The dishes were so delicious, that I almost licked my fingers. Rani Sa must have noticed it. I noticed a hint of laughter in her voice when she asked,’ Like the Rajasthani cuisine? Madhav adds heavenly taste to the common names in the menu.’ I liked the way she openly praised the chief cook’s efforts. I made a mental note of the name, and smiled at her. ‘Yes, and this is my first time ever.’
Dal Batti Churma – an item made from different pulses just melted in my mouth, bursting inside with new textures and flavors. The simple roti too was different. I admired the beautiful table cloth and cutlery self consciously.
I again noticed Shaan making expectant glances towards the door. He was seriously waiting for someone. ‘Shaan, it’d be better if you’d give more attention to your plate than to the door,’ Rani Sa said in a clipped tone. For a jovial person like her, the voice sounded strained. Shaan looked guiltily towards her and then composed himself with a smile. Something was seriously off.
‘Bhaiya’s late, once again. He’s almost always late now-a-days,’ Nandini said when we were about to rise. So it was the older brother that he was waiting for. Shivam P. Chauhan, the eldest Prince must be a brooding personality, and yet dear to them. But Rani Sa seemed a bit angry and a bit sad. Sad mostly. ‘Shiva will grace us with his presence whenever he wishes to,’ again her tone was clipped. I wondered why this relationship in the almost perfect family was strained.
‘Would you like a stroll in the garden? The night air here is good,’ Shaan suggested as we were about to take the stairs to our respective rooms.
‘Yes, sure. The garden looked beautiful from the window earlier.’ Nandini said she was tired and escaped upstairs giving Shaan a meaningful smile that I couldn’t help but notice.
We strolled along the fragrant jasmines, and other flowers I couldn’t figure. ‘So, how were your first few hours here?’ Shaan smiled. Too soon to decide, I thought, but I just smiled in response. ‘Food was great,’ I said to mask any awkwardness that was brewing up. And he laughed, the same charming whole hearted laughter that made my heart go happy dancing. He smiled at me, and I felt as if I have known him from a very long time. I downcast my eyes for a while but his eyes didn’t leave my face.
‘If I haven’t told you this yet, just to let you know, you are very beautiful,’ he spoke the words slowly, his eyes still on my face. Had it not been for the night, he’d have noticed my blush. I smiled suddenly shy to be around him. I wasn’t like this before. Just to seem less nervous I added,’ You too are extremely good looking.’ ‘Really,’ his eyes popped with mirth, and I instantly regretted having said that. I should have left out the ‘extremely’ part. The blushed stayed and grew and I looked away. He laughed, again. ‘Ok, I’ll spare you the rest of the tease,’ he said looking away, finally.
We sat on a bench under the Gulmohar tree at the other end of the garden. ‘May I?’ he looked towards me with an extended hand, palm up, a cue to take my hand in his. I was reluctant and hesitant and he noticed it. ‘It’s ok, may be later,’ he helped patiently. He must be judging me for considering a marriage proposal but not even holding his hand. ‘I know it’s all new to you, and you need time to decide and trust me. And I’m ok with it,’ he said putting all my doubts to rest.
I was glad for that. Even I myself was too confused about my feelings for him. I tried to start a conversation. ‘How’s your brother? I mean, you are close to each other, I think. I noticed you were waiting for him earlier.’
‘Yes, we were very close, very close. But now, it’s complicated. A situation had happened in his teenage years,’ he was sad. ‘And after the demise of father, things changed. He doesn’t like to be around Ma Sa actually.’ He didn’t say anything more about the situation. I wondered what had happened in his younger years. He continued after a minute of silence,’ Nandini loves him the most. She misses him a lot.’ I could see how much he missed his brother, too. Life plays strange games sometimes.
‘Ok, let’s get some sleep now. Today has perhaps been a long day for you,’ he arose from the seat.
The night sky was clear. I could see the stars and the moon. I wondered where life was taking me, and mused about fate and destiny.
We bade good night to each other and retired to our rooms. I had trouble getting sleep in a new place. So I just completed some reports and mailed it. Wi-fi was great. Just when I was about to switch the lights off, I heard a knock.
It was Nandini. ‘Hope I haven’t disturbed you. I saw the lights, so..’ she fidgeted undecidedly.
‘No, it’s perfectly fine, come on in.’
‘No, I’ll go now. I just wanted to ask if you can accompany me tomorrow to get my bridal wear from the designer.’
‘Wow, sure dear. It’s already ready? There’s still a month right?’
‘Ya, we have to bring it before relatives arrive. They shall be coming after a few days. Thank you. I didn’t want to go alone with Shaan Bhaiya,’ she was beaming. I was apprehensive of the royal relatives.
I kept waking up at regular intervals I suppose. Sleep eluded me in these new surroundings. Would it be strange if I went downstairs now? Probably. I would look like a ghost wandering in the dark. I walked to the balcony and sat on the swing. The midnight air was cold, it brought nostalgic thoughts. I missed home, and the damp weather.
I heard someone downstairs. Who was it at this hour? Was someone sleep deprived like me? I could see a shadow, and hear the loud footsteps. I strained my ears to listen to the servant uttering a welcome greeting and asking if dinner was to be served. Now? It was the older Prince, perhaps. And that voice that said a ‘yes’, seemed oddly familiar.
I tip toed downstairs curiosity piqued. I tried to hide in shadows. The tall person sat on the table waiting. I had the back view. Who was it? My heart was beating fast. I didn’t want to be discovered.
The face turned to a side- black eyes, stoic look, almost disheveled hair and a hint of a beard. Recognition. Disbelief. Panic.