Chapter 10

Random images flashed in front of him like those from a magic lantern. Smiling, giggling images of her pleasingly haunted his memories. His mind played tactics of the rebound effect where the more he tried to bind her thoughts, the more he found them winding around him, choking him, making him stay where he was, frozen in that time of the night. Standing near the draperies arched window of his bedroom, glaring far and wide into the dark with a lost vision, his feelings turned more intense with every sip of bourbon that he glided down his throat. Gripped by the exasperation his fingers reached and crawled in his hair, disheveling it.

He spoke out his thoughts loud and clear for his ears to listen and convey the message to his restless mind that was drifting in the direction of her memories, “I can’t fall for her nor can I allow her to fall for me. This relation, if it ever happens, will be a nightmare for both of us. A timed disaster. I need to get a grip. It’s just a mere attraction. Nothing else.” He willfully tried to convince his own self. “This will eventually fade with time.”

Repressing himself to think so, he drained the remaining fluid down his throat and padding towards his bed placed the glass on the side table. Convincing ourselves of the things we know aren’t true, is the most difficult situation life can ever put us in. His demons danced around him, teasing his conscious of the things he’d said a while ago. He lay down on his bed with a thought deep down, simmering to rise. He didn’t give it an affirmation but he knew it was there, hidden under the weight of his past, chasm debris. As of now, he was too afraid to surface it, too afraid to lose it and let it alone govern his moves and his life. This was not what he wanted from his life, was all he knew. Yet, this felt so right and unavoidable. She felt unavoidable. He glanced at his watch. The longer hand had completely hidden the smaller one at three. He forced his eyes to close themselves and allowed the toxic he’d gulped to take care of his slumber for that night, the thought still treasured safely in the chest of his mind.

Half asleep, still struggling between reality and dreams, Ashi finally coerced her eyelids to open and all the previous night memories came gushing, like the flood water held by a dam does, once it breaks the barriers. Everything seemed to be shimmied soothingly; all the memories made her blush, smile and flush till the reality finally thwacked her, fading her smile and flush, only to be taken over by a smile-deprived, aghast look and a pale drawn on her flawless face. Gawking at her bedroom ceiling blankly, she realized, she was in her own bedroom and had no idea what reached her there. It was as if a major paragraph containing the climax went missing from a psychologically thriller.

Finally contemplating, rationalizing and reasoning her last night in her fully awakened senses, she sat bolt upright in her bed terrorized, her head between her hands shaking for a – No! Her eyes travelled every corner of her bedroom, only to rest on the bottom of the wall in front of her; her stilettos were lying on the floor opposite to her bed, her handbag and phone on the side table. She briskly turned bending over to reach for her phone.

“Half past eight”, she heaved a sigh of relief. “Still an hour more”, she thought.

23 messages from 4 conversations, 1 SMS and 2 missed calls. Out of all those only 3 were from Rihaan.

She immediately tapped, opened the thread and read the messages. She murmured as she read, “Good Morning. I’m out.” Mental Note – where out? “I guess you’re still sleeping. I know you’ll be a terrorized soul once you wake up so just wanted you to know, you needn’t worry as I’ve handled everything here (1-1).” Mental Note – 1-1? She squinted at her screen, tapped on reply and asked the foremost question that came to her mind, from the spree of questions.

“Where out?”

“Living room.”

“Whose?”

Typing…

“Has the alcohol caused this obtuseness or is this bestowed upon you since birth? Obviously yours. Come out once you’re done. I’m waiting.”

“Shit!”

“Okay.”

Ashi closed the window quickly before he could type anything else or rather before she could see him typing and checked the missed calls.

“Ramesh Lodha”, she sighed, “Just what I needed!”

As she was about to call him back, she saw an unread message at the top of the screen that read, “Slight change. See you at 12pm instead of 9.”

Ashi was in a dilemma whether to be happy at the change or to be sad about spending some extra evening hours with Mr. Lodha. She quickly tapped on the reply, typed ‘Okay’ and sent it across. Sighing heavily, she laid down in her bed, staring at the ceiling blankly. Closing her eyes and concentrating on her breath she tried to focus on her senses to recollect the last night’s memories. Without a few nebulous images – of the Pacific, of her drinking, talking to a random guy at the bar, the pissing contest between Rihaan and the other guy(she couldn’t recollect his name though), she couldn’t majorly remember anything conspicuously – except her first kiss and her fainting of course. Only when she stressed her brains enough did she realize that her head was throbbing with pain.

“Hangovers are yet another reason why drinking bouts aren’t fun.”

She opened her eyes and the ceiling spun a little before reposing itself. The alcohol was still playing with her senses. She took a deep steadying breath and thought about the ado she’d surrounded herself in.

“Shit! How could I go ahead and kiss him. Shit!”

She closed her eyes tight in exasperation. The grisly yet awe-filled memories of the night before levitated in her conscious.

“And as if it wasn’t enough to make the already uncomfortable things uncomfortable that he landed here the very next morning. Inception of discomfort. Talk about it. He looks a pro in that. What the hell is he doing here?! Why?! Is he looking forward for something more than this?! Ugh!”

Her thoughts seemed like they were making up for last night. They wandered around and bumped into each other, fragmenting themselves into thousands of other minor – new born thoughts.

She got out of her bed and standing straight in firm resolute, with clenched fists on her either side said, “This needs to be sorted. No other way out of this catch-22.”

Groomed up in a completely formal attire – a beige-coloured pencil skirt that did point justice to her dainty curves, a formal navy-blue shirt – neatly tucked in her skirt, clinging to her naturally perfect bust for a perfect fit, her handbag neatly placed on her elbow pit, her stilettos clattered before she came out of her bedroom and pulled the door behind her. Her eyes wandered and locked themselves with Rihaan’s. He was grinning from ear to ear with that distinct sparkle in his eyes.

“Natural and original Eccedentesiast.”

She reciprocated his smile without letting her touch her eyes.

“Hello Beta. Good Morning. How are you feeling?” A familiar voice disrupted her eye-locking session.

“Good Morning Mumma. I’m doing okay. Feeling okay too”, she said scanning the room.

“Have a seat. I’ll get something for both of you.”

“Mumma, I’m not hungry. I’ll eat when I feel hungry. I need to meet Dad. Where’s he? You can exercise your feeding hobbies on Rihaan though.”

Saying so, she started clattering her heels across her room when her mom spoke, “He’s not in there. He left early today.”

Rolling her eyes, Ashi deviated towards the main door.

“I’ll go to the office then. I’ll meet him there. See you, Mumma.”

“Okay then, even I’ll take a leave. I already had my breakfast in the morning. Will join you all only when Ashi is hungry”, he said, looking at Ashi still smiling with that patented roguish smile of his.

Having said that, he stood up and started walking towards Ashi. “Let’s go Ashi”, he said teasingly. Plastering a blank expression on her face, Ashi stared at him for a moment before walking out of the door.

Ashi stole glances at him as they walked through the parking lot. Silence took over them; except the clunk of her stilettos against the concrete floor nothing was primarily heard. Unable to endure the soaring silence, Rihaan finally spoke, “How are you feeling?”

“Terrible.”

Ashi said with a straight face without looking at him.

They reached nigh Rihaan’s BMW. Ashi kept walking towards her car absentmindedly when finally Rihaan spoke, “Same destination, two cars? Doesn’t look like a logical move from any angle.”

Ashi halted in her way turned at him and folding her hands neatly across her chest said, “Dad’s office is not in way to your destination nor your destination. So I think we’ll have to take two separate cars and not just one. So that your car takes you to your destination and my car takes me to mine.”

Rihaan smirked at her and said, “I know reincarnation of Einstein but I’ve to meet your Dad too.”

Ashi narrowed her eyes at him and before her lips parted to say anything else, Rihaan continued, “And before you ask me why, let me tell you that I’m not telling you anything more. Now get in the car without much hustle.”

Ashi waved her hands dramatically for a ‘whatever’ and rolling her eyes, took the seat next to the driver. Rihaan took the driver’s seat and locking his seat belt glanced at her. She was busy avoiding him and continued looking out of the window. Rihaan fired the gas and his BMW roared before setting itself in motion for the desired destination.

The screeching silence was too much for either of them to tolerate. But Ashi was gripped by loss-of-words today. She hadn’t thought about last night, rather, she hadn’t gotten enough time to resonate it and to name or categorize it. So till she did her additions and subtractions, she preferred not to touch upon anything related to that, although she’d decided to. But Rihaan had already made up his mind when he’d left his house that morning. He wanted to clarify everything before any mere thoughts about falling for him evoked and dwelled in her super active brains. Eventually realizing that Ashi wouldn’t break the ice, Rihaan spoke, piercing the silence, “Has the terrible become any less terrible? Or the same?”

Silence. . .

“Hello, I’m asking you, Miss Smartmouth. Doesn’t look like you’re having one today?”

“No. It’s the same.” Ashi replied monotonously still gazing out of the window.

“Ashi, if you’re the way you’re because of the hangover, it’s okay. But, if you’re partially hesitant and fully nervous because of what happened last night then please don’t be. It’s just a kiss. A passionate one though. A mere kiss. We both are opposite sexes, young, straight; so it’s understandable. Besides, you’re drunk. Stage five drunk. A blotto totally.”

Ashi swiveled her neck in his direction and said in a blank tone, “I know I was drunk. And that it’s pardonable. But what about you? You weren’t drunk. You were in your senses, like completely. Then what made you kiss me? To reciprocate the kiss with more determination than mine?”

Silence. . .

Rihaan had never thought in his oddest possibilities that she would hurl this question at him. He’d given himself a benefit of doubt rather was sure that she wouldn’t remember much of it and hence, wasn’t prepared for this one. But unlike Ashi, he was artful in masking his real emotions whenever situation demanded that of him. Before the silence divulged a lot about his true state of mind he laughed his bewitching laugh that sounded more like a snort and said, “If a girl goes on her toes to kiss me, what do you expect? I won’t reciprocate? I’m a man. That too, a straight man with a virile. That’s a daffy question, Ashi. Why wouldn’t I kiss a girl who kisses me in first place? I prefer leaving an impression on the minds of the ladies.”

Ashi kept glaring at him intently. Although he’d achieved mastery in this, he couldn’t veil it with that efficiency when it came to her. She kept staring at him with bewilderment as if she’d already seen the obscured part of him. Although Rihaan’s sight was fixed on the road, his side view told him that Ashi was glaring at him. He felt exposed under her piercing gaze – the most welcomed distraction in the world for him. He gave a quick obvious glance in her direction and said, “For God’s sake just stop! Stop with the stares, will you? You are assaulting me with your cynical sight”, he ended playfully with a mischievous smile. Ashi immediately looked away and blankly focused her sight on the road, scurrying ahead of her.

“So that means it was just because I kissed you that you kissed me, right? Not because you’ve some feelings for me?” Ashi asked, her eyes fixed on the road ahead.

This was an expected question already ran in Rihaan’s mind first, before Ashi asked and hence he was prepared. Still smiling with a mock smile and a slight snort, he replied, “Obviously, it’s a reaction to your action, and feelings, well I don’t know what they are. So, don’t expect them from me. Professional is the only relation or feeling I can ever have. Moreover, if you would’ve turned me on, we would’ve ended up having sex yesterday.”

The mere mention of having sex with him clenched her south entirely.

“Sex is just fun for me”, he said matter-of-factly.

“Sick!” Ashi said fretfully spitting out the word with an apparent disgust, ignoring the fact, what his words made her feel.

Rihaan drove his BMW in the driveway of her Dad’s office. Ushering out of the car, something from the morning conversations clicked Ashi – “By the way, what’s this – 1-1?” Ashi asked in an interrogatively accusatory tone.

“That’s called settling the scores. You helped me from this marriage thing and I saved you from the wrath of your parents.” Rihaan answered calmly.

Ashi gave him a stern look and started striding with her distinct clatter.

Ashi gently knocked on the cabin door before walking in.

“Hello Dad, Good Morning.” Ashi strode across the cabin grinning and greeted her Dad with a hug before settling in the revolving chair opposite.

“Hello, Mr. Rathore, Good Morning”, Rihaan followed her in and greeted with a formal and a crisp handshake.

“Good Morning, both of you. So what brings you both here?” Ashi’s Dad said steepling.

“I just came to meet you, Dad! Do I need a reason for that?!” Ashi said in an offended tone.

“Not at all dear, you don’t”, he replied and smiled at his daughter adorably.

“Yes, Rihaan, I’ve sorted your package. You can collect it from the reception”, he said as matter-of-factly as Rihaan had, a while ago.

“Okay Mr. Rathore, I think I’ll take a leave. Goodbye Ashi, see you soon.”

Saying this, he stood up, extended his hand for a deal-seal farewell kind of a gesture and walked out of the cabin. Just. Like That. Nothing more. No more talks.

“Maybe I’m just over thinking that he is brewing the same feelings as me. Maybe whatever he showed or said was true and not something that I got a glimpse of during those few seconds of silence. He can only be in a professional relationship and sex is fun for him. Maybe I’m trying to see something that isn’t there in first place – living in a cloud cuckoo land with fairy god mothers hovering over me with their magic wands. Veiling reality and cloaking practicality won’t help. The illusions don’t come alive and horizons don’t and can never make the heaven and earth meet. They are just an illusion. The interweaved illusions.”

“What a deadly start to fall for someone officially, Ashi. Well done.” Her subconscious shot some raffish sarcasm at her.

“Ashi, are you here with me?” Her Dad’s voice brought her to the present world.

“Yes Dad, I’m”, Ashi replied jolting back to reality.

“So, how’s your health after last night?”

Ashi gawked at her Dad. Her deep brown eyes went all wide and dilated. Her Dad had never taken her drinking habits this sportingly before.

“I’m feeling good. Not that bad. Better than what I’d expected”, she said quickly, brushing off the topic.

“Rihaan told me that your drink was exchanged by someone at the club when he was on a call and that you hadn’t eaten anything was what sped up the effect”, her Dad said, still continuing to do his work.

“Call? My bloody foot”, Ashi whispered fiercely under her breath.

“What? Did you say anything?” Her Dad asked, looking distracted from his work, peering at her through his glasses.

“Nope. Yes, he did help me.” Ashi kept her replies as brief as possible to avoid the possibilities of getting caught; wondering meanwhile, whether those replies were still viewed with suspicion. Because, her Dad was someone who always caught her lie, red handed. The only thing he did was, he never allowed her to know whenever he did that; it was only when she accepted and told him the truth, did he tell her that he knew it already with a deliberate grin. “Jeesh, men are so complicated”, Ashi rolled her eyes, “And I’ve to deal with two now! Congratulations myself.”

“So, what is it that you want to talk?”

“We haven’t spoken properly since I’ve met Rihaan and you came to know that”, she stammered before getting to the point, “that I l-l-like him from Malhotra Uncle, so I thought, I should tell you about it myself”, she completed, seeking for any hints that could tell her about his thoughts.

“It’s okay dear, maybe you would’ve had, if he hadn’t already told me. Besides, we didn’t get enough time to talk about it, so I can understand that pretty well. Again, my presumptions about him or him as a person would’ve abstained you from telling me. I know that. So, if you’re still worried about it, don’t be. If you both like each other, me and Shiv have no say in that. Again, he treated you well yesterday. You know I strongly believe that some individuals behave differently with different people. Maybe he’s amongst those”, her Dad ended as calmly as he’d started.

Ashi couldn’t think of anything to say. Guilt gripped her. She felt like a deceiver who was fooling her parents to believe something that wasn’t true. Of course, part of it was, she did like Rihaan(more than like rather) but at the same time she was highly determined that he did not. That “something” they’re given to ponder over had no future, let alone present.

“And how’s work?”

“All good. Have taken up Rihaan’s project after this current one. So that’s about it.” Ashi said in a measured tone and continued as the most invited distraction came to her mind, “By the way, I wanted to ask you something related to Mrs. Malhotra”, Ashi continued, partly glad as she’d successfully side tracked the conversation without any major attempts.

“What about it?” Her Dad asked, shooting his eyebrows at her.

“Ramesh told me that she met with an accident and that it was a matter of public records. So, I wanted to know. That’s about it.”

“I don’t want to put my finger on something that I don’t know of as we weren’t friends back then, but whatever little I know, she died on her birthday and Rihaan was with her. He was just thirteen when this mishap happened. Shiv had gifted her Mercedes – e320 on her birthday. Taking Rihaan along with her for a drive in her newly gifted birthday present, he survived the return journey, but she did not. Investigations accused a lot of people but the verdict equated to nothing more than an accident. The case was completely buried under debris after a few years, just like the rest of them.”

“Okay. Sounds like a movie plot”, Ashi blurted only to realize that it was a too straight remark to be made about their family friend’s family. Ashi rectified her tone and continued, “I’m sorry. What I meant was, I never thought Rihaan had an agonized past. He doesn’t look like someone who had”, she sounded apologetic. “But, if this was the case, what were the investigations for? It would undoubtedly have been an accident. Why would anyone murder Mrs. Malhotra?”

Most of the things related to Rihaan started falling into place like a series of scattered dots were finally connected to one another. He’s like this for a reason, so aloof, so distant, away from emotions and feelings because his were slaughtered long back when they’re to be fostered.

“The investigations were because, she was the sole and whole owner and hence the only inheritor of Malhotra and Sons primarily known as Shahani Ind. Her father had made his only child – Miss Riya Shahani, the successor of his vast empire. Riya and Shiv were married way before all this money, power and position touched and hovered over their lives. Shiv handled everything successfully after the demise of Mr. Shahani and took the empire to new heights. It was only after her death did they realize, her will had stated that – all the Power of Attorney will be inherited to Rihaan, but only after his marriage. Till then no one will legally own it and it’ll belong to a trust. The current Malhotras are only care takers by virtue of the will.”

It was too much for Ashi to absorb in and contemplate at the same time. This was turning out to be more and more abyss than what she’d thought. She was made to face Rihaan’s past when she wasn’t even ready for his present. Something deep inside her felt that this was not as smooth as it looked like. There was more to this than what she’d thought after meeting Rihaan.

“Not the right time and place to go on a detailed contemplation”, she castigated herself. Thrusting aside her boggling thoughts she continued, “How do you know all this?”

“Ashi dear, as Ramesh said, it’s a matter of public records. This had a full media coverage that dragged for more than a month. Every single event made its way to the papers. So, it’s kind of apparent as to how did I know about all this. However, the inside story, I don’t know much about it; as I said earlier, we weren’t good friends then. Of course we’d professional relations but other than that, nothing else.”

The beep and blink on Ashi’s iPhone disrupted her attention. She glanced at the digital clock that flashed on the screen. “Okay Dad, I’ll take a leave. I’m getting late. Need to take care of a few things before heading for work. See you in the evening”, she said getting up in her chair, positioning her handbag on the inside of her elbow.

“All right Ashi. Take care. See you in the evening”, came the reply. Slightly rattling her heels across the corridor, thinking about the freshly serialized part of her life’s story – that was tangled and twisted with someone else unfortunately, something reminded her that her phone had blinked as well as beeped because she’d received a message. The time on the home screen had diverted her attention that time. She quickly checked her phone.

“Text me once you reach the sleazeball’s office. And help yourself with something. You need to eat. You haven’t since last night.”

Ashi’s brows furrowed as she read the name, “Rihaan Malhotra. What’s he made up of?” She muttered to herself and walked out of the main gate.

Next….

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