THE KIDNAPPING

The Kidnapping

Chapter 1

HYDRA TENTACLES

The moment you fight free a fresh tentacle captures you again

 

The black and silver Mercedes following my car was relentless. As if I was the blimp on its radar.

Paparazzi,” I fumed.

I do that a lot. I am not your modest, genteel, or retiring miss. I am given to extravagant gestures and pretty voluble on subjects I feel passionate about.

My book agent is rumored to have broadcasted on an alcohol induced high that I make her feel edgy with my hyperactivity. I guess she should know.

 

This newshawk wants his presence felt, I soliloquized. That was worrisome. It meant our mouse and cat game was spurred by something personal.

I am no Sherlock Holmes but as an author it is a matter of personal vanity to think my intuition is bang on.

If the newsmonger wanted to remain undetected he could have for he seemed to possess the skillset of an expert tracker. Either that or a tracking bug had been implanted on my car. I recalled reading somewhere that using GPS a cell phone could be located within a few feet…

He had been putting me through the paces for three hours now, maintaining the same distance more or less.

 

I tried every trick in my book to shake him off.

As a result of driving erratically through crowded Mumbai streets I was now traveling on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. I was hot and needless to say- cranky.

“Drat!”

I swore, swerving at the last minute to avoid ramming a fruit cart. It was a close shave. Aggravated, the vendor agitatedly threw a punch in the air at me. I winced glancing at the rear view mirror. The Merc driver was probably smirking at this evident display of nerves.

 

Earlier I tried slowing down to get a closer look. The car seemed to have a lone occupant at the wheel. He was wearing your average Joe baseball cap with its brim pulled low over his face and black shades to avoid recognition.

With my foot at the ready to gun the accelerator at the first sign of aggression I waited for him to bridge our gap. But he seemed content to play a waiting game.

Now, feeling frustrated, I was ready to roll the window down, put my head out and give him a shocking earful.

 

Frodo in Tolkien’s book The Lord of The Rings talks of the road as being only One Road. It is like a great river; its springs are at every doorstep and every path is its tributary.

He claims it is a dangerous business going out of your door.

You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.

 

I think no such fatalistic thoughts. On the road I tune in to songs on the FM radio and sing along. Not today.

I scowled at the man in my rearview mirror. Oh I knew what he wanted. What all gossipmongers wanted from me was a scandal.

However what they wanted and what they would get were entirely different things.

 

“You are going where?”

Sudhir, my elder brother, almost took my ear off.

“The farmhouse in Khandala. I have not been there in a while. Besides, the weather is so nice. I think I shall stay for the weekend.”

 

“What the- of all the asinine stunts you could pull- Don’t you know no security arrangements have been made for you there?

At such short notice mobilizing the force is no joking matter. Tomorrow’s headlines will read Spoilt Darling of the Deshmukh’s Leads Her Security a Fine Dance.

Heaven forbid if something happens-you get kidnapped- it will be another three ring circus. Instead of worrying whether you are dead or alive; tabloids will run financials of what it is costing the state machinery to find you.”

 

It was a blatant hit under the belt but I stayed silent reminding myself Sudhir was overworked coming close to elections. He was acting campaign head for my father who was in the reckoning for the chief ministerial post.

 

I guess I could have informed Sudhir about the tailgater. But my brother has this annoying tendency thanks to the Deshmukh in our genes to go off like a halfcocked revolver.

And I have a strong aversion to star as Breaking News.

Who should like to be accused of pulling publicity stunts just when her father is trying to win an election and an ex-husband is tying the knot for a second time?

 

“Are you sure you will be alright?”

Sudhir misunderstood. His voice softened with concern that he had hurt my feelings.

This is the difference between my elder and younger brother. My younger brother Mandar never walks on eggshells around me. Anytime he feels like, he goes for my jugular with no apologies.

“Hmm,” my attention was distracted. I checked the side mirror.

The Mercedes had followed me off the ramp.

 

“Talk to you later, bye.”

I disconnected the call tossing my phone on the passenger seat next to mine. It bounced and fell on the gray carpeted floor.

“Hell and damnation,” I expostulated thankful nobody was around to hear.

Jeez, I berated myself, get a grip girl or you will go all to pieces!

 

I reminded myself that entrance to the farmhouse road was gated with two armed guards on duty. I had a remote to open the gate in the car. It was housed on a stand superglued to the dash. In fact the remote sitting on the dash gave me this idea in the first place. There would be no reason for me to stop or get down from the car. Once I passed through wrought iron gates I was secure behind thick reinforced brick and concrete walls. State of the art surveillance and security systems guarded the house.

Only a fool would risk-

 

The Mercedes shot forward overtaking me.

“What the-” I was completely unprepared. My jaw dropped.

The driver rashly turned making a wide arc to block the road leaving me with two alternatives: either to stop or ram him in a direct collision.

Survival instinct kicked in. I hit the brakes. With a loud grating sound my car came to a halt its nose a whisker’s breadth from denting the gleaming black body of the newshound’s Merc. I smelt burnt rubber.

Thank God for ABS braking system, I recall thinking, my sense of the ridiculous evidently intact. My legs however were the consistency of jelly.

Tears poured down my cheeks unchecked.

 

My shadow dressed in dramatic black seized his opportunity emerging out of the car to run to mine and hurl open the driver door.

 

It was a quiet neighborhood. In the heat of the noon sun not a soul was to be seen. Green Ashoka trees interspersed with spreading yellow laburnums, orange Gulmohars and purple Jacarandas lined the avenue on both sides. Tall concrete boundary walls screened one’s vision providing privacy to wealthy homeowners that could well afford it.

 

“Veer- Virendra!” I gasped.

Virendra Rai or Veer, twenty one year old and technically speaking my ex-brother in law, was easy to recognize when face to face.

He pushed the cap and glasses off in a subconsciously telling shy gesture.

What on earthWhy are you following me?”

 

I unbuckled my seatbelt. Still unsteady I stepped out of the car propelled by nervous energy.

His melting brown eyes watched me with open concern.

People skills, I admonished myself quelling the urge to bite off his head.

To give my shaking hands something to do I bent to reach for tissues from the tissue box I kept handy in my car.

I blew my nose, emitting a sound as loud as a goose’s honk then dabbed at my cheeks, patting them dry.

For the life of me I could not think why he would of all people accost me thus. And after I was accosted why Veer was transformed from a dashing, dastardly man of action into a dwarpal– A stone figurine that stood guard outside temple doors?

 

I tried detailing the Stand and Deliver routine.

“You have been tailing me for three hours now,” I accused with biting emphasis.

His eyes widened though I was not sure why. Surely, he was not surprised I had noticed.

“So what do you want?”

I think I was snappish.

I heard the sound of another car coming up behind but ignored it.

Big mistake.

 

“This is a kidnapping.” Veer announced tersely his gaze fixed at some point above my right shoulder.

Reinforcements?

I turned my head to look at the newcomer on the scene.

Prithvi Singh!

“Prithvi and I will make it all right!”

My heart plummeted as I registered Veer’s words. My eyes narrowed.

Someone familiar with my turbulent history would imagine me to be immune.

‘It’s all in a day’s work for her,’ I can hear them say.

 

Heaven knew I had a surfeit of kidnappings.

If there was a quota or ration for this kind of thing I had bagged the lion’s share. Scores of women have never been captive while I got picked up every so often; it was like adding to a coin collection.

To top it all I was not even someone important!

 

Things got a little hazy as they do when I see red. If I had not been outnumbered by the backup-

“Not someone important,” Veer grunted as he tested my wrists, “who do you think you are kidding?”

“First in my experience,” agreed a second man tying yet another knot to the gag on my face as if worried I would claw it off somehow with my superhuman strength, “a humble woman!”

“Yeech,” the third exclaimed staunching the blood from his nose on a handkerchief and it gave me tremendous satisfaction. “You socked me…”

“What did you expect from Matey: dimpling smiles and a sweet thank you?” Prithvi’s laconic drawl echoed my thoughts.

 

Virendra at the threshold of a promising career in larceny or Formula One Racing if his steady nerves were any indicator in our recent encounter turned to smile reassuringly from the front passenger seat.

Let his big brother box his ears: I was taking the higher road. Figuratively as well as literally for the cavalcade of cars were back on the highway again.

I took a deep breath to compose panicky nerves.

 

A sense of impending doom is always bad news for the weak lining of my stomach. Anyone who has traveled the hot, dusty Indian Highway will tell you lack of hygienic public bathrooms for women and diarrhea are not a pleasant mix.

A forward thinking nation that has no qualms electing a woman President or Prime Minister strangely zips its purse closed at budgeting clean toilet facilities to women who are a significant forty nine percent of its population.

 

Prithvi at my right doing too little too late tried to make amends by untying the gag. To think I had once saved this ingrate’s life and look how he repaid.

For all my imaginings and I am a pretty creative thinker, this one direction my thoughts had never taken.

“How can you abduct me?” I hissed at Prithvi.

“You think I was given a choice?” Prithvi hissed back.

“You should have informed his mother.”

I rolled my eyes. Trust men to make the simplest things complicated.

“And who do you think is encouraging Veer in the first place?” Prithvi demanded.

 

I gaped stupefied. My ex’s battleax of a mom was rooting for me?

“But-she-hates-no-loathes-me.”

“She-loathes-the-other-one-more.” Virendra riposted in the manner of one who believed he had said something really clever.

Of course Tanisha Rai would always detest the woman that married Virata.

It made perfect sense psychologically speaking.

The new daughter-in-law would be perceived as launching a takeover bid on the Most Favored Son.

 

“Say what you will; I am engineering this meeting for both your sakes.”

Prithvi defended his position bending to untie my ankles.

I scoffed at his warped idea of engineering.

Something in my internal wiring prevented me from kicking him though I wanted to. I might as well come clean and admit I am one of those sappy sponges who will suck in any swill.

All my life Aai, my mother, has strongly cautioned me to check this compulsion to play the good gal in a story.

 

“I thought-,” Prithvi started to defend himself then cut off the sentence shaking his head as the car turned into a bumpy road. A grim expression on his face he continued. “Never mind what I thought. Obviously I am mistaken.”

My hands were literally tied or I would have slapped the man silly with his penchant for understatements. He could have used his time better penning etiquette books for socially inept dummies.

Sure enough as soon as the car lurched to a stop Prithvi bounded out to hold the car door open for me. As if I was handing extra credits out for gallantry.

 

The car stopped at a private airstrip.

A plane in white and blue provided a large clue as to what my next mode of transport was to be.

“When I get out you watch your back,” was my verdict once I could get my lower jaw to snap back in place.

 

“We are taking you to our ancestral home in Bihar. I don’t think you have ever been there.” Virendra volunteered this information. With a bound and a leap he boarded and headed for the cockpit to confer with the pilot.

Prithvi helped me board. No wonder he had untied my legs. The maneuver was tricky enough with my hands still tied.

“Why Bihar? Why not a destination wedding at some exotic locale? That’s the in-thing these days. The Annual Report of the company said record breaking profits-”

“Is that what you’d like?”

As if my preference mattered. I ignored Prithvi’s question making a pretense of looking about.

“Where’s Babita?” The Air Hostess was conspicuous by her absence. “Should I assume no refreshments are to be served on this flight?”

“Are you hungry?”

The last square meal I had eaten was breakfast and that was a glass of milk at six in the morning. I had been that eager to run to ground.

Only look at how things panned out. I was to be dropped like a wrecking ball in the middle of the festive occasion and well on my way to smashing it.

 

“Make no mistake I am naming you accessory to this crime when I file charges.”

Prithvi was annoyed, “someday remember to thank me you ungrateful wretch.”

“You Want Thanks?” I fumed. My hands fisted in futile rage. “Do you have any idea how I will feel to see Virata looming over my head?”

“How do you know we are taking you to meet Virata and not Rajveer?” Prithvi asked bestowing a penetrating look and my gaze darted away self-conscious.

 

Call me cynic but I could not help labeling myself Curse that returned to haunt.

I am an author, and know well this little proclivity editors have. They want one to start from the start and end at the finish. No flashbacks to mess up the reader’s comprehension. But life is rarely that.

My past was resurrected. I would have to roll with the punches.

 

Chapter 2

SNAKES AND LADDERS

With the end in sight of a game the longest snake latches its fangs on your piece. While opponents are merrily climbing the tallest ladders!

 

Oh God deliver me from the do-gooders!

That should have been my prayer. Right after the one about steering clear of all emotionally challenged men like my Ex.

 

The Haveli built along the lines of a palace was a living fossil of the times when Zamindars reigned overlords in Bihar. Marble maidens with exaggerated bust and booty sizes frolicked in water fountains. More arched windows and domed roves than any eyesore I had seen outside of movies.

The landscaped gardens dotted with colorful sun umbrellas and the gigantic swimming pool feature with water slides in eye catching colors made my eyes light up. Please, pretty please… my inner child begged gleefully for a swimsuit and unlimited pool access.

This place could have easily passed for a five star holiday resort with no demands from the authorities to inspect its papers.

Instead they would have saluted and fawned over it as nauseatingly as the durban who ushered us into its stately interiors.

Had nobody bothered to inform the man we were well into the sixty fifth year of independence?

 

Inside the house the light was dim and it took me time to adjust.

The house was cooler at the least by five degrees a welcome relief from the tropical grill roasting the earth outside. It smelled invitingly fresh and airy.

The click of boot heels when they struck the stone floor echoed. Only my footfalls clad in sneakers were muted as if wanting to be inconspicuous.

 

“Virata is here,” Virendra announced. “Should we surprise him?”

My heart stopped.

“Veer, you might want to consider breaking um this news gently to your brother.” Prithvi was at his most tactful. “These um delicate matters of the heart ahem require uh precise timing.”

And resumed beating.

Prithvi opened a door striking a pose awaiting us to precede him.

 

Even seated on a dainty green sofa edged with gilt Rajveer Singh my ex-husband’s stepbrother made quite an impression with a gory scar running down the side of his right cheek. Hooded eyes, hollowed cheeks, aquiline nose and a stubborn cleft jaw composed a face that horrifyingly compelled one’s eyes to stare transfixed.

Gray eyes studied me warily. He arose.

 

“Maithili! Don’t tell me. Let me guess,” he begged making me frown.

Don’t tell him what?

“You have lost weight because you are making a documentary to raise awareness on the medical condition called anorexia.”

“Raj Bhaiya this is what happens when you skim through headline news and don’t read the rest of the newspaper carefully. You have missed her article on The Malnourished Indian Woman.”

 

I was surprised Veer had read it and whether I wanted to or not I melted.

Though only a business duffer like me could have bagged this bargain offer from the Man Upstairs to buy two brothers and get these two ex-brothers-in-laws for free.

 

“Veer a word of advice- stay away from the activist type of woman- she is the most dangerous of her species.” Rajveer cautioned.

I sneered to let Rajveer know he was persona non grata. He and I might have bonded over our mutual hatred for my ex but that was eons ago.

 

“This joke ends right now or I guarantee I will keep you bound in litigation for the rest of your natural lives.”

“Oh dear! Are you in- what is it called- a snit?” Rajveer chided. “How on earth did you recognize her Prithvi?”

I eyed myself critical. I had not lost that much weight. To hear him tell one would think I had been fading away.

“Oh I tallied the nail marks on men she scratched, tooth marks on the man whose arm she bit,” Prithvi replied eyes twinkling.

“You are the only woman in my acquaintance who gets these unusual ideas. Do you know this makes you downright unpopular?” Rajveer chided.

“While on the subject of my unpopularity I can confidently wager the last person Mr. Virata Rai wants to see in this world is me.” I glared baleful lips thinning.

 

Veer started at that blunt statement.

I ignored him. If he had his head buried in the sand that was his outlook but a divorce made the lie of the land abundantly clear to a reviled ex-wife.

Virata was marrying Aadrika Diwan. It was being marketed as The Celebrity Event of the Decade.

The Indian edition of Vogue had just published mind blowing pictures of the bride-to-be in couture designed by the top ten designers of the country.

I had not seen the wedding invite but I would think the card had Virendra’s name in its RSVP section.

How much more factual had it got to get?

And my family thought I had issues dealing with realities.

 

“I have to refuse on matter of principle.” Rajveer replied. “No matter how lucrative this offer there is something called loyalty.”

I was not fooled. A profit raking mogul like Rajveer did not invest in losing propositions.

The name of the Goddess at whose altar he worshipped was Sri Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Terms like Principal, Compound Interest, Investment and Return on Investment liberally peppered his limited vocabulary.

So far as I could tell things were working well.

 

Rajveer took charge summarily. “Alright gentlemen I will look after our guest while you update Virata on this new development.”

Prithvi and a subdued Virendra promptly arose to leave.

“Watch your backs gentlemen and keep tabs on all weapons in your possession. You never know when what you own might be used against you.”

 

“Damn but I have missed your brand of dark humor.” Rajveer chuckled indulgent.

I would not have confessed it for the three worlds but I had missed him too. Melancholic money shark and I adored Mr. Scrooge despite such obvious flaws. I swallowed the lump in my throat.

 

He regarded me thoughtfully. “Are you going to meet him looking like something the cat dragged in?”

“I didn’t ask to be dragged in.” I thought that bit apparent.

He shrugged dismissive. “Queen Sheba thought it important and the rest as they say is history. Cleopatra had Marc Anthony on bent knees begging for mercy…”

And your point is?”

“I thought you would like a visual of Virata begging on bent knees but I am just a man. What do I know of these things?”

 

“I can’t believe I am letting you talk me into this,” I muttered under my breath as I followed Rajveer down labyrinthine stone corridors.

Without a map and with my sense of direction I had no hopes of getting out on my own. If only they had not confiscated my smartphone with its inbuilt GPS feature- a gift from my paranoid father.

 

“Does this place have- like- its own pin code?”

Rajveer grinned hearing me grumble. “Aadrika, Virata’s fiancée, was Miss India and Miss Universe. I hope you are not feeling insecure or threatened?”

Who was he kidding?

He knew I was a woman and hence bequeathed with my chromosomes a tendency to drown in my own insecurities. I did not need anyone to ax my own tree. It was the one thing I was quite capable of doing and actually brilliant at on my own.

 

He flung open double doors.

I followed him to a lavishly appointed sunshiny yellow and gold bedroom. A vaulted ceiling seemed to be flying away.

The color palette of the room fired it to muted gold in the sunshine filtering through gauzy curtains spanning from floor to ceiling.

A canopied four poster bed dominated center stage. The seating area consisted of sofas and high back chairs in soft creamy leather. Through the French windows I could see a stone balcony and possibly steps lead down from there to the manicured gardens one rarely saw outside of the pages of Parks and Gardens.

To think I had once been mistress of this.

Thankfully I had not known. God in his infinite wisdom never distributed combs to the bald or I would not have a righteous leg to stand on.

Elizabeth had felt thus at first sighting Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley.

We women are pretty shallow creatures impressed by lurid displays of power and wealth.

 

“In through there you will find a bathroom and closetful of clothes,” Rajveer waved airily.

I was lagging a paragraph behind him still trying to take it all in. “Double doors for a bedroom?”

“Wasteful huh? Does it help overcome your aversion if I inform you we are the largest employer in the state?”

“Just show me the way out!”

“The biggest donor?”

I turned only to have him grab me by the arm and swivel me about.

“You are not going to break my mother’s heart. She handpicked those clothes for you. Come on, just this once, be nice.” He coaxed.

 

Psychics claim in the instant you learn to die for love you master the art of living. Let me tell you those fatheads know nothing.

I touched my wet cheeks surprised.

But to hear Rajveer at last acknowledge his mother so naturally, so easily I was left trying to swallow the hard lump in my throat.

 

The bedroom door shut behind Rajveer. The man moved with a speed and grace I would give my right arm for.

“You are not going to lock me in,” I banged the door certain on that one point and I did not care who heard me shout.

“I will never forgive you,” I threatened. Even to my own ears I sounded about as menacing as a declawed kitten.

“Maithili,” Rajveer drawled, implacable as always, “you are breaking my heart.”

“You do not have one,” I muttered.

 

Damn, to borrow Rajveer’s favorite word, I wanted just one go at the architect who lured with inviting windows that did not deliver on their promise to open.

Finally resigning to my fate or rather the fate my abductors had in mind for me I decided to fall in with the plan Rajveer had outlined.

 

In our fractious past I had always worked with Virata in a contentious atmosphere. Maybe if I stroked him the right way…

I had to close my eyes tight to block out the mental visual that promptly followed on cue. Poets describe love as spiritual and here ever so often I had to drag mine out of the gutter.

 

The walk-in closet made my girlie mouth water.

My ex mother-in-law might never miss an opportunity to thumb her nose at me.

But when she pulled out the stops she really went the extra mile. I stared awed at the trousseau she had assembled.

On second thoughts I hesitated before stamping her with my wholehearted approval.

For whom did you see wearing heavily embroidered lehengas on the street?

Or jewel encrusted sarees?

Or stilettoes?

Or toting designer bags that could have done double duty as diaper bags?

 

As I saw it there was nothing in there I could wear which would not make me feel like I was participating in a fancy dress competition or walking the ramp for a fashion designer.

This would be right up Aadrika’s street; an ugly thought raised its head.

I should confess I had made it an academic pursuit to study everything about Aadrika on the public domain. This is how ijealous is wired.

“If you can’t beat them, join them,” I murmured pulling out a black and gold lehenga choli. It beat other contenders hollow. The blouse actually covered me from chest to midriff even if it did leave the back bare.

 

The bathroom was the size of a two bedroom flat in Mumbai, maybe larger.

It was all in marble.

There was a Jacuzzi with control panels that looked out of a sci-fi movie.

The shower area cordoned off by a transparent glass wall simulated the look of a waterfall. Double vanities His and Hers decorated with ornate light fixtures and backlit accented mirrors. White, fluffy towels monogrammed with Virata’s initials in gold thread. I did not miss either the flat screen TV or the electric fireplace with a couch invitingly positioned just before it.

 

The door flew open banged on the wall and the resounding boom I daresay awoke all the resident ghosts.

I spun about under the waterfall shower with a terrified yelp a hand on my heart subconsciously affecting terrified virgin meets the rapacious lord of the manor pose. It was too much to hope that he was not looking my way.

 

With a scream of genuine outrage and sheer horror to have all my bodily insecurities exposed I lunged for a towel.

My foot skidded. I flew backwards my hands futilely clutching the fluffy, white thingie. If I was lucky I was going to hit the back of my head and go into a coma…

 

I am positive he took a flying leap. His body smacked in mine mid-air. Now I would die twice as faster.

“Ouf!”

I landed on the wet floor on my back and cushioned his fall. So heavy was the impact we did not skid an inch on the soapy, slippery floor.

 

We were plastered head to toe with the towel and my hands sandwiched in between. I could feel the erratic thumping of my heart against the fist of a hand.

Gradually I became aware that my sorry neck was not broken.

Virata’s right hand with fingers splayed was fastened about my head and neck an effective shield with the elbow digging in my back. The left slapped against my bare bottom held my lower body pressed against his.

 

I opened my eyes.

His gray eyes were fixed on the hand trapped under my head. He wants to avoid eye contact, I thought.

Levering himself to his left he lifted his torso apparently in an effort to arise.

His open mouth blew a draught of cool breath on my face.

I am at a loss to explain how that could be a turn on but for me it was. This once there was no fear I was going to babble and give him an easy walkover.

I was breathing all wrong and my vocal chords were choking me.

 

A lock of black hair fell on Virata’s forehead. His patrician nostrils flared with each inhale and exhale. He breathed in my face harshly fighting for control over self, caging me within the circle of his arms. His chiseled mouth was closeted by deep lines of stress. The stubborn jaw was tightly clenched. The jut of his jaw was achingly familiar.

I felt his fingers slowly unclench. The mad save had cost him. He pulled his hand free wincing and shaking his fingers experimentally to see if they still worked.

“Damn,” the oath was a painful hiss. I saw his forehead furrow.

 

Now right through there… You newlyweds are going to adore the bathroom or I will eat my hat.”

The smug, cloying way the man’s tongue rolled out the syllables pierced through the fog.

I reflexively clutched fistfuls of Virata’s jacket lapels. It was some soft blue gray material.

Our gazes collided.

“Don’t you dare move,” I hissed horrified.

 

Gray eyes dripped icicles. If Rajveer was not such a tightwad I could have been raking in the green.

The sort of man he was Virata Rai did not take kindly to commands. He arched an elegant eyebrow eloquent even in his silence. He tilted such that his knee braced on the floor intending to arise leaving me to give a floor show to floor them all!

 

A girl giggled. If they find their way out of that garangutan bed, that is.”

Yeah where did you buy it Bhanu,” another asked,“Was some sultan holding a garage sale?

I could have apologized. I would have apologized but the obtuse man made me so spitting mad I clutched him about his waist and yanked down with all my might.

His eyes told me he was not amused. He slapped both hands on the bathroom floor palms down determined to expose me or die trying.

 

You naughty girls! Aadrika your friends keep teasing me-”

Pay no attention Bhanu they are jealous of your exquisite taste.”

Some womanly intuition spurred. I did not question its warped logic.

I reared up and kissed him smack on the mouth. It was a surprise tactic to disarm. There was no finesse to it, no art I could boast of.

 

And Ta-da!”

I had kissed Virata before and been at the receiving end of his critical review. Then he had accused me of trying to hit and run.

He nipped at my bottom lip. Not to draw blood but a painful reprimand to teach a lesson about who was in control here.

 

I was the person wronged.

It was my life that his meddlesome family had spun out of control.

My instinct was to bite him back harder but I hesitated at the feel of his soft lip between my sharp teeth. The cool sweet taste of his mint and male flavor against my tongue threw me off kilter.

My fingers digging in his scalp tensed reluctant to release him from their hold. He was not going anywhere. His mouth opened over mine forcing me to grant access to an openmouthed kiss. I had aroused the fiercely competitive warrior with a compulsive need to win.

 

I moved my mouth in counterpoint to his lost in the incredible tugging pleasure of his tongue seeking mine.

Oh-My-God-AadrikaDarling!”

It was as if someone poured a bucket of cold water over my head.

I opened my eyes startled.

The shower was still trickling. It had not shut completely. And the fog I mentioned before?

Well it was the steam condensing around us on the transparent glass walls.

 

Apparently we could still be seen and to the innocent bystander it was plain as the nose on her face that her fiancé was going at it cats and dogs with another woman christening the bathroom so to speak before she even got a chance to use it.

 

I released Virata’s neck from my death grip and deliberately hit the back of my head to the stone floor to knock some sense into it.

“Bhanu-Get-The-Hell-Out-Of-Here.” Virata did not turn his head to command in a menacing tone of voice. His laser like eyes were boring twin holes in mine.

His was the anger of the righteous who had been ill used and sterner men than

Bhanu whoever he was would have jumped to attend.

 

I saw the party trail out even a dazed dragging her feet Aadrika. I think it was her. The glass walls made it hazy to see her delicate featured face but her fine figure was singular.

Such women gave dignity another level of elevation.

Had it been me and had it been my man I would not have been intimidated by anything.

I would have gone at him hammer and tongs and when the dust settled he would have known he had been in a fight.

 

Virata waited head turned for the sound of their footsteps to fade away.

I? I could have died from the ignominy of my position.

Finally he turned to look my way.

Each feature on his face had sharpened and turned a swarthy shade of red. I wanted to squirm under his hooded glare.

“Don’t-You-Dare-Move.”

 

“Of course it’s polite when you say it.” I grumbled.

Sometimes I doubt my own sanity.

Ravana had the same problem, the guy who carted away Goddess Sita in the Ramayana. He should have laid arms and surrendered at the first chance offered. How much proof does one person need that all the odds are stacked against him?

 

At this point Virata should have unleashed a weapon range of the caliber of the Vajra, Lord Indra’s thunderbolt. I had been deliberately provocative.

I waited for a tongue lashing- that never came.

 

Belated it struck to investigate what had his undivided attention.

“Eek!” I think I screamed. “You- you Pervert!”

I pushed him off me to retrieve the towel now soaking wet and tuck it under my arms half sitting up but did not dare arise. My traitorous legs felt incapable of supporting any body weight.

 

Pervert?” He took umbrage at my choice of epithet. He arose to his daunting height of six feet two.

No knocking knees to contend with on his part: life was so unfair.

 

“You were looking!” I could feel my cheeks on fire.

“So?”

Just that one word and spoken in an imperious tone.

If he were my size I would have clobbered him.

“How dare-?” Even as the words slipped past my lips I flinched knowing the whole thing was going to blow in my face.

 

Lucky for me there were no assassins on his payroll.

“You are such an aggravating woman.” He denounced over my head reaching for the shower and turning it off.

“You drive me crazy wanting to…” He raised his hands and fisted them as if fighting for control, “… like prickly heat under my skin.

The prickly heat was accompanied by a hiss and clenched teeth action.

A trickling background sound of water quieted and then an ominous silence filled the bathroom.

He suddenly slapped the wall hard, spun around and came at me. He bent to loom over my face in so fine a rage such that I cowered.

“I would be a pervert if I forced you. And I never!”

He let that sink in.

 

“Pshaw!” He gave a disgusted exclamation rising up.

“So I saw you naked. What do you expect me to do? Pretend to be blind so as not to outrage your “overrated modesty”?”

He asked turning as he stalked to the bathroom door making elaborate quotation marks with his hands for emphasis.

I willed for the drain to open up and suck me in.

“Besides you have nothing exceptional I have not seen before. But yeah the women before- they had class!”

 

He slammed the shower door shut having hurled that illuminating home truth to my face.

The sound of water squelching from his black patent leather handmade designer shoes and a trail of water puddles followed him.

Team Virata 2

Home Team 0

That was how the score board looked to me.

 

Chapter 3

BUTTING GOATS

The troll alone understands. Those goats could have chosen another meadow, crossed a different bridge but that would mean a different storyA wise troll and three non-confrontational goats.

 

If they thought I was sticking around after that mean man had done his number on me…

It would serve Mr. Virata Rai right if Aadrika Diwan broke their engagement.

After all it was so not my doing.

 

Though my antennae should have quivered the moment I heard Rajveer acknowledge his estranged Mother.

Actually I should have been on high alert after Prithvi confessed the Wicked Witch of the West no East was instigating this kidnapping.

Instead I buckled to sentimental feelings and ended in the bridal suite.

I wanted to kick myself for not realizing the clothes were part of Aadrika’s wedding trousseau.

The kick hurt and my eyes watered.

 

No wonder Virata had stormed in half out of his mind with rage.

Something there did not feel right but I was in no condition to work out all the kinks in my theory.

Yikes had I used the word kinks?

No, I was not thinking of that. I would not torture myself with mental images of his wet torso.

I touched my lips with the pad of my thumb.

Was it my imagination or were they swollen from his kisses?

My fantasies had become increasingly sexually explicit ever since the green monster of envy had reared its ugly head in my chest.

The same chest he had ogled before pronouncing it déclassé. Grr!

I slapped my cheek to get my attention back on the subject at hand.

 

Tanisha Rai knew Virata and I were a volatile mix.

Even if we had not kissed we could not have explained to Aadrika with any degree of coherence how we ended together in the honeymoon suite.

Especially if Virata had his hands around my neck and was trying to strangle me.

Aadrika was far more likely to have concluded her betrothed was a pervert who got his jollies by beating women into submission than believing his innocence.

 

I paused to bang my head on a helpful wall. I was going to erase every memory…

I scrubbed my lips hard with the back of a fisted palm.

Classless, my foot!

The way he- alright Control, Alt, Delete.

 

Well, coming back to the res, Tanisha knew words would be exchanged and I would stage a walk out as would the new challenger for the title of Mrs. Rai.

Tanisha would reign over her empire victorious without having fired a single salvo from her gun.

Virata would always blame me.

Aadrika’s heart would probably be shattered as her trust in men.

The operative question was- am I going to let Tanisha win?

 

I had kissed Virata!

Alright the hot tongue tackle could not be all me. But there was no escaping the fact I had attacked him sexually knowing well that his fiancée was present amongst the audience.

Mitigating circumstances did not absolve me of culpability!

Why should Virata not have his happily ever after just because I never would?

 

“Miss, the car keys you requested,” a durban proffered them most respectfully on a silver platter.

I had done no such thing. I had walked in and demanded as I imagined all those classy women…

Darn I had to stop kicking myself.

The man was watching me warily.

“Thank you,” I muttered dropping the class act.

 

A slight hint of a smile appeared in the dense forest growing on his face. I don’t know why all these manly men have to grow beards.

Virata had one when I saw him first.

Mandar who is in the Navy insists on growing the fungus every time he is offshore.

I pocketed the keys.

“Please could you tell me where to find Miss Aadrika Diwan?”

 

Another set of double doors. The durban stood aside with a small bow.

I walked in and he shut the doors behind me. It was some sort of home office. Elegantly appointed yes but no Aadrika Diwan accounted among those present.

I turned to leave and to my surprise found I was locked in.

 

My stomach was beginning to cramp with hunger pains when Virata entered the room an hour later. Contradictorily, the bane of my life did not even glance in my direction. It was deceptive. He was probably waiting for me to make a fool of myself so he could humiliate me all over again.

He knew all about power plays. Hell, he was the grandmaster of power plays. Legends buzzed about boardrooms and offices of how he bullied corporate powerhouses and sent them crying to momma.

Why one time I was sitting outside his office and he refused to acknowledge my existence. It was as if I had turned into a transparent, gelatinous, spineless glob and he could not see me nor hear me.

 

Maybe editors are right to insist we authors keep flashbacks out of the story. Remembered pain makes for messy emotions and then how is one expected to keep a narrative clean?

My stomach churned in an acid wash.

 

He walked up to the desk and began to rifle through papers. Evening sun from the west windows fawned over him wrapping him in a loving golden glow. His face in profile seemed set, forbidding, and stern.

He was wearing a biscuit color tee open at the collar, khakis and brown loafers.

His hair had dried. Not like mine straggly, tangled at the ends and still damp from the shower.

He was one of those blessed few who appear effortlessly elegant no matter where you see them. Possibly not even after a torrid bout of lovemaking…

 

An uncanny silence filled the spaces around and between us.

My stomach grumbled.

There was something about the way Virata stood with his legs planted firmly apart, arms akimbo staring at me that made me decidedly nervous.

“I am hungry.” I muttered.

He sighed turned and picking up his phone from the desk began dialing a number.

 

Overhearing his conversation I realized he had called the kitchen and was placing a meal order for me. Why live in a house, I wondered cynical? A five star hotel could have attended their needs better.

“I want my tea brewed with tulsi and ginger. Sugar on the side,” I inserted just so he remembered who he was dealing with.

He considered a long minute then nodded before passing the instructions along. I have no proof but I suspect he did it just to annoy.

 

“Anything else?” Sarcasm would be his byline if he ever wrote blogs.

“I think your mother wanted to break your engagement.

Veer believes she loathes your current choice even more than me and how she feels about me we hardly need to recap.”

‘Like mother, like son,’ the quaint thought flashed in my head in neon lights.

“She told Rajveer she was readying that room for me and that she had handpicked those clothes for me but none fit…”

“That’s because you have lost what- Twenty pounds?”

I ignored his jibe. If we kept at it I would be there all night long and still going nowhere.

“Aadrika’s presence was planned. So she would see us and…”

“Are you implying my mother has developed an ability to foretell the future?”

“No-”

“Or you had earlier relayed a broadcast declaring your intention to kiss me?”

Why was it so hard to talk to the man? He was deliberately poking holes in my theory. At least he could have the grace to hear me out.

 

“It takes two,” I retorted stung by his waspish attitude.

Hey, I had been there.

His personal tastes might run to Ms. Classy Catwalk, his body was into me.

 

“We have a volatile chemistry. All she needed was getting us together. The rest uh hmm we were going to do on our own and we-” my vocal chords pulled seeing the smoldering embers in his eyes.

When he looked at me like that I could have sold my soul to the devil just to know the thoughts running through his mind.
Kissed?” he filled in the blank silkily.

“Yes-that.” I choked. Oh God were my cheeks on fire?

 

A bell rang. I jumped startled.

“That’s your late lunch or high tea depending on how you want to look at it.”

Virata strode past to get the door. I caught a whiff of his cologne.

“Thank you,” he smiled with warm courtesy at the uniformed man with the food trolley. “I will get it,” he offered.

The man let go straightening and glanced in my direction evidently curious. He gave a bashful grin then turned to leave.

 

Virata glanced up caught my answering smile and shook his head.

“What?” I was curious.

“Sit down,” he ordered ignoring my question.

My stomach grumbled at the heavenly aroma making its presence felt. I sat down hurriedly on a chair in the seating area that featured cream overstuffed leather chairs flanking long sofas.

Virata wheeled the trolley in front of me. Unexpectedly, he bent picking a napkin roll from the cart and spread it open.

He placed it on my lap with a flourish and I hastily leant back.

Opening the covers he inspected the food he had ordered and when satisfied reached for serving spoons to ladle portions on a plate.

With the air of an indulgent father figure he placed the plate on my lap. It brought back tender memories of him feeding me when I was hospitalized.

He had been so patient with me then, worrying over me like a mother hen. It was not his fault I mistook feelings of guilt to mean something else.

 

“Fork?”

“Thanks,” I had difficulty articulating.

No snarky comment followed when he handed me a fork.

“Eat. The chicken comes highly recommended.” he commanded with a genuine smile that crinkled at the corners of silver eyes.

Hadn’t someone cautioned him to be careful how he used that weapon?

 

I took a delicate bite. The chicken preparation was mouthwateringly delicious.

He was watching. Self-conscious I dabbed at my lips with a paper napkin.

Swallowing took effort. I reached for a glass of water.

“Aren’t you eating?”

 

He considered my question for a minute then nodded as if coming to a decision. He bent to reach for another plate.

We ate in silence broken only by the sounds of silver on china.

We were both hungry.

Though I felt his gaze alight on me from time to time I avoided eye contact.

 

“This must be the first meal we have shared- just the two of us.” He observed out of the blue.

“Yes.” I was surprised. Weren’t men supposed to oblivious? It was we women who were supposed to keep tabs on stuff. Our first meeting, our first kiss…

“What’s the matter?” He asked concerned.

“What?” I looked at him surprised.

“You groaned.”

I could have lied. “The food is so good!” Alright I lied. Like that was a newsflash.

 

“We should do this more often,” he determined.

“I am game. Call me when you get back from your honeymoon.”

He chuckled. “You sound upset.”

“I am not.” I snapped back at the insensitive jerk.

He speared a pear slice on a fork extending it towards me. “Peace offering.”

It cost me. Nevertheless I reached a hand for the fork.

He kept a hold on his end. I tried to tug but he held on.

The cool gaze that met mine challenged.

I forced myself to take a delicate bite. Something had to give between us. The way we were tearing chunks off each other was just sad.

Without breaking eye contact he ate the half still on the fork. Emotion charged the air between us.

My hand shook when I reached for the glass of water.

 

“I thought you couldn’t wait to see the last of me. So why did you decide to return?”

Ouch, that hurt.

“You knew I was leaving?” I had to ask. Self-flagellation is the key to staying humble.

“I sent you my car keys.”

He sent his car keys?

It was a trade offer that made sense considering my presence in his house had triggered a series of unfortunate events.

 

“CCTV.” He explained misunderstanding my silence.

Why had I not noticed the cameras?

Because I was so freaking upset and could hold a single sane thought in my head at the time- to get away- as fast and as far away as I could.

 

He grinned. “You are like a female version of the Chaplin fellow. When you tried to kick yourself it was just too darn cute!”

I felt a nerve begin to pulse in my head. “I returned so I could meet Aadrika.”

“How do you think your meeting Aadri is going to help?”

It stung. He had a nickname for her that sounded so perfect. I had always been and still was just Maithili.

 

“At least she will be able to see past the cute Chaplin act and focus on what I have to say.”

“She won’t believe a word. Mum adores Aadri.”

I stood up forgetting the plate on my lap.

A pathetic mess of chicken bones, rice and curry and thankfully an unbroken plate at my feet almost made me want to cry. He wiped his lips with a napkin and placed his plate on the bottom rack of the food trolley.

“Don’t worry! I will ring for a maid.”

“I-clean-up-my-own-mess,” I bit out through tightly clenched teeth.

He shrugged. “Have it your way.”

 

“Is there my way? I thought it was just your way or the highway.”

“Now you are spoiling for a fight.” He observed as if talking to a petulant child.

“And of course, you aren’t? Did I miss the red carpet you rolled out for me?”

I placed the plate with the food droppings I had collected on the trolley.

 

“I never said I am blameless.”

I had reached to pick up the napkin to wipe my hands but that stopped me in my tracks.

“On reflection I admit the way events unrolled was not creditable to either party. We should have talked. But it was too raw and I had not time to sift through data to substantiate my claim…”

I sighed. What was the use? I was right to write him off as a lost cause.

“If Miss Diwan will not believe me then I am wasting time here. Expect your car keys in the mail.”

I dropped the used napkin on top of my plate.

 

“I am not through talking.”

“Virata the world and its wife, excepting your demented family and Prithvi know we are completely through. No, Prithvi knows but he is being blackmailed by Veer. You know y’all should do something about him. Kid with his heart in the right place but misguided.

Like I was saying before, we were through the day you filed for divorce.”

 

He jumped to his feet. “You could have stopped it with just one phone call.” An index finger waved at my face.

He made it sound like I was the one at fault.

“Why bother hashing the past?” I asked bitter.

“I am willing to apologize,” he offered baldly.

 

The wordplay was not lost on me. He was willing to apologize and be the bigger person. Besides he was willing did not mean he actually apologized.

What did he expect me to do? Keel under such overwhelming display of magnanimity?

“You were completely outside my experience. Why can’t you make allowances for differences in our upbringing and thinking?”

 

“Alright- So you want to apologize? Great! Apology accepted. Now can I leave?”

“Well that’s a great burden off my mind. Would you like to know what you have accepted my apology for?” He taunted with that right back at you attitude.

“No. Not really. I am going to think of it like a blanket policy. It covers everything. So no more worries. Have a great life.” I said with a patently false smile.

“I am glad you are being so mature about this.” His smile was faked as mine.

“And classy? Let’s not forget classy.” I should cut off my runaway tongue.

 

His eyes flashed.

“Hey,” his throat worked, “I am in no danger of forgetting that anytime soon.”

His gaze lingered at my pruny chest.

It was another attempt to befuddle. If I had a penny for each time he pulled a fast one using my naiveté to his advantage- unless he had X ray vision there was no way he could see through the tee.

Earlier when I was his wife such moments confused the hell out of me. Somehow we could never fight and get it out of our system.

I recall the first time I got disoriented.

I stepped accidentally on his polished black Italian leather handmade shoes and his cool, fresh breath blew on my face. That gun metal gaze quickened to gleaming silver. For the tiniest fraction of a second his single minded focus was my lips and I had the weirdest impression he was thinking of kissing.

We had since kissed and look how that turned out.

 

He stepped back and glanced pointedly at his watch. “If you are planning to leave now would be a good time.”

I slammed the doors on my way out or tried to but with double doors you have to get the timing right.

My grand exit was ruined by sock clad feet. Face flaming I ducked back.

 

I saw he had made himself comfortable on the chair beside the tea trolley and was pouring himself a cup of tea as if doing a Gentleman at Leisure feature for some clothing line or tea company.

Hearing the door open he glanced at me and quirked an eyebrow. “Changed your mind or, do you need a map?”

 

“Hmm!” He sipped appreciative while I bent to fish my shoes from under the chair. With the cup he saluted me. “Great taste in tea. I confess I was a bit skeptical. Oh one more thing-”

I looked his way as I slid my feet into the shoes bracing a hand against the chair.

“Just request the guards to check with Veer if they try to detain you. Your TRP rating on our CCTV cameras is the highest. My personal favorite I have shared, then there’s the one where you bang your head on the wall. Some of those fellows might be actually sorry to see you go.”

“Don’t worry. I will do my best to provide them fresh material before I leave. I know good help is hard for despots to find.”

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