly walked back to her room and closed the door. Kneeling by her bed, she wrapped her hands around her knees and tried to breathe. Her mind screamed at her. Remorse, guilt, frustration, pain, she felt everything at this one moment. She had wondered innumerable times why God was making her go through this. Was everything she had already gone through not enough? Just when she thought that this was the end of her suffering, the Almighty always had some unknown misery in store for her. She recalled Akash’s face and her heart constricted. How could she hate him? Yes, she had told him point blank that she loathed him only a few hours ago. She had thought that she was immune to him and what he said. But that was not true. He still had the power to cause the most misery to her by just uttering one sentence. Why was she still hoping and expecting him to trust her blindly? If he still thought that she had cheated on him, then why did he still want to marry her? For Divya? She could not think of being married to a person who thought badly of her character. But what if he truly loved Divya? Until now, she had doubted his love for Divya. But now, after what she just saw, how could she doubt him? Could she let go of her self-respect for her daughter?

Stop! This can never happen. This is also a dream that will be shattered soon. You have to be prepared for it, she screamed at herself. With that, she got up slowly and walked to Divya’s room again.

~

Akash maintained a distance from Sandhya as much as possible but it was difficult considering that they both wanted to be near Divya. She hardly spoke to him and he did the same. But something seemed to be wrong with her. Her hands were jittery when she was pouring the medicine. She seemed to be breathing heavily and seemed to be in discomfort.

Padma called them for breakfast.

“I am not hungry,” she replied in a low voice.

“Are you feeling alright?” Akash asked, unable to stop himself. He wasn’t going to bother asking her to marry him again but he couldn’t stop caring for her.

“Just a headache because of lack of sleep, I think. I will lie down for a while.”

Akash observed her worn-out face and the dark circles around her eyes with concern. As she walked back to her room, she didn’t look like the same Sandhya that she was a few days ago. He checked on her a few minutes later when she was sleeping, breathing heavily.

He was about to touch her forehead with his palm to see her temperature but halted. He remembered her words from last night. He called Padma and asked her to check her temperature. He was right. She had a high fever. The doctor was summoned again and her blood sample was also collected. Thankfully, Divya was doing much better.

Sandhya woke up with a start and checked the time. It was 4:30 pm. The papers from her lawyer should be ready by now. An astonished Akash found Sandhya climbing down the stairs. Maybe the medicine had worked and she was feeling better. He didn’t say anything and remained glued to the sofa, acting as if he was reading the paper. What? Why was she walking towards the main door?

“Where are you going?” he asked with concern.

“I have an important task to do,” she mumbled in a low voice with difficulty.

“You are sick! How can you go like this? Tell me what the task is. I can get it done for you.”

“No…I…need,” she barely managed to say as her eyes closed and her legs grew weak.

“You are crazy!” he screamed as he caught hold of her shoulder and helped her walk to her room again. She did not resist.

His concern for her health multiplied. To his dismay, the doctor confirmed that based on her blood report, she had two types of infections attacking her simultaneously. The medication needed to be taken for ten days but she should feel normal in one or two days. Akash breathed in relief.

~

Sandhya was not able to eat anything and slept all the time because of the drowsy effects of the medicine. Most of the times that she opened her eyes, she would find Akash in a chair by her bedside.

~

Akash saw the name on his cell phone and a smile appeared on his face.

“Puja! Is this how long you take to call me?”

“Sorry, Bhaiyya^8^. I was too busy with my new job. Very sorry.”

“It’s OK. I was busy myself.”

They started talking about stuff in general.

Suddenly Puja’s voice grew hesitant.

“What is it, Puja? Do you want to tell me something?” Akash asked with concern.

“Actually—yes.”

“About what?” Akash switched into big brother mode. He was scared for his little sister and hoped that it wasn’t a love matter. What if she got hurt in love like him? He and his father were trying to find a good young man for her.

“I like someone.” She said it too quickly.

Akash took deep breaths as he let her statement sink in. She liked someone! Who was it? She was too innocent, too naïve. What if she was being taken advantage of? What if that person was after her just for her wealth? His face tensed up.

“Say something!” Puja exclaimed.

“Who is it?” Akash tried to sound calm although his heart was racing.

“You know him, but the thing is, he is not into business. But he is so nice. Only you can convince Papa. Please. Please, Bhaiyya.” She was almost on the verge of crying.

“Shh…calm down. Tell me who it is,” Akash asked, trying to hide his frustration.

“I want you to meet him and see for yourself. I am afraid that you will reject him before hearing him out if I tell you who it is,” she replied.

“Just tell me who it is!” Akash screamed.

“He will see you today in about half an hour. I gave him your address.”

He was going to meet him in a few minutes? At his house! He saw Divya playing in the living room and panicked. How was he going to explain Divya and Sandhya’s presence to that person?

“I am out of the house now. I can meet him at a restaurant in an hour,” Akash replied as his brain tried to think.

“Oh! I think he had a commitment later today. I will just ask him to see you tomorrow then.”

“Wait, Puja. Please tell me who it is!”

She cut the call. Akash tried to call her three more times but she wouldn’t answer. Who was that guy? He wasn’t a businessman and she had said that he knew him. For some reason, he was convinced that his sister was being cheated and she needed to be protected. But he should check him out first before jumping to conclusions. He remembered an appointment that he absolutely had to keep and cursed. With this shocking news and Sandhya’s condition, he was in no mood for work now.

He asked Padma to give the appropriate medication to Sandhya, two of the larger tablets and one of the smaller tablets. He repeated it twice, knowing that she was absentminded. He checked on Sandhya and found her sleeping peacefully. Her phone vibrated. He froze when he saw the name on the screen.

“Dhiren!”

Was he still in touch with her? His fingers curled around the phone tightly. He had not seen her with Dhiren or Varun ever since he met her again nor did she ever mention them. He had assumed that they were not in her life anymore. But apparently, that was not the case. He sighed. [_Does it matter anymore? Maybe she was right. Marriage takes two people to love each other. It would not have worked out. _]Thinking that, he put the phone back in its position and walked out.

~

Dhiren looked at the beautiful house and took a deep breath. Puja would be upset with him for not listening to her and barging into her brother’s place like this. She had told him that Akash would meet him tomorrow but he was already at his location by then.

A woman opened the door.

“I came to see Akash Rai.”

“He has gone out. He might come back in a few minutes. Would you like to wait?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. He settled himself on the sofa and waited. Padma called up Akash to let him know about Dhiren but he did not answer.

“He is not answering.” She smiled apologetically. “You came for Akash only, right, not Sandhya?”

Dhiren raised his eyebrows in confusion.

“No,” he said.

This couldn’t be the Sandhya that he knew, obviously. But then, who was this Sandhya? As far as he knew, Akash was still a bachelor. Then who was she talking about? He decided to be mum and focus on the matter at hand. He was confident that he could convince Akash. He seemed to be a sensible fellow. Puja was becoming a nervous wreck with each passing day, afraid that Akash and her father would outright reject him. He had told her innumerable times that it should not matter that much. If they didn’t agree, they would still get married. They would have to agree eventually; it would just take some time for them. But she behaved as if it were a matter of life and death for her.

Padma carried an adorable little girl out from a room and made her sit at the dining table. Who was she? She looked at Dhiren, narrowing her eyes from afar.

“Aathaash… Whele is Aathaash? I want Aathaash! Whele is Mommy?” She started crying. Padma ran out of the kitchen with some food for the girl and placed it on the table.

“Divya…Aathaash will come in a few minutes, dear.”

Divya stopped crying and Padma made her eat food and take her medicine.

Divya stared at Dhiren again.

“Who is he?” She pointed to Dhiren.

“He is your papa’s friend,” Padma whispered to Divya. Padma was proud that she was the one who had taught Divya to call Akash Papa.

Dhiren wondered if he had heard Padma right. Her voice was low but he was pretty sure he heard the word “Papa.” But Akash was not married. Oh God! Was Akash married to a woman called Sandhya and even had a kid? Did he hide this fact from his family? Poor Puja! She would be shattered to know this if this was true. Maybe he was thinking crazy. This seemed too weird. He should simply concentrate on what he came here for.

Sandhya was sleeping when Padma came and woke her up to give her medication. What did Akash say…two large tablets and one small tablet or two small tablets and one large tablet? She tried to recall. The smaller tablets were so small. Those must be the ones that needed to be taken extra, she thought.

Sandhya was back in bed with her eyes closed.

“Akash,” she muttered.

“He has gone out…he will be coming back soon,” Padma answered and Sandhya nodded in her semi sleep.

“There is someone called Dhiren,” the maid started saying but Sandhya had closed her eyes.

Divya walked over to Dhiren. Dhiren smiled at her.

“Hi there!”

“Hi,” Divya said, scrutinizing him from top to bottom, scrunching up her nose.

Don’t know about Akash, but it seems that I don’t stand any chance with this girl. She will definitely reject me, Dhiren thought, amused. Maybe I should try to impress her for practice.

“My name is Dhiren. What is your name?” Dhiren asked, kneeling down beside her.

“Divya.”

“That is such a cute name.”

“You know I am sick,” she said, making a sad face.

“Oh…is that so? You took your medicine, right? You will get better soon.”

Divya brought her face near Dhiren’s, making her eyes big.

“They gave me one…two…thlee…foul…five injethtions!” she exclaimed, counting her fingers.

“Oh no! Those many injections!” Dhiren exclaimed with his face showing surprise and shock to the fullest.

“Yes! It hult sooo much.” She widened her arms.

“Oh no!”

“Papa said they will not do that again,” she replied morosely.

Dhiren fell silent. Was “Papa” really Akash? He should not have barged in like this without notice. If he was revealing Akash’s secrets, he might just infuriate him more. But why would Akash do that? He shook his head. Right now, he could not think of anything else other than marrying Puja. He had been waiting for three years! He was desperate. Maybe he should just meet Akash tomorrow wherever he asked him to meet.

“Will you play with me?” Divya asked.

“Some other time, dear. I have to go now,” Dhiren replied, smiling at Divya as he got up. He told Padma that he would meet Akash the next day and took his leave.

~

Akash returned home and asked Padma about Sandhya and Divya.

“Did you give the medication to them?”

“Yes. I did. Divya ate a little and is sleeping now.”

“Alright then. You can leave if you want.”

“Yes, but there was a young man who came to visit you. His name was…Viren… No…Dhiren.”

His face hardened.

“Are you sure?”

“I am sure that’s what he said.”

Akash looked at her in doubt. Padma could be real absentminded sometimes, but he had seen Dhiren calling on Sandhya’s cell phone. His mind was on a roller coaster but he composed himself. “Did he leave a number?”

“No, he said he will come again tomorrow.”

Akash’s forehead crinkled as he walked up the stairs. He turned around and looked at Padma, who was at the door.

“Did he say he wanted to see me or Sandhya?” he asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.

“He only asked for you. I even asked him if he came to see Sandhya. He said no.”

“Oh. Alright.”

He walked over to Sandhya’s room and hesitated.

Why was Dhiren here? If he came for Sandhya, then why did he not ask for her, meet her? Did he really come to meet him or was that just a cover to check on Sandhya because she did not answer his call? He should not care anymore about who Sandhya saw. But how dare he try to meet her at his house!

He looked at her sleeping figure with the bed sheet covering her up to her waist. He covered her up to her neck with the blanket, making sure that her hands were inside the blanket. She looked so worn out. The doctor had told him that she was also stressed out. Was he the cause of her stress? He retired to his room, took a shower and changed into his pajamas. It took him more than an hour to fall asleep.

~

The medications wrought havoc on Sandhya’s brain. Her sleepy mind had heard Dhiren talking to Padma. She was so delirious that her thoughts were mixed up with the past and the present.

She was walking happily to her house, watching the sunset over the cornfields. Tomorrow, Akash would be back.

Akash woke up to some sound. He blinked his eyes and wondered if he was imagining things. The clock said 1 am. He was about to lie down when he heard another faint sound. Was it coming from Sandhya’s room? He sprang up from his bed. He walked to her room and switched on the light.

Her eyes were still closed but her hands were grasping the mattress with force. Suddenly her body jerked and her face had a terrified expression. Alarmed, he ran towards her and was just feet away from her when he froze.

“Dhiren!” The name came out of her mouth. She did not seem terrified now. Akash felt like a huge electric wave had hit him, throwing him back to reality. A reality that was no less than hell and he had to live in it. He was not needed anymore. He turned around and walked towards the door. “Akash.” He heard her faint voice. Had he heard her right or was he imagining it? He turned around and found her face distressed again. Gone was the calmness that he had witnessed just a few seconds ago.

Confusion. Utter confusion. That was what he felt. He kept staring at her for a long time, waiting. And then it happened.

“Akash.” Her lips moved. Hope. He was getting a flicker of hope again and it was terrifying him. He slowly walked over to her and stood by her side. He held his hand out and stopped short of placing it on her forehead when it was an inch away from her skin. He could sense the heat rising from her face. He witnessed something that he never saw lately—a tear. A tear had escaped from the corner of her left eye and disappeared into the soft cotton pillow. That was enough. He placed his hand on her forehead and the heat dissipated into his cold hand. He immediately sensed the relief rising within her. He sat by her for a few seconds, worrying about how high her fever was. He removed his hand so that he could get the thermometer. No sooner had his hand left her forehead than she jerked her eyes open, grabbed his hand tightly and looked at him threateningly and questioningly at the same time. He was astonished.

“Don’t go,” she whispered as she pulled his hand over to her chest and closed her eyes again. He sat by her bedside again. He could feel her heartbeat and he worried if this was appropriate, considering that she was delirious. He tried to remove his hand gently from her hold. “Don’t leave,” she muttered again, still holding his hand tight.

“I won’t. I will be in this room on the chair,” he replied soothingly.

There was one thought that frightened him now. That she loved him.

He wished that he could be happy with this thought, but life was not so generous to him. Her senses would return by morning and their relationship would be back in troubled waters. He would probably never know the answer regarding Varun and Dhiren. But it didn’t matter anymore.

Chapter 38 – Tell Me the Truth

A

kash woke up before dawn, wriggled his hand out of Sandhya’s grasp, got out of the bed and walked over to his room. She would wake up soon and would be upset if she realized what had happened. The fever had subsided and her breathing seemed normal.

A few hours later, he walked up to Divya’s room and found Sandhya sitting by her side.

“Good morning.” He watched her from the corner of his eye. Would she remember anything?

“Morning.”

“You should not be walking around. How are you feeling?” he asked casually as he checked Divya’s temperature.

“Still tired; I just wanted to see Divya. I will go back and lie down.” She walked out of the room.

He was right. She had not remembered anything.

Akash remembered Puja and called her up. This time she answered.

“Puja! Why did you not answer my call yesterday?”

“He will see you this evening at 7:30 pm at the Plaza restaurant.”

Akash tensed up. Puja never acted like this with him.

“OK. I hope he is the right one for you,” he replied.

Puja seemed to breathe in relief.

“He is the right one for me! I knew you would understand! You will like him. He is so…adorable!”

Adorable? Is that even a term to use for a guy? Akash wondered.

“Don’t worry, Puja, everything will be alright.”

Yesterday, he had been skeptical but today, he truly hoped to like this man that Puja chose. He might not be a businessman but what could be more important than her happiness?

~

After lunch, Divya played in the backyard with Padma while Sandhya remained in her room. The doorbell rang. Akash opened the door and gasped. The time to face his worst nightmare had arrived. His mom stood before him.

He stared at her without speaking.

“Are you not going to ask your mother to come in?”

He hated the sarcasm and authority in her voice.

“Come in, Ma. How are you?”

She did not answer but kept glaring at him. The driver followed with a suitcase and placed it in the living room.

“Give me one minute, Ma,” he said and escaped to the backyard. He quickly instructed Padma to take Divya to the nearby park. He needed to explain everything to his mom before letting her see Divya. He came back to the living room.

“Would you like some water?”

“No.”

Akash sighed and closed his eyes as he prepared for what was about to come.

“Is she here?” Her tone was insulting.

Akash’s jaw tightened. Was she talking about Sandhya or Divya?

“Who?” he asked sternly.

His mom looked at him sharply.

“That bitch! Who else?” she screamed. Akash stood still, trying to control his shaking hands.

“You will not repeat that again.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“Are you commanding your mother? Have you grown so big that you have forgotten that it is I who brought you into this world?”

He stood silent, but his eyes were giving away his rage.

Her eyes caught Divya’s expensive toys.

“You have been spending money on them! She has caught you like a leech. No wonder she is taking advantage of you to benefit her and that child of hers! You are kicking them out now! If you won’t do it, I will!” She looked around for any trace of Sandhya or Divya.

“I am warning you one final time, Ma. I will not tolerate you speaking one word against Sandhya or Divya. That child of hers is mine too. Your granddaughter!” he fumed in anger.

She gasped in panic.

“You know she has a reputation for…”

“I said STOP IT! I was the one spending time with her at her house three years ago. Do you remember how you used to accuse her of roaming around with men? I was the one she was roaming around with. I was the one who was too timid to admit it. If you want to blame someone, blame me!” he screamed.

His mom was stunned. She remained silent, trying to digest what he said. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“She has cast a spell on you. I can’t let that happen! I have our family’s honor and reputation to protect. She has to get out. She has to. Don’t you understand! She is a pest. She is only after your money!”

“If she was, she would have gotten it long ago!” his voice roared as his body shook with fury.

“What has come over you?”

He kept staring at her furiously. She took a few deep breaths and opened her mouth again.

“Either you throw them out of your life, or I get out of your life,” she said in a dangerously calm voice.

Akash looked at her in disbelief.

“What kind of stupidity is this?” he asked in anguish.

“Tell me your answer!”

Akash took a deep breath.

“I can’t. I have a responsibility towards them and—” he started but his mom stopped him by stretching her hand out.

“Don’t you ever call me Ma,” she blurted out, then turned around with force and stormed out of the house.

The driver came into the house a few seconds later, grabbed the suitcase and went away.

Akash closed his eyes and wondered how his dad had borne his mom for this many years. He hoped that she would come back to her senses soon and not suffer too long, hanging on to her pride.

Sandhya stood by her bedroom door, shivering at Akash’s mom’s words. She had heard each and every bit of the conversation between them. Akash astonished her with his words. Why did he trust her now? It would have been better if he did not trust her. She closed her eyes in agony.

~

Akash walked into the posh Plaza restaurant. He took a seat at an empty table and looked around. His eyes halted on someone familiar.

Dhiren!

He looked away. To his astonishment, Dhiren walked over to him, smiled nervously and extended his hand to Akash. He had no clue how to react. His blood was boiling inside but maybe this was his chance to confront him as well.

Akash extended his hand reluctantly and shook his hand.

“How have you been?” Dhiren asked.

“What brings you here?” Akash ignored his question.

Dhiren was taken aback. “I…I thought Puja told you,” Dhiren started.

It was only then that the light in Akash’s mind switched on.

Dhiren! What the heck! DHIREN was the guy Puja was talking about! His face turned red with anger as he gritted his teeth.

He closed his eyes. This was too much drama in his life for a day. His head spun as he held his forehead, trying to figure out what to do with the man before him. How was he supposed to react? He took a few deep breaths.

Dhiren took the seat across from him.

“Yes. Puja did tell me about you.”

Dhiren smiled at him faintly with nervousness as he interlaced the fingers of his hands.

Silence.

Dhiren opened his mouth to say something but Akash cut him off.

“And my answer is no!” he said, rising up from his chair.

A panic-stricken Dhiren stood up.

“Wait, what?” he exclaimed.

“I said my answer is NO!”

Dhiren was silent for a few seconds.

“We have been in love for more than three years and we know for sure that we will be happy together. Are you concerned that I am not in business? Is that why you are rejecting me?” Dhiren tried to be calm but his inherent frustration was apparent.

“You should ask yourself about why you are not suitable for my Puja.”

“I don’t understand! I think we are perfect for each other!” he shot back.

“Really? Then what about Sandhya? Is she perfect for you too? Is she also another innocent scapegoat like Puja?”

Dhiren was shocked.

“What? Which Sandhya are you talking about?”

“The Sandhya that you proposed to three years ago!” Akash screamed.

Dhiren was stunned. He searched his brain for a few seconds.

“I never proposed to Sandhya. She was always a good friend to me,” he replied.

“Don’t you dare lie! I saw you proposing to her with my own eyes!” Akash shouted.

Dhiren narrowed his eyes in confusion, then widened them in surprise.

“What the heck? I was only practicing the act of proposing to Puja!”

“Oh yes! Of course, you would think that I would believe all your lies, right?”

Anger and confusion seemed to engulf Dhiren. Something dawned on him and he narrowed his eyes on Akash.

“Oh my God! You are the one that Sandhya was talking about! You married her, have a daughter with her and yet you did not inform your family?”

“Don’t act smart! You very well know that we are not married!” Akash shot back.

Dhiren let out a gasp.

“You are not married? And you have a daughter! What kind of a man are you? So, that is the reason she never contacted me these three years? You cheat! I can’t believe that I am standing here asking a person like you for Puja’s hand!” Dhiren’s face was red with outrage.

“Stop talking nonsense!” Akash screamed.

Dhiren glared at him with utmost bitterness. “Nonsense? Yes. It is complete nonsense; to know that Puja loves you so much; to know that Sandhya thought that you would protect her. Who would have thought that she needed protection more from you rather than that Varun!” he screamed and stormed out of there.

Akash stood rooted to the ground. Slowly, Dhiren’s words sank in.

“I never proposed to Sandhya. She was always a good friend to me.”

“Who would have thought that she needed protection from you more than she needed it from that Varun!”

Protection from Varun? She needed protection from Varun? His mind was frantic. He got back to his senses. Dhiren! He needed to find Dhiren!

He ran out of the restaurant and searched for him everywhere. He was nowhere to be seen. He called Puja’s number so she could give him his number. She did not answer either. Damn!

Protection from Varun? his mind screamed again and again as he drove home as fast as he could.

His brain was about to burst with the pressure that he felt. Sandhya had all the answers. She better answer him this time. She better!

She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and was walking down the stairs, holding her purse.

Anger blazed within him.

She saw him and her face turned from sadness to confusion to fright.

“What happened?”

She stood a few feet away from him. Akash tried to curb his anger. She was sick and he needed to be patient. But the fact that she was going out in this condition infuriated him more.

“Where are you going?” he asked, trying his best to sound calm but failing.

She took a couple of seconds to answer. “I have an errand.”

“You are sick.”

“I feel fine.”

He took a deep breath.

“I need to talk to you.”

“We can talk after I return.”

Again a deep breath.

“I will come with you.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Why should I answer you? I am not your slave!” she fumed and started walking towards the main door.

He caught her by her arm and pulled her into his arms, taking her by surprise. She tried to push him off but she was still weak. Feeling her body lessened his anger to some extent, but his heart was still pounding with frustration.

“What are you doing?” she questioned, her voice showing her concern.

He broke away from the embrace and pulled her towards the sofa. He pushed gently on her shoulders and made her sit. She stared at him, confused.

Once again, he knelt before her, reminding himself to keep a lid on his anger. His face must be giving away much of what he was feeling inside, he was sure of that from her expression.

He took a deep breath and looked straight into her eyes.

“Did Varun try to harm you?”

Her eyes grew big and she let out a gasp. Her face could not hide the panic and anxiousness that was building up within her.

She closed her eyes for a few seconds and opened them.

“I told you already that I don’t want to talk about the past,” she said coldly.

His face hardened and the muscles in his jaw were clearly visible. He took a few more deep breaths.

“What if it affected the future of your dear friend Dhiren?” he said sarcastically.

She was taken by surprise and stared at Akash with utter confusion. He kept looking at her face, noticing each and every gasp, twitch of her muscles, blink of her eyes.

“How?”

“Puja and Dhiren claim that they both love each other. And you know how much I would approve of that, right?” he replied icily.

Sandhya’s eyes grew even wider in shock. Her lips quivered. She closed her eyes.

Akash kept staring at her, knowing that she would speak up now. If she was the person that he knew, then she would speak up. She would do that much for her friend.

His heart raced. He had to be prepared for what she was going to say, and he dreaded if it was what his mind was telling him.

She looked at him with utter coldness.

“Would you believe me now?”

That one statement slashed his heart. Yes. She had every right to ask him that. She had tried explaining once and he had not believed her, even insulted her.

“Yes.” He did not like saying it, but he deserved it.

She waited for a few more seconds before she opened her mouth.

“Dhiren was a good friend of mine. We never had anything other than friendship between us.”

Akash listened to her attentively.

“Then why did he propose to you?”

Sandhya’s stunned eyes shot up to him.

“What? He never proposed to me!”

“I saw him proposing to you the night before we broke up. It was late at night and he was with you.”

Sandhya looked at him with confusion, which was quickly replaced with astonishment and anger. Her eyes narrowed.

“You were there! You were there that night and yet you—” Her voice turned coarse. Her forehead crinkled painfully as she realized what he had just said.

Akash closed his eyes in dismay and she quickly tried to mask her reaction. He opened his eyes and knew that she had let out her inner feelings in that statement and was trying to cover them up again.

“Yes. I was there.”

Her eyes grew cold.

“He was practicing proposing to a girl that he said he loved. I did not know that it was Puja then,” she continued.

Akash acted normal but a storm was building inside him.

“What about Varun? Was he a good friend too?”

He noticed her stiffen.

“Initially we were friends and then we did not stay in touch,” she replied.

“Why?”

She looked away.

“Tell me the truth, Sandhya. I know you don’t find me trustworthy. I know you think that I do not deserve your love. But if you at least consider me a human being, tell me the truth!”

She looked at him with agony and concern. What she did next was something that he expected the least.

She took his hands in hers.

“Akash! It’s all past. I don’t want to—”

“Tell me the truth, Sandhya!”

“He…I hated him. I thought he was a good friend initially, but he wanted more than friendship. I obviously had no such intentions towards him. He trapped me into travelling with him to Ooty so he could take advantage of me, but I somehow managed to avoid him. You were all tensed up with your presentation in New York, so I decided to tell you as soon as you returned but…”

Akash felt like he couldn’t breathe anymore.

“But?”

“That day, the day before you were supposed to return, he was hiding in my house and tried to…” Her voice choked as she remembered that day.

Akash felt his blood boiling like lava, waiting to burst out from within him.

His next question almost killed him, but it had to be asked.

“Did he?”

She shook her head.

“I was lucky and got away. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I did not have the knife under my pillow or if Dhiren had not come on time.”

Akash closed his eyes and swallowed again.

“Dhiren saved you?”

“Yes.”

He kept staring at her with a blank expression. She stared back at him, worried.

“It all happened so long ago. There is no use thinking about all that now, is there? The best we can do is to try to get over it.”

He had stopped feeling, and he wished that it would remain the same for eternity, because when realization dawned on what he had done, it would be unbearable.

She did not find him worthy enough to tell him about Varun. Not then, not now. The only time that she had tried to tell him, he had insulted her. He knew that he had committed a crime—a crime for which he may never forgive himself.

But that did not mean that she was spotless. She had betrayed him.

His eyes red, his face quivered with raw emotion.

“What am I supposed to do now, Sandhya? What am I supposed to feel now? Are you happy that every part of my body is burning with remorse? What were you thinking all this time? What were you thinking?” he screamed. “Did you decide that I should not be allowed to know the truth; that I should not be allowed to protect you; that I should not be allowed to…love you…anymore? I am not telling you that you should forgive me for what I did. I will never forgive myself for that, but how could you? How could you be so cruel?”

Sandhya looked at him, stunned. It was ironic that she was still being accused. She took a few deep breaths.

“It wasn’t me who decided. It was you! You decided everything before thinking once about asking me.”

He stared at her blankly, standing still, his hands trembling. She continued.

“I never meant to give you any pain or punishment. I just wanted to get away from you initially. Later, I contacted you once, but it was the day of your marriage with Kavya.”

“You could have called just once more,” he whispered in agony.

She glared at him for a long time.

“That is what I waited for…one call…from you…which never came.” Her accusing eyes seared through him.

“You had my child inside you, damn it! My child! I had a right to know!” he screamed.

She took a deep breath.

“So, I should have called you because of your child. And you need not have called me. Is that what you are saying? What if there was no child? What about me? What about my heart and my life that you crushed?” she screamed back.

He trembled as he continued to stare at her.

“And…” Akash shuddered at his next question and wondered how his life would be after knowing the answer for this. “The wound on your arm?”

She stiffened for a second.

“Varun.”

As soon as he heard that, he jerked his hands out of hers and stood a few feet away.

In a swift motion, he turned around, stormed into his office room and shut the door.

~

Sandhya’s heart pounded. This was what she was afraid of. She decided to give him some time and waited on the sofa. After about ten minutes, the door opened. He barged out of the room and marched towards the front door.

“Akash! What are you doing?”

He did not stop.

“Where are you going?” she demanded as she held his arm. He shrugged her arm off.

“What are you going to do now? Take revenge? Kill him?” she screamed, agitated.

He went to his car and drove off.

Sandhya stood there, her body shaking and whispered, “You know what your problem is? You always make hasty decisions without thinking about consequences.”

~

Revenge. That was all his mind screamed as he drove fast in the dark night. There was no point lodging a complaint with the police about it. For something that happened three years ago, he would escape spotless, citing lack of evidence. But he would not let him go free. He steered his car towards a highway. His cell phone vibrated. Dhiren. His jaw tightened.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Akash. Where are you? Please don’t do anything hasty. Sandhya just called me up and told me that you found out about Varun just now.”

“At least you could have told me!”

“She never disclosed your name on that day. The next day, she moved out of our village and it seemed like she wanted to be left alone. I was also not mature enough to know how to handle the situation.”

Akash kept silent.

“I might have some information about Varun that may be useful, but I don’t want you or Sandhya to be dragged into a scandal,” he replied in a low voice. The vehicle came to a screeching halt.

“Tell me.”

He listened to Dhiren for the next ten minutes. Once the call was over, Akash held the steering wheel tight, closed his eyes and tilted his head up. Dhiren was right, he should not do anything in haste. He started the car. His eyes were on the road, but his mind was occupied by his past—the past that would leave him questioning himself for a long time to come. He recalled the first time he saw Sandhya in the restaurant, how they got friendly at work, how he tricked her into letting him drop her every day at her house. Their first kiss and how she had resisted him initially. That night, when she had asked him to drop her off late at night, Varun was behind her and he was drunk. Why did he not understand that she needed protection from Varun right then? Instead, he had been rash to her and hurt her. Wasn’t that the night when he had confessed his love for her? Yes. That was also the night when she had disclosed her concerns to him.

[_“It’s me who is not worthy of you. You have everything to offer me and I don’t have anything. I am just a girl trying to survive and make ends meet.” _]

And he had convinced her that it did not matter to him. His heavy heart filled up with remorse.

“I want to be with someone with whom I won’t feel little so I can live with my head held high.”

That night was etched in his memory. For the past three years, that memory had been tormenting him, as it reminded him of her betrayal. Now, that memory still tormented him, as it reminded him of his grave mistake. He recalled that horrible night when he had ignored all her calls. If only, if only he had softened a little and answered her call, maybe he would not be in this situation. She came to see him at his house and what did he do? He had insulted her, accused her, even hurt her! Yes, he had hurt her in the same spot where Varun had inflicted a wound on her! He, who was supposed to mend her wounds, had caused her suffering to multiply. If only he had kept his mouth shut and let her explain. If only he could erase that one day. He shut his eyes tight, held the steering wheel in a tight grip as blood pumped fast through his body as he tried to cope with the stress and tension in his mind. He applied a sudden break and climbed out of his car, trying to breathe. He held his hand on his forehead, trying to take deep breaths and calm himself. He could not change the past. All he could do was try to correct his mistakes. He had to apologize to her. He would give her all the happiness that she had missed because of him and make her forget her wounds. It was easier said than done but he would find a way. A disturbing thought crossed his mind. What if she did not agree to marry him even after he apologized? Would she? If she wanted to be free, would he be man enough to let her go? But why would she? She still loved him deeply. It was ironic. Even after all that he had done, she still loved him. She just wouldn’t admit it.

He looked around and realized that he was in some marketplace. To his left, there was a fancy shop with a range of bangles on display in the front. His eyes caught a set of red-colored bangles. Unknowingly, his legs sprinted to the shop and he gazed at the bangles in shock, amazed at the similarity to the ones he had slid onto her hands years ago. He dug in his wallet and this time, he luckily had the change and purchased them. He got back to the car and touched the bangles tenderly, wondering if this was a God-sent signal. Would she let him slide them onto her hands again?

He started to drive again, suddenly shivering with the realization that she might never accept him. She had said that she loathed him. No, she couldn’t. She loved him, yet hated him too for what he had done to her. It was obvious. What surprised him was that she still had this much love for him. It was around midnight that he returned home.

~

As soon as Sandhya heard the car, she ran downstairs and flung the front door wide open. She had been scared as hell, although Dhiren had been telling her not to worry. Akash had not called her throughout this time. Their eyes locked as he walked towards the porch. He looked tired but otherwise fine. She breathed in relief. She realized that she had been staring at him for too long and looked away. He walked into the living room and she closed the door.

“Did you have dinner?” She tried to sound casual. He wasn’t talking but his face showed his guilt and the fact that he wanted to talk. She knew that, but it could wait until the next day. He was tired and she did not want to disturb him now.

“Are you hungry? Do you want me to serve dinner?” she asked again, a bit louder.

“Yes. I will freshen up and come down,” he said as he walked up the stairs.

Sandhya bit her lip; she had secretly hoped that he had eaten and would say no, not wanting to talk about their future at this time. He stopped by Divya’s room for a couple of minutes before disappearing into his room. She served dinner on the dining table, placed her head on the dining table and closed her eyes. Not only was she tired and sleepy, she was also disturbed.

“Sandhya?” She felt his hand on her back.

She sat upright and rubbed her eyes.

“Why don’t you go and sleep?” he said in a caring, soothing voice.

“It’s OK. I will keep you company,” she replied, yawning.

He looked at her with concern and started eating his dinner quickly. They both cleared the table in silence and went up the stairs together. Akash halted next to Sandhya’s room.

“Sandhya?”

She froze and then turned around.

He walked up to her and stood in front of her. She stiffened.

“Good night.”

“Good night.” She breathed in relief, closed the door and crept onto her bed, her heart filled with heaviness. She knew that she wouldn’t have a wink of sleep tonight.

~

Chapter 39 – Unbearable

A

kash could hardly sleep without talking to Sandhya but she seemed so tired. He himself was terribly tired and dozed off unknowingly. His utterly disturbed mind made him wake up early though. He struggled, wondering how to approach Sandhya. He placed the bangles in front of the mini temple, knowing that Sandhya always prayed after taking a bath in the morning.

She climbed downstairs in a beautiful salwar kameez.

“Good morning.” He smiled at her.

“Morning.” She smiled back at him but it didn’t reach her eyes. She still looked tired, with dark circles around her eyes. She walked to the mini temple room. Akash followed her and observed her from a distance, positioning himself in such a way that he could see her but she couldn’t see him. She prayed longer than usual. Just when he thought that she wouldn’t notice the bangles, he saw her stop and gaze at them. His heart pounded in his chest and his breath was stuck in his throat. Her hands inched slowly towards the bangles. She picked them up gently and brought them before her eyes. She ran her fingers over them with utmost care before she placed them back.

Akash’s forehead creased with worry as he retreated from his position. What did that mean? He had not apologized to her yet. He couldn’t expect her to just forget everything and start over, could he?

“Aathaash!” Divya came down the stairs.

“Hi, princess!” Akash ran up the stairs and hugged her.

She beat him with her tiny fists on his chest.

“Whele did you go?” she screamed.

“Hey! I am right here, pumpkin. See!” He kissed her cheeks.

Even though Sandhya still seemed to have the invisible barrier around her, she looked a little different today. She had worn a pretty dress and had taken care to look beautiful. But her eyes carried a certain sadness that he could not fathom. It pained him that she was still reluctant to open up to him. But he had to be patient. After all that he had done, this was the least he could do.

He was looking for an opportunity to talk to her in private when she escaped to the kitchen.

“Padma, I will make the breakfast today,” he heard her say.

Akash did not know whether to be happy or sad.

“Padma, can you look after Divya?” Akash said as he entered the kitchen. Padma gave an understanding look to Akash and left the kitchen. Sandhya stiffened a bit. He walked over to her.

“Can I help you?” he said casually.

She looked at him questioningly.

“Please…” he added.

Her eyes softened and she astonished him with her smile.

“Sure, can you get me the peanuts?” Her tone was unusually casual now. Almost like she was three years ago.

“Got it.” He handed her the peanut jar enthusiastically.

“What are we making?”

“I was going to make idli,” she said, and halted. “But we can make something else if you want,” she added as she bit her lip.

“No. Idli is fine. What brings you into the kitchen today?” he asked casually.

“Nothing. Just felt like cooking for once.”

“For once! You cook every day at your place!”

She was silent for a few seconds.

“Yeah, I guess.”

They continued talking casually. Akash felt so much better that she was speaking to him normally. He decided to pour his heart out once they were done with their breakfast.

During breakfast, he observed that she was acting unusually at the dining table. One moment she would be smiling and talking and the next she would be extremely silent. But in general, the atmosphere felt cheerful. For once, it felt as if they were a real family, having a fun time together.

Divya was laughing and talking her kiddy-talk nonstop. Even Padma had a glow on her face. After breakfast, he found Sandhya sitting on the porch, studying a file.

He sat beside her. She closed the file and placed it beside her.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he said cautiously.

“I have to talk to you too,” she replied.

[_Why does she sound so sad? _]He shuddered. His confidence dwindled again. Was she trying to say that they couldn’t start over? Just the thought made his heart stop. No! He couldn’t let her go, but then, he had no right over her anymore. All he could do was try to make her understand that he would never hurt her again.

“Akash…I…” she started but somehow the words seemed to stick in her throat.

“Please, Sandhya, let me talk first,” he said as he held her hand. His eyes bored into hers, pleading with her to take him back into her life even before any words came out of his mouth. “I am not a good person, Sandhya. Maybe you are right. I only deserve to be loathed. And I will accept it if you say that you will never forgive me. But how do I accept it if you say that you don’t want to be with me? I love you and I want you in my life, Sandhya. I wouldn’t have revealed this to you if I did not know that you still have feelings for me.” He halted as he noticed her flinch and turn her head away.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I have been cruel to you. I left you all alone and did not look for you even once. I am a devil. I agree. But you, you have a golden heart. Can’t you understand what I feel for you? Can’t you?” He grasped her hand in both of his hands. She looked at him with pain and opened her mouth.

“I am not as good as you think, Akash,” she uttered.

He searched her eyes. What was she saying? Was she rejecting him and feeling guilty for that? Whatever it was, he could see the pain within her.

“Hey, Sandhya. I was only hoping that we could give each other a second chance,” he said, holding her hands softly. “It’s not an obligation on your part. Don’t be so harsh on yourself.” He tried to sound convincing but his heart was being smashed by his own words.

She looked at him with renewed admiration, but her sadness remained. “Not everyone gets a second chance in life,” she stated sadly.

Why did she say that?

“I have to tell you something.” Her voice jerked him out of his thoughts. She handed a file to him.

“What is it?”

He was about to open it when Sandhya’s phone vibrated. It was Sameer.

“Hi, Sameer.”

“Sandhya! I need your help! It’s an emergency! Priya is alone at home and I am out of town. Her brother was supposed to take care of her but I don’t know why he is not answering his phone. She is in severe pain now!”

“Oh! I will be with her as soon as possible. Which hospital should I take her to?”

Her brain momentarily froze when he mentioned the hospital’s name. It was the same hospital where she had delivered. She switched off the phone and faced a concerned Akash.

She quickly told him what Sameer had said. “I will come with you,” he replied firmly.

The file was left on the porch.

An hour later, they both sat in the hospital by Priya’s bed.

Akash was shaken by Priya’s pain; she continuously asked for Sameer as she clutched Sandhya’s hand tight. He had thought that Sandhya would be strong in this situation but he was surprised to see that she was also pale.

An elderly nurse entered the room to check on Priya.

“Hello, Sandhya, dear! How are you?”

Sandhya was taken aback.

“Hi, I am good.” She smiled at the nurse. Again, her smile did not reach her eyes.

“Priya!” Sameer rushed into the room.

“Sameer!” Priya cried out and held out her hand for him.

“Hang on, Priya! Just a few more minutes!” He held her hand and sat by her bedside.

“Thank you, Akash! Thanks, Sandy! I was freaking out thinking that she would deliver before she reached the hospital!”

Little Aarush arrived into the world bringing blissful joy to Priya and Sameer. Akash and Sandhya congratulated an elated Sameer and a happy but tired Priya. Priya and Sameer started arguing again, each saying that the baby boy had features of theirs. Akash smiled at them. They had a child now but their childish behavior hadn’t seemed to subside. He observed that Sandhya was lost in thought when she held the baby. His heart twisted in agony. She must have gone through all the pain that Priya went through and he was not with her like Sameer was. He walked up to Sandhya and nudged her to let him handle the newborn.

“I have never held a newborn,” he said, giving a scared look to Sandhya. The baby was sleeping comfortably, with his little fingers curled up and his tiny mouth partly open.

“Just make sure that you give support to his head and neck by placing your hand under the neck,” she said, showing him how she was holding him.

Akash took a deep breath and took the baby in his hands. He traced his thumb over the wrinkled skin of the baby’s cheek as he gazed at his tiny structure in awe.

Divya must also have felt like this, he thought wistfully. He had missed so many stages of her life.

He remembered the casual talk that he’d had with Sandhya years ago, when they discussed their future children’s names. If he had been there with her when Divya was born, he would have convinced Sandhya to name her Saanya. He had always loved that name, although now he loved the name Divya too. But of course, Saanya was his preference and Divya was hers. He could not blame her for not naming their child to his liking.

A short while later, he left the crowded room and sat in the corridor. The elderly nurse who was in Priya’s room earlier walked over to him with a smile.

“Hi, I am Mary. It’s good to get to see you and meet you.” She held out her hand.

Akash raised his eyebrows in surprise as he shook her hand.

“How do you know me?”

The nurse raised her eyes, a bit taken aback.

“Oh! Yes of course. You would not know. I attended to Sandhya when she was having her baby.”

“Oh! Did she tell you about me?” he asked curiously.

“Not exactly. An elderly lady was with her shortly after she was admitted. She said she was her aunt.”

“Shanta Mausi?”

“Yes. She told us that Sandhya’s husband was out on business then. To be frank, I was angry at you, even though I didn’t know you. Who would leave his pregnant wife and leave for business?”

Akash stared at the tile, unable to get out any words to support himself.

“Did Mausi tell you my name?”

“No, Sandhya had a complicated pregnancy and we had to do a C-section after hours of enduring labor pain did not help in a normal delivery. After she was given the anesthetic, she was drowsy and it was then that she screamed your name.”

Akash closed his eyes as he fiddled with his sweaty fingers, reminding himself that there was no use dwelling on the past. He had to, otherwise he would drown in guilt.

“At least I am happy that I am with her now. At least she is fine and our child is safe and healthy.” It seemed he was explaining more to himself than her.

“Oh! I am so glad to know that you had another baby. Yes, she is a brave girl. I am sure you must have helped her through it. We did try to prepare her and tell her that the baby’s survival chances were very slim, but she simply wouldn’t lose hope. Losing a child is not an easy thing to cope with. I was worried that she would fall into depression.”

Akash attempted to interpret what he had just heard. He sucked in a breath and held it. His mind went blank.

Just then, the nurse got called for duty.

“Sorry! I have to leave now. Keep her happy, young man. Take care!” The nurse left him to attend to her duties.

He was staring ahead of him along the corridor but his vision was a blur. For a moment, everything felt like a myth; Sandhya, Divya, the hospital, the nurse, Priya, Sameer…everything. His vision cleared and he saw Sandhya standing in front of him a few feet away, her face anxious and wrecked. She started walking towards him.

His heart raced faster. Anger, frustration, betrayal, but most of all pain engulfed him. He couldn’t bear to see her or talk to her. He got up and walked rapidly out of the hospital, out onto the road.

~

Sandhya ran after Akash. She had seen the nurse talking to him and knew just by the look on his face that he knew the truth now. She saw him on the busy road. He was walking rapidly into the middle of the road.

“Akash!” she cried out, but he did not halt.

A truck came towards him and her heart stopped for a few seconds.

“Akash!” she screamed at the top of her lungs as she ran after him as fast as she could. Luckily the truck driver noticed him on time on the road and steered away.

She caught up to him, grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side.

He turned around. His distressed yet furious expression terrified her. His burning eyes pierced through her as his lips quivered slightly and he questioned her with his eyes swelled up with tears.

“Akash!”

“Why? Why?” he screamed as he towered over her.

“Please.” She tried to calm him down.

He shook his head and swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Boy or…?” Words came out with difficulty from his mouth.

“Girl,” she replied, looking away.

Silence for a few seconds.

“Stillborn?”

Sandhya’s eyes turned glassy as she moved her head horizontally. “Three days. She breathed for three days.” She answered his next question before he could ask her.

“How?”

“Kidney disease; an extremely rare condition. They could not do anything.”

Akash kept looking at her face blankly as she said that. Suddenly his face became red with fury. His chest heaved up and down with anger.

“I could have saved her. I could have!! If only I had known! What do I do now?” he screamed. “Was your PRIDE, your EGO more important than our LOVE?” his voice roared accusingly.

Her eyes widened at his statement. She stared at him, stunned, her face completely distressed.

Before she could say anything, he walked away from her.

She stood rooted to the spot and watched him drift away. Her legs gave in and she knelt on the roadside. She clenched her fists, pressed her teeth tight, swallowed hard and tried to breathe.

She closed her eyes and recalled her past.

When the doctors informed her that her baby had complications, she had not been that worried. She looked like a perfect baby. How could anything be wrong with her? God would not be so cruel to her. She had never imagined that she would have to face the dreadful fact that her baby was no longer breathing.

The doctors, nurses, everyone who had attended to her, had cried that day. It was only her who was left with no tears. What was the point? Nothing could make her feel better. Tears could not lighten the burden that she felt. No one could take away her pain. Shanta Mausi had been there with her all the time and had shed a ton of tears. But Sandhya, she just became silent.

Once they returned to her apartment, Mausi had stayed with her as much as possible, afraid that she was suicidal. It was about a week after they were back in the apartment. Sandhya was alone and lying on her bed. Her breasts were hard like a stone with the milk that had not been used. She had been too distressed to remember to pump it out and it was physically hurting her. But it was nothing compared to what she was going through mentally.

Her eyes darted to the powerful painkillers prescribed for her stitches. She was advised not to take more than two at a time. They would be fatal if she took thirty or more at the same time. She had been told that taking one’s own life was a thing that cowards did, but she did not care anymore. There was her family, her mother, father, and her dear baby calling out to her to come and join them in another world. She had nothing to look forward to in this world. Suddenly, the decision to leave this world felt so welcoming. She felt peaceful in that realization and made up her mind. She tried to plan how she was going to do it. She did not want to do it in her apartment. It would only cause problems for the apartment owner as no one would agree to rent it anymore. She finally decided to do it outside, maybe on a beach. There was one more problem. She had saved some money for herself and her baby. Although it wasn’t a large amount, it wasn’t a very small amount either. She decided to donate it to a particular orphanage that was located in the outskirts of Mumbai. She had worked there during one of her summer vacations. It was a small organization run independently by an old man. He ran it as best he could, but it was by far the poorest structure with the poorest facilities she had ever seen. Her tiny donation would mean a lot for that particular orphanage. There was also a beach within a few miles of the orphanage. She could drop off the check at the orphanage and then walk over to the beach and see the end of herself in this world.

She took a deep breath. The only person holding her back from taking this step was Shanta Mausi. She would be shattered.

[_I will miss you, Mausi. I am so sorry for what you will go through, _]she thought.

She wrote a suicide note addressed to Mausi and placed it on the dining table under a cup. She reached the orphanage and waited at the office for the old man to appear. All she wanted to do was to hand over the check, get out to the beach and end her existence as soon as possible. Her baby was calling out to her and she was desperate to see her.

As she waited, she heard the disturbing cries of a baby, reminding her of her own baby’s cries, tormenting her even further. She closed her ears tight, trying not to let the sound enter her system. Milk started to ooze out of her breasts at hearing the baby’s cries and under normal circumstances, she would have been embarrassed. The old man appeared and welcomed her. He tried to make some small talk about her life and how she was doing. She attempted to cut short the conversation and searched for the check. The baby’s cries grew louder, causing her to fidget and fumble more as she looked for the check. The old man observed her carefully. A woman brought the crying baby into the office.

“She is not drinking milk at all from the bottle,” the woman complained even as the baby cried at the top of her lungs. Sandhya closed her eyes in agony as her dress got more soaked. She covered herself with a dupatta.

“Try to make her stop crying and feed her again after a few minutes,” the old man instructed the woman.

Sandhya got the check out from her bag and got up from her chair.

“Please accept this donation from me. I will leave now.”

“Sandhya!” The old man stopped her.

The moment he had seen her, he knew that something was terribly wrong with her. This was not the cheerful and active Sandhya that had worked for him a few years ago. Out of curiosity and worry, he started making small talk with her to understand what was going on with her without making her suspicious. It seemed like she just wanted to go away soon. He could deduce that she must have had a baby. But if that was the case, she would not come and donate this amount of money. Nor would she be this morose. He knew that she was not married. There was only one conclusion that he came to. She had lost her baby and was contemplating suicide. He immediately requested her address and phone number, citing organization policies for donations as the reason to obtain that information.

Years of living in this world had given him enough insight into people’s behavior.

He attempted to ask her something that might seem awkward, but it was worth taking a chance.

“Would you like to adopt the baby that you just saw?”

Sandhya looked at the old man, stunned and in shock.

“B…but how can I?” she questioned him, astonished.

She shook her head.

“I can’t. I cannot handle the responsibility.”

The old man stood silent.

“I am not married. The adoption rules—it would never be allowed.”

“This is still my orphanage and not yet affiliated with the big names. I still get to make decisions. I would give that baby to you if you want. I have confidence in you that you would be a great mother to her. I wouldn’t have asked you if I did not think that you would mutually benefit from each other.”

She stared at the floor. “I don’t think it will do any good for her. She needs a family with a mother and a father. And, I am not in a mindset to take up such a responsibility now.”

“Sandhya, responsibilities don’t come to you after checking the appropriate time. This baby was born prematurely. So far, about twenty couples have rejected her because her lungs were underdeveloped when she was born. She needs love, care and attention. If she gets it, I think she would be a perfectly normal girl. If she doesn’t get that soon, then I am not sure what might happen.”

“I am sorry. I can’t do this,” she said as she shot up from her seat and left.

She sat at the sea shore and watched the blue ocean; the waves hitting the shore, the beautiful sky. Her baby was in the sky, calling out to her to come and join her. But this whole event at the orphanage was stopping her, screaming at her that she was committing a sin. She had the opportunity to live in this world and nurture a young soul. But she had no will or strength to take up that responsibility. She couldn’t forget or let go of her own baby. How could she?

She was torn in between two worlds—a world where her own daughter was, where there was peace and bliss; and this world where she could be a mother to a child but would have to face struggle and pain. Not to mention the fact that losing herself in another child would mean that she forgot her own child, which seemed like a sin as well. The step that had felt so blissful a few hours ago did not seem so blissful now. But she did not have the will to remain in this world. She closed her eyes in agony.

“What are you doing here?” Mausi’s voice rang behind her.

How did she know that she was here?

She stood up and turned around.

Mausi seemed upset.

“I just felt like coming here,” she replied.

“Come, let’s go home now.” Mausi held her wrist and dragged her off the beach. Then she forced her to sit in a cab.

Was this just how things were meant to be? Was she meant to breathe and live in this world, where she did not belong? If that was the case, then she had to do one thing. She instructed the cab driver to go to the orphanage, surprising Mausi. She went ahead and informed the old man that she would like to adopt the baby. Mausi was shocked by her decision but didn’t oppose her.

The baby would be allowed to come home with her in about a week.

As soon as they reached the apartment, Sandhya quickly reached for the suicide note on the dining table, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the trash.

~

Sandhya walked back to the hospital where Akash’s car and driver were waiting. She bid good-bye to Priya and Sameer and sat in the car. He must be depressed and angry. She had expected him to behave this way once he discovered the truth. But knowing it from her rather than someone else was how it was supposed to happen.

When she reached his house, Padma informed her that he had arrived a few minutes earlier and was locked up in his room. She knocked on his door gently.

No answer. She knocked again.

“Leave me alone for a while.”

She nodded as if he could see her and sat on the floor by his bedroom door as she waited for him to open it.

He opened it about an hour later and stood before her, his face swollen and his eyes sore.

She stood up and looked into his eyes.

“Akash.”

“Did you name her?

She nodded.

“What?”

“Saanya.”

Akash let out a gasp.

“Saanya?” he repeated and remained silent for a few seconds. “And Divya? Who is she?”

“Adopted.”

Silence for a few seconds.

“Do you…have her picture?”

She searched his agonized eyes.

“Yes. But only one.” She handed him the file in her hands. It was the same one that she had handed over to him on the porch steps. He opened the file with trembling fingers.

The photo was placed right at the top. It was the same photo that he had seen on the first page of the album at Sandhya’s apartment. He had assumed that it was Divya.

“She looked like you,” he said, tracing his finger over the baby’s face in the photo.

“She—” Sandhya choked on her words. “She had your eyes.” She looked up and gazed into his deep, dark, penetrating eyes. Sorrow filled her as she relived those moments. She saw him swallow hard.

“This file has all the details. Medical records and such,” she stated. He took it, went into his room and closed the door again.

She kept staring at the closed door for a few minutes.

[_I went through this too! _]a tiny part of her heart screamed inside. But she also knew that she was not being fair to him. He needed time to cope and get back to normal. But it pained her to see him shut her out like that, as if she were a culprit.

He barely came out of the room that day, barely spoke to anyone or ate anything. Divya was continuously asking for him. Sandhya tried her best to divert Divya’s attention and managed to keep her away from Akash. The next day, Divya ran into Akash’s bedroom before Sandhya could stop her.

“Aathaash! You ale not playing with me.”

Akash stared at Divya for a long time.

“I am not well, Divya. Can you play with Mom or Padma?”

“Oh! You need to get an injethtion!” Divya crept up to him where he sat with his back to the headboard.

She cupped his cheeks and looked at him. He wrapped his arms around her but released her soon.

“I need some rest, Divya. Please, can you be with Mom? Just for a little more time.”

Sandhya had been watching this from a corner. She walked into the room.

“Sorry. I will take her away.” She had known that she should not expect anything from him and had mentally prepared herself to leave. But she had not expected him to behave this way. She had been worried that he would be shattered to know that Divya was not his child. That he would not have any right over her. But maybe she was overthinking. She knew how a brain malfunctions when you are depressed. She was worried about his state of mind and decided to stay until he could talk to her.

Sandhya called up Mausi and told her that Akash knew the truth now and that she would be back in her apartment soon.

“Is he upset with you? What did he say?” Mausi asked her, worried.

“He hardly talks.”

Mausi was silent for a few minutes.

“It will all be fine, dear. He is in shock. It will take him some time to understand that you did not do anything intentionally. You showed him the adoption documents. You showed him the DNA test. What could you do if he did not believe you?

“But I could have told him about Saanya.” Sandhya trembled as she spoke.

“Don’t you remember what you told me when I asked you to do that? What if he didn’t believe you about Saanya either? You had to get the facts straight and ensure that he didn’t take Divya away even after telling the truth! You had to have strong legal documents and a good lawyer to back you up,” Mausi reminded her.

Sandhya gulped. It was true. Divya’s resemblance to Puja had caused Akash to have no doubts whatsoever that she was his daughter.

“You know what? I will stop over for a while later. I want to see you and Divya,” Mausi said and ended the call.

~

Mausi was worried. She had not expected things to go this route at all. That Akash—he had seemed so understanding. How could he only think of his pain and not think about what he was doing to Sandhya?

She tried to think from his perspective. Was he worried that he had to accept Divya, who was not his own blood? But he was the reason that Sandhya adopted Divya in the first place. She recalled the past. She had thought that Sandhya was acting immaturely when she told him that she was going to adopt Divya. She had thought that she would go back to their apartment and convince her calmly. Sandhya was in effect, cremating her chances of marrying a man by her decision to adopt a baby.

When they entered the apartment, she saw her throw something in the garbage before she went inside her bedroom. Out of curiosity, she searched in the trashcan and found a piece of paper crumpled into a ball.

She carefully opened up the note. What she read inside shocked her.

It was a suicide note from Sandhya to her! As soon as she read the note, she knew that she should not resist the adoption. Having the baby would help her move on from her current state of mind.

Sandhya had named the baby Divya. Divya was what her name implied: divine. She was the divine help that God sent her way. She had tried to convince Sandhya to inform everyone that Divya was adopted. But she wouldn’t listen even to that. Sameer was busy with his wedding at that time and Miss Vijaya was not in touch with her then. No one knew what really happened except for Sandhya, Mausi and her husband.

Akash needed to understand why she made that decision. She was the one who had tried to bring them together. If he rejected Sandhya now based on this fact, Sandhya would break into pieces. How could she let that happen? She rose swiftly and grabbed her purse. She had to make things right soon for Sandhya.

~

Akash came down for lunch and barely spoke to anyone. Mausi had come and spoken to him in his room, but that did not seem to help either as he remained in his room and seemed even more aloof after she left. The most painful thing for Sandhya was to watch Divya getting frustrated with the lack of attention from Akash. So far, he had been gentle with her, but she could sense that he was not being the same to her. Uneasiness grew within her. She couldn’t blame him for behaving that way but she had to protect Divya. How could she let her baby get hurt?

She recalled how affectionate he had been with Divya. Maybe this was just the depression that he was going through and she was being too judgmental. But even without that, it would be natural not to expect him to have the same level of love now for Divya. It was very wrong of her not to tell him the truth upfront. But with his state of mind, she needed to have the legal backing from a lawyer to get Divya back. She had even collected evidence regarding how he had accused her of fraud, just in case she needed to use it against him.

She had been prepared for this to happen from day one, ever since she had entered his house. But no amount of preparation would help her with how she felt at present. She didn’t know what to do. Should she stay with him until he got over his depression? She was also responsible for his state of mind. Or should she leave with Divya right away, so that her little heart could be protected? Everything felt wrong, staying here or leaving him at this time.

Finally, she decided to give him a hint about her turmoil. She knocked on his bedroom door and opened it after getting no response. He sat on his bed, staring out of the window. He shifted his head slightly to face her. She looked at his tired and miserable face with sunken eyes, and shuddered at what they both had come to. But she couldn’t change the past.

“Akash, I—” She struggled with words.

He kept looking at her with a blank expression.

“I am sorry, Akash. I never meant to play with your emotions.” She searched his face to see some change. There was none. She stood in silence for a few seconds and mustered the courage for what she was going to ask him next.

“I…should leave.” The words came out of her mouth. She waited for his response.

His eyes shifted and he gazed at her for a long time. She looked away as she pulled the end of her dupatta anxiously.

“When do you want to leave?”

The fidgeting with her dupatta stopped. She looked up and stared at his face. Wasn’t this what she had expected and wanted to happen all along? Then why was she shocked?

She did her best to mask her emotions and forced a reply.

“Tomorrow.”

Another stretch of long silence followed.

He looked away and said, “I will ask the driver to drop you off.”

She turned around and took a deep breath.

“Take care,” she murmured and walked out.

She mechanically packed everything by evening. Among the toys, she only packed the Barbie doll that Akash had given Divya earlier at Sameer and Priya’s baby shower. Divya had no clue that she was leaving Akash and his house for good when she sat in the car.

“Whele ale we going?”

“We are going to our home and we will go to the park from there.”

“Whele is Aathaash? Is he not thoming?”

“No, Divi. He has a lot of work.”

“No! He said he will tathe me to the beach, to the zoo, to the palth. He thold me!” She tried to get out of the car to run inside to Akash but Sandhya got hold of her.

“DIVYA! Behave yourself. Akash cannot come now. Now sit still!”

She tried to ignore Divya’s cries. She had wondered if Akash would come down when they left but it seemed that he chose to remain in his room.

“Take care, Akash,” she murmured to herself and sat in the car.

~

Varun smiled at his face in the mirror. He had worked very hard to build his image as the next generation leader. With his brains, it was an easy task. Now, years of effort were going to pay off. He had come a long way already in the past three years and had managed to emerge as a strong candidate within his political party, which was also currently the opposition party. He had stiff competition from Ankur Rao, who wasn’t as charming as him but was highly educated and had a good following among the educated class. But of course, Varun’s meticulous planning had worked out and he would soon be engaged to Meghana, the opposition party leader Raj Khanna’s daughter. Charming her had been a piece of cake and she had fallen into his trap in no time, just like all the other girls. Well, except for that Sandhya of course. He took a deep breath. He wondered briefly where she had disappeared to but dismissed his thoughts. Even though he had been tempted to find her, he had enough controversies to deal with already. He couldn’t risk the clean image that it had taken him so long to build. Now, the path to his goal was neatly set in a bed of roses and Ankur was nowhere close to him.

“It is only a matter of days, Varun, only a matter of days,” he muttered to himself.

~

One month later…

Sandhya took Divya out every day to distract her from thinking about Akash. Divya would question her frequently about why he wasn’t there and when they were going to go back. Sometimes, it would result in tantrums. Even after a month, Divya had still not forgotten him. She had tried to hide the Barbie doll that he had given her, as Divya would always want to sleep with it and ask about Akash at bedtime. But doing that also did not work since she would refuse to sleep without the doll.

Slowly but surely, she knew that it was her, rather than Divya, who needed more strength and distraction to get away from thoughts of Akash. Going back to her job was helping her cope somehow. Her heart had hardened and she knew she would be fine. She had wondered about how he was doing, had thought of calling him and asking, but she refrained. She had pushed him too far and hurt him unknowingly. He had loved Divya, thinking that she was his own daughter. Could she blame him for his behavior after knowing the truth? She couldn’t.

She had seen him a couple of times. Once in the office and once at Priya and Sameer’s baby welcoming party. Both times, he had appeared briefly. She had avoided him and he seemed to be avoiding her. He did nod at her briefly and she did the same. It was good that Divya was not present both times or she knew not how she would have reacted. Things seemed to be getting back to normal, although life still seemed like an unknown struggle, a long, painful journey. She told herself that time would heal everything. Divya was her daughter and she would protect her. She would raise her with so much love that she would always feel cherished.

~

Sandhya was cooking when something on the TV grabbed her attention. She walked over to the living room and increased the volume.

“Breaking news. It is confirmed that Varun Namit Shukla is in a critical condition after his car crashed at around noon today. An arrest warrant was issued against him a few hours before the incident. He is charged with serious allegations of election rigging. Ironically, he is being accused by none other than Raj Khanna, who almost made him his son-in-law. Police are still investigating this issue but current information indicates that they have found solid proof against him. Amidst these new revelations, everyone is wondering if Ankur Rao will rise up as the next generation leader.”

Sandhya sat down on the sofa, shaken and restless at the news. “Could this be a coincidence or could it be that?” her brain thought frantically. Unable to hold herself back, she called Dhiren.

“Hi, Sandhya!” he greeted her cheerfully.

“Hi, Dhiren.”

Before she could say anything, he exclaimed, “I assume that you are calling about Varun. You can’t imagine how great I am feeling now!”

She clutched her phone tighter. “Yes. I wanted to know…” She hesitated. “Do you know if…if Akash is behind this?” She held her breath.

“Yes, of course it is Akash!” Dhiren replied immediately,

She felt like lightning had hit her.

“I’ll call you later,” she managed to say.

“Sandhya! Listen to me!”

Before he could say anything, she had cut the call.

She threw the phone away and dumped herself on the sofa, her body shaking with fury, frustration, helplessness.

It is good that Divya is away from an impulsive man like him; a man who makes dangerous decisions without thinking twice.

Dhiren called her two more times but she did not answer. An hour later, she found Dhiren standing in front of her door.

“Hi, Sandhya!”

She was in no mood to greet him but simply stood aside, indicating for him to step inside.

Five minutes later, she handed tea to Dhiren and sat by him at the dining table.

He looked around and asked, “Where is Divya?”

“Play date.”

“I see.” He took a sip of the tea.

“So, I wanted to tell you how Akash—” He noticed her distressed face and halted. “Why, Sandhya? You don’t seem to be too happy with the happenings.”

She took a deep breath and looked away. “I am not.”

He stared at her, a bit surprised. “You were so ready to file a complaint against him then. What happened now? Have you forgiven Varun?”

She stared back at him, her face troubled and her mind distressed. “No, but that doesn’t mean that I would approve anyone taking the law in their own hands! Does Akash think that he is god or what? Who is he to take this matter in his own hands? I could have filed a complaint against Varun and let the police handle him. I am not afraid of him anymore. Akash could have asked me once!” Her voice rose.

Dhiren opened his mouth and then closed it again after a few seconds, his brow crinkled in confusion. “You don’t think that Akash tried to kill Varun, do you?”

She froze in her seat. Was that what she had been afraid of? Would Akash go to that extreme to take revenge on Varun?

Dhiren took a deep breath and said, “Look, Sandhya, I don’t know what happened between you and Akash and why you are…not together but maybe you should talk to him.”

She looked away from him and remained silent.

“It seems that you are mainly concerned with Akash getting into trouble over this,” Dhiren said as he watched her keenly.

She rose from her chair swiftly, folded her arms and looked out of the window, afraid that her feelings were far too transparent to him.

“Well, if it helps you feel any better, we did not try to kill him. I am involved in the actions against Varun as much as Akash. He is involved unofficially; I am involved officially along with a couple of my colleagues, although our names are meant to be kept confidential.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. He continued, “Varun was truly involved in an accident. He was highly drunk and was driving at top speed, perhaps unable to digest the fact that he was trapped and had no way out.”

Her face relaxed a tiny bit but she was still flustered. “Are the charges against him true or—?”

“Every bit of it. Why don’t you switch on the TV and see for yourself?”

She switched on the TV and found Varun’s case still playing all over the news channels. Sandhya gasped as fragments of evidence were revealed one after the other, mostly audio tapes and a few video tapes. Most convincing of all was a video tape where he was threatening a man. A shiver ran through her body as she took in his image and the news story. There was no doubt in her mind and perhaps in the mind of any person watching the news about his crime.

She was silent for a long time before mustering the courage to ask, “Are these the only crimes he is accused of?”

Dhiren knew what she was referring to. She must have been plagued by the same guilt as him. He swallowed hard before replying, “No, what you are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to cheating, instigating violence and fraud, he is involved in human trafficking as well.”

Sandhya sucked in her breath, her eyes wide open with distress and shock. “You mean?” she questioned.

He nodded regretfully. Her hand closed over her mouth as a sob escaped her throat. She hid her face with her palms and shook her head.

Dhiren looked at her uncomfortably. “I know what you are thinking, Sandhya, but I am more of a culprit than you. I was also young and immature. I had no idea that he would turn out to be like this. We grew up together. He used to be my friend.”

They both fell silent for a few seconds.

He added on a cheerful note, “But now he will definitely be put behind bars and the world will be a safer place. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded taking the law in my own hands to get rid of a man like him.”

She thought for a minute and asked, “Is there any threat to you or Akash?”

He looked at her intently for a few seconds and then replied with a faint smile, “No, not anymore.”

She relaxed.

He continued, “Akash was also concerned about your safety. Don’t tell him that I told you this, but he had security around you.”

She gasped in shock. “What?”

Dhiren nodded and got up. She shrugged off the myriad of thoughts plaguing her and realized that Dhiren was leaving.

“What about Puja and you?”

He halted, shrugged his shoulders and smiled wistfully.

“Still waiting for approval. See you, Sandhya.”

He walked out and left her to her thoughts.

She settled herself on the sofa and wondered at how her mind took a 180-degree turn in a matter of a few minutes regarding her impression of Akash; from that of a person who made rash decisions to that of a person who risked himself and saved everyone from a person as dangerous as Varun. Three years ago, he had thought wrongly of her based on impulsive thinking. Had she not done something similar now?

She closed her eyes tight and resisted the intense desire to see him, talk to him. Maybe he would call. She shook her head; no, he wouldn’t call.

Two days later…

The doorbell rang twice. She sucked in a breath.

It is not him, Sandhya, she told herself as she opened the door. She stared at the person in front of her in astonishment.

“Phillip!”

~

The next day

Mausi sat on the floor, cutting vegetables. Sandhya suddenly came out of the bedroom, sat at the dining table and stared at the wall in front of her. Mausi felt a pang in her heart. She was the one to blame for her situation. Who knew that people like that Akash still existed in this world! She cursed. Sandhya had become like a robot ever since she had come back.

“Mausi,” Sandhya murmured.

“Yes, Sandhya?”

Sandhya stood up and walked over to her slowly.

“Can I rest in your lap, Amma?”

Mausi’s eyes turned moist. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she pushed the vegetables away and spread her arms towards Sandhya.

Sandhya knelt down beside her and rested her head on Mausi’s lap. She pressed her face down as she let out a whimper.

Mausi ran her hand over Sandhya’s head lovingly.

“Forget that man, Sandhya. I wish I had realized what kind of a person he is. You were right. He is not capable of loving anyone. I have never seen anyone as cold as him. How could he behave like this with you? He did not budge even after I told him that you would have ended your life if Divya had not been there. He is inhuman. He doesn’t deserve to have anyone to love him.”

She sat upright and looked questioningly at Mausi.

“You told him that? How do you know that I was going to…?”

Mausi ran her hand over Sandhya’s head.

“I knew, Sandhya. I knew what was going through your mind. I read your note.”

Sandhya gasped. Her brows knitted.

“Oh!”

After a few minutes of sitting by Mausi in deep thought, she got up and went inside her bedroom.

She came out after a few minutes.

“Mausi, I need to go out for a while. Please take care of Divya?”

Mausi looked at her questioningly. Surely she was not going to Akash?

But she only nodded, not wanting to disturb her further.

~

Sandhya stood before the front door of Akash’s house, rang the doorbell and waited nervously. She found Padma standing in front of her.

“Oh! Come in. Akash went out for a walk,” Padma said, smiling at her.

“I see.”

“Actually, my work is over here and I was planning to leave soon. Would you mind waiting alone?”

“Sure. It’s not a problem at all,” she replied, forcing a smile.

“Bye.”

Sandhya sat still for a few minutes, then stood up and looked around. She walked over to the children’s room. Divya’s toys were still around. She then walked over to the office room. Akash’s laptop was open and there was a screensaver running with Divya’s pictures. He must have loaded them before he realized the truth. She absentmindedly glanced over the pictures: Divya playing in the backyard, Divya riding a bike, Divya swinging in the park.

She walked back to the living room and waited. She heard the gate open and sprang up from her seat. He stood at the front door, his face displaying his apparent shock. He was clean-shaven and seemed better, though his eyes were still sunken. Within a couple of seconds, he composed himself and greeted her with a casual smile. “Hi, Sandhya.”

“Hi,” she replied with a faint smile.

He sat awkwardly on the sofa opposite to her. She sat and flinched in her seat.

“I just came to see how you were doing.”

His eyes darkened for just a second.

“I am fine, Sandhya.” He halted and asked, “How is Divya doing?”

“She is fine.”

The next few minutes were spent in awkward silence.

“Would you like something?” He sprang up from his seat.

“No! Thank you!” she said urgently and stood up. “I should get going.”

He remained silent. She took a few steps towards the door, wondering why she had come. An unknown sense of restlessness crept within her. When she was at the door, she stopped and turned around.

“Phillip proposed.”

Did his body stiffen for a split second before regaining movement?

“Did you accept?”

She stood staring at him without replying. Akash hesitated a little.

“He seems to be a good man.”

Her eyes narrowed, her heart and body suddenly bitter and angry. She closed her eyes slowly and opened them again.

“Bye, Akash,” she replied, not taking the trouble to hide the bitterness in her voice, and walked out of the door.

~

Akash stared at the door for the next two minutes, resisting the urge to run after her with all the willpower that he could muster. He sat down and covered his face with his palms. If only he could make her understand! He badly wanted a drink. He badly wanted something to help him control the sharp burning pain that was intolerable now. He had decided not to drink. He had decided not to cry. He could not take assistance from any tool that would help him cope. He had to feel the pain. That was his punishment that he had inflicted on himself. It would not be enough punishment even if he felt this pain for a lifetime. He walked up to his bedroom, opened a drawer and got a wrinkled piece of paper out of it.

Mausi had pleaded with him not to be angry at Sandhya and to understand her. She had shown him this letter. He had read this so many times now that it was memorized and etched in his mind.

Amma,

I have been longing to call you Amma for a long time now.

I hardly remember what my mother was like, but I think she must have been like you.

I am sorry that I am making you go through this. If there was any person that I would never want to hurt, it is you. But I also want you to know that I am happy with what I am doing. My only regret is that I will hurt you with my decision.

Amma, you are probably the only person who will even realize that I have left this world. So, the good thing is, not many people will cry over me, right?

Please forgive me.

Love,

Sandhya.

Akash put the letter back into the drawer. Tears threatened to spill out of his eyes but he managed to keep them at bay. It was only because of Divya that he was seeing a living and breathing Sandhya. What if Divya had never come into her life? What if he had married Kavya? His body shuddered as he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He clutched his hair in agony. He would have been living in this world, not knowing a thing about his crime. Even after he came into her life again, what did he do? He insulted her, even got her framed in a fraud case. He didn’t believe her that Divya was not his child and made her stay with him. How much torture must she have gone through because of him? He had claimed that he would protect her and Divya. Who was he to protect them? He could not even save his own child. They did not need any protection or love from a lowly person like him. They were far better off without him. Sandhya was an independent woman. She could handle herself and Divya on her own. Sure, despite how he had treated her, she still had a soft heart towards him. Even though she had no love remaining for him, she still wanted his wellbeing. It would take some time for her to get over all this turmoil that he caused. But it was necessary. He did not deserve them. Hell, he felt like he did not even deserve to live anymore.

Sandhya climbed down the porch steps. The rose plants that he had planted were in full bloom now. Her eyes caught sight of the roses. He had planted them for her, hadn’t he? Her legs automatically turned and she walked over to a rose plant. Something was stopping her from leaving this place. She knelt on the outside wall of the building and closed her eyes and tried to think hard. Her brain went back to past and present.

“You asked me for something for the first time and I could not give that to you. I wonder if I can make you happy.” That is what he had said when he could not purchase her the red bangles because he did not have change. She was in deep thought for the next few minutes. Suddenly, everything was crystal clear to her. She opened her eyes. Lines of worry appeared on her forehead as her brain became frantic. Everything that happened in the past played in her mind.

[_“I would never say that I don’t belong to you.” _]

“I can hire and fire a thousand people like you and your family.”

“I still want you, Sandhya!”

[_“A person like me who is willing to marry a woman like you.” _]

“Papa is very happy now.”

[_“What do I do now, Sandhya?” _]

“I could have saved her. I could have!”

“Was your PRIDE, your EGO more important than our LOVE?”

The last line played in her head multiple times and her heart raced even faster. Slowly, her mind cleared up, calmness returned and her heartbeat slowed down. She gazed at the deep red rose in front of her and touched it tenderly with her fingertips. Drawing it closer to her, she smelt it and grazed her cheek over the rose. She walked back towards the main door and pushed the door open. He stood at the far end of the living room, looking the other way. He turned around and stared at her with surprise etched over his face. The calmness within her disappeared and the uncertainty and restlessness returned. She took a deep breath and walked over to him, her eyes not leaving his face. She had to do this.

“There is something that I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.” Her voice contained a certain calmness.

He continued staring at her blankly.

“What is it?”

.

.

.

“I love you.”

Chapter 40 – Finding Love

H

e stood like a stone, staring at her as he clutched the chair beside him.

“Don’t.” His voice trembled.

Sandhya froze. Her eyes narrowed in confusion before darkness engulfed her. She shouldn’t feel humiliated but she did. She shouldn’t be mad at herself but she was.

“I don’t understand.”

He took a deep breath.

“That was before—” He halted.

Sandhya closed her eyes in agony and opened them again.

“Before?”

“Please understand, Sandhya.”

She shook her head, her face distressed. “Please make me understand.” Her voice quivered.

She took a few steps towards him. “Are you angry with me?”

Akash’s brow crinkled. “What are you talking about?”

She swallowed the lump in her throat and stood in front of him. “For hiding the truth about Saanya.”

He sighed and turned sideways. “You had valid reasons.”

“Then?”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After deliberating for a few seconds, he opened his mouth. “Sometimes, it’s better to let things be and—I have made my decision.”

Anger burst within Sandhya. She stood silently, fighting the volcano within.

Akash turned to face her, his eyes giving away his concern as he searched her face, but didn’t speak further.

In a swift motion, she clutched his shirt in a tight grip, her rough hold clutching his skin underneath, but if he felt anything, he didn’t show it. Her eyes bored into him, accusing him of betrayal. The next instant, she let go of him, shocked by her own behavior. Her brow creased as she dragged herself to the couch and slumped onto it.

She stared in front of her silently for a few seconds.

“Fine, Akash. I will not bother you again. But I demand an explanation.”

He hesitated and opened and closed his mouth several times but didn’t get anything out. She attacked him mercilessly.

“Say that the reason is that Divya doesn’t have your blood running within her. Say that you have no idea what cast, creed, religion or traits her parents—”

“STOP IT!” Akash screamed with his hands on his ears, shutting his eyes tight.

She smiled wistfully before narrowing her eyes at him.

“You were there at the park where Divya went with her daycare yesterday,” she replied as she watched his reaction.

Akash’s eyes widened. “It was just a coincidence.”

“The pictures loaded on your laptop are new. She never wore that blue dress before. She has never been to those places before this week.”

His face turned pale. She paused and took a deep breath. “I know that Divya is not the reason.”

He took a few steps towards the sofa and crashed onto it. He ran his hands over his head and stared at the floor. “But…it’s not going to work for us.”

She looked away, her hands fidgeting, her face distressed.

“Fine, Akash. Since you have already decided, there is one thing I demand of you.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“You will not be our secret guardian, like you have been this past month. You will get out of our lives completely.”

Akash’s brow crinkled. Could he live and breathe not seeing them or knowing about their wellbeing? “I will never trouble you again, Sandhya.”

She shook her head. “It’s not going to work, Akash. I cannot move on with your shadow around. It’s all of us or none of us, Akash. The choice is yours.”

Akash closed his eyes in agony, took a deep breath and whispered,

“Marry Phillip and I will agree to your terms.”

Sandhya’s blood boiled on hearing those words. She shot up from the sofa and stood facing Akash.

“That’s none of your damn business!”

“Don’t be stubborn, Sandhya! You will not find anyone more understanding than him!” Akash stood up, frustrated.

Sandhya took several deep breaths, folded her hands and glared at Akash.

“I don’t need a man to support me. I don’t need your love.” She paused. “I want your love.”

“All of me and Divya or none of me or Divya. Choose, Akash,” she whispered.

~

Akash stared at Sandhya, his thoughts in turmoil. She had made the most difficult decision—to let go of her pride and her self-esteem, and put her love above everything else. Her eyes silently screamed at him. And yet, he couldn’t do anything.

“You are not thinking straight right now. Go home and think, Sandhya. Think about everything I have done. You will have enough reasons to hate me. Not a single reason to love me. You are just—just in emotional turmoil right now.”

“How do I prove to you that’s not the case?” she replied, agitated.

“How could you still love me? I will only end up hurting you.”

“You are right. Like how you are hurting me now.” Sarcasm filled her voice.

“You will be better off without me.”

“I will survive.”

He looked at her face with worry.

“You will not only survive, you will be happy. It will take time, but you will.”

She looked at him straight on.

“I told you this once, long ago. It hurts me much more than it hurts you when you are in pain. I don’t know how one can measure love but I—I love you much more than you love me,” she replied, staring at the floor.

He looked at her face, his face still etched with pain.

“Maybe you are right. Maybe I never loved you enough. I used to think that I loved you and that I would not hurt you. That is what my mind is telling me even now. But after all that happened, after how I reacted whenever I had the opportunity to support you, how can I trust my mind anymore? I loved you, Sandhya, even three years ago. And I still hurt you. Even after you told me the truth, I thought I would never let any harm come to you. I thought I loved you. But what happened? I accused you again about Saanya, in the middle of the road. I left you hanging in there on your own, not stopping and thinking about what you must be going through. I have lost trust in my ability to think. I have lost trust in me. I cannot handle it anymore, Sandhya. What if I hurt you again? I cannot live with that constant fear.”

Sandhya looked at him in surprise and held his hand.

“What you did three years ago was a grave mistake. But you shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened at the hospital. You were in shock. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I was also partly responsible for not telling you that earlier.”

He smiled wistfully.

“Partly responsible? What could you have done if I blindly thought that Divya—“He halted as his face turned troubled again. “Don’t make the same mistake again, Sandhya. Accept Phillip and move on,” he pleaded.

“It wouldn’t be right after my confession a few minutes earlier. He deserves a woman who loves him.”

“Love is not everything, Sandhya. You have to think practically.”

“I don’t know, Akash. I have begun to believe in fate. It wasn’t a practical decision to fall in love with you knowing that our backgrounds were so different. It wasn’t a practical decision to go ahead with my pregnancy or even adopt Divya. I have always listened to my heart and that is what I am doing now.” She looked straight at his face as she tried to explain.

Akash took a deep breath, his face still showing his turmoil.

“Sandhya—I am not sure if I can be the same Akash that you fell in love with,” he replied grimly as he stared at the wall in front of him.

Sandhya looked at him, worried, and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Maybe I like this Akash better? As to whether you will end up hurting me again, who knows what will happen in the future? We make decisions based on our experiences, our faith and intuition. And my intuition is telling me that you will not break my heart again; that you will make a great father to Divya; that we will make a happy family together.”

Akash kept staring at her as she said those words.

“OK.”

“OK what?” Her eyebrows connected with anxiety.

Akash took a deep breath as he uttered,

“Don’t you know? I will always belong to you, Sandhya.”

A faint smile appeared on her lips as she tried to absorb his words and continued to stare at him with her glistening eyes. The smile disappeared as soon as it appeared. Pain and anguish returned like a blow to her face and Akash instantly knew why.

He closed his eyes in agony. Kavya.

He opened his eyes and found her eyes overflowing with tears, her face showing her extreme grief and pain.

Before he knew what was happening, her hand landed on his cheek with full force as she slapped him in rage. His face moved sideways with the impact but his expression didn’t change much other than a faint concern spreading over his face. He knew that she was opening up with her frustration now. This was just the beginning and he had to be prepared for it. All the torture that she had faced when she heard the news about his wedding had resurfaced suddenly. Her wounds that were supposedly healed were fresh and raw again.

She had suffered silently then. Now she had him before her.

Maybe God had mercy on him when he averted his marriage with Kavya. He brought Sandhya back into his life. He got a second chance at love, a second chance at life.

Her reddened eyes questioned him about his betrayal, her lips quivered as she let out a sob. Even though she had confessed her feelings for him, she was a long way off from forgiving him. His mistakes were not to be forgotten so easily. He slowly moved his hand towards hers, but she swiftly moved her hands away and took a step back, her face red with anger, her body trembling uncontrollably. He took her by surprise as he closed the distance between them within a split second and embraced her tightly. She tried to push him off but he held her in a tight grip and wrapped his arms around her. Giving up her struggle, she let her hot tears wet his shirt, her face pressed against his chest. Her hands moved around him and she pressed her palms on his back tightly.

“It didn’t even take you two months to—” She started but could not finish her sentence and continued to sob.

Akash ran his hand over her head.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, Sandhya. I was too depressed and lost. But my heart was only yearning for you—you and only you!” he exclaimed as he continued to hold her with his hands and arms.

He loosened his arms and they broke away from their embrace.

“I don’t know what to do to make everything right. Just saying a word will not.”

She looked up at him and wiped his tears away. She held his hand, made him sit on the sofa and sat by him.

“Just say it,” she said softly.

He held her hands, bent down and laid his head on her lap.

“I am so sorry,” he said, and cried.

Tears escaped her eyes again as she wrapped her arms around him and bent her head over him. She kissed his head, and ran her fingers over his hair.

They remained like that, wrapped around each other, for a few minutes, their hearts feeling lighter.

He sat upright and pulled the strands of her hair behind her ears. Remembering something, he stood up and got the bangles from the mini temple.

“These are glass bangles and they will break one day,” he said as he slid them over her hands.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she whispered, interlacing her hands with his.

Akash was restless even though he appeared calm. The happiness that he felt was overwhelming. How could he tolerate it? She still loved him? Could he really not hurt her again? His heart sped up with worry. He looked at her hands, which were gripping his. She wanted him. That thought brought intense bliss as well as agony at the same time. He had thought that she would be happier without him in her life. And now, she was saying that she would be happier if he was with her. Would he be able to meet her and his own expectations this time? He had fallen too low in his own eyes. Would he be able to do justice to this second chance that she was giving him?

He turned his head and found her eyes staring at him with pure love and affection. She removed her hand from his and turned towards him. “What are you thinking?” she asked, worried.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“Everything will be fine, Akash!” she said, running her thumb over his cheek.

Akash caught her hand and kissed it before nodding his head. Without knowing, they drew closer and their lips met. Akash let this feeling sink into him. It wasn’t a fierce, passionate or lustful kiss, but it was going to be the best kiss of his life. Their lips touching each other, their minds and souls belonging to each other at that moment defined love and happiness.

Her phone rang and they both jerked up.

“Sandhya! Where are you?” It was Mausi.

“I—”

“Who is it?” Akash asked at the same time.

“You are at that good for nothing Akash’s place?” Mausi screamed.

“It’s not like that, Mausi. I will explain everything once I return. I will be there in an hour, alright?”

“Do as you wish!” Mausi screamed sarcastically and cut off the phone call.

Mausi was so loud that Akash heard her. His face turned red with embarrassment.

“Guess I have to be careful with her.” He widened his eyes.

“Yes!” she replied.

She glanced towards the kitchen.

“I will make tea.”

Before she could take any steps towards the kitchen, Akash caught her wrist and pulled her back, wrapped his hands around her and pulled her closer to him.

“Sandhya!” he muttered, his breath fanning her neck, his one hand feeling her silky hair and the other on her waist. She gasped in surprise, unprepared for the sudden closeness.

“Hmm?”

“The tea can wait. I am dying to see Divya.”

“Divya! Of course,” she said, smiling faintly as they broke the embrace.

“She must be upset with me.”

“She is. But she won’t be for long,” Sandhya replied, turning her head and smiling at him.

“Shall we start?” He seemed desperate.

In half an hour, Akash stood in front of her apartment as Sandhya pressed the doorbell.

His heart pounded. He would see Divya after a month. Only he knew how painful it was for him not to be able to talk to her, hold her or hear her. He had secretly watched her at her daycare every day. Every day, the urge to run to her and hear her say “Aathaash” had almost killed him. Once, she had seen him and ran after him. He had quickly hidden from her view and she had cried for a long time afterwards. He had cursed himself for getting near enough to her to let that happen. That was three weeks ago. Would she remember him now? He took a deep breath. Would Divya be in his arms in a few seconds?

Shanta Mausi stood frozen in front of them, her hand on her mouth and her eyes wide open.

“What is this?” she screamed at Sandhya.

“What is this? We are standing at the door and you are blocking us!” Sandhya replied in mock anger.

Mausi narrowed her eyes.

“You are not letting this man into the house!” Mausi looked at Akash with anger and then back at Sandhya, her hands folded firmly.

“Ha—look who is talking!” Sandhya responded in mock sarcasm as she pushed Mausi aside and got into the living room. Mausi again blocked the entrance and Akash still stood outside in embarrassment.

Sandhya grabbed Mausi by her waist and pulled her back with surprising force. Mausi would not let go and resisted with her full might.

“What are you doing, girl?” she shouted at Sandhya as she tried to remove her grasp from her waist.

Akash still stood at the door, scratching his head, stunned at whatever commotion was happening inside.

“Akash! Do you think I have a habit of doing this? Or that I am doing this to pass the time?” Sandhya shouted at him.

Akash opened his mouth in a big “O,” not understanding her sarcasm.

“Come inside! This woman looks tiny and frail, but in reality she is a super woman. I can’t handle her for long,” Sandhya said, breathing hard.

“Oh!” Akash stepped inside.

Sandhya pushed Mausi aside, ran to the door and closed it.

“Phew! Mausi! You are something!” she said, holding her own waist with her hands and panting.

“I need water.” She went to the kitchen.

Akash looked around for Divya. Mausi glared at Akash and then at Sandhya.

“You better explain what’s going on here!” Mausi shouted at Sandhya.

Akash escaped to Divya’s room. Sandhya could work on the explanation to Mausi.

Divya was engrossed in playing with a kitchen set, and was mock feeding the Barbie doll that he had given her. She had not noticed him entering the room. He closed the door quietly and observed her for a moment. Her soft curly hair was loose as usual and was flowing over her yellow frock. To everyone else, she might be a normal little girl. To him, she was an angel, literally. He dared not think what could have happened if she had not come into Sandhya’s life at the right time. She was God’s gift for both of them. This tiny being, playing innocently in front of him, had perhaps saved him and his love.

“Divya,” he uttered to get her attention.

Divya halted her play and looked up. Her sparkly black eyes lit up with joy and she ran up to him.

“Aathaash!”

He knelt down and opened up his arms for her. Her tiny body hugged his chest and her little hands wrapped around his neck. Akash wrapped his arms around her and picked her up. He kissed her desperately on her cheeks and forehead.

“Why didn’t you thome? Meany Aathaash! Bad Aathaash!” She crossed her arms and pouted.

“I am sorry! Aathaash will not leave you again!” he exclaimed as he hugged her again.

“Tlomise?” she asked. It took a few seconds for Akash to understand what she was saying.

“Promise,” he replied, smiling.

“I want to go to the beach now!” she demanded.

“It’s too late now, Divya. How about we go tomorrow?” Much as he wanted to fulfill all her wishes, it was already dark outside.

“No, I want to go now! You will not thome tomollow,” she cried.

Akash felt a pang in his heart.

“No, Divya! I will come tomorrow. Ask Mommy if you want.” He tried to convince her and turned around so he could take Divya to the living room, to Sandhya.

He was startled to see Sandhya standing right in the doorway, watching them. How long had she been there?

“Akash will be here tomorrow too, Divya. We will go to the beach!” Sandhya tried to console Divya and took her in her arms. Divya hugged Sandhya tight and continued crying. Sandhya sat on the sofa and soothed Divya. Akash sat by Sandhya and watched both of them. He noticed Mausi watching him from the kitchen and averted his eyes from her. Sandhya must have told her everything. But then, why was Mausi still angry at him?

“I am already late. I will leave now,” she said curtly to Sandhya.

Sandhya handed Divya to Akash and stood up.

“Oh! Alright, Mausi. I will walk you out.” She opened the door and walked out with Mausi.

She was back after a few minutes.

“Is she still upset with me?” Akash asked, worried.

“Don’t worry. She is just worrying about me. Everything will be fine by tomorrow. She probably didn’t expect you to turn up here so suddenly,” Sandhya replied and went to the kitchen to serve dinner. She couldn’t tell him the truth. Mausi had asked Sandhya to demand for Akash to first agree to marry her. Sandhya had tried to make her understand that it wasn’t necessary to talk about it right at this moment, but Mausi was adamant. She questioned her about whether he was planning to live with her without even talking about this. It was with difficulty that Sandhya managed to stop Mausi from asking Akash herself.

Divya was back to normal and they had a pleasant dinner together.

It was bedtime and Sandhya wondered what to do.

Sensing her discomfort, Akash said, “I should leave now. I will be back again tomorrow evening.”

Sandhya’s heart clenched. They were together after such a long time now and she couldn’t bear to see him leave her for the night.

“No! You ale leaving again!” Divya clung to Akash and started crying.

“Can you stay until she goes to sleep? She’ll be disturbed otherwise and may not sleep soon,” Sandhya said as she bit her lip. Was she talking about Divya or herself?

Akash stared at her.

“Sure.”

They both remained by Divya’s bed, trying to get her to sleep, but even after trying for an hour, she simply would not sleep. Finally, Akash crept onto the bed and lay by her. She climbed on top of his tummy and rested her head on his chest. Maybe that gave her a sense of security for she was asleep within minutes. Akash tried to absorb the happiness that he felt. The weight of her little body that he was supporting; the tiny heart beating against his heart; her baby breath fanning over his chest; this love in its purest form that she seemed to have for him all the time in all her innocence. She was Divya, his daughter. He ran his hands over her hair and kissed her head with utmost love. Soon, she would be calling him Papa. Soon, he would be her papa in a true sense.

He closed his eyes, losing his fight against a blissful sleep that was overcoming him.

Sandhya had fallen asleep kneeling by the bedside, her head resting on the bed. She should get some proper rest by sleeping.

He tried to pull Divya away from his chest so he could get up. Divya jerked her eyes open.

“I am still here. Sleep, Divya.” Akash patted Divya’s back so that she could go back to sleep again. Sandhya jerked her eyes open. The clock showed that it was past 11 pm now. She rubbed her eyes and looked at Akash with concern. He was still in formal clothes and he must be uncomfortable. Maybe she should let him leave now.

“Akash.”

He looked at her. “You don’t even have any comfortable clothes. You should go home and rest,” she said in a tired voice.

Akash nodded and again tried to pull away from Divya but she was clutching him tight. Was Divya even sleeping?

“Actually, do you mind if I sleep here with her? I am comfortable with these clothes. I’m feeling too tired to go home now,” he asked hesitantly.

She was elated but didn’t show it; she was still used to not showing her true feelings with him.

“Actually—” she started.

Akash’s brow crinkled as he noticed her discomfort.

“Hey! It’s alright. I will leave now.”

Sandhya smiled at him. Akash looked at her with confusion.

“No, you can sleep with her but—” She halted.

“What?” he asked with utmost curiosity.

“Can I sleep by you?” she replied.

Akash looked at her, stunned. A faint smile spread over his face.

He scooted a little with Divya on his tummy still.

Sandhya crept up next to him. He spread his arm across and she rested her head on it. She wrapped her arm around him and Divya. Her heart was pounding with excitement, happiness and a sense of fear. This was too much happiness; this moment seemed too good to be true. She closed her eyes and prayed. She knew not what the future held for them. But at present, her life was nothing but perfect.

She looked at him and he turned his face towards her at the same time. They both smiled and kissed gently on the lips. Sandhya tightened her hold over him and Divya. Akash folded his hands around her protectively. They were asleep within a few minutes.

Chapter 41 – Adjustment

F

or the next few days, Akash came every evening and either spent time with Sandhya and Divya at their home or took them out. Divya was back to normal and he would leave as soon as she went to bed.

Sandhya noticed a lot of change in him; he seemed mellowed. The only time she saw him energized was when he played with Divya, otherwise, he appeared to be a different person altogether. Sometimes this frustrated her. Whenever she craved the old Akash, she reminded herself that he was trying to cope within himself. Didn’t he tell her that he may not be the same person again? And didn’t she answer that she liked him better now?

He had not spoken or done anything inappropriate, never raised his voice at her, except for one time when he got angry at her for not keeping an eye on Divya when they went to the beach. Sandhya didn’t notice when Divya disappeared right from before her eyes when he went to purchase ride tickets.

“Why did you not hold her hand!” he screamed at her. Tears swelled up in her eyes as they searched for Divya in a terrified state. As soon as they found her and breathed in relief, she had expected a second round of outburst from him. But on the contrary, he didn’t say anything and kept quiet. Other than that one incident, she didn’t see any anger from him. A lot of the times, he would phase out even when she and Divya were right before his eyes. Once, she tried to explain that even if he had been there with her, Saanya didn’t have any chance of survival. Medical technology had not advanced enough to correct her condition. Money was never the problem. She had medical insurance and was capable of affording any procedure. There simply wasn’t any procedure or method known at that time.

It had been three weeks since they had got together and Mausi began to pester Sandhya about why she wasn’t asking him about marriage. Sandhya was in a tight spot; she didn’t want to pressure Akash, not in the present state of mind that he was in. But she could also sense Mausi’s concern. If her own parents had been there, they probably would not even have let him see her without seeking commitment, especially after what happened in the past. She was concerned about something else too. He hardly spent time with her alone. Divya would always be there with them and she could see his face brighten as soon as he saw her. Mausi would be there in the evenings and there was no privacy between them. Even when they had a few moments together, he rarely touched her. Sometimes, she would give him a small peck and he would return her gesture. But he would never take the initiative. She was longing for him to shower his love on her, just like he used to. She was almost to the point now that she was jealous of Divya and him being together all the time.

One such evening, Mausi had left early as her son was home.

“Shall we make biryani today?” Sandhya asked excitedly as she sat beside Akash on the sofa.

He looked at her, surprised. “Didn’t you say that you didn’t like biryani?”

Slightly taken aback, she looked to the floor and replied, “I used to dread the memories attached to it.”

Akash cringed. He sprang up from the sofa, marched to the kitchen and started making a lot of noise.

“Do you want to be lazy and make me do all the work now?” he shouted from the kitchen.

Sandhya laughed and joined him in the kitchen.

~

He was glad to see the glow of happiness that shone in her face. He couldn’t reveal the demons from the past that were chasing him. She had suffered enough and he needed to fight them himself. He knew that she felt neglected by him. In reality, he was feeling much more comfortable with Divya than her. Sandhya felt fragile to him, as if she was a beautiful statue made of glass, as if she might crumble if he touched her. He knew that his thinking was absurd and that she was an extremely strong person, perhaps much stronger than him emotionally. It was her love for him that frightened him.

Akash gazed at Sandhya cutting the vegetables; she was beautiful, desirable. His mind went back and forth from the past to the present. He recalled the paint sample she had in her purse. She hated the smell of paint, so why did she put it in her purse? Was it a tool for her to remind her of her suffering, of what happened to their child? What would he do to get a glimpse of his child, to touch her once, to hear her cry and laugh? What would he do to change the past?

~

Sandhya saw that Akash had phased out once again. He stood staring at the wall before him, lost in thought. She felt like shutting off the stove and shrugging him to come back. He was slowly killing her with his behavior, by reminding her of the dark days she had put behind her. She cursed herself. It had only been a few weeks since he found out the truth; he was still mourning the loss of Saanya. She recalled how she had not taken a single picture of Divya until she was three months old. Divya was a good distraction for her initially and she always had this guilt of not having taken care of her well enough then, because of the depression she was in. Wouldn’t he be going through the same state right now?

The next day, Sandhya thought of doing something to get him out of this phase sooner. Maybe things would improve if they went out together, without Divya or Shanta Mausi. Her cell rang and she saw that it was Akash.

“Hey!” she greeted, trying to sound cheerful.

“Hi, sweetie. Listen, I have some work today and won’t be able to come. Do you think Divya will be OK?”

Sandhya frowned. What about her? Didn’t he care whether she would be OK?

“Yes, I guess she will be fine. But why can’t you make it today?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“I have to meet a friend and take care of a few things. I will come early tomorrow,” he said.

Sandhya’s eyebrows merged in frustration.

“Fine. See you tomorrow.” She could not hide the disappointment in her voice.

“Sweetie?”

“Hmm.”

“Are you upset?”

“No.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

She slumped on the sofa. She would not see him for a day and it was bothering her like hell. He had not invited them to his house since they had got back together. Once, she had gone with Divya and Pappu to his place and surprised him. He seemed happy to see them and hastily put some documents away. When he had gone in to get ready, she checked the documents and found that they were reports from a psychiatrist. Why did he not tell her that he was seeking medical help to cope? It had hurt her that he wasn’t telling her everything. She sighed and decided to go shopping with Divya just to keep her mind busy for this evening.

~

“How does Mama look in this dress, Divi?” Sandhya asked as she held a dress in front of her.

Divya scrunched up her face. Sandhya laughed. Her mood was far better now. Mom and daughter strolled in the busy streets of Mumbai, looking at miscellaneous stuff. Sandhya wondered if she should buy anything for Akash. A thought entered her mind and agitated her. She recalled the watch that she had purchased for him after painstakingly weighing her options and how the clasp broke when she had tried to make him wear it. She looked around to see if she could see any good shops. Her gaze fell on two people going into a jewelry store. She froze. Wasn’t that Vivek’s sister, Aisha, and Akash? Why was Akash shopping with her? The pit in her stomach got deeper. Akash seemed to be talking excitedly and Aisha was listening with a gentle smile on her face. Sandhya recalled how Aisha had hugged him when they met for Vivek’s birthday party. She took Divya’s hand and marched back home. He might have been doing just that—shopping. Right? He had told her that he had some work. Could you consider shopping to be work? Did she doubt Akash? Wasn’t lack of trust the root of their misery?

~

Akash stared at the phone as his fingers hesitated over the buttons. Why did he not want to call and tell his parents about him and Sandhya? Was it the fear that they would not approve? Was it the fear of what they would think of him? He thought hard. No. It was the fear of whether this was the right thing to do. Sure, everyone around him would think that she was lucky to marry into such a wealthy family. But he knew better. Sandhya would be dragged into his life, where she would have to face the wrath of his mother. His mother—was it her blood running in his veins that had caused him to think wrongly about Sandhya, to become the arrogant, despicable person that he had become? He smiled wistfully at the irony of the situation. In the past, he had accused Sandhya of her behavior, citing her background, her blood. Now he was doubtful of whether his background, his blood was good enough for her. He shook his head. No. He had no right to accuse his mother or his blood for his deeds. It was lame of him to think this way. He was solely responsible for his mistakes and he should accept it like a man. He was trying hard; these three weeks he had spent with Sandhya and Divya were not easy for him. Whenever he saw Mausi’s angry eyes assaulting him, he was reminded of the past that he was struggling to let go. Sure, Mausi was worried that he would back off again and hurt Sandhya. But he wanted to give Sandhya a chance to reconsider. The wounds from their past might have healed, but there remained a scar that could not be ignored. It was the gentle and affectionate smile that she greeted him with every day that made him try harder; try with all his will to become a better person.

~

The next evening, Sandhya searched her closet for an appropriate dress to wear to go out with Akash. She had already had her confrontation with Mausi regarding Akash and marriage. No dress seemed right, not any fancy salwar kameez or any western outfit that she had. Her gaze fell on a cloth protruding from the upper rack. She climbed on top of a stool and pulled it out. It was a simple baby pink cotton salwar kameez with a white dupatta. She had given away most of her old dresses but could not make herself give this one away. She sat on her bed and kept staring at the dress. This was the dress she had worn when he kissed her for the first time.

Would he remember it? She smiled. This was what she wanted to wear. Fortunately, she could still fit in it. The dress was too plain and simple for going out, but it might be fine if they went to a casual place like a beach.

The doorbell rang. Akash greeted her with a smile and she returned his smile. With Mausi and Divya around, that was the best they could do. She wondered if he noticed her dress. He didn’t seem to, she thought, disappointed.

Akash smiled at Mausi and Mausi stared back at him. This had become a daily routine, causing discomfort to everyone. Sandhya walked with their teacups to the balcony, where Akash was reading a book to Divya.

“Divya? Can you go inside and watch TV for a while?” he asked.

Sandhya was surprised and wondered if he did that so he could be alone with her. Divya ran inside happily. She was rarely allowed to watch TV.

“You have got a good view from here,” he remarked, looking out into the horizon.

“Yes,” she replied.

She turned to look at him and found him watching her intently.

“Is something wrong?” His face was full of concern.

“No,” she replied.

He smiled and took another sip of her tea. He seemed to be in a good mood today.

“I was hoping to go out somewhere, just you and me,” she said.

He turned to look at her. “Sure.”

The doorbell rang and they both looked at each other. Who would be at their door now?

The moment she noticed Miss Vijaya walk in, she knew what was going to happen. Mausi’s patience had gone haywire and she had pulled in Miss Vijaya to put additional pressure on Akash.

She looked at him and dreaded how he must be feeling. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Sandhya knew that they were only worrying about her but why couldn’t they understand that Akash needed some time?

“So? What are your plans?” Miss Vijaya asked Akash after the initial small talk.

“Huh? Plans?”

Sandhya pulled at her dupatta nervously.

“Are you planning to talk to your parents?” Miss Vijaya started.

She noticed Akash hesitate before replying.

“I will talk to them tonight.”

Why was he so grim? This was their marriage that they were talking about.

“What if they refuse?” Miss Vijaya questioned.

“It will not change my decision,” he said and rose from his seat.

Miss Vijaya and Shanta Mausi breathed in relief.

“Let me know what they say tomorrow,” Miss Vijaya said, standing up and cupping his cheek as if he was a little boy. Maybe he was still a little boy for her, not an adult who was almost thirty. He nodded and escaped to Divya’s room. Was it only her who noticed how his eyes had lost their glint? Why did he seem so unhappy?

Sandhya’s pulse raced with uncertainty and restlessness. She needed to talk to him soon.

“We were planning to go out for a while,” Sandhya said, looking at Mausi and at Miss Vijaya.

“Sure.” Mausi smiled.

~

They were both silent throughout the ride. She had suggested that they go to a beach but he said that he had another place in mind. She kept recalling his hesitation in replying to Miss Vijaya. What was going through Akash’s mind? Was he trying to get rid of his guilt by being with her? He stopped his car in front of a tall building.

“What is this place?” she asked.

“It’s just a restaurant,” he replied as he led her inside.

In a few minutes they were seated on the top floor. There was only one table in the whole room, with deep purple curtains all around. Sandhya felt uncomfortable; her plain dress was a complete contrast to this place. She should have picked something expensive and elegant. But then, she had thought that they would go to a beach.

“You look beautiful,” she heard him say. He was looking at the menu as he said that.

She frowned at him. They ordered their food. Sandhya’s hands were jittery. She was a big girl, she should be able to do this. She loved him. Yes. And he also loved her. But he didn’t seem happy with the idea of marriage at this point. She was in deep thought as she dug into her iced tea with the straw.

“What are you thinking?”

Sandhya faked a smile but didn’t say anything.

“You don’t like this place?”

Sandhya looked around. It was a large room and the decorations were nice but it was dark and gloomy.

“It’s nice,” she replied with a fake smile again. Where was their relationship going?

“Liar.”

She shot her wide eyes up at him, but she kept silent instead of protesting.

“Akash, I wanted to tell you something,”

“What?”

“Don’t worry about Mausi and Miss Vijaya. I can understand if you don’t want to take a big step like marriage right now.”

Akash stared at her with concern, breathing out slowly. Sandhya fidgeted with her dupatta.

“Do you want to break up with me?” he asked gently.

What did he just say? Break up? Is that what it is? Why? She was only going to talk to him about giving him some space and time. Did he want to break up with her? The thought made her head spin.

He kept staring at her with a blank expression.

“Do you want to break up with me?” she asked, gaining the courage to look back at him.

He watched her intensely, the raw look in his eyes questioning her about the absurdity of the whole situation.

“It’s just that—maybe I have pushed you. I know you love Divya but—it’s perfectly fine if you want to move on,” she said

She saw him take a deep breath and close his eyes.

“No,” he replied with utmost seriousness.

She breathed.

Akash shot up from the table with force, terrifying her. He composed himself and settled again.

“If you want to break up with me, just tell me, Sandhya.” His eyes pierced through her.

She remained silent. He swallowed and opened his mouth again.

“Don’t you trust me?”

Sandhya was stunned at his question. Images of him and Aisha laughing at the shop came to her mind. Could she deny that there was a tiny doubt or disturbance that had formed within her then? No, it was his hesitation with marriage that concerned her more.

“Do you still love me?” he asked as his intense black eyes stared at her, his voice trembling.

Sandhya gazed into his eyes for a few seconds.

“I think you were not too happy with what happened after Miss Vijaya came,” she replied, looking at the ground.

“You are right. I wasn’t.”

He stood up, walked over to the curtains and pressed a button on the wall. The curtain moved sideways, exposing giant glass windows and the breathtaking beauty of the Arabian Sea. Sandhya stood up. This place had suddenly transformed into a bright room with a stunning view. And she had wondered earlier about why he had taken her to such a gloomy place.

She walked over and stood next to him. He was looking at the view, with his hands in his pant pockets. The sky was a deep shade of red, orange and lavender and she was witnessing a beautiful sunset. Awestruck by the scenery, no words escaped her lips.

“Can I ask you something? Just answer a yes or a no,” he asked.

She nodded.

He knelt on one knee before her and held out a ring.

“Will you marry me?”

She stared at him, her breath stuck in her throat.

“Are you sure, Akash?”

“Yes or no?” A tiny bead of sweat formed on his brow in the cold air-conditioned room.

She looked out of the window into the sunset and then back at him. A couple of minutes went by.

“Yes,” she said softly.

He breathed. Before she could react, he grabbed her wrist and slid the ring onto her finger.

He stood up. “Two minutes to decide? I could have died of suffocation!”

“I—we—” she stuttered.

Before she knew what was happening, his hand had encircled her waist and his lips were on hers. It was only him and her and the beautiful view of the sunset.

“Two minutes to decide, huh?” he mumbled.

Her lips curled up as a tear slid from her eye unknowingly. Akash noticed the wetness on her cheek and kissed it away. When they broke away from each other, he held her face with his palms and said, “You scared the hell out of me.”

“Sorry.”

“Why? For accepting an arrogant jerk like me to be your husband?”

She was about to reply when they heard someone clearing their throat. They immediately parted from each other. The waiter was grinning at them, holding his tray of sizzling hot food. Sandhya realized why he had been so hesitant with Miss Vijaya. He had planned to propose to her and they had spoiled it. Well, almost.

“Why this formal proposal? You didn’t think of it three years ago.”

“This time, everything has to be perfect,” he replied.

“I see.”

He grabbed her hand and gazed at the ring.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes. It is perfect. I love it.”

“Aisha thought it was too simple but I knew that this was the one.”

“Aisha?”

“Yes. I asked for her help. But then I ended up selecting it.”

Sandhya listened to him as guilt rushed through her.

“I saw you with Aisha when I was shopping yesterday.”

He looked at her intently and narrowed his eyes. The thought that she might not have trusted him just because he was shopping with Aisha seemed to trouble him. Ultimately, she did trust him. But perhaps, he understood how much it would hurt if she doubted him.

“Dhiren has been calling me. You need to do something about him and Puja,” she said, trying to divert the topic.

Akash smiled. “I gave him my consent two days ago. But I am not sure how to convince my mom and dad. I will talk to them tonight.” He grabbed her hands and caressed her fingers. “About them and—us.”

She smiled nervously.

“Will your parents have a problem with Divya being adopted?”

Akash put his spoon down.

“Sandhya, I consider Divya as my own daughter. Would you mind if I said that she was my daughter? No one knows that she is adopted other than Mausi. I don’t want to reveal it, although it should not matter that much to us. She IS my daughter. I won’t consider it as lying.”

Sandhya was silent for a few seconds as she thought hard as to what would be the right thing to do for Divya.

“Please,” he pleaded.

Sandhya took his hand in hers and nodded. Her eyes caught a watch hidden under his long-sleeved shirt and her heart skipped a beat. She caught his wrist and moved his sleeve up a little and gasped. It was the same watch that she had bought for him three years ago! He had gotten it repaired?

“You still have it,” she whispered.

He smiled. “You are not the only one to remember,” he said, glancing at her dress. Her heart soared, realizing that he treasured their moments together, just like her.

“Oh yeah?” she replied teasingly.

“Oh yeah.”

“Let’s see,” she said in a challenging tone. “When did we meet?”

“Clarification— by ‘meet’, do you mean first spoke to one another?” he asked.

“Yes, I guess.”

“When I was coaching volleyball. You must have been in eleventh grade. Just before your half yearly exams. You came to summon me on Miss Vijaya’s orders. I was sitting with the boys on the stairs by the chemical lab.”

Sandhya stared at him with her mouth open. He waved his hand to break her from her trance. She closed her mouth.

“How could you possibly remember that?”

“Because.” He paused and continued, “I thought you were interesting.”

“No. You didn’t,” she answered more to herself.

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well—I wondered how you would react if I asked you out,” he answered, matter of fact. “I mean, I know that dating and stuff doesn’t happen in our village, but that was what I thought.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“So, you wanted to ask me out or not?”

He shook his head. “I wondered about how you would react if I asked you out,” he repeated.

She laughed and replied, “I would have run away like a mouse from a cat.”

“Exactly what I thought.”

~

That night, Akash called up his father.

“Hi, Dad!”

“Hello, son.” His father’s voice sounded grave.

“We need to talk.”

There was silence for a few seconds.

“Go ahead,” his dad said with seriousness.

Why did he sound so upset?

“Dad, I want to marry Sandhya.” He paused. “And I wanted your blessing.”

“Why did it take you so long to say this?”

“What? Wait. Did you already know about us?”

“The whole village knows about this, you moron!”

“Oh! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What should I say? I wanted to see how long it would take for you to get some sense in your head.”

A confused Akash narrowed his eyes.

Dad, I will marry Sandhya come what may. I would be happy if you attend our wedding and bless us.”

“Son—you have my blessings.”

“What?”

“I am only worried about Sandhya. You have anger issues.”

“I got myself checked by a psychiatrist. My report is clear, Dad. I should be able to control my anger by changing my lifestyle.”

“You saw a psychiatrist? Why?”

“You just said that I had anger issues.”

“B…but. Oh fine. If you went that far, then maybe you will be a good husband.”

“What about mom? Should I talk to her?”

His dad was silent for a while.

“I already tried explaining, son. Try talking to her once. You and I both know what her answer will be. You go ahead with the wedding plans. I will make sure that she attends the wedding.”

“Dad—you are the best!” Akash exclaimed. He rarely used these colorful words for his dad.

“Sounds weird to hear this from you instead of Puja!” he replied in a light tone.

Puja! Dhiren! He had almost forgotten about them and his impossible assignment of convincing his dad.

“Dad—I have a suitable boy in mind for Puja,” he started.

~

With time, Akash moved much more freely with Sandhya. They decided on a small-scale wedding with close family and friends in Mumbai, on an auspicious date that was two months away. Akash’s mom had not agreed, as expected, even after he tried to talk to her twice. His dad had agreed to Dhiren and Puja’s alliance with great difficulty. Their marriage was to take place six months after Akash’s. It was being planned as a lavish wedding in the village by both their parents.

~

“Sweetie.” Akash placed his hands on her waist and rested his head on her shoulder as she cleaned the kitchen. Divya was already asleep. He was in a light mood today, now that everyone knew that they would be married and the marriage date was also set.

“Let me finish,” she replied.

“Alright.” He sounded disappointed.

Sandhya breathed in relief. It was better if he kept his hands to himself until they were married.

She walked to the living room and saw that he sat on the sofa, smiling at her invitingly.

He was changing into the old Akash who could not keep his hands off her. Sandhya cursed under her breath. How could she tell him that she wanted him to leave?

She went and sat by him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as he brushed her hair behind her shoulders.

She stiffened.

“N…nothing.”

“Come here, sweetie.” He spread his arm out and she placed her head on his shoulder.

She closed her eyes and fists in frustration, only to open them in terror when she felt his fingers tracing her neck and her back. Her heart started beating like a drum and she sat upright.

“I need to go to bed. Have to leave early for the office tomorrow.” She looked away from him.

He stopped and removed his hand from her back, then turned his face towards her and looked at her intently. She wasn’t looking at him but she could sense the desire and disappointment on his face.

She looked up to him nervously. Involuntarily, her hands moved up to his face and she moved closer to him. She kissed him gently but before he could respond, she let go of him and immediately stood up.

Akash took a deep breath.

“See you tomorrow, sweetie.” He stood up fast and walked out. Sandhya could not understand why she was disappointed and angry at him. An hour later, she was still wide awake, unable to get a wink of sleep.

The doorbell rang. She opened the door and found Akash standing in front of her. He closed the door, took a step towards her and grabbed her arms. “Sweetie!” he whispered as he pulled her towards him and embraced her in desperation. Cupping her face, he touched his forehead to hers. Her hands traveled up and wrapped around his neck and Akash opened his eyes. Their eyes locked and they both smiled at each other.

He crashed his lips onto hers and she responded with equal urgency. Pulling her up in his arms and wrapping her tight, he carried her to her room and placed her on the bed. He was about to pull the strap on her shoulder down when something snapped in her mind. She grabbed his wrist and stopped his movement.

“What?” he asked, frustrated and breathless. She sat upright, moving away from him.

“Don’t touch me until the wedding.”

He narrowed his eyes in confusion.

“B…but that doesn’t make any sense. We’ve—” he started and wrapped his hands around her waist again.

She removed his hands.

“So? You are the one who wanted everything to be perfect this time.” She stressed the word perfect.

He stood frozen.

“Is there no chance at all?”

Sandhya shook her head and looked away.

“I don’t want to disappoint Mausi. She’s already given me ample hints. And this is how I want it to be too,” she replied and bit her lip.

“Well then stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

He sighed and sat next to her.

“How many more days to go?”

“Fifty-five.”

“Fifty-five,” he repeated.

~

Chapter 42 – At Last

S

andhya got more and more anxious as the wedding date approached. Even though she was going to marry Akash wholeheartedly, there was his family, which she had to blend in with. She had felt a connection with Akash’s dad and Puja had been more like a friend before. But would they accept her as a family member? As for her mother-in-law, Sandhya knew that things would be rocky with her. The doorbell rang and she opened it thinking it was Mausi. She gasped when she found Akash, his dad and Puja standing before her. All of them raised their eyebrows at her when she didn’t move. Sandhya recovered and smiled hesitantly, moving to the side to allow them inside.

“Namaste, Uncle,” she greeted Akash’s dad, folding her hands and joining her palms.

“Namaste,” he replied with an amused smile and a glint in his eyes.

“Hi, Puja.”

“Hi.” Puja narrowed her eyes at Sandhya before she marched into Divya’s bedroom. “Who’s here?” Puja announced, closing the door.

Sandhya glared at Akash. Why was he grinning? Couldn’t he give her some notice so she could be a little prepared? She could have worn a sari instead of these casual pants and T-shirt.

“I will make some tea. Please have a seat.” Sandhya walked into the kitchen just as she watched Akash join Puja and Divya, leaving her alone with his dad.

“Sandhya?”

“Yes, Uncle?”

“You should have told me about you and Akash.”

Sandhya stared at the boiling teapot as she tried to mask her shock. Akash must have told him everything, she guessed, except about Divya’s adoption.

“I…we…” She fought for the right words but could not find them. Her eyes searched for Akash, who had escaped, leaving her to deal with the situation.

He sighed. “Anyways, I am glad that you both revealed this matter now.”

Relieved, Sandhya poured the tea into four cups.

“Auntie didn’t come?” Sandhya asked. He hesitated before replying.

“She had a ceremony to attend at the temple. She will come directly for your wedding.”

Sandhya felt a heavy load being lifted off of her; it was clear that he didn’t have any issue with her marrying Akash. Puja came out with Divya squealing in her arms, followed by Akash.

Divya stared at Akash’s dad.

“Divya! That is Grandpa. Do you remember him?” Akash pointed to his dad.

“Glandpa?”

“Yes. He is my papa. And I am your papa. So he is your grandpa.”

“Glandpa is old.”

“Divya! You shouldn’t say that!” Sandhya said, embarrassed.

“Ha ha. At last someone in our family has the guts to speak the truth. Grandpas are old, cutie!” Prem-Ji laughed out loud as he kissed Divya’s cheek. He handed over a bag to Sandhya.

“What is this, Uncle?”

“Clothes for you and Divya and some jewelry. Puja selected it. If you don’t like it, then please, go to the shop with her and select something else. She already made me shop for two whole days. I can’t take it anymore.”

Sandhya smiled, but held on to the bag with uncertainty.

“We are supposed to be giving these to you. It’s part of the marriage ritual. I will take them back now and offer these at the marriage. We just wanted to make sure that you like it. Check it out!”

“They are so beautiful!” she exclaimed, looking over the items one by one. Puja smiled at her for the first time. When Akash and his dad were busy with Divya, Sandhya decided to break the ice with Puja.

“So how have you been?”

Puja raised her eyebrows.

“Pretty well. Thank you,” she replied, looking away. Sandhya gulped at the chilly response. Why was she behaving this way?

“What’s wrong, Puja? Are you upset with me?”

Puja glared at Sandhya, her cold face transforming into one quivering with raw emotion. A shocked Sandhya held Puja’s arm.

“Puja! What happened? Is it about Dhiren? I will talk to your dad.”

Puja shrugged her hand off her arm. A pained Sandhya wondered what had happened to the sweet girl that she had known.

“No. Dad has agreed to my marriage with Dhiren.”

“What! That is great news!” she exclaimed but her smile faded on seeing Puja remain cold.

She kept staring at Puja with apprehension.

“What did I do, Puja?” Sandhya asked point blank; she had to settle the waves of confusion and concern rising within. Puja knelt by the kitchen cabinet and stared at the white fridge, lost in thought.  

“Maybe it’s not you. It’s me. You know how I felt when I found out that I was the reason for your breakup with bro?” She halted and faced Sandhya.

“That night, when you came to our house and acted different, I should have realized that there was something going on between you both. Then later, when you called up my brother, I was the one who told you that he was marrying Kavya.”

The absurdity of Puja’s thoughts threw Sandhya off. The sensitivity of this girl was all too apparent.

“No, Puja. I can’t believe that you are blaming yourself for whatever happened. Anyways, it all worked out in the end, right?”

“Yes. I guess that is the silver lining. I cannot imagine what you must have gone through. I am sorry. But I am angry at you and bro for hiding this from me. I thought I was your friend. As for Akash, he is always nosy and protective about me. But when it comes to his life, he won’t disclose anything to me,” she sighed.

“I guess that’s how most big brothers are.”

“I guess.”

After a while, Divya was giving a tour of her toys to Puja and Akash’s dad in her room.

Akash took the opportunity and dragged Sandhya into the kitchen. Sandhya wriggled her hand out of his grasp and glared at him with anger. He kissed her cheek.

“You look hot when you are angry, like a red tomato.”

She pushed him away and took a step back, terrified that the door would open at any time and they would be caught. 

“Are you mad? Your father and sister are here!” she whispered in anger.

“So what? I am flirting with my future wife!”

She shook her head.

“Why didn’t you tell me that they were coming? I could have been prepared!”

“Yup and you would have been a nervous wreck thinking about it!” 

“But look at what happened! I look like a disaster!”

“You look fine!” They both heard someone clearing his throat and found Akash’s dad outside of Divya’s room.

“Is something wrong?” he said, hiding a smile. Puja also came out with Divya.

“Nothing. We were just discussing…the menu,” Akash replied.

“Oh! And I was worried that you had started fighting already. You have the remainder of your life for that you know,” he said, laughing, and turned to Sandhya, “Now, where is the tea, my dear?”

~

Priya and Sameer sat on the grass over the scenic hill station and observed Sandhya and Akash, who were sitting a few feet in front of them. A chilly breeze swept over them as the sun set over the horizon.

“Wow, Sameer! Look at them! My desire to see two love birds together live in action is being fulfilled!” she exclaimed.

“What?” Sameer questioned.

“Why did you think I invited them on this trip to this hill station? Well, of course I wanted to give them a chance for a romantic environment before their wedding, but I also wanted to see them for myself. You see, we never got a chance to do anything like this before our wedding and I still regret it. At least I am getting to see Sandhya enjoying these moments!”

“But what about me? What about us? Mausi only allowed them to take this trip provided they don’t share a room. And you told her that you and Sandhya would share a room,” Sameer asked morosely as he threw a pebble out. Priya wrapped her arm over his and scooted towards him.  She was always tending to Aarush and they had spent little time with each other over the last few months.

“We will just book another room.”

“All the rooms are booked in this resort and all the nearby resorts,” he muttered.

“What?”

Silence for a few minutes.

“Sorry, Sameer!” she whispered. He wrapped his arm around her and kissed her forehead.

“It’s OK. Your intentions were good. I am enjoying looking at the love birds too.” He smiled and continued, “Ooh! She just rested her head on his shoulder! And now they are looking at each other. Oh my God! Are they going to kiss now? Don’t they know that we are right behind them! Priya! Close your eyes!” Sameer exclaimed as he placed his palms over her eyes.

Priya pushed his hands away.

“What the! This is the part that we shouldn’t miss! What? They are not going to kiss? They are looking back at us! Bummer!” 

They saw Akash and Sandhya getting up.

“You know what, Priya,” Sameer giggled, “all the spoons in this world will celebrate their independence day when they get married!”

“Ha ha ha… Yup!” Priya laughed.

They returned to the resort and had their dinner. The wedding was two weeks away and relatives would start arriving in three or four days. Akash and Sandhya glanced at each other as they walked back towards their rooms, feeling guilty about this condition that Mausi had insisted on. Sandhya changed into her nightdress and noticed that Priya lay on the bed, deep in thought.

“Sorry, Priya.”

“Hey, it’s OK.” Priya smiled at her friend. “I had loads of fun today watching you love birds!”

Sandhya laughed.

“We had loads of fun too. Wondering about what you were wondering about us!” 

After about an hour, Priya’s phone beeped. It was a message from Sameer. “Akash found another room!” She found Sandhya looking at her with questioning eyes and answered,

“Err. Akash managed to book a room.”

“Oh! Go now!” Sandhya laughed and pushed her out of the room. She locked her door and wondered how Akash had gotten a room. When Sameer had checked, there were no rooms vacant.

She got up and called Akash.

“Hey! Didn’t fall sleep yet?” Sandhya spoke.

“No.”

“What’s your room number?”

“Huh! Why? Have you changed your mind regarding the condition?”

“Of course not! Wasn’t getting any sleep. Thought we could chat or go for a walk.”

“Sorry, sweetie. I am tired now.”

“Alright. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Instead of getting back into her bed, she changed her clothes and walked towards the lobby. Just as she had suspected, he was reading a magazine and sitting in a chair.

“This is a pretty large room you have here.”

He looked up, stunned.

“Huh!” He placed his palm under his chin.

“Nice try, Mr. Akash.” She smirked.

He smiled. “You are getting smart nowadays.”

“I am always smart. So, what’s the plan? Spend the night on a lobby chair?”

“Yup. That’s the plan!”

“Oh come on, Akash! You know I won’t let you be here for the whole night. We can sleep in…”

“No!” he answered before she could finish.

“But why not? We have done this before! Remember?”

“That was before. It’s different now!”

“Nothing’s different. We can manage fine!”

“You think so?”

“Yup.”

“I don’t think you can manage,” he replied.

“What? Of course I can!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

“Then I will be here in the lobby with you.”

“Sandhya!”

“Akash!”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Sandhya stood up.

“Wow! I won an argument against you!” she said and thought a little. “But you should not mess with me!” she demanded.

“You mean when we are on the bed?”

“Yup.”

“Deal.”

“Deal.”

She unlocked the door to her room. As soon as she closed the door, he grabbed her hands and pulled her towards him. She immediately pushed him off. “I said no touching!”

“On the bed, sweetie. Remember?” He smirked and took a step towards her. Sandhya quickly ran away from him and sprang onto her bed.

“Phew!” she shook her head, glad that she was in her safety zone.

Akash folded his hands over his chest and narrowed his eyes. He walked over to her and brought his face close to hers.

“Sweetie!”

“Umm?”

“Don’t you want to change into your nightdress?” He smirked, sprang towards the bed, grabbed the nightdress that was lying on the bed and hung it on a hook far away from the bed.

“What the!” she screamed in anger. His evil grin widened.  ”Fine, then I am sleeping in these clothes.” She sat on her bed and cleverly pressed the redial button on her cell when Akash wasn’t looking at her hand.

Akash dug his hands into his pocket to get his cell out. Right at that instant, she sprang from her bed, ran to the hook, grabbed her nightdress and sprinted back to the bed.

One more step and she would hit the bed. Yay! She ended up hitting his chest instead. She slowly raised her head to see the expected winning smirk on his face. Instead, she found his dark blazing eyes staring at her with seriousness. His hands gradually moved up her arms, each tender touch of his fingers causing a frenzy within her. His lips brushed against hers and she closed her eyes.

“Didn’t I tell you that you won’t be able to manage?” His evil smirk was back. She opened her eyes and kicked him on his chest. Laughing out loud, he pulled her into a hug.

They settled onto either side of the bed and Sandhya closed her eyes to rest. After a few minutes, her eyes fluttered open and she noticed Akash staring at the ceiling. A pit formed in her stomach and her breath hitched. They might behave like kids and act all happy on the outside, but some things can never be the same.  She turned and stared at the ceiling, her hands resting on her stomach. They could never be how they were before, for their lives were permanently stamped with experiences that they could never be rid of. She was lost in thought when she felt his warm palms enveloping her hands, startling her. She moved her head sideways and saw him observing her, his eyes serious, worried, tender. The depressing thoughts dissolved into thin air. They could never be the same, they may never get rid of their past, but they understood each other and would be there for each other.

“Akash,” she muttered.

“Mmm?”

“Have you ever thought that if we had never separated, then Divya would not be in our lives?

~

Akash’s heart skipped a beat. She was right in some ways, even if she said this for his peace of mind. Though he could never justify his actions, citing these conclusions, the thought did provide him solace. He clutched her hand tighter in response. They closed their eyes and slept peacefully.

~

Sandhya’s apartment buzzed with activity on the day of her wedding.

“The jewelry goes well with this sari,” Priya said, adjusting Sandhya’s sari one final time.

“Thanks! It’s my mother’s,” she replied happily.

Asha walked into her bedroom, frustrated. “Hey! Where is that naughty daughter of yours! I still need to do her hair!”

“Check behind the bed,” Sandhya replied. Divya was having a great time annoying everyone with her hide and seek games.

Sandhya watched Asha catching Divya and doing her hair. Yes, she had finally gotten back in touch with her and felt exhilarated when she spoke to her. She might have few friends, but they were lifelong friends, friends who would always welcome her with open arms. Asha was also going to be married within a month to Ashok.

Her aunt marched in with a plate of steaming hot idlis in her hand.

“No, Auntie! I am not hungry now!”

“Do you know how much time it will be before you will get a chance to eat again? You have to eat. Come on now…open your mouth.”

Not having any choice, she opened her mouth and her aunt popped a piece of idli into it. Her hands had intricate henna design on the palms, a result of two hours of hard work from a henna professional the previous night. Akash had convinced Sandhya to call her aunt and invite her. 

When she had spoken to her, her aunt’s affectionate behavior surprised her. Perhaps time would bring back her feelings for her aunt. Ajay and Vijay also arrived with their families, seeming excited to get back in touch with her.  With so many people cramped up in a two-bedroom apartment, there was no space for loneliness. For a second, her mind blanked out all the chaos around her eyes and she tried to concentrate on her present blissful life. Divya had become the center of attention for her cousins and aunt. Never had Sandhya felt like she belonged with them like she did now. She finally had people to call a family. 

~

Sandhya stood in the marriage hall and glanced at Akash. He wore a rich sherwani that made him look stunning, just as she had expected. She had chosen his dress and he had chosen her sari. Her future father-in-law and Puja were standing behind him. His mom chose to be seated in the farthest location in the hall and had not spoken a word to her. Akash had already prepared her mentally about his mom. In fact, she was happy that she had even come.  Mausi, Priya, Dhiren, Miss Vijaya, her aunt, her cousins and their families, Asha, Ashok, Roja, Mr. George, even Mr. Roy, were there with her today. Best of all, Phillip had also made it for the occasion. She had felt guilty when she had invited him but she did want him in her life as a friend, if he was comfortable with the idea. To her relief, he took the news pretty well, or that’s what he conveyed to her. He even flirted with her right before Akash’s eyes just to piss him off. She hoped that he would find his soul mate soon. For a man of his nature, it shouldn’t be difficult.

She had spent many sleepless nights worrying about Divya and how everyone would accept her. It was amusing and a huge relief to see how freely she was mingling with Akash’s family and how well they were accepting her. Well, except for his mom who preferred to look ahead grimly. Divya was the center of attention among the crowd. She seemed to enjoy the attention except for everyone pinching and kissing her cheeks with affection.

Sandhya and Akash repeated the vows as the priest instructed them. He tied the three knots of the mangal-sutra on her neck and they became husband and wife. She glanced at Akash and his intense black eyes responded silently. Life would not be perfect. They would have their ups and downs and little fights. But they would be together. And deep in her heart, she could sense that they would be happy.

~

Akash looked at his wife with admiration. Her gold and maroon sari give her a delicate and alluring look. Her big brown eyes would glance at him once in a while and sparkle whenever they met his. It was amazing how he could sense her love for him all the time, even when she was angry with him. He glanced at his mom and his smile disappeared. She was behaving as if she were in mourning. It pained him that she had not spoken to Sandhya even once. He had to somehow protect Sandhya from his mother’s wrath if she decided to unleash it on her.

They all sat to have dinner in the dining hall adjacent to the marriage hall. Akash and Sandhya sat at a special table decorated with flowers.

He felt a tug at his leg. He looked down and found Divya trying to squeeze in between them from under the table.

“Divya. You need to let them eat together! Come, baby, sit with me!” Mausi demanded.

“No! I want to sit with Aathaash!” Divya demanded.

“It’s alright, Mausi. I want to eat with Divya too.” Akash pulled her into his lap.

“And Divya, can you call me Papa please?”

“If you let me eat the desselt filst,” she replied, placing her tiny arms around his neck.

Akash laughed.

“Sure, darling!” he replied as he placed a piece of the dessert into her mouth. Sandhya glared at him in disapproval.

“Only today, Divya!” Akash clarified.

Before they left for Akash’s house, Sandhya and Mausi hugged each other and cried, unable to control their emotions. Outsiders thought that it was a mother separating from her daughter. Mausi promised that she would visit Sandhya once a week at her new home. It was too far for her to continue to work for Sandhya every day.

Sandhya arrived at Akash’s house with his family. Her mother-in-law disappeared inside the house.

“You both stay here,” Puja instructed and went inside. She came back a few minutes later with a plate with a small lighted lamp and flowers and welcomed them inside in the traditional way.

Divya ran inside the house and into her playroom excitedly. She found Akash’s mom sitting gloomily in a chair. “Why ale you in my loom? And who ale you?” she questioned.

She stared at Divya.

“This is Grandma, Divya. She is also old, right?” Akash’s dad spoke from behind her.

Divya looked at her and then at him. “No, she is not old! You ale old,” she exclaimed.

Akash’s dad opened his mouth in an ‘O.’ He noticed his wife suppressing her laugh. She still looked remarkably young with her dark hair whereas his hair had grayed considerably.

~

Sandhya was given the farthest room from Akash’s by Puja. They had to visit a few nearby temples the next day and then start for their village. There, they would have to participate in a few more ceremonies and visit more temples. Her aunt and cousins had already set out for their village. 

Marriage was supposed to bring them together but right now, they could not even talk with each other in private. Sandhya was already missing Akash’s company even though they were all living under the same roof.

“Do you mind if I sleep in your room today?” Puja asked Sandhya loud enough for Akash to hear. Sandhya glanced at Akash and witnessed the frown on his face. Puja suppressed her laugh.

“No,” Sandhya replied. Puja did end up keeping her company in her room that night. Her life as a married woman started that day. The excitement, happiness, uncertainty and nervousness caused her to hardly sleep.

The next day, they all visited temples as planned. Akash’s mom continued her silence but Sandhya somehow understood that she was the one giving instructions to Puja as to what should be done next.

They had lunch and then started for their village. She was visiting her village after almost four years and she could not imagine what was in store for her.

Akash held the door for Sandhya as she got out of the car. Her father-in-law carried a sleeping Divya behind them. Sandhya stared at the massive mansion standing before her, overwhelmed by the disturbing moments of her past that had occurred there. Involuntarily, she looked up at Akash and understood that he was also experiencing a similar turmoil within himself. He held his hand out and she grabbed it. They both needed each other’s support at that moment.

Puja once again welcomed them traditionally and Sandhya stepped inside her in-laws’ house with full respect. Once again, Sandhya was asked to share a room with Puja. Akash took Divya to his room to sleep, worried that she might be frightened to sleep alone in the new atmosphere.

The next day, they took the blessings at one more temple and walked back to their van. Sandhya halted.

“Where is Divya?”

Everyone started looking around for Divya frantically.

Vaidehi cried silently as she prayed at the temple. Why was the lord punishing her? What was her crime? Her husband looked down upon her. Now, her son, whom she had raised with utmost love, had no love for her? He didn’t care a bit about his mother? Puja would marry and leave them soon. She would be so lonely. Why did he have to choose that Sandhya, the girl she despised the most? She used to gossip about Sandhya with her friends all the time. Now, she had become a laughingstock amongst them. Was there no one who would understand her? Love her?

She wiped her tears and looked around. Where was everyone? Did they all leave without her? They didn’t even realize that she wasn’t with them? More tears flowed from her eyes.

She caught something in pink behind the temple pillar. She narrowed her eyes.

“Who is there?” she shouted.

Divya came out from behind the pillar.

“It’s me, Glandma,” she replied meekly.

Vaidehi looked at her, stunned. What was she doing here all alone?

She looked so cute. Just like Puja when she was little.

“Why are you here?” she asked, trying to sound indifferent.

“Waiting for my papa,” she replied, looking up at her with her sparkling black eyes.

“Papa?”

“Aathaash.”

She looked around to check if anyone was watching her. She picked up Divya and kissed her gently.

Akash and Sandhya, who had come inside the temple looking for Divya, stood far away and witnessed her cuddling Divya. They looked at each other, stunned.

Akash’s mom heard footsteps and immediately placed Divya on the ground, the indifferent look returning to her face.

They returned home.

It was the third day after their wedding and Sandhya knew that she would be allowed to be with Akash from that night onwards. She knew that she would be in an embarrassing situation because the whole village would know that it was their first night. She wished that she could escape to some distant land with Akash for tonight and save them from the situation.

~

Akash walked down the stairs.

“Akash!”

He halted, looked towards Sandhya at the top of the stairs and raised his eyebrows questioningly. She had been wearing saris since their wedding and it was a joy to watch her. The only issue was, he could hardly even talk to her without gaining attention from everyone. Once, he had tried to fix some jewelry stuck in her hair and that ended up being the hottest topic of discussion in the village. The other time, she had simply transferred some food from her plate to his while having dinner. He looked up and found each and every pair of eyes in the room watching them as if it was the best reality show ever.

She used hand signals, asking him to follow her. He checked that no one was watching them and followed her to her room.

She closed the room as soon as he entered and stood a few feet away from him.

He kept staring at her with a quizzical expression.

“Do you think we can go somewhere else for tonight?” She came straight to the point.

He raised his eyebrows.

He opened his mouth to say something when they heard a knock. Before Sandhya could respond, Puja came in and gasped.

“Hey, bro. What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you are not supposed to be with your lovely wife until tonight?”

Akash caught his sister’s ear and twisted it.

“You are acting as if you are my big brother. I am talking to my wife, you understand!”

“Hey! I was just trying to make sure that—well, anyways, you should be glad that it’s me who caught you and not Mom! You can talk all you want with your wife tonight and the rest of your life!”

Akash mumbled something and went away after giving an “I will see what I can do” look to Sandhya.

~

Sandhya glanced down from above the stairs and saw Akash approaching her mother-in-law in the living room. Just then, her aunt appeared at her doorstep.

“Namaste.” Her aunt folded her hands in greeting.

Vaidehi nodded curtly in response.

“How are you doing, son?” She smiled at Akash.

“Doing well. Thank you.” He smiled back. She stood there awkwardly for a while, but no gesture came from Vaidehi asking her to take a seat.

“Please have a seat,” Akash requested.

“Thank you,” she replied, sitting on the sofa, and then turned to his mom.

“I came to talk about the first night ritual. You know that it is customary for this to be held by the girl’s family,” her aunt started.

Akash glanced up at Sandhya helplessly and then went into the adjoining room.

“We have already made the preparations for everything here,” Vaidehi replied sternly.

“But that is against our customs.”

Vaidehi stood up in irritation.

“Don’t make me open my mouth. Just because I have been silent doesn’t mean that you and Sandhya can have your ways. Be happy that my son married her without expecting a penny for dowry. I don’t understand how you thought that I would allow my son to sleep at your house. Do you even have an air conditioner at that ramshackle place?”

Vaidehi’s venom-filled words shocked Sandhya. Her nails dug into her palms in frustration and her heart went out to her aunt, who was now squirming with discomfort.

“We have renovated our house now. It is—” Her aunt swallowed the insults and continued to persuade.

“My decision is final.” Vaidehi silenced her aunt.

Sandhya kept her anger under control with great difficulty.

“Fine,” her aunt replied meekly. “I bought this sari for her.” She opened the packet in her hand and took out a rich white silk sari with heavy embroidery on it.

Vaidehi inspected it with narrowed eyes. “It’s too simple for our standards, but what can we do? We will compromise.”

Sandhya reverse counted from hundred and took deep breaths. Her aunt must have spent a fortune on that sari. She had already bought a simpler white sari herself, knowing Akash’s taste, having no idea that her aunt was going to buy this for her. Just then Akash walked into the room and faced Sandhya’s aunt.

“I understand that Sandhya and I need to stay at your place tonight. I am going out to meet some friends in the afternoon but I should be at your house by seven. You can take Sandhya with you earlier if she wishes,” he stated, giving a warning look to his mom.

His mom closed her mouth in clear displeasure and anger.

“Sandhya!” He looked up the stairs. “Do you want to go with your aunt now?”

She nodded in relief, ignoring the glare of her mother-in-law.

~

Sandhya was pleasantly surprised to see the improvements made to her aunt’s house.  The only bedroom in the house was cleaned to perfection and was made to look elegant. A sudden nostalgic feeling engulfed her as she took in the wooden rocking chair where her uncle used to relax, the old worn-out table, the stairs to the backyard where she used to do homework; each and every old item in the house had a memory attached to it. Her cousins had moved out and were settled with their own families. She could now sense the loneliness that her aunt felt. Her aunt kept running around, anxious and nervous with all the preparations needed.

“Let me help you, Auntie.”

Her aunt smiled at her.

“It’s alright, dear. I know you must be really tired.”

Sandhya was actually extremely tired. She had barely slept for the past two days for one reason or another. Neighbors and friends trickled to their home to talk to her and her aunt tried her best to tend to everyone visiting them. She was also cooking a lavish feast for dinner since Akash would be eating for the first time at their house.

“No, Auntie. I am perfectly fine. Please—let me help you.”

Her aunt smiled warmly at her and handed her the vegetables to cut. Sandhya kept busy for the rest of the day. Evening came and she was terrified to find a nagging pain hit her neck and head. She prayed that it would go away soon, before Akash came.

Akash and his mother came promptly at seven in the evening. He glanced at her in a knowing way but didn’t talk that much for a few minutes. Akash’s mother inspected the house with her usual superiority. By now, Sandhya and her aunt were used to her tantrums and acted normally so that Akash felt at ease. Sandhya sat by Akash for dinner and wondered at how comfortable he seemed to be, eating while sitting cross legged on the floor. Her aunt didn’t have a dining table and they were used to sitting over a mat on the floor to eat.

“Where is Divya?” Sandhya asked. Divya had been there with her for about an hour at her aunt’s place before being picked up by her father-in-law. She had not seen her since then.

“She was just back with Dad after entertaining and creating contacts with the whole village. She was excited that she saw the milking of a cow at the farm,” Akash replied.

“Oh! Did she?”

“Yup.”

Once dinner was over, Sandhya was clearing the dishes when she and Akash were told, to their utter embarrassment, that the auspicious time that night to consummate their marriage was around 10:37 that night! She turned the other way, wishing that the ground could swallow her.

After dinner, Sandhya was made to wear the white sari that her aunt had bought.

“Here, make her wear these ornaments,” her mother-in-law said curtly as she handed a box to her aunt. Sandhya wore the heavy jewelry with difficulty. The throbbing pain in her head was getting worse. If only the pain could subside. Akash had respected her wish and had waited this long for her. This was meant to be their big night.

Finally, she was asked to enter the room with a tray of fruits and milk. Akash sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for her. Why could she not see his face clearly? He walked up to her and closed the door behind her. She placed the tray by the bedside and forced a smile.

“Akash!” She crashed into his chest and wrapped her arms around him. He closed his arms around her and placed his hand on her head.

“Sandhya!”

She closed her eyes and breathed in relief. Unfortunately, the throbbing pain was getting worse. He made her sit on the bed and started removing her jewelry. Her eyes drooped and her hands became jittery. Akash got up and dug something out of a bag.

He handed over a tablet and a glass of water.

“Take this. You will feel better.”

She looked up to him and a hot tear escaped from her burning eyes.

“S…sorry.” She placed her forehead on his shoulder and grabbed his arm.

“Don’t say that.” He wrapped his arm around her.

He helped her change into a comfortable nightdress and she lay peacefully, resting her heavy head on his chest. She was soon lost in blissful sleep.

~

Akash stared at his sleeping wife. They were finally together with no inhibitions or fear. He had noticed how jittery she had been as soon as he had seen her tonight. She was clearly tired and not feeling well with all the fatigue. He cleared the tresses from her face, kissed her forehead and observed her, his heart swelling up with emotion. He would get to be with her and Divya for the rest of their lives. The wounds of their past would heal with time. He pulled her closer and felt her heartbeat against his, her warm breath on his neck. She tightened her hold around him and mumbled without opening her eyes,

“Sleep…Akash.” He smiled, kissed her nose and closed his eyes.

~

Sandhya woke up in the morning and found her bedside empty. To her horror, the clock showed 8 am as the time. Her headache seemed to have subsided and she felt refreshed. She dug for clothes in her bag and found the simpler white sari she had planned to wear for their first night.

“So much for the first night,” she cursed under her breath and picked up the sari. She quickly took a bath and got ready. When she came out to the living room, she found Akash all ready and dressed up, sipping coffee and chatting casually with her aunt.

“Good morning, Sandhya! Here, have coffee.” Her aunt handed her a cup.

Sandhya took the cup, smiling, and sat by Akash.

“We are going out, just for one day. Can you pack our bags?”

She looked at her aunt.

“I have already informed everyone,” he said, rolling his eyes as her aunt smiled.

She smiled and went inside to pack her bags.

It amused her that he had his motorcycle instead of his car.

“Now close your eyes for the next five minutes,” he demanded.

“What? Why?”

“Do as I say.”

“Fine.” She closed her eyes.

Five minutes later…

“Now, open your eyes.”

She opened her eyes and stood staring at the little house by the cornfield, where they had shared most of their memories together in the past. She looked at him, bewildered. “Doesn’t anyone live here?”

“Yes. Someone bought this place.” He continued to walk as she stood still in confusion.

He shook his head and smiled before walking over to her and pinching her nose.

“This is my gift for my wife.”

Sandhya covered her mouth in shock and threw her arms around him. He grabbed her by her waist and pulled her up in the air.

“I can’t believe this is happening!” Her voice shook with excitement.

“Me neither,” he whispered as he pressed his face into her silky hair.

He walked over to the porch steps with her body pressed to him and her feet in the air. Instead of going inside, he sat on the porch steps, gently placing her on his lap, her hands draped over his neck. She relaxed in his arms as memories of their time together flooded her mind.

“Do you know how many times I have sat here alone, thinking about you?” he mumbled.

She looked up at him softly, cupped his cheeks and murmured, “I love you.”

His smile disappeared. “I know. You don’t have to—”

She closed his mouth with her hand.

“You have no idea how many times I have regretted not saying it to you.”

He removed her hand, stunned, and stared at her intensely with moist eyes. They went inside after a few minutes.

Sandhya was expecting dust and grime all over but the place looked neat and clean. The sofa, the TV, everything felt the same as before. She walked over to the bedroom and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was decorated with flowers all around. Her eyes unconsciously roamed around the room and she suddenly shook with unwanted memories. There was the window with the curtains, behind which she had frantically searched for the chili powder. Varun’s vengeful face appeared before her and she froze.

“Sandhya!” Akash shook her arm. She saw Akash before her and hugged him, hoping to ward off the bitter memories invading her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this place. We can go somewhere else.” She shook her head against his chest, broke from the embrace and walked around, noticing the enchanting rose and jasmine flowers scattered all around. She took a deep breath and enjoyed the mesmerizing fragrance.

“There could not be a better place than this. This is perfect.” She smiled at him and opened up her arms for him from a few feet away. He smiled and stood rooted to the spot. She raised her eyebrows.

“There should be some fruit and sweets in the fridge. And since we wanted today to be perfect, you should feed them to me slowly and shyly, like a proper devoted wife.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I see.” She arranged the different fruits on a platter and started pouring milk into a container.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Warming the milk.”

“But why?”

She gave a sigh and turned towards him with her hands folded. He looked at her in terror.

“No way, I am not going to drink milk.”

“Oh yes you are! Remember—everything has to be perfect.”

“No, no way. You know I hate milk.”

She ignored him, poured the milk into a glass and walked back to the bedroom.

Akash walked back helplessly and sat on the bed, biting his nails.

She then walked slowly towards him with her head bent down and her hands holding the platter of fruit and sweets and milk.

He stared at her. Oh my. She was looking just like they show in the movies…shy and beautiful. His heart pounded. She put the platter on the side table and handed over the glass to him. He looked at the glass, then at her and repeated that three times.

“Is there no way out?”

She shook her head in mock sadness. He took a deep breath and started gulping down the milk in one go. She snatched the glass away before he could finish it.

“You were supposed to leave half of it for me!”

“What? I drank so much milk?” he responded in disbelief.

She rolled her eyes.

“Let’s stop this perfection business,” he replied as he caught her arm and pulled her towards him.

“At least let me finish the milk.”

She had barely finished when his lips caught hers hungrily, causing the glass to drop from her hands.

She pushed him off and stood up.

“Now what?”

“Wait, I need to close this curtain fully.”

And then….

She closed the curtain. It’s fair that we leave them alone now…don’t you think?

The End

Acknowledgement

Here’s my thank you to all the people that made “The Independent Girl” possible.

Wattpad.  Perhaps this novel would never have seen the light if not for wattpad.

My father, who encouraged me to continue writing, despite the obstacles that I faced in my day to day life. My brother, Venkat, who helped me with the cover design.

Abdul Razzak, a.k.a Sam (@Dark_knight_love in wattpad), who first suggested that I should get this book published. His constant encouragement and interest to see this book published is phenomenal. Sam, I am so fortunate to have a fan and friend like you.

My friends, Swetha, Sudha, Lalitha, Rekha, Lavanya, Asha for their encouragement and guidance throughout the story.

All my wattpad friends, who have supported me and provided me the confidence that I can write including @shruthii, @shachi1298, @archie2525, @PureIntuition11,  @achu2911, @hobnails, @jimrileyenlight, @SumiSudheer, @RaviTejJupudi, @farhananazrin, @Love_Write

100_over_Twenty group for their valuable feedback on writing aspects.

nes075,  scarletoak who took the pains to work on the other covers of the Independent Girl.

Priyanka Yadvendu, author of the book, “Enchanted Silence”, for being my buddy in this new author role.

My editors Emily Nemchick and Elizabeth Redd, for doing an awesome job of pointing out the issues with my writing.

My husband and my daughters for enduring the time that I was away from them in order to write this.

***

[1] property given to a girl child during marriage

[2] A traditional indian outfit with a pant, a long top and an optional scarf.

[3] [_Aunt – used to refer to elder women affectionately, even if they are not related by blood.) _]

[4] _A sherwani is a traditional Indian costume for men. _

[5] Nick name for Amitabh Bachchan, famous Indian Actor

[6] A gesture to take blessings

[7][_ An indian traditional dress with a long flowing skirt that touches the ground._]

[8] Brother

About the Author

The Independent Girl is Sneha’s first novel. In real life, she is constantly juggling her roles as a wife, mother, an IT professional and a writer. She loves writing emotional