IX – Heartbeat
“A girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then.
It is something to think of”
There were soft lights from the chandelier that set aglow the study room, which was quieter compared to the main part of the mansion where festivities are on full swing; the elder daughter of Mishra’s engagement as it was.
The room was quiet and the corridors empty, and he stood there, with his hands in his pockets as he stared at the life size portrait before him. The splash of colors on the canvas, it would be for anyone, but the magic the artist created through that simple play of colors was not something he could easily ignore.
It was her face. Sunaina’s. Smiling.
No, Kushal thought looking at the portrait; that wasn’t just a smile. It was happiness that was oozing out of her face, the spark from her eyes so tangible that he couldn’t waver his gaze from the picture. The portrait reminded him an incident not too far off from his memory with not just a single incident but a series of them passing through his mind’s eye – her innocent eyes sparkling, the corners of her mouth twitching up, her giggling as she threw her head back, giving him a generous view to the creamy expanse of the skin at her neck. As the moments were remembered, with a flash he remembered some more— the ones where he carried her into her room, in his arms, the ones where he simply walked with the loony girl laughing about under the moon singing to herself, or the heart stopping moment when her lips fused with his…
He had to look away from the portrait to avoid the chain of his thoughts, only to have looking at the fireworks in the sky which were quite visible from the window.
The night was cold as he felt the curtains fall with the incoming breeze. Rome was known for its not too chilly winters, with mild temperatures and pleasant nights; just like the day he had been out, accompanying someone on a Passeggiata. His lips curved into a smile as he still vividly remembered that night, a week back which changed their equation, at least for him.
Moments. Simple moments, those were which had altered everything they shared, bringing in something spectacular between them. The eventful night where she was intoxicated and not in her senses, when they not only shared a walk, but so many moments together had remained a sweet memory to him.
He remembered the next morning, after the eventful night, when he was seated in the living room catching up with repeat telecast of a cricket match, when he had seen her coming down with her hands clutching her head.
In that moment when her eyes gazed into his, and when his gaze didn’t waver from hers, had he searched those soulful eyes to see if there are any remnants of the camaraderie they shared last night and the ease with which she had conversed with him in her intoxicated state. He wanted to know if she still remembered that he was liked by her George and her.
For the first time in all the weeks he had known her, he didn’t throw her a jab, but waited for her reaction. He saw her hands which were clutching her head out of insufferable headache paused momentarily as her eyes were locked with his, stuck with a sudden bemusement she felt on not finding any amusement in those dark pools.
He watched her as she tore her gaze away with a herculean effort after several moments, before silently moving away to her room, her pace skittish. And in that moment had he got his answer.
She didn’t remember a thing from the previous night.
Though he kind of expected it, he still couldn’t fight the tiny fleeting emotion he felt, which was close to disappointment.
The days that followed went normal between them. The unspoken tension between them, and the sudden awareness which he was sure was felt by her too was palpable. And to squash the uneasiness, he did the only thing he could. Cover his persona with sarcasm, bringing that irritable side of her yet again.
Though their equation was deemed to be back on track for an outsider, he knew it wasn’t the truth. Unlike her, nothing was the same to him after the night. His indifference around her was not as true as it used to be before, now reduced to a facade. Observing little things about her, tuned to her presence had become natural. The way her nose scrunches whenever she laughs, the way her lashes kiss her cheek when she blinks, the way she chews the rear of the pen when she is working on something, the way few tendrils always manage to escape her braid and caress the contours of her face; everything- every little thing of hers was noticed and adored by him including the irritation she felt on him and so openly expressed.
And though he wouldn’t confess it even to himself, it was not an accident that he delayed his search for a place to move out. Unwillingly and unknowingly there was a girl who was not leaving his waking conscious and who had continuously been a part of his thoughts for some time now; a fact which surprised him.
A throat clearing disturbed his musings. Turning, he found the object of his attention, in flesh and blood, standing near the threshold of the room with a brass plate with some flowers in her hand, and adorned in a black and red Lehenga Choli with her blouse well above and the skirt tied far below her belly button, and a thin veil graciously pulled to her front, and tucked in fleets at her hip, her sweet expanse of skin at the waist generously revealed yet hidden under the flimsy cloth of the black veil. But what caught his attention was the thin waist chain that was playing peek-a-boo with the veil, and whose small tinkering bells jingled at her small movements.
With herculean effort, he tore his gaze off from her lithe body and instead focused on her beautiful face, with her silken hair framing her face and cascading down her shoulders till her waist, and that was when he saw her cocked eyebrow, that was raised in question regarding his presence in the empty study.
“Hello to you too” he said only to have her scowl.
He suppressed a smile as he resumed observing the portrait, only to have her walk towards him in irritation.
“What’s your problem?” he heard her speak and returned her gaze with curiosity.
“Our rival company has acquired the merger we planned to, my grandmother wants me to get married, scams are increasing in India, infrastructure is deteriorating, population is increasing, traffic jam rises, India is no longer safe for women perspective strengthens. These, and many more are the problems, and I am positive you can help solve none”
She opened her mouth reminding him of a fish in the water, only to close it with irritation a beat later.
They stayed in relative silence where he continued to look at the oil painting before him. Her portrait, that he fell in love with ever since he laid his eyes on it, while she stood with her hands crossed across her bosom, and stared at him narrow-eyed.
He found a signature at the bottom right corner of the portrait and scrunched his brows.
“Payal?” his mumble might have startled her, which is why she stared at him with questioning gaze.
“Yes, it was Di” Sunaina replied and Kushal observed how her voice softened when she took her sister’s name.
A long pause followed after which she said something unexpected “She’s engaged and to be married so—” she paused until he met her eyes “So I think that is clear to you”
“I was present in your home during the happenings so yes I believe it is clear to me and of course I believe it is clear to you that you’re redundant”
“You want me to be straight, okay your choice. If you still hope to have Payal Di, then make sure you give up on the idea now. It’s high time”
It was his turn to stare at her agape. He did wonder where did that come from but remained silent for a beat before replying. “I appreciate art. So I would kindly advice you to cut short your vivid imagination”
She tilted her head and gave him a look which clearly conveyed that she thought everything he said was bull.
“I am a musician myself. So try to believe me for a change when I say I seriously not am going to break this wedding and kidnap her rather than just admiring her artistic work”
“If you’re so keen to appreciate art, I am always welcome to. Thank you very much. Give my Di some break”
“I should’ve enjoyed your artistic works, only if there were any, Alas!”
“Did you just insult me?”
“Are you generally this daft?”
She glared at him, and he returned her stare with part amusement and part interest.
Unexpectedly, a soft hand held his, and as his eyes trailed down, he saw her hand which now had his arm in her grip was slowly tugged at.
“Come with me” that was all he was told, before he was led by the woman, that had been giving him quite some restless nights.
He was directed to a room, dark and empty. She fiddled with the switches and the room was bathed in a soft glow the next moment. He observed her as she fiddled with drawers of a table until she finally came up with few journals which she dumped it in his hands and crossed her arms across her bosom, resting against the wall opposite him, waiting for him to proceed.
He stared at the journals in his hand and raised his eyes to meet her gaze, only to find her defiant stare.
“Okay” he said shrugging and took one of the journals in his hand and placed the rest next to him.
As he turned pages, he found writing inscribed beautifully in the pages, cursive and intelligent. It took him not much time to know that it wasn’t just handsome writing. The words are as beautiful if not more. Phrases capturing love, waiting, and various emotions beautifully were portrayed in simple poems, and he felt himself turning one page after another until he completed all the poems she had written, until he had reached a short story she attempted.
That was when something unexpected happened. He burst into laughter, leaving her muddle headed.
For a moment she didn’t understand his reaction, but as he threw his head back and laughed, she felt her hands curl into tight fists, the nerve in her temple throb in anger. She was not someone who would showcase her writings to anyone easily. It was personal on so many levels, however she crossed the bounds drawn by herself by sharing them with the man only to have laughed at.
“What’s so funny?” she bit out as she jabbed his chest with her finger.
His laughter subsided, yet his grin was plastered on his face, irking her.
“Nothing” he said shaking his head, and the brown hair that fell on his forehead and the crinkled eyes which glowed with mirth made him look more boyish than ever.
“Tell me” she said catching his bicep and turning him towards her “What’s so hilarious”
“Your lack of experience which clearly shows in your writing”
“What you have written was not anything close to a woman who’s aroused”
“You sound so experienced in the area”
“Maybe” his cryptic smile irritated her.
“You think a kiss is the only way to arouse, that’s amusing”
He saw the shift in her eyes and he bit back a smile. Did he see a fleeting glance of discomfort in her eyes?
“There’s something called foreplay you know” he leaned closer and dropped his voice punctuating each word.
“Are you going to give me classes on how to arouse a woman by any chance?”
Did he see her flare in anger as she said it, oh yes he did. He bit back a smile even as he shrugged in indifference.
“Depends on how much that helps you,” he leaned on to whisper “practically”
She flashed her angry eyes at him “Then what are you waiting for? Go ahead and give me classes on seduction” she said airily, and attempted to push his towering form from her which didn’t budge an inch.
It was a retort, she spoke without much thinking, yet his words and actions that followed totally threw her off guard.
“If you insist” he said politely, and with a sudden movement, he trapped her against the wall she was leaning against with his arms outstretched on either side of her form, and leaned forward until his face came close, dangerously close, until the only thing she could see was his dark eyes that reflected her form, until the only sound she could hear was…his heartbeat that echoed in the room.