AS THEIR ELEGANT TRAVELLING CHAISE ROCKED AND SWAYED along the rutted country road, Lady Padma Gupta leaned her cheek against her husband's shoulder and heaved a long, impatient sigh. "Another whole hour until we arrive, and already the suspense is positively gnawing at me. I keep wondering what Ridhima will be like now that she's grown up."
She lapsed into silence and gazed absently out the coach window at the lush, rolling English countryside covered with wild pink Foxglove and yellow Buttercups, trying to envision the niece she hadn't seen in almost eleven years.
"She'll be pretty, just as her mother was. And she'll have her mother's smile, her gentleness, her sweet disposition ..."
Lord Shashank Gupta cast a skeptical glance at his wife. "Sweet disposition?" he echoed in amused disbelief. "That isn't what her father said in his letter.Allow me to refresh your memory," he said, groping in his pockets and retrieving the letter from Ridhimas father. He perched his spectacles upon his nose, and ignoring his wife's grimace, he began to read:
"Ridhima's manners are an outrage, her conduct is reprehensible. She is a willful hoyden who is the despair of everyone she knows and an embarrassment to me. I implore you to take her back to Paris with you, in the hope that you may have more success with the stubborn chit than I have had.' "
shashank chuckled. "Show me where it says she's 'sweet-tempered.'"
His wife shot him a peevish glance. "vikram Sharma is a cold, unfeeling man who wouldn't recognize gentleness and goodness if Ridhima were made of nothing else! Only think of the way he shouted at her and sent her to her room right after my sister's funeral."
Shashank recognized the mutinous set of his wife's chin and put his arm around her shoulders in a gesture of conciliation. "I'm no fonder of the man than you are, but you must admit that, just having lost his young wife to an early grave, to have his daughter accuse him, in front of fifty people, of locking her mama in a box so she couldn't escape had to be rather disconcerting."
"But Ridhima was scarcely five years old!" Padma protested heatedly.
"Agreed. But vikram was grieving. Besides, as I recall, it was not for that offense she was banished to her room. It was later, when everyone had gathered in the drawing room- when she stamped her foot and threatened to report us all to God if we didn't release her mama at once."
Padma smiled. "What spirit she had, Shashank. I thought for a moment her little freckles were going to pop right off her nose. Admit it-she was marvelous, and you thought so too!"
"Well, yes," Shashank agreed sheepishly. "I rather thought she was."
As the Gupta chaise bore inexorably down on the Stone estate, a small knot of young people were waiting on the south lawn, impatiently looking toward the stable one hundred yards away. A petite blond smoothed her pink ruffled skirts and sighed in a way that displayed a very fetching dimple. "Whatever do you suppose Ridhima is planning to do?" she inquired of the handsome light-haired man beside her.
Glancing down into nikita malhotra's wide blue eyes, Abhimanyu smiled a smile that Ridhima would have forfeited both her feet to see focused on herself. "Try to be patient, nikita," he said.
"I'm sure none of us have the faintest idea what she is up to, nikita," Margaret Merryton said tartly. "But you can be perfectly certain it will be something foolish and outrageous."
"Margaret, we're all Ridhima's guests today," Abhi chided. "I don't know why you should defend her, Abhi," Margaret argued spitefully. "Ridhima is creating a horrid scandal chasing after you, and you know it!"
"Margaret!" abhi snapped. "I said that was enough." Drawing a long, irritated breath, abhi frowned darkly at his gleaming boots.
At first he had been mildly amused to find himself the object of a fifteen-year-old's languishing looks and adoring smiles, If he rode off the grounds of his estate, he could almost depend on meeting her en route to his destination. It was as if she had some lookout point from which she watched his every move, and abhi no longer found her childish infatuation with him either harmless or amusing.
Three weeks ago, she had followed him to a local inn. While he was pleasantly contemplating accepting the innkeeper's daughter's whispered invitation to meet her later in the hayloft, he'd glanced up and seen a familiar pair of bright green eyes peeping at him through the window. Slamming his tankard of ale on the table, he'd marched outside, grabbed ridhima by the elbow, unceremoniously deposited her on her horse, tersely reminding her that her father would be searching for her if she wasn't home by nightfall.
He'd stalked back inside and ordered another tankard, but when the innkeeper's daughter brushed her breasts suggestively against his arm while refilling his ale and abhi had a sudden vision of himself lying entangled with her voluptuous naked body, a pair of green eyes peered in through yet another window. He'd tossed enough coins on the planked wooden table to mollify the startled girl's wounded sensibilities and left--only to encounter Miss Sharma again on his way home.
He was beginning to feel like a hunted man whose every move was under surveillance, and his temper was strained to the breaking point. And yet, abhi thought irritably, here he was standing in the April sun, trying for some obscure reason to protect ridhima from the criticism she richly deserved.
A pretty girl, several years younger than the others in the group, glanced at abhi. "I think I'll go and see what's keeping ridhima," said muskaan chadda. She hurried across the lawn and looked down the wide gloomy corridor lined with stalls on both sides. "Where is Miss ridhima?" she asked the stableboy who was currying a sorrel gelding.
"In there, Miss." Even in the muted light, muskaan saw his face suffuse with color as he nodded toward a door adjacent to the tack room.
With a puzzled glance at the flushing stableboy,muskaan tapped lightly on the designated door and stepped inside, then froze at the sight that greeted her: ridhima vikram Sharma's long legs were encased in coarse brown britches that clung startlingly to her slender hips and were held in place at her narrow waist with a length of rope. Above the riding britches she wore a thin chemise.
"You surely aren't going out there dressed like that?" muskaan gasped.
ridhima fired an amused glance over her shoulder at her scandalized friend. "Of course not. I'm going to wear a shirt too."
"B-but why?" muskaan persisted desperately.
"Because I don't think it would be very proper to appear in my chemise, silly," Ridhima cheerfully replied, snatching the stableboy's clean shirt off a peg and plunging her arms into the sleeves.
"P-proper? Proper?" muskaan sputtered. "It's completely improper for you to be wearing men's britches, and you know it!"
"True. But I can't very well ride that horse without a saddle and risk having my skirts blow up around my neck, now can I?"
"Ride without a saddle? You can't mean you're going to ride astride-your father will disown you if you do that again."
"I am not going to ride astride. Although," Ridhima giggled, "I can't understand why men are allowed to straddle a horse, while we-who are supposed to be the weaker sex-must hang off the side, praying for our lives."
muskaan refused to be diverted. "Then what are you going to do?"
"I never realized what an inquisitive young lady you are, Miss muskaan," ridhima teased. "But to answer your question, I am going to ride standing on the horse's back. I saw it done at the fair, and I've been practicing ever since. Then, when abhi sees how well I do, he'll-"
"He'll think you have lost your mind, ridhima ! He'll think that you haven't a grain of sense or propriety, and that you're only trying something else to gain his attention." Seeing the stubborn set of her friend's chin, muskaan switched her tactics. "ridhima, please-think of your father. What wil he say if he finds out?"
ridhima drew a long breath, then expelled it slowly as she glanced out the small window at the group waiting on the lawn. Wearily, she said, "Father will say that, as usual, I have disappointed him, that I am a disgrace to him and to my mother's memory, that he is happy she didn't live to see what I have become. Then he will spend half an hour telling me what a perfect lady nikita is, and that I ought to be like her."
"Well, if you really wanted to impress abhi, you could try . . ."
ridhima clenched her hands in frustration. "I have tried to be like nikita. I wear those disgusting ruffled dresses that. make me feel like a pastel mountain, I've practiced going for hours without saying a word, and I've fluttered my eyelashes until my eyelids go limp."
muskaan bit her Up to hide her smile at ridhima unflattering description of nikitas demure mannerisms, then she sighed. "I'll go and tell the others that you'll be right out."
Gasps of outrage and derisive sniggers greeted ridhima's appearance on the lawn when she led the horse toward the spectators. "She'll fall off," one of the girls predicted, "if God doesn't strike her dead first for wearing those britches."
Ignoring the impulse to snap out a biting retort, ridhima raised her head in a gesture of haughty disdain, then stole a look at abhi. His handsome face was taut with disapproval as his gaze moved from her bare feet, up her trousered legs, to her face. Inwardly, ridhima faltered at his obvious displeasure, but she swung resolutely onto the back of the waiting horse.
The gelding moved into its practiced canter, and ridhima worked herself upward, first crouching with arms outstretched for balance, then slowly easing herself into a standing position. Around and around they went and, although ridhima was in constant terror of falling off and looking like a fool, she managed to appear competent and graceful.
As she completed the fourth circle, she let her eyes slant to the faces passing on her left, registering their looks of shock and derision, while she searched for the only face that mattered. abhi was partially in the tree's shadow, and nikita was clinging to his arm, but as ridhima passed, she saw the slow, reluctant smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and triumph unfurled like a banner in her heart. By the time she came around again, abhi was grinning broadly at her. ridhima's spirits soared, and suddenly all the weeks of practice, the sore muscles and bruises, seemed worthwhile.
At the window of the second floor drawing room overlooking the south lawn, vikram stared down at his performing daughter. Behind him, the butler announced that Lord and Lady Gupta had arrived. Too enraged at his daughter to speak, vikram greeted his sister-in-law and her husband with a clenched jaw and curt nod.
"How-how nice to see you again after so many years, vikram," Lady padma lied graciously. When he remained icily silent, she said, "Where is ridhima? We're so anxious to see her."
vikram finally recovered his voice. "See her?" he snapped savagery. "Madam, you have only to look out this window." Bewildered, padma did as he said. Below on the lawn there stood a group of young people watching a slender boy balancing beautifully on a cantering horse. "What a clever young man," she said, smiling.
Her simple remark seemed to drive vikram from frozen rage to frenzied action as he swung on his heel and marched toward the door. "If you wish to meet your niece, come with me. Or, I can spare you the humiliation, and bring her here to you."
With an exasperated look at vikram's back, padma tucked her hand in her husband's arm and together they followed vikram downstairs and outside.
As they approached the group of young people, padma heard murmurings and laughter, and she was vaguely aware that there was something malicious in the tone, but she was too busy scanning the young ladies' faces, looking for ridhima, to pay much heed to the fleeting impression. She mentally discarded two blondes and a redhead, quizzically studied a petite, blue-eyed brunette, then glanced helplessly at the young man beside her. "Pardon me, I am Lady Gupta, ridhima's aunt. Could you tell me where she is?"
abhi grinned at her, half in sympathy and half in amusement. "Your niece is on the horse, Lady Gupta," he said.
"On the-" Lord Gupta choked.
From her delicate perch atop the horse, ridhimas's eyes followed her father's progress as he bore down on her with long, rapid strides. "Please don't make a scene, Father," she implored
when he was within earshot.
"I make a scene?" he roared furiously. Snatching the halter, he brought the cantering horse around so sharply that he jerked it from beneath her. ridhima hit the ground on her feet, lost her balance, and ended up half-sprawling. As she scampered up, her father caught her arm in a ruthless grip and hauled her over toward the spectators. "This-this thing," he said, thrusting her forward toward her aunt and uncle, "I am mortified to tell you is your niece."
ridhima heard the smattering of giggles as the group quickly disbanded, and she felt her face grow hot with shame. "How do you do, Aunt Gupta? Uncle Gupta?" With one eye on abhi's broad-shouldered, retreating form, ridhima reached mechanically for her nonexistent skirt, realized it was missing, and executed a comical curtsy without it. She saw the frown on her aunt's face and put her chin up defensively. "You may be sure that for the week you are here, I shall endeavor not to make a freak of myself again, Aunt."
"For the week that we are here?" her aunt gasped, but ridhima was preoccupied watching abhi help nikita into his curricle and didn't notice the surprise in her aunt's voice.
"Goodbye, abhi," she called, waving madly. He turned and raised his arm in silent farewell.
Laughter drifted back as the curricles bowled down the drive, carrying their occupants off to a picnic or some other gay and wonderful activity, to which ridhima was never invited because she was too young.
Following ridhima toward the house, padma was a mass of conflicting emotions. She was embarrassed for ridhima, furious with vikram for humiliating the girl in front of the other young
people, somewhat dazed by the sight of her own niece cavorting on the back of a horse, wearing men's britches . . . and utterly astonished to discover that ridhima, whose mother had been only passably pretty, showed promise of becoming a genuine beauty.
She was too thin right now, but even in disgrace ridhima's shoulders were straight, her walk naturally graceful and faintly provocative. padma smiled to herself at the gently rounded hips displayed to almost immoral advantage by the coarse brown trousers, the slender waist that would require no subterfuge to make it appear smaller, eyes that seemed to change from sea-green to deep jade beneath their fringe of long, sooty lashes. And that hair-piles and piles of rich mahogany brown! All it needed was a good trimming and brushing until it shone; padma's fingers positively itched to go to work on it. Mentally she was already styling it in ways to highlight ridhimas's striking eyes and high cheekbones. Off her face, Anne decided, piled at the crown with tendrils at the ears, or pulled straight back off the forehead to fall in gentle waves down her back.
I KNOW ITS A REALLLY LONG PART........BUT DIDNT HAD ANY CHOICE.....
LOVE U ALL HABS
Edited by princess52 - 12 December 2009 at 12:48am