A week after she was shot, Padma was up and going. The wound still throbbed, but she was to start her fieldwork for the BEd course, and though she would have got exceptions given her influence, Padma didn’t go for it. She wanted to experience everything firsthand. She wanted to become a teacher and fulfill her and her mother’s dream of opening a residential school for the underprivileged, particularly girls.
She didn’t know if it would ever happen, but teaching was something she would do at any cost. She was determined. Today she had to visit a government primary school in Koini. Shadow and his small team of 2 other guys would be accompanying her so that they didn’t call for attention.
Shadow had been with her throughout the week, but true to his nickname, he wasn’t close enough for her to feel him, but she knew he was around. Something about him being there made her feel confident. She felt safe after a long time.
She watched him take a run every day early morning on the track around the garden surrounding the fountain outside the window. She saw he was overly cautious as he ran an eye around every time he completed a round.
Every time he stretched, his muscles bulging was a treat for her sore eyes. Her traitorous heart beat at a record-breaking rate whenever she saw him go completely taut as he held his plank. It further spiked whenever he took a break to drink water, and with every bounce of his Adam’s apple, she thought she would die right there. He caught her staring unabashedly quite a few times, but she couldn’t help it.
Padma didn’t know what was happening to her whenever she saw him. She didn’t know whether it was plain lust or whether she had deeper feelings for this stranger who felt like anyone but that.
Shadow didn’t allow anyone inside her wing without scrutiny. Poor Seema was scrutinized every day, but the young woman didn’t complain. Aarti, however, didn’t like Shadow and resented his methods.
Keshav and Aarti knew about the arrangement by now.
“Are you sure, Padma? You want to do this?” Aarti asked her that morning as Seema helped her get her injured side into her outfit.
“Yes, Aarti, I would have it no other way. I won’t let anyone scare me into hibernating in my shell.” Padma spoke at her reflection, staring back at her with a determined look.
After Seema left, Aarti helped Padma pack her backpack.
“I don’t like him…” Aarti spoke.
“That new bodyguard. Something about him doesn’t sit right.”
“Why Aarti? Why do you think so?”
“He unnerves me… the way he looks at me. It’s very unsettling.”
“Aarti, he can be intense at times. But, that’s his job, dear….” Padma tried to defend Shadow.
“Be careful, Padma… I don’t trust anyone. I would have come along if not for my upcoming exams.”
“It’s fine Aarti; you would be bored there.”
Shadow knocked, indicating it was time. Padma hadn’t been out of the palace premises for ages. And given her injury, she was a bit hesitant. But one look at Shadow, and his confident stride, she straightened her spine with aplomb.
Aarti left before them, and Padma sat in her car. Shadow sat next to the driver in the front seat. She knew the young driver as Harish, and she was sure Shiv wouldn’t have allowed him without making him go through the grind.
They reached the school in an hour, and watching everyone, Padma felt like a fish out of water. Every other trainee teacher stood clear of her as if they were vary of her. But, she didn’t blame them as they knew who she was.
The headmistress welcomed her, and all the trainees were assigned classes to observe. Padma was assigned grade 3 children, and she spent the next couple of hours observing the teacher and taking notes to complete her journal. Shadow stood outside the classroom, and Padma’s residual worries dissipated all the time. He had made Harish keep the car ready strategically just in case…
Finally, it was time to leave at the end of the working hours, and Padma tried to mingle with everyone but in vain. Finally, disappointed, she walked back to her car.
On reaching the palace, she rushed into her room and shut the door, giving way to the tears she had managed to keep at bay. Then, after about five minutes, there was a knock, and by the standard pattern, she knew who it was.
Shadow walked in with a glass of juice.
“Seema was on her way, and I just pitched in. Princess, please have this.”
She sat up and wiped away her tears. She didn’t say a word but just walked towards the window and stared out of the lone opening to the world.
“…I don’t want anything, Shadow. Please leave me alone.” She said firmly, her voice crackling.
Shadow placed the tray on the nightstand, and she felt him move closer behind her. Padma folded her hands close to her chest. Tears rolled freely down her cheeks.
“Princess…” He spoke right behind her. “…I understand what you are going through, but this shall pass too. They will take time to know you, but given the situation, you can’t get too close…”
“… I DON’T CARE ANYMORE… OKAY…?” She turned and interrupted him and was surprised to find herself screaming. She had never yelled at any person in her life! This guy brought out the worst in her.
She immediately realized her folly. It wasn’t Shadow’s fault. He was doing his duty. “…I am sorry, Shadow. Really sorry… but I don’t think anyone understands what it is to be alone without friends, without the independence to do as you please, just because you have certain blood flowing through your veins… It is suffocating.” She sighed and bent forward as a new rush of emotional onslaught engulfed her.
The Vanilla essence whiffed through her senses before she felt him closer, and he patted her head. “I totally understand you, Princess… I know what it is to be lonely. Don’t cry… Once this is over, I promise you can get to your desired life. You are a strong woman and can fight this as well.”
She looked up, unmindful of her smudged light make-up. The twilight had set in, and she had yet to switch on the lights in her room. Yet, in the fragile dusk, she saw the shadows on his face as he looked at her, and she was further drawn toward him. What was his story? She was eager to know. Why did she have a special kinship with this man?
She didn’t know if her emotions had the upper hand or, if the fading evening light did it to her, or the vanilla assault on her mind and senses… she closed the distance between them. She hesitated, but Shadow didn’t move. The intensity of his gaze as he stared into her eyes threatened to burn her to ashes, but at that moment, she didn’t care.
For the first time in her life, she felt brave enough to make a move. She raised a hesitating palm to cup his face. The gruff beard tickled her soft palm, but it was one of the best sensations in recent times. Shadow stood still, and she felt his warm breath on her forehead as she went closer, and they almost touched.
“Shadow…” She whispered. “…tell me it was you those years ago…”
It was as if a thunderbolt hit him; he held her wrist. “Princess, you need to rest and…”
Padma refused to back off. She knew this was the moment. She wouldn’t get another chance again.
“Shadow, please… it was you…”
He looked away, but he was breathing heavily. Was he as affected as she was? Then why was he not accepting?
“Shadow, I have never pleaded before anyone or openly cried before anyone except my mother. You have seen me at my most vulnerable moments, and I think I deserve to know that much… so tell me…”
“It doesn’t make any difference Princess… I am bound by duty….”
“…It was you…”
“…Princess, I have to protect you. The situation outside is…”
“…It…was… you…” She persisted.
“…Princess… it’s a dangerous situation…”
“…you…” She placed a hand on his heart.
“GODDAMN YES… it was ME… are you happy now?” he grasped her hand and panted, looking into her eyes.
The dam broke, and she crashed into his chest, digging her head into the firmness as she sobbed. She thought he would move her away and was prepared. But he didn’t.
After a moment, he rubbed a hand on her back and patted her head with another. She could feel him holding back.
“Princess…” he said softly; the soft vibration of his baritone sent shivers down her spine. He gently held her away. Not leaving her shoulders, he stared into her eyes and continued. “…Your life is of utmost importance to this province. Please don’t ask me why and how. Just… please trust me, Princess… I am committed to serving you and the Royal family. Follow my instructions to the T, till this phase passes….”
“…Will this ever be over, Shadow?” She spoke, tears continuing to flow, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away. To her utmost disappointment, she saw him lift his hand to touch her face and back out last minute.
“I promise you, Princess, this will all be over soon. I won’t rest until it’s done.”
She held his hands in hers, and he didn’t pull away this time.
“Promise me one more thing, Shadow.”
“What is it, Princess?”
“You will be careful about yourself as well…” she looked into his eyes and saw the emotions change for a second, and he swallowed before he nodded slightly and got back to his neutral stance.
The following morning Shadow led the way towards the car parked at the entrance. Padma wanted the extra walk through the palace lawns, and Shadow obliged. The morning breeze caressed her soul and gave her immense peace. As they reached the car, she saw Harish was missing. She looked questioningly at Shadow.
“He called in sick, and I don’t trust anyone else. So I will be driving you today, and we will be followed by two of my men on their bikes like yesterday.”
She nodded and sat on the back passenger seat though she would have given up anything to join Shadow in the front. But she didn’t want to corner him and put him off or put him in an uncomfortable position. She also didn’t want to antagonize him…
She knew last evening something unsaid had passed between them, albeit momentary, and she was curious to see where it led. She barely knew anything about Shadow, but he seemed to know a lot about her. She was lost in her thoughts as they cruised along their route when she felt a jerk, and it jolted her back to the present.
She realized the car was speeding abnormally. She had the seatbelt on, but still, she was thrown along the side, and the belt bit into her wound, making her groan in pain. She was nauseous and controlled the bile rising in her throat. All she could see were the trees speeding in a blur along the road, and they were moving at an alarmingly fast rate down the slope.
She looked at Shadow, and he was an epitome of concentration. He had his hands free and she heard bits and pieces of some communication, probably with his team. She didn’t want to disturb him but knew something was drastically wrong.
“PRINCESS…” Shadow yelled. “…Grip the handle above and release the seatbelt…”
“WHAT…?” Did he lose his mind? For all her bravado, she was terrified.
“PRINCES… DO… AS… I… SAY…” He screamed hoarsely, and she knew he was dead serious.
Padma held the handle above her side of the passenger window even as the momentum resulted in the seatbelt biting into her wound. Then, with the other trembling hand, she released the seatbelt. Shadow shot his hand at the back through the gap between the front seats.
“Hold on, Princess, I will pull you up here.” She said his eyes were still on the road; she realized they had gone off track and were somewhere she didn’t know.
She was panting in fear and grasped his hand. She let go of the handle and before she knew he had pulled her through the gap between the front seats. She landed on her shoulder awkwardly, which sent a shooting pain throughout her body; her legs following along hit him in the face. But he dragged her further, and she quickly tried to straighten herself. She had worn a sky blue salwar kameez. The top got entangled in the gear stick, and she almost banged her head to the window when the car swerved right, and Shadow avoided colliding with an incoming truck.
Shadow pulled her towards him in the nick of time, and she fell on his body. She tried to move as the gear stick dug painfully into her hips. But he held her tightly against him even as he maneuvered the car. Didn’t he need the gear stick? Or his hand free to drive?
As if answering her thoughts, Shadow said between rapid breaths, “Hold on.. Princess… as you have… seen… the brakes have… failed… your car has been… tampered with…”