Marry ??? Woah… what was that…? Was she hallucinating? Ria just stared with her eyes and mouth wide open.
“Ria…?” Gaurav called out softly.
She instantly closed her mouth as if out of a trance and said, ” What… what did you say …sir?”
Gaurav stood straight again and ran his hands through his hair, an action which always caused her heart to beat erratically, not that it wasn’t already. She was always a goner where he was concerned. His mere presence was enough to set her libido up in flames…
“Look Ms. Narsimhan, just listen to me ok…?” he looked at her as he spoke, “…whatever we discuss here now stays right here, you get me? No breathing a word of this outside”
As if… and whom would she tell…? She had enough to deal with the press trying to hunt her down and… would she tell Preeti…? Not now… not ever…this deal would be something ridiculous and most likely never materialise…
He continued, “…I have a proposition which will be mutually beneficial to us. I want you to marry me…” Ria must have gasped. He held up his palm and said, “… just listen out ok? We will get married. But continue to live our separate lives albeit under a roof. You will be free to live the way you want to…. No marital obligations of ANY KIND. I have invested in a rehabilitation center… very close to Parijaath. It will help all the women and children from Parijath as well as outside hospitals, … and you will take over the reins there if you want to, eventually. After a year… we will file for a divorce and as per a pre-nuptial drawn, I will transfer the centre’s property deed over to you. You will be set in your practice by then. But, what you do with it and how you run it is your choice. …”
Ria was looking unblinkingly as he spoke everything in one breath… as if he had prepared this speech. He looked at her as he asked, “Do you have any questions Ms. Narsimhan?”
Ria swallowed the lump in her throat and whispered softly, “Why…?”
Gaurav frowned, “…why what…?”
“…Why this proposition? Why me…? What is it to you…?” she asked
Gaurav took a deep breath and sighed. He said, “… Ms… Uh…look Ria…I feel responsible. For all that happened… That is my reason… I feel guilty. You are maligned and made to walk on coals for no fault of yours… If I just help you with money…you will not take it. And if I help you directly with the center, it will call for lots of attention especially…. in the wake of Ms. Sawant’s demise… That has already stirred the Hornet’s nest. But if we get married, no one will question my decision to help you…. In a year from now…. This news will be long forgotten. So… if you are ok with this then I will lay down my conditions…”
“…What conditions…?” Ria asked her voice barely audible…
Gaurav came around the table and sat next to her. Ria could even… at three feet distance… breathe in his cologne. It was the same one…again…her favorite. She shook her head…what was she thinking… she could feel that magnetic attraction to this enigmatic persona…
“I have a few ground rules…” he said, “… first, no one can know about our…uh… arrangement… even Keith… or anyone of your acquaintances. Second, though you won’t be obliged to have any marital duties there will be certain …er… rules, er… we won’t have any relations outside of our marriage till we get divorced… We…uh… can’t have the press thinking…”. He exhaled heavily as if a load had been taken off his shoulders.
Ria looked up into his eyes. Her heart somersaulted at the prospects… it seemed tempting… a solution to all her problems, but her brain objected right away…Her self-respect kicked her in the gut. She didn’t know what to make of all this as Swara’s words kept recurring in her head. She said, “I umm… I need to think…sir”
Gaurav dragged his hand through his hair. Again… it was then she saw he was fatigued too… Definitely the ongoing situation had taken a toll on him as well…”… Uh….You have twenty-four hours to think and give an answer Ria… There is no pressure of any kind. Consider this a business deal… If you agree… its fine and we will sign a contract. If not then you may forget this conversation ever happened…” He stood up as he said, “… That will be all for now. I will call you at the end of twenty-four hours, i.e….” He glanced at his watch and said. “… 11am tomorrow morning. You may give me a reply… then”. He turned around and went towards the window.
Ria knew that was her cue to get going. She stood on wobbly legs praying they didn’t give away just then as she slowly walked towards the door and opened it. She walked out and the click of the door closing was the only sound that resonated in the entire 9th floor corridor.
Gaurav stared at the closed door as he ran through their entire conversation. It was three months and sixteen days since he had last seen Ria. Each moment had been nothing less than torture not knowing about her whereabouts. He had almost lost it when he had heard she had left town and not returned with her parents. He had tried to keep tabs on the family though and indirectly through Preeti he knew she was struggling to find a job. He knew the constant backlash she had still been facing across fronts and his guild corroded his insides. He had never thought he would be emotionally attached to someone… and Ria… he just couldn’t control it anymore. He knew his want for her was way beyond passion…he knew she had it for him as well.
She was a shell of her former self. He was the cause of stress in her life… He felt like a douche. When he had heard about her marriage being called off, he had been thrilled for her. That man Vikram was an asshole. Yes… he had investigated him and found up a lot of sinister plots the guy was involved in but he didn’t need to show her the facts anymore as the buffoon had already spewed crap on national TV. The lesser she knew about that son of a bitch, the lesser would be her pain… But his elation was immediately replaced by guilt… Ria had gone beyond the call of her duty to save his hide. For all his brave talk in the prison, he was terrified to spend another day in that hellhole and there was no way he could have proven his innocence that easily without her intervention. And now it was his turn… morally to do what was right. So… he told himself. God…he had missed her. He could still breathe in the sweet fragrance of her talc… that was so much Ria. He smiled. He smiled… for the first time after the night he had spent with Ria in Parijath stables…
He moved towards his hidden cabinet and pulled out a Kingfisher strong, he had stored for occasions like this. With 8% alcohol it helped burn down his guts making him forget the other pain. As he took a couple of sips, he thought… Ria deserved much better than this… than him. He was thoroughly damaged goods through and through and she probably had a doubt about him as well after what had transpired in court. He chuckled as he thought of it. He was scarred not just physically but, in all ways, possible. He didn’t know how his classified news was pulled out, but then he knew for sure anyone who was behind it was very powerful enough. He had heard of Swara’s death last morning and had been unsettled throughout the day. Somehow, he doubted if she had committed suicide. He had thought the past had been… buried very deep. And now he was worried about Ria. Would that particular somebody target her as well…? No… he would die before he let that happen. He had seen how Ria had looked at him on that rainy night they spent together. She had innocence, hope and … life in her eyes. He… he just didn’t deserve to be a part of that.
He was fiercely attracted to Ria, for a long time, probably since he had first laid his eyes on her and he had decided to do damage control. He had planned to move to Kolkata when the party and rainy night incident took place. He had given up his practice years ago, he couldn’t get himself to do it anymore except the day he had nursed her to her feet. Her fever not subsiding almost killed him. He had never cared about anyone to that extent before. And when they had hugged and almost kissed… it had taken all his self-control to back away. The night at the stable when she had come risking her limbs looking for him… he had been touched. No one had ever cared for him like she did. He knew if he had taken a step forward she would have given in too and it had taken the mother of self controls to rein back his libido. He didn’t want to do anything for which they would both regret. And when she testified for him, he hated himself even more.
He was right…he was the reason for her current state and he would set things right. He would see to it that she got the wonderful life she deserved.
If only she would say yes.
Ria walked all the way to her hostel, not aware of anything happening around. What had just happened? She was attracted to Gaurav for last 3 years and knew he had some feelings for her too or so she thought. She had immediately known about him keeping tabs on her activities in college. Besides it wasn’t like anyone showed much interest in a studious boring student like her and she had never bothered actually. Her aim in life was to pursue her doctorate from University of Dallas, Texas. It was cut short when she had to get engaged to Vikram. Then she had got the dream job, good pay and good colleagues. But that had gone down the slope and the last one month of her job was sheer torture. She had begun to doubt her feelings as well. But… the rainy night happened. The visit to Parijath and the trial following that… just changed her perspective of him. She knew he had a shady past… right from alcoholism to murder… But she knew he couldn’t stoop to such heinously low levels. But could she trust him?
He had asked her to marry him… But a marriage with conditions? A contract? She had read about such occurrences but in fictional writings. At one end it was getting impossible to live her current life and hear accusations from all quarters… the press hovering around trying to smell her out. What if someone in her hostel gave her away…? It would be catastrophic. On the other end she didn’t have anywhere else to go to and now had to face this proposition. She was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea…. She had to choose the lesser of the two evils…
After an untouched dinner that night she went back to her room and lay on her bed, and even after her not so friendly roommate was snoring away to glory, sleep for her was miles away. She took deep breaths to calm her racing heart but all she could see when she closed her eyes were those piercing black eyes. Eyes which had a great deal of sadness and turmoil in them but which sparkled at the smallest pleasures like the horse’s air bubbled blow! She wondered what would happen if she accepted his proposition. She would have an opportunity to fulfill her career dreams. She would sell that property next year and then she would go abroad and work towards her doctorate dream…
But she had to stay with Gaurav for an entire year… was she prepared to do that? He had said she wouldn’t have marital duties but what if he approached her…. what would she do about her attraction?
Of course, she trusted him… he was a thorough gentleman, a man of his words… but she didn’t trust herself…
“… what the fuck…? Have you lost it Gaurav…?” Manek bellowed as he paced too and fro like an angry tiger in the closed confines of Gaurav’s cabin. The same cabin where the love of his life was subjected to one of his weirdisms sometime ago.
“…Manek… I have given it all a good thought…”
“…The fuck you have thought about it… Its Ria… Gaurav…its Ria… the same woman who has suffered enough… for you… and now what is this…? Why are you taking advantage of her gullible situation…?”
“… I am protecting her goddamn it…” Gaurav rubbed his face.
“…From what…? Gaurav, Naren and me have been working furiously to find out information… but there is nothing… This is just a huge coincidence. That chapter is finished Gaurav… everything about those notes is a dead end too. But Naren has kept the firewalls up and alert so anyone trips it, we would know. So… why…?”
“…Manek… Swara’s death wasn’t a suicide…I can feel it…”
“…How do you know…? the post mortem will be available tomorrow then you can see for yourself. I indirectly spoke to someone in that jail. Swara was a nut case apparently and kept to herself lost in thought…. She was depressed Gaurav… so its sad that she died but that has nothing to do with your case or your past…”
“….Manek my gut tells me otherwise and I feel they will target Ria… and NO…nothing can happen to her…not on my watch. The only way to protect her is to keep her where I can keep an eye on her…”
“…You can fool the world… or fool Ria herself into believing this bullshit… but not me Gaurav… Its not any sense of obligation or guilty consciousness but its… You want her… that’s it. You know she may agree… but what when she finds out about you Gaurav…? What will happen then…?”
“…Manek… I… I love her more than life itself and…I guess you are right… she may hate me when she would know about me… the real me… especially my past but… that’s why I am making this contract… it won’t hurt either of us…if she agrees…”
“…Gaurav… I can’t speak for her, if she would be hurt or not… because she is a strong young woman… But It’s you I am worried about. I remember what had happened the day she had been engaged, you had slipped on your axis and even now the thought of her turning you down has brought the kingfisher out… I dread to see, what would happen when she would leave you… And assuming nothing goes wrong, what would you do after the year is up…? Or… are you hoping she would want to stay married…? Just… get realistic Gaurav…”
Gaurav had no answer as he blocked him out but he was sure Manek couldn’t hear his heart breaking into a zillion pieces at the very thought of Ria not being in his life… He hoped she said…yes
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