Psst. The questionably written sexual content I referred to in my opening note is all in this chapter so proceed with caution if that’s not your thing.
“…and that deep affection ties us all to Nani today, and forever. I don’t know how to say goodbye, if I’m honest. Everything I come up with seems so woefully inadequate. But perhaps I needn’t articulate today, or even tomorrow, just how much I’m going to miss Nani. Perhaps she already knows—the way she’d always known if I’d argued with my best friend or lost a match, without me having to spell it out. I choose to draw comfort from that as I learn how to say goodbye to her every day.”
Khushi flashed Payal a wobbly smile, as her little cousin folded up the sheet of paper she had been reading from and slipped it into her pocket. On Payal’s other side, her older brother, Nikhil, put his arm around her, giving her shoulder a squeeze. All around the Gupta drawing room, close friends and family offered Payal misty smiles of encouragement and bowed their heads in quiet mourning. Khushi’s mother, Jyoti, was the first to stand up and request the guests to make their way to the dining room where refreshments had been served.
Khushi walked up to Payal and engulfed her in a tight hug. “That was beautiful, Payal. I can’t think of a better way to have ended this little ceremony for Nani. She would’ve been so proud.”
Payal sniffled into the crook of her shoulder and hugged her back harder.
“Bas, bas, Payal.” Khushi rubbed her back in soothing circles as Nikhil returned to their side after speaking to his father.
“How’re you holding up, Khush? Apart from my sister’s crushing weight, I mean.”
At Nikhil’s gently teasing tone, Payal broke away to punch her brother in the stomach and Khushi let out a wobbly chuckle.
“Comme ci, comme ça, Nick. What about you? Did you get any sleep at all on the flights?”
Nikhil rubbed a weary hand along the day-old scruff on his face. His eyes were bloodshot from jetlagged exhaustion and grief. “A few hours. I’ve seen worse during my B-school days. Do you really have to go back the day after? I only just got here.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, Nick, the production house was very understanding and let me take off immediately but with the crucial juncture the show’s at, they couldn’t spare me more than 6 days leave. Despite my costars’ heroic attempts to manage without me.”
“Costars or one specific costar, Khushi didi?”
Khushi aimed a halfhearted slap at Payal which she easily dodged.
“Have some shame, you precocious brat. Nani isn’t cold in her grave yet.”
“A) We didn’t bury Nani. B) She would’ve been the first to want in on the gossip.”
Nikhil had been watching their exchange with interest but he seemed to sense Khushi’s distress and stepped in.
“Chal, Payal, we gotta hit the tables before Papa and Ratan mausa finish all the shingaras. I did not travel across the world to only eat sad khasta kochuris.”
Indicating she’d join her cousins soon, Khushi drifted to her favourite seat in the now empty balcony. Curling up into the large woven bamboo chair, she wrapped her shawl more securely around her shoulders. Although mid-morning, there was a distinctive nip in the air.
The south-west facing balcony had been her Nani’s favourite spot in the house too. The rows of potted plants, the bamboo furniture with gay cushions and throws, a little coffee table with the stained glass top that Payal and Khushi had painted one summer vacation years ago, the many suncatchers and windchimes they’d collected from around the world—all the carefully cultivated cheer only broke Khushi’s heart some more.
Payal had lied. There was no comfort to be found in the overwhelming emptiness left behind by their grandmother. She would never learn how to say goodbye. She’d at best forget this hollow sense of loss and wasn’t that worse?
She didn’t bother hiding her tears as her mother drew up a chair next to her and sat down.
“I’m thinking of your 8-year-old self very seriously asking Ma if bathing carefully would make your skin as soft and stretchy as hers. You were always pulling at her cheeks and pressing dimples into her arms.”
Khushi hiccupped through her tears. “And Nani said yes. I don’t think I’ve ever showered as conscientiously and thoroughly since, as I did that year.”
“Ma had no compunctions lying for ‘the greater good.’ And she always repeated those stupid old wives’ tales with such conviction and relish, Garima and I have trouble swallowing watermelon seeds till date.”
“Yeah, Nani just strongly believed in stories building our world, I guess. Strange, no, for a woman so given to stories and random beliefs, how she despised religious rituals?”
“Not strange at all when you consider the kind of person she was and how deliberately difficult religion made life for a young widow with two daughters.”
“Hmm. That’s true. Nani sure didn’t believe in harsh punishments, in any context.”
“Yes. Remember when Nikhil had argued with Garima and Gautam and ‘run away’ to the park, expecting to be lured back home with jalebis? And once he’d been found, had been sent to his room without dinner instead. Remember how the next day Ma had gone over with jalebis and coaxed him into apologizing to his parents?”
Khushi caught an ugly snort in her sodden handkerchief. “She understood two things better than anyone else in the family—the importance of melodrama and how to bribe people with food.”
“Indeed. No wonder she was devoted to your terrible TV shows. I do believe the only thing she really regretted was not finding out how this Ghulam ends.”
“Hey! Ghulam is a lot less terrible than my other shows. Don’t be mean.”
Jyoti laughed, her drawn face lighting up momentarily, and she reached out to ruffle her daughter’s hair.
“Don’t beat yourself up for not being here the day she left us, Khushu. She knew you were always thinking of her.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just—” Khushi’s phone vibrated loudly in her hand, cutting off the rest of her response. She fumbled nervously with it for a minute before resolutely putting it down beside her.
“And you can also stop pretending that That Boy isn’t texting you constantly and calling you late every night. I know you sneak out here to talk to him.”
“Your weird mommy-spidey-sense is acting overtime.”
“No, I just sleep with our window open. Your lovelorn whispers carry clearly to me. Good thing Ratan is a heavy sleeper. He’d have an apoplexy.”
“Mom! I do no such thing. It isn’t like that between us! He’s just…my friend.”
“Khushi, I’m your mother. Not a tabloid journalist.”
“No, Mom, I mean it. He’s been my friend ever since we began Ghulam. The very best. Yeah, I’d developed some complicated feelings for him a couple of years ago but I’m pretty much over them?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
Khushi sighed and looked out over the miles of faded yellow and ashy grey rooftops stretching in front of her.
“You know what? I honestly don’t know. Even a couple of months ago, I’d have vehemently assured you that all I’ll ever have with Arnav Singh Raizada is a friendship. But…I don’t know what I want anymore. Let alone what he wants.”
“Don’t ‘really’ me in that tone, Mom. This situation is complex enough without you adding fuel to fire.”
“Khushi, sweetheart, the fire seems to be raging just fine without any help from me. Why don’t you tell me as clearly as possible, what about this situation is bothering you?”
Jyoti shrugged. “With our extended family stuffing their faces, this is a good time as any. We haven’t had a moment of peace all week and you leave soon.”
Khushi frowned, fidgeting with the fringe of her shawl.
“I guess. It’s just…I was so sure that I was completely over him. And he…he storms back into my life after more than a year of just being completely…gone…and then is weirdly upfront about his attraction to me? I didn’t know what to make of it…I don’t know what to make of it. So, I told him to back off and he did. Except for the occasional hint in something he says or…or…whatever…I’d think I’d imagined the whole thing. Maybe he’s moved on too. I just…I finally have my old friend back, you know? I don’t want to jeopardize that but I also don’t know what I really want from this relationship.”
Jyoti’s shoulders shook in silent amusement.
“I’m glad someone finds this funny.”
“Oh, don’t frown so. Your face will get stuck that way—another one of your Nani’s favourites, incidentally. My dear, I think you know exactly what you want from this relationship but are not sure if it’s okay for you to want it. Or are scared to acknowledge what you want. But I don’t think there is any confusion about what you’re feeling.”
“I…so you think I’m right? You don’t disapprove?”
“I admit, I’m not the biggest fan of That Boy. I know exactly how much he hurt you when he seemed to vanish from the face of this earth. Yes, he had a lot going on in his life, but that’s really no excuse to treat friends callously. Especially friends who may be more than merely friends.”
“No, don’t try to defend him. I can see it on your face. I may not know exactly where you two stood at that time, but I could tell that the situation was complicated and delicate. Running away from you was, frankly, a very teenager-ish thing to have done.”
“He didn’t just run away from me! He didn’t stay in touch with anyone from our gang! He was trying to get his life and head back on track!”
“There you go again, defending him. I understand that he’s back to being your ‘friend’ but what is to say he won’t run again at the first hint of trouble?”
“He hasn’t! There’s been plenty of trouble already what with our complicated feelings, the stress of the show, a possible Bollywood opening for him that he thinks he should refuse, my sudden departure—”
Khushi broke off, colouring violently as her mother grinned at her.
“God, I can’t believe I fucking fell for that. I hate it when you do that!”
“Language! And you’re welcome.”
“So, what do I do? There’s so much baggage between us, how do I even consider giving it a shot? And what if he doesn’t want to try anymore? What if he just wants to be my friend? And you don’t like him anyway!”
“One at a time: you’re obviously already considering giving it a shot. What you lack is the courage to take the first step. I somehow highly doubt Mr. Calls-You-Every-Night-And-Texts-You-All-Day is only interested in a platonic equation with you. He’s just been respectful of your own request that he back off. Are you really going to be happy with a platonic equation forever?”
Khushi sighed. “What about the fact that you don’t like him?”
“This is what working in all those terrible soap operas does. Grow a backbone. What would your Nani say? Who cares whether I like him? The question is whether you like him.”
“Mom, this isn’t funny, okay. It’s just…am I on the verge of making a mistake? Again?”
Jyoti reached out and clasped her daughter’s icy hands. “Perhaps. But who is to say it wouldn’t be a bigger mistake not to act? He makes you happy, darling. Anyone with a modicum of sense can see it. And I can’t really dislike him when he’s been brightening up my daughter’s every day, can I?”
“So cheesy, mother, I can’t.”
“Picked it up from your nonsense soap operas only.”
Between the steady influx of condolence visits and calls, trying to catch up with all the family members who had flown in from across the country (and the world, in some cases), and coordinating with her manager to work out shooting schedules and script changes necessitated by her sudden absence, Khushi hadn’t had much time to dwell on her conversation with her mother. Truth be told, Khushi didn’t particularly want to think about it. The more she thought about it, the more absurd her resolve to ‘do something’ felt. Pray, do what? Confess her undying love to Arnav Singh Raizada? It didn’t bear contemplating.
No, they were better off as friends. She didn’t even have the flutters anymore when she thought of him. She was clearly over whatever childish infatuation she’d once had. Clearly, all that she had needed to get over it was an honest chat with her mother.
Khushi woke up early, seven days after that ominous phone call from her mother, determined to return to work with a clear head. The nauseous churning in her gut was nothing but nerves stemming from her emotionally fragile condition. Of course, she was a little antsy about playing the steely, ruthless Lady-Macbeth-like Katyayani after the turmoil of the past week.
She took extra care with her morning routine, forcing down a slice of dry whole wheat toast and half an apple with her coffee.
There really was no need to feel so jittery, she told herself again and again on the long drive to the studio. She’d be on set soon enough and dive right back into the flow.
Had the walk from the parking garage to her dressing room always been this long?
She was just anxious about remembering her lines. That was all. She didn’t want to appear any less than perfectly professional.
Khushi stopped abruptly, steps away from her dressing room, her tote bag slipping from nerveless fingers.
An achingly familiar figure stood in her way, engrossed in conversation with Akash. At the slight sound made by her falling bag, he turned.
“Khushi? Did you just arrive?” His face broke into a thousand-watt grin, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “I wish I could’ve come picked you up from the airport last night but there was just no way I’d have made it in time after the shoot. How are you? How’s everyone at home? I missed you.”
Covering the distance between them, Arnav pulled her into a slightly clumsy, bone-crushing embrace. Khushi snuggled into his warmth, breathing him in, her own arms tightening around him. She idly noted that her nausea had mysteriously vanished but her pulse had gone into overdrive.
She was so screwed.
At his raised volume, she finally looked up, a wrinkle of consternation between her brows.
“Why are you shouting? I’m right here.”
“I called you three times. You’ve been rather spaced out over the last few days. Are you okay?”
“Of course! I’m sorry, I guess I was more involved with this script than I’d realized. What were you saying?”
“Just that Akash was telling me Anjali is back in town. We haven’t hung out in ages and were planning on catching up.”
“Oh man, I know. I’m guessing her Bollywood debut has wrapped up satisfactorily?”
“Sounds like it. You know how obsessive she is. There’s no way she’d casually text Akash if there was any crisis at work.”
“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing it. Buzz around the film seems positive. Damn, we should really drop some broad hints about casting one of us in her next.”
“Oho, you want a bird in hand and one in the bush too?” Arnav wiggled his eyebrows at the script in her hand. “What’s it about anyway? It’s the next Shalimar project, right?”
“Yeah. Umm…I can’t really tell you what it’s about. NDA and all that, na.”
Arnav raised an eyebrow at the flustered colour on her cheeks.
“C’mon, Khushi, I’m hardly asking for a detailed description. What’s it roughly about? And I won’t call my sister and gossip to her, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
Khushi chuckled nervously.
“Oh, it’s not remarkable. It’s just about a girl. And her mission. And there’s this guy. I really can’t say any more.”
“I’m impressed. That synopsis was vaguer than my 12th grade English board exam essays—an achievement I hadn’t thought possible.”
Khushi laughed again, the sound tinny and bordering on the hysterical.
“Yes, we’re not all as eloquent as you. Anyway, I really should go and start getting ready for the next shift.”
She stood up, the loose sheets of paper in her lap scattering all around them. With an exclamation of disgust, she gathered them up and almost ran toward her dressing room.
Arnav stared after her in bemusement. They still had an hour left before they needed to go to their dressing rooms. What was wrong with Khushi? She’d become strangely jittery and clumsy after returning from Kolkata four days ago. Was she having a difficult time coming to terms with her Nani’s death? She had only been able to take six days off, poor thing. And she’d had to plunge into doing multiple shifts right away to make up for her absence. She must be exhausted. No wonder she was constantly distracted and babbling whenever he asked her a simple question.
He shifted in his chair, stretching his legs out, and then sat up straight again. Perhaps he could help. He could cook dinner for her again. She’d enjoyed herself the last time he had—maybe she’d be able to step away from her chaotic life for a few hours. So, what if his motives weren’t entirely unselfish? He had to offer. And be extra careful about keeping his hands to himself all evening, he thought with a wry smile.
Khushi Gupta openly admitted to being a coward. She thought of a delightful article she’d read in her favourite online literary zine once—a guide to flirting with plausible deniability. She’d laughed all afternoon at it then, but the writer wasn’t half wrong, now that it was Khushi’s turn to walk the talk. She just wasn’t ready! The last few days had been pure agony. Her conversation with her mother had broken some kind of dam inside her and she lived in mortal fear of letting her feelings slip in front of the man in question.
Who was really doing nothing to help, she thought darkly. She’d never been more aware of him– of the way his shoulders stretched out the Mandarin collar linen shirts he usually wore onscreen, of his lean fingers every time he passed her something, of the subtle, intoxicating combination of his cologne and laundry detergent when he leaned over her chair, of his warmth and casual affection surrounding her every day.
She couldn’t focus on anything. Heck, she could just about remember her lines and follow directions. She’d had a narrow escape when he’d asked about the Shalimar script. She had no idea what the show was about. She hadn’t taken in a single sentence.
“Khushi Gupta, you’ve got it bad! Snap out of it!”
“Snap out of what?”
Khushi squeaked, bumping her knee against her dressing table.
“Will you fucking stop creeping up on me like that? Almost gave me a heart attack.” She folded her arms and leaned against the tabletop.
Arnav’s smile dimmed at her tone.
“Sorry. I just thought of asking whether you’d like to come over to mine for dinner tomorrow since we have the evening off? I could cook again. You can make wisecracks about my life while pretending to help.”
“No. I just want to turn in early tomorrow, catch up on sleep.”
“Khushi, I’m only trying to help. I wish you’d let me in.”
“There’s nothing for you to help with! I’m fine. Can you not turn into one of those men who can’t take a single refusal?”
The moment the words were out, she wished she could take them back. All trace of humour vanished from his face and she could almost see the hurt creeping into his eyes.
“I apologize if I stepped over some boundary. I won’t…I hope you have a peaceful evening at home.”
Khushi could feel tears prickling at the back of her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m just tired. I shouldn’t have snapped. That was uncalled for.”
“Don’t worry about it.” His quiet words seemed to echo around her dressing room long after he was gone.
Khushi had lied. It was 9 PM and she wasn’t even contemplating bed. After a day and a half of stilted awkwardness on the sets, she’d returned home miserable and restless. She’d tried apologizing to Arnav a couple more times since her mini-meltdown the previous day. He’d accepted her apology too, but a strained chill lingered. It was like that awful year post her one-night with Arnav all over again. And she hadn’t even gotten any sex out of the bargain.
No, Khushi, don’t even bring sex into this equation. It’s messy enough as it is.
Let’s be real, releasing the sexual tension would solve half the problems between you.
You don’t need a man to release sexual tension, FYI, Khushi. You have your own hand. And battery-operated aids.
Yeah, but you can’t really cuddle with yourself, post-orgasm.
Khushi stopped and slapped her forehead hard. She was talking to herself again. She’d truly regressed to her anxious teenage years. Perhaps decluttering her email would do what a thorough scrubbing out of her apartment and a hot shower hadn’t, and put her to sleep. She did hate looking through her mailbox with a passion.
All too soon her Macbook booted up and displayed her inbox. The number of unread emails was touching a thousand. And this after employing every spam filter known to man and getting her manager to go through her email every couple of days for anything that needed urgent attention.
She sighed. Perhaps email decluttering was not the best idea. If sexual frustration didn’t kill her, this task would.
She was about to log off when a single email received the day before caught her eye.
The subject heading was poorly drafted but the name MEHER MALIK in upper case glared at her. Curiosity getting the better of her, she opened it up. It was bloody tvchaska.com writing to ask for her comments on the press release for Meher Malik’s new venture. For the briefest moment, she could hear the blood rushing in her ears.
There could be only one reason tvchaska would ask for her comments on this. Surely, he had not…he would tell her, wouldn’t he?
She read the email once. Then again, brows scrunched up. This didn’t make any sense. The press release said Meher Malik had decided to launch two complete newcomers found through rigorous auditions.
But…Meher had been so adamant on having Arnav…
She read through more slowly this time. tvchaska.com had somehow found out that Arnav had been in contention for this film (surprise, surprise) and was asking her to comment on the fact that he’d lost out to a newcomer!
Khushi sat back in a daze. He’d lost out on the role of a lifetime and hadn’t said a word! And she’d been so involved in her own petty feelings, she’d gone and upset him some more. That decided it. She could put aside her muddled feelings for one evening. Arnav needed her to be his friend right now, the way he’d been her friend all these days.
Arnav scowled at the persistently ringing doorbell. Was he not allowed one evening of peace in his own house even? Determined to give the late-night caller a piece of his mind, he put his book down and stalked to the door. A quick look through the peephole arrested his irritation at once and he ran his hand through his still-damp hair a couple of times before opening the door.
“Khushi? Is everything alright?”
She nodded, face as inscrutable as ever, walking into his apartment.
“I couldn’t seem to fall asleep after all, and I was wondering if that offer for dinner is still on? I’m a little hungry.”
God, she looked so simultaneously uncertain and hopeful, he would promise the world to her in a heartbeat.
“Of course. Although you won’t get anything fancy because you didn’t give me any notice and I don’t have any prep done. I was actually going to make do with a smoothie.”
Her eyes twinkled with mischief and her forlorn air fled. “Chalega. But I object to semi-cooked pasta.”
“HEY! You take that back! You ate two helpings of that pasta.”
“Only to spare your feelings.”
Resisting a strong urge to pull her into his arms and crush that cheeky grin against his mouth, he turned and led the way to his kitchen. The evening was suddenly looking up.
“You’ve yet to tell me about home. How’s everyone doing?”
Carefully surveying the contents of his liquor cabinet, Khushi took a moment to answer.
“Alright, I guess. Dad needs to watch his cholesterol, not that he listens. Mom’s as fit as ever, thank god. Garima maasi had a new pair of reading glasses. And Gautam mausa seemed okay, apart from his sad tendency toward uncleji-jokes which he’s always had.”
Settling on a bottle of Bacardi, she turned to look for glasses. “I kinda feel like mojitos, so I’m hoping your mint plant is alive.”
“Right-hand corner of the balcony. You didn’t really answer my question. How’s everyone…coping?”
Khushi sighed and vanished into the little kitchen garden he liked to cultivate on the balcony. She returned with a handful of bright green leaves.
“Yeah…it’s been hard on everyone, y’know? Of course, when Nani got sick, we all started preparing ourselves mentally. At the end of the day, she was an old lady, no matter what she’d like you to believe. But…she just…held everything together. I’m not saying our family’s falling apart or anything melodramatic like that. But there’s no denying that everyone feels a little lost. Even Mr-Cool-ad-guru Nick who flew down from LA as soon as he could. Even Payal who is having a bit of a rebellious rock-and-roll phase in her first year of college.”
“And what about stone-cold-Katyayani? How does she feel?”
Khushi put down the muddler she’d been using and cracked open the bottle of rum. She shrugged, the smile on her face brittle around the edges.
“She’s…trying not to overthink it. Obviously, it’ll hurt less and less with time but it almost seems a little bit of a betrayal, to be honest, that I’m not constantly sad. Know what I mean?”
“You know as well as I do, that is absurd.”
“I know. I really do. But my feelings are a right mess. In more ways than you can imagine.”
Arnav put down the knife he’d been using to chop vegetables, giving Khushi his full attention.
“What do you mean?”
At his prodding, Khushi cleared her throat and hopped over to the refrigerator in search of ice trays and soda.
“Oh, just that the last couple of weeks have been a lot to handle. Speaking of trying times, when were you going to tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
Walking over with two glasses of clear sparkling liquid, she handed him one and held on to the other while hoisting herself up to sit on her favourite corner of the granite counter.
“I got an interesting email yesterday. From tvchaska.com, asking me for my comments on the press release for Meher Malik’s new film now that its lead role has gone to some new guy and not Arnav Singh Raizada.”
“And? And when were you going to tell me that you’d lost the role? You talk about not sharing things and then omit something so important?”
“Whoa, whoa, who said anything about ‘losing’ that role? I told you less than a month ago that I’m not interested in doing the film if it means breaking my contract for Ghulam early! Meher decided not to wait and went ahead with someone else. How is that news to you?”
Khushi carefully put her glass down on the counter beside her and narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’re telling me, you seriously passed up a pretty much once in a lifetime film opportunity for Ghulam?”
Arnav rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Okay, firstly, that once-in-a-lifetime thing is so overblown. And secondly, will you quit referring to Ghulam like it’s a sexually transmitted disease? I thought you liked the show!”
“I do! It’s just that…you’ve always wanted to move to doing films! You hate the idea of a daily soap! This movie would’ve been perfect for you!”
Arnav had had enough. Stalking over to her corner of the kitchen, he planted both hands on the counter on either side of her and leaned forward until his nose was centimeters away from hers.
“For the last time, Khushi, my priorities have changed. It’s not some kind of conciliatory lie that I’m telling you. I genuinely, really don’t hate working on this show with you. It’s a year-long thing and I will see it out. And I’m not as obsessed about having a career in film as I once was. If it never happens, I’ll live. I don’t care. Are we clear?”
Khushi jerked her head in agreement, eyes wide, her breath stuttering.
Arnav had only planned on making a point and moving back to his chopping board but the rising flush on her cheeks fascinated him.
Her teeth sank into her lower lip and he almost groaned.
If there was ever a purgatory, surely this was it. Or was it hell? To stand close enough to feel the heat emanating from her damp skin, to have the faintest whisper of her shampoo coil around his senses and drag him closer, to recall in agonizing detail the imprint of her bare skin against his. All he had to do was move his hands from the counter to rest on her waist. To coax her forward and dip his head.
Just a little more.
He wanted to pull that lower lip free, to soothe the blooming red where her teeth had worried it, to kiss her slow and thorough until she gasped for breath and…oh, he wanted so much more.
Instead, he took a deliberate step back and turned the burner on. Talk about blatant symbolism. What a victim of the very genre of fiction he was most known for.
Khushi took a large mouthful of the icy mixture in her glass. What kind of special hell was this? A cozy kitchen that was fragrant with toasting ginger and chili, a mojito in hand, and the most exasperating man in the world.
What had she been thinking? Ek toh, he’d bloody opened the door looking like that—all freshly showered and mussed up in his faded old tracks and even rattier t-shirt. Then, he’d stood in the kitchen showing off his corded forearms while chopping vegetables and asking her questions about her life like some kind of domestic paragon. It was enough to make any woman want to break out the lecherous bad guy regalia and menacingly say, “Aao kabhi haveli pe.”
And after that, he’d leaned in like a real-life version of the alpha males he played on screen to make a point until she’d been sure he had been on the verge of kissing her. But he’d walked away.
Her errant mind finally focused on his words.
Had he just—did he—he had voluntarily given up the Meher Malik project to finish Ghulam. With her. He really wasn’t going to disappear this time. Not professionally. And dare she hope—
But did it mean anything?
Khushi, you unbelievably thick girl, how many more affirmatives do you need? He’s been telling you from Day 1 that he’s back for good. It’s been almost nine months. The time it takes to grow a human from scratch.
More importantly, he’s been showing you too. In so many big and little ways. It’s time you gave him and the two of you another shot.
For God’s sake, he isn’t cooking intimate dinners for Akash and Anjali. Nor is he calling them every night to chat for an hour just because they’re out of town for a few days. This is not just a ‘reconnect with friends’ thing.
Tell him that you’re hopelessly in love with him!
Ok, no, maybe leave out the ‘hopelessly,’ it makes you sound really sad.
But definitely tell him you want to jump his bones.
With more finesse than that.
Khushi banged her fist against her forehead a few times. She was in real trouble when all her internal voices were in agreement.
“Are you…talking to yourself? I’m slightly offended that you’re this bored in my presence.”
Just tell him!
“Yes, but only because I have something difficult to say to you.”
That was it. No taking it back. It was too late to make up something believable—not that her short-circuiting brain would cooperate.
Arnav switched the heat off and turned around, wiping his hands on a dishcloth. The vegetables sizzled gently in the pan.
“I’m nervous already. What is it?”
You should have dressed up more. This kurta is actually frayed in spots. You should’ve invited him out on a date. Why do you suck so much at planning?
“Khushi? You were saying?”
“Immalittleinlovewithyou. I think. No, I’m pretty sure. I’m sure.”
“What?” Arnav reached for the counter, missed, and stumbled before regaining his balance and leaning on the granite.
“I have been for some time. And I’ve frankly not been dealing very well with it, I’m ashamed to say. I know I should have said something earlier, but I guess…I was shoring up courage. Mostly because I don’t know if you feel the same way about me?”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re in love with me?”
“Only a little.”
Arnav continued standing at the far end of the kitchen, studying an increasingly agitated Khushi.
“And? Say something!”
“I’m trying to figure out whether I should kiss you first or put you over my knee for being so daft. I told you months ago that I care about you, that I want to give us another shot with a clean slate. I’d all but resigned myself to you having moved on for good. Now, you’re telling me you’ve been stressing out for some time over whether ‘I feel the same way’ and couldn’t bear telling me that you want to give us another shot too? That’s what all that jitteriness and awkwardness was about?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Khushi primly folded her hands over her crossed knees.
“Do you want me to fucking hire a skywriter? Put an insert in the newspapers?”
“No, just telling me right now would do.”
Arnav shook his head in disbelief, covering the distance between them in two large strides. Suddenly, he was back in her space, leaning over her, making it difficult to draw air.
Khushi made a last-ditch attempt to lighten the situation. “Don’t you dare start quoting Varun Sanghvi at me. You have that look. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hot but I don’t think I’ll be able to keep a straight face…”
Her voice faded away as he placed one hand on her hips and pulled her closer and raised the other to rest against her cheek, stroking lightly with his thumb.
He hadn’t even touched her lips and yet she felt oddly kissed already, lips swollen. The heat in the kitchen had really become unbearable. She grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt, urging him on. He was close enough for her to smell the mint and sugar on his breath. And still he waited.
She finally opened her eyes and found his gaze locked on to hers, fierce and tender at the same time.
“I’ll say it every day and as many times as you need me to, Khushi Gupta. I’m a whole lot in love with you. I’m sorry I hurt you through the mess I’ve made of my life. I want to make up for it, if…you’ll let me.”
His words brushed against her lips, each syllable a physical promise branded into her skin.
Sinking her fingers into the cropped strands at the back of his head, she pressed her mouth firmly against his.
She soon realized the insistent pressure of his lips against hers, the lazy stroke of his tongue only served to make the burn worse. Kissing Arnav was even better than she remembered. Desperate to get nearer, she wrapped her legs around his waist, almost dragging herself off the counter top. As his hands guided her hips toward him, she felt the hard proof of his desire against her thigh.
He broke away from her as though singed, drawing in a few harsh breaths.
“I’m sorry…I just need a minute. Things could become very embarrassing like this.”
Khushi could’ve screamed in frustration.
“Are you serious? You’re thinking of embarrassment? We’re a little past that, no?”
He grabbed her hand, pulling her off the counter to stand in front of him with a gruff laugh. “Tumhaare bade par nikal aaye hai, for someone who was behaving like a teenager with a first crush for the better part of the last two weeks.”
“Yeah, so it’s precisely because I wasted a lot of time dilly-dallying and fantasizing about you, just like this,” Khushi used her free hand to stroke down the plane of his stomach to the definite chub in his tracks, “that I have no time for your virginal reluctance right now.”
Arnav caught her wandering hand, responding through a clenched jaw. “Khushi, we have so much to talk about—figure out. This is not a good idea.”
“I’m aware but there’s going to be no serious conversation from my end when all I can think about is…well…there really isn’t a polite way to put it.”
Arnav restrained both wrists behind her back, bringing her flush against him. His eyes had darkened into storm clouds. “I’d like to hear the impolite version.”
Feeling recklessly giddy, Khushi twisted to whisper in his ear, “All I can think about is you fucking me hard, making gentle love to me, and then taking me twice more until we’re too tired to talk. Not necessarily in that order.”
“I hope you realize, I’m not actually Varun Sanghvi of the imagined legendary sexual prowess. I’m just going to have to do my best.” His arms tightened around her, although there was a suspicious tremor to his voice. Without warning, he swung her up in his arms and stalked toward his bedroom. “If I must be entirely honest, the only reason I can do this easily is because we have so much practice. In this area, I suppose, I can’t fault that chootiya Varun.”
He lay her down on his bed and she sat up to watch while he ripped off his shirt and retrieved a box of condoms from the bathroom.
“Tell me something. If you’d almost given up on us, why do you have condoms in your bathroom? Were you thinking of ‘moving on’?”
“Nowhere close. I just like to be prepared for…possibilities, okay?” He dropped a couple of foil wrapped squares on to the bedside table and offered her his hand, drawing her up to her knees. “Are you complaining?”
“No, I don’t look gift horses in the mouth, no matter how shady.”
He eased her kurta off, tossing it to the same chair he’d thrown his t-shirt on and stopped to admire her.
Khushi reached behind to unclasp her bra but he stopped her.
“What’s the hurry?”
“This bra is annoying the hell out of me. Take it off.”
“Is that so? Let me see.”
Khushi’s response got caught in her throat as Arnav smoothed his hands up the sides of her stomach, to her breasts, stroking over the indigo cotton. He hooked his fingers under the band and teased her nipples with thumbs making her dig her nails into his biceps.
“You’re right, the bra needs to go.” He slipped the straps off her shoulders, scraping his teeth from her collar bone to her jaw. Not hard enough to bruise, just a pleasurable scratch.
She whispered his name, her voice so low, she barely heard herself. But it halted his languorous exploration and he pushed her back down against the pillows. He only stopped to get rid of his tracks before kneeling over her, inching her churidar down over her hips.
Khushi didn’t know which she wanted—this delicious torture to continue or for him to get on with it. Impatient with his deliberate undressing, she tried to kick off the churidar. He stilled her with a hand on her thigh and finished pulling them off.
“Every time you struggle, you tempt me to prolong the agony just a little bit more for the both of us.”
“I’m developing such a healthy respect for your will-power.” Khushi ran a foot up his leg. Arnav caught hold of it, raising it to his lips.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Khushi shivered, her stomach clenching at the feel of his hot parted mouth against the sole of her foot.
“I’ve waited so long for you, reliving our one night together, I’m going to savour every minute right now.”
His lips had moved to her calf.
“The things I’ve imagined doing to you, night after night. Tell me, did you think of me while touching yourself, as I thought of you?”
Khushi gasped as he pressed kisses up her inner thigh.
His fingers rested on the elastic of her fuchsia cotton panties.
“You have no idea.” Khushi pushed back the hair flopping on his forehead with gentle fingers, tracing the jagged scar under his eyebrow, the sharp blades of his cheeks. “I pictured your face between my legs, your fingers stroking me, even when I didn’t want to. No other fantasy came half as close.”
This time he slipped her panties off so fast it was an impressive sleight of hand. “I do hope I live up to the fantasy version.” With her favourite lopsided, dimpled grin, he parted her slick curls, bending his head closer.
Khushi inhaled sharply at the first brush of his tongue. Her thighs clenched with the effort of not crushing his head between them as he built up a rhythm and then stopped, building up a new one.
“Are you…fucking…writing the alphabet…on my clit?”
He raised his head at that. “Of course, not. Just my name. Almost done.”
She could feel herself hovering on the brink. And he could probably tell by the jerky movement of her hips because he returned to a steadier pattern.
She was so, so close.
Arnav amped up the pressure infinitesimally and she fell off the edge. She gasped louder, twisting handfuls of the bed linen, her hips lifting off the bed.
He kissed her quivering stomach, gathering her in his arms, reaching behind to finally unclasp her bra. His fingers were sticky and clumsy and he fumbled with the hooks until Khushi sighed and twisted her arm to help him with them.
The straining tips were especially sensitive and she shivered, locking her arms around him, willing her heartbeat to slow down.
He rubbed her back, soothing her, holding her through the tiny aftershocks. Khushi nuzzled into the hollow at the base of his throat, content to lie in his arms, and idly trace the abstract patterns of the muscles on his back.
She was so comfortable and lethargic in his arms, she almost missed his body gradual tensing up as her hand drifted to his stomach and lower. She smiled against his chest and dipped her hand into the waistband of his boxers. He jerked when her hand closed around him, moving in a slow but steady rhythm.
“Khushi, are you sure?” He exhaled the words into her hair, breathing labored.
Khushi’s hand stilled for a second and then resumed the motion.
“Don’t ask me again, Arnav. Now is the time to make good on all your dirty talk.”
“Okay, but you have to stop doing that. I’m not sure I’ll last much longer.”
Getting rid of his boxers, he leaned over her to pick up a condom from the bedside table.
He’d lost all his earlier finesse. His hands were shaking and he dropped the bit of foil twice. Somehow his brittle vulnerability tugged at Khushi’s heart more than anything else through this evening of extraordinary intimacy. She took the packet from him and ripped it open with her teeth, carefully rolling the latex down his length, and was rewarded with another one of his adorably sheepish smiles.
The smile melted away in a flash though, as he hitched a thigh around his waist and pushed into her. Khushi closed her eyes, arching her back to urge him along. The slippery reminder of her orgasm eased the way and he leaned his damp forehead against hers, releasing a ragged breath as he buried himself deep.
“You know what I think?”
“You can’t possibly be thinking at a time like this.” Arnav’s voice was shaky although his hips were steady as he pulled out and slid in again.
“Only one niggle. I’m not a little bit in love with you. I love you quite desperately.”
“Hormones talking,” he grunted, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.
Khushi sucked her stomach in as he grinded against just the right spot. “You’re right, we’ll…have this discussion…later.”
She pulled his head down to kiss him while he rocked harder against hers. She could feel his muscles straining with the effort. Tilting her hips, she flexed the muscles along her pelvic floor every time he thrust forward.
“Fuck, that feels…”
The rest of his words were lost as his pace became choppier and she dug her fingers against his bottom, holding him tight. The eventual rush of warmth at her core caught her by surprise, however. His body pulled taut as a drawn bowstring and he shuddered, slowly lowering his weight on to Khushi.
“Am I crushing you?”
“A little bit, but I like it.”
Khushi mimicked his earlier move, rubbing his back and smacking a kiss on his shoulder.
After a few minutes, Arnav reluctantly pushed himself off the bed and disappeared into his bathroom, and Khushi snuggled into his sheets. The artificially cooled air raised goosebumps on her sweaty skin. She’d almost drifted off when a light touch to her forehead woke her up.
“So much for ‘take me until we’re too tired to talk.’ You look like you’re ready to crash already.”
She threw a pillow at his smug face and left the warm bed in a huff to use the bathroom herself. By the time she was done, he’d remade the bed and carefully picked up their scattered clothes and folded them, and also re-worn on his boxers and t-shirt, to her disappointment. She leaned against the doorjamb, wrapped in his towel, watching him with a smile.
“What are you looking at?”
“Your sanskaari self. Are you going to feed me now? And perhaps, lend me some pajamas?”
He held out his hand and Khushi wondered if she’d ever get tired of having him look at her like that.
The reheated stir-fry had definitely shriveled up a little, and the rice had become sticky but Khushi couldn’t think of a more satisfying meal in ages.
Arnav was already done eating and he was waiting for her to finish.
“Don’t stare at me eat. It makes me conscious.”
At that he threw his head back and laughed.
“As if anything could make you conscious while eating, Obelix. I love cooking for you because you find such obvious joy in the food.”
Scooping up the last few grains of rice, Khushi held out her hand. “All done. Now, I will wash up because it’s only fair.”
“Oh, no you don’t. I’ll wash up tomorrow. You’re not avoiding this conversation.”
“I’m not avoiding anything. Fine, feel free to do all the extra work tomorrow.”
Khushi picked up the book Arnav had put down before she’d arrived while he went to rinse the plates out.
“Do you like it so far?” She waved the graphic novel in at him when he returned to his seat.
“Yeah, I do. Quite a lot, actually. But I don’t want to talk about Nimona right now.”
Khushi put the book down, and pulled up her feet to sit cross-legged on the couch.
“Okay, okay, what do you want to talk about?”
“Us! What changed your mind all of a sudden? Have you really forgiven me for disappearing two years ago? I just…I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around your change of heart.”
“Arnav…it wasn’t as much a change of heart as it was a conscious decision to trust you. I’ve…been in love with you for so long. I told you I’d moved on because it’s what I wanted to be true. I didn’t want to be in love with you because even after you came back, I was sure I’d only get my heart broken. No matter what you said. I’m sorry for being harsh but it’s the truth.”
“I know.” His eyes were so troubled, Khushi almost regretted beginning on this path.
“But then…you stayed. And you called me, and covered for me, and held me when I needed it. You absolutely refused to go away even when I was quite the bitch to you. And you’re staying to do Ghulam.”
“Khushi…why is this…this isn’t about me leaving Kuch Ishq Jaisa all those years ago?”
She hesitated and then nodded. “I know, I know it’s not the same situation and it’s not even like I was in love with you then. I was happy with Aman. But we had such a great thing going with Kuch Ishq Jaisa…and you left. I resented it for a very long time. Even when I understood why you needed to leave.”
“I…had no idea. Why did you never bring it up?”
“Because it was selfish. The resentment was selfish. And it wasn’t your problem. I got over it also. But then you seemed to leave for good the last time we slept together. I just…in my head, I was convinced you’d leave this time too.”
“I’m so confused. Did you want me to sign with Meher Malik or not?”
“I both did and didn’t, to be honest. I wanted you to sign because it would be great for you and because I thought that’s what you wanted. But I also didn’t want you to sign because it would mean you not seeing this show through…again. I was sure it would mean losing you.”
“So…when I voluntarily didn’t sign with Meher, you finally realized I’m not going anywhere?”
Khushi held his gaze seriously. “Pretty much. My feelings were never the issue. It was my ability to trust you that had been damaged. It hit me tonight that this film isn’t even the first time you’ve expressed your commitment to me…to Ghulam. And that it really was time I took a chance on us.”
“And you’re not hung up on…what Lavanya said?”
“If I’m really honest, that’s another yes and no question. I hate that you and Lavanya didn’t work out, I hate that you had to deal with that mess, because I don’t like it when you’re unhappy. I also hate that our relationship became complicated before your divorce was through.” She shrugged. “But…well…I have you now. And we wouldn’t be here without everything that’s gone down.”
Her eyes glimmered in the dim lamplight. Arnav got up from his armchair and sat by Khushi on the couch, drawing her into a hug. “I’m so sorry, Khushi. For every time I’ve made you feel abandoned and guilty and hurt. I haven’t handled a lot of things in my life well but I really do want to do better this time.”
Khushi’s throat was clogged with tears. She could feel a trickle of moisture where his head was buried in the crook of her neck as well and she hugged him back fiercely.
“We will do better this time, Arnav. We’re older and wiser, aren’t we?”
She was relieved to get a watery chuckle out of him. “Definitely older, don’t know about wiser. Although I have a different concern.”
“We still have about three months of Ghulam left. Do you understand what havoc our relationship will play in the media and online? They’ve been linking us up for years.”
“So then, nothing’s really changed, no? If nothing else, any media attention will ensure Ghulam ends with a bang.”
“Speaking of bangs, since it’s past 1 AM, do you want to stay the night? We can stop at your place in the morning before going to the studio to pick up your stuff.”
Khushi grinned, an almost forgotten lightness in her heart. “It’s why I borrowed your pajamas in the first place, you juvenile man.”
A/N: Helloooooo. *crickets*
Bet y’all didn’t see this one coming. I’m so, so sorry the last part took this long but I’d just lost my writing mojo. This story was always at the back of my mind like a dried scab I couldn’t itch, and I’m super sorry it took me 8 months to scratch it. Result is somewhat long and clunky and choppy but completed. *phew* The joy of introducing IPK to a few friends who are not at all happy about becoming invested in it plus recent developments in our volatile little fandom may or may not have pushed me out of my inertia. I cannot confirm anything. All I can confirm is that Mallory Ortberg’s Guide To Flirting With Plausible Deniability is real and my holy text on the Internet. Also, shoutout to Miz Taylor Swift whom I borrowed the title from. The song this is from has a faintly similar premise but my story ends happier because I’m ethically opposed to tragic endings in romantic fiction. Not gonna lie, the friend I’m writing this for only wanted the smutty bit at the end; but I’m so weird about writing PWP, I ended up with an almost 15K word story that I agonized over for about 9 months. Suffice to say, I won’t be announcing any new projects at this moment. But I live in hope.
As always, thank you for reading and being here!
Lots of love,