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"Look, this dress is so nice. It's perfect for you. Why don't you take it? You could wear it for Christmas eve!"
Khushi glanced at the dress morosely and shrugged. "I think I'll go for something simpler this year. After all, I'll be spending the whole night going from bed to bed.
Martha ogled at her in shock. "Okay, that sounded really weird."
"I'm sorry," Khushi giggled, clapping her hand on her mouth. "I wasn't thinking. Uhh... I'll be serving people the whole night. Does that work?"
She sighed. "I volunteered at an old age home and they asked me to come in on the night of Christmas Eve. Good?"
"Anything else for you, sir?"
Dwayne McGregor turned bright pink and shook his head. "No, but thank you, miss. No one has called this old man sir' in ages."
"Miss Gupta is always so nice to us. Aren't you, Khushi?" Markand Singh beamed at her as she blushed too and smiled shyly. He patted his new friend on the shoulder. "Don't worry, McGregor. You will be at home here. Bring us some eggnog, Khushi."
She nodded curtly and headed for the kitchen, hiding her tears. It was so terribly heartbreaking to see all these old people living here, away from their families but she also understood that sometimes, there was no other option. Some, like Mr McGregor, came here of their own accord because they did not want to burden their children. Some were too sick for their children to look after them, like Mrs Norris, who was suffering from Alzheimer's; she never recognised her children and got terribly scared of them instead.
It was so heartening, though, when the residents received visits from their families. The happiness that lit up their old faces warmed her heart. They looked like children on Christmas morning every time. But as of yet, she had herself not witnessed Mr Singh receive any visits. She had heard the staff members talking about a grandson of his who visited every time he was on holidays but she had never actually met with him and the rest of the family usually came for New Year's but then she was not working. According to the others, Mr Singh had been lived in Birmingham for around fifty years now. Recently, his family had moved to London but he had refused to go along because this was the place where he had started with life with his wife, and this was where she had died. He wanted to die here, close to her memories.
Later, when she had given the men their eggnogs and left them to chat, Khushi stood by the window and watched the snow fall. It was such a beautiful sight. At some point, she perceived a dark figure open the little gate and enter the yard. She realised it had to be a late visitor. Usually at this time, they would not be allowed but the rules were bent on Christmas Eve. She hurried to the door and opened it, just before the person could press the doorbell button.
"Hi, come in," she chirped, moving to let the visitor in but he stayed frozen there, for a few minutes before awkwardly stepping in. "How can I help you?"
He stared at her, completely disoriented. Khushi raised an eyebrow but waited patiently. The cold could do that to people... maybe? He confusedly dropped his gaze to the package he was holding then back at her.
"Oh? Uhh... yeah... I am here to meet... Mr... Mr Singh?"
A smile promptly tugged at her lips. So this was the grandson everybody was talking about? She should have guessed it by his looks, silly her. However, he did not seem as smart as everyone had described him... Weird. The poor guy looked lost.
"This way," she grinned, leading him to the room where all the residents were sitting in little groups with the staff or some family members. She heard several surprised gasps and cheers from those who recognised Mr Singh's grandson. While walking, she turned slightly to look at him. He nodded and waved politely at every one, even stopping to wish them a happy Christmas. And she lost some of her breath, yes. He was quite attractive and the respect he was showing to the elderly people only made him more and more endearing. Not to speak of that lopsided grin and adorable Christmas sweater...
Khushi frowned. She needed to focus on the task at hand.
"Mr Singh," she called softly as she reached the old man.
He was still laughing from a joke Mr McGregor had been telling him and when he saw the younger man, even Khushi could not help smiling profusely. The happiness just blossomed on his face and got up quickly to hug his boy.
"Arnav," he chuckled heartily, pulling away finally. "Tumne bataaya bhi nahin ke tum aa rahe the!"
The grandson helped him sit down. "Aapko surprise jo karna tha na, Nanu?"
Mr Singh smiled widely at the three people surrounding him. "This is my grandson, Arnav, my daughter's oldest son. And Arnav, this is McGregor, new resident. And Khushi, she's a volunteer. Very good girl."
Khushi bit her lip as Arnav gave her a brief smirk, trying hard not to redden. One of the staff members joined them.
"Hello, Mr Raizada. How are you?"
"Good, thank you. Uhh... Ma'am, I brought some chocolates for everyone. I hope you don't mind distributing them," he said as he handed his huge packed to Miss Watson.
She gasped. "Aww, you are such a sweet man, Mr Raizada. Thank you."
When she left, Mr Singh turned to Khushi cheerfully. "Bitiya, can you bring some eggnog for the young man too?"
And before she could reply, his grandson was already complaining. "Eww! Nanu, you know I hate that!"
"What can I bring you then?" she giggled, perfectly understanding his disgust for the drink.
He shook his head. "Nothing, thanks."
Khushi nodded. "Okay. Anyway, I will be leaving soon so happy Christmas."
The two old men raised their glasses to her and wished her too but Mr Raizada blinked at her, once again confused. She tried to not frown as she moved away from them and wished everyone on her way. She pocketed the chocolate bar Miss Watson handed her, secured her scarf around her neck and headed out, only to hear someone running after her. She stopped, turned around, and fell over in a heap of fresh snow, such underneath someone's heavy weight.
"Oh shit! I am so sorry!" she heard a vaguely familiar voice mumble as the weight shifted off her. A pair of hands caught her by the forearms and hoisted her up on her feet and immediately started brushing the snow off her. "I'm so sorry. Are you hurt?"
She had to blink several times to clear her vision but when she did, she could have fallen down again, this time, out of shock. Young Mr Raizada stood next to her, red like her cardigan and attempting to dust the snow particles out of her hair. Her heart beat accelerated for some silly reason, but she managed a nervous giggle.
"What are you doing?"
He met her eyes with his own, open so wide she could practically see him cursing himself. "I... I'm getting the snow out of your hair... Sorry, I didn't mean to fall on you. Are you okay?"
"Yes, I am," she blushed. "It's fine. Thanks. Was there something you needed?"
Arnav frowned in confusion. Again. "Pardon me?"
She chuckled. "You were running after me, weren't you? I thought you needed something."
"Oh!" his face cleared and turned redder. "No... I just... I was just... leaving... I thought... uhh... I thought I could walk with you..."
"Oh..." she looked away uncomfortably, just as he did - although, she did not really notice that. So far, she had probably not made a great impression on the one guy in real life that she could possibly feel attracted to, and now she was sure that, if her image in front of him was not already ruined after her fall and the following dishevelled look, it would surely be soon... His presence made her feel so acutely self-conscious. Stiffly, she made her way to the little gate and opened it, feeling him close behind her.
"Do you live far from here?"
She almost jumped out of her skin. "Huh? Oh... no..." He nodded silently and kept walking beside her. She started feeling itchy everywhere suddenly. "How come you are leaving so early? You just got here."
"What? Oh... Actually... Uhh... It was a pretty long drive from Manchester. That's where I am studying."
"Oh... nice..." she bit her lip, cursing her mindlessness. Was that all she could say? Oh lord, his voice! "Where will you be staying for the night?" she mumbled before biting her tongue hard. She was clearly losing it.
He smiled. "Our old house. Nanu said it's near where you live so... I reckoned I could walk with you..."
She nodded meekly, feeling like she could literally throw herself down in the snow and cry until the earth swallowed her up. Who knew she could be such a jerky idiotic moron? But wait, she was the only one trying to kindle a conversation here. He wasn't even trying, he was only answering to her. Well, if he wasn't that interested in talking to her, there was no use in investing. She crossed her arms on her chest and stared at her side of her road intently. Idiot!
They reached a busier street with the shops still open and people walking around and Khushi felt slightly more comfortable. It looked like a scene fit for a postcard, she smiled. As she was looking around, her eyes fell on him and she caught him looking at her strangely. Her smile fell off and something dimmed a little on his face. She felt her heart lurch in her chest. Argh! This could well be the worst Christmas ever! She looked away again and went on, even walking faster, but he caught up easily. Of course it would be easy with those abominable long legs...
He walked a couple steps more before realising she had stopped. "What's wrong?"
Khushi loosened her scarf around her neck and tilted her head to the right. "I'm home."
"Oh..." There was such a pitiful look of disappointment once again on his face. She could have smacked him. Why did he keep doing that? They were walking side by side along and he had not said a word all by himself and then he came up with this tortured-puppy face. He was, hands down, the most annoying guy ever, right now. Or maybe she was imagining all this in her head? Maybe he wasn't remotely interested with her and she was thinking he might be because she was crushing on him? Because look at him. He had the looks and the money, and apparently, he also had the brain, whereas she was just a plain little goblin... Yeah, maybe it was just... the design of his face?
"Goodnight then," she shrugged coolly and moved towards her house. Just before opening the door, she paused and, without thinking, turned around. Arnav Raizada was still there, frowning slightly and his eyes on her, making her uneasy. She frowned too and immediately, a small smile appeared on his handsome face. He took his hand out of his pocket, waved at her and resumed walking. And irritated, she stomped inside the house.
"Who was that?"
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She jumped with fright. "Mom! You scared me!"
Shalini Gupta rolled her eyes as she kept stirring something on the stove. "I am always scaring you guys. Now, tell me, who was that boy?"
"Mr Singh's grandson," she shrugged nonchalantly, dropping her bag on the table. "He is staying nearby so he asked if he could walk with me."
"Why?" Shalini asked with the hint of a malicious smile.
Khushi grimaced. "Maybe he was scared of walking alone? How would I know?"
Her mother raised an eyebrow at her. "So it has reached his ears that my daughter is the Jhansi ki Rani of the region and that made him come to seek your protection?" Trying not to laugh, Khushi simply shrugged. "Or perhaps... he has taken a liking for you?"
"Who has taken a liking for whom?" Garv Gupta asked.
Shalini turned the stove off. "Mr Singh's grandson. For your laadli."
"That's not true!" Khushi shrieked, turning violently red. "He just walked some of the way with me! We didn't even talk to each other."
Clearly uncomfortable, her father started sulking. "Who's that boy?"
"Aman Raizada's son, Garv," Shalini chuckled, observing her husband. "And Khushi, the phenomenon you are witnessing here is a father getting annoyed because his daughter has grown up so fast and now he is realising she will soon slip out of his hands." Both father and daughter reddened and grunted, making Shalini laugh. "Garv, just about thirty years ago, weren't you laughing at my papa for reacting the way you are?"
He darted a withering look at her. "I can see he was quite right back then," he paused pensively. "But from what I have heard of the boy, he is nice and smart... If he likes you, well... But I would like him to come talk to us first."
Khushi gaped at her parents, horrified. "Excuse me? Mom, dad? Didn't you hear me? We didn't even talk. He does not like me. Full stop."
"Oooh! Does Khushi have a boyfriend?" Payal, the younger daughter, sang from the next room.
"Payal!" Garv warned. He looked at his oldest gently. "Khushi, you are almost done with university and until now, you have been an exemplary daughter. I really wouldn't mind if you..." he paused to clear his throat, "had... a boyfriend..."
"Dad! I don't want a boyfriend!"
"Do you like girls?" Shalini calmly asked, causing Khushi's eyes to widen even more. "Because I would understand you and accept you anyway, okay? You are my daughter, I love you and-"
Her parents looked at each other, confused. "Then what?"
She shrugged and shifted on her feet. "Nothing, it's just an unnecessary trouble, isn't it?" she tried to laugh. And failed miserably, she realised, judging by her parents' expressions. "I am myself too much of a trouble for anyone to live with me, mom. I don't know how you guys do. People don't even like me. I mean... I'm not even pretty."
Garv scowled and his daughter's tearful eyes and reached out to give her a sideways hug, even as Shalini crossed the kitchen to hug her baby too. "We are lucky to have you, sona," her father told her. "Anyone would be lucky to have you. There's nobody else like you."
She smiled and ushered them out of the kitchen to the living room where Payal was waiting. She smiled throughout their little Christmas Eve's custom of drinking hot chocolate and eating homemade sweet dishes in front of the decorated tree, but deep down she felt raw. All twenty-two years she had lived, no one had shown the merest bit of interest in her, why would Mr Singh's grandson now? Contrary to what her parents thought, she was going to spend the rest of her life alone...
"Uhh... Khu... Miss Gupta?"
She decided to ignore her frantic heart's reaction and turned to him with a polite smile. "Yes, Mr Raizada?" Oh, man! He looked damn nervous. Or scared. Or both. It gave her a frightening blip of worry for old Mr Singh. "Is your grandfather okay?" she inquired.
He frowned. "Yes, of course."
"Oh," she exhaled, relieved. "Is there anything he wants?"
There was a weird look on his face. "No..."
"Ookayy..." Now she felt the weird look bleed into her own face. Honestly, she could positively kick him. He had been in town for five days already. On Christmas day, she had been saved from seeing him because she didn't have a shift then but since she did have to go to work on the other days, she also had to see him.
And about the visitor's policy, it looked like it was never applicable to Mr Raizada because he was practically always there, charming the pants off everybody, of course except for her, and no one minded his constant presence, again, apart from her. She only got the weird looks and fragments of sentences. For some reason, he was always acting weird around her.
Like the other day, he was playing chess with Harold Summers and talking and laughing with him while Mr Singh was gone for his routine check-up, she went there to pick all the cups left behind and he just froze and ogled at her until she left. Another time, the residents all wanted to watch some episodes of Doctor Who together so she had been pretty excited about it. She could watch any episode gazillions of times and never get bored with it and she even remembered most of the lines by heart. It happened that while watching, she unconsciously muttered the lines under her breath and at some point, when she realised that she was acting crazy, she found Mr Raizada, who had chosen to sit next to her for some reason, staring at her, well, giving her the weird look. And-
"Is everything alright with Nanu?" his voice shattered her thoughts. She noticed his frown had deepened.
He narrowed his eyes at her. "You are asking so many questions about him."
"Well," she rolled her eyes, "you look rather scared, so I thought..."
"Oh..." he blushed - he blushed??? "Oh, no... Nanu is fine... I was... I was just... you know?"
No, you thick moron, I don't know! What do you want? She raised her brow questioningly, prompting him to elaborate.
Arnav Raizada bit his lip, took a deep breath, bit his lip again, opened his mouth, closed it and bit his lip again. She had to, in turn, bite the inside of her cheeks to prevent herself from bursting into laughter. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. "There's a... uhh... a party... kind of thing at the... uhh... the town square tomorrow night," he finally managed to blurt out before wincing like he was hurting.
Khushi blinked. "Yes, I know."
"I was... I was wondering if... if maybe you... uhh... will you come with me?"
"Oh..." she simply stared at him, not knowing whether he was being sincere or this was a nasty joke. He gave her a tiny hopeful smile. It was her turn to fidget nervously. Why was he asking her of all people? "Uhh..." she looked away awkwardly. "I'll... I'll have to ask my parents."
He smiled oddly at her, nodded and left.
The next day, she got to the old age home a couple hours earlier because one of the volunteers could not come. Afsana had slipped on some ice and injured herself, thankfully not so badly, but she still needed so rest. So Khushi had had to fill in for her. Surprisingly, a certain young man was not there yet but what she felt was not pure relief. There was some of that, mingled with something else, something she couldn't really make out.
"So, what did your parents say?"
Stunned, she looked up at Mr Singh who was beaming at her. "A-about w-what, sir?"
He sat himself in the armchair before her. "Come on, Khushi. Arnav doesn't hide anything from me. He was telling me he wanted to ask you to accompany him to the New Year's party and that you told him you would ask your parents. What did they say? I can assure them, my Arnav is a very well-mannered boy."
Khushi smiled despite herself at the old grandfather's truest concern.
"But that boy is such an idiot too," he went on, chuckling. "I knew he liked you from the first day and I told him to tell you but he says he cannot, he gets too nervous. You remember that night when he arrived? He just ran out after you after I told him you live near to where our old house is, he never told me where he was going. It was the next morning that he told me. Usually, he stays here the whole night of Christmas Eve. I realised at once that he liked you."
"Nanu, what the hell?" Arnav, red in the face, strode into the room. He looked at Khushi in alarm. "Don't listen to him. He has lost his mind."
Mr Singh laughed heartily at his grandson. "You fool! Do you think I was born yesterday? I have been in love for years, my boy, I think I can recognise that look on your face. You think your mother and you would have existed today if I had been nervous and stuttering like you? Gather your guts and ask the girl properly!"
At this point, Khushi could feel the heat creep up her own cheeks and she obstinately stared at the carpet.
"I would say, go talk to her parents and win their hearts. It's what your father did. And it's what I call making an appeal in high court. Now, what are you waiting for?" he looked at the two young people and chuckled. "Ah, yes, I'll leave you two alone."
Even after Mr Singh left, they stood there, frozen in the terror of what had just happened. "Sorry about that," he ended up saying hoarsely.
"It's okay," she squeaked in reply.
"So... can you come?"
She glanced at him. He was gazing at her intently. Her heart somersaulted dangerously. She could not trust herself to speak, so she nodded. A smile brightened his face and she felt like she could faint.
She had been ardently hoping that he would not show up but when she reached there and saw him, his eyes had already found her since long and he was smiling that heart-stopping crooked smile that made her stomach churn nervously. She almost turned on her heels and ran away.
"You look... beautiful," he breathed when she reached him.
Khushi glanced down at the dress Martha had been telling her to buy for the university's Christmas party that she had not been able to attend. "I thought I had overdone it."
He shook his head as he offered her his arm. "You are just... just... perfect..." She blushed and took it shyly. "I was thinking," he whispered to her, "we could go to your place after this and I could... meet your parents?"
"And my family too is coming tomorrow so... But only if you want to, no pressure."
"No! It would be my pleasure," she replied shakily.
"You don't stutter very much these days," she remarked with a giggle.
He dropped one of the boxes on the floor and narrowed his eyes at her. "Neither do you."
Her jaw fell open. "I never stuttered!"
"Really?" he teased back. "Oh right, your favourite word was 'oh'. The answer to all my questions, right?"
She chuckled and hopped over some boxes to sit on the wooden stairs. The house was a real mess right now, but they would make it right.
"What are you thinking?" he wanted to know as he sat down next to her.
She propped her chin on her hand and her elbow on her knee and looked at him. "Isn't this house too big for us?"
Arnav smirked at her. "We can fill it with many many many children."
Khushi punched him on the shoulder. "I could never have thought that the stuttering boy I had met two years ago could be so cheeky!"
"Well, now you know," he laughed, trying to pull her onto his lap.
She slapped his hands away and stood up hastily. "Arnav! We have so much work to do! The wedding is in two months and we have to get your Nana and Nani's house set before that if you don't want to live at my parent's for a while. Mind you, I don't mind, but you will definitely not have me to yourself over there."
And so, he got to his feet with a groan and followed her into one of the rooms they were nearly finished with...
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Merry Christmas Shikha!! :)
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