Armaan,however,was watching riddhima.She stood in the shadows at the back of the throng, clutching the wedding bouquet in one hand while she used the other hand to swipe at her tears.
riddhima wished the ground would open up and swallow her.It was bad enough that everyone knew that the bride had deliberately thrown the bouquet to her.
Turning her back on him, she gave one final swipe and an unladylike sniff and she willed her eyes to stay dry.
Armaan's voice sounded close behind her."We can leave whenever you like," he said.
She drew a deep slow breath and turned to him with a smile on her face.Any no. of people would have given her a lift, but she was determined to show armaan that his comments about the two of them being a pair of old loners had not upset her.
"Could you give me just a moment?she said."I'd like to say goodbye to a few people."
"By all means.I've said my farewells.Let me know when you are ready."
"I shouldn't be long, unless niki's mom needs my help with anything else.Shall i meet you at the truck?"
It was crazy the way her stomach tightened as she crossed the road to armaan's parked truck.Crazier still the way her heart thrashed when she saw his tall figure waiting in the shadows beside the vehicle.He stepped forward when he saw her and the white shirt beneath his jacket glowed in the moonlight.Fire flashed in his grey eyes.
"Let me help you."he said as he opened the truck's door.
"I can manage."Riddhima was anxious to avoid his gallantry.If armaan touched her now, she might self-combust.
But managing alone wasn't easy.With her arms filled wuth her bridesmaid's bouquet as well as the bride's white roses and with the added complication of her long straight skirt and precarious high heels, the whole business of clambering up into the truck was fraught with difficulties.
Armaan was full of apologies."I forgot how hard it is to climb into this damned thing."
"If you hold the bouquets,I'm sure i can swing myself up."
Without waiting for his reply, riddhima thrust the flowers into his arms.Then, grateful for the darkness, she yanked her skirt with one hand and took a firm grip of the door handle with the other.She stepped high and hauled herself up, and everything would have been fine if one of her high heels hadn't caught on the step.
In mid-flight she lost her balance and then lost her grip on the handle and, before she could recover, she was slipping backwards.
Into armaan's arms.
She was crushed against his chest, along with several dozen blooms.
"I've got you."
Riddhima wasn't sure if the pounding of armaan's heart and his sharp intake of breath were caused by shock or the exertion of catching her.
Desperately, she tried to ignore how wonderfully safe she felt in his arms, how beyond fabulous it was to be cradled against his splendidly muscular chest.The wool of his expensive suit was cool and fine beneath her cheek.She could have stayed there........
"I'm sorry,"she spluttered."Anyone would think i was drunk."
"The thought never crossed my mind."
"You can put me down, armaan.I'm quite all right."
"I think it might be better if we do this my way."
His face was in darkness so riddhima couldn't see his expression, but his voice was deep and warm, like a comforting blanket around her, and he hoisted her up onto the front seat of the truck with astonishing ease.
"Put your seatbelt on."he said, as if she was a child."And then i will pass you whats left of the bouquets."
Chastened, riddhima thanked him.
The glorious scent of crushed rose petals filled the truck's cabin as armaan climbed behind the wheel and pull the driver's door shut.But the fragnance couldn't disguise the smell of ancient leather and it couldn't block riddhima's memory.
This was the first time in ten years that she'd been alone in the dark with armaan, and stupidly she remembered that embarrassing kiss.She could remember exactly how he had tasted her and the warm pleasure of his lips, the sexy slide of his tongue.....
He turned to her."Are you OK now?"
"Perfectly,"she said in a choked whisper.
"Are you sure?"he asked, frowning at her, watching her intently.
She pressed a hand against her heart in a bid to calm its wicked thudding."I was hobbled by this jolly dress and i slipped in the stupid heels."She sounded more astingent than she'd meant to."After tonight, these shoes are going straight to the country women's secondhand store."
armaan chuckled softly, then started the truck and soon they were rumbling down the street.Riddhima burried her nose in the roses, glad that he didn't try to talk all the way home.
But, in the silence, her thoughts turned back to their earlier conversation.Armaan had shocked her when he had raised the subject of marriage and babies, but perhaps she shouldn't have been more surprised.It was, as he'd said, happening all around them.Muskaan and rahul had their twins.Niki was married.
She had been busy trying to back away from the topic, so scared armaan would discover how hung up she was about these very things, that she'd cut the conversation short.
Now she was left to wonder.Had he actually been leading up to something he wanted to discuss?She'd always been hurt by armaan's silence after sid's death and the miscarriage.He'd never given her the chance to confess why she'd become involved with his brother.
Of course, it would be dreadfully difficult to tell him the truth, but she'd always felt guilty and she wanted to come clean.Perhaps then she would be able to put it bahind her at last.She might, at last, stop dreaming about armaan.
As the truck rumbled down country lanes, past darkened farmhouses and quiet paddocks, a no. of questions bumped around in her head by the time armaan pulled up in front of her house, riddhima couldn't hold back."Armaan, what was the point you wanted to make?"
In the glow of the dashboard's lights, she could see his frown."I am sorry.Riddhima,you have lost me."
"When we were talking at the wedding, you were carrying on about how old we are now and i got in ahuff, but were you actually trying to make a point?"
He turned to face her, one hand draped loosely over the steering wheel."Nothing in particular."He smiled shyly."I simply wanted to talk to you--thae way we used to."
A ghost of a smile trickled across his face.Then he looked out through the windscreen and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel."We have a lot to catch up on, but it's late.Why don't i give you a call sometime?"
How could such a simple question send her insides into a turmoil?It was so silly to be incredibly excited simply because Armaan Mallik planned to talk to her again.
With difficulty, riddhima overcame her desperate curiosity to know what he wanted to talk about.She managed to speak calmly.
I'll waitto hear from you, then."she said as she pushed the door open.
"Don't move,"Armaan ordered, shoving his door open too."I'll help you out.I don't want you falling again.YOu're an accident waiting to happen tonight."
A hasty glance at the huge step down to the road showed riddhima the wisdom of accepting his offer, but her heart skipped several beats as he rounded the truck and helped her down.
THank you,"she said."My elderly bones couldn't have taken another stumble this evening."
His soft laugh held the hint of a growl."Get to bed, Grandma."
To her astonishment, armaan's lips feathered the merest brush of a kiss against her temple.Her knees almost gave way.
"Perhaps i should escort you to door," he said.
"I think i'm still capable of tottering up my own front path."
"I'll wait here till you are safely inside."
After years of being fiercely independent, and riddhima had to admit it was rather pleasent to have a lordly male watching out for her.
She'd left her car and her other set of keys at niki's parents house, but there was a spare key under the flowerpot on the porch.Tonight, however, there was more than a flowerpot on the porch.Ahessian bag had been left on the doorstep.
Riddhima saw it and sighed.Caring for wildlife wasn't part of her veterinary responsibilities, but people knew she had a soft heart and they were always bringing her injured bush creatures.
She was dead tired tonight, but now, before she could crawl into bed, she would have to attend to this.
She found the key, opened the front door and reached inside to turn on the porch light.Behind her, armaan was waiting at the front gate and she sent him a friendly wave.
"Thanks for the lift,"she called.
He returned her wave and she watched as he headed back to the truck, then, with the flowers in one arm, she picked up the sac.The animal inside wriggled, which was a good sign.Maybe it wasn't too badly hurt and she wouldn't loose too much sleep tonight.
She heard her dogs scratching at the back door, but they would have to wait a bit longer for her attention.She took the sac through to the surgery, put the roses and the lilies in one of the huge metal sinks and set the bag down gently on the metal examining table.
First things first, she kicked off her shoes.That was so-o-o-o much better.Yawning widely, she unknotted the string around the neck of the bag.
A snake's head shot out.
Panic flooded her.