The next morning Ria was alone in her room, her roommate was long gone. She had continued being the night watchman on her bed as the other woman woke up at the crack of the dawn and prepared to go to work. She was gone by 6AM and for a moment Ria envied that woman’s simple life… Once she was back from a breakfast which she barely picked, she kept looking at the ugly huge wall clock in her room, wondering what story the clock may have to tell… I may have witnessed so many people here and she wondered to whom it belonged that the owners had retained it when they had renovated the place to make the hostel accommodations…
Her thatha (grandfather) had had a similar looking one but of a smaller size and though it didn’t work since an eternity, he had kept it in his cupboard saying it always reminded him of her patti… (grandmother). He had often regaled her and Pooja with stories from his life as a public-school teacher in Vellore. He always held the old clock in his hand as he relieved nostalgia. She had refused to part with it when her parents had given away his meagre belongings after he had passed and it was still in her cupboard back home. She hoped she could take it back someday. She had taken it upon herself to preserve his memories. He was the one who always encouraged her. Even today he would have set things right at home and maybe in her life for her… how she missed him. The clock struck 11 and her phone rang.
“It’s me. What is your answer? Is it a yes or a no...” Gaurav asked her getting straight to the point. Ria was teary…what was wrong with her? She seemed to cry at the drop of a hat these days… Oh Thatha… what should I do??
“Are you there?” She was jolted back from her thoughts…
“So, what’s it then a yes… or a no?” He asked again and she couldn’t make out the emotion in his voice.
“Yes” she replied so softly she wondered if she could hear herself.
“Come again? I didn’t hear you… I think?” A surprised voice sounded from the other end.
Ria sighed and said “yes… I am ready. But…”
“…I am texting you an address….” He interrupted her, “… Be there at 7pm sharp tonight. We will go over the terms. You may add in whatever you wish to… if reasonable of course… and.…” he paused and she heard him take a deep breath.”…and tomorrow… we will get married“.
“Tomorrow?” she squealed.
“Look Ria I can’t talk more on this line. We will meet today evening and continue this… conversation…”. Saying that he abruptly ended the call.
The clock struck 12 with a bong and Ria realized that she still had her phone at her ear. She held it in front of her and checked her texts. Manek of course had sent some address. So, he must know about the marriage arrangement too! She put the address on the Google map. It was about an hour away from her hostel. She had to leave at 5.45PM at least, or should she leave earlier considering the bad traffic at the time…? And what would she wear…?
She shook her head and chuckled wondering what was she thinking… She had her life at stake as she was all set to make an important decision…. Actually ‘made’… and she was thinking about clothes and traffic!
As she got dressed at 5pm that evening wearing the only cotton salwar kameez that was less faded and less worn, she got a text again from Manek , car waiting at the north end of your lane. Gate 2. Brown color Wagon R. Driver name: Ravi.
That brought down her stress level to an extent. She wasn’t a huge fan of solitary adventures … like travelling alone at late hours to new locales… trust Gaurav to take care of her fears…of course he did…he always did. She took in a deep breath and looked into the half-length mirror fixed to her cupboard. She straightened the lemon yellow colored salwar kameez trying to ease out the creases. She had worn a pair of tiny pearl earrings that she had packed for Warangal. It was a gift from her late grandfather on her 15th birthday and now the only piece of jewelry with her. She had topped her school in the board exams. He parents were happy but not elated though. Appa had said, “This is the beginning, Ria. You shouldn’t rest on these little laurels…” LITTLE?? “…. You have long way to go. Remember the dream job offering you a great salary? That should be your ultimate goal. Do not rest till you reach there.” And he had gone back to the newspaper he was reading. There were no sweets prepared or bought to give their neighbours who kept asking, so did her teachers and school friends. She hadn’t even gone to collect her certificate and had asked Pooja instead, being embarrassed.
Ria sighed as she returned to her present form in the mirror. She thought she looked Okay. She had never given much attention to her appearances before Gaurav. Amma had said those were frivolous distractions and most of the time her wishes to own something fancy were nipped in the bud itself. Her friends used to occasionally call her behenji but it never had bothered her, until today. She wanted to look good, smell good… In spite of the situation, she wanted to dress up for him. She wondered what Gaurav would think about her clothes today. Though she knew he was beyond all that… he wasn’t a shallow person like her prospective suitors of Vikram but still, would the tall, fair and handsome Gaurav actually like her…? As marriage material… even though she knew it was an agreement they were getting into…?
About an hour and fifteen minutes later minutes later she stood outside a pent house. The journey to his part of the town had been quicker than expected. He lived in a 12 storied tower and she had to give identification at the gate. She was awed with the state of art security. She loved the elevator too… it was smooth just like the one at the hospital but grander. Within seconds she was on the 9th floor and when she stepped out, she realized there was only one house on the entire floor.
Ria rang the bell and waited. Within a minute the door opened and a smiling Keith in white overalls, which seemed like a uniform welcomed her smiling which reduced her heightened anxiety considerably. “Welcome Ria, sir will be here shortly. Please come in…”. He was acting so formal Ria almost chuckled. He led her through a short foyer which opened into one of the most elegant living rooms she had ever seen in her life.
The walls were painted white and had pockets of little lights which gave a lovely cozy feeling to the room. The furniture was rosewood as per her knowledge. The two pairs of three by two seaters and center table looked stunning. There was a whole rack of books and trophies on one end of a wall and a TV and home theater system on the opposite wall. The end of the hall led to a balcony as she saw from her end.
“Please be seated Ria. Shall I get you tea, coffee, fruit juice or anything else you may like…? Just be comfortable …OK?” Keith asked.
Ria looked up at him and smiled. “Um… no nothing. Thank you, Keith…. I am ok…”
Keith smiled making him look so much younger as he looked at her with a tenderness in his eyes which she always wanted to see in her father’s. She blinked back tears…
“As you wish…Ria. If you need anything just call out”. Saying that he left. As she looked around, she realized there were no pictures or any personal kind of things except… horses… There were derby pictures, pictures of some Jockeys with their trophies…She couldn’t identify Gaurav in any of them though but his love for the equestrian sport reflected in the décor. It was then her eyes fell on a black and white sketch in a corner. She went towards it and saw… it was a beautiful sketch of a mother and a child. The mother had lifted the child in her arms and the child was angelic in his toothless smile. She was wondering about the artist when she saw a scrawling at the right corner…
Was it Gaurav? He could make such a beautiful sketch? It was unbelievable. But then the man was an enigma in himself… what other talent did he possess?
“… hello Ria…?” A soft voice spoke. Her belly fluttered as she turned around. He was dressed in faded jeans and a loose white full sleeves shirt as usual buttoned at the wrist and the neck and sneakers. Sneakers …at home? Couldn’t he just relax in his own home?
He walked towards her and saw the sketch in her hand, he took it from her and placed it on the shelf with a thud… Did she intrude…?
“…I am sorry… I just saw the horse’s pictures…they were beautiful to ignore…”
That got a smile back on his handsome face and he walked with hands in his pockets towards the pictures. He was close enough she could inhale the citrus scent…
“…This…” He pinted to therace with Emirates writted in the background. “…This was the Dubai world cup 2016… I had… been the runner up… Do you know… it was the richest Derby in the world till 2017…My prize money funded the peadiatric surgical unit in the hospital…” He looked at it for a while and pointed to the Jockey picture. “… and that was the Chopra Group sponsored candidate… I knew he would win for us… I had selected and trained him… That… as the last race I was ever involved in…” He sighed and turned towards her. “… Please come Ria… take a seat…” He spoke ever so softly.
She sat on a single seater while he sat on the opposite side.
“…Uh… Ria… please feel at home. This is after all going to be your home for the next year… Er… Once we sign the papers, I will show you around…” He looked at her as he continued, “…look… about tomorrow. I don’t think we need to wait anymore. The faster we tie the knot, the faster we can stop the scribes from gossip…you can complete the year and …get…get free” As he said the last word he looked away. She had read the newspaper today morning in the hostel common area and put it away after the few lines she had read about her. Fortunately, there was no picture of her and no one in the hostel bothered anyways…
“But tomorrow… won’t it be too soon?” She asked wide eyed…
He stood up and walked slowly towards the balcony. As he reached there he turned around and stood leaning against the wall crossing his legs at the ankle and folded his hands.
OMG didn’t he know what he did to my heart??
“We don’t have anyone who will be attending our wedding. We will have a small ceremony in a local temple here. I know the priest there. He belongs to your community and is ready to complete the rituals… Manek and his wife Megha will be the witnesses and after about a month we can get it registered in the court. I am sure your… er… parents won’t approve of this match even without the…. conditions. You can tell them after the ceremony. What do you think…?” He said.
Ria was still trying to fathom what he had said. It looked like he had taken care of all details. It definitely made sense. In fact, the faster she got out of her hostel the faster she could work towards her goal.
“Ok….sir But my parents don’t need to know… actually …um… I am estranged…” Her eyes filled in spite of everything… and she had a tough time keeping tears at bay. “…Um… What time tomorrow then?” she asked
He smiled SMILED… It was titillating… She had to control herself or else she would be vulnerable before him… as it is the emotional roller coaster was too much for her. He said, “Tomorrow be ready by 7am. Megha will pick you up… she will er… get you ready and our wedding muhurat is 10.20am. Is that ok?”
He came towards her and sat on the center table before her. He dragged his hand through his hair, the gesture which was now synonymous with him, gave him some sensual appeal…. Ria looked around as if to drive away the thought…
“We need to set some other rules besides the contract”, He said softly in that seductive voice which made her look at him… into the depth of his his blacks. She could only nod.
He continued, “We will have to address each other with our names. So, it will be Ria and Gaurav…ok?”
She whispered, “yes”
He smiled as he continued, “…You are free to move around and use anything here. This floor has the living room, kitchen, a study and 2 bedrooms adjacent to each other. The first is mine and second is yours. Keith as you know is the housekeeper cum cook… he leaves at night. Finally, we won’t interfere in each other’s lives. Do you have any concerns about this arrangement or questions…?”
She looked into his eyes just like a magnet drawn towards a piece of iron. “I …um… I have a question. Um…do you have a girl friend?” She asked softly…tremor in her voice evident.
Gaurav took her hand and held it between his palms just like that night. “…Ria, I don’t have a girlfriend. I am surprised you asked me though… We should maintain the sanctity of our vows… even though … it’s temporary…”
Ria nodded and smiled, strangely pleased at his admission.
Later after a lovely dinner of her favourite curd rice for which she thanked Keith; Gaurav gave her a tour of his house. As he took her upstairs to the first level of his penthouse, he showed her the guest rooms and the home gym. He then showed her a terrace garden which had some of the loveliest blossoms she had ever seen. “This is Keith’s handiwork…”, Gaurav said waving. The huge terrace lawn was vibrant even with the artificial lighting and the fragrance didn’t want to make her leave the place… They stood there for a while and Gaurav showed her different varieties of roses and lilies… was there anything the man didn’t know…?
A glance at her watch said it was 9.30pm. She couldn’t believe she had lost track of time. When they came back to the living room, Manek was there with another man whom she recognized as one of their lawyers she had seen once with Khatiyal. Two sets of stamp paper documents were on the table.
Gaurav shook hands with the lawyer. He introduced him, officially this time, to Ria. The next half an hour was a blur. The lawyer explained contract details and other legal jargon to her and finally the contracts were signed. Though Ria was clueless about legal matters, she didn’t feel insecure. Somehow, she blindly trusted Gaurav.
As soon as they left, Ria realized it was time for her to leave as well. She hadn’t seen her room yet but she was late and she would see it anyway when she came here… tomorrow. She stood up abruptly and her knee hit the center table. She yelped and was about to fall but Gaurav was there quickly by her side grasping her elbows. He steadied her and helped her sit on a nearby chair. Her hair… unruly as ever was all over her face. Oh God it was so embarrassing… she flushed. He used his index finger to move her hair aside and tucked it behind her ear on either side concentrating in the task and Ria could hear her own breathing now.
“Are you Ok Ria?” He asked with soft concern in his voice., the one which always melted her heart.
Ria couldn’t think of anything with him so close. Somehow, she looked into his eyes and muttered, “I um… it was an overwhelming day… I guess I am tired. I will be fine. I …um… I have to go home now.”
They were so close she could feel his soft warm breath on her face as they starred at each other for a few moments. Gaurav looked down at her lips coming closer and she thought he would kiss her. Just then, the doorbell startled them and he abruptly jerked away, leaving her hands. He cleared his throat and quickly went to answer the door even as an amused Keith rushed from wherever he had migrated to. He looked at Ria and smiled… then giving her a two finger salute he went back to his chores. It was Ravi the driver who had come to pick her. She heard Gaurav speak. “Go ahead Ravi, Ria Madam will be there soon”.
After a few minutes, Ria left Gaurav’s house and moved towards the elevator. Gaurav didn’t leave her side while they were stood in silence waiting for the elevator. It arrived soon and as its doors opened. Ria quickly stepped in trying to get her bearings together. She turned around and pressed the button for the ground level.
As the elevator doors closed, she looked up to see intense black eyes watching her…. with the same unfathomable emotion, she had often seen when he looked at her. What was it… would she ever know…? She was about to marry the man for God’s sake… A man who was a half-filled canvas waiting for the exuberance of colours…
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