Pragya smiled and brought up her hand to show him
the small gold ring he'd sent. She wore the simple band with the
infinity design on her pinky. "Yes, I love it! I wear it every day, and
tonight it actually matches my outfit. Look."
Raghav lifted her hand and stroked his thumb against the ring. "Very nice, Phataka. I'm glad it fits."
"Every day?" Abhi spoke up. "You wear that every day?"
I put it on when I got it, and I haven't taken it off since," she
answered defensively, looking in his direction but not exactly at him.
"But every day-"
jaise aap apne dog tags har roz pehen te hain, (Yes, as you wear your
dog tags every day)" she snapped. Then, surprising even herself with her
provocative words, she said, "Some things are worn for duty, and some
"Love?" Abhi repeated in disbelief, but then Tanu returned before he could say more.
Raghav immediately rose to his feet. He pulled out Tanu's chair for her with a gentlemanly bow, and waited until she was seated before resuming his own seat.
"Did you get it sorted then?" he asked kindly, as if her problems with the menu seriously concerned him.
His manner struck Pragya as perilously close to fawning, and if she hadn't known that he had an undergame, she would have thought that Raghav too had somehow fallen victim to the supermodel's sultry allure.
"Yes, thank you," Tanu answered with a smile. "They'll send me the vegetarian entree." She turned to Abhi expectantly and said, "My wine?"
"They didn't come by yet," Abhi said curtly, as if that was sufficient excuse.
Tanu frowned and straightened in her seat, and Pragya could see that she was controlling her disappointment with an effort. She felt an odd pang of sympathy as she watched the other woman put on a smile for the table's benefit. She had never stopped to think that Tanu in fact had to make many of the same compromises she did to get through life with Abhi.
Whether as his girlfriend or his wife, any woman who wanted Abhi's heart would have to learn to live with both his outsized ego and his unpredictable temper. Pragya had never seen Abhi treat Tanu with the careless sarcasm he often used with her, but who knew what went on between them when they were alone?
Raghav's next words to Tanu broke Pragya's thoughts.
"No matter," Raghav said brightly, setting his hand on Tanu's shoulder for a reassuring squeeze. He raised his arm and clicked his fingers, signalling a waiter over so he could order Tanu's drink.
"French merlot for the lady," he instructed, and the waiter nodded and hurried off to fill the order.
"Thank you," Tanu said in a soft tone, and for once she actually sounded genuine. "I appreciate that."
"Think nothing of it," Raghav replied, waving his hand as if to indicate it was a daily practice for him to order drinks for neglected women.
Which it probably is, Pragya thought, musing over her friend's reputation as a ladies' man. When they had been in college, flirting had been like a varsity sport for him. He loved to flatter women, claiming that making a girl feel appreciated was as soul-cleansing as any other good deed. Their shared childhood made her immune to his benevolent playboy act, so Raghav had never tried to charm her. But she had witnessed him demonstrating gallant consideration to other women many times, and tonight was proving that despite maturing into a worthy, responsible man of the world, he still had flirting down to an art.
Tanu was obviously gratified by his attentions, but a glance across the table informed Pragya that Abhi was not impressed. His face seemed set in a permanent scowl, his eyes dark with a brooding emotion she could not quite identify.
She thought that it might be possessiveness for Tanu, and then just as quickly wished she'd never noticed it.
At this point Pragya knew she had no future with Abhi. Their marriage now had a clear expiration date. Once Daadi was strong enough to take the shock, Pragya would be leaving Abhi's life. Their sham of a relationship would reach its logical end, and she would be free to go back to her old life. She knew she had no claim on Abhi, so it made no sense to wish he felt possessive about her.
And yet, it hurt to see that look in his eyes for Tanu.
It hurt because feelings weren't rational, and all her good sense had failed to save her from wanting more from her husband than he would ever want to give.
The waiter came back with Tanu's wine, and she took the glass straight from his hand. She drained half the wine in one go, and Pragya's gloom dispelled itself when she saw that Abhi was watching Tanu with a frown. Evidently he found her rush distasteful.
Even Raghav looked taken aback as he watched Tanu drink up. But he rallied quickly, and by the time she was setting down her glass, he was ready with his next gambit.
"So, Ms. Mehta," he said in his most charming voice. "Tell me all about your work."
Tanu smiled brightly. "Call me Tanu, please." Then she launched into a catalogue of her career highlights, telling Raghav all about her stunning rise to fame.
Pragya leaned back in her chair, uninterested in Tanu's story. Raghav had half-turned in his seat to better face Tanu, and that told Pragya that he wasn't planning on paying attention to her for the next little while. She guessed that his plan was to keep chatting with Tanu and flatter her at every opportunity, so as to get on Abhi's nerves. That was the kind of revenge Raghav enjoyed.
As Pragya glanced around the table, Abhi caught her eye. Their gazes locked, and suddenly Pragya's thoughts quieted. All she could read from Abhi was a deep sense of need, some fierce demand that was beyond words. She couldn't understand what he might be trying to tell her as he looked at her in such intense silence, but neither could she look away. She just knew that she had to return his gaze, showing him her own unspoken need, in the hope that he might understand what she had never yet been able to put into words.
I think I love you. Let's give ourselves a chance. We should be together.
The moment broke when Dharmesh called her name from across the table. "Pragyaji," he said, giving her a gentle smile, "How about you? We've just been discussing our own love stories. Tell us how you and Abhi met."
Pragya felt her face flush. Her, Abhi, and love story in the same sentence? There was nothing to tell about that. She risked a glance at Abhi and found that he was still staring at her, a quiet seriousness locking his usually expressive face. She thought over the official version of their story, what Abhi's handlers had fed the media to explain their sudden wedding.
"Ours is an arranged marriage, actually," she answered, keeping her voice light. "Our families chose us for each other." There was a twisted truth behind that statement, so she didn't feel too bad about lying by omission. They didn't need to know that Aaliya's manipulations and her mother's fragile health framed those familial "choices."
"Ours also," Nikita Lalwani said. "I had just finished my BBA and my parents wanted me married off. I wanted to do an MBA and hated the idea of being tied down as a housewife." Her husband's hand was resting on the table, and she laid her own hand on top of his. They shared a fond smile as their fingers intertwined. "But Suneel surprised me. He's always supported me in my career. And now we've had twenty-seven happy years."
Mr. Lalwani gave a small self-conscious chuckle. He draped his arm around Nikita, giving her a brief sideways hug. "And she's always been my biggest strength. You know, the right marriage can really make or break a man," he said. He addressed his remark to Dharmesh, who nodded in agreement, but Pragya could tell he had really meant it for Abhi. The rockstar showed no sign of reaction, though, so perhaps he hadn't realized what Mr. Lalwani was getting at.
"Absolutely," Elora agreed. "And the right husband can make all the difference in a woman's life."
"But, Pragyaji," Dharmesh persisted. "Lecturer and rockstar is an uncommon pairing, especially for an arranged marriage. Surely you met sometimes before agreeing to get married?"
A string of rarely-visited memories flashed in Pragya's mind. Confronting Abhi in front of a crowd of his fans. Telling him off in the middle of the road with her face covered in mud. Knocking heads with him in a jewelery shop as they both reached for a mangal sutra on the floor. All those odd encounters before Abhi was anyone to her, as if fate was bent on throwing them together. But those hardly counted as meetings, and in the end it all boiled down to that one afternoon with the matchmaker in her mother's drawing room. She opened her mouth to offer a version of that story, but before she could speak, Abhi's voice cut across the table.
"She fell off a bridge."
Pragya's gaze flew to Abhi, and once again he was looking directly at her. Surprised that he even remembered that night, she found herself tongue-tied. She wondered why he had brought that up and watched warily for his next move.
"What?" Raghav demanded sharply. Apparently Abhi's comment had been compelling enough to disrupt his continuing conversation with Tanu. Pragya saw that he was looking tense, his face pinched with concern at the thought of her suffering a terrible accident. Automatically, she raised her hand to his arm, patting it soothingly to remind him that she was alright.
Abhi cleared his throat, and when she looked at him again, a mocking light had come into his eye. "It was a moonlit night and she was on a shaky bridge," he recited, his voice low and silky. "I was doing a riverside shoot and saw her fall."
He was narrating for the table's benefit, but his eyes were locked on her as he continued. A restless energy surged under her skin as she listened to him. He spoke only bare fact, but the way he said it added an edge of romantic drama that made it all sound so much more meaningful than it had felt at the time. "I don't know what made me look up right at that moment, when she slipped over the rail. But I knew right away that she needed help, so I swam out to save her. And we've been connected ever since that night."
"How romantic," Nikita said approvingly.
"Like destiny," Elora added.
"Very romantic," Tanu said, and her flat tone cut through Pragya's daze.
Pragya saw that the model was eyeing Abhi in a distinctly unhappy way. She clearly didn't like the story of the bridge, and with a jolt Pragya realized that it might be the first time the other woman had ever heard about that night. How strange to think that she and Abhi had romantic secrets from Tanu. As if they were the ones with the hidden relationship, undermining the bond between the supermodel and her rockstar boyfriend.
Pragya realized she needed to change the direction of the conversation, so she laughed and rolled her eyes in an exaggerated way. She looked at Elora and Nikita, knowing they would relate to her tone of wifely exasperation. "He didn't tell you the part where we got into an argument right away, and it took months to even get us into the same room together."
As she had intended, the comment made the two older couples chuckle. She relaxed as the conversation shifted, with no further questions about her history with Abhi. She noticed that Tanu had drawn Abhi into a whispered conversation, both of them looking irritated as they discussed something in low tones. But before she could get too focused on them, Raghav tapped her shoulder to get her attention.
"Oyye, Phataka," he said with a grin. "Komal Bhabhi just sent me the latest pics of Krish playing big brother. Want to see?" He held out his phone, showing a picture of a floppy-haired little boy kneeling next to a toddler in a pink pajama suit. The boy was helping the baby walk, his face scrunched up adorably with protective concentration.
"Of course!" Pragya said, grabbing his phone with excitement. "Show me all of them!"
Raghav slid his arm across the back of Pragya's chair and leaned in close. They held the phone together, and Raghav told her the latest news about his niece and nephew as they scrolled through the pictures.
Pragya felt her heart lighten as she listened to all the stories of Krish's mischief and the doting possessiveness he often demonstrated for his little sister. Raghav's fondness for both children shone through in his voice. It was clear that he spent a lot of time with them, despite his busy work schedule.
When they had looked over all the pictures, Raghav pulled away and put his phone back in his pocket. Pragya shook her head at him and teased, "Honestly Raghav, you're obviously baby-mad. When are you and Sia going to make it official and get started on your own kids?"
Raghav shrugged, spreading his arms out in a gesture of helplessness. "When she's ready. She's still on that course in Japan, actually. Maybe we'll revisit the subject when she comes back, but after everything she's been through, the last thing I want to do is pressure her about a wedding."
For all his flirtatious ways with women in general, Raghav was sincere and serious when it came to the love of his life. Sia had met Raghav after escaping an abusive marriage, and Raghav was committed to letting their own relationship develop at her speed only. Pragya admired his respect and consideration for Sia, and it was one of the many reasons she was proud to call Raghav her friend.
Pragya took hold of Raghav's hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "Of course. All things have a right time."
"And what about you?" Raghav asked, one eyebrow raised. He tipped his head in Abhi's direction. "Is there an agreement about kids in this open marriage of yours?"
Pragya drew back, crossing her arms around herself. She rubbed her hands absently along her bare arms, suddenly conscious again that her borrowed anarkali exposed more skin than she was used to. "No. Children aren't part of my future," she answered simply.
Raghav's brows drew together, his forehead creasing in concern. "But you love kids," he said. "How can you just -"
To Pragya's relief, his question was cut off as the servers arrived with the salad course. With everyone's attention on the food, a general conversation started up again, and there was no chance for Raghav to continue asking about her future plans.
As the meal continued, Pragya did her best to stay present in the moment and focus on positive feelings. It wasn't every day that she got to eat a gourmet dinner with one of her best friends, after all. Talking with the Lalwanis and Kolis was also a refreshing change, giving her a chance to enjoy adult company away from home and work. Abhi and Tanu were unusually quiet throughout the meal, so she could almost forget the strangeness of sharing the evening with them.
When dessert arrived, Pragya was pleased to be presented with a dense wedge of flourless chocolate cake. It was topped with strawberry whipped cream dusted with cardamom powder, along with a bright green sprig of mint as garnish. She took a bite and closed her eyes as the rich flavours melted on her tongue. The lush chocolate flooded her senses, followed by a slight kick from the tart hint of strawberry and the earthy note of cardamom. She felt a smile starting to stretch her cheeks, just from the joy of tasting the delicious confection.
When she opened her eyes, her smile froze. Abhi was staring at her again, with tension bracketing his mouth and something that might be disapproval in his gaze. Feeling her joy crackle into ash as she wondered what he was unhappy about now, she turned to Raghav for distraction.
Raghav's dessert plate featured four small squares of cheesecake with pastry crusts, swirled with some sort of golden puree that Pragya couldn't identify on sight. Delicate curls of saffron graced the top of each cube, their deep orange-red hue standing out against the smooth, creamy cheesecake surface.
Raghav noticed her examining his dish and promptly speared his fork into one of the pieces. He raise the fork towards Pragya, carefully cupping his other hand under it to catch crumbs. "Open up, Phataka," he said cheerfully. "Mango cheesecake. I know you can't resist."
Mindful of their location, Pragya put up her hand to stop him. "You can't feed me here, Raghav!" she scolded in an undertone. "This isn't the college canteen, remember."
Raghav rolled his eyes. "Suit yourself, then." He redirected his fork and popped the bite of cheesecake into his mouth. His eyes lit up as he chewed, and after he swallowed, he pushed his plate toward Pragya. "Go on, take a piece with your own fork then," he insisted. "It's really good. You have to try it."
Pragya bit her lip and darted a quick look around the table. She knew that it wouldn't be good etiquette to eat from Raghav's plate, but now that it was the end of the meal, the general mood was very relaxed. Abhi wasn't watching her anymore as Tanu had claimed his attention again, and the rest of the table wouldn't care if she and Raghav decided to share dessert.
"Mango cheesecake, Phataka," Raghav teased in a sing-song voice, and finally Pragya gave in. She cut off half a cube with her own fork and eagerly tried the cheesecake.
"That is good," she exclaimed when she was done. The sweetness of the mango balanced the lush texture of the cheesecake, while the saffron added a warm depth to the overall flavour.
Raghav laughed and gestured with his fork to indicate that she should finish the square. He took a bite of her chocolate cake for himself, and the rest of dessert passed as they discussed the far inferior offerings of their college canteen.
As the waiters cleared away the dessert plates, Pragya took the last sip of her riesling. She had nursed the glass of wine slowly over the course of the meal, careful to make sure she ate heartily between sips. She gave her empty glass to one of the servers, smiling as the warmth of that last sip eased through her veins. It was not an indulgence she often permitted herself, and even tonight she might not have ordered the wine if she hadn't felt piqued by the situation. But now, with the satisfaction of a good meal and a slight mellowing of her mood thanks to the riesling, she couldn't regret the choice.
A tea and coffee service was supposed to follow dessert, but instead of waiting for it, Raghav pulled Pragya to her feet. "Come on, Phataka," he chided. "Didn't you hear Anushka open the floor for couples dancing? They're playing our song."
Her protest that they didn't have a song never made it past her lips, as Raghav quickly whisked her away from the table. He tugged her onto the dance floor and pulled her into a waltz position, one hand resting against her shoulder blade and the other hand holding her own, with their arms extended out and up at eye height. The song was the title theme to Kal Ho Naa Ho, an old pop hit, which made the formal pose unnecessary and ridiculous.
"Raghav!" Pragya chided. "That was so rude, leaving the table like that! And what are we even doing?"
"We're dancing, Phataka," Raghav answered in an upbeat tone. He eased them into an improvised slow-dance step that probably had no name but was easy to follow. They started to make their way around the dance floor, following the undemanding rhythm of the song.
They chatted as they danced to the next two songs, trading gossip about their college friends and teasing each other with old jokes. They avoided the topic of Pragya's marriage. For the first time in months, Pragya felt comfortable and carefree. There was no natak to put on for Raghav, no oppressive sense of duty compelling her to play a part. She could just be herself, and for those fifteen minutes it was as if all the problems in her life just didn't exist.
As the third song ended, one of the businessmen Pragya and Raghav had met during the cocktail hour came up to them. He greeted Raghav and mentioned that his partner wanted to talk to him. Then to Pragya's surprise, he asked her to dance.
Raghav looked at Pragya, giving her a chance to object. He knew that she wasn't generally comfortable dancing with just anybody.
But Pragya could see that he wanted to go and network, and she found that the polite young man waiting for an answer didn't make her nervous. So she laughingly agreed, stepping away from Raghav and toward her new partner. She waved her hand to the knots of people gathered to the side of the dance floor. "Go on, Mr. Businessman of the Year."
"You're the best, Phataka," Raghav said, treating her to a brilliant smile. He dropped a friendly kiss on her temple. "I'll be back in a bit."
He gave Pragya's new dance partner a mock-stern glance. "Don't get fresh," he warned.
"Not to worry, sir," the young man said earnestly.
Then Pragya let him lead her back onto the dance floor, leaving Raghav free to walk off.
"You're going to have to remind me of your name," Pragya said apologetically as they got into position to dance. "I met so many people before dinner."
"Aly," he said with a shy smile, flashing perfect white teeth. He was very tall, with fair skin and a clean-shaven face. His baby-soft look reminded Pragya of some of her students.
At first she was uncomfortably conscious of the way his linen suit brushed against her arm, grazing her skin where there should have been sleeves. But he maintained a respectful distance as they danced, and her discomfort faded. She asked him some questions about himself and his business, and he happily started telling her all about his ambitious new venture. He was only a year out of college, and Pragya liked that he had such optimistic energy. There was something to be said for dreaming big while young, and as she listened to Aly's plans, she offered as much encouragement as she could think of.
As their second song started to wind down, Pragya noticed Dharmesh approaching them. Aly seemed to understand that his time with Pragya was up, and he brought their dance to a graceful end as the song concluded.
"It was a pleasure to dance with you, Ms. Arora," he said, giving her a sort of half bow that made her wonder if she'd somehow drifted into a Regency romance novel. The formal gesture was unexpected from such a young man. And the way he called her "Ms. Arora" reminded her even more of her students, strangely making her feel old.
"Thank you for the dance," she answered with a kind smile. "Good luck with the business."
Aly nodded his thanks. Then he handed her off to Dharmesh, and once again Pragya found herself led onto the dance floor.
"And how has your evening been so far, Pragyaji?" he asked as their song started. Like Raghav and Aly, he held her in the standard slow dancing pose, one hand on her upper back and the other holding their arms out. His hold was loose and comfortable, giving her such a sense of safety that Pragya felt like she might be dancing with her older brother.
"Please call me Pragya," she told him. "And it has been a nice evening, so far."
"Glad to hear it," he said sincerely. Then he asked her about her work, and most of the song passed as she described the courses she was currently teaching. He listened with keen interest, asking relevant questions about what she had chosen to assign for her syllabus and how much dedication she actually expected from her students. Pragya found him very easy to talk to, and the song was almost over before she remembered something she had wanted to ask at the dinner table.
"Actually, if you wouldn't mind..." she began hesitantly.
"Yes?" Dharmesh prompted, all courteous attention.
"I was just wondering how long you have been married? I missed that part of the conversation, I think. It's so sweet to watch you and Ms. Koli together. You just look like you belong together," Pragya explained. She was thinking of the silent exchanges she had seen between them at dinner, an easy communication that didn't require words. It was obvious that they gained confidence and strength from being with each other, and to Pragya it looked like they might just have a perfect marriage.
"Going on eight years," Dharmesh answered, smiling. "But we were sort of on-again, off-again for at least five years before that."
"Really?" Pragya asked in surprise. She wondered how an erratic relationship like that could turn into such a solid marriage.
"Yes. It wasn't easy to get where we are. I mean, we know now that we belong together, but for a long time we each had our own reasons for resisting that." He paused for a moment, his eyes focusing on something behind Pragya that she couldn't see. When he continued, he deliberately met her gaze. "Pride and misunderstandings can create distance where there shouldn't be any," he said seriously. "The key is to fight for the truth. It always wins, in the end, but you have to keep pushing for it."
Pragya had not been expecting such heavy advice, but his words struck a deep chord in her heart. Looking at him, it was obvious that he was sharing hard-won knowledge. She smiled at him in gratitude.
He smiled back. The last notes of the song drifted on the air, and he brought their dance to a halt. From the corner of her eye, Pragya saw that someone had come up behind her, but Dharmesh spoke before she could turn to see who it was.
"And it appears it's my turn to hand you off," Dharmesh said. "Thank you for the dance, Pragya."
"Likewise," she answered, giving him a small wave as he stepped off the dance floor.
Then she turned to face the man waiting to dance with her, expecting to see Raghav back from his social rounds.
Instead, she found Abhi, his face dark with anger.
"Aap - yahan -" (You - here -) she stuttered, too caught off guard to complete her question.
The next song started, and Abhi jerked her into his arms without a word. As the opening strains of "Bahon ke Darmiyan" played over the sound system, he looped her arms around his neck. His hands settled firmly on her hips, his fingers digging into her waist. He held her so intimately that there was barely space for breath between them.
"Hanh," (Yes) he growled against her ear. "Main. Yahan." (Me. Here.)
-TO BE CONTINUED-