She took him to the bloody festival.
Arnav couldn’t decide to be seriously fucking pissed or appreciate her sense of irony.
While Khushi kept a rapt eye on the performance, he was held captive by her.
As male dancers, decked in red trousers and multi-hued scarves tied around their waist, lined up in pairs, his eyes traveled over curves barely concealed by the thin cotton sundress.
As the rhythmic beats of drums filled the air, he became envious of how the dancing wind played with her hair.
When the energetic Lava dance came to a resounding climatic end, he found his lips twitching in response to the wide infectious smile that animated just about every feature on her face.
Seeing her gaze linger on a particularly handsome dancer though, his joy evaporated and he decided he was seriously fucking pissed.
It was none too gently that he yanked her down onto his lap. Startled eyes starred back at him.
“Why are we here sweetheart?”
She squirmed, but his arms were like steel bands around her. Fearful she may hurt him, she went still.
“Pop said you haven’t gone to town since you’ve returned. I thought…”
He was unable to stop himself from being an asshole, “You thought wrong.”
She bit down on her lips. Arnav checked the urge to apologize, but he wasn’t ready to deal with the island locals, well-meaning folks who had known him since he was a child.
“We need to get out of here,” Arnav’s voice was low and tense.
She looked around them then, seeing the open curiosity and cautious smiles aimed at Arnav. She sighed, acknowledging this was too much too soon for him.
She slid off his lap and quietly got them out of there.
They ended up at the end of the pier. Sitting just at the edge of the ramp where it was still easy for Arnav to navigate himself. With summer nearly over, they had the beach practically to themselves.
“I’m sorry… about earlier.”
He shrugged. “It’s not your fault I’m unsociable.”
“You’re not, you’re just… um…in a transitional period… of adjustment,” she finished lamely.
He gave her a raised eyebrow. “Whatever. Enough about me, let’s talk about you.”
“Yeah, you. Why do you come to the beach at night to dance?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen you.”
Her head jerked up, but she instantly regretted her move. His mouth was only inches from hers.
“How- when did you realize it was me?” she whispered.
“Answer the question, Khushi.”
She flushed, shaking her head in refusal and looked down. It was then that she realized he wasn’t wearing socks. His feet were bare inside a pair of sandals, encasing the scar that began at the sole of his right foot and crawled up his ankle to disappear inside the leg of his cargos. The flesh was a dull red, raised and buckled.
“It gets worse from there.”
She looked up to see guarded eyes, “I’m sorry, Arnav.”
“Why apologize? It’s natural to be curious over the grotesque.”
She frowned at him, “I meant I’m sorry that it happened. It must have been incredibly painful.”
“At first,” he affected an indifference she recognized as false. He clearly equated the scars to weakness, a limitation to his masculinity. It was ridiculous, because the man defined maleness. But how could she make him see this?
Arnav turned towards horizon, the sun was sinking into its watery grave. He scowled at it.
“You need to talk about what happened, Arnav. About the accident…. and Akash.” In a matter of seconds, his eyes went from wary to frost.
“I do not want your sympathy. I don’t require your listening ear. And I don’t need your nagging. What I want is to be left the fuck alone.”
He turned sharply, wheeling himself back down the planks, never looking back. He might just as well have sprinted away from her. Left standing alone, Khushi felt awkward and deflated. Stubborn, stubborn man she cursed as she sank down into the cooling sand.
3 days later
Arnav was frustrated.
She was avoiding him. Visiting with Pop when she knew he was down by the pier. You told her to leave you the alone a voice reminded him. Yeah, but when did the stubborn girl listen to him before?
So perversely, he had holed himself inside his room all day like a damned idiot.
He finally heard her calling good-bye to Pop. He was out the doors and moving quickly down the ramp, oblivious to his grandfather’s knowing gaze.
He closed on her and called, “Khushi.” She hastened her step. Arnav went faster.
She stopped abruptly, then whirled around to face him.
“Mr. Raizada,” she greeted in a voice he didn’t know she was capable of, it was cool and distant.
“Arnav,” he muttered distractedly. He said no more mostly because he had no fucking clue what to say.
She gave him a perfectly arched brow. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yeah, actually,” he replied, “I’d like to … apologize for the other night.”
“Apology accepted,” she replied instantly and turned to go.
His arm shot out to grab hold of her. He didn’t really understand why he did it, but he couldn’t make himself let go. Not just yet.
“You were right,” he said in a near whisper, “I’m working through the shit that happened.”
“You’re not alone Arnav.”
“I know. I’m just not ready to let it go yet. But it doesn’t make it okay to be a dick. You don’t deserve it.”
“I accepted the apology.”
“Right, then what I’d like to know is that you mean it.”
She looked at him strangely, then in a gentle voice she whispered back, “I mean it, Arnav.”
Fuck. That went straight through him.
“Good. Ok, I’ll see you around then.” He forced himself not to make it a question.
“Yes,” she responded as if he’d asked the question, “see you around.”
Feeling oddly energized, Arnav went to the laptop.
Opening the saved document, he scrolled down to page thirty. Taking a fortifying breath, he started tapping at the keyboards.
1 month later
“What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m an old man, girl. No time for this friendship dance of bullshit.”
“Pop, he needs a friend at the moment.”
“A man and woman cannot be friends.”
“That is completely chauvinist. I expect better from you.”
They were playing chess. Well she was getting her ass kicked by an eighty three year con artist, but it was only because she wasn’t really concentrating on the game.
Her mind was on Arnav, the frustratingly complicated man who drew her close one moment, then force an arm’s length distance in the next.
“He likes you. He’s struggling, lost his confidence when he lost the use of his legs. You need to give him a clear signal.”
A clear signal? What would penetrate that thick skull?
The minute she sat down on their pier, he tossed a shelf of paper at her.
“You told me I can still make myself useful,” he shrugged, “I wrote down some shit… probably not worth publishing, but…”
She snapped up the pages and started reading.
Arnav studied her. She was wearing a pale, loose skirt that came to her slim ankles, along with the plain white shirt that tied at her waist and offered an occasional glimpse of bare midriff. She had kicked off her sandals when she settled into the sand and tucked her feet beneath her. She had applied something that left her mouth with a peachy shine that was damn beguiling. As the wind picked up, he caught the fresh lemony scent he’d come to associate exclusively with her. She looked and smelled delectable.
He should be grateful that Khushi found the pages on her lap so absorbing she wasn’t even unaware of his scrutiny. Yet he was irrationally jealous of his own work for the amount of her attention it was receiving.
“Oh Arnav, this is beautiful!”
“It’s for… young adults. You know… some kid wanting an adventure.”
“It’s your story.”
“Yeah, before it all turned to sh…” catching her expression, he stopped himself.
He watched as she carefully rolled up the pages, and tucked it to the pocket of his chair. Rising gracefully to her knees, she leaned in and gave him the softest of kisses. It was like being touched by a butterfly.
Khushi drew back and watched in awe as something washed over his features, something warm yet raw, beautiful but strangely painful. She felt her chest clench as he reached out a hand and lightly traced it down her face. Then in silence, he turned and wheeled back to the house – alone.
2 weeks later
“Where is she?” Arnav asked as casually as he could while grabbing a new carafe of coffee.
“Who?” Pop asked innocently.
“Khushi, who else?”
“Saw her with a young man when I was at the market.”
Arnav froze. Of course. She was healthy, young… beautiful. Of course she would attract male attention. She’d only been spending time with him because –
He wheeled himself out of the kitchen, heading straight to his room.
Pop grinned as he heard the slam of the door. Two minutes later, he heard the crash of glass striking wall.
Gotcha son, gotcha!
2 days later
It was an ideal day to immerse oneself in writing. Overcast, gloomy, and gray. Too bad he hadn’t been able to concentrate worth a damn. His mind had been a blank. Well,not a blank. He just wasn’t able to write down what was on his mind, because all that was on his mind was Khushi.
As it had been since he heard about her and her … boyfriend. Even in his mind he snarled the word. He could think of little else but Khushi dancing in the moonlight. Khushi smiling at some faceless man. Khushi walking along the shore. Khushi kissing said faceless man. The revolving mental slideshow had been enough to drive him to drink.
Sucking back whiskey, stewing in jealous misery, and nursing his fantasies. Fantasies that had started since he’d first met her. Erotic dreams in which she would press that body against him while chanting his name in breathless, urgent whispers…
He looked at the door. She was glowing. Fucking glowing. He aimed a dark scowl at her. Do not ask her. Do not ask.
“Who is he?”
“Your boyfriend,” he snapped.
“The guy you went around town with yesterday.”
“How did you know?”
“Didn’t know it was a secret sweetheart,” he bit off.
“Well? Who is he? ”
“Arnav, are you ok?”
“Why the fuck wouldn’t I be ok?”
“Because I’m only three feet away and you’re screaming.”
“I’m not fucking screaming!”
“The he is my brother,” she stated with quiet dignity, walking to the kitchen stool and taking a seat.
“Your brother,” Arnav confirmed, clearing his throat even as he felt his face heat, hoping it was dark enough in the house for her not to see his mortification.
“Yes. He attends Delhi University so he rarely gets to visit.”
Thunder rumbled cutting off her words as a flash rain pelted the roof. Arnav rolled his chair closer to her until his knees were only inches from hers.
Then, before she could prepare herself, Arnav reached across the space separating them, hooked his hand around the back of her neck, and yanked her forward, bringing her mouth crashing down to his. He kissed her like a starved man. Like a shipwreck survivor.
Deep. Hungry. His mouth firm and persuasive. As soon as he felt her melt against him, he gentled, as if he were apologetic for the onslaught on her senses. He used his lips like a blind man uses his fingertips to know his world, discovering the shape and texture of her mouth through his sense of touch. He sipped, he nibbled; he sucked at his leisure.
When he ended the kiss, he rubbed his lips against hers lightly before breaking contact with them, and even then they remained close, merely a breath apart. His thumb stroked the underside of her chin, her cheek, and very near the corner of her lips. Only after he let his hands fall away did he pull back.
“Dammit! Khushi… I’m sorry. I …”
“Why are you apologizing?”
“I don’t know what came over me. You need to go.”
“Go. Now!” Confused and angry at his hot cold behavior, she straightened and exited the door without another word.
Two seconds later Pop entered, his glare indicting he had witnessed the scene.
“Why do you insist on throwing away a chance to be happy with a girl you clearly love?”
“Love?” Arnav scoffed. “Who said that?”
“You do. Every time you look at her.”
“Have you been reading romance novels old man? They’re not good for your blood pressure.”
“Okay, be funny. Deny you’re in love with her. You’re only wasting your breath. Khushi hits you like those shots of whiskey you like so much.”
“She’s not for me! Just look at me!”
Pop shook his head, “Oh I’m looking at you boy, and I never thought I’ll say this, but I no longer see my grandson, he’s been replaced by an idiot.”
He felt the wind pick up, slapping against the sails. The breaking waves and foaming whitewater were pushing them off course. He just had to steer the boat to shore. He’d rode out in worst. They were going to be fine.
“Fuck, Arnav, I can’t see anything. How far off are we?” Akash’s voice called out to him.
“It’s fine! We’re in the clear, just need to balance the sail-plan and head northeast.”
But he hadn’t anticipated how within minutes the wind went up another six knots. Suddenly they were caught in the current’s monster waves, his eyes were filled with salt water.
They hit the first series of rocks with a sickening thud. Before his brain caught up, he was flung off, hitting the water chest and stomach first, which fucking stung. Choking and coughing on sea water he screamed for Akash. Nothing. He scrambled onto the edge of rock. Another wave of water hit, and Arnav watched in frozen horror as half of the 627 pound hull smashed down on him.
Arnav knifed up in bed. His body drenched in sweat.
His throat felt raw, as if he’d spent the last hour actually screaming Akash’s name, instead of just reliving the horror. No matter what he did in the daylight hours, the nightmare wouldn’t release him from it’s grip.
Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!
Khushi was worried. Arnav had been running a fever hovering at an alarming 102 F for the last two days. From the minute Pop had called her, she hadn’t left his side.
The doctor had given him ibuprofen, instructed them to alert him if the fever went past 103 F, and to keep administering plenty of fluids.
Her initial shyness of being in his bedroom was quickly forgotten as her hands were desperately clutched while nightmares gripped him. In between lurid moments he would shake violently and cry out. He often called Akash’s name. Sometimes they were agonized yells, but it was far worst when he whispered it brokenly, regret dripping in every syllable.
She knew then that she loved him. He was different from every other man she knew, the daredevil who tried to conquer the sea and the tortured soul who loved so deeply he didn’t know how to show it. He needed her. And no matter how much he tries to push her away, she won’t give up on him. Just like the ocean’s refusal to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many time it’s swept away.*
“Arnav…Arnav?” he heard a familiar, somewhat distant voice call out.
“Thr.. throat h..urts.”
“You’ve got a fever. I need to get you up, get some more liquid in you. ”
His eyes cracked open, but it was too much effort so he quickly closed them.
“Tired,” he mumbled.
“I know, here drink this, then you can sleep.” Gentle hands held a glass of fresh cool water to his lips. Arnav gulped it down greedily.
The glass went away then he was moved back between the sheets. Before the covers fully settled over him, he was asleep.
He woke when he felt something cool hit his neck.
“No,” he rasped.
“You’re burnin’ up, baby.”
He wasn’t burning up. He was fucking cold.
“So cold.” The words scraped through his dry throat making him wince.
The covers were drawn away, there was a moment of hesitation before the bed dipped lightly and he felt a soft weight behind him.
Feminine curves wrapped against him; a pair of arms came around his waist tenderly. Her hands reached until it found his, then fingers curled together, so natural it was like they’ve done it a thousand times before.
“Cold, so damn cold.”
“I’m here Arnav. We’ll beat it back together, okay?”
He nodded against the pillow.
What felt like hours later, when the tremors started to slide away; he called out, “Khushi?”
“I’m right here, Arnav,” came the immediate response.
“Thank you,” he whispered. Then he tumbled into sleep, so exhausted, it felt like he’d fought an epic battle.
Arnav woke up in the middle of the night, fever broken. He roused only to stop abruptly when he saw an exhausted Khushi lying on her side next to him. His very own ministering angel bathed in moonlight.
His heart clenched. He didn’t know if he wanted to raise a hand to toast the heavens for gifting him with this woman, or raise a fist to curse the gods for putting such temptation before him. It would be incredibly selfish to keep her by his side. How could he knowingly place such a burden on those fragile shoulders?
Yet, hadn’t she proved her inner strength to him over and over again?
He wanted… no it wasn’t want anymore. He needed her, quite desperately. Hope. Happiness. Could it be his again? He reached to tuck a stray strand of hair from her face.
“I didn’t mean to fall in love with you,” he confessed to the night.
1 week later
Khushi walked into the Raizada home with some trepidation. Arnav had called and for the first time, formally invited her over. Pop had left to visit some close friends several islands over, he wouldn’t be returning until the tomorrow afternoon.
It would also be the first time they were completely alone together since his illness. Something had changed between them since that night, yet she couldn’t put a finger on to the pulse of difference.
They spent most afternoons together, long talks by the pier as they took in the sunset, dinners with Pop, they had even spent one quiet evening doing nothing more than exchanging favorite childhood memories. Through it all she could sense him observing her. She often caught a warm gleam in his eyes, sometimes they would darken hotly making her body tighten in response, but more than once the soft look would be chased away by something that bear a close resemblance to despair.
She found him in his room, sitting shirtless against the headboard, the sheets up to his waist, and hands behind his head as he watched the door.
The air crackled around them as she walked towards him. When she neared the bed, Arnav’s arms came out and curved around her waist. She went to her knees and straddled him. Wordlessly they looked at each other. Then he yanked her forward and melded their lips together.
Minutes or hours later, they broke apart, gasping for air. Khushi rested her head down on his chest, her lips curved as she listened to his heart beat hard and strong directly into her ear.
Khushi laid a hand on his stomach, eyes tracing the silky strip of hair that took a downward turn at his navel. With the tip of her index finger, she began to follow it beneath the sheet, but Arnav reached down and stopped it.
“This is where the fantasy ends, Khushi.” Her gaze flew to his, catching the grimness carved in his expression.
“I don’t understand.”
“I need you to be sure,” he said harshly. “You pull that sheet back and you’ll be faced with a reality you never bargained for.”
Gently she shook her head. “Do you think I care about your scars?”
“I think you will, yeah.”
“You’re wrong, Arnav. I know you’re worried that I won’t be able to see this through. But you’ll never know until you try. Let me in. Let me share it,” she finished huskily. “Please.”
He continued to stare at her, but the lines on his face were no longer drawn and tense. Instead, he looked more vulnerable than she would have believed possible.
“It isn’t pretty.”
Khushi knew she would have to be bold. Shyness would be misinterpreted as revulsion. She drew back. This time, he didn’t stop her as she removed the sheets.
It was impossible to conceal her reaction. She stopped just short of gasping out loud, but the sudden catch in her breath couldn’t have been missed, especially since he was watching her so closely. Dark eyes shuttered as his jaw clenched hard enough for the muscles to tick. His voice sliced at her like a razor. “I warned you.”
A scar cut a gully half an inch wide down the entire length of his left thigh, curving around toward the back of his knee. On his lower legs was a network of crisscrossing scars, some raised and bumpy, while others looked like silver ribbons that had been stretched between puckered skin. Overwhelmed with compassion for the agony he must have suffered, she lightly traced one of the raised scars with her fingertip.
“Oh, Arnav, you were terribly hurt.”
She looked up at him sorrowfully, then leaned forward and kissed one of the worst of the scars that snaked up his shin. He jerked back in surprise.
“You’re not… disgusted?”
“You could never disgust me. I’m sorry it happened to you, but you are more than your legs, Arnav.”
He starred at her in hesitant wonder.
“Can you still… make love?” she asked delicately, addressing the elephant in the room.
“Technically the doctors said there shouldn’t be a problem, but I haven’t …since the accident. Who knows? I’m probably shit in bed.”
“I won’t know the difference,”Khushi drew a long, unsteady breath, “I won’t know if your performance is good or bad because . . . because you’ll be my first.”
“Khushi, I don’t fucking deserve you,” he moved forward until his forehead touched hers, “the Arnav before you is only a ghost of the man he used to be.”
“Then let’s lay that man down to rest and see who we discover.”
Bridging his chest with her arms, she pressed soft kiss at the corner of his hard mouth. “I dare you.” She leaned into him, brushing her lips across his own, “Dare you, Arnav, to take a chance on us.”
Arnav swore and caught double handfuls of her hair. But he didn’t push her away. “Dare you,” she had barely breathed the words before he took over. This time he didn’t hold back, pulling her deeply into his chest as his lips moved urgently over hers.
“Arnav,” she whispered, her hands drifting over the skin of his back. “Do you need me to do anything?”
“No, baby.” His voice was low, hoarse, beyond thick, edging towards pained.
“Come inside,” she breathed in his ear. “Take me, Arnav, I’m yours.”
That did it. He finally pulled her over him, surging up and giving a strong thrust, she clutched him tightly, unable to hold back a little gasp of pain.
Arnav froze. “God, Khushi, I’m sorry.” His expression registered two emotions at once – regret and pride.
She looked into his face. “If you stop now, I’ll kill you.” A smile twitched at the corner of his lips, but his touch was tender when he reached up and stroked her cheek.
“Yes.” She faltered. “But I don’t think I can look you in the face while we’re …. I mean it’s so … And I-”
He drew her down for a deep kiss, whispering hotly against her throat as his hands continued to stroke her towards almost unbearable heat. Their worlds shattered then reconstructed as they clung to each other. He cried her name as she chanted his until she collapsed on top of him. Replete. Satiated. Boneless.
Her limbs were so weak she couldn’t move them. Khushi was content to lay in his arms as he smoothed his hands lightly over her flushed skin. It was a long time before she gained enough strength to raise her head.
Overwhelmed by all of it, the beauty of it, tears hit the backs of her eyes. She didn’t stop to think when she moved her mouth close to his ear and shared, “When I was seventeen, I came over the cottage by the sea to say hello to my new neighbor. Entering, I heard an older man cursing the air blue. When he calmed down, he made me tea and told me all about his stubborn grandson. I was young and romantic, and it might sound stupid, but that afternoon, I fell a little bit in love with you. Over the years as we grew closer, Pop would share about your travels, your winnings, even some of your letters. Your love of the sea, the adventure in your blood, it called out to something deep within me. I never asked for a picture of you, it didn’t seem important. The image of you in my mind was already larger than life. I come out to the beach at night to dance and to dream. Dream of a man I knew so well, yet didn’t know at all. I didn’t realize it until I met you that I’ve been waiting. Waiting for you. And Arnav, you were worth the wait.”
His body stilled under her and Khushi’s heart gave a tight squeeze. As she bit down on her lips, she felt Arnav lift her chin. With no choice, she raised her eyes to meet his and caught her breath.
His eyes were wet.
Adoringly, she traced his features with her fingertips. “I have loved you for so long, Arnav. For years. From the day Pop told me about his daredevil grandson.”
His hand came to her jaw, cupping it, his thumb sweeping gently across her cheekbone. “In my darkest hour, a dancing angel entered my life. Thank you, Khushi, for saving me.”
“And you wished it was you in his place.”
“Yes.” Arnav admitted as he mindlessly sifted his fingers through Khushi’s hair, which was spread out over his chest like a blanket. “It should have been me. I was told later that Akash died instantly.”
“Were you in a lot of pain?” As difficult as it was for him, Khushi continued to encourage him to talk about the accident.
“Not much. I don’t remember having any pain then. Maybe I was in shock. Mostly, I drifted in and out of consciousness.”
She held him tight for several moments. He cleared his throat before speaking again. “The next memory I have is of the helicopter carrying me to the hospital. I sensed the urgency in the people around me. When I fully regained consciousness, I was told that I’d had surgery to repair the broken bones.”
“I’m very sorry,” she told him as she laid a loving kiss on his chest. “It must have been a terrifying experience.”
“I don’t remember being afraid so much as I was angry. It was happening to me, and I couldn’t quite believe that. I had so much I still wanted to do with my life.”
“Did it make you feel life was unfair?”
He laid his hand heavily on her head.
“Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell. Tragedies happened to other people. Not to me. I heard hard luck stories on the news, but I went on with my life untouched and unscathed. Makes me a selfish bastard, doesn’t it?”
She stacked her fists on his chest and propped her chin on top of them. Gazing up at him, she said, “No, it makes you normal.”
His expression was reflective. “I suppose. When I first regained consciousness, I often wondered if God was favoring me or punishing me. Why was I the one who survived?”
“Don’t feel guilty for surviving,” she said, reading his rueful expression correctly. “Sometimes the survivors have the hardest time of it.”
“I thought about that too, especially before Pop brought me back here. I hated lying there in the hospital in Melbourne, helpless, in pain, unable to move, afraid. So damn afraid.”
“What were you most afraid of?”
He thought for a moment before answering. “I was afraid of never being Arnav Singh Raizada again. I felt like I’d been robbed not only of my legs, but of my whole identity.”
She moved up to kiss his lips. “You are always Arnav Singh Raizada. You just need to discover a new you. And it may be selfish but I’m glad you survived, Arnav.”
He was silent for a long time, just before she drift to sleep she felt him run a hand through her hair and whispered “Me too.”
And for the first time since his accident, he felt lucky again.
6 months later
Khushi swiftly made her way across the white sand dunes. Stopping by the cottage, she had been informed by a beaming Pop that Arnav wanted her to go meet him at the secluded end of the lagoon.
He turned to greet her, a smile that he reserved just for her hovered on his lips, heat wrapped in tenderness. Although, they came more and more often, she treasured each one.
Taking her hands in his, he looked at her solemnly.
Jerking his head towards the water, he said, “I want you to follow the reef until the end, turn left, swim another thirty feet and you’ll see it.”
She gave him a quizzical look, but moved to comply. His eyes held such a vulnerable light, she knew this must be important to him.
Diving into the cool embrace of turquoise water, she followed his instructions, swimming easily past the reefs, until she reached the destination. Her heart clenched fiercely as she witnessed how Arnav perceived them. In a corner of the sea, a rusted shipwreck has been transformed into a colorful habitat for marine life. She reached a finger out to lightly touch the iridescent star fish clinging to the ruddy rocks. It was a greeting for Khushi knew she would be coming back.
Arnav sat by the shore, restless for signs of her return. Would she understand what he couldn’t put into words?
The splash of water alerted him. He turned immediately to see Khushi emerge from the waters.
Salt water poured down her face as she walked to him.
No, not salt water he realized as she bent to touch her lips to his, tears.
He tasted them, revealed in them. She understood.
He lifted his head to look at her. He wasn’t ashamed of the tears that wet his own face. Very gently he rubbed his cheek against hers, a subtle caress that mingled their happiness as well as their tears.
“Will you marry me, Khushi?”
“Yes, Arnav love, yes!”
3 months later
There are moments that etch themselves permanently into a man’s memory like black ink on white paper. The first time he loves a woman, the day he makes her his. That miraculous moment his child is placed howling with life into his arms, fresh from his mother’s womb. And the connecting years of that child’s life that fill his own with both laughter and tears.
He was a blessed man to have many such moments engraved in his memory, too many to tally, yet too few to take for granted. Another joined them recently. On a fine day in the last winds of summer, he stood on the pier built by generations of Raizada and witnessed the woman he’d come to love as his own join hands with his Arnav. After the sacred vows were taken, and the first kiss shared as man and wife, she’d walk straight to him and whispered, “Thank you, Pop, for choosing me for him.”
Well, isn’t that a fine girl? Not that he did it for thanks, and fate played a helpful hand, but it was damn pleasant to have your thought and care be appreciated. And it’s the least he can do for a beloved grandson, give him the direction he needs to go and make his own.
As dawn broke over the island, bathing the edges in a pink glow, Paranjay Raizada turned and smiled at the horizon.
2 years later
They buried Pop today. It was a bittersweet moment to say goodbye to the old man. Yet, he knew his grandfather was eager to be laid to rest beside his beloved. They had been separated for far too long.
As he made his way along the shoreline, his bare feet sinking into the wet sand, Khushi tucked to his side, Arnav felt at peace.
It was a miracle to have this blessing. One he had fought for with multiple surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy, and always with her hands in his. There were days he still needed the wheelchair, yet he no longer resented it’s purpose in his life. Even at his best, he walked with the help of a cane, but Khushi assured him it gave him a roguish appearance. Looking at his reflection, he was inclined to believe her.
They had fought many battles, most of them his personal demons, but they had emerged triumphant. He still occasionally woke up in the night, drenched with sweat after reliving shattered pieces of the accident. His wife would stir awake, soothing him with her calming presence or when that didn’t work her heady lovemaking, until he found the strength to let go.
The overwhelming guilt for surviving in place of Akash didn’t disappear, but had eased as he turned his life around. Despite an earnest attempt, the New York bestseller list wasn’t to be, yet during the course of writing, he had discovered the therapeutic power of sharing his experience. With unrelenting support from Khushi and the locals, they had opened the first island rehabilitation center for injured sail enthusiasts. Never a man who bothered with false modesty, Arnav took pride in the overwhelming response they were receiving.
He was pulled back to the moment when Khushi stopped at their beloved corner of the island. She looked up at him and beamed a smile. He gave her an answering one. He knew the secret she had kept to herself.
Gently, he placed a hand over her flat stomach; silently acknowledging the life nestled there. Her eyes shone as he pulled her into his embrace. Together they watched as a brilliant sunset poured rose gold across the sky before it melted into the turquoise sea.
The sea had given him the adventure he craved as a boy, but Maliku had blessed him with the anchor the man needed to survive.
His family held safely within the circle of his arms, Arnav was finally home.
*adapted from B by Sarah Kay
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