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L o v e

U n e x p e c t e d

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L o v e

U n e x p e c t e d

RITU KAKAR

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SriShti PubliSherS & DiStributorS

Registered Office: N-16, C.R. Park New Delhi – 110 019

Corporate Office: 212A, Peacock Lane Shahpur Jat, New Delhi – 110 049

editorial@srishtipublishers.com

First published by

Srishti Publishers & Distributors in 2020

Copyright © Ritu Kakar, 2020

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This is a work of fiction. The characters, places, organisations and events described in this book are either a work of the author’s imagination or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, places, events, communities or organisations is purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the Publishers.

Printed and bound in India

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To my mothers.

Who have, are and will always be the pillars of my strength and encouragement.

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You are what you are, So, if and when presented with the Unexpected by life

One should learn from it and Not run away.

Because,

The fight is always better than flight.

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Acknowledgement

I thank the lord to have revived my passion for writing at the time when He knew I was going to be alone and clueless in life. He gave me my direction and a path of joy to follow.

I thank and appreciate my husband Vicky Kakar and my children Armandeep and Reet, for their love and for always being my support system.

Even though I had stunned everyone around me with the emergence of my fi rst book One Precious Moment, they all were and are so proud of my achievement and my strength to fi nally pursue what I love.

My family – be that my husband, children, parents, in-laws, my sister, my brother, my sisters-in-law, niece, nephew – has not only supported me, but are always encouraging me. Especially my husband (for whom I have now become Author Sahiba). More than me, they all want to see me achieve my heart’s desires.

While I acknowledge all my loved ones for their love, support and encouragement, I need to especially thank fi rst my parents for making me the person I am, and my in-laws for always supporting me to do what I wish to.

I most defi nitely wish to acknowledge my friend, advisor and the fi rst person who helped edit my book Love, Unexpected

Ms Mayura Amarkant. She not only helped draft my book into 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 9

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x   •  Acknowledgement what it is, but helped me set the tone and pan out my book for submissions to publishing houses. Thank you Mayura, you are a true friend and wonderful editor.

I would also like to thank Stuti and Arup for seeing potential in my story and helping me publish it. Team Srishti helped polish the diamond (that’s what this book is for me) for the readers out there. Thank you again.

Last but not the least, I would like to thank the most important people – readers and book lovers. You are the reason we authors write, for whom stories are created. It is because of you lovely people that we love what we do. Thank you so much for helping us spread our passion and acknowledging our work. I say so with pride that my first book One Precious Moment was loved and appreciated because of you wonderful readers. Thank you very much for your passion for loving and reading books.

Heartfelt thanks to all my loved ones... friends and family and book lovers for all your support, encouragement, care, love and most of all, your belief in me. It makes me confident that I will soon be able to reach that sky of mine.

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1

Good Lord! Who could be calling at this hour? Everyone knows better than to trouble me at work, especially from noon to 1:30 p.m., my busiest hours. The only time when the workload at the café is the least, thus the best time to sit and tally all the records, books, fi les and registers for my cafe. It’s a chore that I hate to the core, but the fi nal check has to be done by me. Being the boss has its downside despite having an effi cient staff. The phone continues to ring, I reach for it, immediately, to stop it’s grating sound.

Oops! It’s Sam! We usually prefer to keep our conversations for home. No one better than him knows I’m my worst enemy at this time of the day. So, it has to be a good and valid reason.

Hopefully not like the last time when he had called wanting to know HIS wife’s favourite ice-cream fl avour. Like seriously… he sure got a piece of my mind that day. Since then, today is the fi rst time he has called.

“What!!??” I practically shout into the phone.

“OMG, OMG!!! What are you saying? For heaven’s sake, slow down a bit. Begin again, this time, go slow. Now tell me, how on earth is this possible? Like where? When? How? No, forget that, please tell me is she okay? Why are you wasting your time calling me, you dork? You should be with her!” I shout in fear and panic.

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2   •  Ritu Kakar The fear in my voice sure calms my brother a notch. When he speaks again, he uses the regular authoritative tone that he uses with me.

“Gosh Kaira, will you keep quiet for heaven’s sake? Your hyper attitude can create a ruckus enough to wake the dead. Damn it!

You simply go on blabbering making any normal conversations impossible.”

I keep quiet for a few seconds only to snap back with twice the indignation.

“Hey! Hey! If you back up a little, you will realise that a few seconds ago, you did not sound so cool yourself. In fact, you sounded possessed with fear and worry. So, don’t try to act too smart with me, it is just the suddenness of the news that got me a little jittery.”

After a small pause, I added sarcastically, “Sam, will you please settle down and talk. Your pacing around won’t help you loose weight but will sure give you and everyone around a headache.”

“Oh God! Can you not crack jokes especially at a time like this, sister dear? By the way, how did you know I was walking around?”

“Well, that is easy, you, dear brother, sound breathless. It usually happens when you are pacing around. So basically, you cannot even take small rounds without getting short of breath, huh.”

“Okay, fine! Now, stop listing my shortcomings and this meaningless rant? Please, just listen carefully. Tasha is fine. Yes, she is at the hospital, with the doctor attending to her as we speak.

If all goes well, she will deliver our baby anytime soon. Kaira, I cannot express how thrilled I am! But her painful screams echoing through the entire ward is really making me nervous and a little scared.”

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Love Unexpected  •  3

After a small pause, he whispers, almost sounding shocked at his words.

“You know Kaira, I would never have believed Tasha could abuse if I had not heard it myself today. I mean we have been together for more than four years now and never before. But man, did it sound sooo cool and hot coming from her.”

A feeling of relief and calmness rushes through my nerves, with it the need for answers surface. But hearing the last statement does bring a smile to my face. He sounds so zapped. If not for the seriousness of the situation, it would have been hilarious. So, I let it slide for now and start firing questions while gathering my stuff from the desk.

“But Sam, how? When? But mostly, why? Is it not a little too early? I mean, she is not due for another three weeks or so. So, what happened? And what are the doctors saying? How is the baby?”

He takes a deep breath and replies impatiently. I so detest this but for now, I choose to focus on Tasha & the baby. I can imagine him waving his hand in the air as he attempts to explain the situation while continuing with his marathon across the hospital lobby.

“Her water bag broke while we were having lunch. As for your

‘WHY’… how the bloody hell should I know that? This is my first time too! Oh, goodness gracious, wait! I do know why. Yes, yes, actually my baby is super impatient just like her/his crazy aunt. Is that reason enough, eh?”

I let out a fake laugh and respond rather dramatically,

“Yayayaa Sammy, I totally get it. You’re really trying hard to be snarky, but you are awful at it brother.”

“Arrgh!! Kaira! Don’t call me Sammy! You know I hate it.

Especially now that I am going to be a father. It neither sounds mature nor fatherly.”

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4   •  Ritu Kakar His breathing normalises so I guess he has stopped walking. I can almost imagine him smiling slightly now.

I chuckle silently at having rattled him out of his sour mood.

But I clear my throat before speaking again. If he so much as hears the humour in my voice, it would irritate him once again.

“Well, brother dear that is a conversation for another time.

Ohh btw! Why aren’t you with Tasha? Why didn’t you just ask mom to call?”

“I know! I too didn’t want to leave Tasha alone right now.

Calling you myself seemed easier and faster rather than going to look for mom. But now I wish I had, I would have returned to Tasha by now instead of the mindless chattering with you.”

“Don’t be mean bro! You know I can’t help questioning. When I left this morning Tasha was absolutely fine. Add to the fact that I love talking can’t be helped, can it?”

“Yeah, okay, whatever! Now, I have no idea what difference your presence will make but Tasha wants her bestie here. But for what it’s worth come quickly.”

“Hey! That’s not fair! You should know better than anyone what Tasha & my relationship means. So, my presence there is as significant as yours, brother dear.”

“I know … I know! You know hearing you go ballistic when I rattle you especially about Tasha, gives me an amazing high.”

“Hahaha! You are too funny Sammy! I understand you are stressed, but don’t use me to calm your rattled nerves. Everything else aside, it’s my right as an aunty to be with Tasha and you right now. I am after all your one and only sister, THE AUNT!”

“Gosh Kai! You are impossible! Now please get off your high horse and move it. Let’s just pray that all goes well.

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Love Unexpected  •  5

ups, sonographies, and boring pre-natal classes where I was forced to perform your role because you were busy.”

I imitate the obnoxious breathing noises taught in the classes just to pull another fast one on him. I speak in a low, poor me voice,

“You know those classes were embarrassing and pretty torturous. But I did it, didn’t I?”

I pause dramatically again,

“But then you know what Sammy, this child is getting a lively, sexy in fact the most amazing aunt ever! I am after all one of a kind! THE BEST!”

I smile as I imagine the mixed feelings he must be experiencing right now.

“Huh...Whatever! Will you stop self obsessing now and get on that stupid bike you own? We don’t want another patient, so please ride carefully.”

Before I can retaliate, he mutters, “Why can’t you just get a car like normal human beings?”

“OMG! You really are grumpy today! Actually, it is not that much of a surprise, huh. As for my bike and me, we are always careful. FYI cars are boring and take longer to reach places.

Whereas my bike and I understand the roads and each other very well.”

“Okay! Now, will you please hurry. Having to watch Tasha wither in pain was really difficult. Didn’t know she was so strong…

Come fast.. Kai.”

Hearing his forlorn voice sunk my heart. “Hey Sammy!

Chillax…Of course, she is strong, we women are made of steel when it comes to motherhood. Together you will sail through this like everything else you both have. Now, Shush…!! Don’t be a weak-hearted ass! Go in and take care of her as well as my niece/

nephew till I arrive. Bye, I am OMW.”

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“Huh, what? What on earth is omw?”

“What the f…!”

“Kairaaaa, please don’t curse. Your slangs are incomprehensible.

You know I just hate it when you talk like this.”

“Okay, Mr Indignant, don’t shout at me! I am twenty-five, not five years old. And you are twenty-eight, not eighty. Even though you act and behave like a senior citizen most of the time.”

I sigh and exclaim, “Sam, you really need to start growing up and loosening up a bit. You are going to be a father now! And like seriously? You are asking what is ‘omw’? Huh! It means ‘On my way’. Even a kid knows that! It is so freaking common… ufff!!

Okay, now stop talking so much! I really need to prep everyone here before leaving and you brother are delaying me... Now you need to be with your wifey, I will see you in a while. Bye! You take care now … see you soon.”

I hurriedly hang up before he can start rambling again…

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2

This is me! The TALKER! And where is the fun if you don’t trouble your brother at every chance you get! In Sam’s case, it is effortless to get a reaction from him. He is extreme when it comes to his emotions and attitude towards life.

Being the oldest, he is very prim & proper too, all credit goes to his convent education.

He has a charming and caring side to him, but it’s a latent one. A side one rarely gets to see. All this makes him an amazing

& protective brother, making it tough for me to live up to his expectations.

Of course, all brothers are over protective, especially when one has an impulsive nutcase like me as a sister. Yup! I know I am over-friendly and completely outspoken. My love for life and zest for the NOW is perpetual. Now, I sometimes think that onlookers judge me as outrageous, but trust me, I am not so bad. After all I run a Cafe Library with the help of a fantastic team who are more like family than employees. And where does it say Café owners can’t be mischievous and a tad bit crazy?

Shoot I am doing it again, I need to speak to my team instead of daydreaming. I need to be OMW like now, but I am going to be late (as usual).

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8   •  Ritu Kakar I begin calling out to my team loudly which makes everyone in the library look at me in sheer amazement! I was breaking my own rules! Oh God! I really am preoccupied to have broken my own golden rule!

As I start gathering my stuff, it occurs to me that Nikki will take my case for breaking the rules (shoot) as the library area is a complete silence zone.

My heart is beating loudly pounding with excitement and joy.

I am just dying to tell the world; I am going to be an aunt soon. But for now, it will be announced to the closest people in my circle.

“Nikita, Robin, Pete, guys please hurry. A quick word, I need to leave asap.”

“Kaira, please don’t bring down this place with your shouting.

This is, after all, your Café Library, remember? So at least maintain the decorum of the place you created. Members are busy with serious work; you know that exam time is nearing for most students.”

I reply hurriedly & nonchalantly, “Okay, okay, I am sorry.

Now, where are the others?”

“Robin is at the bank to deposit this month’s profits. Pete, is helping Anita downstairs. It’s a crazy day today. So, tell me, where is the fire?”

“Nikki baby, what will I ever do without you? You, my sweetheart, are the best accountant, manager & friend I have ever had… And no, there is no fire. I am going to become an aunt soon; Tasha is about to deliver the baby. So, you can understand my rush. I have to be at the hospital… like… NOW!”

“Oh! Wow! Congratulations babes! How is Tasha doing?”

“Thank you! I don’t know exactly how she is doing. Sam just called, and he sounded worried. I am rushing there and will update you. For now, you do me the honours and let the rest of 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 8

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the team know. Please, lock up the café as I will not be returning.

Before I leave, I want to make a small announcement. Could you switch on the mike for me please?”

“Okay!!!! Listen up all my dear patrons slash friends slash book lovers, sorry for the rule break, won’t happen again! Enjoy the first round of today’s coffee on the house from the ‘soon to be’

aunt. So, all you lovely people!! Have fun!! You all know the rule -

‘Silence is Heaven for All’. All the best people!!”

I step away from the mike amidst huge cheering and shouts of congratulations from across the café. It feels amazing till Nikki interrupted my joy

“ Kai, will you just leave? I will handle the rest. All the best and God bless!!”

“ Hey, Niki… darling!! I say this again and again… what will I do without you?”

“Survive! ‘Cos that’s who you are. But thank you for making me feel special and important.”

“Hahaha before this becomes an admiration society I am leaving. Adios, amigo!!”

I stop midway & turn back…shoot! I am going to be even more late…but this was important…

“Oh God! I so forgot! Niki! You remember I mentioned this new publishing company a few weeks back, ‘The Lantern’

and the owner Mr Aveer Mehra. The new face in the publishing market? The same guy who has made a huge name for himself in the recent years… do you remember him?”

“Yeah, I remember. He got nominated as the youngest entrepreneur in publishing. The name you went all gaga over, hmm? The man whose picture you searched the net, the papers and what not for.”

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10   •  Ritu Kakar She smiles mischievously. But I am too distracted & just shake my head in affirmation.

She asks in a professional tone when she sees my distracted look.

“What about him?”

“He is bringing a new proposal for our café. I had mailed him a few weeks ago with a proposal to which he agreed. He is coming to negotiate for the range of international bestsellers, the new study material for students, magazines, etc. He says he had loved the concept of our Café Library and was impressed with its growing popularity. After a long discussion over emails, we agreed to meet today.”

I look at my watch and then back at Niki with a sigh.

“He is expected … like NOW!”

She knows exactly where this is going even as I give her my impish look, knowing it works every time.

“Will you please, meet him. You know, to work out the basics.

You can arrange for another appointment with me!!”

I pause to think of another date.

“How about day after tomorrow? Keep it for noon. That way you can update me on everything that is discussed today. For now, explain the reason for the change of plans. I’m sure he will understand.”

Niki’s face had worry and concern written all over it, which surprises me since she usually loves to tackle tough situations.

“But Kai… this is huge! You have been on it for some time now. What if I can’t get it done? It will kill me to disappoint you.

You have been very excited and hopeful about this venture. Why don’t you just call him and postpone the meeting?”

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about the café as I do, if not more. It is not possible to postpone; he should be here any minute. I know you will nail it like you always do. Now bye. GTG.”

Waving a bye, I rush down the stairs - knowing the only way the conversation could have ended.

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3

Shit, shit, shit I am late!! I hurriedly dash down the long fl ight of stairs. Sam is going to kill me, rightly so…. Good heavens, how could I have forgotten about the meeting with Mr. Mehra? I know Nikita will handle it but… Shoot!! Now, I will need to call him and explain. Gosh, why do I get stuck with organizing, updating, chatting, sorting… it causes unnecessary delay…. Hmm… I just can’t help it, can I? I keep getting late.

I really am going to start keeping that organizing diary which everyone keeps telling me I need.

I am looking down and mumbling under my breath while rushing towards my Scooty. Little do I know the unexpected turn of events that lay ahead…

As I rush down I suddenly bang into a warm solid, muscular wall! Shoot! I should have seen where I was going… I fi nd myself fl ying backwards as I feel the quick pull of gravity. A million thoughts race through my mind, the prominent one being the realization that my ass is going to hit Mother Earth soon and hurt in the next fi fteen seconds. My hands are in the air grasping for support Alas! Despite all efforts, things are blurry and moving so fast all around me that I know my attempts to save my fall would fail.

My tote bag is now on the ground somewhere. I am cursing aloud without realizing I am doing so, while I try to break my fall.

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When all of a sudden out of nowhere I am pulled hard to safety by strong, warm & caring hands. He yanks me close… right against his chest.

I whimper, not realizing that it is actually audible, “Ufff! Oh, thank heavens! That was so bloody close!”

I am breathless, struggling to gain control, but the warmth of his grip makes me want hold on. His strength and masculinity are blowing my mind. My mind is working at the speed of light, 6

feet 1 inch tall. Nearly a foot taller than me or so it seems, wow!

Hmmm… broad and toned shoulders with a very firm grip and a chest that has the capacity to bury all my angst. He just saved my ass, quite literally! But, hey, that is BS! He is the cause of my downfall in the first place, huh! But wait… let me judge him later.

While I breathe deeply to steady my nerves, his musky perfume hits my nose. Hmm, what smell is that… is it a touch of spice wood in his cologne? Wow, he smells really good! Does his face match these qualities?

Shoot! I return from fantasy land. What on Earth am I doing?

Am I for real? My bestie is at the hospital, and I keep getting delayed. And now I am actually swooning over a stranger! Wow, God save me from my eccentricity. I don’t have the time nor the luxury to acknowledge anything or anyone right now. Not even the impressive strength and scent of my saviour. I chuckle slyly to myself.

Maybe, if the time had been right, I might have enjoyed the moment. For now, I should just say a quick thank you for saving my ass, literally and just leave. Pulling myself away is an effort.

Nonetheless, I slowly move my hands away from those amazingly broad muscular shoulders. But before I can so much as put in a word, Mr Strong Shoulders speaks, stunning me to silence (a very first) with his ‘oh so sexy & so manly voice’

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14   •  Ritu Kakar

“Hey, watch where you are going, lady. You need to curb that speed if you don’t want to break your bones. You are lucky; I got you when I did.”

WTF... Did this man just reprimand me? It’s okay, isn’t it?

No!! Woo hooo!! No one gets to do that! I was sooo going to be nice and thank him, but now no way on God’s beautiful earth will he be getting that.

“Hey Mister, YOU better watch it!! If it weren’t for you stopping suddenly, in the middle of the stairways, I would have sailed out. I mean… like… who freaking does that, huh? As you just said I could have hurt myself badly. To top that you pulled me so hard I am lucky to have not dislocated a joint!”

“Okay, ma’am! Listen, you seem to be crying wolf here. I saved you from injury and didn’t cause any harm. As for standing in the way, ma’am, you need to get your eyes checked. I am not standing in the middle of the stairway, Ms Fireball? You would have noticed this had you been careful rather than flying out blindly.”

“Ms Fireball? Like… really?? How original!! Huh!!”

“Well, it suits you. After all, who argues with their saviour?

Most people are thankful but you are trying to make me feel guilty. As for the ‘Fireball’ analogy, well you do look like a ball of fire all red and hot. And you are spitting fire.”

And he smiles and winks.

Did he just wink at me? Like is this guy for real? Shoot! Screw him! I don’t have the time for this even though he is really hot…

and his voice… oh man… it’s giving me goosebumps… But right now I need to leave or else Sam and Tasha will kill me.

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been saved by a handsome man. Well, his loss cause getting me to apologise now, that to voluntarily is nearly impossible.

“BS, you can say whatever you want now. As for saving me, you did me no favours! It is your fault, to begin with. Anyway, now move out of my way, I am getting late! I have no time for this crap!

Maybe some other time if you get that lucky. Toodle doo Mister!”

I reprimand him with my index finger carelessly close to his face. Before he could utter another word, I rush out. But I do get a glimpse of him staring after me with surprise and wonder and a little fury in his eyes. It seems like no one has ever spoken to him like this. Well, what can I say, I am one of a kind!

But I have to mention that he is the hottest guy I have ever encountered. Looks which would get better with age like good old wine which tastes better over the years. He must be in his early thirties but that stubble makes him look rugged and really handsome.

He is dressed like he is a man who has money and power. His own boss, maybe. His eyes are a lovely shade of warm chocolate brown and they shine with arrogant intelligence. A proud, handsome man entering my café is worth my attention. But today is the wrong day. Who is he? What is he doing in my café?

Well, at this moment my priorities should be my family, not some attractive stranger. The saying, ‘Que Sera, Sera’ (whatever will be, will be) suits me right now. If ever we meet again, I would love to continue the sparring and enjoy admiring him. It has been a while since someone tickled my romantic side this way. I sigh to myself… yes… it has been long since…

Even as I rush towards my bike, I can still feel the heat of his eyes drilling into my back like lasers. I refuse to give him the satisfaction by looking back as much as I want to. The need to see him one more time is overwhelming, but then it would have killed my dramatic exit. With a cheeky smile, I applaud myself for rendering him speechless as I drive away on my bike.

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Well, well, well, you all are now wondering who this TALKER is. As you may know, I am Kaira… Kaira Kapoor. Kai to my friends and family.

Kaira means pure, whereas Kai means happy or ocean or loveable. Well, these names suit me because I am pure, pure fun and mischief. My friends know me as a joyful person fi lled with a zest for life.

As I wait for the light to turn green, I push back my windblown hair from my eyes. While I do this, I hear a loud whistle from the side-lines. I look up to see quite a good-looking guy eyeing me. Hmmm… well, that makes me confi dent that I am not bad looking. My crowning glory is long, straight and silky brown. I am 5 feet 7 inches tall with brown eyes with a tinge of a champagne hue matching my hair perfectly. My complexion is more like caramel sauce mixed with a few drops of white chocolate sauce.

As the light turns green, I turn to the guy who is still eyeing me. I give him a cheeky smile and wave before going my way.

I may be good to look at, but despite my attractive features, it is my bubbly nature which pulls people towards me. They say I have fl awless skin, however, the mark above my eye disturbs me at times. Yes, I carelessly fell off my bicycle when I was around ten.

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And then there is the second cut above my lip which I love. It is more like a war medal for me.

Wow, now this is one reason I love my bike. They call it Scooty, but I love calling it a bike. I get the freedom to think aloud without being viewed as crazy. Now why is that mark a medal, huh, well it was from a battle I remember with glory and pride.

Shoot, the speed breaker! Ufff, that was a close save! I really need to watch where I am going, or else Sam’s fears might come true!

Now, where am I just before my near fall at the speed breaker?

Oh yes, about how my lip is scarred.

My bestie, Tasha and I reached for our first day in high school and some over smart girls cornered Tasha. Now, she was not a fair pick to harass. Tasha was a meek introvert, who started hyperventilating when she was about to be ragged. I saw her while returning from the school office where I had to submit some papers. In retrospect, I could have handled the situation like an adult but no, that is not me. I just have to act on impulse. So, I tighten my belt and jump in like Rani of Jhansi.

“Whoa girls! Why are you bullying someone who is no match for you? Look at her, she is shaking in fear, making you all look like idiots! Now, if you were fighting fair, with someone stronger, or at least more capable of handling you three, I would understand.”

Wow, did I hit the beehive, or what? It was terrific seeing the trio pull back their shoulders and stand erect. That sure was a ‘ready to fight’ pose! My comment had hit hard, shit! I looked around for a diversion, but seeing the crowd, that had gathered, I knew it was war. Anyone who backed out now would look like a fool. It’s just not in my DNA to back out. I quietly cursed myself for being impulsive… again…. It was the first day of high school after all… none of us needed this...

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18   •  Ritu Kakar Tasha tried pulling me back. I could hear her chiding me in a quivering voice, “God Kai, why can’t you ever think before acting. It is our first day and you are already in a situation. Let’s just leave.”

Two of the bullies, our seniors (shit), were in my face scowling at me. One of them said, “I think you should listen to your friend, newbie.”

But then, she made the biggest mistake, she pushed me. Even Tasha who hardly ever curses, lets out a string of abuse. Now there was no backing down, it was war. The girl who had pushed me, soon found herself on the floor with me on top of her. The other two tried pulling me off which led to hair pulling, a rain of blows, punches and slaps.

The crowd had a gala time at our expense. The college courtyard rang with whistles, cat calls, and humorous comments.

We were unstoppable because it was now a matter of prestige and ego. Toward the end of the scuffle, two bullies had bruises and one had a black eye.

Whoopsie for me, ouch! I was not in good shape myself. I had a sprained wrist, scratches on my arms along with a sizeable upper lip cut, that needed stitches. And that, my friends, was the famous

‘war medal / battle-mark’ I am referring to.

Well, our drama caused quite a ruckus and the college management had to step in. We were pulled apart by some angry teachers who chided us for our childish behaviour. Imagine the first day of high school and instead of sitting in class, we visited the principal’s office!

I sigh happily as I remember that day. It was the most memorable day of my high school life despite the firing and lectures or for my battle mark. My day of victory 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 18

06-Nov-19 12:34:55 AM

Love Unexpected  •  19

On the bright side, the clash of the titans broke the ice between us. With the trio, we formed our group that very first day. We were now the ‘famous five’. They were a great support during the few years that we were together. In fact, we all are still in touch. Btw, their names are Maya, Pearl and Zoonie. Pearl and Maya are married and settled abroad. As for Zoonie, she now helps her dad in his business. I must call my girlies with the good news, or they will never forgive me.

Well, I can go on non-stop about my girlies but my destination is finally here.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:55 AM

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5

The best thing about bikes, you can fi nd a place to park, asap. While parking, I remember the fi rst time I met Tasha.

Well, her name is Natasha Baig but I think abbreviations are snappy and fun. Tasha and I met in the fi fth grade when her dad got posted from Teheran to Mumbai. The fast pace, noise and the excitement that defi ne this city was different from the Persian culture. She was used to a style of living that was quite opposite.

The oil company her father worked for, helped them in fi nding a home closest to work in a good locality. That’s how we met. We were neighbors. While I was on the fourteenth fl oor, she lived on the sixth fl oor. As luck would have it, we were in the same school too.

Our fi rst meeting was legendary as I have mentioned earlier.

We were in high school when I got my ‘war medal scar’. In her I found a friend who is now more than a sister to me. She sure knows me better than anyone. Sometimes better than I know myself.

The sound of a blaring horn brings me back to my immediate surroundings, “Hey, madam look where you are going! There’s no need to die under my car!”

Shit, that is close again! Another bad habit of mine,

‘daydreaming’. Whatever my faults, they were, are and will remain.

20

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Love Unexpected  •  21

Tasha and my friendship has been strong for more than fifteen years now. Though now it is not just us. She cements it by marrying my elder brother.

Huh! ‘Love is blind’ whoever said that is damn right! But then, she could have been married to someone I may have hated, or he could have disliked me (it’s not easy to like me at least not instantly). Then what would have happened? OMG! That is scary to even imagine! I would rather be talking about her sex life with my brother than not have her in my life at all. Though it is a disgusting conversational choice, he is my elder brother after all.

Now to add to this circle of love we have a baby on its way.

Here I am, at the hospital. Thankfully without broken bones nor any more mishaps. Wonders never cease to happen. I reach my destination in one piece with no more arguments. I rush to the nurse station to inquire when I see Sam pacing the floor. I look around for mom, but there is only him with a look that scares me.

I rush to him and start off without pause as usual.

“What the hell are you doing here? Why are you not with Tasha? Now is not the time to have cold feet. Is she okay? Where is mom? What are you looking at? Say something for heaven sake!!!”

“If you stop your rambling for once, only then will I be able to tell you anything.”

“Ya, okay. I am sorry but seeing you all gloomy and pacing around like this got me scared. She is okay, na?

“Yes, or at least I think so. They are doing a C-section right now, as we speak.”

“What the fuck…why? She was doing fine. All the tests and ultrasounds were perfect. The doctor said she was doing well. So, what’s wrong?”

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22   •  Ritu Kakar

“Kai, stop getting worked up. The doctor told me all is fine.

It is just that the umbilical cord got wrapped around the baby’s neck. They tried everything to avoid the operation, but it wasn’t possible. Which is why they rushed her to the OT.”

I can feel the increased rate of my heartbeat and goose bumps all over my body as I speak,

“Why didn’t you mention this to me when you called earlier?”

“All was going well then. This complication occurred after our conversation. I think the baby turned or something like that.”

“Shit, shit, shit, have you called her family. And where is mom?”

“Yes, her parents are on their way. As for mom, she is praying in the lounge. You better go to her. She has been crying ever since they took her in. She needs your positive dose.”

I give him a quick hug and rush to where Mom is. When I see him put his hands in his hair in frustration and worry, I stop and call out hoping to irritate him into easing a little.

“Hey Sammy, don’t worry, both will be fine. After all, I am going to be the one to hold him first.”

It is another sign of how worried he is, because he gives me a lame smile. Typically, he would have started a squabble with me, huh. I quietly turn away. Just as I am about to switch to the corridor, I hear my name.

“Kaira...”

“uhh... ya!!”

“You know we all need your positivity right now. You are the only one among us all who stays calm in the face of problems. So, spread the brightness.”

“Hey, do not go all mushy on me brother dear. Btw, you know I hate it when you call me Kaira. It’s stopping me from talking B.S.

with you and turn respectful.”

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Love Unexpected  •  23

I give him a flying kiss and thumbs up. Before I turn, I shout back, “Hey Sammy, before you ask again what btw and B.S.

mean…”

“By the way, I know, and as for B.S., I know that too. I don’t have to expand on it to encourage your nonsense.”

“Good going bro, you are learning. I am impressed.”

I smugly smile at him and go in search for Mom, all the while praying for both Tasha and junior.

While I am as scared and worried, I need to be strong and support the family.

We are in the best nursing home, with the best doctors. This may be a small place, but the care and facilities here are beyond excellence.

The atmosphere around is homely and bright. It is not like a regular hospital where everything from the walls to the doors to the curtains are white. The air smells fresh and flowery, not like the terrible medicine infused air at other clinics and hospitals.

I reach the lounge where I find mom curled up in a chair.

Tears were running down her cheek. Luckily, it’s just us in here, giving us privacy. Only the father is allowed anywhere near the OT or the lobby. I give Mom a tight hug and she breaks into sobs.

“She is going to be kk , mom! You have told us a million times that it is natural! Every woman experiences it once in her life. So, why are you crying? You, have brought two into this world. Tasha will do so too!”

“I know Kai. It’s just that saying and seeing is different.

Especially, now as she is being operated.”

I hug her again. Being in her arms reassured my fearful soul.

“Mom, it’s going to be fine. You don’t have to worry. She is strong, and so is our baby.”

I hold her hand tight in support, she has been a mother to both Tasha and me forever. So, when Sam and she fell in love; mom 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 23

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24   •  Ritu Kakar was the happiest of all. She is one of the gentlest persons I have ever seen. Extremely patient especially with crazy children like us. We gave mom some tough times, but she handled everything with love, care and a smile. I cannot recall a time when she ever shouted or raised a hand on us.

Mom was the first person to whom Sammy and Tasha confessed their love. Even though Mala aunty was not against it, Tasha was afraid to speak to her about it. She too knew that Mala aunty was bound by her husband’s rules and assertive nature. So, mom was a safe choice to keep a secret.

“Hey mom, remember when Sammy had come with Tasha to you? God, I still can’t get over the look on your face. You were expecting it despite us trying to keep it under wraps, waiting for our finals to complete before speaking to you all. If Baig uncle had not thrown in the shocking news of Tasha’s possible marriage, we would have kept quite a little longer.”

“Of course, I remember. You are right; I was expecting it.

Mala and I had already spoken about it, so we were not surprised.

You children think you all are smart, but you all tend to forget that we are your parents.”

“You had actually had had a conversation with Tasha’s mom about it?! Like really? Wow! She never said anything about it!”

“Well, even though Mala understood Tasha’s reasons, still she was a little hurt by it. Later, it was water under the bridge and she did not want to make Tasha feel guilty. So, you better not repeat this to her.”

“Ya ya, even I would not want to upset them. Mala aunty is too sweet, and all this is history now.”

I get up while talking to mom to check if Sam is around with an update. When I don’t see him out in the corridor, I walk back.

God! What is taking so long? The C-section should be done by now. I start pacing the floor.

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Love Unexpected  •  25

I stop by the window watching the heat of the sun draining as the evening approaches. It’s nearly four hours since Sam’s call.

“Mom, tell me something! How did you get Baig uncle’s agreement? I was sure he would say no. I mean he’s always been set in his Islamic outlooks. I mean he had a guy in mind for Tasha, so…”

“What is the secret behind that?”

“It’s no secret sweetheart! When the question is about your child’s happiness, every parent wants the best. At such a time every parent only sees who will make his child happy? Or how secure she will be? Or how the family of the boy is? Will they love his daughter, take care of her? Mr Baig did not have to think twice when Mala approached him. He knew it was the perfect match, knowing Samarth and us. So, we were sure he would not object.”

It’s so amazing how parents always know. We are the fools who try being smart and independent. When the fact is, we will still be children and never more intelligent or more knowledgeable than them.

I look back at Mom and see the memories shining in her eyes.

I too get lost in them…

On the reception day when Baig uncle got a little drunk and went up to the podium and gave a thank you speech. Wow, it was a sight to behold! In all these years we never had heard him speak more than a few words. He usually greeted us or enquired briefly about our exams.

I was a bit intimidated by him and never had the guts to open my mouth in front of him. I don’t even fear dad who can be super scary when annoyed, but that is so rare that I tend to forget.

“Hey, Mom. What are you thinking?”

“The same thing as you, since you mentioned Mr Baig. It really was a sweet speech.”

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26   •  Ritu Kakar Both Mom and I look at each other and smile...

“Dear friends and family, thank you all for your presence here today and for all your best wishes.”

The reception hall had suddenly fallen silent. Even Mala Aunty had a stunned expression as she watched her husband adjusting his tie while addressing the crowd. I went to stand by Tasha in case she needed me. We exchanged surprised and worried looks wondering about what he was going to say.

“Now, I could have had a long line of eligible bachelors for my beautiful daughter. In fact, I did have a boy in mind. He was richer and slightly more handsome than Sam. No offense to you son!”

We all started laughing. Even the sensitive Sam let out a loud, nervous laugh. He surprised us by calling out,

“None taken, Dad.”

Tasha’s eyes welled up in tears. Sam had not called her father, dad till now. Even my Mom and Dad were happy.

Uncle continue, “But one thing that I could never have guaranteed her with the other boy was the surety that he was a good human being. I could never be sure if he would be a good husband nor someone, I could trust to love Natasha more than me. But my daughter herself chose, not a son-in-law, but, a son for me. So, instead of her saying anything to me, I am going to say a thank you to her for choosing such a wonderful life partner and the perfect family.”

Hearing these beautiful words from a man who never said anything brought tears of joy to everyone’s eyes. It was an emotional moment watching Tasha go up to uncle and hug him tight. It must have been the first time for all, watching them embrace. Much as uncle loves Tasha, he never shows it. We had always seen him very quiet and ever watchful. So, to watch him cry while he held Tasha was the most amazing moment.

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Love Unexpected  •  27

While Mom and I are holding hands remembering those awesome moments, Sam rushes into the room. Seeing his smiling face and the joy in his eyes bring relief and happiness. I rush to him just about to ask when he shouts,

“It’s a girl! We have a beautiful, totally gorgeous angel in our family!”

Mom hugs him tight, and I jump in joy.

“Hey Sam, how is Tasha?”

“She is also fine. Tired due to the prolonged operation. But the doctor said she is doing good.”

Wow, I look around the room which suddenly seems brighter.

We now have reason for another celebration. More joy and happiness to grace our house. I am just about to start clapping when the door opens to let in Mala aunty.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:56 AM

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6

Amidst all the hugging and crying, the imp in me makes me climb on the table.

“Attention! Attention!! Please!! Heartiest congratulations to grandma Kapoor and grandma Baig for the newest addition in the family! Btw, where are the grandfathers?”

My announcement brings a pause to all the hustle. When Sam sees me on the table, he slaps his forehead.

“Kai, for heaven’s sake, get down! You are no longer the baby of the family! We have someone smaller who has taken that position. You need to behave like a mature aunt now. So, how about you start to grow up now?”

“Oh, sure Daddy! I will start practicing from tomorrow! So, till then I can be the baby, right?”

Everyone starts laughing seeing my expressions. I contour my lips downward and make a baby face. I jump down the table and go to the others.

“Okay, now when can we meet the mother and child, brother dear?”

“They are fi nishing with the stitches and cleaning the baby right now. The nurse said it should be another half an hour before they shift them to the room.”

“Oh cool, let me call the grandfathers and give the good news.

They should have been here long back.”

28

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Love Unexpected  •  29

I look at everyone waiting for an answer. But suddenly there is a deafening silence in the room. What… is going on here? I put my hand on my waist and look at mom,

“Okay, what on earth are you all hiding from me? Where are the grandfathers? Everything is kk no?”

I see both moms look at each other. I cannot fathom the conversation between their eyes. But a few seconds later, mom shakes her head in negative. I am just about to jump in again with questions when Sam calls his mother-in-law.

“Mamma, I think we should go check on Tasha!”

Okay, now I know something is cooking for sure. Sam’s attempt to leave mom and me alone is weird. The minute the door to the lounge closes I turn to mom.

“Sam really needs to brush his tactics. He is way too obvious.

So now that it’s just us, are you going to tell me what is going on?”

I hear mom sigh, which is surprising. She is always so ready to handle any situation. I think Tasha’s sudden trip to the OT has shaken her more than she is showing. I move slowly to her side and put my arm around her shoulder.

“Mom, I am sure it can’t be that bad. I mean, if you have to weigh your words before to speak means something is not right.

You know I can handle anything with you by my side, so just get it over with.”

“Sweetheart, I am sorry. I know I should have mentioned this earlier, but with Tasha’s delivery and then all the reminiscing it slipped my mind.”

And then she goes quiet again. Wow, that is so not her!

“Okay, mom, dramatics are only for one person in this house, ME! You are making me nervous , will you just speak now.”

“Okay Kai, dad has gone with Mr Baig to the airport to pick Drew.”

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30   •  Ritu Kakar

“Whaaat? Drew is coming? When did this happen? How come dad has gone with uncle?”

“Sweetheart, Mr Baig had told Drew that Tasha is due soon, so if he wanted to come, he would be welcomed. Mr Baig consulted with us before making the call. He did not want any of us upset with Drew’s presence. We assured him on your behalf as well that it would be fine. After all, sweetheart, it’s been four years since the incident.”

I start pacing the lounge and mindlessly fiddle with my hair while thinking of how to handle this news. I know what she is saying makes sense. But I just am not ready to face my biggest mistake and trust me I make many. Seeing me pace frantically, mom shouts my name, bringing me to a standstill. Mom never shouts, wow she sure is wound up!

“Kai, will you stop pacing like this? Listen, Drew has tried a million times to apologize for something you both were at fault for. He has even tried to get his father to forgive him, but for your sake, Mr Baig hasn’t forgiven him yet. We all forgave you and your immature act, but he is still paying.”

I look at mom with shame and hurt in my eyes. I know she has never said it, but she is very hurt and humiliated with my past behavior. I turn to the window seeing the sky change colour as the night approaches. It is an amazing sunset which I would generally have appreciated, but at this point, tears are blinding me. I blink fast to stop the drops from falling. I don’t want mom to see the tears nor guess how upset I am.

“Kai, your dad and I believe that this would be a perfect time to forgive and forget the past. I say this especially keeping Mala in mind. Her son has been away from her for too long now. He has paid the price for something I repeat; you too were equally at fault.”

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Love Unexpected  •  31

“Okay, you don’t have to keep saying that. I know I was guilty, but I did not know nor expect the outcome. But I agree with you it is time to stop this cold war. I know he is Tasha’s brother and deserves to be here at a time like this.”

Mom hugs me quietly. I know she can feel my pain. Even though four years have passed, I cannot forget the hurt and humiliation that scarred me forever.

“Hey, now just because I agree doesn’t mean that I am ready to forget everything that happened. I understand that Drew should be back with his family. Just don’t expect me to be friendly or interact with him. I will be nice, but I would rather be miles away from him.”

“Good girl. You make me proud with your maturity. This is a special time for all of us, so let us all just start over. And I’m sure time has changed him too. After all, there have been changes in your nature & outlook too in these four years.”

“What changes mom? I am the same, just stronger.”

“Sweetheart, just sometime back I told you that I am your mom. You can try but not hide from me.”

“Okay, whatever, I think we have talked for way too long. You have warned me, or should I say prepared me. Now, let’s go and see the new baby of the house.”

As I am about to open the door she hugs me again. I know she can see how apprehensive I am about Drew’s coming but as she said we need to move ahead and not remain in the past. Though I can’t help the shiver that runs through me at the thought of seeing him again. Four years have passed since I last saw him. Under circumstances, I don’t want to think of ever. Well, one doesn’t always get what one wishes, do they?

I walk behind mom quietly; my mind is distracted. The excitement of being an aunt is subdued with this new development.

Drew… a name I had buried deep down is now in my face.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:57 AM

32   •  Ritu Kakar Drew is not even his given name but a shortened version of Drewster. I know far worse than Samarth. Drew’s name sounded more like a rooster. He changed it because of the ruthless teasing at school. Out of nowhere, he declared himself as Drew one day.

Seeing how adamant he was; even uncle made it official.

I am so deep in my thoughts that I don’t see the man standing in front of me, watching me. I just walk straight into him losing my balance for the second time today. I am falling back when I feel arms go around my waist stopping my fall. I sure have been lucky today. Twice my backside has been saved from meeting mother earth. But they say luck doesn’t always favour you. As I look up to thank the stranger, I stop in shock. The stranger is after all not unfamiliar. I don’t even realize that I whispered his name.

“Drew…”

“Hi, Kaira. How are you?”

His casual question leaves me a bit stunned. Usually, I would reply as casually but seeing him shut my brains. I am trying to come up with a response when I realize his hands are still on my waist. I pull myself back with a suddenness that nearly makes me loose my balance again. But fortunately, luck has not left me totally. I manage to regain balance even as he puts his hands out to help.

I look up to him and feel a dart of pain deep within. He has not changed much.

Those sharp, beady, black eyes were like lasers which could always look right through me. His hair that once used to fall on his forehead, especially that one tress which I use to love playing with, was now all gelled and swept back. His style of dressing and his appearance had changed. Earlier, it was only jeans and t-shirts that is now replaced with trousers and a cotton shirt. He sure is as handsome as ever, more so. But just not someone I now want to associate with any more than needed.

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7

I reach out to the depths of my brain to bring out the strong and confi dent Kaira. The one who promised herself that nothing would ever bring her down ever again. As soon as I fi nd her, I look straight into Drew’s eyes and reply curtly, “Hi, Drew. I am doing good. You look good. How are you?”

He is surprised by the normalcy of my tone. I don’t think he was expecting this reaction from me. I give him my most confi dent look while he examines my face carefully like a nervous child.

“I too am doing good. Busy with the hectic pace there but now kind of used to it. How ab….”

He was going to talk more but luckily the moment gets shattered with the sound of someone arguing. We turn to see Sam arguing with the nurse. I rush to him not bothering to see if Drew followed.

“Sam, Sam! What is it?”

“It’s been thrity minutes now, and they are still not letting me see Tasha. As for my angel, they just showed me a glimpse of her and then nothing.”

I pull him away from the nurse apologizing for his behavior. I take him to the corner.

“Sam, chillax, will you? Remember, you are the cool and collected one. This is a hospital, and they are doing their job.

33

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06-Nov-19 12:34:57 AM

34   •  Ritu Kakar Listen, why don’t you go to mom while I find out what’s causing the delay.”

“Okay but come back soon. I am getting a very weird feeling.”

“I will be back asap, kk.”

I must have hardly taken a few steps towards the nurse station when Sam stops me again

“Hey Kai…”

I turn thinking he had something important to say but noooo!!

“Huh!!!”

“Was that Drew you were talking to?”

Like seriously, despite the chaos he is creating he has the time to notice whom I was with? Wow! He really is an amazing but crazy brother! Instead of answering him I walk away.

“Hello sister… please, could you give me an update on Natasha Kapoor? She just delivered a baby girl.”

“Ma’am I just told her husband that we are getting the room ready. As for the baby, well she is with the doctor in the nursery.

Ma’am, you need to understand that these things take time.

Cleaning the mother, changing her clothes, bathing the baby and checking vitals, it all takes a while.”

“Well, when you put it like that I understand. It is just that it has been long. We all are getting impatient. Please let us know when Tasha is in the room.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“Thank you.”

As I turn, I bang into Drew who was standing right behind me. I move to the side avoiding any more contact. I mutter an,

“Excuse me” while I walk towards Sam. Once again, he speaks,

“You have changed Kai.”

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Love Unexpected  •  35

“Huh?!!”

“I mean you have mellowed down. The Kai I remember would have been arguing and trying to get in the OT if need be. But the one I see in front of me, very calmly accepted the nurse’s word.”

“Who said I am calm? And who says I won’t be trying to see Tasha before everyone?”

I give him a sweet but a totally mischievous smile and go to Sam.

“Brother dear, she is still in the recuperating room outside the OT. Should be another ten minutes max.”

“Okay. By the way, what was Drew saying?”

“Like really Sammy. Chillax, please. Don’t give me a headache about this. Especially when you did not warn me before today.

You knew, didn’t you?”

Sam avoids my gaze as I leave him standing in the hospital corridor. Now, no one would have guessed my destination. I walk confidently towards the recovery room making sure no one is watching so I don’t notice those sharp black eyes train on me.

I stop outside the door where Tasha could be. I look around once to make sure no one is there to stop me. I can see two nurses talking with their backs towards me so taking advantage of the opportunity and peep in. When I see Tasha alone in the room I sigh in relief. I slowly tip toe towards her making sure she isn’t disturbed.

She looks pale and drained out. The colour of her skin matches the sheets that are covering her. She is missing the usual reddish glow on her cheeks.; a gift of Persian blood. In fact, the entire Baig family is fair skinned with apple red cheeks and black soulful eyes. As I softly caress her forehead, she opens her eyes.

I find myself staring lovingly into a familiar pair of eyes.

However, this time, the look brings tears of happiness to mine.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:57 AM

36   •  Ritu Kakar They look tired but happy. I kiss her on her forehead and exclaim,

“Hey, Mommy dear!! Congratulations!!”

“Hey, Aunty dear! Congratulations to you too…”

She gives me a weak smile and looks around the room. I guess she was looking for the rest of the family. She feebly remarks,

“They haven’t shifted me yet!! This is the post-op; a restricted zone. How did you land in here?”

“Ya babes, it is. But then you know me, waiting isn’t made for me. Also, Sam is getting worried and stressing everyone out there.

Most importantly, how can anyone else meet you before me?” I wink at her as she smiles back. I continue speaking.

“Sam got lucky with angel because mom had me cornered.

But with you I had to check first, that too personally.”

She chuckles and exclaims, “God Kai…!! Now that you have seen me, GO! I don’t want you to get into any trouble with the authorities here.”

She stares at the door as if an army is going to barge in any moment. Her agitated look tells me that I shouldn’t be arguing with her. She is in pain after all.

“Okay, I am going! Don’t stress!! You may be weak, but from the way you are ordering me around, I can say you are fine. Thank God for that! Bye, see you soon mommy!”

I turn to leave after giving her a warm hug. Just as my hand moves towards the door handle, a nurse barges into the room.

OMG! I feel my heart begin racing and getting ready for a confrontation but God saves me yet again. The door covers me partially, and she is in such a hurry that she walks past me without noticing. I take this opportunity and rush out to the family.

As I walk back, my lips break into a happy smile. Tasha is fine, the baby is fine and I am one happy aunt!

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Love Unexpected  •  37

“So, you have not changed just become smarter.”

I let out a short yelp as Drew calls out.

“Shit! Don’t do that! I could have had a heart attack! Ya…

well… I just wanted to make sure she was genuinely okay. After all, it has been a while since we are waiting.”

I keep walking not wanting to pursue the conversation any further. I look up to see Sam eyeing us suspiciously. I sigh, shrug my shoulders in exasperation and continue walking.

“Well, an update. Tasha is doing good, tired but fine. They are just wheeling her to the room. So, we should be called in anytime now.”

“How do you know this?”

“God Sammy! I went in and met her! How else will I be able to tell?”

“Kaira, will you stop calling me Sammy? And how did you enter the Operation Theatre?”

I sigh again, his constant questioning is irritating me. Now would not be the place nor time to start an argument. My good Lord knows, that Sam can test the patience of a saint, and I am no saint! What is pissing off is that even dad never questions me so much. I open my mouth to ask mom why she isn’t saying anything to him and just then, the nurse calls out to Sam. Thank God, today has sure been a dramatic day for me.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:57 AM

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8

“Hurray!!! Saved by the nurse!! Now, how about we go in to meet the mommy and baby? What say Sammy, that is more important, huh?”

I hear a chuckle behind but don’t turn to look, I know it is Drew. One more word from Sam and I would lose it for sure.

Maybe if he holds his baby, he will forget about admonishing me. Drew is standing near the wall with his hands folded to his chest, enjoying the show. Still an a’hole! Gosh! Mom must have noticed the possibility of Sam losing it totally now, so, she fi nally intervenes,

“Okay, children let us go. They won’t give us much time with Tasha and the baby. Later only a couple of us can stay with her.”

Sam darts me an irritated look before he leaves grumbling all the way. The atmosphere changes instantly as we follow him.

There is excitement and a spring to everyone’s feet. One could almost hear everyone’s heart beating with happiness especially the mothers who pick up speed nearing the room.

The room we enter is like the rest of the hospital. Bright, warm, very homely. The walls are a shade of pink with cute caricatures adorning them. The décor possesses the power to make even the most unwell person feel calm & happy.

38

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Love Unexpected  •  39

Tasha is propped up with a few pillows. She looks happy to be surrounded by family.

The moms are flanking her, one is caressing her forehead and the other is playing with her hair. Sam is at her feet while Drew stands by the door watching everyone. Once again, I realize that the grandfathers are still not around. With Drew here shouldn’t they also be here? I hurriedly exclaim,

“Hey, where are the grandfathers now?”

“Gosh Kai! Could you please tone it down a little?”

“Oh! Sorry… but it just struck me that they are still not here.”

“Well, if you had not gone for your ‘see Tasha first’ mission you would have met them. They have now gone to the nursery to see angel.”

“Angel??… we named her already?? When???”

“Since no name has been decided, she shall be, Angel, till then!!!”

“Aye aye captain!”

Both mothers shake their heads while we continue squabbling.

But then both of us just cannot help it. Sam and I look at each other with gleaming eyes thinking this is and will always be us.

The door opens and the nurse is carrying our bundle of joy. I rush to get her, but my dad who was right behind the nurse makes it earlier. I wail loudly, “Dad! That’s not fair! You got to see her first! At least let me hold her!”

I put my arms out in the hope that he would place Angel in them. But before he could even think of it, mom takes her from dad! Angel coos happily as if she is enjoying the game.

“Heeyy!!! Wt…?” Before I can complete, my brother and dad chide me loudly,

“Kai!!!”

“Kai watch it, there is a baby in the room now.”

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06-Nov-19 12:34:58 AM

40   •  Ritu Kakar In his classic intrusive style, Sam adds, “Even if she wasn’t, there are parents here. At least show some respect!”

I slap my forehead. I am totally fed up of this man.

“Sammy, firstly I was using abbreviations. Secondly, angel is too young to even understand what I say. And lastly, dear grandpa, our parents are used to my codes to be offended anymore.”

I sigh and look around

“Oh, btw another thing, look around you. No one is interested nor cares what we say. So, take a chill pill. Your straight-jacketed attitude will give you pain in your back someday.”

“Ufff, Kai!! What should I do with you?”

“For now, just get me Angel from the grandparents. They seem to think they are the only ones promoted here.”

Sam looks over to the bed and smiles happily. I look at Sam and can’t resist needling him again.

“Well, one good thing has happened today. I am finally free from your dictatorship. From now on, my niece is going to keep you occupied and be under your watchful eyes.”

“Hahaha, how you wish it were true! You are the baby of this house and will always remain. You are and always will be my responsibility… at least until we find someone as crazy as you who is ready to take over my job.”

“Ya right, you wish!”

My God, what is it with brothers especially elder brothers?

Why do they feel they need to be protective all the time? Well, I know Angel will keep him occupied for me.

A new family member, a new beginning, a new chapter in life.

Life at every step brings new challenges, dreams and situations to face. This is ours, my niece our joy and hope, rest can be handled as it comes.

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Love Unexpected  •  41

Seeing that I won’t be getting a chance to hold my niece anytime soon. I take this opportunity to call the Café. It is nearly closing time and everyone would be wrapping up. As I wait for someone to answer the phone, my mind wanders, reminiscing about the events of the day. My mind drifts back to the handsome stranger. I can still picture him standing there looking arrogantly at me. The surprised look in his brown eyes at my cheekiness.

The spark of indignation making his eyes shine…a warm shade of caramel…Wow!

As a shiver runs through me when I think of his booming, aristocratic voice, the loud crackling voice on the phone in my hand breaks the train of my thoughts, “Hello! Anyone there?”

“Yaya, I am there! Niki! I mean I am here! Sorry I got lost in thoughts.”

“Oh, Kaira it’s you!! I have been hollering for a while and was just about to disconnect. Anyway, how is everything there? Has Tasha delivered?”

“Yes, she has. We have a beautiful angel among us now.”

I hear Niki scream in joy and call the rest of the members. I can hear chairs being dragged and the vacuum cleaner going off. I can visualize everyone rushing to Niki. Niki puts the phone on the speaker and they all sing the congratulations song while clapping loudly.

Their love and happiness overwhelm me. It takes love and understanding to have good relations with anyone. I am blessed to have not only found the perfect work team but friends among them. They have stood by me and nurtured the Café for nearly three and a half years. Without them, life will always be incomplete now.

“Thank you thank you thank you, friends. Congratulations to you all as well Now, how was the day at the Café?”

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06-Nov-19 12:34:58 AM

42   •  Ritu Kakar OMG! I think I touch a nerve there! All of them start speaking at once, each with their own version of how the day had progressed without me.

“An author had booked for a reading session, to top that there were more customers than normal. It was an exhausting day.”

“There was a never-ending line at the bank today. The place was a sauna as the AC was not working.”

“Shucks! Don’t talk about today! I told you to postpone the meeting, but do you ever listen? No! For the first time I got to deal with a man as bad as you, in fact, worse.”

Niki is the most organized and sorted person among us. She has the brains of a finance wizard, intelligence of a genius and a calm personality. She keeps all of us in line. To hear her hassled and agitated tone mean something big happened to ruffle Miss Cool’s feathers.

“Ohkay , what happened?”

The second I ask the question, the others bid me bye and leave. Niki takes a deep breath as she takes the phone off the speaker to narrate her experience.

“Okay, your, Mr Aveer, the ‘brave one’ is arrogant, rude and an absolute devil. That arrogant asshole of a devil treated me like mere staff something you have never made any one of us feel.”

“Woah! What did he say? And why? Did you not explain who you were? And what’s with the ‘brave one’ jab?”

She continues breathing heavily. Wait, is she crying?

“It’s the meaning of his name, silly! I cordially greeted him and offered him coffee while I explained your sudden rush to the hospital. I explained that I was authorized to conduct the meeting and discuss the proposal on your behalf. But midway through my explanation, the condescending ass stood up and started berating.

He was extremely mean and hurtful.”

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Love Unexpected  •  43

She clears her throat among her sniffles and then continues.

It takes me a second to realize that she is imitating him.

“Ma’am, I am sure you are smart and intelligent. I am also sure you can handle anything, even this meeting. But you are not the owner of this Café Library, whom I was to meet... If she had a crisis, she should have had the decency to call and reschedule the meeting and not let someone else to handle it, however capable.”

She pauses for a second. I am about to say something when she just starts again.

“I am taking your leave, ma’am. You can let your boss know that if she wishes to do business, then she must be present for the next meeting. Or else I will assume she’s not interested.”

I hear her clear her throat again, she gulps loudly, I guess she was sipping water. But this time, before she can say anything, I jump in.

“Oh God Niki! I am so sorry, that must have been tough! Was he really that arrogant or are you making it up?”

She scoffs and exclaims, “Really Kai? Do you really think I would make a joke about something this important? Trust me, he was the devil in a Prada suit.”

“Woooow, a Prada!! Rich dude, huh?”

Hearing her screech, I push the phone away from my ear.

“All you could gather was the Prada suit? I was being sarcastic woman! How would I know if it was a Prada?”

“Oh!!”

She scoffs once again at my reaction. She seems really outraged and hurt. I turn serious and stop being a bitch.

“Okay, look, I am sorry! That was a poor joke. Well, now we know Aveer is rude and a devil, we deal with him accordingly. Did you set up another appointment with the Devil in Prada?”

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44   •  Ritu Kakar

“Oh heavens, Kai your sense of humor is cryptic and badly timed. Here I am explaining that I did not get to talk business and you are making fun of me!”

“Don’t worry Niki. I will deal with the man and his condescending attitude when I meet him. However, till then I have the right to find humor in the situation. Why take stress about something we cannot change at present, huh?”

“Yes… I understand… you and your positive outlook towards situations. As always, you are right. Nothing can be done about him right now. And yes, I did manage to set up an appointment for the day after tomorrow 12.30 p.m. as you had said.”

She lets out a sigh letting me know she is getting late. The fact that I have been out here longer than expected makes me end the call with an abrupt.

“Okay, listen I have gtg. I still haven’t held Angel. Okay, bye.”

I hang up abruptly without waiting to hear her goodbye. The conversation with Niki is still running through my mind as I enter the room. We have been working for more than three but Nikita has never written off anyone like this nor been this flustered.

There has to be more. For now, I shift my focus to the present; it’s time for celebrations! The rest can wait.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:58 AM

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9

I open the room to the sound of Angel crying. The atmosphere is resonating with love and joy. Everyone was beaming, even Drew. Everyone has had their share of cuddling with Angel, it is my turn now. Before cuddling Angel, I rush to Tasha to give her a warm hug.

She appeared upset, “Where have you been for the past twenty minutes? I thought you would be more excited…”

Wow! Post-delivery not only makes mothers, weak and exhausted but whiners as well! But she is right, the work could have waited. I touch both my ears, apologetically.

“I am sorry mommy! I know I should have stuck around for my turn. I just felt it would be better to let everyone get over their excitement fi rst. Later it would be just the three of us anyways…”

Everyone in the room made booing sounds at my logic.

“Hey family, you are supposed to support me not cause ripples! Can’t you see that she is annoyed?”

“Shut up Kai! You and your melodrama! Now do I get that hug or not?”

I hug her tightly and kiss her on the forehead before turning for Angel. I quickly pull back my stretched hands when I realize that Angel is in Drew’s arms. Now, this is awkward. Having Drew 45

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46   •  Ritu Kakar around is ok but to actually come in physical contact with him is not on the cards.

My mind begins to strategize ways of taking Angel from him, when Tasha’s mom brings her to me. Except for Drew no one realized how effortlessly she helped avoid any awkwardness at this special moment. She sure is a wonderful lady, one who would have been a wonderful mother-in-law, huh… but alas, such is life…!

The moment angel is in my arms I forget everything else.

She is the cutest and the most beautiful baby I have ever seen!

Upturned nose, beady eyes and soft skin. The shape of her face is like Sam, but the skin color and the features even the chin are undoubtedly like Tasha.

As I caress her cheek, I absent-mindedly exclaim, “OMG, I would never have guessed that Sam could have created such a gorgeous baby!”

I don’t realize that I speak aloud until the whole room bursts out in laughter. Sam, of course, scoffs in annoyance, he has every right to.

I turn red in the face and look up, shit, all eyes are on me!

“Oops! I am sorry! Before anyone says anything… I admit that is careless and a little mean…but don’t you all agree that it’s true?”

I smile slyly and dart a look towards Sam. He is smiling!!

OMG, wonders never cease!

“Today you can say anything you want, baby sister. I am too happy to get upset with you.”

“Okay people, jokes aside, how about thinking of a perfect name for Angel? Since all of us are here, we can think of a nice one. I seriously refuse to call her Sweetie, Pumpkin, Chiku, blah blah blah. So, Mommy, Daddy, what names do you have in mind?”

“Well, it is also an aunt’s prerogative to choose. So, do you have a name in mind?”

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Love Unexpected  •  47

“Well, I do have two names... Tasha, do you remember we discussed them? ‘Aira’ means the beginning or breath of life and the other is ‘Arshi’ meaning, the first rays of the sun or a queen.

I think you liked one of these and wanted to discuss it with Sam.

Which one was it?”

While the question hangs in the air Angel starts crying loudly.

The nurse enters the room with a tray, she sets it aside to take the baby from me. I am so not ready to let go of my bundle of joy, but her needs come first. As the nurse takes Angel from me, she asks everyone to leave.

The grandfathers leave quickly. Sam kisses Tasha goodbye and follows Drew out. Leaving the grandmothers and me in the room. I look at mom imploringly, she replies, “No, Kai you cannot stay with her. She needs assistance with the baby. You wouldn’t know what to do. I am going to request the doctor to allow Mala and me to stay. It will be better for Tasha as it’s her first night.

The C-section, overcoming the pain, a new baby, it’s too much for Tasha to bear alone. You, my dear daughter, go home with the men. Come back in the morning and take over from us.”

I sigh loudly, “How could you know from before what I was going say? It’s frustrating at times.”

Mom smiles back, “We mothers know our children and can read their minds.”

“Ya…ya…” I mutter silently as she keeps reiterating the obvious each time, she gets an opportunity to do so.

As the nurse helps Tasha feed, mom takes me out too. As soon as we reach the men, she asks dad, “You all leave for home and take rest. Mala and I will stay with Natasha tonight. I have prepared dinner for you all. It just needs to be warmed.”

She gives us a look that says, ‘I am sure you all are capable of doing that at least?’

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06-Nov-19 12:34:59 AM

48   •  Ritu Kakar I let out a chuckle that is louder than I intend it to be. Shoot!

Now all eyes are on me! They all convey different emotions, but its mom’s stare that I worry about the most. That look tells me that I am in deep shit!

“Well, Kaira, as you believe they are not going to be able to handle it, why don’t you do the honours and serve dinner tonight?

I am sure you are capable of doing that.”

I kick myself mentally and scowl before replying when Sam lets out a loud laugh.

“Really mom? C’mon, I think dad and I will be able to handle it better. Kai is known to burn water. I don’t think we want to destroy delicious food.”

He jabs me humorously in my ribs. Even dad and Baig uncle are smiling. I don’t even look at Drew, but I am sure he too is. I grunt & exclaim, “Shut up Sammy! That was years ago. I can cook a little now or at least better than you.”

“Kai, sweetheart it was a general comment, not an attack at you. However, now you all should go. It’s been an exhausting day, and you all must be hungry. Mala and I will ask for something from the kitchen here.”

“Okay... Bye for now, Mom…I will be here by noon if it’s kk?”

“Yes, once you come, we will leave. Tomorrow only one of us will stay back. Now go. Good night!”

As we all turn to leave, I remember our conversation and suddenly stop

“Hey STOP!”

Sam who is walking behind me bangs into me. Dad and uncle stop in their tracks and look at me questioningly. I hear Sam cursing me, “Kai, are you mad? What do you think you are doing?”

“Kaira, sweetie you okay?”

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Love Unexpected  •  49

This was from my dad who is hurriedly walking towards me.

Shoot, I am sogoing to get a scolding… again! I curse myself and get ready to face the music for my impulsive behaviour.

“Oh…I am sorry…sorry! It’s just that I suddenly remembered that we had not thought of a name for Angel.”

They all go ballistic with their comments and stares.

“Really Kai!”

“God, you are crazy?”

“Kairaaaa…”

“ OKAY! It is a little silly, but it’s just that the conversation was left incomplete so…”

I shuffle my feet nervously while looking at the ground when mom speaks from behind.

“Both names are lovely. If there are no more suggestions, then we can decide on one of them.?”

I kiss mom softly on her cheek. As always, she saves me from further embarrassment.

We reach home and I set the table meticulously. Drew and Uncle Baig join us for dinner. Since all are tired, we eat quietly and disperse.

Sam and I clear up the kitchen after everyone leaves for bed.

The moment I reach my room, I feel all the emotions which I have bottled up since I heard of Drew flooding in. Seeing him again after four years bring back painful memories which I had repressed with great effort.

Our affair had caused nasty vibes between both the families.

With time, we all had moved on and the relations got better. But that one mistake had left its cruel mark on all our souls.

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10

Overnight, I turned into this calm and somewhat sorted adult who had lost the lustre for life. But the sombre and quiet me was causing more worry to all my loved ones. So, to everyone’s relief even though it took time, counselling helped restore some of my impulsive, child-like, craziness again. Time heals all wounds, it sure helped me realize I did not have to be responsible like Tasha and Sam. I could be myself while being responsible for my deeds and everyone around.

Living life zealously but with responsibility is the essence of who I am. Finding that balance between adulthood and childhood was tough but I achieved it. It was a lesson that I learned the hard way.

I hug my pillow tighter as I walk down the memory lane after four long years.

I met Drew for the fi rst time when he came home for his vacations. When Tasha and her family moved to Mumbai, Drew stayed back to fi nish his schooling. When uncle got posted Drew had just fi nished his ninth grade and had insisted on staying back to fi nish schooling in Tehran only. Uncle had reluctantly agreed to avoid complications for Drew due to the education system. So, Drew was only a name when I met Tasha.

Drew is a year older than Sam. So, when he fi rst came over for the holidays, it was like having another brother around. We 50

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Love Unexpected  •  51

loved irritating him and in return; he would bully us. As the years passed, things changed. After his higher secondary , Drew went to London for further studies, and that was that or so I thought. When Drew came home a year later, he was a changed person. The boy we knew was now a man. Experience and maturity shone out of him. I had heard London smartens you, but in Drew’s case, I saw a living example. There was a new swag to his whole demeanor. He was confident, frank and very charming, a little too bold now. His British accent & well-endowed body were to die for. For a teenage girl like me, he was Salman Khan and Tom Cruise rolled into one!

I was happily surprised and totally tongue-tied. My heart was beating at a crazy pace. In fact, it beat so fast that I thought I was going into a cardiac arrest. I remember sweat break out on my forehead and couldn’t understand what was happening. He kept speaking and for the first freaking time in my life I couldn’t get a single word out of my damn mouth.

People say hormones are high in teenage years, but mine were shooting through the roof. I was in love (or so I believed). I was nervous and coy whenever he was around. For the very first time in sixteen years I was feeling emotions that were alien to me. I was conscious of my appearance all the time. Due to my braces and pimples I avoided being around Drew…Gosh! He was so perfect!

But I guess he hardly ever noticed me, though for me he had become my Mills and Boon hero…my Romeo…my everything.

Tasha, who had guessed my feelings tried to dissuade me.

She was uncomfortable with the changes in her brother. But he was her brother…my bestie’s brother… how could he be wrong.

So, I overlooked her warnings. Despite being against it all she always supported me especially when Drew teased me on the rare occasions, we were together in a room.

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06-Nov-19 12:34:59 AM

52   •  Ritu Kakar times, was rude to all. Something had changed in me, now when I think about it, I feel every teenager goes through these bouts of emotional upheavals in the name of love.

I simmered down after a huge argument with Sam, about something very trivial. The fight shook me bad because even Tasha got upset with me after Sam stormed out. I have never seen Tasha this angry as she was that day. But it was the exact dose I needed to realize how difficult and stupid I was being with my silliness.

Her reprimand had a magical effect on me. I apologized to Sam and started giving importance to what mattered; my studies and my future. I had a dream to fulfill: my Café library.

It was during the time when I was working towards my goals that Sam acknowledged Tasha as an individual and not just his sister’s best friend. He was impressed knowing that meek Tasha had reprimanded me for my misbehaviour on his behalf.

Well, as time flew by, I continued to work hard and got an English Honors degree. Tasha, on the other hand, pursued Home Science. She is still happy managing the home. No one can work miracles with the minimal resources like her. A lot of the décor suggestions for my Café came from her.

I yawn loudly and get startled by the sound coming from outside the room. OMG, it’s been nearly thirty minutes since I have been sitting in the same place.

Wow! Jogging through memory lane sure is an exhausting task! I get off the bed and move to the door. Surely everyone at home should be asleep by now. I tiptoe towards the kitchen to get a glass of water and check on the sound... just to be sure…huh…

is Sam still drinking?

“Hey, Sammy, what are you doing up at this hour?”

I catch him by surprise as he sputters the drink all over the floor. Lol…!

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Love Unexpected  •  53

“Shit Kai, what is wrong with you?”

“Hey, I thought you heard me. How could I know that you were in dreamland? Anyway, why are you still up? Dad sleeping?”

“Ya, and I could ask you the same. Why aren’t you asleep? Is it the same reason…all of a sudden…after four years…hmmn…?”

I loved this about Sam. He never really beats around the bush.

I hesitatingly reply in a soft tone…

“Ummn…ya, I guess you are right… I think you should stop drinking and go now…hmmn…You have work tomorrow. I am on holiday... so… nite nite Sammy…”

I slowly turn towards my room when Sam calls out worriedly,

“Hey, Kaira, you doing okay na? Drew being here is not going to be a problem for you…right…?”

I first think of brushing him aside, but I know I won’t be able to pull it off, so I speak honestly albeit slowly, “I won’t say it was easy meeting him again after sooo long. But I am much stronger now and I am long over the infatuation. I know what love means when I have seen you with Tasha or mom with dad or for that matter, even with Baig uncle and aunty. When I truly fall in love, it will be different but it will be instant, deep and solid, I know that.”

He sighs deeply. It is like he is holding on to each breath as I speak. And my answer relieves his tension.

“I’m glad you are fine. He is here for a while, so I wanted to be sure you’re okay. Now I can sleep well. Thanks for letting me know... good night…and yes…take care...”

I whisper softly, “I love you, big brother.”

“I love you too, baby sister. See you in the morning.”

Time has changed us all. I may no longer be that star struck girl.

The crazy, totally impulsive and over confident girl learnt where solid ground is and what is important in life. She now lives life with joy, gymming with her bestie, loving her cafe and her friends there.

Time made sure I relook at where I want life to go and how.

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11

When I return to my room, my eyes notice the frame of Tasha and me. It was the one we had clicked at our graduation ceremony. We both were dressed in ink blue gowns with shoestring sleeves. We looked our best and felt it too. It was the fi rst time we were dressed this way. We felt like grown-ups for the fi rst time in our lives. Seeing the picture makes me go back in time again.

I remember we were often the source of male attention. I enjoyed fl irting but never got serious with anyone. My reasons were obvious, my infatuation with Drew had never ceased.

In fact, it had increased with every visit. Each time it would feel like he took a small piece of me back with him. It seems melodramatic now, but at that time, he meant the world to me.

On the other hand Tasha was dating my brother. Sudden change in circumstances made us disclose their affair to mom sooner than planned.

I still remember they were sharing a romantic moment at the coffee shop near our college. They were amidst a hot kiss when I had crashed in on them. Tasha’s phone was with me, and her dad had been calling, so I had to interrupt.

She turned pale as she tried to comprehend what he was saying. Sam and I panicked. We waited for the call to end. I put 54

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my arms around her as I saw tears falling. Sam hurriedly got a bottle of cold water for her.

“What happened? Is everything okay at home? What did uncle say?” Gosh! We had so many questions. She told us everything between tears and hiccups leaving us astounded. I still remember my impulsive retort.

“What? Are you kidding me? We still have six months left to complete our graduation. How the hell can he even think of getting you married?”

I agitatedly started pacing across the tiny coffee shop. A regular occurrence with Sam was that the minute I turn ballistic, he eases out. I think my craziness always brings things in perspective for him, huh! Well, that day when he opened his mouth, he stunned both Tasha and me.

“Well, Kai, he can do anything he wishes to. After all, he is Tasha’s father, he will always think of his daughter’s well-being. I think the only solution to avoid this arrangement is by confiding in mom. I was going to do it after you girls graduated, but we don’t have the time now… by the way, Tasha, when is your dad arranging this meeting?”

Still crying and hiccupping Tasha spoke,

“I think for this weekend…Sam…oh Sam…”

She continues sobbing uncontrollably.

Shit! This was frustrating! But seeing Sam in control I felt sure things will be fine. We spoke to mom, who asked Mala aunty to convince uncle. God is great indeed!

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56   •  Ritu Kakar in a new country. I never knew that this break would change our lives forever.

Patience was never a trait I possessed, but, for the first time, I kept calm. Tasha and I were officially graduating, and we had completed twenty-one years of living on Earth. I started interning with my literature professor. I would build the foundation for my dream, my café library in future. So, with my internship, I pursued a business diploma program. Tasha was on cloud nine as both the parents had sanctioned her wedding.

She knew about my feelings towards Drew and my desire to pursue a serious relationship with him. She discouraged me at every step of the way. I was my usual stubborn self.

When I think of it now, I feel she knew her brother’s attitude to life and didn’t want her best friend to be involved in any mess with him.

The wedding preparations started. I knew the sudden change in my appearance had surprised Drew. He never really said anything but I noticed him staring from the corner of his eyes. I made sure I was always around him hoping for some response. I would converse with him about anything and everything. It was during one of these conversations he finally asked me out and I immediately agreed.

The moment I was waiting for was finally here. In the confines of my mind, we were now a couple. Amidst the maddening wedding preparations, we managed to steal time for ourselves. I was completely besotted by him, or so I believed. His care and attention made me assume that he too was in love with me. There was a time when he had clasped my hand and didn’t let go till we reached home. For me it had been the most special moment till then. I looked at him, hoping he would say something but he didn’t.

The trip ended quietly, he just waved goodbye and left.

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Due to the wedding, his room had been taken over by gifts and guests. So he had rented an apartment some ten minutes away from home. Many a times, we would sneak away to his place to spend time alone where we would listen to music, watch movies or just talk over a glass of wine.

It was here that he kissed me for the first time. I had never been kissed before, so the first time had been a little awkward.

Though the soft touch of his lips had sent goose bumps all over my body. But something was amiss…I couldn’t say what… The kiss had felt nothing like Tasha had described. I didn’t really enjoy it the way I had hoped I would.

I did not think much of it considering it was my first. Not everyone gets it right the first time. And from what I saw on Drew’s face I think he enjoyed it, so I kept quiet.

It did not occur to me that he hadn’t bothered to check my comfort. He abruptly got up and poured himself a drink. Leaving me feeling confused and red-faced. Maybe it was me, after all Drew was experienced. He had boasted of his accomplishments with his past girlfriends. It had hurt to hear him talk about his adventures, but I couldn’t expect him to be a virgin like me. He was, after all, twenty-five years old.

It was nearly two months since Drew and I were dating. The wedding was another month and a half away. Drew was leaving a week after the wedding. The clock was ticking and I kept hoping he would pop the question or at least confess his feelings. We did kiss many times and each time I felt nothing but awkward and a tad disgusted. Like a fool, I did not give it much thought. My mind was telling me something that my heart refused to believe.

One day we were returning from a party, I was a bit tipsy…

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58   •  Ritu Kakar coffee. Once I would get sober, he would drop me home - that was the plan.

In the elevator, Drew started kissing the nape of my neck. His touch got bolder and he pulled me closer in an intimate embrace.

I allowed him not only because I was too high but because I felt that this would help establish our relationship. I tried to enjoy myself.

I guess he was high not only from the alcohol but maybe something more. I don’t remember how we reached his apartment.

Gosh, that evening comes back to me in disjointed flashbacks.

I recall finding myself on the sofa semi-nude with him on top, bare bodied. He was hungrily kissing my neck and squeezing my breasts with his rough hands. No! I wasn’t enjoying it… I was feeling pain and disgust. I tried protesting but he wasn’t listening.

I even outstretched my hands to push him away, he pinned me down and continued to devour me like a hungry wolf.

I tried…I really tried to enjoy…but his touch…his touch was making me feel sick by the minute. I allowed him to get more intimate thinking it would help, but the second I heard the noise of him unzipping his pants, I wanted to run away. He was trying to yank my panties down while freeing himself too. That was when I made use of all my strength to push him away. I remember him coming on me again but I got up and moved to the opposite side of the sofa. He looked disturbed; I quickly found my bra and dress and put them on. That’s when I had realized how far I had nearly gone.

I was about to say something to diffuse the situation when he spoke. His voice was slurring, and his gait was unsteady. I suddenly realize how drunk he was. His words killed whatever buzz that was left in me from the alcohol I had consumed. He growled loudly, “What the fuck, Kaira? Why are you being such a 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 58

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prude? This is what you have been begging for…so why are you behaving like a fucking virgin now? You kiss like a dead fish, at least you should be better experienced at sex.”

I stood there shocked. Unsure if I heard right. I stammer,

“Drreeww...Drew… wwhat on earth are…are you talking about?

Wh-What experience?”

He laughed like a hyena, & exclaimed,

“Ohh come on, you have been hitting on me for years. You are no innocent with the way you move and flirt. Why do you think I took you out all this while? Why do you think I have been going around with you? If you had been some other woman, we would have had sex long back. It is just that you are Natasha’s friend that I have been slow.”

Hot tears burned my cheeks as they rolled down. I squeaked,

“What are you saying?”

He gesticulated wildly and retorted, “Listen, I am not in the mood for a so-called romantic conversation. Are you staying for a good fuck? If not, then get out!”

I didn’t realize that tears were running down my cheeks and ruining what little make-up I had on. I unknowingly fidgeted with my hair making them look unruly. I stood there…a total mess…

unable to understand what I had seen and heard. I couldn’t believe it was Drew talking…I meant…I knew him…he wasn’t like this…or was he?

He kept blabbering nonsense in his drunken stupor. I continued listening to him reduce my love for him to nothing but carnal desires. I was frozen in time with shock. I kept looking at him thinking it’s a horrible prank. I even told myself that it’s the alcohol talking…but…NO! This was something else…

He stopped talking. I waited for him to say something… just anything to stop my heart from breaking… but he just kept mum.

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60   •  Ritu Kakar Once he was dressed, I looked at him in the hope that he would drop me home but he stormed out of the door leaving me standing there. Leaving me stranded…and lonely…

I don’t remember how long I stood there, hoping for him to return. After what seemed like forever, I finally accepted that he was not coming back. I freshened up, and went home. Thank God Mumbai is a safe city even at midnight for lone girls like me. I don’t remember the journey at all. I just remember going straight to Tasha’s house.

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12

I stare at Tasha’s door for the longest time, not knowing what to do. I think it was the watchman who rang the bell for me.

He had followed me upstairs, doubting something was amiss.

Luckily, Tasha answered the door instead of her parents or nosy guests. I must have looked as devastated as I felt, because she pulled me in and dragged me to her room. I could hear aunty and Tasha conversing indistinctly. But I was sooo zoned out that I couldn’t understand anything. I knew Tasha was my safe haven…

my bestie.

I started sobbing once again at my pitiable state. Unlike my usual strong self, capable of handling anything, I was having a breakdown. My self-respect, my self-worth, my confi dence, everything was shattered.

I don’t remember telling Tasha anything. But I must have spoken because she kept me by her side and didn’t let me go home. I am guessing she spoke to Sam and convinced him to explain to everyone. I don’t remember clearly.

Even today, as I stand by the window looking at the brightly shining moon, I cannot remember anything clearly about that night. I know only what Tasha told me later. She told aunty I was there for a sleepover. She told Sam that we were trying outfi ts for the wedding. My bestie, the honest and pure one, lied to the two 61

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62   •  Ritu Kakar people who mean the world to her. And she did this all for her stupid, immature and impulsive friend, who did not deserve it.

For a brief moment, I snapped back to life. Seeing her made me cry again, and I cried until there were no tears left. I held on to her as if she was my lifeline. She held me all night, not saying anything to me, just being there. I lay in her lap in a fetal position and slept like a baby.

In the early hours of the morning, I got up to find her still sitting by my side. She looked like she hadn’t slept a wink. I just went into her arms and poured out what I remember of the previous night’s events. I told her how Drew left me all alone in the flat, how I took the rickshaw, but after that, I don’t remember anything.

She was furious with her brother’s irresponsible behaviour.

But even then, I didn’t let her blame him. I was still hoping that it was the alcohol. I wished secretly that the person I had been dating for nearly two months now wouldn’t be this person. There was a small flicker of hope that it was a freaking nightmare and everything would be back to normal.

I remember begging Tasha to come with me to meet him and clear the night’s misunderstandings.

“Please Tasha, you have to come with me. I need to see him.

I mean, speak to him. I am sure he was under the influence of alcohol or some drug slipped to him at the party. He was not the same person I have been with all this time. He was someone else.

Please, tell me you would take me to him once. I won’t be able to rest until I speak to him.”“Okay, okay! I think you are making a big mistake sweetheart. I have been warning you against him for a long time. I know him, and he is not at all what you imagine him to be. You think you are street-smart but, you are a baby compared to him. He is too shrewd and conniving for you to handle.”

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“No! Shut up! You are wrong, and I will prove it to you! How about we go see him before your wedding fittings? His house is on the way.”

She caressed my forehead lovingly and replied,” Okay... Now let’s just sleep okay? I don’tt want our mothers questioning us later, sleep now Kai…goodnight.”

I remember her slipping into the sheets beside me and falling asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. Poor thing! She must be exhausted. She had watched over me through the night. Now that I was awake, I was restless and desperate to see Drew.

I waited till 7.30 a.m. before getting out of bed. I met aunty on my way out who was surprised to see me awake this early.

“Good morning Kaira. Are you okay? I have never seen you up this early ever since you entered college life. Do you need anything?”“Oh! Good morning Aunty! No…I mean…yes… I’mm good. I just wanted to get home to finish some work before Tasha and I left for the trials.”

“How about some coffee before you leave?”

I was in no state to have coffee. I was worried about meeting Drew. I don’t recall what I replied, but I left asap not realizing that my odd behavior must have worried her. I didn’t think she would call mom and tell her about it. Though I remember for sure Mom didn’t say nor ask anything when I reached home. She let me go to my room without questions.

Even to this day, I wonder how could I have been so naive and stupid? How could I not have seen through his intentions?

Why did I not trust my bestie who kept warning me? Why did I have to believe I was smart and worldly-wise? I was just a regular girl trying to go the extra mile to impress a man. Trying to fit into shoes that were never meant for her, nor were her style.

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64   •  Ritu Kakar shrewder, harsher and way crueler than one’s imagination. There is no harm in being impulsive, over friendly or an extrovert, but always be cautious and be responsible for your actions.

At sharp 11.30 a.m. that day, I knocked on Tasha’s door again.

As planned, we were first going to see Drew and then for the trial of her engagement outfit. I later realized that though mom had said nothing, she was keeping an eye on me. So, when aunty heard of our plans, she called mom.

We reached Drew’s house by noon. He wasn’t expecting us.

We knocked, waiting for him to open the door. I was shivering out of sheer nervousness and fear. My mouth and throat were parched. After ten mins of waiting, we used the spare key that was with Tasha.

When Tasha and I enter the house, we are startled by a strange smell that hit us. I slowly walked into the sitting area to see beer bottles and wine on the table. A hookah stands on the side table and its embers were still red. The room was in shambles, there were cigarette butts tossed around, the cushions were on the floor and dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink and on the floor.

Tasha and I exchanged fearsome looks. “This was not the state of the room when I left last night. In fact, I vaguely remember putting the cushions and a few other things back in place as I waited for him to return.”

Just then I saw a lady’s shoes under the sofa and felt a churning in my stomach. I picked it up and turned to Tasha. She immediately tried to drag me out of the place. I was too dumb to gauge what was happening and she had already understood everything. Despite all her efforts, I refused to leave and instead went further in to find Drew. As I slowly moved towards the door, I heard loud moans. I increased my pace, not caring whether Tasha was following me. I opened the door with shaking hands in 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 64

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a false hope…maybe it was a cat…maybe he was watching porn…

maybe….

The sight in front of me broke my heart, my dreams, my strength. I had walked into a scene straight out of a B-grade film.

Right there in front of me, Drew was fucking a girl…riding her like an untamed, wild horse. She was moaning and groaning with pleasure. Wasn’t she the girl he had introduced as his friend’s girlfriend? I shut my ears but my eyes refused to close. He looked like a ruthless predator happily devouring his prey. The look on his face was filled with pure lust.

My sob made the two look at me. The girl looked embarrassed.

The surprised look on his face would always stay with me.

However, there was no remorse or guilt.In fact, I think I saw him smiling slyly as he went on with his business. At that moment it struck me like a lightning bolt… he just did not care. It had been me and my adolescent fantasies about him. I was the fool living in a fool’s paradise. His agenda was clear from day one.

Tasha walked towards me, and without even looking at her brother, she pulled me out of the room. On seeing his sister briefly entered the room made him stop screwing the girl. Until then he had been enjoying himself. He hurriedly covered himself and tossed a bed sheet on the naked girl.

We had just reached the door when Drew called out. Dressed in his boxers, sweating from top to toe, he breathed excitedly and smiled sarcastically, “What are you doing here Kai baby? I thought I made myself clear last night. As you were not ready to jump into bed, I was no longer interested. If you changed your mind then you should have come alone instead of bringing my sister along with you.”

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66   •  Ritu Kakar all of a sudden Tasha exclaimed,” Shut up Drew! Have a heart and at least show some respect for my presence in the room. I tried warning Kai about the ass that you are. She refused to see it…

she could see just good in you. God knows how. Worse…this idiot thought you were in love with her.”

By now the other girl had dressed up and quietly slipped out of the house. Drew laughed hysterically and retorted, “In love!!!

Are you for real? Who spoke of love? She made herself available all the time! She literally threw herself at me! I never gave her reason to think I was interested in her. Her interest was obvious, so I pursued her lead. But love? Hahaha... You have got to be kidding!

She is not even my type. I like them experienced, expressive and confident not prudes like her.”

Tears once again welled up in my eyes and I gasped out loud, making Tasha tighten her grip on my arm.

His words were like splinters piercing through my skin. I felt my heart would explode. God! I felt dirty and cheap! Where I was considering marriage and happily ever after, he was just enjoying, like a stray dog enjoys a bone tossed towards it.

I stood there dripping in shock and hurt, cursing myself for this situation and my stupidity. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a hand slapped Drew hard across his face. It was his mother.

I don’t know when Mala aunty had walked in. I think I saw someone move back near the entrance door, but I am not sure. I looked back at aunty. I don’t know how much aunty had heard, but by the fury on her face, I think she had heard enough. I had frozen completely. So much so that when two pairs of familiar hands hold me from either side, I don’t realize my mom was holding me.

That day I had felt a part of me dying. Nothing was going to be right again. My beliefs, dreams and confidence lay at the feet of this stranger. A man, I did not actually know.

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13

I can still hear his words echoing in my ears, like a sharp, poisonous knife stabbed deep into my heart. What had supposedly been love for me had been fun and frolic for him, an easy lay. My emotions and feelings had meant nothing to him.

I have no recollection of how we reached home. I just vaguely remember Tasha taking me to my room while holding me tight. My state had the mothers worried and they knew they couldn’t hide it from the men for very long. But at the same time, they did not want things to spiral beyond control. Uncle is strict and orthodox.

Dad is cool and a softy, but if wronged, he has a temper no one would want to face. And as for Sam, he is totally temperamental; you could never be sure how he would react. So, the situation was very delicate with the wedding day approaching fast. The negative effect it will have on all the relations would be unavoidable.

As days went by and I refused to leave my room, everyone started to worry. Till now mom had somehow managed to keep dad and Sam at bay.

The poison of Drew’s words had spread deep and wide. I tried everything I could to rise above it all, but I was getting sucked in deeper.

After days of insomnia and staring into empty space the effects started showing on my face. I developed dark circles and started 67

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68   •  Ritu Kakar looking ill. The need to sleep had me secretly searching Mom’s cabinet for her sleeping pills. I grabbed the bottle and swallowed a fistful with some water. I don’t know when I fell asleep, or even how I reached my room. I just remember floating high in the air free, from every emotion and every hurt.

If Tasha had not come to see me that afternoon, I would not have been alive. When she saw me sleeping, she was going to leave. It was when she saw the half empty bottle of meds lying on the floor that she panicked and called mom. Fear and panic caused mom to call Sam immediately, letting the cat out of the bag. With the speed of lightning, Sam and dad were home with our family doctor in tow.

I was in no state to be taken to the hospital, it would mean filing a report, and cops would have to get involved. He flushed out the meds and put me on some antidote for a speedy recovery.

My actions shook the foundation of my house. Everyone saw a side of dad that put fear of God in all. Even mom had kept quiet in face of such fury.

Tasha and Sam had their first serious fight. Seeing dad this angry had shaken her, but having Sam berate her too broke her down. Mom had called Mala aunty, who had already spoken to uncle about the situation. Now everyone knew, and were in shock. Even Drew was stunned because this was something no one expected from the supposedly invincible Kaira. When I finally woke up, the atmosphere reeked of stress and an impending disaster. I feebly opened my eyes and looked at everyone in the room. Except for Drew, everyone was there. I had no idea of the havoc I had created, nor that Sam had beaten Drew pretty bad.

Seeing everyone so tensed, I, like an idiot said the first thing that came to mind, “Okay, guys who died?”

All hell broke loose!

“Are you mad?”

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“Who takes pills without a prescription?”

“Why would you want to do something so stupid?”

“Don’t we matter? How would we live without you in our lives? If not for Tasha, we could have lost you for good.”

I could see the worry, fear and anger on every face. I realized how I was letting one person pull me down when there were so many to pull me up. It dawned upon me, that nothing, and I mean NOTHING mattered more than these people in my life, MY

FAMILY. I slowly sat up on the bed to apologize profusely,

“I’m so sorry. I just desperately wanted to sleep, so did not see how many pills I can take. Please don’t be so angry. I really am sorry. I promise to never be this stupid ever again for as long as I live.”

But again, everyone shouted!

“Shut up sis…”

“You never think before opening that mouth of yours. Do you?”

“Kaaaiii…”

Ok, that was a stupid thing to say again, but at least everyone looked more animated. I had opened my eyes to sad, gloomy and upset faces but now they all had some life to them. I know I had been careless and irresponsible, but the hurt and pain had been unbearable and will always be.

As I observed everyone in the room, I got the feeling of impending doom. Something was being hidden from me. There was anger, disappointment and hurt on faces around. And no one seemed to be looking at the other. I had really goofed up everything in my naivety.

I imploringly looked at mom for help, but just then, the doctor came in with his psychologist friend with him. She sat with me for forty-five minutes, talking and asking a million questions. It was then that I realized what a close call it had been.

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14

I remember being confi ded to bed for the next few days. I could see things were not right. Tasha was never around like before.

She would come when dad and Sam were at work and leave before they arrived. Dad though, he checked on me but never spoke more than a few words, which in itself was a statement that he was not over my reckless behaviour . Then there was Sam, who refused to take the bait when I troubled him. Usually, he would be on my case for the smallest thing I said but now, nothing.

Mala aunty and uncle didn’t visit again. Something was wrong…terribly wrong. I waited for the right opportunity to speak to Tasha but she always avoided answering.

But the day I got out of bed; Tasha stopped coming over. I called incessantly, she neither picked my calls nor called me back.

In eleven years, Tasha and I had never been far from one another. So, her avoiding my calls and not berating me for my actions worried me. This silence was killing me, along with the creepy atmosphere at home. Being shut out was the worst punishment ever, I would rather face everyone’s wrath. This was my fault and I could see everyone paying for it.

I was hoping jumping into the wedding preparation again once things settled would help. But with Tasha’s elusiveness and the silence at home worried me. Finally, I went to the one person 70

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who I knew would answer my questions- mom. I pestered her till she was forced to open the Pandora’s Box.

She was in the guest bedroom hanging the wedding clothes when I cornered her.

“Mom, what on earth is going on? Dad and Sam are angry with me; I understand. I messed up. But where is Tasha? Why aren’t the wedding preparations going on? What is happening?

I know I was stupid and goofed up big time, but neither was I expecting this outcome. It was not my intention to hurt and disappoint everyone.”

She stopped her work and patiently replied,

“Kai, I agree this is a mess created by you and Drew. But it’s a mess that has affected both families. Your mistake has left a serious impact on your Dad and brother’s minds. They can’t get over the fact that you could take such a step. They know nothing about what happened that night but seeing you at death’s door has put the fear of God in them. Even I cannot get over Tasha’s scream that day. So, what should I tell them?”

I looked at her with angst in my eyes, “I know mom! It is an unforgivable mistake, a big one. But mom it was exactly that, a mistake. It was not intentional or planned. So why are Sam, Tasha, Dad and the rest of the family suffering? Why hasn’t Tasha come to visit me in the last four days? She is not even picking my calls, nothing.”

Mom sighed sadly. I could feel her measuring her words as she spoke. Maybe she was afraid I would behave reckless again…

“Sweetheart, everything has been bought to a halt. The wedding has been postponed indefinitely for now. I am not even sure if it will take place. Dad and Mr Baig are not speaking to each other. Mr Baig threw Drew out of his house and has cut off with him. Sam nearly killed Drew when he came to apologize and 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 71

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72   •  Ritu Kakar check on you. So, everything is in a mess. Mala and I are not sure how to handle it for now. We both are quiet. Waiting, watching & praying.”

My heart sank. This was so unfair…people I love were being punished because of my stupidity.

“What about Tasha?”

“Well, that poor girl is paying the price for no mistake of hers.

Sam was way too angry with her for not telling him about your crush. She even got fired by her father for no fault of hers. Now she is banned from coming here or talking to you.”

I gasped loudly and exclaimed, “But that’s so not fair. I am the one in the wrong, so why is she paying the price for it? And how could Sam be angry with her? When they were going out, I didn’t tell you so why would she? BFFs don’t snitch mom…he should know that, shouldn’t he?”

I looked at mom with tears brimming in my eyes. I was so ashamed of what I had dragged the family into because of my carelessness. But one thing I did know, I must correct this.

“Mom, what do you suggest I should do in order to make this right? It is my mistake, and I am the only one who has to correct it.”

She sighed and continued with her work, avoiding eye contact,

“Mala and I have not yet announced that the wedding is off.

We have kept it quiet. As I said, we are waiting for some more time to pass before we try to speak to the men once again. There are still a few weeks left, till then we will continue preparing in a hope that all goes well.”

I looked at her in sheer disbelief, “Mom, we cannot leave things like this. There are only a few weeks left with a lot to do.

So, I have a suggestion if you agree.”

She sighs wearily, butI know she will help me make things right

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“How about we invite the Baig family for dinner without Drew.? We call dad and Sam home early on some pretext. After that, I speak to everyone, apologize for my behavior and ask for forgiveness. Then request them to not ruin two lives for a mistake I made.”

“Wow Kai, do you really think you will be able to pull it off? I know you are my competent daughter, but this is a tough situation.

And knowing your dad, he could create a fit!”

“Ya, I know! But it’s at least better to have it all out in the open. Right now, everyone is living with depression and the wedding hangs in suspense. As for dad creating a fit, well, I am his daughter, so chillax! Please, you just call Mala aunty and tell her to get everyone. The rest I will manage.”

“Kai, Drew is no longer in Mumbai. His father shipped him off to another country immediately after the incident.”

“Ohh…”

At this moment, Sam and Tasha mattered more than Drew leaving India. My pain was like a thorn embedded deep within and the pain was mine to bear. My family didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of it.

That evening, while I waited for everyone, I swung between nervousness and fear. I only know that I could make everything right. I was after all the fulcrum of my family. Mom’s words struck me, this sure was a huge responsibility, and I just had to succeed at it.

I wiped my sweaty hands before opening the door when the bell rang. Dad was reading a novel, while Sam watched the TV

in the lounge. I welcomed uncle and aunty and hugged Tasha, whispering into her ears softly

“You and I will talk later, so better be prepared for war. Let me handle this first.”

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74   •  Ritu Kakar Before she could question me or even reply to my threat, I called out to dad and Sam. They were shocked to see the Baig family there. Dad looked at mom angrily, and she pointed to me.

I smiled sweetly, requesting everyone to sit.

I stood before them all with folded hands contemplating my next words. I started twisting my hands, feeling sweat pour down my back as nervousness made me twitch. I think I was on the verge of a panic attack when I heard a reassuring voice,

“It’s okay Kai, say what you have to…” It was my darling saviour, my mom.

With a deep breath, I began to speak.

“This is my entire family. We have all known each other for a long time, in fact Tasha and I brought this family together. Each of you adopted us as your own and loved us unconditionally and equally.”

I cleared my throat as emotions choked me. Everyone was just looking at me, waiting for my next string of words.

“Sam falling for Tasha was the best thing for us all. I know dad was super happy at the news.”

I looked at dad to see him shake his head in affirmation. When I look at Baig uncle, he too was agreeing to this. I hugged myself before continuing to the tricky part.

“Well, I see both dads are in agreement here. So, I am sure you both will also agree that the recent spate of events was my fault and not Tasha’s. I know I should not have behaved the way I did, it was the biggest mistake of my life. But uncle, dad I am solely responsible for my actions.”

I went to Dad and sat by his feet, held his hand tight and looked at him in the eyes as I said,

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actions, I know I deserve to be punished. But dad and uncle have disappointed me too. I am the only one at fault in the mess I created, so why are you all paying for it? Why is Tasha paying for it? You being angry with Drew is understandable, he hurt your daughter. But then you and Sam have hurt uncle Baig’s daughter as well. So, he has the right to being angry too. All this…because of me….”

My voice cracks with emotions, while Mom, Mala aunty and Tasha let out a few sniffles. Sam was sitting up, scowling while Uncle Baig was giving a slight smile. Dad on the other hand, started looking out of the window.

I gave everyone time to process my words while I too took a breather. I knew this was going to be difficult, but I wasn’t aware that it would be so emotionally exhausting. I saw Tasha standing still in the corner, she seemed too surprised and worried to speak.

After a few seconds, I continued again, this time a bit more confidently, “What happened with Drew and me was unfortunate but totally separate from Sam and Tasha’s relationship. Being involved with Drew was my mistake for which no one else should be punished. It is my lesson in life, one I will learn from so that I never repeat it again. But please tell me why Tasha should pay for my mistake? I know you haven’t totally forgiven me, dad, but I am really sorry. I request you to not cancel the wedding because of me.”

I folded my hands as I looked at all the adults apologetically.

I then turned to Sam.

“As for you Sam, I won’t apologize to you because I don’t appreciate you abandoning Tasha for no mistake of hers. I mean how could you leave her or even think of it after everything she has done for you? In a way, your behavior was worse than Drew’s!

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76   •  Ritu Kakar Tasha too. How could you even think of backing away? And why?

She is the same girl you stood up for in front of the parents, right?

Now, at the first major crisis, you just left her! That, dear brother, is not what love is. So, dear family, please rethink very carefully before making any decisions because it affects everyone’s life here. Again, I am really… really… sorry.”

After saying this I slowly walked out of my room, closing the door behind me. I hoped love would fill these cracks soon.

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15

I splashed cold water on my face. Gosh! That was the toughest speech I have ever given! There was knock at the door, but I already knew who it could be. I smiled and welcomed her,

“Come in Tasha. Since when do you need to knock?”

“Since my friend and soul sister has grown so big that I am feeling small in front of her. I would never have guessed you could be so humble.”

“Please, don’t BS with me. I am too upset with you to pay heed to your kind words.”

I looked at her with anger as I spoke

“Tasha, how could you not fi ght for what is right? I thought I had taught you better! The messy affair between Drew and me shouldn’t have stopped you from standing up to Sam when he was wrong. How could you keep quiet? But what hurt me most was you not accepting my calls. How could you? It is something I will never forgive you for.”

I choked while speaking and hugged her tightly. Tears were running down our cheeks. The room was fi lled with love.

All of a sudden Tasha started wailing loudly,

“How could you do this, Kai? What if I had not come into the room? What if the doctor had not come on time? What then? If something had happened to you, I too would have died.”

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78   •  Ritu Kakar

“Oh God Tasha! You are not getting rid of me so easily! But there is one thing that I have realized from all this. It is not just you who needs me, I need you more. You keep me grounded, and sane. Your silence compliments my effervescence. It is not just you or me, it is us, now and forever…but …the next time you don’t take my call, I will kill you myself.”

We both chuckled at my last statement and hug each other tightly. We then lie on the bed, facing the ceiling while she updated me on what had been happening in this past week.

Shit! Can you imagine? A whole week had passed since that day! Well, the moms had kept quiet about it, but my stupidity unveiled the harsh facts. The fathers and Sam still didn’t know the whole truth except that I had gotten drunk. Thank God for small mercies! But it was a close touch down. It seemed Sam whacked Drew pretty hard. Even though I knew that uncle was sending Drew away but it was still a shock to hear Tasha confirmed it.

Drew was leaving next week and even though the wedding was going to go as planned Drew was not allowed to attend.

Everyone agreed it would be an insult for my family including me. I believed it was a little harsh because I was equally at fault.

But a selfish part inside me relaxed, as I don’t think I could face him any time soon.

Everything continued as per schedule and the earlier plans.

On the surface, nothing had changed, but still, a lot had.

I took the doctor’s advice and kept my appointments with the psychologist. The counselling therapy which helped me restore my confidence but I became more cautious of the opposite sex.

No man was ever going to call me easy or available again. The counsellor helped get my perspective in order and turn towards fulfilling my dreams. She encouraged my idea for the Café Library.

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hold for a little longer. It was on my agenda the minute Tasha and Sam left for their honeymoon.

A shooting pain in my leg gets me back to reality. My leg had gone to sleep while I was reminiscing the past but it was important too. Shoot, it is nearly 3 a.m. and tomorrow is going to be another busy day, especially at the hospital. Then I also need time to decorate Angel’s room, so the rest of the story later. Nite nite 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 79

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16

Morning comes way too soon for me. It was fi lled with chaos just like every other Indian home. The men in my house are absolutely useless without their wives.

I can hear dad and Sam going crazy for breakfast and the other for coffee. Like, this is a madhouse without mom and Tasha, as for me I am so sorry but this is so not my choice of job. I hate cooking and keeping house. I love my books, my Café and my daily interactions with people.

After Sam’s wedding we had gotten lucky. Our neighbours were selling their house and were kind enough to put an offer to dad. Which was a superb coincidence because we were also planning for a bigger home. Dad didn’t think twice and accepted the offer. Everyone knows the crazy real estate prices in Mumbai.

So even though the buying price was a little more with the extra premium charged by the ‘kind’ neighbour it was too perfect to let go, so dad accepted. It took time but everything worked out marvellously!

Slowly we expanded the house, restructuring the whole fl oor into one. That way, we are all together, without affecting each other’s privacy and life. Well, I am blessed to live in such a huge apartment in a city that is exploding due to lack of space!

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When I leave my room, I am surprised to see Dad cooking in the kitchen. Wow, now that is a first for sure, as for brother dear, he was packing tiffins for everyone. Wow wonders never cease! I pull out a chair and then my phone to start video recording. Dad laughs while he hears me speak,

“Now, this is live recording for mom and Tasha. The men of the house in the kitchen, like OMG! Mom, you sure need to see the state of your kitchen!”

I pan the camera around the entire kitchen and then shift focus on Sam. He exclaims humorously,

“It sure is better than last night, mom. All she did was serve the food you had already prepared. You did not even clear the mess afterwards, which was worse than this, huh.”

I turn the camera to selfie mode and say, “Such hoax, I cleared everything before turning in so Sam is BS. Btw, what is that you are cooking? By the look of that, it was an egg now it is a black burnt block, huh.”

I pan the camera towards Dad, just in time to see what he is doing, and it is disastrous. I hurriedly shut the camera and scream loudly,

“Dad, DAD! What are you doing??? The milk has long overflown and spread on the stove it is burning now. Uggh! The smell! Dad!! Okay, that’s it, guys! Out…OUT right now! You both go and sit. I will have everything on the table in fifteen mins. Just give me space…go!”

I march them out of the kitchen when Sam quips, “Hey, sis need help?

“Hahaha!!! Thanks, but no thanks!”

The minute they leave I see the disastrous state of the kitchen and feel like pulling my hair.

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82   •  Ritu Kakar I quickly get sunny-side up eggs and toasted bread ready for breakfast. On the side, I quickly get the tea ready. Once everything is ready to serve, I set the table and let them eat while I get coffee for myself.

Did I mention that I am an absolute mess without my first fix of coffee? I am too slow, practically a zombie. So, the adrenaline rush of this morning is a surprise for me too.

I sit with Sam and dad while enjoying my coffee and planning our visits to the hospital. Sam is in a hurry to see his wifey and Angel. Dad planned to visit in the evening after work. As for me, I would straighten up the house and take over the afternoon shift.

Thus, relieving both moms to recoup. With all set, we take each other’s leave. No one mentions Drew’s presence, and I do not consider it important enough, so stalemate!

By the time I finally have the house to myself, the part-time maids have walked in. So, with them taking over the cleaning of the house, I get dressed. Despite taking an off, I sit down to tally the accounts of the previous day.

Business is good, goal accomplishment always brought a feeling of satisfaction. I finish reading the reports and cataloguing of the latest books. I take a quick glance through the most recent ventures and market updates. While I am wrapping up work, my mind wanders to the stranger I met at the Café yesterday. Wow, has it been just a day? It feels like a lifetime has passed. This unknown man has been tugging a corner of my heart that was closed for the past four years. I breathe deeply and when I open my eyes, I find him standing in front of me! I jerk up, rubbing my eyes only to realize I am daydreaming, again. Wow, who was he?

I wish I knew.

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in order. The house needs to be as per the standards set by mom.

I quickly lock the house and make my way down. It is nearly 11.45

a.m.; I have another forty-five minutes to reach the hospital. I know I had said noon, but then no one better than mom knows how impossible that is with me. Time and me in sync?... Ahhh...

Never happens!

As I reach my bike, I hear someone calling my name. I see Drew sauntering towards me. What is he doing here? Humph…

why do I care? I continue to wear my helmet and prepare to leave when he reaches my side. He gives me a beaming smile; I return a wry one.

“Hi Kai…”

“Hey ...”

“Are you going to the hospital?”

“Yeah, in fact, I’m late.”

“Would you mind giving me a lift? My car is at the repair station, and I also wanted to go to the hospital.”

“You want me to take you to the hospital on my bike… hmm?”

“Yes… if it is okay with you?”

“…Drew, I don’t want to sound condescending or rude, but I think a taxi will be a better option for you. My bike will not suit your stature and personality. So, I will see you later. Bye!”

I start my bike and ride away not waiting for his answer. I look into the rear-view mirror and see him standing there forlorn, staring at me. The most amazing part of this encounter is that I do not feel anything, neither the previous hurt nor the tingling sensation I use to get whenever he was around me. I feel the cool breeze playing with my hair…wow, to be emotionally free is a wonderful thing!

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17

I ride with a happy mind and a liberated heart. The emotional freedom relaxes me while adding wings to my ride. Just a few minutes away from the hospital, disaster strikes. Shoot, I am feeling way too good and now, this!

Okay, I know I was over speeding a bit, but my bike got more hurt than his freaking car! Ya ya yaa, you guess right, I have met with a small accident. Hey, please don’t judge me! I know I am prone to accidents. But this time I got careless due to internal bliss and happiness. Shoot... nooo, it is big shit!! I just crashed my bike into Mr Mystery Man’s car! Seeing him get out of the car gives me a feeling of Deja vu.

It seems like I conjured him from thin air. I have had glimpses of this man bothering me at the oddest times. Like just this morning when he fl ashed right before my eyes unexpectedly and now this. I am not sure what this means, but it is surely not what I need now. So here we are, unfortunately not the perfect scenario again.

“OMG! It’s you again! I guess we are destined to meet like this only. Btw are you stalking me?”

He looks at me as if I have lost my mind. Maybe I have, huh.

He sure roughs up another side to me.

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“Ms Fireball, this wouldn’t be my choice of place if that was my intention. I would have chosen better surroundings, not the middle of a random road. As for stalking you, hahaha you sure think a lot about yourself!”

“Hey! You are mean! I was kidding okay? You know, trying to diffuse a situation...”

He gives me a look I don’t understand, but it sure makes me blush. I feel my heartbeat increase. It is an odd reaction to a complete stranger. I switch to my bike getting ready to leave when he speaks,

“Hey Fireball, were you trying to diffuse the situation or escape it? Because I see no need for diffusion here.”

Again Fireball? What the heck? Here I am trying to get away from these weird emotions, and this handsome stranger is challenging me! The one thing I never back down from is a challenge. And quite honestly, I have forgotten about the accident.

So, I am forced to turn towards him again.

“Hey! What’s with this name tag ‘Fireball’. And hello! I have no reason to escape from anything! The shock of the accident freaked me out a bit so I spoke instinctively.”

I look up and see a smirk on his face. This man is having fun at my expense! How audacious! I am about to retort, when he speaks,

“Well, in that case, you owe me for my damaged head. As for Fireball, I don’t know why or where it came from, but it suits you.

Don’t you think?”

I grunt loudly and reply, “What on earth are you blabbering about? You and your head seem to be perfectly fine to me. It is your driving we need to discuss here. You did stop all of a sudden, with no warning!”

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86   •  Ritu Kakar

“Actually, it was the headlight of my car I was talking about.

But now that you mention driving, from what I noticed you were speeding and even jumped the last signal. In fact, it looked like you were heading straight for my car.”

“Whaaat???

“Fireball, are you sure you banged into my car by mistake and not intentionally?”

Shoot, this man is over smart and over the top! He seems to be enjoying my discomfort now. Finally, I meet someone who can get the better of me or at least can try. And yes, he is handsome too.

“Okay, Mr Smarty Pants, you got me! It was your car and not you that I was headed for. I hate Mercedes cars, so seeing yours fired up my hatred. I just lost control and went straight for it.”

How I kept my face straight, I don’t know… How I did not burst out laughing at his expressions will remain a mystery. The look on his face was priceless. I have never seen anyone this stupefied before. When he continues staring at me with those stupefied brown eyes, I couldn’t stop my loud, throaty laughter.

It had been a while since I have laughed so loud and so freely. It felt amazing! He too starts smiling and then lets out a hearty laugh when he realises the joke was on him. Hmm…he has a great SOH

(sense of humour, before you all wonder) and he has a great laugh too…

“I am sooo sorry, I just could not resist. You were trying to make me feel guilty, so I just had to outsmart you somehow.”

“You sure did that, Fireball, I believed you too. It’s a rare for me to believe someone so easily.”

“It was a pleasure sparring with you Mr… see you around.”

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causing me to lose my balance. At one point in those milliseconds, I was sure I was going to say hello to death and not Mother Earth this time.

Once again, I am saved by those firm, and now, for some reason familiar hands. He yanks me towards him firmly, I can feel his heart pounding. I close my eyes tightly and hold on to his arms, pressing myself closer to his warm body. It takes me a while to get my nerves settled back and slowly pry my eyes open.

When I open my eyes, I find myself looking into the most amazing, warm, chocolate brown eyes. They remind me of my favourite hot chocolate fudge with caramel sauce. The intensity in those eyes makes me shiver with more than just fear. They are looking at me tenderly, making every nerve tingle and every hair on my body stand. He tightens his grip on me when he feels the shiver run through me again. I have never felt so safe and nervous at the same time. In fact, it takes a minute to realize he too is trembling… but why

I slowly slide my hands up to his able shoulders for support.

Our bodies are practically joined at the chest. My heart is thumping so hard that I am sure he can hear it. I can see emotions in his eyes changing like the rainbow, fear to concern to lust. I think he moves his head towards mine or is it me, I don’t know but the need to kiss is strong. Are we going to? Would we have kissed?

I don’t know. I was spellbound by the intense look in his eyes.

iWhat would have happened will remain a mystery because the loud honk from another car shook us out of our dream-like state.

I think we both are breathing really hard…or am I imagining it all? I attribute my dazed state to the adrenaline rush and to my near-death experience.

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88   •  Ritu Kakar attracted a crowd. The traffic is held up and everyone was staring at us.

Aye Romeo, romance ghar pe kar, sadak pe nahi”

“Abbey ghar pe jagah nahi hogi, issiliye!”

“Aye Romeo, aye!”

Mumbai is like this, never lewd, just crass…god.

A whistle from one of the boys shook Mystery Man and brings him back to reality. He straightens himself abruptly, pulling his hands back which are reaching out for me again, instead he adjusts his shirt and moves towards his car. I start my bike, saying a quite thank you without making eye contact and ride off quickly.

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18

The wind cools the heat of my face helping calm me. It seems like eternity since I reacted to a man emotionally.

I almost see myself as asexual avoiding men and anything romantic. Today, strange feelings jump out of nowhere and now I’m running for life.

By the time I reach the hospital, I am more in control. When I entered Tasha’s room, I fi nd Drew already there. He gives me a strange look, but who cares? I ignore him and look for mom, then at my watch. I am twenty minutes late, shit!

“Where are mom and aunty?”

I look at Tasha, but it is Drew who answers forcing me to look at him.

“They left twenty minutes back. When I reached, I asked them to go. I assured them you were reaching in some time.”

“Oh, thanks!” I turn to Tasha & smile, “Well, hello mommy dear, how are you doing? And what’s this? Where are you hiding my niece?”

Tasha smiles weakly, and replies, “Oh, they have just taken her for a nappy change. I am doing good…doctor says I need to start walking within twenty-four hours of delivery. But Kai, the pain is unbearable at times. There is pain around the stitches, but 89

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90   •  Ritu Kakar the meds are taking care of it. Huh! I sure am in a better state than you!”

“What do you mean? I am absolutely fine! What seems to be wrong with me?”

I don’t realize that I sound jittery. Nor do I realize that the incident with Mystery Man has affected me more than I could fathom. When I hear Tasha appease me, I try to calm myself.

Gosh! What on earth is going on with me?

Tasha chuckles, “Hey Kai, relax! You look fine! It’s just that there is mud on your cheek and a slight tear on your shirt near the shoulder. That is why I asked. Nothing to get so antsy about.”

I fish out a wet tissue from my tote bag and wipe off the mud.

Then I look for the tear. When did my shirt tear? When I left this morning my shirt was alright, so when? Then I remember the accident with the Mercedes, and Mystery Man, shoot.

With that I remember how amazing being in his arms had felt and the swoon worthy look he had. A gush of emotions totally different from any I had ever felt before hits me again. I am so lost in thoughts that I don’t hear Tasha calling. Until a rough shake brings me back to my surroundings.

“Ouch, what?”

I wince at the touch and turn. It’s Drew. I move away from Drew and go to Tasha, who looks at me with concern.

“What is wrong, Kai? You seem lost, everything is fine…

right? What happened to you?”

“It’s nothing to worry about. I just had a small accident OMW

here, nothing major. The shirt must have torn then.”

“If it was nothing then why are you so flustered and lost?

Something must have happened to have shaken you this badly.”

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whose name I still didn’t t know. But right now, I had to appease Tasha, who was on my case.

“You better tell me what happened? We all have been telling you to sell that thing and get a car. You are rash and careless on that monster. I am guessing something big happened to make you look like this.”

I look at her, lying in bed, weak from the operation, struggling with the newness of motherhood. It’s not the time to burden her with silly details of my life. I smile at her and say, “Okay now, don’t you even dare think of selling my second bestie. You know I have had my bike for like forever. Today I just got unlucky, and it was a small accident, and this tear is from a fall, not the accident.”

She gasps loudly,

“What fall? Are you hurt? Should we call the doctor? Kaiii….”

Shit, me and my big mouth!! It’s high time to push Mystery Man out of my mind; I am losing focus. I am not filtering information before speaking and now Tasha is waiting for me to speak.

I gather myself and reassure her,

“No Tasha, I am fine. You are the one who had surgery and needs to rest and not stress. Please relax, okay?”

She finally realizes I won’t say anything especially with Drew there. I change the topic hoping to pacify her.

“So, mommy how is it going? Were Angel and you fine last night? Especially with the pain and discomfort.”

“Well, it was amazingly easy only because both moms were here. They took turns all night with her changing, burping and crying. As for me after the initial hiccups with feeding, I managed fine...I guess… in fact, they should be getting Angel back soon.”

We get so involved in talking that we completely forget about Drew. He coughs lightly to grab our attention.

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92   •  Ritu Kakar

“Ohh...”

“Drew...”

Both Tasha and I don’t know what to say. He immediately quips, “I was wondering if any of you wants coffee…?”

With him around avoiding conversations is not possible. I decided last night that I will acknowledge him as Tasha’s brother and keep it cordial.

“Yes Drew, that would be amazing! The coffee I made tasted crappy. Please get only one as your sister is not allowed coffee.

Not good for feeding mothers...”

Tasha says,

“Hmm, all of a sudden, you seem to know a lot about feeding mothers. One coffee won’t kill me.”

“Hey, doctor’s orders sweetie! As for knowing a lot, well, I did pay attention during those classes you forced me to go with you. Remember those books you read out to me? Some of the information did register. So yaaa, I do know a little about feeding mothers...”

“God, you sound like a two-year-old who was forced to eat all the veggies.”

“Shut up, bitch!”

We end our little squabble with a smile, once again forgetting about Drew.

Now, this is a thing with Tasha and me, when we are together, we don’t need anyone else around. Even Sam tends to get envious about it.

Drew exclaims, “Umm…I think I should just go and get the coffee.” That’s when we remember his presence.

As soon as Drew leaves the room, Tasha asks to be propped up.

She makes herself comfortable before restarting her interrogation.

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I just knew it was coming! I sometimes feel I am a mood enhancer for her. Like I am a relaxant for her husband.

“Okay, first let’s clear the question that is on everyone’s mind.

Are you okay with Drew being here? I mean, not just in the hospital but around the home and family.”

I hurriedly shush her,

“Babe you are still healing from surgery. You need to take care of yourself and the baby. Please don’t worry about petty issues.”

She gasps in disbelief.

“Petty issues? Like, really Kai?? We nearly lost you…

remember?”

My voice turns soft as I slowly spell out, “Tasha, that was a long time ago. I don’t say I have forgiven or forgotten, but I was equally at fault. I have no grudges against him anymore. Trust me, seeing him again was a good thing. At least now I know that I am over my infatuation. Besides, I think only he paid the price for something that we were both to blame. His return is good, especially for Mala aunty. I know she missed him a lot. So, where Drew’s issue is concerned, you can chillax…okay?”

Tasha looks at me as if I have grown a second head! I laugh loudly only to find her eyes are nearly bulging out of her head.

“Gosh Tasha! That look on your face is frame-worthy!”

And before she realizes, I fish out my phone and I take a picture. This snaps her out of her shock. She protests loudly,

“Hey, delete that picture. I look horrendous!”

“No sweetie you look amazing! It’s quite a Kodak moment, see?”

She looks at the picture and grunts in false disdain.

“I look like a maniac! But keep it, it’s worth every bit. At least, I got to hear your signature laugh…I have been missing it for the past four years.”

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94   •  Ritu Kakar She places her hand on mine and says, “Remember Kai, you had a totally carefree laugh? It used to spread positivity and happiness to everyone around. It has been a long wait. So, anything is worth it to hear it again and again.”

Tears run down my cheeks as she expresses her thoughts. I realize it’s been long since I allowed myself to flow like this. Today I feel liberated from all bondages and shackles. When I begin searching reasons, once again, out of nowhere, Mystery Man pops back into my head. Gosh! When and why did I start calling him Mystery Man? Why does my mind keep racing back to him?

Tasha jabs me with her index finger,

“Okay Kai, now I REALLY need to know what new has happened lately. Please don’t say Angel is the cause for your comeback! That excuse would be a crappy one. Something has changed Kai…something good has happened to you…share now!”

I feign irritation and exclaim, “Uff! Miss Bond don’t over work your little mind. You know I will never hide anything from you. So, it’s obvious I will tell you everything. But right now, you need to rest. Btw, don’t you think Angel should have been here by now?”

I guess the nurse was standing out listening to our conversation.

Lol… She promptly enters with Angel who is cooing happily. I quickly sanitize my hands and move towards Angel.

“Saari  Enty!  Pahile  baby  ko  mummy  ka  feed  chahiye,  phir aap baby ley sakte hai.” She gives me a matronly look through her rimmed spectacles while signaling me to stand off.

She hands over Angel to Tasha who had propped her pillows and is ready to feed her. I watch this sight with absolute amazement. To see Tasha’s maternal side was beautiful. She is always the homely one and being a mother came so naturally to 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 94

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Love Unexpected  •  95

her. We had read about feeding problems with new mothers, but Tasha feeds so naturally as if she has been doing it forever. She gently caresses Angel’s tiny head while looking at her lovingly. The beautiful, eternal bond of emotions between the mother and child gives me goose bumps. I whisper a prayer for the safety of the family. As soon as the nurse leaves, Tasha is on my case again.

“Out with it, fast, before someone else interrupts.”

Her switch from mom to friend was almost magical!

Before I could react, there is a knock on the door. It is Drew, he satnds at the door with a cup of my favourite brand of coffee.

“Hey, where did you find Starbucks here? This hospital doesn’t have one.”

“No, there is one across the street. I thought, since I was getting coffee why not a decent one? I did not want to experiment with the coffee they serve here. This one is exactly the way you like it - Latte with cream and two spoons of sugar.”

“Oh…I’ll take that; however, I now prefer Mocha with no cream and one spoon of sugar. No issues, thanks a lot anyway. You can’t come in right now as Tasha is feeding and I have no idea how long that takes.”

“That’s fine, I was anyways leaving. Dad called me for some work.”

“Bye!”

He calls out just before I shut the door. I open it slightly with a questioning look in my eyes. “Kai, I wanted to thank you. I know if not for you, my parents would not have allowed me here. I know it’s coming late, but I am sorry… I behaved like a bastard and was way out of line…”

He was in a mood to continue but I do not plan on listening further. “Listen, Drew, it’s kk. You don’t have to apologize for anything. I was also stupid and equally wrong. As for you being 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 95

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96   •  Ritu Kakar here, I have no hand in it. It’s the elders, and I agree with them.

This is your family, and you need to be here with them. So, all is good. Bye.”

I close the door quickly. Today is not the day to dig up the past. It’s a day to celebrate freedom from those painful memories.

I do not want anything to tie me down again, I am loving this feeling of freedom.

I amble towards Tasha who exclaims,

“That was impressive and mature.”

I shrug as if to say, ‘Whatever!’

“Have you finished feeding her?”

“Yes, for now. Tell you what, why don’t you burp her?”

“Hey, I don’t know how.”

She helps me prop Angel to my shoulder, while carefully holding her head. She asks me to pat her lightly till she burps.

I nervously carry her around and pat her lightly. All of a sudden, a loud noise is heard,

“BURP!!”

“Wow what a LOUD sound for such a tiny one!”

We both laugh at Angel’s cuteness. She falls asleep on my shoulder and I feel like the luckiest aunt in the whole world.

I excitedly narrate the sequence of incidents with Mystery Man from the day before at the cafe to the one this morning.

The near fall at the cafe and the sparring that followed. Then our second crash this morning on my way to the hospital. She listens eagerly as I smile nervously describing my brush with death and his quick reflexes at saving me. I feel like Sleeping Beauty bought to life by the handsome prince riding in his white Mercedes instead of horse. Fear that she would laugh at the analogy makes me keep quiet, though it is an effort. But there is something I can’t stop myself from telling her.

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“Tasha, something surprising happened this morning which cemented the fact I was over Drew and that past... My signature laugh as you call it, was not my first today. I relished it before, during a special moment with Mystery Man.”

“Hey, what are you saying? This I want to hear about.”

I tell her about the prank I pulled in retaliation to his smartness, while we were arguing. Remembering his zapped look brings a smile to my face again, surprising Tasha. I finally tell her how I felt I had met someone with the same wavelength as mine.

“Wow, I go out of action for just one day, and you manage to find so much action in yours! But I am super glad! I have been waiting for my Kai to be back. Hearing that you pulled a prank like before and hearing your laugh makes me believe that she is back.”

I sigh loudly,

“Good Lord Tasha! Stop being so melodramatic, please! I agree it has been a while and yes, it felt good! I can’t describe it but something broke loose, freeing me. Whatever it is, I am glad it happened. Now, enough you please rest or everyone will take my case for keeping you up. We can talk more about it when you are better and back in action. Rest sweetie.”

Tasha sleeps happily while I turn to the window, smiling to myself.

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19

My mind is fi lled with happy memories of Tasha and our beautiful bond. If I had not gathered courage and confronted the family, this could have panned out very differently. Thank God for small mercies.

I will never forget Sam and Tasha’s wedding. Though the situation wasn’t a smooth sail, the wedding was amazing. There were a few awkward moments when the relatives asked about Drew, but we stuck to the same answer,

“He was called away for his job immediately. They threatened to terminate his appointment if he did not join work, asap.”

The relatives found the excuse unbelievable but they kept mum nevertheless. But other than those trivial moments, the wedding was a runaway success. The pretty clothes, perfume engulfi ng the atmosphere, the food, the music and the vivacity was amazing. The chirpiness of the youth and the gathering of the entire clan was terrifi c.

Tasha looked like a princess. As for Sammy I would never have guessed my brother could look so handsome. I saw a charming and caring side of him which Tasha always insisted he has but I as a sister never saw. But since then I have seen many different sides of Sam. His magnifi ed concern and care for Tasha after almost losing her. Marriage sure suits him and now fatherhood will too.

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The end of the wedding brought a month-long honeymoon leaving me with a lot of ‘me-time’. During that period, I formulated the idea for my Café Library.

I worked on my ideas day and night to have my project ready to show dad. Dad not only approved but helped me with the finer details. You remember Zoonie, don’t you? She is an architect, whom I consulted to work with on my project .

I still remember when we met at our favourite food joint close to the college. It brought so much joy! The pranks we pulled, the fights, OMG. It all seemed so silly now as we laughed over THE

FIGHT, but yes, it did bring us all together. All five of us (Tasha included) meet once a year when Maya and Pearl are in town. The ruckus we create is unimaginable.

After hours of talking, I told her about my idea. I shared my vision, describing my dream intricately to her. I respected her for not asking me about Drew. Of course, word had spread. She must be aware of the gossip but seeing me move beyond it all she didn’t bring the topic up.

She loved the whole concept of having a café attached to a huge library. I chuckled as I see a different Zoonie in her work mode ON. During college, I never noticed how extremely sharp and intelligent she was. But seeing her now not only impressed me but inspired me too. She spoke in a plain business-like tone when she heard my idea,

“Kaira, I love the idea but how do you plan to make this happen? Do you have a place decided for your cafe? Then there is the name and registration for your Café Library concept and the name? Have you thought of a name for it? Who do you plan to get it constructed by? Hey, the biggest and most important question where is the money? From where and how are you planning to arrange money for such a huge project?”

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100   •  Ritu Kakar Now, it was not easy to stun me, but she surely succeeded. I sat there looking at her with sheer amazement and silent respect.

This was the same girl who hated books, always the first to bunk classes and party all the time. Seeing this side of hers made me miss the other one. But I knew that too existed, just more sophisticated, controlled and poised now.

I replied to her questions , “Wow, finally I get to put in a word!

I would have shown you all the details had you waited a moment.