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But as it turns out you have become just like me, impatient and impulsive. Lol…”

“Oh, okay! I got a little carried away. I loved the idea and the whole concept! So, speak up and show me what you got, baby!”

“So, our old Zoonie is still alive eh? For a second there I felt that the face, voice and body are hers, but she seemed lost beneath this sophisticated costume.”

I winked at her as she playfully whacks me in the head. “Okay, remember the small school building in Juhu, that has been shut down for years? The one right on the beach behind the 5-star hotel?”

“Yes, I do! As a matter of fact, I am working on a deal with the owners to buy it for my company.”

“No. You are kidding me! That is where I want to set up my Café Library. It is the perfect place. It’s in a prime location, close to schools, colleges and even a few offices. Prithvi Theatre is nearby and the Juhu beach has an influx of thousands of people every day. The building is away from the traffic, more towards the beach and thus, it’s the perfect spot.”

“Amazing! You have really done your research! I am impressed!

Since when have you been working on this?”

“Well, I have been on it since a few years now. In fact, I met with Mrs Choksi, the landlady, with my idea. She loved the concept 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 100

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Love Unexpected  •  101

and was ready to do business. Her asking price was astronomical, as it’s prime property and in the heart of Mumbai. I could not have paid for it even I took a loan and liquidated my assets. And then as you know I got distracted and…”

Zoonie looked at me pensively and spoke slowly, “Hmm, I understand. She mentioned a prospective buyer, it must be you!!

As my team couldn’t find anyone.”

“OMG! Imagine the probability of us both offering a buying price for the same property, huh?”

She was taken aback slightly, “What do you mean?”

I cleared my throat nervously and continued speaking,

“Actually babe, there was a special reason I wanted to meet you today. Among all your questions there was one about how will this dream come true? Well, I want you to help me with it. I can express my ideas, find the people, procure the books and set it up and run it. But the only person who can make my dream a reality is, you.”

She looked utterly surprised, my eyes brimming with sincerity.

But I knew the concept had ignited a spark of excitement within her. I nervously awaited her response, knowing it was not a small monetary investment that I was asking of her. After the longest sixty seconds of my life, she exclaimed excitedly, “Yeeeessss, I will love to do this! In fact, I want to do it! From what you told me it will be exciting and challenging. Mumbai’s fast-paced life needs a quiet haven like this. The idea is a super hit!”

She sprang out of her couch and pulled me up to hug me tightly. I hugged her back with excitement, joy and relief. Suddenly she pulled back,

“Hey, there is one problem. I will need a proper business proposal to present to dad. You need to whip up all the required investments, revenue details, presentation of charts, designs, 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 101

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102   •  Ritu Kakar layouts also a possible profit graph. I will need you to impress him with limitless potential to this venture.”

“Sweetheart, I have it all here.” I give her the file from the chair beside me

“Oh my God! Babe! You have not only impressed but shocked me today! Okay, first let me see your proposal before I say further.”

She almost snatched the file from my hand and plonked herself on the couch. I sat quietly watching her go through each sheet carefully. I saw her scribbling notes with a pencil every once in a while. Her thoroughness made me nervous and sweaty. I kept looking at her, twitching uncomfortably whenever she made notes.

The intensity in those black, beady eyes staring at me made me nervous and twitchy, till I lost patience.

“WTF Zoonie! Don’t use your business tactics on me! You may be an astute businesswoman, but you, little miss, are still my friend. So, speak up! What do you think?”

Instead she looked down and continued browsing through the file. She sure had mastered her father’s art of keeping people on tenterhooks. I was feeling faint at the speed the blood was rushing through my veins. Finally, she spoke, “This is excellent work Kai!

So well-written and detailed! Yes, there are a few things we could work on, but even in its present form, it will leave an impact on my dad.

I gasped excitedly and clasped her hands,

“Soooooo, that means you are on it with me!! Yay!!!”

She exclaims laughingly

“Ohhh babe, try stopping me now! But will it be in partnership or…?”

“Of course, I want to be the sole proprietor, but I would also be happy to have you as a sleeping partner in my dream venture.

The profits can be split in 75/25 ratio if it suits you and uncle.”

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She smiled mysteriously and said,

“Hmm, let me speak to dad first. But I think we could work on the ratio once the finance team gets involved. One thing is for sure, we are doing this. It is a path breaking Idea that will change the way people read and interact in a busy city like Mumbai. If we adopt the franchisee format, we can replicate it across the country. Dad loves scalable projects…it makes him feel powerful…Hmm…where did you get this fabulous idea from?”

“Well, by sitting here, in this coffee shop.”

“Huh? Explain...”

“Remember we spent most of our time here especially during exams or assignment submissions. So, while I waited for you guys I would hope they had books around to help pass the time. So, I did an in-depth study during our second year, and used this idea I had of having a café attached to a huge library for my thesis. Our English teacher loved the idea, in fact, she insisted on me doing a diploma in business too. Armed with all that, here I am.”

“It’s a unique idea, if it works then we will give Starbucks a run for their money. The idea of having educational books is superb, it will attract a lot of school students and youth. The idea of the project corner with research volunteers is phenomenal. You know, studying or reading with coffee and snacks close at hand, amazing.

In the digital era where reading hard copies is disappearing, this concept will allow spaces for reading, encourage offline discussions and give a platform for intellectual expression. Wow!

Simply WOW!”

I beamed back with a smile that made my cheeks hurt. Yes!

Finally, it looked like my dream will come true! I looked at Zoonie with a myriad of emotions and gratitude shining through my eyes.

I continued softly,

“So, you will talk to uncle right…. Ummn…When?”

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104   •  Ritu Kakar

“Today itself babe! In fact, I should be going now, I need to see him before he leaves for the US trip this week. Babe, start looking for the right kind of café staff, accountant, librarian etc. Also start shortlisting the books that you wish to procure. Think about the décor, accounting system, cataloguing system and marketing etc.

Basically, everything that you will need to start. And hopefully, I should have his approval in a few days, max three.”

We stood as she prepared to leave. Just before she sat in the car, I hugged her tightly once again and whispered softly in her ears, “Thanks a lot. This means a lot.”

I was finally going to watch my dream manifest into reality.

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20

I reached home with a spring in my step. The excitement of seeing my dreams turn into reality was immense. The past few weeks had been tough, but bouncing back strongly felt awesome.

On reaching home I updated mom and dad on my meeting.

I saw varied emotions on both their faces. One had love, pride and encouragement, the other was fi lled with fear, worry and concern

– dad was apprehensive at the speed of it all. Both wanted me to think carefully before taking the leap. But I looked them in the eye with confi dence and said,

“Mom, Dad, I know I have made some rash decisions in the past. In fact, I have misused the liberty and freedom given to me. But this is not something I am doing impulsively. You both are aware of the fact that I have been working on this for a long time. My meeting Zoonie was to show how serious I am. Secondly, Zoonie is a businesswoman and a friend who will keep me grounded. She will not allow me to go beyond my capabilities.”

As I awaited their decision, mom let out a long, heavy sigh of acceptance, but Dad stared me down before announcing

“Okay, Kaira. We give you one year to prove your potential.

If by the end of next year, you don’t prove yourself, I will get you married.”

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106   •  Ritu Kakar Fear rushed down my spine at the seriousness of his look and words. I saw the disappointment, hurt and humiliation I caused him. His trust in me was shaken badly, for which I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. But that one look also strengthened my resolve to make a success of this venture and prove to him his faith in me was not wrong. But for now, I just hung my head down and accepted his conditions. “Thanks, Dad. I know I have disappointed you, but will prove that I am your good daughter. I will gain that trust and pride back. I promise.”

He didn’t say anything, but just as he reached the bedroom door, he turned around and said,

“All the best my dearest daughter. I too want to see you succeed. I love you.”

My eyes are bright with tears of regret even as he gives me his love and a second chance The next few days I waited eagerly for Zoonie’s call. My entire future depended on this call. Even though mom offered all the love and support, she couldn’t stop my heart skip a beat every time the phone rang.

Three days of waiting on pins and needles, I got THE call.

Dad was suggesting other possibilities as I lamented over my fate when the bell rang. Even though I had been awaiting it, the voice on the other end stunned me. Seeing my zapped state mom and dad sat up straight. I didn’t realize the call has ended nor that the phone slipped from my hand. I looked shocked, Mom got up to hug me and Dad said,

“Sweetheart, was that Zoonie? Baby, it is going to be okay. We will figure another way to arrange finance. Don’t get disheartened.

Come on, child it will all be fine.”

It took me another few seconds to grasp the fact that they were upset for me. I shook myself out of my stupor and shouted, 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 106

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“Dad! Mom! It is fantastic news! Yes, that was Zoonie, her dad has agreed to my project, to my Café Library. Dad, my dream is going to be a reality.”

Shouting this I started jumping like a maniac. It took both mom and dad to hold me in tight hugs to calm me down. I hugged them back and suddenly started sobbing like a baby. They both stood by me as I wept long and hard.

After Drew’s incident, deep down I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull this off. But now with a confirmation in hand, I felt an adrenaline rush making me dizzy with sheer joy. Drew was my learning curve. Many girls experience similar situations but not all are able to propel forward in life. I was being given a chance to prove myself to my family and make my dream come true. This was an opportunity for me to move forward in life.

I agreed to meet Zoonie at her office the next day. Having met her father a few times earlier, I bowed down and paid regards to him.

“Good morning Uncle. How are you doing?”

Now Zoonie’s father was a shrewd businessman. I had seen him in action once when I was at their home. He was very clear in his views and saw time as an investment. He therefore kept his conversations brief and to the point, especially if they were not marching towards evident profit. So, I knew him being here meant something important was to happen.

“Hello Kaira, I am doing very well. And from what I have seen you have been working hard.”

I avoided the urge to shuffle my feet nervously and blurted out, “I am trying, Uncle.”

He reiterated in an encouraging tone,

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108   •  Ritu Kakar margins is superlative. Everything was well-aligned and properly articulated. But now, I want you to show me your picture.”

I looked at him, puzzled, “I am so sorry, Uncle, but I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

He was holding my file in hand when he says, “Child this is all on paper. I want to hear and see your vision. I want to understand your dream.”

I understood what he meant. He was testing my passion. It reminded me of how he had spoken to his colleague a few years ago. His classic style was starting off by being friendly and then shaking that man’s foundation with tricky questions that forced him to falter. Well, his style won’t work with me. I not only knew my dream but have been living with it for three years.

“Well, Uncle, in that case, we need to go where my dream is going to manifest into reality.”

My answer surprised him, but he agrees to go with me. The site was twenty minutes from their office. During the journey he asked many questions seeking details. He doesn’t say much, but listens and watches me like a hawk. A few times during the questioning I looked at Zoonie for help, but she just smiled in encouragement.

When we reached the site, I felt excitement run through me. My eyes sparkled with joy; uncle noticed this too. I circled around the place, imagining how it would all look. For a minute I forget about uncle and Zoonie until his cough for attention woke me to them.

I smiled sheepishly and say, “Ohhh, I am so sorry. I just got carried away.”

He smiled back and said calmly,

“I could see that. Now that you have us here, let’s see how you plan to execute your vision.”

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About twenty-five minutes through my talk, I mentioned the corner for project mentors and also spoke of how ideas could be incubated here. Uncle’s plastic smile changed to a warm and accepting one. I was guessing that my innovative initiatives and intricate details impressed him. At the end, I let out a long sigh of relief. I had a feeling that the company would back me and he would bless us. I saw pride and respectin his eyes which made me feel an inch taller.

“Kaira, Zoonie as they say, great initiatives and ideas are born twice, once in the mind and second in reality. I could see everything, every door, every window, even the chairs as you described. So, child welcome aboard! You have my approval for this innovative project. I also agree with the 75/25 partnership only because I see your hard work in putting this project together.

I would love to see your vision come alive because it is beautifully articulated. However, I have one condition, we will be together for the franchise model as well. Hope you are okay with that?”

Instead of shaking uncle’s hand, I touched his feet for blessings.

This pleasantly surprised him, he put his hand on my head and quietly said, “God bless you.”

We returned to the office to sign the papers and sealed the deal. Once done, I was getting ready to leave when Zoonie asked for a name.

“I am calling it Epistemic Cafe Library, which means relating to knowledge or the conditions to acquiring it, ECL in short.”

“Wow, you really have thought everything through. I like the name, it’s different. Hey, when is Tasha back?”

“Oh, it’s just been a week since they left. Another three weeks or so. In fact, she called yesterday, and I told her about our agreement. She was ecstatic.”

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110   •  Ritu Kakar

“Wow, how will she stay still now? She must be dying to get here and help.”

“Oh, I’m sure Sam will keep her busy. Lol… and anyway I have told her to rest and chill. She will be getting very busy with the interiors when she returns.”

I called mom and dad with the good news. Dad sounded very happy, but the tone I wanted to hear was still missing. But I knew it won’t be for long. Soon, I would get the pride back I used to hear in his voice.

While I awaited the blueprints, I met with Mrs Choksi for the finalization of the sale deed. The speed that money lends you is amazing! Things now moved at an unimaginable pace. Within two weeks the building repairs started.

Once I agreed to the designs, Zoonie started the structural construction of the library. At the same time, I started looking for book wholesalers and publishing houses for educational books, novels, best sellers, magazines, etc. Between it all, I also searched for people willing to help build the perfect cafe. People who were efficient at administration, accounting, cataloguing, cooking and marketing among other profiles.

But finding the right people was a tough job. Recruiters charged a hefty commission despite that, the few they sent for an interview were unsuitable. We had time, so I kept my patience intact. The construction and repair work would need two months and another month for the detailing like light, water and electric points. After this, we would begin the interiors, that would take another month. So, I kept looking and waiting for Tasha who’s help I desperately needed now.

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21

“Hey, are you thinking of Mystery man again?”

The sound of Tasha’s voice brings me back to the present. My eyes fi rst go to the cradle to check on Angel and then to Tasha. She is eyeing me with a cheeky look.

“Good afternoon sleepyhead! How are you feeling?”

“I am feeling fi ne and rested, but you seemed far away.”

“Hmm, delving into the past does that to you. Since yesterday the past has been biting my ass at odd times.”

She winks and jokingly remarks, “Hmm… you must be sore by now.”

“Hahaha, you are funny! Anyway, do you want anything?”

Before she could answer, the nurse comes in with a snack.

Well, lucky mommy being served while the attendant starves, huh! While I gather my thoughts, the door opens to let mom in.

“Hey mom, aren’t you back early?”

“Kai, have you seen the time? It’s 6 p.m.! In fact, everyone will be here soon. Which world are you living in?”

She shrugs and moves to Tasha after caressing Angel’s pretty forehead. She calls over her shoulder, “There are some sandwiches and rolls in that bag. I know you must be hungry.”

“Thanks mom, you are the best! I am really getting hungry.”

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112   •  Ritu Kakar While everyone is there, I ask, “Family, can I have your attention please?”

Hearing this Sam blurts out,

“Kai, can you cut down your dramatics? Talk like a normal person for a change.”

I frown at him and reply, “Ya, I can see you missed me. I know that everyone is busy with Angel but can you all please decide on a name?”

I turn away from him and look at the rest.

“I know I sound pushy but I need a proper name for this cutie, even though Angel sounds nice.”

“Kai, we like the name Arshi. It is short, sweet and meaningful.”

Mala aunty rarely makes announcements or decisions in the family, so it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Everyone nods in consent. I gleefully clap my hands and walk towards mom. She is holding Arshi in her arms. I touch the baby’s face lightly and whisper softly in her ears, “Welcome to our crazy family Arshi.” I plant a peck on her forehead and look up to find everyone busy talking among themselves.

“Mom, when is Tasha going to be discharged? Just asking cos I won’t be able to come to the hospital tomorrow.”

“I think she will be discharged the day after tomorrow, depending on her stitches. As for tomorrow, it’s okay as I am coming home tonight. Mala will be staying with Tasha tonight and I will stay tomorrow afternoon. If you want to leave even now you can.”

I kiss Arshi again, wish everyone goodbye as I leave. I ignore Drew even though I notice him stealing looks at me.… don’t you find his behavior odd? Hmm… I wonder why…?

I am just about to start my bike when my cell phone rings.

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convenient and handy, but they almost always ring at the wrong time. Hmm it’s the Café. As soon as I answer the phone, a voice rambles at the other end,

“Sorry for troubling you at this late hour, but I just had to remind you of your meeting tomorrow at noon with the devil.”

I smile and reply, “Well, hello to you to Nikita. I am well, and so are Tasha and Arshi. Yes… we have finally named Angel. Isn’t it a lovely name… Arshi?”

Niki sighs and apologetically continues speaking,

“Okay, okay! I am sorry! But that man has me at my wit’s ends. I don’t want anything to go wrong tomorrow. I don’t want to give him the opportunity to label me as an inefficient member of ECL.”

I sigh in exasperation, “Relax, will you? You are stressing me out as well! I will be in at 11 a.m., so chillax for now. Now I gtg…

bye!”

Good heavens, who is this Aveer Mehra? I Googled him the other day again, there is a lot about his achievements but no photograph. The articles praise his professional contribution, but nothing about him or his personal life. Is he really as bad as Niki portrays him to be? Well, time will tell. Right now, all I need is my bed.

During the ride home, my mind wanders to the thoughts of my Mystery Man. Hmm… strange when do I start thinking of him as mine now… huh!

I don’t even think we will meet again, even though destiny crossed our paths twice! And each time he made me feel nice about myself. Yes, I appear to be a successful extrovert, but deep inside I am still emotionally scarred, who had closed all doors to relations. I still make friends with boys, but have never got involved with anyone again. The past has been hard to let go but 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 113

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114   •  Ritu Kakar Mystery Man opened the floodgates of my heart. How? I am not sure. A car honk close to me shakes me up.

Oops! I am being careless, again! I better concentrate on the road.

I see a note stuck on the door of my house. I open the envelope and burst out laughing till tears run down my happy face. I shake my head exclaiming, “Niki, Niki! What has this devil done to you?”

Wait a minute! Did I just label the man as the devil? Gosh! He seems to be getting into my head too!

I read the note again, ‘Kai, call me paranoid, stupid or whatever adjective you come up with. But please be on time. I don’t want to have to deal with the devil again please. XOXO.’

Wow, I am intrigued! I remember when Niki had first come for an interview three and a half years ago. She was unemployed and inexperienced. It was her commendable risk-taking appetite and the go-getter attitude that had impressed me. Over the years, she turned out to be ECL’s biggest assets. Later she confessed that my positivity and confidence instilled faith in her. She could relate to my vision the same way I did to her dreams.

She became my Lady Friday (if there exists a term like that!) She got involved with every aspect of operations and allowed me to focus on other crucial ones.

Zoonie, Tasha, Nikita and I could plan the interiors, the furniture for the books and our office space. But running a fully functional café that serves good food & drinks needed the handiwork of an expert.

Good food and coffee would make my library even more welcoming. We tried poaching, recruitment firms and college drives but came back empty-handed. This worried me to no end.

We almost gave up and thought of tying up with a third party when I accidentally met Robin and Pete.

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We happened to be at the same coffee shop I was waiting for the interviewee and they, for their interviewer.

They mistook me for their interviewer and we got talking. We just struck a wonderful rapport.

It’s only when my interviewee, the gourmet chef approached our table did we realize the case of mistaken identity. But we didn’t see the need to rectify it.

They had agreed to all the terms. I liked them, they seemed experienced, aware and committed. They had the enthusiasm to explore a different terrain. Something I appreciated and wanted.

The next day, during the tasting session, we were greeted with a wide array of the most scrumptious food. The table was laid out with a wide variety of pastries, puffs, sandwiches and the best coffee ever. You already know about my romance with coffee; so, when I say it was the best, of course I am right!

Robin and Pete had turned coffee making into a science of personality typing. They had a flavour for every person according to their outlook and personality. This innovation brought us a lot of accolades later. I was on a roll, ECL now had everything to get started. The library almost ready, the café was in the process, books were set for display, the décor was complete and to top it we had the best staff ever. Though different, we were all united by a common vision that allowed us to form a relationship beyond work. ECL was now all set and my extended family was ready to conquer Mumbai!

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22

I smile at the memories as I set aside Niki’s note. Mom has cooked and stored the food in the fridge. I pile my plate with food and plonk myself on the sofa in front of the television.

As I enjoy the soulful food , I savour the fruits of my success and being blessed to share it with like-minded people.

Zoonie, Tasha, Nikita, Robin, Pete and I, we were the perfect team. It took a little longer than we anticipated , but fi nally, ECL was ready for business. I still get the jitters as I remember the excitement among readers, the excited questions from the journalists. Zoonie’s dad’s PR agency did wonders for the launch.

ECL was established as a popular youth hangout and yes, we were here to stay.

I take a deep breath and loudly mutter to myself,

“Enough Kaira! I think you have wasted enough time reminiscing the past. Enough is enough. The past should be left where it’s supposed to be- in the past. Sleep now… if you want to be at ECL on time tomorrow morning.”

The minute my head touches the pillow I drift off to sleep.

Immediately, I am back by the road with Mystery Man’s arms around me. As I look at him, I watch the colours changing in his eyes. I see concern turn to such intense passion that I tremble in my sleep. He pulls me closer, strengthening his grip around 116

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my waist. I see his handsome face slowly move close to mine.

Time seems to stop, I see rainbows in the sky, clouds surround us in a small world of our own. I can feel his warm breath on my quivering ones. I wet my dry lips just a few seconds before his touch mine, a shiver so strong shakes my whole body making me pull back an inch.

As our breaths mingle, I feel as if my soul is getting merged with his. His lips are close to mine, just a few millimeters away, they do not touch mine again. He runs his gaze all over my face while I look deep into his eyes waiting, he stays still. He keeps looking at me lovingly, we seem frozen in time.

“Why… what... why…?” I whisper softly.

He opens his mouth when a shrill noise shatters the moment.

It is my alarm… Urrgh!!

Shit! Did I just get kissed by a stranger in my dreams? Was I asking him why was he waiting? Why am I so upset – because of the dream or because he did not complete the kiss? Shucks! What is wrong with me?

I drag myself out of bed and get ready to meet the devil. Good Lord! I need to stop biasing myself against Mr Aveer lest it reflects in our meeting.

I slip into my favourite jeans with a white top and sweeping my hair into a smart, high pony and spritz my favourite perfume. I team my outfit with these gorgeous hoop earrings that I had picked up at the flea market last week. I quickly wear my beige espadrille, which are trendy and most comfortable especially for the cafe.

Now, make-up and I are always at loggerheads. But today, I had to concede. Gosh! This deal better be worth all the extra effort! Mom and dad are having breakfast talking softly among themselves. I stand by the door wishing I too had someone to share my most insignificant thoughts with. It must be so amazing to share this 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 117

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118   •  Ritu Kakar kind of camaraderie and mutual respect with someone, like what they share. A relation where you can discuss anything and share loving moments without being conscious of people around. As kids we have seen them fight like enemies and make up as best friends do. It seems like a distant dream for me… or does it? Huh!

“Good morning lovebirds, may I join in?”

“Kai, behave yourself! You still are our daughter so please show due respect and manners.”

Dad’s booming voice reminds me of my Mystery Man’s tone.

Our first encounter? Gosh! Am I going crazy? Shit, HIM again.

I turn red in the face. I sheepishly look at Mom… Shoot! She knows something is odd…She always knows… but she always waits… so…

“Mom, can you please make some coffee for me? I really have to rush. Your coffee is my lucky charm… always... whereas mine could kill the dead!”

I send her a flying kiss as she goes to the kitchen I sit with dad while he is engrossed in his morning newspaper.

“Kai, who is the devil?”

I feel my stomach turning. Luckily, I am not holding or drinking anything. I surely would have dropped it or choked on it.

I swing my gaze from dad to mom and then back to dad. He was holding Niki’s note.

I heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh, that! I don’t know dad. I have yet to meet the man who Nikita has tagged as the devil. All I know is that his name is Aveer Mehra, I had mentioned him some time back.”

Dad blinks for a few seconds and suddenly remembers,

“Yes, yes, hmm, well what about him?”

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to which he took offence. He brushed her aside and I think was rude to her as well. So, she has been jittery ever since.”

Dad looks at me pensively, “So what are you going to do about it? If I remember correctly, you said you were expecting huge business from him.”

I reply like a rebellious schoolgirl who was being questioned by the principal.

“It is dad, I agree I may, I repeat, I may make some money and get a good collection of books from him. But if he is a rude a’hole especially with the staff, then there is no place for him in ECL.”

Dad ignores my indignant behaviour and replies, “Kai, please think calmly and maintain the dignity of your status. Before reacting, hear both sides of the story. Always remember, a little diplomacy is always good for business.”

I nod in agreement. I know what he meant and somewhere deep down I agree with his hunch. By now even you know me, I don’t think before I act. I quickly finish my coffee and dash out of the door.

I check my watch; it is only 9.30 a.m; and the meeting at noon.

I have enough time to catch up with my pending chores at work.

Did I mention how I love organizing bookshelves?

The feel of holding books is incredible. Any fan of books will swear by the wondrous smell of books. It gives me a high that is difficult to spell in words. Books have kept me company ever since I remember. There is a book to suit every person, mood and occasion. While organizing books, I sometimes leaf through the pages to get a glimpse of what the book offers.

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23

I look out at the sea from the parapet outside the cafe. I watch the waves romancing the soft sands. I breathe in the salty air and smile. What a beautiful day it is! The café is bustling with the early morning crowd making a beeline for our breakfast specials. The library is already full of people; studying, reading novels, writing journals or typing away at their laptops. Some offi ce-goers are either giving last minute touches to a presentation or replying to emails.

I look around and take a deep breath at the Epistemic Cafe Library fondly called as ECL. It’s my sanctuary, my dream come true.

Zoonie’s architectural prowess allowed the design to retain the high ceilings that she converted to skylights. The huge French windows ensured that readers can soak in the beauty of the Arabian Sea. There is natural light coming in from all sides of ECL. From every corner here the world seems to be a better place. The place has no ceilings, just glass all round and above.

Zoonie gave us sliding doors facing the beach with comfortable outdoor seating options.

The most attractive part of my place is the center area. It is constructed in an oval shape open to the sky. We replaced the 120

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cemented roof with solid waterproof toughened glass fittings that housed beautiful chandeliers emitting white light.

People always feel one with nature at my Café. It is a sight to behold especially during the rains. The Café is frequented by young lovebirds who enjoy the pitter-patter of raindrops while watching the waves of the sea playing with the sand. It almost feels like playing in the rain without getting wet. It is beautiful and surreal.

Zoonie was very particular about the maintenance and upkeep so ECL always looks as good as new.

Robin and Pete created a perfect haven for foodies. And their innovative recipes allow patrons to explore tastes and tickle their palates. Robin would use his skills to whip up customized dishes as per a patron’s mood and that became a runaway hit among patrons. The top floor houses my dream world, my library. No one can guess looking at the place that it stores more than one lakh books. The books are placed in the form of steps with a place for one to climb, the ladders help patrons to reach specially positioned rare books. I have divided the books into sections as per the requirements of readers. Niki has catalogued all the books as per their placement and with precision. It is extremely easy to locate the books especially ones placed higher up.

I placed all the chairs and tables around the center area. Even the library area opens to the beach. Every corner and window had open cupboards with more books.We have stocked regular stationary for students just to make things easier for them.

It is a paradise for any and every kind of patron, and it is MY

PARADISE. In the start, I used to practically live here. Many a times you can find me napping in one of the balconies. What made me feel on top of the world was the pride I saw in my parents’

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122   •  Ritu Kakar everyone, including Zoonie’s father. He especially cornered dad to applaud my success.

With time, our standards have risen, and the processes have been perfected. For more financial benefits, on several occasions, we opened the café for small gatherings and celebrations. We recently added a new member to our team, Anita, who helps in the cafe part-time. At other times, she studies for her Masters at ECL.

ECL has grown to become a way of life for many. People of all ages and groups are seen here. From a mother who is teaching her 2-year-old to read to an eighty-year-old enjoying coffee/tea while reading by the beach. Corporates have used our spaces for informal conferences and meetings. Authors for reading sessions.

ECL resonates with happiness that is housed within the silent hearts of its patrons.

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24

Whenever I enter ECL, a wave of joy passes through my body. The feelings of humble pride and satisfaction is always endearing. This is my perfect home away from home.

“Hello people! How is everyone doing today?”

“Good morning, Kai! How would you like your coffee today?

I would say a Mocha Latte with caramel sauce would be just perfect…eh?”

“Ohh Pete! You are the best! How do you guess the right fl avour each time?” I wink at him and smile encouragingly.

Robin is attending to hungry customers, so I just wave at him. Anita is behind the counter taking orders, so she just raises her hand and smiles briefl y. I look around for my drama queen.

I spot her staring at the blank computer screen, so I quietly go to her.

“Good morning Niki, my new drama queen! How are you this morning?”

She yelps in surprise while placing her hand on her chest. She looks at me in shock.

“Like really Kai! I could have had a heart attack! I am already nervous so don’t scare me. And what do you mean by ‘drama queen’?”

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124   •  Ritu Kakar

“What else should I call you? This thing you have been harping about, it is unlike you. You have been behaving weirdly ever since you met Aveer Mehra. So now tell me what the issue is?”

Her expressions make me even more curious. There must be something more to this story.

“Look Kai, whatever I told you is true. Mr Mehra was rude and insulting but in a very polite manner. Like a sweet knife that can kill you when you least expect it.”

“Wow! fab metaphor!”

She gives me a dirty look and continues, “I was completely in awe of his killer looks as well. He really is the most handsome devil I have ever seen. Dresses immaculately in a nice Armani suit, polished and aristocratic. His panache made me go weak in the knees. So, to be brushed aside albeit respectfully by such a handsome looking man was embarrassing.”

“I thought it was a Prada...” I speak distractedly.

But when I refocus on Niki, I see her give me a killer look and her face turns a beautiful shade of red. She seems completely besotted! Dad was right and I am glad I speak to Niki before I act at the meeting.

“OMG! You have a crush on Mr Aveer Mehra! This isn’t anger at all! I was right! You are a drama queen! What about Sunny? You do remember him? Sunny your fiancé... huh?“

She wrings her hands nervously, “Shut up Kai! Of course, I remember Sunny. I love him a lot. But which book preaches that I cannot appreciate another man while being in a relationship. ”

“Gosh! You make him sound like a Greek God! I can’t wait to see what all the huu haa is about. But right now, how about we finish some important work instead of this mindless chatter?”

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Niki looks at me guiltily and gets the files for my perusal. As we tally the accounts, I remember about the new books that were to arrive.

“Hey Niki, did those books we ordered from High Book publishers arrive?”

She nods affirmatively.

“Yes Kai. I have catalogued and arranged them according to the sections. So that it will be easy for you to put them up.”

“Thanks a ton, you are an Angel! I am glad you hate heights, or you would have done my favourite job of putting them on the shelves too.”

We finish our work and Niki goes back to her desk. “Okay with this done I am going to arrange the books on the shelf. Where are they?”

“But Kai, there are at least a hundred books and all to be placed in different sections. It will take at least one hour to finish.

The devil will be here in about twenty minutes. Also, your clothes will get soiled and that won’t look good. It’s a professional meeting after all-”

“Gosh Niki! Please get a grip and stop making a big deal about him. I will be quick. Even if he is here, my chores shouldn’t bother him. If he really is a workaholic, he will appreciate other’s commitment too. As for my clothes, any dust can be brushed off.

I am not going to stop working because of some specks of dirt.”

I take a few books and start climbing the ladder. Half-way through, I plug on my earphones and switch on my favourite set of music and get to work. The flow of music fills me with energy.

I start from the top and arrange the books meticulously beside each other. I feel someone standing near my feet. I call out without looking, “Hey, Niki hand me the last lot, I am almost done here. Oh, btw has the Devil arrived? You said he was a stickler 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 125

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126   •  Ritu Kakar for perfection and punctuality-” While examining the shelf, I absentmindedly stretch out my hand and say, “Give the books, fast…and yes, I really need to stop calling him the devil…what if I say that to his face? God.... now, that would be embarrassing! You know Niki…the other day…”

I keep talking and swaying to the music while making space for the books with one hand while my other is still outstretched.

But instead of a book, a warm but seemingly familiar hand holds mine.

I try pulling back my hand as I look down surprised, shoot! I am looking straight into my Mystery man’s eyes! This must be a dream! I tug at my hand, but he just tightens his hold. Another hard tug and I lose my balance and topple down from the ladder.

This scene is straight out of a Bollywood film! But this time, I am sure that I would be safe. Yes…I find myself snugly placed in my Mystery man’s arms. Oh...!!

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25

“Ms Fireball, we should stop meeting like this! I just might start believing that you keep falling into my arms on purpose!”

Huh, what the heck? What is he doing here? As usual, he is turning the tables onto me. I haven’t even spoken a word!

Silence…is an alien quality to me, yet, every time I meet him, I am tongue-tied.

I open my mouth in protest but his eyes...oh…his soulful eyes…they shut my mind off. To top it, he fi xes his loving gaze on my face. My heart is pounding in excitement, my throat is parched, and my mind is reeling…in all this, I am feeling happy.

Uff! What is happening… everything ceases to exist. I think even he can hear the loud beats of my heart because I see his eyes move down to stop at my heaving bosom. I feel my nipples harden at his glance and my breath nearly stops. I feel powerless…huh?

What on earth is happening to me?? Just when I think I am going to choke under the pressure of emotions surrounding us, Nikita calls out.

“Hey, Kai are you okay?”

I try talking, but no words come out. His eyes have arrested my entire being again. Niki moves to my side nearly shouting into my ear,

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128   •  Ritu Kakar

“Kai, Kai talk to me babe!”

I emerge out of the emotional deluge and shake my head to get rid of the lustful feelings. My nipples are still hard as I give Mystery Man one last glance and then turn to Niki.

“Ya, I am fine. Just lost my balance. Mister, you can put me down now please.”

I avoid looking into his eyes.

“Are you sure? Whenever I let you go, you vanish without a trace.”

He is whispering into my ears sending goose bumps through my body.

He carefully sets me down, my body slides against his while he does so. My body is warm, my cheeks are burning as my feet touch the ground. The thought of being away from him is killing me.

Beads of perspiration dot my eyebrows as I compose myself.

Niki keeps looking at me questioningly. To nail my coffin of embarrassment, I notice patrons staring at me smiling slyly. I can feel strong vibes from the man standing too close for comfort. I clear my throat and say,

“Okay guys, the show is over! Please, get back to your respective tasks.”

I turn to my Mystery Man, gather courage and blurt out,

“What are you doing here?”

He looks at me for a few seconds before saying,

“Ohh you are welcome. I am just glad I was there at the right time to save you... again.”

I feel my forehead crinkle in response to his statement. What is he talking about? That’s when realization hits me,

“Ohhh, you want me to thank you for something you caused?

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struck. If it were not for your sudden appearance, I would have been just fine. So, you can wait till hell freezes before I say a thank you.”

“God Fireball! There you go again with your weird but loveable attitude! I must add however, that whenever I meet you my day gets brighter. It’s always an interesting story I can narrate to my friends.”

“Hahahaa, I am glad at least one of us feels happy! Will you please answer my question?”

“Ummn…Which was…? Ohh yes! ‘what am I doing here?’ I could ask you the exact same thing.”

I turn away from him and look at Nikita, who is still standing there, zapped.

“Nikki, please check if Mr Aveer has arrived. I really need to wrap up and go home.”

I wait for her to move, but she just stands there. She keeps moving her eyes from Mystery Man to me and back again. He smirks and chuckles. Shoot! Is he Aveer Mehra? Gosh! I guess he is! I curse myself and look around for an asylum. My Mystery Man is the devil? No! It is too much of a coincidence! Well, what can I say? My day just got more interesting.

I shake Niki from her stupor. She finally looks at me and hurriedly says,

“Ms Kaira, ma’am, this is…”

“Yes, I know! This is Mr Aveer Mehra...right?”

He chuckles and says, “I thought I was the devil.”

I dart a dirty look towards him and turn to Nikki. She is recovering from her shock. I think she has caught a whiff of our chemistry. I will have to cook up an explanation later.

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130   •  Ritu Kakar children who especially ordered these books to come and check if we ordered the right ones.”

She nods and rambles, “Yes…yes ma’am…okay ma’am…!”

Did my Nikki just call me ma’am? Huh?

Oh God! What is the enchantment surrounding this man? My most competent friend is behaving like a confused teenager in his presence. I examine him with the corner of my eye. He stands upright, looking straight at me. When the silence gets deafening, he clears his throat and asks, “Okay Fireball, are you through or you want to ogle at me some more?”

I quickly respond, “Hmm, you are embarrassed and so you are trying to make me uncomfortable. Interesting huh? I can’t seem to figure out why my normally calm friend is so flustered in your presence.”

He gapes at me in surprise. Nikki gasps as she hears me while entering the room. Good heavens! Not again!

“Nikki how about you arrange the food outside?”

She looks at me apologetically and goes outside as instructed.

What?? She is a robot now? I motion to Aveer to follow me out.

So, is a silly crush the only reason why Nikki seemed so offended earlier? Of course, Mr Aveer was good looking but…

I offer Aveer a seat before joining him. He continues to watch me carefully and says,

“I like you. No, I really do like you.”

I feel a twang in my heart…as if a hundred violins are playing at the same time.

“Are you asking me or telling me? I like me too. And as much as I like being liked, you, Mister don’t even know me. So…???”

He ignores my rant and continues,

“You bring out something nice in me. Usually people get intimidated or are in awe of me. You argue and always put me in my place. It makes me want to continue ruffling your feathers.”

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“Well, you haven’t succeeded as yet.”

“Are you sure I haven’t?”

I clear my throat and change the topic.

“Welcome to ECL, Mr Mehra. I am the owner, Ms Kaira Kapoor, you can call me Kaira.”

I extend a handshake. He is surprised but tactfully handles it.

“I thought I was the devil, wasn’t I?”

“Okay, you were not supposed to hear that. I wasn’t aware that you were around else I would have restrained myself from saying those words. But then one very rarely hears good things about themselves behind their backs.”

I can’t resist needling him. He deserves it, doesn’t he?

“Hmm, you may be right. But I need to know why I have been labelled as the devil, Ms Kaira.”

Uff…he takes my name! My name sounds so much sweeter when he says it! My heart starts pounding again. I look him directly in the eye and reply,

“Well, I didn’t choose this label. I guess it chose you. You frightened Nikki like no one has ever done. Come to think of it, it seems to suit you.”

It is as if our bodies are communicating on one plane but our hearts are communicating on another. We look at each other in silence. The air is filled with mixed emotions. We both keep looking at each other, none of us ready to break free. We seemed to be enjoying the undefined challenge between us. I don’t know how long we would have continued if not for the ringing of my cell phone. I am forced to break eye contact to check who it is. It’s just a number with no name. I put it on silent. I take a deep breath before looking at him again.

“Let’s get down to business. I really have to rush.”

“Hmm, if you don’t mind my asking, where do you have to go?”

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132   •  Ritu Kakar Should I share details of my personal life with him? Isn’t it too early?

“I have to shop for my niece and prepare for her homecoming.

There is a lot to do and very little time.”

Shucks! What is wrong with me? I need to get my act together, like…NOW!

“In fact, I would have been shopping right now if it wasn’t for an arrogant man who refused to deal with my second in command.

He insisted on meeting me only!”

Instead of getting offended, he surprises me by laughing out loudly. Gosh! His laugh is cuter than him… I look at him with amazement as a smile graces my mouth too.

He smiles and remarks, “See, I told you I liked you and I was not wrong about it. Your forthright attitude impresses me. You not only made me feel like a pompous idiot but made me feel guilty too. Very few people can do that and get away with it.”

God…wt…

“I believe you Mister. You can’t be where you are without an ego and narcissism. As for making you feel guilty, that was not my intention. But if you are feeling guilty, then please be nice to my friend and restore her confidence.”

“Hmm, I will see what I can do. But that day my mind was elsewhere, particularly on a crash with a live fireball. So, the heated attitude and arrogance was unintentional.”

My mind jogs back to our first meeting. I pull myself together and straighten up. I was going to be late if this conversation continues like this.

“Mr Mehra, it’s almost lunch time, would you like to grab something from our cafe?”

“Nope, I think we should get to work.”

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business, but the pricing is a bit high. We argue and contradict for a while and then finally find a middle path.

He finally agrees to send me the latest monthly catalogues.

We get into a non-compete clause and seal the deal. The best part is that he agrees to display flexibility if he cannot arrange a book.

Brainstorming and discussing with him is refreshing. We connect on so many levels. We both are stubborn, but fair in our respective fields. None is ready to comprise values and principles. I like him.

Hmm… doing business with him will be fun.

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26

We are wrapping up when Nikki comes in with a tray full of food. Robin tags along, carrying the drinks.

We are way past lunch time and seeing food makes me realize how hungry I am.

“I am blessed with friends like you, Robin and Nikki! How did you’ll know I’m hungry?”

“Well, we have been working with you for four years now,” a composed Nikki replies smilingly.

She looks at Aveer and remarks, “Hunger makes her irritable, so beware! You don’t want to be a target of hypoglycemic rage…

do you?”

“Hey, why are you telling him this? It is none of his business!”

But Nikki continues to look at Aveer. Their newfound camaraderie is making me uncomfortable. “What on earth is going on here?”

No one answers. Aveer continues to eye Nikki, his expressions go from bright to blank. Nikki keeps her gaze steady as if she is trying to tell him something. I look at Robin for help, but he shrugs his shoulders and leaves. I am about to lose my nerve when Aveer speaks,

“Kaira is right. You are smart and intelligent. I can see why she trusts you so much. You are not only clever, but observant too, 134

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I appreciate that. And yes, I apologize for my behavior the other day. It was very petty of me to have underestimated you. It is a blunder I won’t make again.”

Wow, what just happened here? What did that one look from Nikki say to Aveer? How did his stance change suddenly? He could have apologized plainly, but this was beyond my expectation.

“What the heck transpired here? Will you guys speak up?”

“Nothing much, Fireball. Your friend saw something that even I had not noticed. You are fortunate to have such an amazing friend in your team.”

Wow! He is back to calling me Fireball that too in front of Nikki. Wait a minute… Am I feeling jealous? Another alien emotion! Ohhh God! How much more is remaining for me to experience?

Even when I was crazy for Drew I never once felt jealous when he was with another girl. But right this moment when Nikki and Aveer seemed to have hit it well, I feel a twinge in my heart.

I don’t like this feeling. Feeling envy and jealousy is just not me!

I get up abruptly and say,

“Aveer since we have concluded the meeting, I need to rush.

So, if you will excuse me, I will take your leave.”

I ignore Nikki’s looks and move towards the door when a hand stops me. It’s Aveer, again.

“Hey, what about lunch? I thought you were hungry.”

“Yes, I am, but I just saw the time. It is very late. Nikki can give you company…right Nikki?”

I rush out as if a rabid dog was pursuing me. I ignore the looks I get from Aveer and Nikki. I think Nikki was smiling cheekily…

was she?

I have just reached my bike when I feel the vibes once again.

The familiar pounding of my heart has started again.

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136   •  Ritu Kakar

“What’s wrong, Kaira?”

No!! Don’t call me by my name! I don’t like this feeling of melting in your care. What? What am I saying? Ms Fireball or Kaira, call me anything you wish…I just don’t care.

Gosh! This man has squeezed more emotions out of me in three freaking days than Drew had in all these years.

I look at him, like a forlorn lamb, confused and worried. He continues to look at me. Is that love I see in his eyes? No…it’s my imagination. I don’t want him to feel that I caused it. Later he will narrate this story to his friends saying that I came on to him…just like Drew…

The way he is looking at me is very different from how he looked at Nikki. This look has love, lust and care shining through.

Maybe I am imagining all this. I unconsciously take a step back only to be stopped by my bike.

His hands are resting on mine as he continues to stare silently.

I unconsciously remove my tongue to wet my now dry lips. He groans softly at my unintentional sensual move. I shiver at the sound and look up to him. His eyes are on my wet lips.

Suddenly, Aveer pulls me towards him and places his lips on mine. The feel of him pecking at the wetness of my lips and then slowly nipping the corner of my mouth makes blood rush to my head. He slowly takes my lower lip between his teeth and playfully tugs at it. I want to stop him…but I can’t, or should I say…I don’t want to… His lips feel like they were meant only to kiss me. The feel of his lips is different from Drew’s. I feel an electric current run through my body. Aveer’s kiss reaches my soul and touched it like no man has before. It’s so sensuous…so soft that it feels like my very first kiss. My body is throbbing, and beads of perspiration run down my forehead. We are locked in a tight embrace. I never 163_LU_1st Proof_4 Nov 19 page cum.indd 136

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want to let go and so…I kiss him back…we are locked in trance for several minutes.

I sigh deeply and sink into his protective arms. I lay my head on his chest for a while, when I look up, we kiss again. My phone starts to vibrate after a while. I try stepping away from him, my gait is unsteady, but he holds me, like always. With him around, I can never fall or falter.

I answer the phone, it’s mom. I mumble a soft ‘hello’. She does all the talking, I let her instruct me and reply in monosyllables. I disconnect her call and look into the eyes of the man who has shaken me to the core. His gaze is fixed on me. I blush and look away. My eyes travel to ECL’s door…shucks! Nikki had seen us!

She smiles and gives me a thumbs up. Seeing my shattered look makes her worried. She comes down to check on me, I clasp her hand for support. She pats my hand and turns to Aveer,

“I think we should all call it a day. Why don’t we fix an appointment for next week for the formalities?”

Aveer realizes we have crossed a line and looks embarrassed.

He stands there waiting for me to say something. I avoid his gaze and mutter something to Nikki about leaving immediately from there. “Okay, I am leaving for now, you will hear from me soon.

Take care and feel free to call me anytime, okay?”

I continue looking down and nod my head. He leaves quietly.

From the corner of my eye, I watch him getting into his Mercedes.

My heart wants to scream, STOP…don’t go Aveer. But my mind stops me from doing so. Fear and insecurities of the past swamp me. I know he looks back one more time before he leaves but I keep my gaze lowered and away.

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27

For the fi rst time, standing outside ECL is making me uncomfortable. It’s nearly 4 p.m. and the sun is slowly losing its heat. The light breeze helps cool down a bit of my anxiety. I don’t even realize that I am still squeezing Nikki’s hand. She calls out to me a couple of times. I come back to reality feeling nervous, scared and unsure of myself. I look at Nikki with glazed eyes. She takes me back to ECL.

I sit by the window trying to get a grip on myself. Robin gets a strong cup of coffee with a hint of cinnamon and honey. My friends gather around worried about my well-being. Once I feel a little more like me, I look at them with grateful eyes. Once they are sure I am ok, Robin and Pete go back to the counter, but Nikki sits with me.

“You okay now?”

“Ya, I am better but still can’t grasp what happened. One moment he was talking professionally and the next, we are kissing passionately. How? For that matter, why?”

Nikki smiles reassuringly and says,

“Sweetheart don’t question it. Just go with the fl ow. Time will tell.”

“Have you exchanged souls with Tasha? Why are you talking like her? Anyways, I feel better now, thanks a ton. Gtg… I have lots to do.”

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Just as I reach the exit, I call out to them,

“Hey guys, mom called to say that Tasha is back home tomorrow. There is a small get together for near and dear ones.

You all are invited. Please close the cafe by 5 p.m. tomorrow and be on time.”

“Kai, I know it is too early, but I have a suggestion. Why not invite Aveer for the family celebration tomorrow? Uncle and aunty will get to meet him, and he’ll take the spotlight away from Drew.”

“Are you crazy? Why would I do that? What will I tell my parents? And as for Drew, I can handle him, he doesn’t matter in my life anymore. In fact, handling Aveer would be tougher.”

“Listen sweetie, it is just a suggestion, rest is up to you. Think about it. Bye, see you tomorrow.”

She goes back but leaves me in a dilemma. I need to talk to Tasha asap. Instead of going to the market I go to the hospital. I don’t remember clearly how I make my way to the hospital. Once outside, I strain my ears to try and hear who all are in. The coast seems clear. I slowly open the door to find Mala aunty there. My eyes go to bed where Tasha is feeding Arshi.

“Hello, aunty… Hey mommy dear, how you and Angel doing?”

“I am doing good. I didn’t think you were coming today. Mom said you had work at the Café and then shopping ”

I avoid looking at her, “Ya, but I missed you and Angel. I could always shop later.”

“Hmm…!?”

Shucks! She knows me well enough to catch my lie. Seeing my state, she asks Mala aunty to take a break as I am there with her. I don’t hear aunty leave so lost I am in thoughts. It isn’t until Tasha practically shouts my name that I jerk back to the room… I look at her imploringly. Seeing the storm brewing in my eyes has her pulling me close. She softly asks me, “What happened, Kai?”.

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140   •  Ritu Kakar I burst into tears and narrate the entire story and start shivering when I describe the kiss.

Tasha reassures me by rubbing my hands softly.

After a while I look around,

“Where is aunty?”

“Sweetheart she left a while ago, much before you started speaking. You were too lost to notice.”

“Shit! I hope I didn’t scare her. I need to go call her, to reassure her that I am ok.”

“Kai don’t worry she will be back soon. But before that, I want to know what you plan to do about him.”

“I don’t know yet. Nikki says I should call him tomorrow for the homecoming party. But I don’t want to do that.”

Someone up there must have listening closely because the moment I said the words my phone buzz. I look at Tasha with surprise when I read the SMS. It is from him! I give her my phone to read,

‘Hi, Fireball. I hope you doing okay. I am sorry. I should not have done what I did. I am sorry for scaring you, that was not my intention. It just happened. Please forgive me. Waiting to hear from you.’

Tasha sighs,

“It is a little formal but cute. I think you should reply. I also think Nikki is right, calling him tomorrow is a good idea. That way everyone gets to meet him and gauge if he is a good man. You know our parents have a sixth sense for us always.”

“But Tasha under what pretext can I call him. He is still a stranger! I know nothing about him! What will I tell the parents?

What should I tell him? It’s too complicated babe.”

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always. We don’t have to tell him that this client makes your heart beat faster nor that he kissed our Sleeping Beauty and woke her up like the Prince, huh!”

“Hahaha, you are funny. Okay, let me think about it. Now I need to go, I have work to finish. Please tell me where you sent aunty?”

“Smart ass! She is right behind you!”

I turn to see aunty who had just entered. She looks at me carefully. Observing that I am fine, she smiles. I hug her reassuringly muttering about work stress. I shop for the nursery and Tasha’s room, all the while contemplating on calling Aveer.

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28

I am completely drained out by the time I reach home. I arrive home to fi nd uncle Baig and Drew sitting on the couch. Shoot, I have totally forgotten that mom has invited them for dinner.

This is like the icing on my already disastrous cake. I cannot ignore nor walk away from this situation, so I resign to it.

“Good evening uncle Baig. Hi Drew.”

I sit on the sofa farthest away from Drew. “Aunty and uncle are in the kitchen. And I think Sam has gone to fetch something from his room.”

“Ohhh... thanks.”

“So, you fi nally here! Did you get the things I asked for?”

Mom asked.

“What things?”

Mom gives an exasperated sigh and rolls her eyes,

“The list I gave you on the phone? Fruits, dates, condensed milk etc.…the ingredients for the sweets that I have to make for Tasha...”

Holy shit! I slap my forehead and give her a guilty look.

“I am so sorry Mom, I forgot! There was too much happening when you called, and half the things did not register.”

“Kaira, what’s wrong? All good at work?”

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“Ya Mom, just the meeting with a new publisher was long and exhausting. I am so sorry. I will go in the morning and get everything. Sam is going to get Tasha and Arshi in the afternoon so you will have time to cook in the morning. And I know Mala aunty is coming to help so things will work out, huh?”

I smile sheepishly and send her a flying kiss. She shakes her head in angst like she has given up on me but…Naaaa…

“Well, as you have worked that out, what about the tasks you have undertaken? Are you ready? What are you planning to do, anyway?”

I point to all the packets near the door.

“I have everything I need in there. As for what I am doing? It’s a surprise! Please ensure the maids clean the nursery and Sam’s room first thing tomorrow. Also, I need complete privacy, please.”

I quickly slash cold water on my face to feel a little fresh before helping mom in the kitchen. Just as I am about to leave my phone beeps, shoot SMS alert. I gasp as I read the content, ‘So, you are not going to forgive me nor talk to me? I really am feeling guilty for my actions. Please accept my apology and reply or call please...’

It must take lots of guts for an arrogant man like him to bend over to impress and pacify someone. Should I reply? I shouldn’t…

no I should, after all he was sorry and is trying. But what should I type?

‘Hi, I am not angry nor upset anymore. Yes… it was impulsive, but its ok.’

I quickly press the ‘send’ button before I can change my mind.

I reach the door and the phone beeps again.

‘Thank you. I promise I won’t make the same mistake again....

Or at least not an impulsive one.’ He ends it with a wink emoji.

I scoff at his audacity. He is just too much! I am still smiling when I enter the family lounge, which sure surprises everyone.

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144   •  Ritu Kakar

“Hey, Kai, that’s a sweet smile! What’s the reason?” Sam, he just can’t help himself, can he?

“Nothing brother dear, just happy.”

He slips into a pensive stare; I see his mind working overtime.

Luckily dad intervenes,

“Kaira, how did the meeting with the devil go?”

“Daaaadd, please! Aveer is just an arrogant self-made man but no devil. And you were right about hearing everything before reacting. As for the meeting, it went well. He has asked for a no-compete clause with flexible terms and agreed to mine. It was quite a heated meeting, but we were able to agree midway.”

Sam quipped jokingly,

“Ahhh…Aveer!! So, whatever happened to calling clients by their last names norm, Kaira??”

This raises eyebrows.

I had no idea that my tone, body language, even my expressions had changed. Something which had been missing for a long time was evident to all, even the Baigs. I don’t notice dad and Sam exchanging a concerned look, nor mom’s reassuring one. But I do see Drew frowning, just then my phone beeps. Shoot, it’s him, again! I feel blood rushing to my cheeks, again….

“Kai, will you help me in the kitchen?”

Thank God for awesome moms! The minute I enter the kitchen I check my message, forgetting that mom is watching too.

‘Can we meet for lunch tomorrow? I will get to apologize properly and be sure of your forgiveness.’

I smile at the SMS and look up, straight into mom’s questioning eyes, shit busted. She stands with her hands propped on her waist, waiting. I know that look and there is no quipping possible. So…

“It’s Aveer, the man I am starting my new business deal with.”

“Aveer... the devil, hmm.”

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“MOOOM! Please! Not you too! He is not a devil. He is a nice man just a tad arrogant. A bit like dad and Sam.”

“Hmm...”

I hate this thing about her. She never asks, just patiently waits and watches, knowing I will blurt out everything. I guess all mothers are alike and so are every mother-daughter relationship, huh.

So, barring the kiss and my smitten heart, I tell her everything.

Among other things, I mention that he has invited me to lunch tomorrow.

Now that is another thing that really pisses me off about her.

She just listens calmly but never lets on what she is thinking nor how she will react? I nervously wait for her to speak.

“Kai, I think you should invite him tomorrow for dinner. We all will get to meet him. Dad will get a chance to meet the man who brought the spark back in his daughter’s life.”

“Mom! What on earth are you talking about? I have been fine, in fact, always happy! And as for inviting him, what will I say? Why am I inviting him? We just met three days ago...”

“Kai, sometimes it just takes one look. You reply to his SMS, tell him what you like but invite him. Trust me.”

Of course, I trust mom. Her advice has never gone wrong. I feel butterflies in my stomach. I have never invited a man into my home. Drew was always around, so there was nothing different to it. But with Aveer, everything feels new, different and stronger. I never felt this way with Drew…

I need to think before I reply to Aveer. So, for now I put the phone aside and sit with everyone for dinner. I listen to dad and uncle’s discussion with Sam ignoring Drew gaze on me.

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146   •  Ritu Kakar waters, trying to get back? OMG! Drew and I are never going to be together, ever.

. Drew tries to strike a conversation with me but with Sam manage to avoid it. It is hilarious watching Sam interrupt every time . Even though I am glad, Drew sure is pissed. I think everyone sees Drew’s attempts but choose to ignore it, letting me handle the situation my way.

I immediately reach for my cell phone once I am in my room.

I read his SMS again, and after serious thinking, I write,

‘Hi... sorry there were guests at home. Was busy with them.

Lunch isn’t possible as my niece and sister-in-law are returning from the hospital. Anyway, you don’t have to make it up to me with lunch. Its ok.’ I send it without expecting a reply. He must be asleep, don’t you think?

I go to change into my night clothes. When I pick up my phone about fifteen minutes later, I see two messages from him:

‘I know I don’t have to make it up to you, but I want to...

I want to have lunch with you, spend some time with you… If you are busy tomorrow, we can meet the day after.’ Exactly sixty seconds later, the other one reads:

‘Or if you and your family would accept my presence, I would love to be part of the occasion. We are after all business associates now, aren’t we?’

Huh, how should I answer this? Do I want this? Do I want the family to meet him? Who is he to me? Why is he suddenly all around me? So many questions and no answers...

I send him my home address with a ‘looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at 6.30 p.m’. I switch off the phone and lights and doze off into a dreamless slumber...or is it?

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29

The next morning, I have diffi culty getting up because of another sensual dream. Now, having experienced what a real kiss is like, the dream is more intense, almost panty wetting.

I sigh loudly and dreamily look at the wall clock. I switch on my cell phone. As expected, there is an SMS from him.

‘Good morning, Fireball. I hope you slept well. Btw, I accept your gracious invitation. See ya… ttyl!’

Huh, wtf abbreviations?? Just like me!! I am loving this!

‘Good morning, Aveer. Yes, I slept well, thank you... did you just use abbreviations?’

‘Yaaa, it’s a nasty habit. I use them often while speaking and messaging. Why?’

‘Nothing… JLT.’

‘I think you are lying, but it’s ok…let’s discuss when we meet.’

Wow, that sends a zing through my entire being! It’s 8.30 a.m., shit! I am late! Again! So much to do before Tasha arrives! I’m omw to the bathroom when the phone beeps. I just could not stop myself from rushing towards my cell phone,

‘We are meeting in the evening, aren’t we? It’s ok if I come…

right?’

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148   •  Ritu Kakar

‘Yes. I don’t invite anyone I don’t want to meet. But now I really need to go, I have a million things to do before my friend and Angel come home. Ciao, ttyl, see you in the evening.’ I add a smiley at the end.

I rush through my morning routine. Mom, my saviour, has my coffee ready for me. I quickly gulp my coffee with a toast and ask mom for the list of things she wanted. “That is okay now, Drew took the list from me in the morning.”

“Drew? How come he was up so early?”

“I don’t know. I could not say no to him, especially when Mala insisted. No harm in giving the boy a chance…what say?”

“Mom, I’m not so sure he has changed. It’s just a gut feeling.

But I am ok with whatever you say.”

I am going towards the nursery when I turn and say,

“Mom, I have invited Aveer for the celebrations in the evening.

He graciously agreed. So, there is one more person added to the list.”

“Hmm... Okay, good. I will let your dad and brother know.”

“Mom, please would you also ask them not to pull out their guns. He is just a business associate and nothing more.”

“Miss Kaira Kapoor watch it! It is your dad and brother you are talking about! They know very well how to talk to guests especially ones interested in their daughter or sister.”

I gape at her as she goes about her work. Mr Aveer Mehra is in for a million questions this evening! God help him! I get busy with decorating the nursery and Sam’s room. It takes me nearly five hours to get everything as I wanted. Well, perfection is my middle name! I lock the rooms after I am done so that no one would dare to peep in.

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he is helping around? I just don’t like his presence in my house.

Occasionally like any guest, it’s acceptable, but having him like a permanent factor is annoying. I gather my thoughts and say,

“Hi, Drew. How’s it’s going? Need any help?”

“Oh, hi Kai, no I am almost done. Just have these balloons left to put up.”

“You have done an amazing job here. It looks really nice.”

His ears turn red as he says, “Thanks. How about you? You finished with your surprise?”

“Oh yeah, all done! It’s actually more than a surprise, it’s my gift to the mother and daughter duo.”

He gives me a strange look that makes me uncomfortable once again. I quietly go away to find Mom. She is in the kitchen.

“Mom, I am hungry. What’s for lunch?”

“God Kai, stop whining like a baby! There are sandwiches on the counter and freshly squeezed orange juice. Have that for now.”

I pout at her and stick out my tongue. I open the fridge and see plenty of bowls covered in foil.

“What have you and aunty made for the evening? Do you need me to make something, a dessert or salad?”

“No Kai everything is ready. We have mainly stuck to Arabic food which is Tasha’s favorite, and she has been craving it. Mala is getting the desserts and salads. I have also prepared some vegetarian dishes.” “But Mom everyone is non-vegetarian, so why the extra effort?”

“Well we do have a new guest coming, so it’s better not to have problems later.”

New guest? Ohh she means Aveer!

My mom notices my face brighten as I slip into another ‘Aveer fantasy’. Nope! I don’t notice her staring at me nor the slight frown.

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150   •  Ritu Kakar I absentmindedly reach out to my cell phone and read his latest messages in the past few hours.

‘Hey, what should I get for the baby and mother? And, since it’s my first visit, is there a special sweet everyone prefers? Help me! I am clueless!

I burst out laughing reading this last one. I look up to see mom and dad staring at me. Dad, when did he come in?

Shit, what do I do? Why are they looking at me like this? Do I do something wrong?

“What? Why are you both looking at me like this?”

“You just laughed while staring at the phone. We too want to laugh with you...”

My ears are burning as my cheeks turn pink. With dad watching, I get even more nervous. I look at mom in panic with my eyes screaming, HELP! “Husband dear, why don’t you check on Sam? See if they have left the hospital, it’s nearly 2:30 p.m. Tasha and Arshi need to be settled before the guests start arriving.”

Dad shifts his gaze to mom. He knows when he is being dismissed, but he still does as she asks. She looks at me, instead of answering I show her Aveer’s SMS. A smile lights up her eyes too as she returns my phone.

“Tell him his presence will be good enough. Anyone who can make my daughter laugh like before has given us the most precious gift already.”

I blush silently. As I leave the kitchen, I see Drew standing at the door with clenched hands. What happened to him? I am about to ask him when the doorbell rings. It’s Tasha and Arshi! I happily rush to the door.

“Welcome! Welcome home!!”

I give Tasha a tight hug and move to take Arshi in my arms.

Mom stops me.

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“Kai, wait, after this ceremony please. Sam and Tasha, please stand still with Arshi.”

She goes in and returns with a beautiful silver plate which has small pots of turmeric, rice, red sindoor and some flower petals.

She lights the lamp and circles the plate in front of their faces.

With the religious formalities complete, the trio makes a grand entry into their home.

Seeing the balloons and flowers makes Tasha smile,

“Kai, this is not you for sure! This has mom written on it totally. You hate balloons!”

“This is actually Drew’s handiwork. He has been helping mom decorate the house.”

“Thanks, brother, I really love it.”

“You are welcome, but I only followed aunty’s instructions.”

Mom interrupts,

“Enough with the thank yous! Kai let’s all see the surprise that you have been working on. That way, Tasha and Arshi can rest before everyone starts arriving.”

I fish out the keys to both rooms. When the family enters, the air is filled with happy voices of praise and awe.

The nursery looks like a fairyland, one wall has a picture of a huge palace. Images of angels and windmills adorn the wall near the window. The other wall has all the Disney characters arranged in sequence. Cut-outs of angels are hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling also has glow-in-the-dark stars and moon. Two huge tower clock cupboards stand in a corner. They will hold all Arshi’s things.

At the center of the room, stands a comfortable single couch.

The pillows, footstool and comforter complete the picture.

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152   •  Ritu Kakar chimes in shapes of stars, moon, angels and butterflies hang at the window.

The loud sound of crying cuts through the happy air. First, I think it’s Arshi, but then the hoarse voice made me realize it was Tasha. I rush to her side,

“Hey, if you did not like anything, it can be changed! Please, you don’t have to sob like this. I am sorry if you did not like it!

Tasha…Tasha…”

I look at mom for help, but both she and aunty are laughing.

Wtf...

“Shut up Kai, I am not crying because I did not like it. I am crying because I loved it. It is perfect. A dream room for any little girl.”

“Wtf...!! You scared the daylight out of me! Have you gone crazy after becoming a mom?”

She is about to start crying again... OMG, what to do?

“Mom! Aunty! Please, help me! She is making me nervous.”

“Relax Kai, these are post-delivery symptoms. Hormones you see. Get used to it.”

“Should expect something similar when she sees her room as well? Had I known; I would have waited till this period got over.”

Tasha throws a pillow at me and smiles,

“Hey, what’s this for?”

“That’s for you being #mean #anamazingaunt #awesome friend hashtag…hashtag…hashtag!!! Now let’s go to my room! I am dying to see what magic you have done there.”

I put my hand around her shoulders and whisper, “Wasn’t that way too many hashtags?”

“Shut up!”

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him! “What the heck, Kai? Where is MY room? You have shifted everything! I loved my chair by the window. This is so not fair!”

“Shush Sammy! This is temporary! Right now, your wifey and baby need all the support they can get. We all need to adjust.”

I look at Tasha, the look on her face says it all. She loved it!

I have set up everything for her. The bottles, the kettle, bottle warmer and the sterilizer is neatly stacked on the shelf of the new cupboard. Sanitizer is kept handy. A two-way baby monitor is set up for her and Arshi.

Their silence is worrying.

“I either have done a terrible job or such a good one that everyone is speechless...What is it?”

Dad and uncle flank me from both sides and hug me at the same time. They are overwhelmed with happiness.

“Of course, it’s the second one sweetheart! You have done an extraordinary job with both the rooms! The attention to detail is impressive!”

Praise from dad always makes me feel an inch taller.

Once everyone leaves the room, I go to Tasha. She is still checking out the nursery. A while later, I feel Tasha wrapping her arms around us, she is filled with gratitude. “Thanks a lot!

Everything is so amazing! Even Sam and I could never think of covering all the points. You are simply the best!”

I smile and reply smugly, “I know that; but it’s always good to hear. Lol… I am glad you loved everything. I couldn’t think of a better gift for you both. Why don’t you freshen up while I watch Arshi? Then you both sleep before the guests arrive.”

While she moves towards her room, she asks,

“Did you finally invite Aveer?”

To Tasha’s amazement, I start blushing. Gosh! I am blushing at every given opportunity! What is going on? It’s as if I am a giddy-headed teenager again!

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154   •  Ritu Kakar I look at Tasha and nod in affirmation. She lets out a loud shout scaring Arshi.

I pat her to sleep, and exclaim, “Shhh!! Tasha! Look, I had to tell mom almost everything about Aveer. So, she too suggested that I invite him.”

She caresses Arshi’s little head as the little one goes back to sleep,

“Hmm... That’s good... Why do I feel there is something else weighing you down?”

“Yes, you are right.”

Should I tell her? I mean…it’s just a hunch… maybe I am imagining things…

Tasha sits beside me,

“Kai, tell me, even if it’s just a passing thought, share it with me.”

I take a deep breath and measure my words as I speak,

“There is something about Drew… his mannerisms are disturbing me. Something is just not right about him. I am not liking the way he looks at me, nor the way he is trying to get too friendly. Maybe I am overthinking, but I thought it would be better if I mention it to you.”

“Don’t worry, now that I am home, I will observe him too. You don’t have to bother about him. Now let me get ready. You go too, doll yourself up for the special guest.” She chuckles and pokes me in the ribs.

“Shut up Tasha!”

She goes into the bathroom while I sing to Arshi:

“Que será, será

Whatever will be, will be,

The future’s not ours to see Que será, será

Whatever will be, will be…”

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30

Once Tasha is ready, I handover Arshi and go to get dressed for the evening. On my way out, I run into Drew. He holds me by my shoulders to stop my fall, I yank myself free and step away from him. Even today, his touch feels repulsive. Is that a fl icker of anger in his eyes right now? Why do I even care?

I mumble a thank you and walk away.

I can feel him glaring at me. Is he really upset? But why? I don’t realize that Tasha notices and is on alert mode.

I take a quick shower and change into one of my most beautiful dresses. I surprise everyone by wearing something that compliments my frame. It’s a brand-new dress, the latest design that’s in vogue these days. Vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow in a geometric pattern. The colors make my skin look brighter. I accessorise the dress with matching earrings, bracelet and anklet. When I reach the dining room to help lay the table, I am surprised to see Aveer already there. Wtf…I forget everything as I notice his delicious bod in jeans and a yellow colour polo shirt. This change comes as a pleasant surprise as I had only ever seen him in suits. He looks so much younger that I can’t help but admire him like a lovestruck idiot. Oops!

When he notices me, I see appreciation bring a spark to his eyes. Dear God, I think we look amazing together. How long 155

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156   •  Ritu Kakar we stand there staring at each other I have no idea? We are so engrossed that I don’t even notice mom and Tasha in the room.

They watch us with awe and admiration. Suddenly the air is filled with Arshi’s crying, intervening our staring match, like teenagers.

As soon as I notice mom, I turn my face in embarrassment.

I notice Aveer blushing…aww…he looks cute even while blushing… wow!

No words have been spoken yet a flood of feelings has made way to each other’s heart. We sure avoid looking at one another now. “Hello, you must be Aveer. I am Kaira’s mother, Mrs. Nandni Kapoor.”

She sticks out her hand, Aveer takes it and kisses her on the back of her hand. He is such a charmer! He has left my mom red in the cheeks too!

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. I hope I am not intruding...”

“No! Not at all! In fact, I asked Kai to invite you. I have heard a lot about you.”

Aveer darts a surprised look at me. I cannot get any redder as I shake my head vigorously. I think he understands that mom knows nothing about the kiss.

“I hope they were good things, because, with your daughter, one can never be sure.”

“Hmm... but then you don’t know her that well… yet, whatever she said was in your favour.”

He looks at me in disbelief. Mom is impressed with him and likes him. I look at Tasha, but she is staring at Aveer in the same starstruck way as Nikki. Ohhh C’mon! He is not that good looking!

What is with these people? OMG, even Zoonie is coming! Will she also behave this way? I slap my forehead in exasperation. Seeing my reaction, Aveer raises his brow, I ignore him.

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I am in for an exciting evening for sure. I pinch Tasha and whisper rudely into her ear,

“If you are done gawking let’s set the table. Guests have started arriving...”

I say this a little loudly so Aveer can hear too. When Tasha still doesn’t move, I call out to her husband,

“Sam please take care of your wife. She seems to be lost...”

“Bitch… that was below the belt! It is not my fault that you forgot to mention what a handsome hunk he is? He can enchant anyone with his charming ways. You only have to watch mom to know I am right... huh.”

Oops! She is right. Mom never talks like this to anyone nor does she behave this way, ever. She was stuck by his side, wanting to know as much as she could about him. He has yet to meet dad and Sam and I wonder how they will react. Women are all going gaga over him.

I look down and mutter with indignation,

“Ohhhh My God! I now regret inviting him over.”

“If you wish, I can leave now.”

Huh? When did mom leave the room? When does Aveer step so close to me? Shoot! What should I do now? I look at Tasha for help, but she is grinning like a moony-eyed idiot while having fun at my expense.

I slowly turn towards Aveer and instead of weighing my words, I blurt out, “You don’t need to leave. Just underplay your charm that’s all! The women all around us are falling over themselves because of your sickening charm. I don’t want bloodshed on my niece’s first day at her home.”

“Kaira…!!”

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158   •  Ritu Kakar eyes only to see that he is laughing. It makes me furious; I stomp out of the room before mom can say anything. The laughter that follows my dramatic exit makes me happy. Tasha and mom hitting it off with Aveer is a good sign. Why? Why do I want him to get along with my folks? I am still not ready to delve into these pointed questions.

I go to the drawing room to make sure everything is set.

Seeing everything is perfectly laid out I take a step back towards the kitchen only to collide with Mr Aveer…again?? No!!

“Are you following me, Aveer? Where is your admiration society?”

“You look so adorable when you are angry and jealous. Well, your mom is checking on the food with another aunty, your sister-in-law has gone to feed the baby, who btw looks like you a lot, very cute and very pink.”

Why can’t I think of an answer? Why am I blushing constantly?

I turn away from him quietly and start to walk away.

“I really like your mom. She is delightful and charming, not at all like you.”

I stop in my tracks, “What do you mean? Are you saying I am not sweet and charming, huh? You Mister are an ass!”

His left eyebrow raises as he looks down at my face. Oops! He is right! My behaviour is surely, not charming right now. I scoff and turn towards the kitchen.

“Hey, don’t you want to know what I think of you?”

“Nope, not interested!”

I leave him standing there. When I come out of the kitchen about fifteen minutes later, I am shocked.

What? He is friends with the men of the family now? They are talking and laughing as if they are old pals.

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be of this new relationship? What is this relation? Only time will tell…

I look around to check on the others when I feel Drew’s piercing eyes staring at me. This creeps me out but enough is enough! I decide to speak to him directly. I am tired of his newfound obsession. He must know that his antics will not work.

“Drew…”

“Yes Kai? How can I help you?”

“Actually, you cannot help me at all. But I can sure help you.”

I point my finger at him while I shake with anger.

I don’t notice Aveer walking towards me. But Drew does notice. A mean smile covers his evil face. It reminds me of… it makes me uneasy, but I stand tall defiantly in front of him. He is still his old self - a wicked wolf, hidden under a sheep’s clothing.

What is he up to now? I know he was and will remain a bastard.

I answer him with disgust and indignation.

“Stop staring at me. I don’t like it. I am ready to forgive and forget for our family’s sake, but I will not take this shit from you.

I have been ignoring your misbehaviour for a while now. If you don’t stop, you be prepared to face the consequences.”

He continues smiling as if he was enjoying my discomfort,

“But Kai, I am not doing anything. You are imagining things.

Are you sure it is not your way of reconnecting with me? Maybe it is you who still has feelings and are looking of opportunities to reconnecting like old times. After all you did say you loved me and we did share some good times, right?”

He pauses dramatically and smacks his lips before continuing,

“No one better than me knows how vivid your imaginations are. They borderline on hallucinations. Remember, you had us married a few years back? Now you are playing a new game and blaming me. Don’t be coy, be upfront about it. I just might agree this time.”

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31

His smugness, audacity and viciousness leave me shocked and hurt. I have hoped he had changed, but I am wrong.

Damn it! I should have trusted my instincts.

I take a step away from him in revulsion.

His arrogant smile disappears when he sees hatred instead of hurt in my eyes. As I take another step back, I bang into Aveer.

Tears of anger and hurt are glimmering in my eyes.

Seeing Aveer standing there shatters me. For the fi rst time in four years, I have let myself feel romance and Drew has destroyed that too. I push Aveer aside and run to my room. The silence in the room doesn’t even register. I just want to hide from everyone.

I bury my face in my pillow as I cry. I do not cry when Drew broke my confi dence and belief in love. It is the disgust I saw in Aveer’s eyes that hurt me deeply.

Till now, I haven’t realized how important Aveer is to me. I cry till my room turns completely dark. I must have fallen asleep while crying. I get up slowly to use the bathroom feeling as if I have aged by a million years in the past few hours.

It was a stupid move, I should have trusted my instinct and stayed away from Drew. But I just had to confront him that too on such an auspicious day. I had given that bastard my head on a golden platter so I deserve the humiliation and hurt again. With it 160

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the lesson not to get involved with anyone ever. When I come out of the bathroom, the lights are on with Tasha and mom awaiting me. Which means that Dad and Sam are awake too. Tears gather in my eyes as I look at them beseechingly,

“I am so sorry. I did not mean to spoil everything. I sure did not learn better from past mistakes. I should have just kept quiet and looked the other way. I am sooooo so sorry for humiliating you and dad again.”

With this, I burst into tears again while crumbling to the floor.

I howl so loudly that dad and Sam rush into the room. Dad holds me by my shoulders and picks me up. His warmth and care soothe me a bit. Someone is handing me a glass of water. When I reach out to take it, I notice it is a man. It doesn’t seem like dad’s or Sam’s hand, I look up while sniffling, its Aveer! Whaaatttt…? Any man in his right mind would have walked away. Is he a fool to stick around? Why is he here?

Fresh tears pour out of my eyes and it pushes dad’s patience beyond its limit.

“Enough Kai...! No more crying now… if so, much as a tear falls from your eyes, so help me God! We have all endured your dramas occasionally. But today, wasn’t your fault. Maybe the timing was a bit off, but if you felt uncomfortable, I am glad you confronted him head on. That lecherous boy should not have been permitted to cross the threshold of my house. I excused him for Baig but never again!”

He looks at mom and Tasha as he utters these words. I know he is upset especially as a scene was created in front of our relatives. I should have curbed my impulse and confronted Drew some other day. It backfired on my family and me.

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162   •  Ritu Kakar

“I am so sorry, dad. We have kept my stupidity from the world for so long, and today it was all out. All because I could not keep shut for some more time.”

“Kaira, you don’t need to apologize. Don’t bother about the relatives. Your friend here, Aveer, handled the situation very well.

In a very dignified manner, he spoke to Drew and made him leave.

He cooked up an excuse of your severe migraine to explain your sudden disappearance.”

I look at Aveer in surprise. He had saved my family from great humiliation for which I will remain grateful. I mouth a ‘thank you’

to which he nods his head and smiles lovingly. We hear Arshi crying, it makes Tasha, Sam and mom leave. Dad pats me on the head and kisses my forehead before leaving the room. Aveer and I were alone now. Aveer had been welcomed into the family, even though I don’t know what our relationship is.

The sounds of our breathing are louder than anything else.

I can hear voices coming from afar, but the room is in absolute silence. I wait for him to say something, but he just sits by my bed staring at me. After what seemed like ages, I can’t take the suspense anymore, so I break the silence.

“Thank you so much for saving my parents from getting humiliated today. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if that had happened. I don’t know what you said or did, but you just gained my deep respect. Thank you.”

“Ms Fireball, ever since I met you, I have seen you strong and independent. There has always been a warm halo surrounding your pretty head. I think that’s why the name Fireball stuck with me. Seeing you timid, hurt and helpless today made me angry with you.”

“Angry at me? I thought you were disgusted with me on hearing what Drew said.”

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He gapes at me in utter disbelief and irritation,

“Why would I be disgusted with you? You were being you, confronting a man you thought was annoying. It takes guts to do that and I am glad you took a stand. But I am angry with you for backing down, for letting him get away with it all. Where was my Fireball when he was taking pot shots at you?”

“Some of those things he said were true. How could I fight that?”

“So what? Even if they were true, they were in the past. To bring them up now was intentional. He was undermining you, and you let him. Why?”

I looked at him meekly, “Because of the humiliation, the hurt, the embarrassment I caused left a huge impact on my self-confidence. I may have made progress in my professional life, but the wounds have still not healed. I thought they had. I thought I was free, but today he took me back to where I was four years ago.”

My eyes fall on the wall clock, it is 11 p.m. Shit, it’s late! I look at Aveer intending to say good night, but the words get stuck in my throat at the loving look in his eyes. I don’t want to name it yet, what if I am wrong, again? But I feel a ray of hope build deep within. I speak, the first thing that comes to mind,

“Aveer it’s 11 o’clock, won’t your parents be worrying for you.”

He just starts chuckling,

“Sweetheart, I am going to turn thirty in three months. My parents stopped waiting and worrying for me long back. And 11

o’clock is not all that late in a city like Mumbai.”

“Hmm...”

After a long pause, it suddenly strikes me what he said,

“OMG, you are thirty years old, that is…I mean… pretty old.

Why aren’t you married till now?”

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164   •  Ritu Kakar He looks at me with a queer expression. I am about to question it when he starts laughing. What begins as a slow laugh becomes boisterous and loud. Hearing this, everyone rushes into the room.

He continues laughing even as dad asks him what had happened.

Thinking he is getting hysterical; I start patting him to calm him down. Well, my pat sure works wonders though he continued to chuckle but it does not sound hysterical anymore. He keeps looking at me as he finally answers,

“I thought you were kidding about her being impulsive and erratic, but NO! You were right! She is that and much more, Sir!”

He looks at dad who smiles smugly. I glide my gaze from one to the other, but neither say anything. Aveer gets up and moves to the door, on reaching it he turns and says,

“I will pick you up around noon, and we will have lunch together. Good night for now.”

I whisper a good night when I suddenly realize what just conspires. I am being taken to lunch not being asked whether I want to go. What the heck...! I rush out to catch him before he leaves. Dad sees me go but doesn’t stop me which is strange.

I catch him just before he enters the lift.

“Hey, who says we are meeting for lunch? Sorry I am busy tomorrow.”

“No Fireball, you are not! You are just being difficult because I told and didn’t ask you. Well, get used to it.”

“Ohh shushhh! You don’t get to be my boss. So, if you ever asked nicely, I may just agree but for now, sorry, no lunch tomorrow!”

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shoulder and neck causes me to moan softly. When he whispers into my ears, it takes a few seconds to understand what he said,

“Don’t make such noises or I won’t be able to help myself.

I promised myself that I will be a thorough gentleman until the time is ours and right. So please don’t push me. I am anyways hanging by a thin string.”

I don’t understand completely what he means by this.

However, I do know he is right about emotional and physical control. Here I was, standing outside my house in the arms of a man I have just met. I pull myself away from him and maintain an arm’s distance. I look at him unaware that my eyes are still shining with a passion. I hear him mutter something. I keep looking at him. After a few seconds he arrives at a decision and shakes his head from side to side.

“Good night Kaira... I will see you tomorrow, please be ready at noon.”

Saying this he leaves abruptly. Huh? It’s like my objection does not matter. Well, he will learn and appreciate the importance of my words from tomorrow. We will see whom he takes to lunch me or his egoistic invitation.

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32

Even though I am wide awake, I am enjoying the coziness and warmth when Tasha joins me in bed. Last night she has fallen asleep while feeding Arshi so we have yet to speak about the events. Last night has shaken me up to top it, Aveer has me tied in knots.

“Good morning, Ms Celebrity! Move over, I want to join in. I haven’t slept a wink. Arshi was crying all night..”

“Hmm, btw, why are you calling me Ms Celebrity?”

She settles herself in my bed before she updates me on the events after I left. Each word pleasantly shocks me but brings an inner glow with it.

“When you went to confront Drew in your usual war mode I had just come out of the room. Seeing your expressions worried me, so I was coming to you, but saw Aveer break away from the group to follow you. I had not expected Drew to be up to his old tricks, so his words left me stunned too. I was about to intervene when Aveer signaled me to stop. I wondered why…?”

She looks at me for an answer.

“He said that he was waiting for me to hit back at Drew. He did not expect me to cower or back down.”

“Hmm, anyway, I couldn’t take it anymore and was about to take Drew’s case when you turned. Seeing horror and humiliation 166

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written all over your face scared me. And, it brought such fury to Aveer’s face that I think even Drew got scared.”

“Fury? I thought I saw pure disgust towards me.”

“Are you mad? Your man was going to follow you to your room. But knowing that it could spoil the festive atmosphere and raise questions he turned to Drew. He quietly escorted Drew out of the lounge straight to the door. and warned him about coming anywhere in your vicinity. Dad and Sam witnessed everything and didn’t say a word when they saw the possessive anger on Aveer’s face. They silently went inside to tend to the guests.”

The minute Tasha had said Aveer was angry and not disgusted I had jumped up and sat on the bed. The man I barely know was fighting for me... Wow! The man I had just met three days ago was helping keep my family and my reputation intact. Whereas the man who was part of my extended family didn’t care nor have any respect for his family let alone mine. “You know Kai, last night Aveer gained everyone’s respect and approval. He was not only liked by Dad and Sam but even my father was impressed by him.

As for our mothers, they are women, and he sure can blind us all with his sexy smile and elegant manners. We all really liked him, Kai.”

I look at Tasha and seek encouragement to pursue the unknown. And if I am honest to myself, I too want to. But I don’t say anything. I get up to get ready.

As I collect my stuff, Tasha asks,

“Hey what you are doing?”

“Ma’am, I am getting ready for work. You have the luxury to sleep, but I have to work.”

“But I thought you were going out for lunch with Aveer.”

“I would have if he had asked, but he ordered. You know that I don’t follow orders.”

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168   •  Ritu Kakar Saying this I go for my shower. I don’t realize that my friend would sneak behind my back and tell Aveer. 30 minutes later, I am all ready and set to go. As I leave the room, I remember to pick up my cell phone. I check if he has SMSed but alas! Nothing! I shrug off my disappointment and march out, nevertheless. If he doesn’t wish to speak, then nor do I. I enter the dining room only to come to an abrupt halt. Right there on the table, Aveer sits with the rest of my family enjoying breakfast! Even Arshi is there, sleeping sweetly in mom’s arms. Wtf….?

“Good morning Kaira, you look lovely this morning!”

I gape in wonder. But to my utmost amazement dad continues reading his newspaper, mom just smiles and Sam, who usually would pass a comment, continues eating, huh!

Have I walked into the wrong family?

I look at Aveer whose eyes are dancing with pure mischief.

I must look like an idiot with my mouth slightly open gaping at everyone. Tasha comes out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee for me.

“Oh, you’re here, here take your coffee, I need to settle Arshi.

Hey, Aveer, you need anything else?”

I hear his muffled ‘no’ as if he is controlling his laughter. Now I am getting pissed, what the heck is going on here? I look at him fiercely and ask through my clenched teeth,

“What on sweet mother earth are you doing here? It is only 9

a.m., nowhere near lunch time...”

He steps closer and whispers,

“I love it when you go all Brit when you are angry. Seeing this fire first thing in the morning has just made my day. As for what I am doing here, well, I was invited.”

“Invited? Who invited you?”

“Me…”

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The answer comes from the last person I expected, Sam.

“Wtf…”

“Kai! Watch it! We have a baby in the room and the parents.”

“Oh, shut up Sammy! Arshi is long gone and mom and dad are now used to us squabbling. Why would you invite him to breakfast? I mean you just met him and don’t know him from Adam, so?”

From the corner of my eye, I see the rascal enjoying our tiff and smirking.

“Well, sometimes it takes only one meeting to know someone and to like him. Being a stranger, he not only helped us from embarrassment, but even stayed till the end, for you. So, thanking him is what people who live in civil society would do. Oh wait, did I say civil society?”

Oh shoot! I don’t need this. I pick my tote bag and move to the door, ready to leave. Sam calls out,

“Hey, where are you going? We have a guest.”

“No Sammy, you have a guest! I am leaving for work. Bye!”

I leave a stunned Sam behind me. I hear a loud laugh after my exit. I know it is Aveer. He seems to find humour in everything I say or do. Well, hahaha to him too. The lift stops on the sixth floor. Drew enters with a suitcase. I turn my head and ignore him. I can feel his gaze, but I refuse to give him the satisfaction that he was being noticed. His brash behaviour was still fresh. I wait impatiently for the lift to stop. The minute it does I rush out towards my bike.

I am just about to start my bike when I hear Drew. I do not realize he had followed me. He comes and stands in front of my bike and starts speaking, “I know you don’t wish to speak to me.

Please, just two minutes of your time, that’s all I am asking.”

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170   •  Ritu Kakar I look at him angrily. Is that regret that I see in his eyes? Is it even genuine? He takes a deep breath and says,

“Thanks. I know I don’t deserve it, but still, I appreciate it...

I truly am sorry, and this time I am not mouthing the words, but I really mean them. I was an arrogant jerk thinking I could manipulate you into loving me.”

I look at him with surprise as he continues to speak,

“Kai, you and I both know, what you felt for me was not love, it was teenage infatuation. I should have nipped it in the bud itself.

However, I was too pompous and full of myself. Seeing the look in your eyes for Aveer hurt my ego. I was living in a bubble that made me believe you could only be in love with me. I was jealous when I realized you had never ever looked at me like that. That’s what made me react the way I did.”

Huh! Does he just say that he saw love in my eyes for Aveer?

Anyways, the sincerity in his voice compels me to forgive him.

I must forgive and forget, for my own sake. If I don’t, I will never be able to close this chapter and start a new one. I look at Drew wondering what I ever loved about him. “You are right. I need to forgive you first so that I can forgive myself. If I don’t, then the guilt will continue to suffocate me. So yes Drew, I forgive you, for everything. And I also wish you the very best in life.”

“Thanks, Kaira. I am glad I got this chance to speak to you before I returned to Dubai. Leaving the country is the best thing I can do to ensure everyone I love manages to live in peace. Even mother is very hurt and not speaking to me. Well, all the best to you too. Have a lovely future.”

We hug each other lightly.

“ATB… Drew, bye.”

I ride off feeling lighter than before.

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33

(Aveer and Drew)

I don’t look back, so I don’t know what happens after I leave.

My ATB confuses Drew. He mutters to himself,

“ATB… what the heck does that mean?”

“All the best.” Drew looks back to see Aveer standing there.

“Since how long have you been eavesdropping?”

“I have been here since you came out of the lift. Just did not want to interrupt.”

“Ahhh... you are the protective watchdog, aren’t you?”

Drew watches Aveer clench his fi sts, but he maintains a miraculous calm while he replies, “Ohh, No worry about that! I know she wouldn’t give you the time if she didn’t want to. I trust her. She is too straightforward to play games. In fact, it is you who reminds me of a snake, ready to strike at the fi rst opportunity.”

“Then why eavesdrop?”

“My Fireball is capable of fi ghting her demons. And her dignifi ed bravery just now proves me right and just makes me love her even more.”

They exchange angry looks. Drew’s grunts of regret, the jealousy is apparent.

Aveer steps away and starts to walk off towards his car.

Suddenly he starts thinking aloud forgetting about Drew and where he is.

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172   •  Ritu Kakar

“In Kai, I have found the perfect partner. With her, my search has ended. She is the light and joy of my life. I have never enjoyed laughing, acting crazy or arguing with anyone in the last thrity years of my life. In three days, I have seen so many different shades of my personality. I love it even though it surprises me.”.

He turns around only to watch Drew walking away with his shoulders drooped, his train of thoughts continues, “I feel sorry for Drew. He burnt his boats while trying to make my life miserable. I hated the way he was eyeing Kaira yesterday. Bastard!

His selfish actions worked in my favour. I guess I can forgive him a bit. Kaira’s family loves and respects me now. They even invited me for breakfast today. Tasha and Sam seem to love me too. Especially Tasha, who sure can help build a case before Kaira for me. Kaira’s friend means the world to her. Hmmn…How do I convince Fireball that we are meant to be together.”

He opens his car door still lost in thoughts, “Last night, when she enquired about my marital status, I laughed it off. The question did worry me though. Had I missed the bus? I had a long discussion with my grandfather who was more of a friend to me.

He heard me out and just said,

“Aveer, life is beckoning you, grasp it with both hands while you still have time. Remember we never get second chances. Your parents’ ways towards married life should not affect your ideas about holy matrimony. Start having thoughts and dreams of your own.”

A hand on my shoulder stops me just as I am about to sit in my car. I turn to Drew exclaiming,

“I know I am a bastard, but I genuinely think you and Kai make a great pair. I could never have been able to handle the energy within her. I wish you both the very best for your future.”

“That almost sounds like a goodbye.”

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He chuckles faintly,

“Chillax!! It’s only temporary till everything settles down. Of course, I will be back. I may be the black sheep, but I am still family.”

“Hmm... Well, TC... ATB.”

Shaking his head Drew exclaims “You both really have a lot in common, sure meant to be kinds.”

As Drew turns to leave to his waiting taxi, Aveer wonders whether he is helping him or scaring him away.

Either way, Aveer now has a plan… will it be the perfect one?

Only time will tell.

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34

I reach ECL relaxed and calm. Forgiving Drew seemed to have liberated my soul. I felt as if I am reborn. My heart yearns for a blissful future with a man who respects me and loves me unconditionally for my craziness. I want to love a man with whom I can appreciate and argue with without an ego clash. Have I encountered him already?

“Aveer…”

“Huh, Nikki, what’s with you? Why are you taking the devil’s name in vain?”

“Kai, I said hi to Aveer.”

Shoot! Aveer is standing right behind me! What is he doing here? I turn so fast that I trip and fi nally I meet Mother Earth!

Everyone laughs at my plight. My eyes are on Aveer. I gasp as I see him holding a 5-foot-tall teddy bear. Wtf…? What now?

“Hi, I would have saved you as always but as you can see, my hands are full. Btw, how can a person standing straight up just crumble to the ground like this?”

I grunt and scoff while dusting myself.

“Ohh, shut up Aveer! What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at my home having breakfast with my family.”

“Well, I am here with this peace offering.”

174

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His tone makes me embarrassed! Hurrump! How does he manage to do this every time? Why do I find his antics charming?

He is so annoying, isn’t he? I walk away before I make a bigger fool of myself. The balcony on the top floor was my favorite space.

I don’t notice Aveer standing by the door watching me.

God knows for how long he is standing there. I open my eyes when I feel as though I am being watched. I mutter to myself,

‘hmmn Kaira, it’s a dream, your Mystery Man is back’…I look at him moony-eyed. Aveer gasps slightly and smiles. What is in his eyes? Is it passion or lust…wait…is it…love…no! It can’t be. His intense look makes my heart palpitate. “What is going on here? I have never felt this way ever! I am losing control over my thoughts and emotions... we just met. How is it even possible?”

Shoot! I was rambling loudly! Aveer rushes to my side. He holds my hand tightly, “There is no time span for falling in love.

And this…sweetheart…is love! I am old enough to be sure that it is. Fear is natural, I am feeling it too, but together we can overcome every storm, Kaira.”

I gasp,

“OMG, you said ‘the word’ so easily! I can’t even use it in my thoughts! How can you be so sure it is…I mean…huh...?”

He looks deep into my eyes and says,

“I just know. You, Kaira, are the woman I love. You made me realize there is a world beyond work. For you, I could take unlimited detours, just to see you. You are the woman who can outsmart me in the middle of the road making me forget everything. And yes, you bring laughter and colors into my life.

You, Kaira, are ‘THE WOMAN’ for me…my woman.”

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176   •  Ritu Kakar bond with an erratic, impulsive, crazy woman like me? Like an idiot, instead of replying, I ask,

“What about your parents, your family? What is their view?”

He squeezes my hand, takes a deep breath and says,

“Kaira, my family is not like yours. My parents have no time for me. They are too busy in their social life to be bothered about who I bring home as my wife. I have a grandfather who means the world to me. He said that he would love to have you in the family. So, Ms Fireball I don’t want to let go. Will you jump in with me?”

Say YES Kaira!! Say yes!

My mind screams out loudly!

“I need to speak to my family, especially Tasha. She will kill me if I say yes before telling her.”

He lets go of my hand and takes a step back apologetically,

“Please, Aveer, don’t feel bad... I am not saying no; I am just saying I need my family around when I...”

I trail off as he looks up with hope. When I don’t complete my statement, he makes a grouchy face and turns away.

I stand up, move closer and softly kiss him on his cheek,

“How’s that for a sorry?”

He smiles and offers his other cheek as well.

“Lol… don’t get too smart! One is enough for now!”

I wink at him and proceed towards the library. He stops me from opening the door.

“I won’t let you get away that easily sweetheart.”

He bends down and kisses me passionately on my lips. After a while I playfully push him away, but he moves closer and whispers in my ears,

“See you at your home in the evening, I will get my Grandad along too. You can give me your answer in front of them.”

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He gives me another kiss and leaves. Huh, what just happens?

Have we just confessed love? I pull myself together and enter the library. What???

The teddy bear is sitting in the center with a massive card in its lap. It is open for the whole world to read:

‘I, Aveer Mehra am deeply in love with Ms Kaira Kapoor. I would be honored if she will agree to enter my life and stay there for eternity.’

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35

I read the message again and again. Each time, my smile grows till it turns into a happy grin while my eyes shine with pure joy.

I grab the card and rush home. Do I hear the whistles and catcalls? No, I don’t! I fl y home..

I quickly park and run to the lift. What if dad says no? I take a deep breath open the door, only to be surprised at seeing Sam there.

“Hey Sammy, why aren’t you and dad in offi ce?”

“We are expecting important guests in the evening. So, we had to stay back for the preparations.”

“Guests? Today? In the evening? Who? What? Why?”

�Huh? Kaira? What is wrong with you? Why are you talking like this? We are home for a reason but what about you? You never leave the Café before 9 p.m.?”

“I had something important to discuss… with mom... Where is she?”

“She is in the kitchen.”

Huh? What’s this? It looks like they are preparing meals for a king. Even dad is busy helping.

“Mom who is coming in the evening. I mean, when are the guests coming?”

“Kai, I don’t have time for chitchat. If you can help good, if not then please let me fi nish.”

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That was rude! Who could be so important? Mom never ignores me! I move towards Tasha’s room when mom calls,

“Listen, Kai, if you are going to be home, then please dress well. Maybe a nice Indian outfit for a change.”

Huh, Indian dress, that means some of dad’s old friends are coming. Hmm, shit I will need to call Aveer and cancel for the evening. He can’t be here while there are guests at home. It will be embarrassing.

“Mom, what time are your guests arriving?”

“They should be here by 5 p.m. That means you have about two hours to get ready and lay the table.”

“I am going to meet Tasha first!”

“Miss Kaira Kapoor! Come back here. Don’t you dare disturb Natasha! She has just fed Arshi and is taking a nap. It is going to be a long evening, so she needs the rest.”

Great, I don’t even get to talk to my bestie for help. Now what? Well, first things first, let me call Aveer. I call him, but he does not answer. I SMS him after the fourth call goes unanswered,

‘I am so sorry; we have to cancel the plan. Guests are expected, with them around we can’t talk.”

ten minutes later, my phone beeps, it’s him.

‘ok.’

Shoot! I hurt him! Did I? Does ‘ok mean that he is okay with it and understands, or he is upset or …is it worse? I pace across the room trying to calm myself. But when nothing works, I go out to help mom to stop myself from thinking of Aveer.

Half an hour before the guests are due mom sends me to get ready. What is so special about today? Why Indian? Why now?

Well, I always follow mom’s orders, so…

I pick out a purple, ethnic salwar suit with the dupatta in a myriad shade of purple and blue, complete with golden stripes. I team the dress with a traditional bindi that seals the look.

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180   •  Ritu Kakar When mom sees me, tears well up in her eyes,

“Why are you so emotional, mom? I have worn this suit before, haven’t I? For Mr Jethwani’s daughter’s wedding last year, remember?”

She replies between her sniffles,

“It’s just that you are looking very magnificent today.”

Ooookkkay!! Something is not right!

“Where is Tasha? Is she up?”

“Natasha is getting ready. Sam is with Arshi, why don’t you take care of her and send Sam back? I need to speak to him.”

I go to the nursery where Sam is sitting on the chair holding a sleeping Arshi.

“Hey, give her to me. Mom is calling you…go…”

Sam gently places the baby in my arms and leaves quietly.

Huh? Why is everyone so cagey today? Have I done something wrong? I pensively sit on the chair and cradle my lovely niece.

Holding Arshi brings me peace. I love the feel of her tiny soft body cuddling to me. Her face is so innocent, she sleeps without worldly worries. I am lost in her sweet world.

Huh! I suddenly get a prickly feeling of being watched. I look up to meet my favorite chocolate brown eyes. Time stands still till Tasha clears her throat and punctures the mood.

Aveer bends and whispers a soft ‘hi’ into my ears. The heat of his breath warms my ear causing it to tingle.

I whisper back,

“Aveer… you… here?”

“You invited me…so here I am...”

“But…you sent a rude ‘ok…so…how…?”

I hear giggles in the doorway. Everyone is watching us. I start blushing.

“He is the guest, huh?”

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“No actually it’s my Granda! He is the guest of honour.”

OMG! It is really happening! Aveer is here with his grandfather…Are they really going to talk about our wedding?

Nervous shivers run through my body. Tasha lunges forward and takes Arshi from me. Mom puts her arms around me. Meeting Aveer’s Grandad is an amazing experience. He is full joie de vivre with a knack of making everyone comfortable and happy. The minute I meet him, he gives a tight hug and whispers ‘welcome to the family’. The whole family chit chats animatedly. Baig uncle and Mala aunty are also there.

Aveer and I steal a moment and go to my room. The minute he closes the door I start complaining,

“That was mean! In fact, everyone was mean! All of you hid this from me! Everyone ignored me this afternoon. You didn’t answer my calls and replied curtly. Do you know how many doubts ran through my mind in that one moment? It was unbearable.”

As I continue with my whining, he pulls me in his arms and covers my mouth with his. I opened my eyes so wide…I am completely taken aback! After a few seconds I realize that I am kissing him back. Our lips unite and move in unison as if slow dancing to soulful music. His tongue touches mine and I explode…I arch my back and thrust my bosom closer to him.

When he nips the side of my lip, I cannot stop the moan. His lips leave mine to gently kiss me all over my neck and chest. I go weak in the knees, but his strong grip keeps me steady. He keeps returning to my lips for more and more. With every nip and every suck, I feel myself merging with his soul while drowning in emotions.

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182   •  Ritu Kakar against the door moves back while I jump to the other side of the room. What if it is dad or Sam, shoot? Luckily, it’s just Tasha. She looks at us both and then straddles to the dresser, pulls out a tissue and hands it over to Aveer.

“That lipstick colour suits Kai better than you. You lovebirds better straighten up and come out before anyone notices.” She winks and walks out chuckling gleefully.

I have never seen a grown man blush as fast as Aveer does. It totally turns me on!

Of course, I am embarrassed by Tasha’s remarks, but this soft, mushy feeling is far lovelier. I see a new side to Aveer, this time a vulnerable one. He steps closer and whispers, “Ms Fireball shall we leave? Hmm? Unless you have something else in mind.” He runs his fingers across my back…

I look at him in false indignation despite the shiver that runs down my back I am about to reprimand him when he distracts me again,

“Could you check if the lip colour has been wiped off?

Your dad or my Granda shouldn’t notice it. That would be very embarrassing for both of us...wouldn’t it?”

I blush and notice a light cut on his lower lip. Oops!

“Umm…sorry…there is a slight cut on your lower lip… and just wipe off the left side of your lip.”

He smiles and hands me his tissue. I carefully wipe off the remaining lip colour all the while feeling his warm breath on my face. When I hand over the tissue, he gently kisses the back of my hand and then guides me to the lounge.

Aveer and his Granda stay beyond dinner. Everyone is having fun so the passage of time didn’t matter. Granda may be about 80

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owl, he looked over his family night and day. When they are ready to go, he pats me on my head.

“I am glad you entered my grandson’s life. You are just right for him. God bless you!”

I hug him tightly,

“It is an absolute honour to meet you, Sir.”

“It’s Granda for you, sweetheart. Sir is too formal for a family member. Don’t you think?”

I nod silently, while blushing. Everyone walks out, Aveer stays back,

“You free for brunch tomorrow, at your café?”

“Sure. I will be there only.”

“Actually, don’t go to the café tomorrow. Let me pick you at noon, and we’ll go together. Will that be okay? Please?”

“Well, as you ask so nicely… okay!”

“You saucy minx!”

He kisses me lightly on my forehead and leaves.

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36

The next morning, I wake up from a deep slumber to the harsh ringing of the phone. It’s my alarm, I switch it off, but the noise persists.

Uff! Wtf…?

Oops! It’s a call from Aveer!

“Yes Aveer, what do you want?”

“Good morning Fireball. If you ask me in that sexy voice, all I want is, YOU!”

Wtf...it’s not even morning, its dark outside the window.

I don’t realize that I have spoken aloud until the voice at the other end answers,

“It’s 5.15 a.m. Why? You not up yet?”

I blare loudly into the phone,

“Are you out of your bloody mind? Who gets up at this hour?

You enjoy romancing the sunrise. I am sleeping.”

I hang up. It rings again!

“Urrghh!!! Aveer!!! What now?”

“What time do you get up? I mean, I should know, right?”

“8 a.m. or after. Nite nite!”

Shoot! My sleep has vanished! I might as well get dressed.

I take a refreshingly long shower and change into my tracks.

Everyone stops in their tracks as they notice me entering the family room.

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“Good morning family. Mom! Coffee please!”

“Miracle!! An absolute miracle! Oh, My Gooooddd!!! Miss Kaira Kapoor graces us with her esteemed presence at 6:30 a.m.

Impossible has been made possible!!”

“Cut the dramatics, Sam. It doesn’t suit you!!”

“C’mon Kai, Even Arshi decided to arrive during the day; she knew any time before 8 a.m., and her aunt wouldn’t have been present to greet her.”

I laugh sarcastically,

“This is why I don’t get up early! Your crazy jokes kill my morning fun.”

As I move towards the kitchen, I see dad’s shoulder shaking vigorously, huh? Is he laughing behind the paper? I stomp my feet like a two-year-old.

“Et tu Dad?”

Even mom is trying hard to stop herself from laughing as she asks

“Kai how did this miracle happen?”

“Mom! It’s no miracle, it’s a one-time event. Aveer woke me up at the alien hour of 5:15 a.m.”

Oops! I feel heat enters my cheeks.I look down in sheer embarrassment. I never will learn to think before I talk, will I?

I am clearing the table when my phone beeps. Why isn’t he calling? Why the SMS? ‘Good morning Sunshine! Hope you are up and fresh now. A slight change in plans. Work calls. Let’s meet for early dinner. Will pick you at 7:30 p.m. XOXO’

I have been stood up! Hmm its ok. I might as well go to the café, but mom stops me going on some random pretext. In the evening, Mom gets ready for a last-minute social obligation with dad. Sam was going to be late at work. Mala aunty was coming to keep Tasha company. When I enter my room, I am surprised to see a new dress spread on the bed.

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186   •  Ritu Kakar It is the most exquisite dress that I have ever seen! Turquoise blue, off-shoulder, with three strings of freshwater pearls around the neck like a choker. The tiny sequences scatter all over the dress make it sparkle. It was perfect!

“Whose dress is that mom?”

“Mine! Kai, love has made you lose all sense! It is for you, silly girl!”

“But why? It’s beautiful but too formal for a modest dinner.

Btw, when did you buy it?”

“Shhh! It’s perfect for the occasion! But sadly, I did not buy it.

Aveer did. I only helped with your size.”

“Occasion? What occasion Mom? I am just going for dinner.”

“Kai! It’s your first official date. You have never ever been on one! I feel like an American parent, sending her child on a prom date! Get dressed and go have a wonderful time.”

Aww…Aveer is a sweetheart and my mom, she is a total darling and this dress… it shouts romance and love.

Hmm…well then, I too should make an effort… I go the extra mile and create magic with make up; enhancing my eyes with a hint of colour and mascara. For a moment I feel like those Instagram model who promotes make-up. The final look is awesome! For the first time I feel beautiful from within. I strap on my pumps, the only ones I own, matte silver and gold mix color that goes with all my dresses.

When I step out of the room, I see bewildered looks on every face.

“Kai, you look like Cinderella!”

Huh! Is that rally Sammy?

I see dad avert his gaze to hide his tears.

Mom is beaming with joy and pride seeing her daughter all dolled up. I again get a feeling that something is going on that I am not aware of.

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But for now, I am soaking in the glory when Tasha shouts!

“OH MY GOD!! You look stunning!! I knew you had it in you, but this is amazing! You actually look like a grown woman.”

The room is filled with mirth! I give her an irritated look and open my mouth to curse her. The doorbell saves her from my wrath.

“Hey, Aveer... come on in.”

Aveer stops in his tracks causing Sam to bang into him.

He looks at me, awestruck.

Dad clears his throat and we come back to reality.

I flash a thousand watts smile not only because I look beautiful but because I feel beautiful. Never felt this way before… it is amazing though.

He holds out his hand and softly asks, “Shall we?”

The fact that he asks and does not state the request make me all mushy. I feel in total sync with my partner. It seems like a lifetime has passed instead of just four days. I almost feel like I know him without knowing him. I place my hand in his with full trust and confidence for my first date.

We drive to a place twenty minutes from home. Aveer has reserved a table for two at The Louvre, one of the most sophisticated fine dining restaurants in Mumbai. We are seated in the private coupe where the service is personalized and is perfect.

But what is missing is, words.

We haven’t spoken since we left home. I have felt his gaze on me while he drive, but no words are exchanged. I am nervous and he echoes my thoughts,

“I have never seen you this quiet. It’s refreshing.” I roll my eyes at him and smile,

“Don’t get too used to it, Mister! It is a very rare occurrence.

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188   •  Ritu Kakar dressed so formally. Even for Sam and Tasha’s wedding I was underdressed, but that’s how I like it.

“Hmmn…so many firsts! Are there more?”

“Hmm, this is my first date, and then there is the ki...” I trail off and quickly eat my words. “What ki...?

Should I say it?

I break eye contact and look around, when I look back at Aveer his eyes have not left me.

“Why is the restaurant empty? I know it recently reopened, but why is it so dead?”

“Ummn…maybe because I booked the whole place for us??”

“Why? I mean it’s sweet, but won’t it be a loss for the owners?”

Oops! Childish question, especially from a businesswoman like me.

He seemed to love my child-like behaviour, “Relax sweetheart!

It is no loss to the owners. One night wouldn’t matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my family owns this and a few more restaurants like this one...”

Wtf...? How rich is this man really? “Listen, I know it’s a surprise, and we have not spoken about these small things, but that’s what our relationship is all about-discovering each other.”

“Wow, you really are rich. The Prada type rich, holy moly!!”

“Prada type?”

I narrate how Nikki spoke about him after their first meeting.

He laughs heartily, just then the waiter brings champagne for us.

We toast to our future. As I take the sip and sigh… He says those three words, when will I get myself to say them…suddenly the phone rings.

I answer it only because it’s from the café. I check the time, it’s 9 p.m., the café should be closed by now. I wonder who is calling.

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I hear a panicked Pete. He is blabbering, I can not understand a single word of what he is trying to say.

“Pete, Pete, please calm down. I can’t understand. Take a deep breath and begin again.”

I hear him take a few breaths before he talks again,

“Kai, I need you at the café right now! Please! I can’t solve this issue alone. Robin and Nikita have left for the day and their phones are switched off.”

“Can’t it wait till tomorrow?”

“Would I trouble you if it could? Come fast...please…!”

The fact that Pete and Robin share an apartment doesn’t register my panicked mind.

As soon I hang up with Pete I exclaim, “I am sorry Aveer, I need to be at the cafe. Something has gone wrong, and Pete is panicking. Can we leave immediately?”

Aveer gets up immediately and we rush to ECL. We reached to a totally dark place. An eerie silence surrounds the property.

Wtf…? I clasp Aveer’s hand so tightly, I guess I left nail marks on his soft skin.

I mutter nonstop, “Why is it sooo dark? Where is Pete? Oh God, oh God, please please let everything be okay...”

I leave Aveer’s hand and run into the café, praying all the time. My heart is filled with worry and it’s pounding fast. I yank open the door shouting. “Pete, Pete where are you? What’s this fragrance? Shit, what has happened here? Pete, switch on the light… where are you, bro? Are you fine?”

I circle across the café, trying to find my way in the dark. It doesn’t strike me to use the torch on my cell phone.

Suddenly the lights go on, blinding me for a split second. A shower of flowers descends on me. “Surprise !!”

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190   •  Ritu Kakar festoons, decorative lights and flowers. There are roses, lilies and orchids everywhere I look. The whole place feels like paradise.

I look at Aveer in question, but he is nowhere to be seen. I see him standing at the stairs, the place we first met. OMG! He has the mike in his hand!

“Before I address this lovely lady who stands before me in wonder; I want to thank you all for making this possible. Thank you, Nikita, Zoonie, Robin and Pete - you guys are ever so dependable! Thank you everyone, from the bottom of my heart.”

Saying this he goes to mom and dad for blessings. Mom places her hand on his head and kisses him on the forehead. Dad hugs him and pats him on the shoulder. My friends, colleagues and close relatives; everyone who mattered were here.

Wtf…even Tasha is here with Arshi!! She is supposed to be under house arrest for forty days as per Indian tradition for a new mom? Ohh wow!

My heart beats like crazy as Aveer strides towards me continuing the mike,

“Miss Kaira Kapoor, it has been five days, twelve hours, forty-five minutes and about fifteen seconds since you crashed into me.

But I feel I know you since eternity. I have never experienced so many emotions in my life as I did in this period. I would love to live my life on the edge swirling around this whirlpool of emotions till my last breath.”

He stops in front of me. I hold my breath in anticipation.

He takes my hand and leads me where my family is standing.

Surrounded by the family, all the while looking at me, he asks,

“With all their blessings, I would be honoured if you, Ms Kaira Kapoor accept this token of my love and remain with me till eternity.”

He fishes out the most perfect ring ever - A 3 carat teardrop solitaire!

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Good looking, caring, ambitious, respectful and romantic - is this guy for real? To top it he is rich and a family man too! Wow!

When did I get sooo lucky?

As he awaits my answer, I take the ring I see in mom’s hand and surprise him by kneeling. “Mr Aveer Mehra, you too have shown me a lot in this short span of time. Even things I had stopped believing in - you made them happen. Above everything, you have shown me how to express with panache.”

He bends slightly to pick me up, but I shake my head lightly and continue.

“So, Mr Aveer Mehra, would you do me the honours of always being as you are? Always love me, surprise me and charm me this way. With this ring will you accept my love and commitment to you for eternity.”

Aveer bends down as the crowds go, ‘Aww…’ in unison… The atmosphere is filled with claps, whistles and joy. He picks me up and scoops me in his arms. “You my dear Fireball are going to be the death of me, but I still love you…”

“I love you too, Aveer…”

Yes, I finally say it… the time couldn’t have been more perfect.

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