Finally the D-Day arrived. After much deliberation Khanak chose to put on a simple sleeveless dress of fine white cotton edged with pink and white lace, with delicate barely visible baby pink and white flowers embroidered into the fabric. A wide belt of the same material enhanced her narrow waist and a short-sleeved capped baby pink bolero jacket completed the outfit. Sunita gathered her thick locks and secured them with white and pink satin ribbons high on top of her head. “My angel! You look just like a school girl. I’m surprised this dress still fits you so well. You have not gained an inch since high school!”
“Jiju to gaye kaam se! Megha is going to have some competition today!” A familiar voice piped in.
“Palak! Mama please… tell her not to irritate me!” Khanak said blushing a fiery red when her phone buzzed with an unmistakable beep.
Megha wanted to make doubly sure you’d come,
so I’m sending our driver Dharam to pick you up.
He should be there soon, Miss KissMiss!
As she tried to hide the message from her sister’s prying eyes, Khanak’s chest finally began to reverberate with relief. But why would he send his driver and not come himself, she wondered as she took a final critical look in the mirror.
The Khandelwal House had been transformed. Sparkling lights in varied colors as well as innumerable balloons decked the gate and the main entrance. A long red carpet covered the walkway and the front porch was designed to look like the entrance to a castle.
When Khanak hesitated, Dharam hurried her along with these words: “Madamji, everyone is waiting eagerly for you inside. Baby Megha has been reciting your name constantly since morning.”
Khanak smiled and raced up the steps. It will be cruel to make Megha wait any longer for her Teddy, she thought. At the entrance she was met by two clowns in elaborate costume who welcomed her with an exaggerated bow and a sweep of the hands. One even set a tiara on her head.
“So here’s our special guest, Megha’s darling Doctor Aunty! Welcome! I was getting worried.”
Khanak who was standing bedazzled by the decorations, swung around to see Khushboo walking toward her wearing a wide smile. She was resplendent as Sleeping Beauty in flowing pink. To Khanak’s surprise she hugged her tightly with what appeared to be genuine affection then led her by the hand to the backyard. The huge lawn sparkled like some Disney fairytale landscape. Round tables were covered with pink tablecloth and everything was accented with balloons, streamers and confetti. Children in colorful costumes could be seen everywhere playing, laughing and generally doing what children do. And in the midst of it all Khanak saw the star of the show Megha dressed in shimmering gold, a crown on her head and a wand in her hand. But what was that? Khanak was taken aback when the little girl suddenly broke into loud sobs prompting her to hurry over to her side. She was relieved when Megha stopped crying as soon as she saw her. “Doctor Aunty! Why are you so late? Where is Teddy?” she demanded.
Khanak stooped down to stroke her fine hair; “I’m so sorry darling. Traffic was really awful today. Here is your friend. He’s been missing you just as much as you have.”
Megha’s sad little face transformed with pristine joy when saw her restored Teddy dressed as a little prince in red and black satin. She squeezed Khanak’s waist and then planted a wet kiss on her cheek. “Thank you Aunty! This is the best gift ever!”
Khanak turned guiltily to Khushboo, who smiled at her while mouthing a silent Thank You.
Khanak watched on fondly as Megha kissed and played with her teddy when an unmistakable voice made a loud announcement: “To all prince and princess friends; Megha invites everyone to come and watch a special puppet show put up for you exclusively by her dearest Chachu uncle and Doctor Aunty!”
Shantanu stood on what appeared to be a specially constructed stage; dashing in a Prince Aladdin costume- white silk shirt and pants, purple vest and cloak and a turban to match! He grinned and waved at her asking her to come and join him, and Khanak didn’t have time to think when Megha excited screams pierced the air and she was swept along with the rest.
The rest of the evening went by in a blur. Khanak felt animated like a child when Megha forced her to participate in all the games and entertainment. But Shantanu took the cake by seeming to be the biggest child of them all. There was the puppet show and the search for the glass slipper followed by a treasure hunt and of course the inevitable magic show. All these activities took a toll on the children that when it was time for to cut the huge castle like cake most of them were practically asleep, except Megha.
“Khanak, will you help me put Megha to bed? I don’t think she can stay up any longer.”
Khanak followed Khushboo as she carried her little girl to her room then tucked her into bed after kissing her goodnight. Teddy had regained his place at her side.
“Thank you Khanak. You don’t know how wonderful you are.” Khushboo smiled as Khanak left the room and gently closed the door.
“So has my sweetheart been missing me?”
Khanak’s heart leaped into her throat. Shantanu was lounging in the corridor lying in wait for her. This was the moment she had been longing for yet it filled her with trepidation. Unfortunately, she was deprived of the opportunity to explore her feelings further when Akshay suddenly made an appearance and announced that Mr. and Mrs. Khandelwal were waiting to talk to her. Something unsaid passed between him and his brother before Shaan grabbed her by the waist and led her downstairs. There she was confronted with the rest of the family. Dadi ma hugged her while Madhavi scrutinized her with approval in her eyes: “Doc wow! What a knock out! What say Sunil? A lovely vision isn’t she?”
Sunil looked embarrassed. “Ahem… Don’t mind my wife Doctor Khanak. She happens to be quite outspoken. You are really looking very nice. Thanks for coming and making our grandchild’s party special. My son tells me she is very much attached to you.”
Khanak blushed while trying to avoid Shaan’s eyes. “Megha is such a sweet child. I’m honored to be here and the party was simply wonderful. And please do call me Khanak.” She glanced around trying to spot her chauffeur. “I…I think I should leave now, it’s getting late…”
“Mom…” The man standing beside her interjected.
“Yes, yes I almost forgot.” Madhavi squealed and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Doctor Khanak, I mean Khanak. What a musical name. Shaan told me earlier to let you know that he had to take you home since Dharam had left for the night.”
Khanak looked at Shaan in confusion while he glared at his mother for revealing his ruse. And before she knew it he had piloted her outside the main gates and thrust her inside his vehicle–a gleaming white jeep with a convertible top. And before she could protest, he had reached across and strapped on her seatbelt then turning the engine on, sped out onto the road as if they had a plane to catch.
Hmmm Hmmm… Ajnabi Haseena se,
Yoon mulakat ho gayee
Phir kya hua, yeh na poocho
Kuch aesi baat ho gayi
“Haaye! Kya nakhre hain, hum to ho gaye fida.”
Khanak turned to glance at Shaan as he drove, one hand on the wheel, humming the song and tossing his head a la Rajesh Khanna. The vehicle weaved dangerously on the two lane road that seemed fortunately isolated, it being a late hour, and they were driving along a narrow stretch of beach which she did not recognize.
“Are you trying to tease me again?” she ventured.
“Who? You? No. I meant the Zeenat Aman who’s one glance could floor a thousand male hearts. No one else could come close, except you my sweetheart.” He cocked a seductive eyebrow.
Khanak glared at him while her heart played ping pong in her chest.
Aise na Mujhe tum Dekho
Seene se laga loonga
Tumko mein chura loonga tumse
Dil mein chupa loonga
(Don’t look at me that way,
I will hug you to my chest
I will rob you from yourself
And conceal you inside my heart)
Her companion sang, a hand held over his heart and his grin grew broader.
Khanak yelled; “Stop the car! We need to talk!”
“Talk? A sexy, sensual woman who wants to talk? What a deadly combination. It’s my lucky day.” Shantanu pulled to the side of the road and the jeep came to a sudden stop. Khanak jerked forward. She would have fallen against him hadn’t it been for the seat belt. Not waiting another moment, she unlocked the door and jumped out and ran out on to the wide open beach. She hadn’t realized it but it was a full moon night. The soothing rhythm of the silver crested waves worked as a salve on her aching heart. She stood at the water’s edge and stared out into the horizon where the endless sea met the sky. The moon had transformed the entire scene, enhancing its beauty several thousand fold. She knew in the day light, the whole place would look very different, but right now it was paradise. And just as she had brought some calm to her racing pulse, Khanak felt a pair of strong arms wrap snugly around her waist and a trademark baritone whisper in her ear. “So my darling. Did you really mean it when you asked me kiss you the other day? Or was it a part of your game?”
She bit her lower lip; “I knew Megha was hanging close by so I took a gamble.”
“Gamble? Then what if I had kissed you, what would you have done?” His hold grew tighter, making it hard for her to breathe.
“I..don’t know. Let me go! You are hurting me!” she began to struggle halfheartedly.
“Then how about my hurt? Alright Miss Independent! As you wish. You can find your way back home on your own.”
She found herself suddenly lifted high in the air and then down flat on her back on the sand just as a huge wave swept in, drenching her completely from head to toe, leaving her spluttering with surprise and anger. She saw Shaan had escaped to a safe distance, and was watching her and chuckling with amusement. But on seeing her fall as she tried to gain a foot hold on the wet sand, he offered her his hand.
“Okay I forgive you and your antics. I don’t want to lie to your mother when she asks about her precious daughter’s whereabouts. Anyhow I’m not as dangerous as some of the rogues and ruffians who are known to haunt these spots. Besides who can resist a delicious wet mermaid on an isolated beach?”
When she didn’t take him up on his offer, he scooped her up in his arms yet again, but this time strode in the opposite direction and deposited her gently on drier ground. Then he hurried to his jeep and returned promptly with a blanket that he gently wrapped around her shivering body. “Now please talk for this caveman can wait no longer.” He smiled as the moonlight enhanced the perfect architecture of his face.
Khanak looked longingly at him. All she wanted to be was safe in those strong arms again but… “I..I am not that kind of a girl…” she said regretting the words as soon as they had left her mouth.
“What? Did I hear you right Khanak?”
She saw his eyes probing hers, seeking the truth, while the amusement was replaced with shocked disbelief.
“Khanak! You bet I know what you mean by ‘that kind of girl’ and believe me I have come across quite a few in my life. But I cannot for heaven’s sake understand why you could mistake me for one of those guys? If that was who I was, I could have taken advantage of you long ago. When you collapsed, I could have taken you somewhere else instead of the hospital. Why did I call your mother? Why did I reacquaint you with my family? And Megha and Dadi ma for crying out loud. Is that how a philanderer behaves?”
Khanak was hearing all that she wanted to hear from him and her heart flowed over with tenderness. She wanted to cuddle him like a child and erase the lines of distress that had formed around his eyes. Instead she said; “But I have responsibilities, my profession, my family. We are not very well to do and even though I earn a decent paycheck, my father wouldn’t touch a dime. He’s old school you know. And who will take care of them when they grow old? Not that they are very young now. And my father has always been very careless with his money, he doesn’t believe in saving, he thinks he will work till the very end. But I know that’s wishful thinking. And Palak, her education, she wants to do something called Visual Communication and Graphic Art and what not… she has great aspirations.”
Shantanu stared bewildered at Khanak and wondered why she had taken to blabbering. Then he smiled when it dawned upon him that his sweetheart was just shy and was trying to avoid the inevitable. All doubts and misgivings evaporated from his mind. And when he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her gently to his side, she didn’t resist. Hooking his fingers under her chin, he turned her to face him. He stared long and hard into the deep dark pools of her eyes that had become part of his existence then spoke with all sincerity: “Khanak, when I make you mine, I mean legally, I want you to know I’ll be a part of your family just as you’ll be part of mine. I’ll be a son to your parents, not a son-in- law and a brother to your sister. As far as your money goes, you can do whatever you want with it. After all you’ve earned it. In fact, I’ll be furious if you don’t. And I will help as best as I can. Don’t worry about Palak. I’ll see that she never lacks for opportunities. As for as your profession is concerned, you know Khanak, one of the reasons I adore you so much is your utter devotion to your job and your fervor to do the best you can. So I really wouldn’t mind as long as my wife returns to warm my bed at night or in the day. Are you satisfied now my princess?” His voice dripped honey.
Khanak’s complexion took on a deep red hue visible even in the moonlight. “But life is not a fairytale like Megha thinks;” she tried to argue.
“Yes, it’s not. But are we wrong to wish for some magic in our lives? To hope to live happily ever after with someone we love? Are we wrong Khanak?”
Khanak didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. So she smiled, shook her head, and gave up. And as she gazed at him mesmerized, Shaan tucked the errant strands of hair that had escaped her ribbons behind one ear while his other hand unfettered the rest of her locks and they fell like a dark cloud framing her delicate face.
Sighing he let his thumb trace the edge of her lower lip, making it tingle, causing her mouth to part in response. She closed her eyes as he bent forward to brush her cheek with his warm breath then sweep her dry lips with his tongue, making her moan with delight and anticipation. But when this wasn’t followed by the pressure of his lips, she bit into his chin.
“Ouch! What was that for?”
“For not doing your job. So stop beating around the bush and kiss me properly!”
Her lover needed no further encouragement. He proceeded to haul her on to his lap and crush her lips with his. The force of his passion made her gasp with surprise and ecstasy. And when he withdrew ever so slightly fearing he had hurt her, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back with matching ardor with her body molded to his chest, straining to eliminate all remaining distance.
Shaan, who’s breath by now had become ragged, laid her gently back on the sand. He eased off her jacket, teased down the straps of her dress then began to smooch her delicately boned shoulders. Khanak who felt herself transported to another planet, wove her hands in to his thick hair and wrapped her legs around his thighs. Driven by instinct and desire, her companion caressed her bare legs with his hands then slid them up her shapely thighs and under her dress, making her shiver with rapture.
Then suddenly he had wrenched himself away. When Khanak tried to pull him back, he gently prized her hands away.
“Kha..nak…” his rasped in acute agony. “I’ve been waiting for this day for so long. I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want anything to taint our relationship. I want to make you mine the proper way. Will you marry me my sweet innocent angel?”
Khanak’s eyes sparkled with tears of happiness as she answered his question the best way she could and sealed their bond beyond any doubt.