Padma’s heart stilled… terrified was an understatement. To date, danger had been present but subtly come forward and Shadow had saved her twice…
But this was the icing on the cake. Not only her but Shadow was also in danger because of her. She knew Shadow could have quickly jumped out to save himself, but that he still hung on touched her to the core.
Shadow tugged her further, and she was almost sprawled on him. She placed her legs on either of his sides and held his shoulders.
“Princess…” he panted. “…Hold…. Me… tightly… I …shall…. Do……. The…. rest…”
She didn’t need to be told again. She snaked her arms around his neck and held him tightly, digging her face into the crook of his neck. Instantly the Vanilla whiff calmed her nerves, and she decided to think about them as a couple instead of what awaited them.
She felt his other hand hold her and the vibrations as the car sped uncontrolled, surged through her.
“NOW, PRINCESS…” Shadow screamed, and before she knew it, she found herself out in the air and landed with a thud rolling down what she thought was a hill slope. Shadow protected her by cushioning her fall, and he held her head in his palm.
As they stopped, she opened her lids and looked around to see their vehicle precariously swinging on the hill a little ahead. A gush of wind blew harshly, and to her horror, the car plunged into the ravine, breaking up into pieces on its descent. There was no explosion, but she shuddered at being in the ill-fated vehicle.
The throbbing in her shoulder jerked her to the present, and she looked behind her to see Shadow lying on the ground. He was bleeding profusely, and his hand was bent at an odd angle.
“OH MY GOD… Shadow? Shadow… you are hurt… Oh no…” Padma panicked when Shadow didn’t even stir.
She shook him a little, but he was still. Then, thinking of the untoward, she held her index finger beneath his nostrils. She sighed in relief as she felt his warm breath. But his bleeding was of concern. She barely had scratches because of him.
She raised his head and placed it on her lap. She checked his jeans pockets for a phone, but there was nothing. There wasn’t even a wallet… nothing revealing his identity. She then checked his jacket, but it was empty as well. So who the hell was he?
She tore her kurta and, rolling it to a small bundle, held it to his visible fresh wound. She didn’t know where else he was hurt and hoped and prayed that help would arrive.
Minutes passed, and every second was excruciatingly painful as she waited. Finally, after repeatedly using parts of her clothing, she contained the bleeding a bit, but the wounds could get infected. They were in some woods on the hill. Shadow had strategically jumped out of a moving vehicle to fall on this side else, they would have followed the car to their deaths.
Even now, they weren’t out of danger.
Padma hadn’t seen anyone so selfless as Shadow. He had saved her life without caring about his own. She hoped she could do the same; if anything were to happen to him today, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself.
It was getting hotter in the afternoon. Where were Shadow’s men? They would have to know something was wrong. She had heard Shadow speak with them.
Right then, she heard motor sounds and looked up. She realized she was crying when she had to wipe her tears to clear her vision. Then, she saw the two of his men and a few more rush down the hills with their walkie-talkies.
They reached Padma and Shadow, and one of them checked for Shadow’s pulse. He gestured something to another, and they gently lifted Shadow and began to take him away.
“Where… where are you taking him? Be care… careful…OK?” She spoke frantically.
She felt someone covering her with a blanket and overcome with emotions she suddenly felt her limbs go weak.
One of them carried her and all she wanted was to be next to Shadow. But when they reached the road, she saw an ambulance and a small crowd of onlookers.
She was rushed into a waiting vehicle while Shadow was probably in the ambulance.
“I… I want to go with Shadow… please…” She pleaded with the man who had brought her up the hill and now sat on the driver’s seat. The car windows were tinted and no one could know she was in there.
“I am sorry, Your Highness, but Shadow had instructed that your security is of utmost importance and that I have to get you safely to the palace.
Tears continued their sojourn as she realized Shadow had been making the quick fix arrangements even when their car had spiraled out of control. Finally, exhaustion overcame her as the adrenaline left her, and she succumbed to darkness even as the vehicle cruised away from the slope.
Padma didn’t know how long she had slept, but she was in her bed in her room when she woke up, and there was an IV connected to her hand. She lifted her hands and saw they were bandaged at different locations. Then, touching her face, she felt a bandage on her forehead.
She heard some murmers and looked around the movement causing her to groan in pain. Keshav stood worried and in animated conversation with Aarti.
They saw her stir and rushed to her bed.
“Padma, are you OK?” Keshav asked, concern written all over his face.
“Gosh Padma you gave us all a scare… it’s a miracle you are alive…” Aarti spoke and right then Padma remembered everything that transpired very clearly.
“Sha… Shadow? How… is he?” She asked her voice horse and painfully dry.
“He is fine now Padma…” Keshav replied. “…He is admitted right here in the infirmary and is on the road to recovery. You did well to stop the bleeding. We are all proud of you Padma. Good presence of mind.”
Seema walked in with a tray of hot soup and Aarti helped Padma sit up. A strong wave of dizziness passed through her body and she had to shut her eyelids tightly to wait for the spell to pass.
She wasn’t hungry but was desperate to see Shadow at the earliest.
“Keshav, I… want to see Shadow… please take… me there…” She spoke with great effort.
“What nonsense, Padma…” Aarti blurted. “…you are not in a position to walk. You should focus on recovering.”
“Please… Aarti… Keshav… Please I have to…. See… he saved … me…” Padma pleaded.
“How can you say he saved you Padma…?” Aarti continued to spew anger. “…for all you know, this man was followed by his enemies and you became the default target…”
“no…no…” Padma protested.
“Think about this, Keshav…” Aarti directed her ire at Keshav. “…we don’t even know from where that man surfaced. Babasaheb must have got a reference from somewhere. But there was no background checks or anything. So how can we trust him? He barely started, and Padma has suffered two attacks already. She narrowly escaped…Till he came along, Padma was fine all these years.
Padma wanted to scream and tell the world Shadow had saved her in the past as well…but she remained silent. Despite everything Aarti said, and Padma saw Keshav ponder over Aarti’s words, Padma trusted Shadow wholeheartedly.
Aarti soon left in a huff, and Keshav waited with Seema. It was late in the night, and sleep was miles away. Keshav instructed Seema to retire for the night and Padma was grateful to her friend for spending time with her and worrying about her. All this despite acknowledging their relationship was a farce.
“Keshav…Please take me to him….” Padma made a last-ditch effort.
Keshav stared at her and smiled. “You like him, don’t you?”
She looked away and blushed.
“Padma, I know you from childhood. You are transparent when it comes to emotions and can’t hide anything in your heart. But that’s the best part of who you are. Don’t worry… I will take you.”
He helped Padma get up, and she was already feeling more robust and better. The very idea of seeing Shadow acted like an elixir for her.
Keshav helped her walk along the pathway towards the palace infirmary and Padma breathed in the earthly petrichor that instantly calmed her soul. But more than anything, she looked forward to seeing Shadow.
But what Padma wasn’t prepared for was seeing Shadow covered in bandages. His hand was in a cast and a sling, and his head was completely bandaged. And the lone eye that wasn’t patched was swollen shut.
“OH… MY GOD… OH MY G..GOD…” Padma exclaimed, covering her mouth with her uninjured hand, and her legs gave away before Keshav held her.
“Relax Padma, he is fine… just resting. I have spoken to the doctor.” Keshav tried assuring her.
She hobbled her way towards the bed and sat on the chair next to it.
She held his hand closest to her that wasn’t in the sling. She looked at it and tears began their free run. His knuckles were chapped and bruised. One was swollen too. She couldn’t even imagine the pain he must have felt while trying to save her.
“Padma, he is fine. Lets go now. It would be best if you rested too. He will be sleeping anyway…” Keshav reasoned.
Padma shook her head.
“No… I am not… going anywhere… Keshav… He is like this…. Because of… me. I have to see him… wake up… Please…. Let me stay…” She spoke her eyes not leaving Shadow’s face.
“Alright then, Padma. I shall take your leave. There are guards outside and a night nurse as well. The doctor is also available in case of an emergency. So use the intercom whenever needed and… try to rest as well.” Keshav patted her head and left the room.
Padma stayed up all night, her eyes glued to Shadow’s face. She often heard him groan and move in sleep, and he gripped her hand in his. She kissed his hand and spoke softly that all would be fine, and he went back to sleep.
She didn’t know when she dozed off. She woke up with a start when the hand on hers moved.
Shadow was awake and looking at her with his non bandaged eye.
“Princess…” He whispered.
“Shadow… are you OK? Does it hurt?” Padma asked even as her eyes welled up.
“Fine… you OK?” Shadow asked her, and she nodded, grabbing his palm again.
“I am sorry… Shadow, you had to… go through this… because … of me…”
She felt his grip tighten on her palm.
“…Not…you… Go back to… room….” He strained to speak, and Padma felt as if she was slapped. But she persisted.
“I am not leaving… Sha… Shadow…”
He tried to release his hand from her grip. “Not…correct…Princess…” he sighed and looked away.
“Shadow… I am scared out of my wits and… I feel safe only around you… please don’t send me away… I… wont disturb you… Just let me… be here…” She pleaded.
He tried to rise up but struggled. She called for help and the ward boys came and helped him incline on the bed. She held his hand all through and based on his changing grip, she realised he was in intense agony.
The doctor checked on Shadow and gave him an all-clear but with strict instructions to rest.
Padma spent the next two days with Shadow in the infirmary room and cared for him though he wasn’t happy about it. Keshav checked on them and gave the specially arranged bodyguards instructions, while Aarti didn’t visit because of her ongoing exams. Padma skipped her classes too.
Finally, he was moved back to his room next to Padma’s on the third day. Padma helped him settle and was glad to see colour return to his rugged face. That evening as she peeled oranges for him, he held her hand.
“Stop this, Princess. I am alright. I thank you for everything but… you should now go back to your room. You should also resume your classes, and Maanav, who rescued you on the slope, will be your bodyguard tentatively.”
“I am not going anywhere and I don’t need another bodyguard. I shall wait till you are healed Shadow…” Padma spoke, blinking back tears.
“Then… please don’t visit me anymore, Princess…” he said softly but the words pierced her soul.
“Wh…why? Why do you say that?”
“Because Princess… its inappropriate. You are engaged to another man and I don’t want gossip to malign your name.”
“So what if I am engaged…?” Padma stood instantly. “…I don’t care about anything else…I…”
“…Princess, please… don’t make it more difficult…” he got off the bed and walked towards the window.
“…What is so difficult about it…? Shadow… do you have someone waiting for you…?”
“What?” he seemed startled.
“I mean… a girlfriend or… a fiancé or… wife…”
She waited with bated breath and he only chuckled shaking his head.
“Whats so funny Shadow?”
“Nothing Princess. You are so naïve but that’s endearing about you…” he shifted and stood slanted against the window sill and the evening rays built an aura around his head.
She couldn’t make out the look on his face as she couldn’t see him clearly against the twilight. She looked down at her clasped hands.
“I… I like you Shadow… a lot… for a long time now.” She said softly and turned around to leave the room.
“Princess…” he called out to her and she stopped in her tracks. “…Don’t like me Princess… you don’t know me at all…I am here to protect you, so let me do my job…”
She held up her hand her back still towards him.
“I didn’t ask you… to like me back…” Saying she stormed out of the room.