Ashi’s posture altered. She sat upright, erect, the iPhone visibly shaking in her dexterous, long fingers. Ashi gnawed her lower lip till it ran out of blood and had started hurting her. Everything around her slowly faded and blurred in the near shade of black. Dizziness gripped her mind. Her heart raced as her mind was caught in a dire dilemma to swipe right, left or let it join the list of missed calls. Before she could decide anything, someone took it from her hands, “What and who is it? Did you see a dead mouse, Ashi?” and answered the call.
“I’d called you last night to warn you about the consequences of being with Rihaan, right? Seems like you don’t understand subtle warnings or you think this is a stupid prank. It’s better if you don’t think about the latter because it won’t even take a second for us to sweep you away from the middle of the ‘Matin félicité’.”
The line went dead.
Rihaan looked around the place. A grim look daubed all over his face. Maintaining the same action – swiveling his neck around and holding the same grimace, he strode – a couple of steps around the table, bent a little and held Ashi’s hand tugging it gently, gesturing her to stand up. Ashi who was still blankly staring at the food in front of her, looked at Rihaan and mechanically did what her brain inferred out of Rihaan’s actions.
“Let’s leave.” Rihaan’s expressions readily changed to concern as he held her under his protective gaze. Ashi stumbled a little but held on to Rihaan’s firm grip for support as she finally made it to her feet.
Still holding her safe by his side, he slipped her iPhone in the right pocket of his denim and strode off towards the exit.
“Are you all right?” Rihaan asked, still checking around for any sign of suspicion.
“Yes. I-I-a-am fine.” Ashi stammered nervously chumbling her lower lip.
“Yes. I can see how fine you are!” Rihaan murmured more to himself rather than Ashi.
“Come this way.”
Saying so, he placed his hand on the small of her back and gracefully shifted her from his left to his right, solely because he saw a man walking towards her from the opposite direction.
“Don’t you think you are a tad too jumpy and are overreacting?”
Ashi tried and failed in her attempt to lighten the tension rising around them. Rihaan’s one piercing look told her that she needed to shut her smart mouth and embrace silence for the time being.
With his hand still neatly placed on her back, staking a claim, he ushered her into the passenger’s seat of his Black, sleek BMW. Ashi thrusted and abandoned every single thought that tried to dread her since the time her mind had realized that the cat was out of the bag and that her secret was now an open secret. Briefly, she didn’t want to think about the conclusions Rihaan would rest upon in the end.
Occupying the driver’s seat with the same grace as the debonair he was, he glared at Ashi with a scowl and asked, “Since when?”
Ashi tried looking busy viewing the tangled knuckles resting in her lap. Rihaan’s voice raised its bar, “I asked you since when are you getting these calls? I expect an answer!”
Ashi visibly cowered in her seat intimidated by an infuriated Rihaan which made him to come closer to her and ask, like he was speaking to a cornered animal, “Ashi, please tell me. I want to know.”
Ashi knew that silence won’t help her anymore; it would only worsen the scenario. She took a deep, prolonged breath like she’s shielding her soul from an apocalypse.
“Last night was the first one and this, the second. Only two calls. The call you thought was from Kabir; it’s from the same number.” Ashi completed everything without looking at him even once in a single breath as if she’d been preparing for this one since the time she got the call.
Ashi looked at Rihaan out of the corner of her eye. His face looked agonized. He was running his hand through his hair in deep exasperation.
“Is he worried about me? But how can that be? He said that he doesn’t love me.” The moment Ashi thought about this, her mother’s words scrolled in her mind like her brain had used the marquee command of html, like a ticker in the digital display – “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you, Ashi. He said something else and you’re simply interpreting it in your own way.”
“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? I remember asking you. And why didn’t you tell me that it wasn’t Kabir who called you?”
Ashi suppressed her desire to roll her eyes.
“Jeesh. What’s wrong with this man? Keep your hair on Mr. Malhotra!” Her subconscious squinted at him with an apparent disgust.
“Ashi, please answer my questions.” He politely reminded her though his tone carried wild desperation.
Ashi passed a quick glance in his direction before replying, “I knew you would react weirdly. And I don’t think I was wrong.”
Rihaan looked like someone had slapped him right across his face, for the second time, on the same day.
“Okay, so I’m the wacko here. Great! It’s you who hid things from me. It’s you who’ve been getting this duress; and I end up being the —“,
“Because I thought, you’ll come up with solutions like, rather the only solution that – let’s stop talking and meeting each other.” Ashi started talking even before Rihaan could complete his sentence.
“And I really can’t afford that at this point of time in my life. For it’s easier for me to imagine the problems I’ll have to deal with when you’re with me, versus the problems I’ll have to deal with when you aren’t with me. I know I’m gabbling big time, but I can’t simply imagine – waking up one fine day to find you missing from my life. I can imagine the problems but not this. So I just hope, you don’t come up with these kinds of solutions. I’m done. You can talk now.”
“I’m dropping you home.”
Ashi stared at him with a scowl and a shrug depicting – ‘Where did this come from?’ – looking all offended.
“Stop frowning! It’s not safe out here, anymore.”
“But I don’t want to go home! I’ve work to complete. I’ve to earn a living.” Ashi shouted like a child who’d been denied a Popsicle.
“You can always work from home. I’ll talk to Ramesh. He’ll approve. Your Rihaan is a powerful man, Ashi.”
The words “Your Man” cackled in her mind. She immediately dismissed and buried her thoughts as soon as they tried surfacing, making her anger weak. She’d to be angry and these thoughts wouldn’t help her wrath today, not even a tad.
“You can’t take decisions on my behalf. We aren’t in a relationship! For heaven’s sake!”
“I know that. Wear your seatbelt. We’re leaving.”
“If you’re my boss, even Ramesh is my boss. I’ve to go to work. I’ve to complete my work.”
Rihaan ignored her in toto, turned the key and raced his BMW.
“Rihaan! I’m not talking to the thin air!”
“I know, Baby. I know. Wear your seatbelt, right now.”
Ashi pulled the belt over her torso and clicked it to her side, buckling it, murmuring all the while under her breath, passing side glimpses at Rihaan.
Rihaan’s lips twitched into a cockish smile as he caught Ashi fuming at him before he sped up his BMW and drove off through the driveway.
“And how long am I going to be in a house-arrest?” Ashi asked raising her eyebrows sarcastically.
“Till we find out who is the dick behind this conspiracy.”
“We? Does that mean we’re still going to interact with each other and meet each other and you aren’t leaving me on my own? No distancing? No abandoning?” Ashi emphasized the word ‘we’ every time she uttered it.
“None of that. I really can’t afford leaving you on your own. You’re a crazy, clumsy ball hopping on the edge of all dangerous territories; that usually ends by burying yourself neck deep in sand. I’m pretty sure that if I leave you on your own, you’ll land on all fours.” Rihaan chuckled.
“But I can take care of myself, Rihaan! I’ve been doing that for all these years.”
“Not anymore. I’m not letting it happen this time. Definitely, not again.”
“I can’t leave you alone, Ashi. Now quiet.”
“But that ‘what’ was for your earlier statement – “I’m not letting it happen this time” – this statement”, Ashi verbally prodded pressing on each word.
“That was more of a self-talk. Not something that concerns you. You don’t need to know that”, Rihaan answered matter-of-factly.
Ashi sighed heavily and fixed her sight on the sidewalk passing by.
“Gone that anger, that rage. This adamant – looking less, behaving more man had voiced out a verdict. No discussions. No negotiations. Just plain verdicts and judgements. How can a person be so rigid? So upright? Why is this not in case of his mercurial mood? Why is he highly flexible there? Unstable. A few minutes back, he’s all worried and agonized. And now, he’s smiling like his Rihaan self. Nothing has changed in these few minutes, has it? We still are in the same place where we’d begun – the call. The menace is still out, roaming on the streets, probably following us right now.”
The thought ran a chill down her spine. Ashi visibly shivered.
“What happened? Cold?” Rihaan enquired, reaching for the cooling system to raise the temperature.
“No”, Ashi replied solemnly. Her face looked every bit terrified, like all the blood had visibly drained from her face.
“What are you thinking?”
“Don’t stay quiet. Do the talking like you always do. Your thinking looks worst.”
Ashi picked a quick glance at him, smiling, which was more of a troubled smile.
“What’s wrong? Don’t worry, you’re safe. Believe me.” Rihaan persuaded her persistently.
“I know I’m safe. At least I know, now I am, more than ever.”
“What does that mean?”
“Not something that concerns you. You don’t need to know that”, Ashi copied Rihaan’s words and tone from their earlier conversation.
“Oh great! So, the Smartmouth is back.” Rihaan’s infectious laughter growled and reflected through the windows of his Black, sleek BMW.
“Yep. She’s back. Actually, she can’t stay away from me for a long time.”
“I’m glad that she can’t.”
“Are you? Now?”
“Yes. I am. Now.”
Ashi’s response was a perfectly curved, genuine smile.
Ashi breathed in a sigh of relief.
“Finally, he’s back to his usual ‘Rihaan’ self.”