FFY 21 – 25

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Chapter 21: Reason for Leaving
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The Night Before …

““It’s me, big brother,” a slurred voice called out, revealing the identity of their visitor before the man had even entered the room. The lanky figure stumbled in through the doors and fell over a chair, landing on the floor in the middle of the room. The two stared at the drunken man practically lying down on the floor in front of them.

“It’s me, brother,” he repeated, staring up at them sleepily. “I’m home.”

He turned to look at the pale woman at his brother’s side. “Neeta, I’m back.”

She gasped softly. “Vicky.”

“I can’t believe you,” Maan said through gritted teeth. “You’re drunk?!”‘

Vicky lay on the floor, staring up at the two of them. A smile spread across his face as his eyes traced their features, almost lovingly. Looking his fill, he closed his eyes and laid his head on the floor.

Maan strode towards the reclining figure and pulled him up by his collar. Forcing him to stand straight, Maan stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest. There was a beat of silence, as he stared at his baby brother. The one he had trusted above all else… and the one whose betrayal had hurt him the most. And, as always, when anger began to burn inside of him, he was ready to blast someone with the full force of it. He opened his mouth, but then stopped for a moment, unsure of what to say.

This man, his own brother, had betrayed him in the worst possible way. But if it hadn’t been for him, he would’ve been a married man when he met Geet. Or . . . if Sameera had had her way, he would never have met Geet at all. He staggered back at the thought, his hands falling to his sides. The thought of never having met Geet hurt him more than any betrayal ever could.

His attention was caught once more when Vicky fell against the wall, blinking rapidly. After a moment of uncertain steadiness, he began his slide to the floor once more. Pari gasped slightly at that, her eyes widening when he fell with a thump, his head banging against the wall.

“Are you kidding me?” Maan growled angrily, striding closer. He glared down at the man at his feet, unable to believe the evidence before him. He opened his mouth ready to blast him this time for being drunk, but another thought made him stop. Kneeling down he reached out a hand, but was roughly pushed aside. Landing on the floor with a grunt, he turned to glare at the person responsible.

“He’s sick,” Pari murmured, blithely ignoring the fact that she had just knocked her boss to the floor. She placed the back of her hand against his forehead. “He has a fever. Nakul, help him into his room,” she commanded. She got up and moved back, allowing the servant to help the younger Khurana up and moving toward the bedroom. Nakul quietly took him to the room that had remained untouched, as if waiting for its owner to come back home.

Maan crossed his arms and turned his head to stare quizzically at Pari.

“What?” she asked defensively. “He’s sick! We can give him a chance to explain, can’t we? I mean he came back,” she pointed out. “That’s not something we can say about most of your family.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down.

Maan nodded silently and gestured for her to go ahead. The two walked into the room and stood by the bedside, watching Vicky toss and turn on the bed. Vicky was mumbling something under his breath, too low to be heard. He stopped for a moment, and all was silent. He then coughed softly and began to mutter under his breath once more.

“. . . promise.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

I was ten when I met my other brother for the first time. I had a brother at home, but I was suddenly meeting someone … who was of my blood, but I had never known. The shock I felt that day is something I will remember forever. If that wasn’t enough, I then met my other sister for the first time.

I was spending the afternoon with my father. It was supposed to be just daddy and me time. He took me over to his other family’s house, warning me not to tell my mother anything. He said that it would be our little secret. I felt so special … until we entered that home.

I promised. I didn’t say anything when I saw my father with his other children. I didn’t say anything when he kissed them or hugged them or actually laughed with them. And I didn’t say anything when I saw their mother. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t say anything to my mom. Not when I began to wet the bed. Not when I began to have nightmares of my mother finding out. About everyone finding out. Not until…

“You can talk to me. I’ll take care of everything,” he told me. “You don’t have to hide anything. Not from me.”

“No, I can’t. I can’t. I … can’t! You don’t know!” I was hysterical.

“You can. I know. I’m your brother. I will always be your brother,” Maan bhai said, as he hugged me close. I began to cry in his arms, letting all the fear and guilt out. And somehow, the nightmares went away after that.

He was only 13-years-old, but he was my pillar of strength. I learned those words later, but he was always there to support me. He took care of me. He took care of our younger sister. He took care of my mother. My mother, who, I realized years later, had always known when her husband strayed. His current mistress wasn’t his first mistress.

I learned three things when I was 10-years-old.

My father was a weak man. My mother was a weak woman.

And my brother was the strongest person I knew.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Maan bhai,” Vicky muttered, turning his head side to side. He jerked in bed, unable to control the shudders that began to course through his body. Maan reached over and grabbed onto Vicky’s hand, his heart urging the motion before his head could tell him to stay back.

Vicky’s eyes opened for a moment, but they were glazed and unfocused. “Thank you.” It was a whisper … a sliver of noise that could be imagined away. But he had heard it. Vicky had lost weight, his once muscular body transformed into a gaunt shell of its former self. Maan felt a pang in his heart, hurting for Vicky. He was surprised by the emotion. Where was his anger?

Pari placed another wet cloth on Vicky’s forehead. She stared at the grim male figure sitting on the other side of the bed. “Has the doctor come yet?” she asked in a hushed tone, unwilling to disturb Vicky’s sleep, as broken as it was.

“He’s on his way,” Maan murmured, staring at his younger brother on the bed. Vicky tossed and turned, his face scrunched up by some unknown worry. He leaned over and smoothed Vicky’s hair back with his free hand. Letting out a deep breath, he forced himself to face the truth. Despite what this man had done, a part of him was so glad to have another piece of his family back home … to have his baby brother home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I was sixteen, on the cusp of turning seventeen, when my world changed again.

“Your parents were in an accident, Vicky beta,” his grandmother said, putting a comforting arm around him. “They’re in the hospital.” Her face was stricken with grief, and Vicky could see that she was forcefully pushing the tears down. She was trying to be brave for her grandchildren, while having to face the possibility of losing her only son.

“Is that where we’re going right now?” Vicky asked, his sleep fading away. He held on a bit more tightly to his grandmother as the truth sank in, fear of the unknown making him tremble.

“Yes,” Maan replied, looking at him from the other side of the limo. He had his arms around Annie. “We’re going to them right now.”

“Will they be okay?” Vicky asked, trusting his brother to tell him the truth.

“I don’t know.”

“Maan beta,” Dadi Ma protested.

“We don’t know,” Maan replied quietly. “We’ll find out.” He planted a kiss on Annie’s forehead, taking care not to disturb the young girl sleeping on his shoulder.

“What if they’re not okay?” Vicky asked, voicing the fears that had begun to rise in him. “What will happen to us?”

“I’m here,” Maan replied after a silent moment. “I will take care of all of you if need be.”

“But bhai…”

“Remember that,” Maan interjected, leaning over to place a hand on Vicky’s knee. “I’m your brother. I will take care of everything.”

Maan bhai was only 20-years-old. But he did it. He took care of everything when dad died from his injuries.

Mom was recovering, and we got a few sweet moments with her. But when she learned that dad was gone, it was as if she gave up. There was nothing wrong with her except for some bruising and broken bones, but she lost the will to live. There was nothing the doctors could do. Nothing we could do or say that would keep her with us. She passed three agonizing days later.

Maan bhai was there for us. He shielded us when our father’s mistress came out to the world and demanded her children’s share. He took care of it when the media went rabid, stalking us at home and at school. He protected us from the prying eyes and from the vitriol directed at us simply because we were the Khuranas. When our hearts had turned against Dev and Kamya, he convinced us to give them a chance. He brought them home. We became a family.

He saved us over and over. And he did it all on his own.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“I’m … here.” Vicky’s disjointed murmurs continued.

“He has a fever of 102°. His glands are swollen, but I think…”

Maan gazed at Pari listening intently to the doctor sitting next to Vicky. He wrote a prescription and reached out to hand it to Pari. “Make sure that he starts taking these antibiotics immediately.”

His eyes widened when Pari’s hands practically snatched it from the doctor’s hands and held it close to her heart. Racing over to the door, she called out for Nakul. His eyes remained focused on her as she instructed Nakul to bring the medication quickly.

“He’ll be okay, Mr. Khurana,” the doctor said to Maan. “Call me if his condition worsens.”

Maan nodded and quietly ordered another servant to walk the other man out.

“Maan, should we tell Dadi Ma?” Pari asked, gazing down at the sleeping man.

“No. It’s too late,” Maan replied. “We can’t disturb her sleep. He’ll still be here in the morning. We’ll have time enough then.”

“Maan bhai.”

His gaze whipped around to stare at the figure lying on the bed. But hope, ephemeral as it had been, faded when they realized Vicky was having another hallucination.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Maan bhai.”

I was 22-years-old when I saw my brother finally break.

He was the strong one. The one who took care of all of us. Even when he was a young child, he took steps to protect Annie and me from the destructive reality of our parents’ marriage.

When mom and dad died, he was focused on saving our business. He divided our father’s wealth so that dad’s mistress would go away, happy with her share. He was focused on preserving what family we had left. He created a new family, which included Dev and Kamya so that the world would no longer call them the illegitimate Khuranas. At least, not in front of Maan bhai.

When Dev ran away, leaving us to handle the fallout from his bad decision, Maan bhai stepped up and protected us once more. He married that viper and put up with her scandals. He shielded us the best he could, protecting both the family and business at the expense of his own name. He raised her son. Rahul was a child that I came to consider my nephew, because my brother loved him. He sacrificed what he thought was his true love for Dadi Ma’s peace of mind.

And he never broke.

But when Annie left… his dearest sister. The one he had babied and loved all these years. She was only 18, but she fell in love. And she fell in love with a man who still blamed us for his sister’s evil. He made a demand, and she chose Arjun Rathod over us.

I found him the day after Annie eloped, sitting on the verandah … silent. A half-empty bottle of liquor by his side. When I called out to him, shocked by his drunken state, he gazed at me quietly.

“You stayed. You’re the only one who stayed.”

When I heard those words, when I saw his bowed back and the defeat in his eyes . . . I swore I would never leave. I swore that day . . . that I would be Maan bhai’s protector.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Maan watched as Pari wiped the sweat from Vicky’s forehead, massaging his forehead lightly. She hoped that it would take away the pain she could see in his face.

Maan turned to his phone and pressed a number he had stored in it a week after Vicky ran away.

“Who is it?” a voice on the other end asked.

“Send me the details,” Maan ordered.

“I …Mr. Khurana?” the man began, his thinking clouded by the fact that he had been awakened from sound sleep. Turning to stare at the clock, his eyes widened upon realizing that it was three in the morning!

“I want to know what you found out about my brother,” Maan said brusquely. “I want to know what he has been up to. Show me that you’ve done the job I hired you to do when my brother left.”

“Yes, sir,” the man replied. “I’ll have someone bring the file over in the next hour.”

“Good,” Maan said, pulling the phone away from his ear. “Ranjeet?” he said suddenly, putting the phone back to his ear. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, sir,” Ranjeet replied, surprised by the man’s words. Maan Singh Khurana had never bothered with these social niceties before.

Maan turned back to stare at the man lying on the bed. It was high time he found out what was going on in his brother’s life.

“Vicky? Can you hear me? It’s Pari. Please wake up,” Pari said softly, trying to spoon some water into his mouth. Her mouth pursed in disappointment when the water dribbled down his cheek. It was no good. Sighing in defeat, she laid his head back on the pillow. “Please, wake up.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hi, I’m Parineeta Singhania. Call me Pari. Everyone does.”

She was an angel dropped from heaven. And I had fallen upon seeing her.

I had never believed in love at first sight. I hadn’t believed in love at all for a long time. What had love done to my family? My father had loved his mistress so much that he had all but abandoned his family, having no space left in his heart for them. My mother had loved her husband so much that she had chosen to die with him, rather than living for her children. Dev had run away because his love for Naintara wasn’t enough. Annie had abandoned them because she loved Arjun too much. And Naintara … Naintara had loved money so much that she had entrapped his honorable bhai and made him miserable.

Love? Forget about it.

But that angel . . . she’d loved Maan. Knowing what his life was like (the sensation rags never went a day without writing about his brother’s wife), she’d come to be a little closer to the man that she had fallen in love with on that stage. Even knowing that he had no room in his life for her, Pari had burst into their lives, wanting to do something about the love that had kept her going.

She’d loved Maan bhai. And I, the idiot that I was, had loved her.

………………………

“I’m going to call you Neeta,” I said, smiling cheekily.

She raised an eyebrow at me.

“I like to be different,” I replied to the silent question. “A special name for a special angel.”

“Shouldn’t you be calling me Pari then?” she asked with a laugh.

Leaning close, I trailed a finger down her soft cheek, poking at the slight indent in that white skin. “But Neeta would be my name for you.”

………………………

Having no reason to stay, she still stayed. Having every reason to go, she had remained as Maan’s friend and support. She became a part of our family. And one day . . . I found out the real reason for Pari staying. She had realized that her love for Maan Singh Khurana had only been an infatuation. In fact, it was only because she had truly fallen in love that she realized what love was.

“I love you, Vicky. I love you so much. You’re the reason I stayed.”

She’d fallen in love with me. And I was the luckiest man alive.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Shh. Just drink this,” Pari murmured, pulling his head up and resting it against her shoulder.

She fed him the second dose of medication and put the glass of water against his lips. Sighing in relief when he drank more easily, she laid his head back down and touched his forehead once more. The fever had finally broken. He had fallen deeper into sleep. Even so, she didn’t think it was a restful sleep; she could see his eyes moving beneath his closed lids.

Maan stared at her concerned face and then down at his watch. It had been five hours since Vicky’s return, the hour closer to dawn now. Pari had spent the entire time at his side, bathing his forehead, feeding him his meds and any soup that would stay down, and generally trying to soothe him when he became too agitated.

“Are you okay, Pari?” he asked quietly. “What about the baby? Why don’t you go to sleep, and I’ll…”

“I can’t do that, Maan. I’m fine,” she snapped at him, the worry making her voice tight. “I’m not fragile just because I have a baby inside of me.”

There was a knock on the door. Nakul entered the room. “This came for you sir,” Nakul said tiredly.

Maan nodded his thanks, grabbing the envelope.

“Go to bed, Nakul,” Maan said.

“But, sir,” Nakul protested.

“We’ll make do,” Maan replied. “Go,” he ordered.

His hands shook slightly as he opened the folder. His eyes scanned the pages, flipping through them rapidly. “I think my brother decided it was his turn to play the hero,” he murmured, causing Pari to turn and stare at him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When she came back…my brother became a changed man. One filled with hope.

“Look, who’s back. It’s Sameera.” Maan bhai was so happy. And I was happy for him, but only until we all began to realize Sameera’s truth.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“I want Maan Singh Khurana for his money. It doesn’t hurt that he’s not bad to look at. His kid? That brat’s going to boarding school as soon as I get a ring on my finger.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It was as if Maan bhai had a blind spot when it came to Sameera. My incredibly intelligent and sharp brother became this being that she could wrap around her little finger whenever she wanted. Maybe he was remembering his more carefree days when he was with her. Maybe he wanted to go back to when he was in love and actually believed in love. Whatever the reason, he had fallen and fallen deeply. Eventually, the enchantment would wear off, but what if it was too late? She was already hurting Rahul. I tried to protect him the best I could, but it was as if there was some sort of barrier between us. Dadi Ma didn’t want to interfere.

…………………

“I bought a ring today. I’m going to propose to Sameera tomorrow.”

“That’s uh … good, bhai. And we’ll have a big wedding. It’ll take some time to plan that.”

“No. If Sameera says yes, we’ll get married in two days. No big wedding. I just need her. Nothing more.”

…………………

Maan bhai had been adamant, and I couldn’t bear for my brother to be trapped again in a loveless marriage to another woman who only wanted him for his money. I couldn’t bear to see him hurt again. I knew that this time it would change him forever. I would lose my brother. I had to make a decision. Maan bhai needed saving. It was my turn to step up and protect him.

I left and took her with me. It was easy to convince her that it was better to be with me, a certain thing, then to stay with Maan bhai who might not even make a commitment. His taciturn nature had only aided me in my cause. It was even easier to convince her that he did not love her when she had no love within her for anyone else.

I left, wondering who would protect him once I left. Who would save him if he needed saving again? I left with the hope that he wouldn’t be too hurt. I left with the hope that he would find someone deserving to love.

I left with one hope …

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Pari came over to Maan’s side, silently demanding to see the paperwork. “What is this?” Her eyes were busy scanning the papers in the same manner that Maan had done.

“I hired a private detective to keep track of Vicky when he left,” Maan explained.

Pari stared at him in surprise.

“I was angry, Pari,” Maan pointed out drily. “I wasn’t stupid. I have always kept track of all of my siblings, the information just one phone call away. Regardless of what they have done, they are still my blood.”

“Have you?” she asked. “Never mind,” she said, shaking her head impatiently. “What does it say?”

“Vicky and Sameera went to a small town miles south of here and stayed at a motel.”

Pari flinched at that revelation.

“Separate rooms,” Maan hastened to add. “They became close to the other long-term residents at the motel.”

Pari shrugged at that, silently questioning him why she should care.

“It makes it easier for the detectives,” he explained briefly. “The truth came out that Vicky had been disowned. Sameera was very unhappy to hear that.”

“But… you can’t take back what you’ve already…,” Pari protested.

“You’re right,” Maan replied. “It’s not known, but when I gave Dev and Kamya their share, I also created trusts for Vicky and Annie with their part of the inheritance, and they’ve had access to those trusts since they turned 21. Apparently, someone took advantage of that ignorance and fooled Sameera.”

“What…?” she began uncertainly.

“It was all part of what I can only assume was his grand plan,” Maan sighed heavily, staring at the papers and then to the figure lying on the bed. “They began to fight. Sameera started going out for long stretches of time. Money became tight, since he didn’t have a lot of it and neither did she.”

“Then?” Pari asked.

“She packed up and left,” Maan said. “And Vicky came home immediately.”

“Vicky did this to save you?” Pari asked weakly, tears welling up in her eyes.

“It seems like it.”

……………………..

“Did he even think of me?” It was a broken whisper in the silent room. A question asked of the man who was lying unconscious on that bed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Neeta. My angel.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A quiet groan and Vicky opened his eyes. The two turned to gaze at him, watching him blink and look around.

Maan looked back at Pari. “You have first right. You talk to him.”

Pari shook her head quietly, her lips trembling. “I don’t want to.”

“Pari, you’re pregnant,” he pointed out.

“I don’t want to,” Pari repeated through gritted teeth. “Was it too much to ask that he give me a second thought when he was making all these big decisions? Did he ever think about how his actions would affect me?” Tears had welled up in her eyes and she angrily brushed them away. “Maan, when a woman falls in love, she wants to be the first one in her lover’s thoughts. The first one in his heart. The first one in his life. It seems that I was never first. I am so angry right now,” she said softly. “I don’t know what I would say.”

Vicky groaned softly and began to sit up. He yelped softly when he began to tilt to the side, his head feeling like it was stuffed with cotton.

Maan quickly came over and sat next to Vicky on the bed, steadying him. Reaching out, he placed some pillows for support against the headboard and propped Vicky against them.

“Do you want some water?” Maan asked brusquely, trying to control the emotion roiling inside of him. He didn’t know what to think about his brother’s actions. All of the pain that they had suffered was the direct result of Vicky trying to protect him from getting hurt? It was some twisted logic, if you thought about it.

Vicky sighed. “No water,” he replied hoarsely. “I feel like I’ve drunk enough.” He looked around once more. A moment for realization and then a stiffening of his body. “What am I doing here?”

“You mean you don’t know?” Maan asked.

“Would I even ask, bhai, if I knew?” Vicky asked tiredly. He rubbed his face with both hands, his haggard appearance showing proof of his sickness.

Maan gazed at him. The happy-go-lucky brother he had known had disappeared. In his place, he had a skinny, cynical man with a perpetual frown on his face.

“I would never have come back on my own,” Vicky said in a driven tone. “I didn’t think you would see me. I never once imagined that I would get through these doors ever again.”

“Kind of hard to throw you out when you came, staggered about and then fell at our feet,” Maan pointed out drily.

“Our?”

Maan leaned to the side and Vicky saw Pari for the first time. He blanched, flinching back from the pain he saw in her eyes. He quickly looked around, as if trying to find an escape. Maan reached out and grabbed Vicky’s shoulder, forcing him to look into his eyes. “You’re going to talk to me first and Pari next. You’re not going anywhere,” Maan said. “You’re too sick.”

“And that’s the only reason you would let your traitor of a brother come back, right?” Vicky asked. “Why else would I be lying here?”

“Look around you,” Maan responded. “It’s your room. Nothing has changed. You might have been a traitor, but you’re still my brother, Vicky. We were always waiting for you. Be it subconsciously, but the expectation… the hope was always there. And where do you get off being so bitter?” There was a small smile playing on his lips when he asked that question.

Vicky’s eyes widened. “What is wrong with you? Why are you so…?”

“I finally met someone who told me a few home truths,” Maan answered with a full blown smile.

“Someone? Another woman?” Vicky asked hesitantly, his eyes widening at Maan’s nod. “Maan bhai…,” he hesitated, unsure of what to say next.

“She’s nothing like Sameera,” Maan stated confidently. “In fact, she was the one who opened my eyes to what Sameera had done to Rahul. She has made me realize that you actually did me a favor.”

“I . . .Sameera was poison, bhai,” Vicky blurted out, his eyes trained on Maan.

“I know,” Maan said.

“She was another Naintara,” he continued, unable to stop now that he knew that his revelations would not fall on deaf ears. It didn’t matter that his brother already knew the truth, he needed to justify his behavior. He needed to ask for forgiveness.

“You couldn’t just tell me?” Maan asked drily. “Did you really have to go through this entire charade? Losing her was nothing compared to being betrayed by the one I trusted the most. Annie’s leaving didn’t hurt as much your leaving did,” he revealed raggedly, taking a deep breath to stem the tide of emotion welling up once more.

“You never listen, bhai!” Vicky said in frustration, reaching out to grab at Maan and shake him. “You are so stubborn. You think you know everything. Everything you do is right in your eyes. You would never have listened.” His hands fell away, and he looked to the side, fighting his own burst of emotion.

Pari sobbed once and then controlled herself, watching the man that she had loved so deeply lying there broken on the bed. She had hated him for his betrayal. But it was true what they said. Love and hate, both equally strong emotions, were two sides of the same coin. Her hurt . . . her pain . . . her sense of panic and suffocation . . . her hate . . . had all been because she loved this man. She had begun to question herself as to how she could have loved so wrong. She had begun to question her own judgment. But now. . . knowing the bout of noble idiocy that had compelled this man to act … she knew her judgment had not been wrong. She had loved an honorable man. Idiotic, but still honorable. She hadn’t loved wrong. But still…

“You left me thinking that I had lost my last sibling,” Maan murmured. “You left Dadi Ma worrying about you. You left Pari,” Maan said quietly. “I wish… I wish that there had been another way.” He stared at his brother. Flashes of memory tugged at him . . . a 10-year-old Vicky clinging to him. A 17-year-old Vicky looking to him for direction. Vicky offering to marry Naintara when Dev ran off. Vicky being there every day, being his pillar of support. He didn’t know when his brother had grown into a man, but when he lost Vicky, Maan had felt so alone.

Leaning over, he grabbed Vicky in a fierce hug, holding him close for a moment. “I’m so glad you came back,” he muttered, swiftly kissing his brother’s forehead before pulling back. “Now, I’m going to sleep,” he said, getting up. “We’ll tell Dadi Ma in the morning that you’re back. Rest, Vicky.”

“Bhai,” Vicky murmured, watching his brother walk to the door.

“And Vicky,” Maan said, turning to gaze at him.

Vicky raised his brow in question.

“Thank you,” he said with a smile. “But don’t ever do it again.”

Vicky smiled in return, but that smile faded away when his gaze landed on Pari. He swallowed, unsure of what to say. How to begin?

Pari crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. Her display of impatient anger was marred by the traces her tears had left behind.

“Did you even think of me when you went off on your half-baked attempt to rescue your brother?” Pari demanded.

“I thought of you every single moment of every day,” Vicky said in a driven tone. “I thought about how I would hurt you…”

“But it wasn’t enough, was it?” Pari said, tears beginning to fall once more. “My hurt was nothing when compared to what you thought you had to do.” Pari turned and made her way to the door. Why was she so hurt? He hadn’t left her for another woman, but her still ached. There was nothing he could say … nothing he could do to make any of this okay.

“Wait! Pari,” Vicky called out.

Pari kept moving, her eyes trained on the door. She heard a loud thud behind her. Whirling around, she saw Vicky on the floor beside the bed. He was struggling to get up, one hand held to his head.

“I did not,” Pari began angrily, striding over, “spend the entire night taking care of you so that you could hurt yourself.” She pulled him up and helped him onto the bed.

“The entire night?” he asked quietly, gazing up at her from the pillows.

Pari snorted angrily and turned to go, but her hand was caught by his. She tugged at it, but while his body had been weak, his hold on her wasn’t. No matter how much she pulled, he would not let her go. Tugging incessantly, he got her to sit on the bed beside him.

“Nothing happened between us,” he assured her. “I never touched her.”

“But she touched you,” Pari pointed out.

Vicky looked away from the accusation in her eyes. “She might have,” he began in a shamed tone.

“See?!” she screeched, tugging at her hand furiously. “Let me go!”

“It was only hugs and hand holding. Nothing beyond that!” he said, promising her. “I had to fool her, didn’t I? I had to make this … sacrifice worth it. If she didn’t believe me, Maan bhai would have been caught,” he said, grimly holding on to her hand with all of his strength.

“I am not blaming you for helping Maan!” Pari finally said, frustrated by her inability to get free. His proximity . . . his warmth was getting to her. Her heart had begun beating once more. Now that he was back, nothing could stop her from craving his touch, not even the remembered pain of his betrayal. And she didn’t want that, not until they sorted this out.

“Then what? If Maan bhai knows the truth, then you know the truth,” Vicky said in confusion. “It was never about Sameera.”

“I would never blame you for helping Maan,” Pari said. “But the part of me that wanted to be first in your heart does want that you talk to me before you do anything like this. If you had included me in your planning…if you had included me in what your mind was going through…if I had felt like I was a part of your life, then I would have known to trust you. I would have known to wait for you. I would have known.”

“I didn’t have time to do anything!” he finally said, trying to find the words to explain. “You weren’t here. Remember? Maan bhai was running full on towards catastrophe. I called you so many times. And then I ran out of time.”

“What about afterwards?” she asked, tears falling from her eyes. He flinched as one landed on their joined hands. He reached up and wiped away her tears. His heart warmed when he realized that she was letting him.

“I called you. Every night,” Vicky said in a choked tone. “You never picked up. Every night …. I hoped and hoped that you would pick up. And every night that hope dimmed a little further until there was nothing left to hold onto.”

Pari sighed brokenly when she saw silent tears beginning to roll down his face. She leaned in and wiped those tears away and enfolded him in her arms. He sobbed and pulled her in closer, burying his face in her neck. She could feel the warm drops of his tears against her naked skin.

“And Maan bhai forgave me, but it means nothing unless you forgive me. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to hurt anyone.”

“I guess I’m going to have to forgive you,” she finally said with a small laugh. Turning her head, she planted a kiss against the side of his mouth. “You never were the brightest bulb in the box.”

“Hey!” Vicky said, pulling back to glare at her.

She laughed softly again. “I should’ve expected something like this. The reason I fell in love with you was I saw how supportive you were of this family. No one valued you for what you were. They still saw you as the silly younger brother, but,” she leaned in to whisper in his ear, “I saw you.”

He gazed at her quietly, a small smile growing on his face.

“You loved all of them so much … and you did everything to make their lives easier. There was so much love in you, and one day I realized I wanted some of that love for me.” Leaning in once more, she planted a kiss against his lips, clinging to his warmth for a moment. “I guess…since I still love you, I can forgive you.”

“I love you, too,” he said hoarsely, pulling her into his arms.

“Well, it’s a good thing you came back,” she said mischievously.

He nodded happily at that, hugging her close. He took the chance to plant a big kiss on Pari’s forehead.

“We’re getting married,” she asserted, planting a kiss on his cheek.

He paused at that, and then nodded happily.

“Next week,” she continued.

He looked at her lovingly and smiled, nodding his head again.

“You know why?” she asked, pulling back to smile at him.

“Cause you love me.”

“Cause we’re pregnant,” she threw back at him.

His eyes widened and he choked on air, falling back against the pillows. He stared at her questioningly.

“You’re going to be a dad.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Present….

“He’s not the only one who’s returned,” Geet murmured in shock, her eyes trained on the figure of the man standing in front of her.

“What do you mean?” he asked softly, reaching up to cup his hand against her soft cheek. Patting it gently, he silently urged her to speak up.

“Dev is back,” she finally whispered. “Your other brother,” she said, as if making sure he knew who Dev was.

Maan stepped back at the revelation, and then replied, “I know. But why do you know that?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 22: Reason for Returning
~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Who’s this, bhai?” Vicky asked inquisitively, staring at the wide-eyed woman staring at him. She whispered something to his brother, which made Maan bhai step back for a moment. Vicky saw the surprise in his brother’s eyes before he visibly controlled himself and murmured something back. “Bhai?” he prompted when Maan bhai remained silent. “Who is this?”

“This is Geet,” Maan said, pulling himself back from wherever he had gone to. He glanced at his brother before turning back to gaze at the worried woman beside him.

Vicky looked closely at the woman standing next to his brother with intense interest. Pari had told him about Geet. This was the woman who had saved his brother from becoming a bitter man and transformed him into the understanding and openly loving brother he had seen in action last night and today. This was the woman who had reunited father and son. This was the woman who … He paused for a moment, but eventually had to admit the truth to himself. This would be the woman who would replace him as Maan bhai’s savior. While a small, petty part of him resented that, a much bigger part of him was happy that his brother had found someone truly deserving. Her actions since coming into their lives had proved it.

He smiled at the woman, reaching out a hand, “I’m happy to mee—.” He blinked in surprise when he saw Geet step in front of his brother, almost protectively.

“Why are you back?” she finally asked, clearly unhappy. “Haven’t you hurt him enough?” She folded her arms over her chest, glaring at him defiantly.

Vicky looked over at Maan and then back at the harridan now advancing purposefully towards him. He wondered for a panicked moment if she would physically attack him. Not willing to take any chances, he prudently moved behind a chair and then towards the doorway to put some distance between the two of them. He knew that in his current state, she could probably sneeze on him and he would fall over. “Bhai!” he said in protest when he saw his brother smiling behind Geet. His irritated protest died a quick death when he saw the emotion in his brother’s eyes. He could see love… pure, undiluted love for this woman. It was there for everyone to see.

His eyes turned back to Geet, and he watched her glance back at his brother, clearly worried about his feelings.

“I …” he began, unsure of what to say or how to even explain. ‘I did it all to save my brother. When I got rid of that albatross, I came running back to the loving arms of my family?’ How believable would that even sound to a complete stranger? I mean, who would pretend to run off with their brother’s lover just to save him? Didn’t that only happen in dramas?

“Why did you let him back in?” she fairly barked at his brother, shooting a glare over her shoulder before turning back to face Vicky. “Isn’t it enough that he has hurt you once? Do you want to give him another chance to hurt you?”

“Hey!” Vicky protested, “I had a very good reason for what I did!” He was literally shaking with the force of his emotions. It had been hard explaining to Maan bhai and then Pari. It had been hard explaining to Dadi Ma and then Rahul, in an age-appropriate manner of course, why he had run away with Sameera. And now this?

He sighed brokenly, letting go of some of that irrational anger. And it was irrational. He had known that people would judge him for his actions, probably for the rest of his life. He had believed that he’d made peace with that truth, but facing the censure in Geet’s eyes, he realized that he was not okay with being judged. It made him feel like scum. He clenched his hands into fists, unable to say anything further.

A hand came and grasped his, wrapping soft fingers around his closed fist and gently squeezing it. Vicky turned and saw Pari standing at his side. She pried his fist open and her fingers entwined with his, clasping his cold hand within her warm grip. Her gaze was comforting before she turned to smile at Geet, the dragoness ready to breathe fire at him.

“Pari!” Geet gasped, falling back against Maan from the force of her shock. “What are you doing?” she demanded, even as Maan’s hands came out and grasped her shoulders in support.

“Vicky came home last night,” Pari said happily.

“I can see that,” Geet murmured. She stared from Pari’s smiling face to look at Maan’s smiling eyes. She turned back to look at Pari. “Am I missing something?”

“Vicky came back, Geet,” Pari murmured meaningfully, as if wanting Geet to understand the significance.

“Well, Dev Khurana is back,” Geet snapped back. “That doesn’t mean that Maan should be welcoming him with open arms.” The Maan slipped out so naturally, but no one questioned her right to use it.

“Wait…what? Who’s back?” Pari asked in a surprised tone.

“How dare he come back?” Vicky cried out angrily, wondering at that man’s temerity.

“That’s what I said!” Geet replied, surprised to be on the same wavelength as this … traitor. Hadn’t it been enough that Dev and Meera had given her no choice, but now this? “Well, the same could be said about you,” she pointed out acerbically.

“He had a very good reason for doing what he did,” Pari said calmly, trying to defuse the tension between the two people she and Maan loved so much. She threw Maan a commiserating glance.

“What kind of reason could he have?” Geet demanded. “I mean, even in the craziest of scenarios, let’s say he found out that Sameera was a gold digger out to entrap his brother, and he threw himself on the sword to save Maan. But even if that was true…,” she paused thinking about it and then quickly shook her head. “Who even does that? Who would choose the intrigue of running off with someone when talking would have worked perfectly fine?”

“I did. I needed to,” Vicky replied, thumping his chest with his free hand. “I didn’t have any other choice.”

Geet gazed at him skeptically.

“Do you even know my brother?” he burst out, trying to make her understand.

“What do you …?” she began, stepping back at the force of his words.

“If you did, you would know how stubborn he can be. Does he ever listen to anyone else?”

“No,” she finally said, after mulling it over. “You’re right.”

“Doesn’t he always think he’s right?” Vicky asked, pointedly glaring at his bhai over Geet’s shoulder. Maan’s smile had frozen on his face, his hands tightening on Geet’s shoulders in irritation. “He always knows better. And then he’ll get angry if you tell him any differently.”

Geet nodded her head in agreement. “And he’ll yell at you without giving you a chance to defend yourself.”

Vicky began to nod in agreement, but his head froze mid-motion at her next words.

“And he’ll get all in your personal space trying to distract you with his beautiful, but manly, body.”

Pari snorted suddenly, her eyes sparking with amusement.

“Uh…no,” Vicky said, clearing his throat awkwardly. “He doesn’t do that to me. Although, the yelling part is true.”

“Hey!” Maan said, moving over to stand by Geet’s side. “You can both stop with that. And it’s not my fault,” Maan said, looking down at Geet, “that you get easily distracted.”

She shook her head at him, quickly looking away. She could not believe that she had just admitted that! She took a deep breath, trying to suppress the blush that was threatening to bloom on her cheeks.

Vicky moved forward, continuing to argue passionately. “I didn’t have time to talk him down from the heights of love or what he thought was love,” he quickly said, when he saw the pain appear in Geet’s eyes. “I didn’t have time to convince him that Sameera was playing him. So I convinced her instead. It was much easier.”

Geet looked at him quietly and then nodded. “You had to save him, didn’t you? Even if it meant leaving the world you knew behind. You had to save him… even if it meant destroying yourself. Your love … was worth any sacrifice.”

‘Brij veerji! You can’t! If you don’t stop… ’ She shuddered slightly and forced the memory back.

She stared at the gaunt man in front of her, allowing herself to notice for the first time that he was none too strong. Pari had been bracing him, giving him her silent support. She saw how the other woman’s arm had come up to wrap around his waist, her eyes looking at only him.

“Geet?” Pari said quietly, turning her head to glance briefly at Geet.

“Hmm?”

“We’re getting married next week,” Pari revealed.

Geet’s eyes widened in surprise at that revelation, especially when she had been expecting something else.

“You already know the reason.”

Geet nodded quickly, not daring to look back at the man she knew was standing behind her.

“I told Maan, when we had our conversation yesterday, that he was the only brother I had, and I wasn’t going to lose that brother just so he could play the hero and make us both miserable,” Pari said smilingly. “Geet,” she said, moving toward to the other woman and clasping her hands, “I have only known you for a small amount of time, but I have come to see you as a sister. You’ve become that special to all of us.”

Geet smiled, tears appearing in her eyes.

“Thank you for thinking of me first,” Pari whispered, moving into hug Geet. “Even if it wasn’t the right thing for me,” she teased with a laugh, moving back. “I know we don’t have these things in a traditional Indian wedding, but I want you to be my maid of honor.”

“I’d be honored,” Geet murmured happily, returning Pari’s hug. “I am so happy for you.”

“I’m happy, too,” Pari replied, turning back to smile lovingly at the man standing in the doorway, leaning against it to support his tiring body. “Now, it’s time for someone to go to bed.” She walked back to Vicky, and put his arm around her shoulders, urging him to lean against her. “We’ll see you tomorrow night,” she called back.

“What’s tomorrow?” Geet asked, but Pari was already gone, intent on her quest to get her fiancé into bed and recuperating. There was a beat of frozen silence, and she stood there, unsure of where to turn. Taking a deep breath, she turned and gazed at Maan. “I … what’s tomorrow?” she asked softly, bravely meeting his eyes. She stepped back when she saw a hint of his emotions in those eyes…enough to realize that what she was seeing was only the tip of the iceberg. Her heart began to beat rapidly, her breath shallow as she struggled with the impact that small glimpse had on her.

“Stop,” she muttered, putting up her left hand to halt him when he began to move towards her. Her eyes widened in disbelief, when that hand landed against his chest, pressing into the expanse directly above his heart. She could feel his heart beating in a rhythm identical to her own.

“Pari’s and Vicky’s engagement will be tomorrow. We’ll be having a party,” he said, reaching up to place his hand over hers, holding her trapped within the warm prison of his hand.

“What?” she asked, extremely distracted by his touch. Her cheeks flushed, and her eyelids fell, unable to bear the weight of his gaze on her.

“Tomorrow,” he reminded her, a small smile playing across his lips. “You asked what was going to happen tomorrow.”

“Engagement,” she murmured. “But…”

“It usually happens before a wedding,” he replied, rubbing his thumb lazily over her ring finger.

She gasped slightly and pulled back, freeing her hand from his grip.

“I… Dev is here. He wants to talk to you,” she said, desperately trying to turn her mind towards the important issue that had brought her here today. “I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop him from coming back into your life. I tried.”

“Geet,” he said, smiling at her before turning to look at the picture hanging above the fireplace. It was a picture of the three brothers, a picture that his Dadi Ma had insisted on keeping there even when those two had left. It was the same reason that she had kept a picture of the Khurana sisters in the library, even though both of those girls had left this home behind a long time ago. “There was nothing you could have done to hold him back. When he left here, he and his wife left the country, settling in America. He’s come back to India two other times. Each time he tried to come see me.”

Geet’s eyes widened at this revelation.

“Once, he stopped 100 yards away from Khurana constructions, unable to come any closer. That was just about when Naintara found out she was pregnant with Rahul and the newspapers were filled with stories about the coming Khurana heir.”

Geet gasped softly at that.

“The second time was right about when Annie ran off with Arjun. He actually came to our door that time, but he didn’t get any further. This would be his third time.”

“How do you know all of this?” Geet demanded, gazing up at him, looking for any hint of pain or bitterness. But there was nothing there except for a stoic calm…and a peace that she hadn’t seen there yesterday. She could see that Vicky’s coming back had been a good thing.

“Detectives,” Maan said succinctly. “Regardless of how they left, I have always kept track of my siblings. That information is always at my fingertips. I knew that Dev was back two days after he came back to this country, ostensibly for the teaching job his wife had landed at your university. What I didn’t know was that he had approached you.”

Geet gazed at him quietly.

“You don’t have to worry,” he said to her, reaching out a hand to squeeze her shoulder reassuringly.

Geet’s eyes fell involuntarily to that hand.

“I think it’s high time that I met my other brother,” he concluded, letting his hand fall away. He pulled out his cellphone, quickly dialing a number. “I’ll see you later. Rahul’s waiting for you.”

“Wait!” Geet said, remembering something else.

He turned to look at her enquiringly.

“You have a spy in your home!”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Bro,” Dev’s voice came from behind him.

Maan turned away from the window to look at the brother he had not seen for more than seven years. As Dev began to move towards him, Maan realized that his younger brother had changed. Looking older and more worn out. His eyes tracked Dev’s movements, watching him approach the desk and hold out his hand in greeting.

Maan briefly shook it and sat behind his desk, consciously keeping a physical barrier between the two of them. He was unsure of how he wanted this meeting to go and of what they would talk about.

Dev sat down and gazed at him quietly, clearly unsure himself of how to start.

“Did you come alone?” Maan asked abruptly, sitting back in his chair.

“No,” Dev replied, clearing his throat. “Meera came with me. She’s in the living room with Dadi Ma having some refreshments. Dadi Ma is introducing her to Ra-hul,” he said, his voice breaking on the name of Maan’s child.

Maan nodded his head silently, ignoring Dev’s hesitation.

“You wanted to meet me?” Maan finally prompted, inviting Dev to speak up. “In fact you approached my…Geet because you thought that I would be more welcoming of this revelation from her.”

“Yes, I did think that,” Dev freely admitted. “Partly because of the reason you just stated, but mostly because it was easier to approach her than to talk to you face to face. I’ve tried and failed multiple times, bro.”

“How did you know to approach Geet?” he asked abruptly. “What made you think she had any power over me? She’s Rahul’s nanny.”

“Nakul told me,” Dev revealed, knowing that the truth would come out sooner or later, “on Dadi’s orders.”

Maan’s face stiffened at that. “You mean Dadi Ma wanted …”

“She wanted us to talk,” Dev replied. “She wants you to forgive me.”

Maan sat quietly, thinking about the fact that his grandmother had gone behind his back to arrange this confrontation. “Why dig up the past?” he finally asked, gazing at Dev almost in challenge. “We attempted to be a family 10 years ago when our father died. Your mother didn’t like that one bit, if you remember. We were barely a family when you left three years later. We haven’t had contact since then, Dev. We haven’t had contact for seven years. Even Kamya chose to live with her mother, and she doesn’t consider me part of her family. So, what’s the point? Why not just pretend that there is no blood tie between us? Why do you keep on coming back? Why bother?” His tone was flat, revealing nothing of his own thoughts on this matter.

“Why do I bother?” Dev said musingly, staring down at his hands. He sat back in his chair, gathering his thoughts for a moment before speaking. “I’m going to be a father,” he revealed quietly. “After years of trying and me thinking we were being punished for my selfishness, we were blessed with a child. This is something that we both really wanted, bro.”

“Congratulations,” Maan said.

“We’re going to be parents, and it started me thinking about certain things. Meera doesn’t have any siblings. She only has elderly parents, and her parents may not be around much longer. I also started thinking about who my parents were and what they taught me. And what I want to teach my child. I don’t want to teach my child to be selfish like me or my parents. I want my child to have a family. Someone to support him or her if, god forbid, we are no longer in this world. I want my child to have you, bro, in his life.”

Maan remained quiet, processing what Dev had just revealed. “I don’t think…” he began after a moment of silence.

“Bro, I know you have no reason to forgive me. You have no reason to accept us,” Dev began, interrupting what he thought was a refusal. “But this child has pushed me to be shameless about it. This child has gotten me this far so that I can say I am sorry for leaving like I did. I am sorry for hurting you and our entire family. I am sorry for being selfish,” he uttered, getting up and placing his hands on the desk. His eyes entreated for Maan to understand.

“Dev,” Maan began, “Sit down. I can’t think with you towering above me.”

Dev sat down, deflating at the steel he heard in his brother’s voice. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I just didn’t know how to tell you the wedding was off. I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that I had had the courage to face the mess I had made. If I had, you would never have had to marry Naintara. You would never have had to suffer the way you did.”

“Dev, you might have been an idiot, leaving like you did,” Maan said somberly, “But your actions were never malicious. In fact, there is nothing for me to forgive. Not any longer…”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Geet paced outside the Maan’s office door, the same way she had been doing for the past five minutes. Should she go in there? How had the conversation gone? Was he okay? She sighed deeply, and began to pace once more. It was time for her to go home, and she had already said goodbye to both Rahul and Dadi Ma. What would they think if they found her here, wandering around like a dizzy duck.

She stopped and clenched her fists in determination. She was going to do this. Why couldn’t she go in and ask him what had happened? She had a right to know, dammit. She knocked perfunctorily and entered the office. Maan was standing by the window, gazing out at the night sky.

“Are they gone?” Geet asked softly. She had done the right thing by coming in. She couldn’t have kept herself away, even if it meant facing that emotion she saw in his eyes every time she looked into them now. Why had he freely touched her in front of Pari and Vicky? He had been teasing when she blurted out her thoughts on his distracting body. What had changed that he was revealing so much of himself to her? What had changed besides … her eyes widened when she realized what Pari’s upcoming marriage meant for them. Her heart began to thump rapidly, her breath catching in her throat.

Maan turned from the window and looked at her, his eyes helpless to hide his feelings from her. He smiled.

“I didn’t want to bring them home,” she murmured, looking away. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves.

His eyes widened when he realized that she had called the Khurana mansion home. He smiled again. “You were afraid,” he finally commented.

“I … I was afraid that his being here would only hurt you. That his presence would call up old memories that were better left in the past,” she said truthfully.

“Why would that matter to you?” he asked softly, moving away from the window and towards her. “Didn’t you tell me that nothing I said … nothing I did mattered to you?”

“But that was only,” she began in protest, moving towards him before she could stop herself.

“Only what?” he asked huskily, a hand coming up of its own volition to brush her hair away from her face. His fingers lingered against the softness of her skin.

“I do care,” she finally admitted in a driven tone. “It does matter. It mattered to me if this would hurt you. And I…”

“What?” he asked, his fingers still lingering against the softness of her skin. He cupped her cheek, and she didn’t pull away. Maan smiled softly, realizing that she hadn’t even thought to protest his touch.

“I don’t want you to hurt anymore. It’s not fair,” she finally said, looking into his eyes. Her own were filled with tears.

He gently brushed one away when it fell to her cheek. “Life isn’t fair,” he reminded her. “You can’t protect me from every hurt that comes my way.”

She moved closer to him, her eyes gazing into his with determination. “But I can protect you from some things. This was one of those things I wanted to protect you from, but your brother was too stubborn.”

“I made my peace with Dev long ago,” he admitted, clearing his throat. He forced his hand down, unable to stand touching her any longer. He knew that if he continued, he would want to take that touch further. He would want to cross the boundaries he had set for himself the day he’d met her and felt those immediate unwanted emotions inside of him. While those emotions may no longer be unwanted, his control was still important to him.

“Maan,” she murmured, moving closer to him.

He stepped back, wanting to keep the distance between them. He was afraid of his too fragile control. And she moved closer. Their strange dance continued until he was flush against a bookshelf, and she was a few tempting inches away.

She moved closer, reaching out to grasp his hand, preventing him from moving back any further. “Maan, you don’t have to say that,” she entreated. “You don’t have to lie to me. How could you forgive him?”

His fingers curled around hers automatically, his brain unable to control them. He closed his eyes at his body’s response. It was no longer under his control. He had tried.

“Maan,” she repeated, tugging at his hand…tugging at his heartstrings.

His other hand came out and wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer.

She gasped as her body came too close to his. She could feel his enticing warmth, urging her to melt into his strength. “What are you…?” she began.

“I did forgive him,” he murmured in her ear.

She stopped struggling, striving to listen to his quiet words as he whispered them.

“He made the choice and left. What I did when he left was my choice,” he continued.

His cheek rubbed against hers, and she shivered at the raspy feel of his five o’clock shadow. She felt a fleeting softness, as if he had kissed her. She turned slightly, her lips grazing his cheek in return.

He froze for a moment, and then continued, “It took me a long time to realize that. For the longest time, I did blame him. I railed against Dadi Ma in my deepest hearts. I cursed at society and its concept of honor and the Khurana reputation. But it was my own conscience that urged me to marry Naintara. It was no different with Pari.” He wrapped his other arm around Geet when she stiffened at Pari’s name, and pulled her flush against his body. At the first contact, she stopped struggling, her body resting against his, pliant and without resistance. She belonged in his arms.

“And Geet, if I hadn’t married Naintara, where would I have been now?”

She leaned back to look at him questioningly.

His hand came up to cup her cheek and he gazed into her eyes. “I wouldn’t have Rahul. I would be married to Sameera. I would never have known how much Vicky loves me and is willing to do for me,” he said, brushing a thumb over her bottom lip.

Her lips fell open, trembling slightly under his touch. But she didn’t pull away, in fact leaning in closer to press her lips against his thumb in an almost kiss.

“I would never have met you,” he finished, leaning down to finally…finally place his lips against the side of her mouth. He had moved slowly enough that she could have moved back … slowly enough that she could have protested…slowly enough.

She did nothing but stand there, accepting his kiss.

He pulled back. “I know it hurt you …”

“No,” she murmured.

“I offered to marry Pari. I chose my duty over…”

She looked away, unsure of what to say. Life wasn’t a romance novel, and lovers didn’t live in a bubble. She knew that, but the thought of him marrying another had hurt her deeply, even if she had never thought…dreamt to have him as her own.

He grasped her chin, turning her face back to him. “I did not want to hurt you, and even though I lo-,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “My conscience would never have let me think of only my own happiness. You have changed me since you came into my life, but I could not be that selfish. It’s not who I am.” He pulled her closer, wrapping both arms around her waist once more to hug her. “I’m sorry.”

Geet placed a hand against his lips, silencing his words of apology. “And I … I would never have asked you to put your selfish desires ahead of your honor,” she blurted out. “I would never have expected you to choose me first.”

His heart clenched at the tears in her eyes. Pulling her close once more, he murmured into her hair, “I wish I could have. I only ever want you to be first.”

She nuzzled into the opening of his collar, placing her lips against the base of his neck. She inhaled deeply, taking his scent…taking him inside of her.

He groaned at the contact, his eyes closing in sheer agony. He wanted…

There was a shocked gasp from the door. “Daddy?”

The two pulled apart. They turned to the door in unison, their eyes widening to see the little figure standing in the doorway.

“Daddy, you’re hugging Geet didi?” the little boy asked.

“No!” Geet cried out anxiously, worried that she had hurt Rahul’s feelings.

“Did you ask her, daddy?” Rahul asked, coming over to clutch at his father’s hand.

Maan looked at the little boy, shaking his head admonishingly.

Rahul ignored the negation, intent only on the fact that he had seen his father hug Geet.

“You must have asked,” he insisted. “You were hugging her.” He turned to look at Geet. “You won’t be my Geet didi anymore!” he cried out happily. “I asked daddy to ask you if you could be my…” he stopped and looked up at his father. Seeing the smile playing on Maan’s lips, Rahul practically quivered with happiness.

Geet looked at his questioningly.

“You’ll be my mommy!” he shouted gleefully, jumping at Geet and hugging her.

Geet’s eyes widened at the word, her arms still coming out to wrap around Rahul’s small body.

“My mommy,” he murmured happily, burying his face in Geet’s stomach, his arms hugging her so tightly.

Geet looked at Maan, her eyes worried by Rahul’s words. “I … I can’t,” she murmured. “You need to… you need to talk to him,” she entreated Maan. “You need to … stop him from dreaming. You need to stop…” Her words died away, when she saw the angry denial in his eyes. Pulling Rahul away from her, gently but resolutely, she pushed him toward Maan and backed away, her eyes trained on the two males she loved so dearly.

Maan moved forward to stop her, his hand reaching out, but he was hampered by Rahul’s small body. Giving up when he realized that pursuit would be futile, he pulled the boy close, hugging him in comfort when Rahul demanded to know why Geet didi had just left like that.

A few minutes later, after having asked Nakul to take Rahul to Dadi Ma, Maan was back in his room. Sitting down on his bed, he stared at the little box on the nightstand next to his bed. Reaching out a hand, he opened it and stared at the ring inside. It was the ring he wanted to give to Geet. It was the ring that he wanted her to accept. He’d ordered it made after that dream. The dream that made him realize what he wanted. He’d called himself all kinds of an idiot, but that hadn’t stopped him from commissioning that dream ring.

But could he give it to her? Every time … every time they got too close, she pulled back. And even today, when there were no more obstacles in their way…even when she had allowed him to hold her and kiss her … even then she had denied him. She had denied Rahul. She had told them to stop… dreaming. His shoulders slumped in defeat. Why?

“What’s up, bhai?” a voice asked from the door.

Maan turned to gaze at Vicky, who was lounging against the doorway.

“What are you doing up?” Maan asked, sternly. “You’re supposed to be resting right now. We don’t want you collapsing on your engagement day.”

“I’m recovering,” Vicky assured him, moving over to stand by his brother. “I just needed to get up and move around. I was dying of boredom.” Leaning down, he took the box and looked at the ring inside. “Beautiful,” he murmured. “When are you popping the question?”

“I…I don’t know,” Maan murmured, taking the ring back. “I don’t know if she’s ready.”

“Bhai! That woman loves you! Everyone can see that. I mean, why would she care so much if she didn’t?”

“Then why does she run away every time I try to …” his voice trailed off, unsure of revealing anything further. The thought of laying his heart bare to anyone was an anathema to him.

“She loves you, bhai. And you love her. More than you ever loved Sameera, back then or even now,” Vicky said in an exasperated tone. “Since when have you become so insecure?”

“Since it mattered so much,” Maan replied openly, forcing that admission out.

“Bhai, don’t chicken out now,” Vicky urged. Grabbing the box from Maan and staring at it intently, he murmured, “This is the stuff of dreams. Why would she say no to a dream?” He gave the ring back to Maan. “Don’t let her get away, bhai.”

Maan nodded his head in agreement.

“I won’t.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Geet’s hands shook as she wrapped the dupatta around her neck and then sat down on the bed. She’d spent the past two hours agonizing over her behavior at the Khurana mansion. What had she been thinking? What had they been thinking? Today had been a day outside of time. She’d gone there thinking that she would be hurting Maan, but she had ended the day in his arms…his lips almost touching hers.

Why had she let it go so far?! Why had she… her heart clenched when she remembered the denial she had seen in his eyes. He hadn’t wanted to let her go. And she hadn’t wanted to leave. Today, she had allowed herself to indulge in her love … in her passion for him. She’d allowed herself just one instance of touching, but even that had been interrupted. She’d wanted one moment in his arms … one moment of a shared breath, but that one moment had its own consequences. Rahul now thought that she would be his mother, but she couldn’t be.

“Geet, may I come in?”a voice asked softly from the door.

Geet looked up and saw Pammi bhabi standing in the doorway, hesitating at the threshold.

“Pammi bhabi, of course,” Geet cried out, getting up and ushering her cousin’s wife into the room. “How are you?” Pammi had only been with them for a few weeks, but her color had drastically improved. She had also begun to show, the extra weight of her pregnancy making her look even more beautiful. Leaving the toxic atmosphere of her in-laws’ home had clearly been a good thing for Pammi bhabi.

“I’m fine,” the other woman murmured, coming to sit down on the bed. “How are you? You were very quiet at dinner.”

Geet stared at her hands, and then raised a hand to deliberately touch the scars on her upper chest, forcing herself to remember. “I … I’m fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong.”

“Geet, I know you’re lying,” Pammi bhabi said with a smile. “I know that we may not be that close, but you need to talk to someone about whatever is bothering you. You look like you could shatter from the pressure that is building up inside of you.”

Geet looked away, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s not that,” she murmured. “I can’t share this truth with anyone,” she declared.

“Because whatever it is, you think that it would hurt your parents?” Pammi ventured a guess.

Geet looked up in surprise.

“Geet, you can talk to me,” Pammi said. “Just like you were there for me when I came here, I want to be here for you. I’m not your parents. We don’t have the history you share with them. And you definitely won’t hurt me by mentioning the past.”

“I …,” Geet took a deep breath. Pammi bhabi was right. Who else could she talk to? Her parents would be hurt by her fears. Pinky was involved in the situation, because Adi jeeja ji worked for Maan. Pari was wrapped up in the Khurana family in every way. There was no one else she could talk to and it was only now, when faced with the temptation of sharing her woes with someone else, did she realize how much she needed to do this for her own peace of mind.

“I’ve fallen in love,” she finally admitted in a driven tone, unable to hide the truth any longer, even from herself. When she made that admission of love, she felt an intense relief welling up inside of her. It was as if those words had needed to be said. And now that she had admitted that truth, she could move on and look for solutions.

“That’s great!” Pammi cried out joyfully.

Geet shook her head in negation.

“It’s not great?” Pammi asked.

“I cannot be in love,” Geet muttered.

“Why not?” Pammi bhabi asked in surprise. “Why shouldn’t you have the right to love?”

“You know what happened in the past,” Geet pointed out, the unhappiness apparent in her eyes. “You know why this can’t happen.” She twisted her fingers in her unhappiness, unable to stay still any longer.

Pammi thought about it for a moment, and then nodded her head, as if coming to some sort of decision. “Why would you let the past poison your chance for a happy future?”

Geet’s eyes widened in surprise, the question unexpected. “You know what happened,” she repeated. “You know the kind of family we come from. And you know what I…”

“Your family is not you,” Pammi interrupted. “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said with confidence, reaching out to squeeze Geet’s hand. “Nothing. And you deserve this chance, Geet. I wasn’t there when you lived through those horrors, but you have to know that most people…most women do not blame you.”

“But, if I allowed myself to love, if I allowed myself to be with him, then …”

“You would have to tell him the truth. The complete truth,” Pammi Bhabi stated.

“What if he can’t accept it … accept me?” Geet asked, tears overflowing and trailing down her cheeks. “His family’s past is filled with scandal, and he loathes having the Khurana name dragged through the mud. I don’t want to hurt him anymore.”

“Only a coward would turn away from you upon learning about your past. And you, Geet Handa, would never fall in love with a coward,” Pammi Bhabi said with a smile. “Give him a chance. Trust your love…trust him. He won’t let you down. Don’t let them…those unnamed, faceless people, take your love away from you, Geet.”

Did she have the courage to confess and reveal her past to him? Could she be a coward? Geet took a deep breath, stilling the tremors that were running through her body. She got up and moved towards her keepsake box. Her hands shook only slightly as she opened it and reached inside. Encountering the item she was looking for, her fingers wrapped around it. She pulled it out and held it securely against her heart.

“Geet? You won’t let your past steal your love away?”

Turning, she smiled determinedly at Pammi Bhabi. “I won’t.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 23: Love is You
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Maan beta, have the caterers come with the food?” Dadi Ma asked worriedly, entering the room. She checked the decorations around the ballroom, her eyes quickly scanning everything before turning to look at her grandson. “The guests will be coming soon.”

She wanted everything to be perfect. The last time there had been a chance for such festivities, Dev had run away and Maan had had to marry Naintara. It had broken her heart to see her oldest grandchild, her secret favorite, tied in the bonds of a loveless marriage. That marriage had brought him such unhappiness.

But now. . . it was a new chance . . . a new beginning. Vicky was getting married. Dev was back. And Maan . . . Maan now had Geet in his life.

She was blessed in her granddaughter-in-laws. Meera was a beautiful woman, inside and out. It had only taken one meeting for her to realize that. She would keep Dev stable and would be his conscience. She would never lead him astray.

A smile formed on her lips, thinking about her granddaughter-in-law to be, Pari. Pari was already a part of this family. She had seen Pari supporting Maan, loving Rahul, and falling in love with Vicky. She had been so happy for those two, but when Vicky had run away with another woman, she had come so close to breaking down. She couldn’t help but wonder where her upbringing . . . her blood . . . had gone wrong that another of her grandchildren would hurt others like this. But Vicky had come back, and she had learned the sacrifice her youngest grandson had made to save Maan. Her heart was filled with so much love and pride. And she made sure to tell Vicky that, knowing that he needed to know how important he was to them. It was time to stop treating him like a child all his life.

She smiled once more, all her love and happiness shining through in that one smile. Her grandson was back. They were both back.

“Dadi Ma, everything is ready,” Maan said, coming over to place a hand on his grandmother’s shoulder. “Look, the food is being set up in that corner, behind the screen to give the diners some privacy. Nakul is supervising the setup of tables over there, next to the bar. The entertainment is being set up on that side, so that couples will have room to dance. You don’t have to worry about anything.”

And for Maan…there was Geet, their guardian angel. Geet had saved them all. Geet had protected Rahul. She had treated her like her own grandmother. And Geet had taught Maan how to love again. She had such hopes for them.

Now that Vicky was settled, it would be Maan’s turn. Wiping a tear from her eye, she smiled at her beloved grandson, patting the hand he had placed on her shoulder. She was truly blessed to have all of her family around her. She then asked the question that had been bothering both of them, “Where is Geet, beta?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Geet took a deep breath and stared up at the Khurana mansion with wide eyes. Her heart beat nervously when she saw the numerous cars waiting to enter the gates. The mansion itself was like a jewel, bedecked in all its finery. The building was covered with small, twinkling lights. Every single light in that home was on, exuding a sense of welcoming warmth. Red cloths were hanging from the rooftop and trailing to the gardens below. Garlands covered every surface, scenting the very air with their perfume.

She took a deep breath, trying to suppress the tremors racing through her body. There were just so many people here! Would she even have a chance to talk to him? She tightened her hands around the taveez she had brought with her, taking courage from it. She would create the chance if she had to. She would talk to him tonight. He would know the truth.

“Oy, Geet! Hurry up,” Pinky’s impatiently called out from two feet in front of her. Looking beautiful in a pink sari, she had an arm wrapped around her husband’s arm. Adi also looked quite dapper in a gray suit, as he eagerly motioned for Geet to join them.

“You look very pretty tonight, Sali Jee,” he gently teased as Geet moved to stand next to them.

She blushed at his words, knowing that she had done her best to look extra special tonight. Her hands fluttered up, towards her bare shoulders and collar bone. She quickly stopped herself, knowing it would have only been an attempt to cover herself. She deliberately used those raised hands to adjust the fall of her sari, making sure that it draped correctly across her shoulder, leaving one shoulder almost bare to the world’s eyes.

“Geet, that color totally suits you,” Pinky said enthusiastically. “You’re looking very sexy. I haven’t seen … so much of you in like ever.”

Geet blushed once more, telling her friend to hush. “Stop teasing,” she urged them. “Let’s go before people start wondering about the three statues standing here.”

They moved towards the door and quickly sailed through, Nakul urging them inside.

“Geet beta!” Dadi Ma called out, coming over to hug the young girl. Greeting both Pinky and Adi, she told them to enjoy the party. “You’re late, beta!” she admonished Geet. “The celebrations have already started. We’ve already had multiple toasts for the happy couple.” She gave Geet a hug to convey her joy and gently pushed her into the hubbub of the partying crowd.

Geet’s eyes flickered around hesitantly, looking for him. Her head turned left and right, but she found no traces of Maan Singh Khurana. Her eyes were caught by the decorations in the ballroom. The twinkling lights, the perfume of the flowers, and the people . . . laughing . . . drinking . . . dancing. It was a time for happiness. If she didn’t have this confession to get through, being here would have made her forget her troubles for a time.

“Geet! You’re finally here,” Pari’s joyful voice cried out, racing over to give her a hug. “Now, can you tell me why my maid of honor was the last one to come to the party?” she said with a fake pout.

“Don’t exaggerate, Pari. There was a long line of people waiting to come in after us,” Geet said laughingly, hugging Pari back. “A gift for you,” she said holding out a box.

Pari took it with a happy thank you. “I want to open it now,” she murmured, looking at the box longingly, “But I guess patience is its own virtue. I’ll look at it later,” she said to herself, and then turned to hand it to a servant passing by. “Please put it safely with the other gifts.” Pari went back to stand next to Vicky.

Geet glanced at her friend. Pari looked beautiful in a red dress, the rich fabric draped lovingly across her body. The material sparkled under the chandeliers’ lights. Diamond jewelry adorned her throat and ears, and another bracelet graced her slender wrist making her sparkle even more. But more than anything, it was Pari’s joyful smile that made it clear that she was the belle of this ball.

Vicky stood next to her. The man was dressed in a black tuxedo, his eyes only for his wife-to-be. The way he touched her . . . the way he gazed at her . . . the way he held her . . . it was clear that he was back where he belonged, and he was happy about it. One hand held Pari’s hand, clearly unable to let her go even for one moment.

Geet nodded at him and smiled. “Congratulations,” she murmured.

“What? I didn’t hear you,” Vicky teased, flashing her a big smile. “Are you actually congratulating me? The traitor?”

“You saved your brother,” Geet pointed out seriously. Pari had told her everything in their phone conversation this morning. “But you also hurt your family and my dear friend.”

“But she wasn’t even your friend when all of this happened!” he protested.

“While making this commitment today,” she told him, “you have to make one other promise.” She wondered briefly why she felt so free to give him advice in this manner. It was almost as if she already saw him as her brother.

He tilted his head in question.

“No more bouts of noble idiocy,” she said. “Open and honest communication is the key to a happy relationship.”

“I promise,” Vicky said, placing the hand that held Pari’s over his heart in a pledge. “In the future, I will never think that lying to someone for their own good,” he continued, gazing into Pari’s eyes, “is a smart solution,” he said. Raising her hand to his lips, he placed a loving kiss on the back of it. Turning to look at Geet, he paused for a moment and then leaned in. “As long as you promise me the same thing.”

Geet blinked in confusion, wondering how he could have guessed.

“Like recognizes like, Miss Handa. My brother would never be grateful if you took such a step,” he whispered to her, before looking over her shoulder. “Bhai, we were just talking about you.”

Geet whirled around, her eyes locking onto the man she had been searching for since entering the Khurana mansion. He was dressed in a black tuxedo, like his brother. But unlike his brother, this man took her breath away. Her heart began to beat furiously, her fingers tightening around the taveez for some badly needed courage. She wanted to touch him so badly, knowing that holding him, instead of this taveez, would make everything so much better. But she couldn’t do that yet, could she? She didn’t have the right.

Maan’s eyes were glued to Geet, his lips parting in awe of her beauty. She was wearing a light brown sari and looked like a goddess. His goddess. She ruled his heart, and he knew that she, unlike others before her, would be very careful with it.

He took a step forward, drawing closer to her. At that moment, his heart was overflowing with love. He wanted to grab her and never let go. He closed his eyes, closing her out. Only when she disappeared from in front of him, was he able to take some badly needed deep breaths to cool the desire that was suddenly raging inside of him.

“Look! Mr. Rockstar is here!” Pari said, waving at Maan. She fell against Vicky, nestling into his warmth.

They all looked at her in confusion.

She hiccupped softly, a hand coming up to cover her mouth. “Oops,” she said dizzily. “Just an old nickname for Maan,” she sheepishly murmured. She blinked her eyes in confusion. “God, I’m not even drinking alcohol! Why am I like this?”

“You must be drunk on love,” Vicky murmured to her.

Pari erupted in laughter, hanging onto Vicky’s shoulders for balance. “That was so cheesy Mr. Khurana,” she murmured, leaning into him. She nuzzled into his neck, and he wrapped her close. “But you must be right. I’m drunk on you! Now,” she shouted, jumping back from Vicky, “It’s time for the engagement ceremony. You won’t be a single man for much longer,” she murmured to Vicky. “Let’s get to it,” Pari urged, pulling Vicky towards the stage.

Maan gazed at Geet once more, motioning for her to precede him. Patting the ring in his pocket, he promised himself that he was going to have that ring on Geet’s finger in the next hour. Following behind her, his eyes traced the warmth of her golden skin, wanting to reach out and touch. Controlling himself, he wrapped his fingers around the ring instead. Once his ring was on her finger, he would have the right to touch her freely. He would have a right over her… just as she would have that same right over him.

The two pairs moved towards the stage, where the cake had been set up. Dev and Meera had come onto the stage, along with Dadi Ma and Rahul, who was jumping up and down excitedly. Pari, Vicky and Pari’s parents joined them, with Pari and Vicky moving to stand in front of the cake.

Maan moved up the steps and then turned to look back at Geet. Holding out a hand, he silently urged Geet to take it.

“Geet, hurry up!” Pari called out. “My maid of honor is going to be with me every step of the way. Starting with this ring exchange!” When Geet’s eyes widened at this revelation, Pari winked at her. Had that been Pari’s plan all along? Geet being Pari’s maid of honor meant that she could be part of the family events, and taking part in everything, without people pointing any fingers.

Maan turned his head to glance at Pari’s naughty smile, shaking his head at her machinations. Turning back, he gently grasped Geet’s hand and pulled her up onto the stage. Ignoring her silent protests, he arranged her so that she was standing next to him. Rahul came over and grabbed her hand, hugging it to his chest. She smiled down at him distractedly, and then looked out into the crowd. Blanching at all the eyes staring at them, she focused on the cake instead. Flashes were going off around them, and she knew that this moment was being documented for all of posterity.

She felt a small tug on her other hand and turned to gaze up at Maan. He smiled at her reassuringly. Pulling her closer, he settled an arm around her waist, his warmth seeping through the thin material of her sari. She settled against that warmth, simultaneously comforted and excited. But quickly coming back to herself and the stares now coming their way, she pulled back and gently pushed his arm away.

“Bhai!” came Vicky’s querulous voice. From the sound of it, it seemed as if it wasn’t the first time he had called for Maan. “Where’s the ring?”he demanded.

“It’s probably in your pocket, Vicky,” Maan said blandly, his eyes focused on Geet.

“I think it’s in your pocket, bhai,” Vicky shot back, frowning at his brother. “Remember I entrusted my best man with that important task?” He wiggled his eyebrows at his brother, smiling at him when he realized why Maan bhai was so out of it.

Maan quickly patted his pockets, his cheeks going red in embarrassment. He pulled out the ring, and handed it over to Vicky. He’d been so focused on what was going to happen next, he had forgotten that his brother had entrusted him with Pari’s ring. Turning his head, his eyes caught the quizzical expression in Geet’s eyes. He smiled sheepishly at her.

She chuckled softly when she saw Vicky grimacing over Maan’s shoulder at his brother’s absentmindedness.

“Bha-ai,” Vicky whined.

“What now?”he snapped, turning to glare at Vicky.

“This isn’t my ring!” Vicky snapped back, holding the ring out to his brother. He held out his other hand demandingly for his own ring.

Maan flushed and quickly stuffed the proffered ring in his pocket and pulled out Pari’s ring. He practically shoved it at Vicky, hoping that no one had caught the slip. Glancing to the side, he saw Geet gazing at him questioningly, and he shook his head at her. “Later,” he murmured to her, before looking at the happy couple.

Pari and Vicky exchanged their rings and began to feed each other the cake.

Rahul sidled up to them, tugging on Pari’s skirt impudently. “Can I have some cake, too?” he asked, batting his long eyelashes at them. The newly engaged couple laughed and fed Rahul some cake, as well. And then it was picture-taking time, and for one beautiful, breathtaking, moment Maan placed his arm around Geet, holding her close. It was as if for that moment, she was part of the Khurana family. She loved it. And no one could say anything. After all, she was the maid of honor and Maan was the best man.

As everyone stepped down from the stage, Geet followed suit. Maan moved down the steps ahead of her and turned to hold out his hand to her. Even knowing that there were eyes on them, she took courage and put her hand in his. She quietly followed him into the library, and they were soon behind closed doors.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Now that they were behind closed doors, she didn’t know how to begin. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm her nerves. “I…,” Geet began, her voice unnecessarily loud in the library. “I wanted to tell you…” she strived to modulate her voice.

“Me first,” he said in a commanding tone, and pulled her to the chair in front of the fireplace. Seating her in its soft comfort, he knelt down in front of her on one knee.

“Maan,” she began, her mouth dropping open in surprise. She bit her lip, her heart beginning to feel the magic of the moment. It seemed that Maan had brought her to this room for his own purposes. She blinked in surprise at that realization. Was he going to propose to her? For the first time she noticed the candles and flowers on every surface. Someone had gone to the trouble of decorating the library, even though it was strictly off limits to any guests. She smiled tremulously, unable to control the happiness from appearing on her face. The mood . . . the lighting . . . it was as if music was playing in the air . . . She placed a hand over her heart.

“Sorry,” Maan murmured distractedly, pulling out his cell phone and switching it off.

Geet was pushed roughly out of the moment by that small practicality. How could music be playing? There was no magic in the air. When had she become so fanciful? She shook her head to clear the final cobwebs that were still lingering in her mind. “Maan, I need to tell you . . . about what happened in my past,” she said, wanting to reveal her truth first before he spoke those words of commitment.

He grasped her left hand in his, his touch silencing her once more. Pulling out the ring that he had created from his dreams and carried around with so much hope, he put it on her ring finger. Once the ring was on there, he could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Tracing the design with his thumb, he brought her hand up for a kiss.

“I . . . love you, Geet,” he murmured, gazing into her eyes. His thumb continued to caress the ring on her finger. “I have loved you since the first moment I began to know you. I loved you when you defended my son and opened my eyes to how hurt he was. I loved you when you cared for my grandmother and became good friends with Pari. I loved you when you revealed your fears to me, opening up about your past.” He turned her hand over, and placed a kiss in the center of her palm. She gasped softly at the touch of his lips, her cheeks reddening. That simple touch arrowed into the deepest part of her being, causing a new tension to grow within her body. “I loved you for the passion you feel for me.”

Geet gasped again at those last words, unable to deny that there was passion between them. “I . . . ” she began.

“I love you,” he repeated. “And you would make me the happiest man on earth if you agreed to be my wife.” Leaning in, he placed a gentle kiss against her lips.

Geet pulled back from the intoxicating touch of his lips, her wide eyes meeting his in surprised confusion. Looking down, she gazed at the ring, mesmerized by its elegant beauty. She couldn’t help but wonder if the ring really belonged on her finger. Did she have the right to claim any of his devotion if she hadn’t told him everything? “Maan, I have to tell you…”

He placed a finger against her lips, silencing her. “Nothing you say will matter. I know everything that I need to know about you.”

“What?!” Geet asked. What exactly did he mean by that?

“I mean,” he began, cupping her cheek lovingly, “Whatever it is that you think will change my view of you…change our plans…won’t. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to marry you. I want to make you a part of my life. Not your past.”

Geet sprang up from the seat, unable to sit still any longer. “You can’t just say that,” she protested, staring down at him. “You can’t just say that my past doesn’t matter!”

He got up and watched her pace in circles around him.

“No, you have to listen,” she insisted, coming up to grasp his arm, shaking it in her worry. “My past is very complicated! I’m scared of how it will affect us . . . of how it will affect you. You proposing to me . . . it makes me so happy,” she finished softly, trailing her hand down his arm to grasp his hand. “Happiness is standing in front of me here, with its arms spread wide open, and I can’t help but wonder do I have the right to grasp it? Do I have the right to feel like I do?” She gazed up at his beloved face, tracing his features with her eyes. She never wanted a day to come when she wouldn’t have the right to look at him.

She turned away, her hand dropping away from his, unable to bear the thought of that possible separation. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she finally forced out, “Do I have the right to bring someone else into my life? Do I have the right?” Her voice shook on those last words.

“You do. You have the right,” he responded, coming to stand behind her. He gently enfolded her in his arms, his chest against her back. His heart aligned with hers. He placed a soft kiss against her ear, as he whispered those words.

“But…,” she began tremulously, clutching at his arms and holding him close. “You are a good person. You could find a much better girl, whose life isn’t so complicated, and whose past isn’t stained by scandal. You could find someone untouched by life’s tragedy. You have your family to think about. And being with me…could thrust you into scandal once more.” Tears began to fall from her eyes, her lips trembling once more. The fear of rejection was so strong that she had to force these words out.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” Maan said gently, turning her around to face him. He gently wiped away her tears with his thumb. His touch turned into a caress, lingering on the warmth of her cheek. “I never said that I wanted a perfect woman. What I want is you… exactly as you are, because that’s what is perfect for me.” He leaned in and placed a kiss against her lips. “There is no one better than you for me. When I fell in love you with . . . that’s is when I realized what true love was. You are the meaning of love to me. You are my future.”

“But if something about my past hurt you or your family, what would they think about me?” she asked in exasperation, trying to point out that his blanket acceptance could be dangerous.

“And my family,” he continued, “Their happiness is in my happiness. But one thing . . . you are a bit complicated, Miss Geet Handa. Sometimes it is hard to understand you,” he murmured, smiling teasingly at her.

“I told you,” she said snippily. She huffed at his teasing and turned away, ready to walk off just to show him how irritated she was.

His hand came out and wrapped around her wrist, his fingers gentle. Pulling her back against him, so that her back rested against his chest once more, he embraced her closely. Leaning down, he murmured somberly in her ear, “I’m sorry for teasing you.” He kissed the side of her neck, inhaling her scent deep into himself. “Yes, you’re complicated. But your complications, and how they have changed you and changed me, when I am around you, is what make life worth living.”

“I …, love you” she finally admitted, unable to keep the truth inside any longer. “I will marry you.” His supportive words … his loving touch had given her the courage she needed to go on without any fear. Maan would never reject her. “Still, I want to tell you about my past. Years ago, in Hoshiarpur . . .”

Knock. Knock. The sound was harsh in the silent room.

Geet jumped at the intrusive noise, immediately trying to get out of Maan’s arms. Maan’s arms tightened reflexively around her waist.

“Dammit,” he muttered, before reluctantly letting go. Stepping back, he shouted out, “Who is it?!”

“Bhai,” Vicky said, sticking his head inside the room.

“Vicky, I told you to make sure that no one interrupted us,” Maan ground out in frustration. “Not to interrupt me yourself.”

“I know, bhai,” Vicky said. “But this is important! Sameera is out there,” he whispered frantically.

“What? Why is she here?!” Maan barked at him.

“I don’t know!” Vicky shot back. “I thought she was off to follow her next rich target! I didn’t know that she would show up here! It’s my engagement party, bhai,” he whined. “I don’t want her ruining everything. Make her go away!”

Maan nodded and began to move towards the door.

“No!” Geet said, grabbing onto his arm. “No,” she repeated when he turned to look at her in surprise. “Let her stay. If you try to make her leave, she might make a big fuss. That would definitely ruin your party,” she said to Vicky. Turning back to Maan, she shook her head. “What can she do, Maan? By paying attention to her . . . by trying to get her out of here when she’s already here, will only give her what she wants.”

“I don’t want her here,” Maan growled angrily. “After what she did to hurt my son, how can I allow her to remain?”

“Maan,” Geet said hurriedly, knowing that if she didn’t stop him, Sameera might cause a scandal . . . and he wouldn’t like that at all. “Maan, please. Rahul will be in bed by now. And there will be no chance that he’ll see her,” she promised.

Maan stopped his rush to the library door. After thinking about it silently, he nodded reluctantly. “Fine, she can stay,” he conceded. “We’ll have security keep an eye on her. If she takes one step out of line, we’ll have them remove her without incident.”

Both Vicky and Geet nodded in agreement before following Maan from the library. It was just their luck that the first person they met was Sameera, who was waiting for their exit from the library.

“Why if it isn’t the illustrious Maan Singh Khurana,” came her voice from the bottom of the stairs.

Geet’s eyes alighted on the figure standing down there. She was a beautiful woman, but . . . also tacky. She was wearing a loud, skin-tight golden dress. She was covered with jewelry, as if she had something to prove.

‘Geet, what is wrong with you!’ she was shocked by how catty she sounded. How could she be thinking such thoughts about another woman? While the truth was bitter, she forced herself to admit that she was jealous. This was the woman that Maan Singh Khurana had fallen in love with. He had trusted her so completely, that his own brother had had to save him. ‘Does he love me that much?’ She glanced sideways at Maan, and caught him looking at her. He smiled reassuringly at her before going down the steps.

Vicky held out his arm to her. When Geet looked at him in confusion, he stuck it out even more, clearly wanting her to place her hand on his arm. She hesitantly did so, and he lead her down the stairs, patting her hand in comfort.

She could already see Sameera talking to Maan at the bottom of the stairs. When she joined them, she heard the tail end of Maan’s instructions to Sameera to not make a scene. “If you do, I’m going to have security take you out.”

“Maan, I would never make a scene!” Sameera protested, pouting up at him. “Why would you even think that? The only reason I’m here is that Rohan Ji wanted to come. I promise you, I’m not here to make any trouble. What reason would I have to make trouble? I mean, I tried to get with you, but eh well, it didn’t work out. Nor did it work out with Vicky. I have Rohan Ji now, and his fortune is bigger than the Khurana fortune.” She flicked her hair over her shoulder, and gazed dismissively at Geet and Vicky. Her eyes landed on Geet’s left hand.

“Ooh, nice ring,” she said. “And who are you engaged to madam?”

“None of your business,” Maan ground out, pulling Geet away from Vicky and to his side. “Keep away from my and Pari’s families and keep away from Geet,” he ordered. “Remember, if you cause any problems, I will make you pay.”

“I won’t do anything,” Sameera promised. “Scout’s honor,” she continued, putting two fingers up to her forehead in salute.

Maan walked away after a final glare at Sameera, pulling Geet with him. He signaled to two security guards, telling them to keep their eyes on Sameera. Vicky went in the other direction, eager to rejoin his bride-to-be.

“Maan, we need to talk,” Geet murmured anxiously, her eyes focused on the man pulling her along. “I need to tell you…”

“Maan beta, where were you?” Dadi Ma demanded, coming over. “Rahul wanted to say goodnight before Nakul took him upstairs, but you were nowhere to be found.”

“Dadi Ma, I needed to speak with Geet about something,” Maan quietly told his grandmother.

“Really?” Dadi Ma asked in an interested tone. “May I ask whether your conversation was successful?”

Maan silently held up Geet’s left hand, showing his grandmother the ring.

“Congratulations, Maan beta! Congratulations, Geet,” Dadi Ma cried out in happiness. She grabbed Geet in a big hug, trying to convey the joy she was feeling at this moment. Finally, all of her grandsons had found their happiness!

“Thank you, Dadi Ma,” Geet said somberly, knowing there was one more thing she needed to do before she could fully accept Maan’s proposal. She just hoped that she could get him alone soon.

“Ladies and gentleman, my name is Sameera, and I am a close friend of the family,” a voice filled the ballroom. It was loud and gratingly chirpy, reaching every corner of the room. Geet turned to look at the stage, her eyes widening to find Sameera standing in front of the band. A member of said band was trying to pull the microphone away from her, but a silent signal brought a lackey to the stage to act as her bodyguard.

“What is she doing?” Maan asked angrily, moving toward the stage. “Where are the security guards I put on her?” With two hurried steps, he was gone from her side.

“Maan!” Geet called out, trying to get his attention before he was out of hearing range. “Please…” But it was too late. He was already gone, making his way to the stage so that he could kick out that poisonous woman once and for all.

“Mr. Khurana, congratulations on your brother’s engagement,” a party guest called out. The well wisher moved up to Maan and held out his hand. When Maan reluctantly stopped to shake that hand, another hand proffered itself. And then another. It was if that one statement and moment of cordiality had opened the flood gates. “Mr. Khurana, congratulations!” And he was surrounded by a crowd, all wishing to have a little bit of his attention.

“As I stated, I am a close friend of the family. In fact, I have a really close relationship with two of the Khurana brothers. I was even the nanny for the Khurana heir for a little while,” Sameera continued from the stage. She smiled cattily at Geet, before turning her attention back to the crowd. “Since we have already witnessed the ring exchange between the happy couple, I think we can move on to other important things,” she said, raising her wineglass in a silent toast to the happy couple before turning back to the avidly listening crowd.

People began to whisper about what these other important things could be. Wasn’t the engagement today the main event?

Vicky moved toward the stage, clearly unhappy by Sameera’s shenanigans. Pari held him back, whispering quickly, “Let her do whatever she feels she needs to. You going over there and stopping her will only make people wonder more,” she murmured in his ear and pasted a fake smile on her face for their guests. “I mean, how much damage could she really do?”

“Since I am so close to the family and the Khurana brothers, I know something you don’t know,” Sameera called out. “Would you like me to share that secret with all of you?”

“Yes! Yes!” came from eager guests, who thought all of this part of the festivities.

“The truth is that Maan Singh Khurana is also engaged!” Sameera called out.

There were gasps of surprise from the guests around her. Geet felt Dadi Ma take a hold of her hand, giving her silent encouragement. A loud whoop of joy came from Vicky and Pari’s corner. Despite the clear welcome she saw in their eyes, her heart had begun to pound in unease. She knew that this woman had something else up her sleeve.

“And would you like to know who he is engaged to?” she called out, her gaze focused on Geet. Geet stepped back at the malevolence dripping from that gaze.

The crowd cried out an eager yes.

“Sameera!” Maan thundered, finally reaching the stage.

“Oh, look, it seems that Mr. Khurana doesn’t want the truth to come out,” Sameera said, turning to look at Maan. “Doesn’t it seem that Mr. Maan Singh Khurana is ashamed of this truth? Is he ashamed of his fiancé?”

Maan froze at the foot of the stage, unable to go a step forward. If he did so, the attendees would all believe that he was ashamed of Geet. He would never want that.

“It seems that he is in agreement with me about sharing this happy news with all of you,” Sameera said with a gleeful smile. She smirked at Geet, and then turned her attention back to the crowd. “Mr. Maan Singh Khurana is engaged to his child’s nanny, Miss Geet Handa.” She helpfully pointed out the lady for the attendees to see. “She’s the lady in the light brown sari over there, standing next to Maan’s Dadi Ma.”

Geet’s face paled when she realized that she was the center of attention. Everyone was turning to look at her, and while most of those gazes were curious or congratulatory, some were also skeptical or derisory. She flinched under those hateful gazes.

“But that’s not all,” Sameera continued. “I think it quite important to tell you a little bit about our Maan Singh Khurana’s fiancé.”

Geet began to back away, knowing that whatever was coming next would not be good. She wanted to tell her to stop, but she knew that it was too late.

“Miss Handa is completing her last semester, and she will be getting a degree in teaching. She plans on teaching young, innocent minds, just like our Rahul Khurana. Where is the darling boy, Maan?” she laughed softly when he only glared at her, and then continued happily. “He must be asleep. Well, one very important thing that I think all of you should know . . . before Geet Handa begins teaching your children . . .”

“No,” Geet murmured. “Please don’t.”

“Geet Handa had quite a past. I think it imperative that you all know that the woman who will be teaching your young children is a . . . killer.”

Shock ran through the crowd, Sameera’s revelation having an electric effect on them. A group converged on the stage, wanting more of the juicy details. Maan was soon surrounded. Frantic whispers began around her, until they were a roar. Fingers pointing at her and then staring at the Khuranas. Avid gazes focused on Geet, their rapacious gaze making Geet want to disappear.

A killer.

Her frantic gaze looked for familiar faces. For faces that would understand her plight, reach out a helping hand. Her gaze landed on Pari, who was looking at her with shocked sympathy. But behind her stood Pari’s parents….glaring at the woman who had ruined their only child’s engagement.

“A killer. . .”

She turned her head and met Dadi Ma’s unhappy gaze. Pinky and Adi were not far away, staring at her with shock in their eyes. Pinky’s eyes welled up in tears to see the heartbreak on Geet’s face.

“A killer?”

Geet’s hands clenched, as she fought the emotions welling up inside of her. She didn’t want to cry in front of them. She couldn’t cry in front of them! Abruptly turning, she found herself face to face with the last man on earth she wanted to see right at that moment.

Maan Singh Khurana. She immediately lowered her eyes, unable to face him.

“She’s a killer! Maan Singh Khurana is engaged to a killer!”

She had brought scandal to the Khurana family after all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 24: Abandon All Hope
~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Geet stared at the floor, unable to move, to think, to breathe. She felt like she was drowning, and there was no one here to save her. Again. All eyes were on her, and she was in this . . . revealing sari. Everyone would see her scars. Her hand crept up in a futile effort to cover those scars.

She took a step back, the whispers growing around her, taking her under back to the hole of blackness she’d suffered in for far too long. Another step. And another. Escape was so near. Turning, she made her way to the door, unable to face the condemnation in the faces of the people around her. But she wouldn’t run. No one would see her run!

The breath whooshed out of her when her body slammed into another’s.

She closed her eyes, her lips trembling. It was him. She knew it . . . by his touch, his scent, his effect on her. It was Maan. Forcing her eyes down, she fixed her gaze on her feet. She could not look up . . . none of her pride . . . none of the courage that had brought her here today was left inside of her. She just wanted to leave. Geet pulled back and moved around him, continuing on to her escape.

He reached out and silently grabbed her arm. When her head jerked up in response, he shook his head at her, indicating that she could not get away that easily. Turning, he moved across the ballroom. Everything else was a blur, the faces . . . the crowd seeming to disappear, just like she had wanted it to disappear. She retreated into herself, her only anchor to sanity being her ability to close out the world around her.

They exited the ballroom. She said nothing when they reached the stairs and steadily went up. No one had stopped them. No one had dared to, not with the look that Maan Singh Khurana had on his face. Maan reached the top of the stairs, and pulled her into the first room they encountered. It was a storage room, dark and dank. When he shut the door behind them, they were left with only the moonlight streaming in to illuminate the darkened room.

Geet pulled her arm away from him and slowly moved away, her blank gaze moving over the dark environs of the room.

“Geet,” he murmured, moving closer. His hand came out.

She stepped back.

“Geet!” he protested.

“Bhai!” a voice called out. “Bhai, where are you?” The voice faded as the individual moved off, as if unsure of where Maan actually was.

“Damn it,” he muttered, angry at the interruption. “Why won’t they leave me alone? I don’t . . . ”

“Bro, I really think you need to come out here,” Dev’s voice said from the other side of the door. “We need to do something about Sameera, and the crowd is getting antsy. I think it would be better if we sent everyone home.”

Maan stared at Geet, his frustrated eyes taking in the tears that had begun to fall. Her expression was still glazed, as if she wasn’t completely there. Reaching out a hand, he wiped those tears away. After a brief moment of indecision, he moved in, leaning his forehead against hers, taking comfort from that simple touch. She didn’t back away, but he didn’t even know if she realized that he was there. He wanted to stay, but the continuing knocks on the door were a deterrent.

She took a shaken breath when his brothers banged on the door once more. Her whole being began to vibrate with the emotions coursing through her body.

“Stay,” he ordered. “I’ll be back.” Moving back, he cupped her cheek, gazing into her eyes. They were still glazed. “Stay.” With one final glance at her, he turned and left her alone in the room. Stopping at the door, he reached out and flicked on a light, leaving it to fight the near darkness surrounding her. Exiting, he shut the door softly behind him.

Geet stood there, staring unseeingly into space. Slowly, as seconds turned into minutes, she began to return from that place deep inside of herself where she had retreated. She was awakening bit by bit. Slowly . . . so slowly . . . she turned her head, her eyes beginning to move over the room itself. Her heart began to calm. She even found herself breathing a bit more easily. And then the rest of her body began to thaw from the horror that had held her frozen for so long.

Her eyes hesitantly moved over the room, taking in the cobwebs that covered every corner. Her brow crinkled in confusion . . . this room looked oddly familiar. Wasn’t this the room she had hidden in when trying to keep away from Maan?

She paused for a moment. Maan. Where was Maan?

She shivered slightly, her skin chilled by the cool air in the room. Multiple windows were spaced throughout the room, allowing in moonlight, along with the cold air. The slanted moonlight concealed more than it revealed, and a light bulb illuminated a small corner of the room. That light, coupled with the moonlight, was enough for her to see the objects filling that room.

She looked around, searching the room carefully, but it was completely empty. Had Maan just left her here? Why? Her heart clenched as a thought sparked in her mind. Had she been left here to be forgotten, just like all of these other items in the room?

She turned her head slightly, upon hearing the soft flap of wings. Her eyes widened when she realized there were pigeons in here with her. She moved deeper into the room. An old rocking chair. A bed frame leaning against the wall. Meandering to the left, she saw sheets covering weirdly shaped items. Old furniture that the family could not bear to throw away, perhaps? A small tricycle. Had Maan ridden this as a child? Further on, a folding screen.

She turned her eyes away, facing the wall and saw them. Pictures. Geet moved closer, wanting to investigate this glimpse into Maan’s past. Geet knew that she was using these objects and pictures to distract herself, but she couldn’t force her mind to focus on those more important things. She didn’t even want to focus on the question that was still circling through her mind . . . where was Maan?

There was a picture of a distinguished couple. Could these be Maan’s parents? The man looked arrogant, and the woman looked extremely fragile. There was a picture of a young girl. Her features looked extremely familiar. She had seen those features before on more masculine faces. Geet leaned closer, intrigued. Could this be Annie? Pictures of a much younger Vicky . . . of Dev. Pictures of a lighthearted Dadi Ma. There were family pictures . . . of celebrations . . . graduations. Conspicuously absent were any pictures of Maan.

Geet moved closer and stumbled against a table. Her eyes arrowed down to see the table covered with trinkets, small boxes and books. Uninterested, she turned back to the wall, but something tugged at her senses. Looking back down at the table, she saw a picture frame, face down. Picking it up, she turned it over slowly, trepidation growing in her heart.

It was a picture of Maan . . . a Maan that she had never had the chance to see in real life. He was smiling so joyfully. Her heart clenched when she saw how young and hopeful he looked. It was clearly a picture of before . . . before everything. His experiences had taken that hope away. The scandals and betrayals had taken the smile away. She touched the picture lovingly, but her hand fell away with the realization that the man in that picture was gone.

Today . . . some of those wrinkles had been caused by her scandal. Her hiding her past had been a betrayal. Tears began to fall with a vengeance. Could she stand to see the love in his eyes turn to hate when he had to live every single day with the scandal she had brought into his life? Could she live with him happily, knowing the burden she had placed on his shoulders?

She turned away from the picture, putting it back on the table with a snap, unable to look into his eyes any longer. Glancing down, her gaze chanced upon a small box, lying open. A shudder ran through her body, but her heart finally came to the conclusion that her mind had already reached while she was in that state of frozen agony.

She took the engagement ring off her finger and placed it in that box, her breath coming in tortured gasps as she forced her fingers to let the ring go. Agony was coursing through her body, as she stepped back from his picture . . . from his ring. It was time for her to go. She did not belong in this home. She could not be a part of Maan’s life when it would mean hurting him even more.

“Why didn’t I realize that for you and I …,” she murmured, looking at his smiling face once more, “there could never have been an us?” It was better for her to be forgotten. This room was here to house his old memories. This is where memories and any traces of her belonged.

Stealing out the door, she moved down the steps, making her way to the back entrance of the mansion. She could not bear to see anyone. They would try to stop her. They would try to pretend it was okay, but she knew it wasn’t. Maan had gone through enough pain in his life. He didn’t have to suffer any longer, even if he mistakenly thought their love would be enough. Before she knew it, her steps had taken her to the back door and she was opening it for the last time. She froze on the top step, her eyes glued to the man waiting for her at the foot of those steps.

Vicky.

Taking a deep breath, she began to move down the steps, her gaze looking away from him.

“I knew you would do something like this,” Vicky finally said, stepping away from the wall he had been leaning against. “What are you doing? What happened to the promise you just made in there to me?” he asked, pointing over her shoulder at the ballroom. “I told you that bhai wouldn’t be grateful if you did something like this!” He reached out and grabbed her arm, stopping her from leaving.

“How can you ask me that?” Geet ground out. Her hands curled into fists. “Do you want me to stay here? After that truth came out? You saw the looks on your guests’ faces. They were horrified. How can you even think that I would be so shameless to stay after seeing that?”

“But you came here with that past, didn’t you?” Vicky argued. “Obviously you were thinking something when you came here. If you trusted bhai enough to reveal your truth, what’s changed now? What made you lose your courage, Geet?”

“When I came here, your brother would have known the truth, not the entire world! What I thought and what I saw in there were two different things! Reality was much bitterer than I hoped!” Geet shouted back at him, finally yanking her arm away. She put a little distance between them, hoping that it would help him to calm down.

“Do you think reporters would have left you alone once it came out that you were Maan Singh Khurana’s fiancé? Your past would have come out. People would have investigated you! Your every secret would have been revealed to the world. You had to have known that,” he argued, seeing her face blanch. “Stay,” he urged her. “Stay and fight for your love. Stay and fight for my brother. Let him know that he’s worth that effort! No one has done that before,” he ground out in frustration.

“Do you want your brother linked to a murderer, especially when the Khurana name has garnered him notoriety all these years? His father was an adulterer. His siblings were illegitimate bastards. His wife a . . . ,” Geet trailed off, unable to even say the word. “And now his fiancé . . . his wife a murderer? How can I bring him even more pain?” Her voice broke on the last words.

“Maan bhai doesn’t care about that,” Vicky shot back, advancing on her angrily. “He loves you. Even a blind person can see how much he loves you. Why can’t you?”

“I guess . . . I’m blind,” Geet finally responded bleakly. “I don’t deserve to see his love. I don’t deserve his love.” She was tired. She had spent last night mustering up her courage to come here and had been so close to telling him. But that was before she faced the reality of what him being with her . . . of her being with him would really mean.

There were a few beats of silence as the two grappled with reality, and thought of what to say next to convince the other.

“We only met recently,” he finally said hoarsely, “But I thought I knew you. I never thought that you would have such a . . . defeatist attitude.” He swallowed. “Were you always such a coward?”

She stared at Vicky. “Do you realize that the mere fact that I was your brother’s fiancé for those five minutes, I lost everything? Someone thought it was okay to reveal my past like that . . . in such an ugly way. Just because I was in a relationship with him for five minutes, someone thought it was okay to strip me bare in front of the world! Do you realize,” she ground out, her hands going up to grab at her hair in frustration, “that I just . . . lost the life I had spent the past few years dreaming about? The life that I was so close to achieving? Did I deserve that?” she asked.

Vicky fell back at those words.

Geet gazed at him sadly, her lips trembling with the emotion tearing away at her. “I just need to think about this. I need to deal with the fact that my world just imploded around me.” Gazing at him one more time, she turned and walked away. After all, what was left to say?

“Geet?” he called out from behind her.

Geet stopped, but did not turn around. She could not face him one more time.

“You’re not coming back, are you?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Aapka humsafar aapki zindagi mein aaj hi aane wala hai . . . yeh lo taveez. Isse usse pehna dena, phir dekhna. Babaji ki mehar aap dono par hamesha rahe gi.”

(Your lifemate is coming into your life today. Here, take this taveez. Have him wear it. Then you’ll see. God’s benevolence will always be with the both of you.)

Geet stared down at the taveez in her hand, her heart lifting in joy at the fortuneteller’s word. Could she believe in this fortune? Her hands curled around the taveez, not wanting to let it go. She wanted to believe so badly.

“Do you think it will come true, Dolly Bhabi?” she asked, looking up with a smile. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. Where was Dolly Bhabi? “Rajji? Titu? Ma?’ She looked around, her frantic gaze moving over the emptying fair ground. Where had everyone gone? Moving quickly through the area, almost running now, she made her way to the gates. “Have you seen my family? Do you know where Papa Ji might have gone?” she asked acquaintances, but all shook their head in negation.

Geet stood there in an agony of indecision. Should she wait here or should she make her way home? Home wasn’t too far away, and if Brij Veer Ji found out that she was out alone, he would be so angry. Her heart began pounding in fear, knowing that it would be much more dangerous to stay here to be found than to find her own way home.

Geet took a step forward, and then stopped. The crowd was thinning, and she did not want to attract attention to herself. She carefully draped her dupatta around herself, securing it to cover her head and upper torso carefully so that only her eyes showed. Moving quickly, she began to make her way towards home. As she reached the edge of the festival grounds, her body glanced off of someone else, falling back from the impact. Geet gasped in fear and quickly apologized for her clumsiness.

“What have we here?” a male voice asked lazily.

Geet looked up and saw the smirk on the face of the man standing in front of her.

“Excuse me,” she said softly, moving to the left.

The man mirrored her movement, blocking her path once more.

“Excuse me,” she repeated, moving the other way, but had the same result. “Please,” she said disjointedly, “I need to go home.”

“Why don’t you spend some time with me?” he asked. “With me and my friends. We’ll enjoy it. And I assure you, you’ll enjoy it, too.” He reached out a hand to grab her.

Geet stepped back and looked at the four men advancing toward her.

“No! Leave me alone. Someone, please help me!” she shouted, attracting the attention of some of the bystanders. As the crowd looked at them with curiosity, some good Samaritans even moving forward to help, Geet took off running across the road. Her breath falling in short gasps, her lungs aching from the exercise, she struggled to keep running. She could see hear the footsteps of those animals behind her in hot pursuit.

“Please,” she murmured, looking over her shoulder in worry. “Please, Baba Ji, save me.” Her distracted gaze failed to see the vehicle in front of her. She heard the screech of tires, and then gasped, the air expelled from her body from the impact.

Geet fell to the ground, struggling to breathe as pain coursed through her body. But even this pain was nothing compared to some of the beatings she had received from Brij Veer Ji. At least the car had tried to stop, she thought fuzzily, remembering the screech of tires. Getting up quickly, with the help of a pair of hands, she shook the pain off. She shook her head, hoping that it would clear it. “That wasn’t a good idea,” she muttered, breathing deeply to fight the nausea that was welling up.

Looking over her shoulder, her dazed gaze saw the men chasing her had melted into the crowd. At least something good had come out of this accident. She took a deep breath, the sharpness of the pain fading just enough for her become a little bit more centered in herself. The nausea faded and she was able to stand up straight. Turning, she began to walk quickly towards home.

“Wait! Are you okay?” a voice called out from behind her.

Geet turned her head towards the voice, but before she could catch sight of the voice’s owner behind her, she felt herself roughly grabbed by the arm. She cried out in pain and alarm, wondering if those men had returned.

“What are you doing here?” Brij Veer Ji’s voice roared at her, jerking her around to face him. “How dare you be out here alone?”

Geet’s eyes widened in panic, realizing her brother had come to get her, and he was furious. He began to drag her along, his quick steps causing her to stumble at times.

Someone stopped them, daring to grab on to her brother’s arm. No one dared to do that in Hoshiarpur. “Where are you taking her?”

“What do you think you’re doing here?!” Brij shouted at the male, turning to glare at him. “Just leave from here quietly.”

“I just hit her with my car,” the man said, unfazed by the anger directed at him. “At least let me see if she is okay,” he said.

Geet flinched as her brother’s hand tightened around her arm, knowing that she would have another bruise there in the morning.

“Oy, I told you . . . just leave here quietly or you might just lose more than you bargained for in your aim to be a hero,” Brij spat at the man. “This is my sister. And this,” he said, shaking off the man’s constraining grip, “Is none of your business.” Brij dragged Geet away.

Geet closed her eyes, knowing that not even prayer would save her now.

Those bruises had been nothing compared to what had been waiting for her at home. Not only had she faced Brij Veer Ji’s anger, she had to suffer her grandfather’s anger. And then the fire . . . That heartless man hadn’t even seen the bruises already there. He hadn’t considered that she was already punished enough for her inattention. But the scars that he had left on her body that day . . . were nothing compared to the scars he had left on her soul.

Geet stared at the walls of the Handa haveli. She was back. It hurt her heart to realize that when her world had started falling down around her, her only thought had been to come to the place where she had been so unhappy. It seemed like a lifetime since she was last here in Hoshiarpur. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks, as she accepted that truth. She didn’t belong in the world out there. Not when she was a killer.

Her eyes moved over the walls of her old home. There were pictures of the family here, echoes of a past that still had the power to hurt her. The prideful Brij Veer Ji, who was so careful of that pride. He was standing next to Dolly Bhabi, unsmiling. Her Daar Ji, the man that had allowed and even encouraged Brij to become the monster he was. Her Uncle and Aunt, Brij Veer Ji’s, Rajji’s and Titu’s parents. At least they were smiling. There was Rajji, young and so innocent. And brave Titu, standing up with the help of his braces. Despite the abuse and bullying he had suffered at his schoolmates’ hands, and even Brij Veer Ji’s hands, he had always remained a kind, compassionate individual. And there was a picture of her Ma and Papa Ji standing with her.

Turning away, the memories hurting too much, she looked at the dust and cobwebs that covered every surface, save a few. Pammi bhabi and Lucky bhai had made some headway in cleaning, but it was a huge task for just two people. But maybe this was how it was supposed to be . . . living in an old, dusty haveli, surrounded by the bitter memories of the past. Everything had been closed up when they left here, and maybe she deserved to be closed up along with it.

A hand fell on her shoulder, squeezing it in sympathy. “Geet, please, stop crying,” Pammi bhabi said. Geet turned to look at her sister-in-law. “Here, eat something,” Pammi urged. “Lucky went and got us some supplies, and I made this food for you to eat.”

Geet just shook her head silently, knowing that nothing would get past the lump in her throat. She patted the hand in gratitude, comforted that these two had come with her. When she had raced home, her only thought of escape, they hadn’t questioned twice why she needed to leave. Pammi Bhabi had asserted that she would be coming along, and Lucky had silently nodded in agreement. Her parents had only ever wanted her peace of mind. They hadn’t stood in her way, either.

“Thank you,” she murmured, those words being the only thing she could eke out before her throat closed up again. She got up, and began to walk out of the room, but fell against a side table, knocking everything down from it. Kneeling down, she began to pick up the papers, yellowed with old age. Her robotic movements stilled when she saw the content. Newspaper articles about the events of six years ago. Stories about girls missing. She gasped softly when she saw the next article . . . an article about Channi disappearing. Her fingers traced the features of the lovely young girl, who had been such a close and dear friend.

“I’m not going back, Geet! I’m not going back. That man . . . it’s disgusting. Do you have any idea . . .? if I have to go back, I will kill myself!” Rajji shouted, backing away from Geet.

Geet’s eyes widened in disbelief, seeing the broken girl standing in front of her. Rajji had been married for two years, but they had rarely had the chance to see the girl. Every time the family went to her in-laws’ home, no one was allowed to meet with Rajji. Rajji was sick. Rajji had gone out for the day. Rajji was busy with some other matters. But none of it had been true, had it? The excuses had been many, and the male folk in their family had never pushed.

Rajji had run away. Her younger cousin, innocent no longer, clutched at Geet in desperation. “Help me!” she cried out. “Please don’t make me go back.” The fear was very real in Rajji’s eyes. The desperation . . . the disgust. Rajji had lost weight. Gone was the carefree, bubbly girl that had been Geet’s close companion. In her place was a hollow shell, who trembled at the mere idea of being forced to go back to her husband.

“I won’t, Rajji,” Geet said quickly, hugging her close. “I won’t. I promise. How could you come alone so far?” she asked worriedly. “You know that girls have gone missing. What if something had happened to you?”

“It wouldn’t have been worse than what I’m facing every day,” Rajji responded heavily.

“Rajji let me take that gun.” Geet had quickly grabbed the weapon, putting it aside so that she could hug the young, shaking girl in comfort. “Why do you even have a gun? When did my little Rajji become a hunter?”

Rajji had laughed, albeit a short watery laugh in the midst of her tears. It had probably been her first laugh in years.

If only she hadn’t . . . Not knowing any better, Geet had taken Rajji to the purani haveli (old mansion). It was just burnt walls, no roof, barely any shelter for the young girl who needed to escape. Geet had thought that she could keep Rajji safe until they could find some permanent solution. She hadn’t even thought for a moment to share the truth with her family. She had known by then, that no one would go against Daar Ji and Brij. And they would never let anything happen to their reputation.

Before any plans could be made, Brij found them. It hadn’t taken her long to realize once the truth came out, that she had taken Rajji to their hideout. To a serial killer’s lair.

“Rajji, you have to eat,” Geet urged her younger cousin. “You need to take care of your health.”

“Why?” Rajji retorted. “Why do I need to take care of myself? For what? To go back to that house? To that cage? I don’t want to go back! I can’t go back, Geet didi,” Rajji said through gritted teeth.

“I won’t let them take you,” Geet said, “I promise.”

“And what will you do about it?” a voice roared from behind them.

The two girls jerked around in fear, their eyes widening upon seeing the man standing behind them.

“How dare you leave your home without permission?!” he shouted, moving towards them. “Your in-laws called us today, saying that Rajji had run away.” He glared at Rajji as he said those words. “How dare you bring shame to our family?”

“Your shame? Your honor?” Rajji cried out. “What about me?”

“You are nothing!” he shouted back, advancing on them. “Nothing but a stain on our honor by the mere fact that you were born a female. How dare you even thinking of tainting the Handa name by running away from your husband?! And you,” he said, glaring at Geet, “How dare you betray your family like this?”

The two girls began to back away, afraid of the furious light in his eyes. He began to approach the two, his hand going to the back of his neck to rub it as he moved his head from side to side, a familiar sign of his growing anger.

“I’m not going back!” Rajji shouted at him. “Do you know how horrible it was living in that household?”

“You are going back,” he shouted at her. “You will not be allowed to bring scandal on our family’s name! Do you have any idea what your leaving your husband will do to the Handa name? It is a name to be revered here in Hoshiarpur. I will not allow a sniveling, perfidious girl ruin our legacy.”

“I am not going back,” Rajji reiterated. “Nothing you say will make me change my mind. You take me back, and I will run away again. They can make me stay there for how long? One day . . . two days? There will come a time when their guards will tire . . . where they will stop keeping an eye on me. And then I’ll run. I don’t care about the Handa name! I care about me. Why should I have to sacrifice myself because you gave your word? Nothing you do will make me stay!”

“Nothing?” he asked softly, his eyes flickering to the left.

“Nothing,” Rajji repeated, backing away. Geet’s hand clutched at her, urging her to remain silent.

The girls jumped when he laughed harshly and began to move away. Their eyes followed him as he advanced to the fireplace and pulled down the sword hanging above the mantle.

“What-what are you doing?” Geet gasped, her eyes glued to the sword now clutched in Brij Veer Ji’s hand.

“If she won’t go back,” he said grimly, “Then there’s no reason for her to live. Why should she be allowed to live when her mere existence will be a taint on the Handa name? She will not ruin us!” He began to advance toward them, his murderous intent now clear.

“Brij Veer Ji, how can you say that?” Geet asked, pulling Rajji back when Brij swung out with the sword. She flinched at the resolve in his eyes. Rajji began to whimper in fear.

“If your life was so precious to you,” he muttered, “Then you should’ve taken care of our reputation. There is only one punishment for the person who plays with our name . . . and that is death,” he screamed, swinging the sword once more.

Geet and Rajji screeched in fear, backing away from him. Their eyes were glued to the swinging sword. “You can’t do this! We’re your sisters,” Geet shouted.”How can you do this to your own sister? She is the sister who learned how to walk while holding onto your finger.”

“And that’s the sad thing,” he shouted back, continuing to advance towards them. “Instead of teaching you how to walk, I should’ve killed you at birth. If I had done that, then my family’s reputation wouldn’t be at stake.”

“What reputation? That empty reputation . . . you’re protecting it by killing your sister? Don’t do it,” Geet urged him, pushing Rajji behind her. “You can’t do it. Baba Ji will never forgive you!”

“Enough!” he shouted, swinging out. This time he was lucky, and the sword sliced across Geet’s arm. Geet fell to the floor, clutching at the bleeding wound. But she wasn’t his main target. Brij Veer Ji stepped over her and moved towards Rajji. Rajji fell back, her eyes glazed in shock.

Geet staggered up, her tear-filled eyes focused on the horrific scenario in front of her. “No,” she whispered, looking around desperately for something . . . anything to stop this from happening. She needed to save Rajji. She needed to save her sister. Her frantic gaze landed on the gun Rajji had brought with her.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“I brought it to protect myself,” Rajji had confided, as she drank water from the glass that Geet held to her lips.”I walked here all night, Geet. What if someone had seen me and tried to take advantage? We heard about the girls going missing around here. My husband keeps this in his cabinet.” Her gaze grew haunted, as her mind recalled darker memories. “He would point it at me sometimes to scare me. And he shot it at the wall, so that I could see that it was loaded,” she blurted out.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This rifle, which had been used to terrify Rajji, would now protect her sister. Picking it up, she called out, “Stop, Brij Veer Ji! I’m telling you to stop,” she cried out, her grip shaky around the weapon. But his arrogance was so great, that the man didn’t even bother to look back. He continued his advance toward Rajji, who had fallen to the floor, a keening noise beginning to erupt from her mouth.

Geet pointed the gun up in the air and pressed the trigger. She staggered from the recoil of the weapon as it went off.

Brij turned around, his astounded gaze falling on Geet and the gun. “What do you think you’re doing?” he barked at her. “Put it down.”

“You need to leave,” she told him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “You need to leave and don’t come back.”

“You’re not going to shoot me,” he said confidently, turning back to look at Rajji at his feet. “You don’t have the courage.” Raising his sword, he swung downward, his intent clear. Rajji screamed in fear, raising her hands over her head in a futile effort to protect herself.

Geet raised the gun once more, frantic, and shot it at him. The bullet went through his shoulder, causing him to whirl around from the force of impact.

“You dare to shoot me?” he roared at her, one hand clutching at his shoulder. The wound had begun to bleed. Geet shuddered at the sight of the red blood. Geet began to back away from the ruthless light in his eyes.

“You will pay for this,” he said softly, moving towards her, his hand still clutching the sword.

Geet knew that he meant it. He would come for her, and when he was done with her, it would be Rajji’s turn. “Brij veerji! You can’t! If you don’t stop . . . ” Geet cried out, a desperate hope still left in her heart. He couldn’t mean to continue, could he? He wouldn’t hurt his own sisters. What man was capable of doing that?

Rajji came up behind him, afraid but so brave, and clutched at him. Her body was weak, and she had zero success in stopping him. Reaching back, he used his injured arm to brutally push her away. The force was so strong, that she crashed against one of the ruined walls, bashing her head against it. It knocked her unconscious.

“Just quietly face your death,” he ordered Geet, swinging the sword experimentally as he came toward her.

She moved back, her heart clenching at what she had to. With a small shriek, she stumbled over something … and began to fall. She heard his diabolical laughter as she fell, its timber taking on the intonation of pure evil. Without meaning to, her finger pressed the trigger and there was the sound of the gun going off . . . and then the silence after his laughter was cut off.

Trembling, she got up and looked over at the . . . she swallowed . . . it was no longer her brother. It was no longer the man that had tried to kill her moments ago. It was no longer the monster that had abused her for years. It was only a . . . she tilted her head, her eyes focused on the damage that the bullet had done to him . . . it was just a body now. He wasn’t moving. And she knew he was dead because no human being could survive after the damage he had suffered.

She began to cry, softly keening at what had just happened. Her eyes moved toward Rajji. She was lying there, her forehead bloody from the impact against the wall. Geet threw the gun to the side and walked to Rajji, and she pulled her head onto her lap. Cradling her, she began to rock back and forth.

“What’s going on here?!”

People had come running after hearing the sounds of the gunshots. First it had been the neighboring men, curious about the sounds. When they had seen the dead body on the floor and the young, bloodied girls, they had called the police. Everything had remained untouched. The sword remained in Brij Veer Ji’s hand. The gun next to Geet, lying on the floor.

When the police came, they were quick to put her in jail. Even with Rajji yelling about Geet saving the two of them, Geet had stayed imprisoned in that cage for weeks while the police did their investigation.

And then the truth had come out. The old haveli was covered with DNA evidence of all the kills Brij and his gang had committed against innocent girls and even men of the area. They had killed anyone they suspected of hurting the Hoshiarpur family’s reputations. And enough people had bought into this . . . hidden their reality, that they had gotten away with this for years.

Geet sobbed softly, remembering the past. They had found evidence that Brij and his group had killed Channi, her best friend. Gurvinder, the man who had so innocently loved Channi and only wanted to marry her. Komal. Zeenat. All the young girls of Hoshiarpur and the surrounding areas that had disappeared . . . the police found evidence of their murder at the old haveli. The weapons, mostly swords and knives, hidden there were enough not only to gain Geet her freedom, but also to catch all of Brij Veer Ji’s co-conspirators.

When the truth came out about Brij Veer Ji’s serial killer proclivities, the Handa name was dragged through the mud. Daar Ji couldn’t handle it and had suffered a heart attack and died within days.

Geet had been released. When she came out of jail, she saw immediately that people had begun to see her in a different way. Some lauded her as a hero. Channi’s mother had been so grateful. She’d seen the hero worship in the eyes of others. But there others who saw her as a killer, regardless of who it was that she had killed. Regardless of the fact that it had been for self-defense.

Notoriety followed her everywhere. Newspapers wouldn’t stop writing about her, nor her family. Reporters wouldn’t stop coming to their home, demanding stories to put in those articles. She’d stopped going out, unable to bear the judgmental eyes of the world on her. It was easier to stay at home until . . .

Until she realized that Brij Veer Ji’s parents, her own uncle and aunt, could not forgive her. It had taken her time to realize that for them, no matter how bad the child, he had been theirs. She had killed their child, and they remained bitter about that. And she realized that she could not even move freely around her own home.

Her parents, seeing their world fall apart around them, could only focus on their broken daughter. Geet remained in her darkened room, paralyzed by the horror she had gone through. Seeing that, they had finally made a decision. The family had decided to divide the property. They had sold off all the businesses and the lands, keeping only the haveli. That, they left closed up, unable to lose that final connection to Hoshiarpur. Geet’s family had left, deciding to never look back.

It had taken Geet years to get out of the depression she had fallen into. No matter how evil someone was, murder was still murder. That act had stained her soul with a mark that she could not wash off. She had taken the life of another human being, and that thought had kept her under. Then Rajji’s letter had come to her. Rajji was studying again. Her parents were letting her. She was going to be an advocate for women of domestic violence.

And Geet had seen a ray of hope. If Rajji could get through this, then what right did Geet have to be a coward? She was going to be strong, as well. She wanted to teach. She wanted to work with innocent young minds, and nurture their innocence as no one had nurtured her. She had spent the last couple of years of studying intensely, focusing on completing her studies so that she could begin a new life.

She stared at walls of the haveli once more. She thought that she had turned her back on all of this. But now . . . the future had been taken away from her. She could never be a teacher now. What was once only news in a small town paper, would now be news in all of India when it came out that the Khurana heir was engaged to a murderer named Geet Handa. Her notorious name, with its scandalous history, would bring scandal to the Khuranas once more.

Geet entered her old room, turning the lights off. She went and sat in the corner, closing her eyes and resting her head against the wall. Maybe she deserved to live here. In the shadows. Wasn’t that her family’s legacy now? A family of killers deserved to be dead or locked away in a cage.

She would pick her own prison this time around.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 25: Abandoned
~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The noise moved in waves, breaking over him as the news spread across the ballroom.

“Her name is Geet Handa! She is Maan Singh Khurana’s fiancé. She’s a murderer. A murderer! He’s marrying a murderer! Do you think he knew? Did that gold-digger hide the truth from the great Maan Singh Khurana? Someone finally fooled him, huh?”

The whispers continued. The waves never ending. There was some glee . . . some shock . . . some pity. He couldn’t bear any of it. He was surrounded by nosy onlookers, eager to hear gossip they could spread to those not here. Their avaricious gazes were focused on him and Sameera, their bodies eagerly pressing forward. Turning around, he met the gazes of each person in the crowd, singling them out one by one and silently telling them to back off. Most were intelligent enough to read the anger in his eyes and quickly retreated. For those not intelligent enough, he looked at the security stationed around the stage, pointing at those persistent stragglers. He also made a point of remembering those faces.

When he was alone in front of the stage, he folded his arms and glared at the woman who had been a blight on his life, hurting him and his loved ones, for far too long. But she wasn’t looking at him. Her gaze was focused on something behind him. She smirked slightly, as if finding the sight pleasing to her eyes. Turning, he followed her gaze to Geet . . . surrounded by other members of the crowd. While he couldn’t hear the words, he heard their lips moving. He saw how people began to move away from her, creating a circle of isolation around her.

He saw the desolation grow in Geet’s face.

Realization slammed through him. He had left Geet there. His arms fell to his sides. What was he doing? Protecting Geet should have been his priority, not punishing Sameera. Turning without a second thought, he strode back towards Geet. He even ignored the delighted chuckle that Sameera let loose behind him.

When he was close enough to place a hand on Geet’s shoulder, close enough to let her know he was there . . . she turned around, her body slamming into his. The breath whooshed out of him at the impact. He looked down. He saw her eyes closed and her lips trembling. Tears adorned her eyelashes like jewels. He wanted to make her pain disappear, but he couldn’t work miracles in such a short amount of time. Raising his hand, he extended it towards those tears, hoping to at least make them disappear.

Geet pulled back and moved around him, continuing on to her escape. It was as if she didn’t know it was him. But she wouldn’t get away that easily. He reached out and silently grabbed her arm. When her head jerked up in response, he shook his head at her. Tightening his hold on her hand, he turned and moved across the ballroom. He could feel her fingers trembling in his hand, her touch ice cold.

They exited the ballroom. She followed along docilely when he tugged her towards the stairs. She said nothing when they reached the stairs and steadily went up. Once they reached the top of the stairs, Maan pulled her into the first room they encountered.

It was their storage room, a dark and dank place. Despite the dark memories it held for him, for the moment it was a safe haven. When he finally shut the door behind them, they were left with only the moonlight streaming in to illuminate the darkened room. Staring down into her beloved face, he looked for a hint of some awareness. But there was nothing.

Geet pulled her arm away from him and slowly moved away, her blank gaze moving over the dark environs of the room.

“Geet,” he murmured, moving closer. His hand came out to touch her . . . to hold her . . . to hold on to her. His hand grasped empty air. She stepped back.

“Geet!” he protested, his heart clenching at the distance that seemed to be growing between them. The dreams that he had dreamt . . . they were all breaking down around him, and there was nothing he could do to save them. But no, he shook his head in denial. He wouldn’t let this break them.

“Bhai!” Vicky’s voice called out. “Bhai, where are you?” His voice faded as he moved off, as if unsure of where Maan actually was.

“Damn it,” he muttered, angry at the interruption. “Why won’t they leave me alone? I don’t . . . ” He thought darkly of siblings that could never do anything without him. Closing his eyes, he allowed himself to give silent voice to the thought that had been pulling at him for some time . . . he was so tired of being the one in charge. He sighed heavily, his hands clenching into fists in frustration.

“Bro, I really think you need to come out here,” Dev’s voice said from the other side of the door. “We need to do something about Sameera, and the crowd is getting antsy. I think it would be better if we sent everyone home.”

‘Then why can’t you send them home?‘ he silently thought to himself. ‘Can’t you see that I can’t leave her alone? No, I don’t want to leave her alone.’ Maan stared at Geet, his frustrated eyes taking in the tears that had now begun to fall with a vengeance. Her expression was still glazed, as if she wasn’t completely there. Reaching out a hand, he tenderly wiped those tears away. After a brief moment of indecision, he moved in, leaning his forehead against hers, taking comfort from that simple touch. She didn’t back away, but he didn’t even know if she realized that he was there. He wanted to stay, but the continuing knocks on the door were a deterrent.

She took a shaken breath when his brothers banged on the door once more. Her whole being began to vibrate with the emotions coursing through her body. He wanted to hold her close, but duty called once more.

“Stay,” he ordered. “I’ll be back.” Moving back, he cupped her cheek, gazing into her eyes. They were still glazed. “Stay.” With one final glance at her, he turned and left her alone in the room. Stopping at the door, he reached out and flicked on a light, leaving it to fight the near darkness surrounding her. Exiting, he shut the door softly behind him.

Maan stood outside those doors, glaring at his men standing on the other side. Dev and Vicky stood in front of him, their eyes worried and expressions unhappy. Maan’s glare softened when he realized that his ex-girlfriend had just ruined his brother’s engagement, but Vicky wasn’t focused on that. He was worried about Maan and Geet.

“Bhai, is Geet Bhabhi okay?” he asked, glancing at the closed door over Maan’s shoulders.

Maan’s heart softened even further at that query.

“Geet will be fine,” he said with an assurance that he could almost convince himself he felt. This was the same Geet Handa who had stood up to him multiple times. She had come here tonight and said yes to his proposal. She wouldn’t let something like this defeat her. He took a deep breath. She couldn’t.

He reached out his hand and clasped Vicky’s shoulder. “I’ve asked her to stay in the room. Let’s go deal with Sameera first. And then,” he said with a smile, “We’ll really celebrate.” He strode down the stairs, closely followed by Dev. Looking back, he noticed Vicky still standing in front of the storeroom’s doors. “Vicky?” he called out.

“Coming, bhai,” Vicky said, rushing down the stairs to stand next to him.

The trio strode into the ballroom, and were immediately surrounded by curious onlookers, awaiting further tantalizing gossip. The crowd moved in closer when they saw the Khurana men entering the room. Maan ignored them all and walked towards the stage. Getting up onto the stage, Maan looked at the crowd standing in front of him. His eyes flickered over Sameera, standing by the side of the stage, her arm held by one of the security guards. He nodded his head approvingly at his head of security for having the forethought to keep Sameera here.

“Thank you for coming tonight,” Maan began smoothly. “Unhappily, you were all a witness to some ugliness that should not have been exposed in this manner. For those of you who are our close friends, I ask that you not spread this information.” Maan paused for a moment, his eyes moving over his audience. “For those of you who might not be so close to us, such that you might feel free to spread this news . . . remember who I am.” He crossed his arms across his chest and raised his chin in challenge. “It will be a mistake to get on my bad side.” Members of the audience shifted uncomfortably at that reminder. “Now, I apologize for cutting this event short, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask all of you to leave now.”

One by one, people began to disperse, whispering amongst themselves about what had happened today. Soon, only the Khuranas, Pari’s family and Sameera were left. Maan had quietly ordered the guards to leave, as well.

Dadi Ma stood to the side, her face reflecting her unhappiness. Another family celebration had been ruined. She sat down, her legs no longer able to support her. Would her family ever have the chance for some happiness without scandal erupting in the midst of it all? What had her grandchildren ever done to suffer like this?

Meera brought her a glass of water and helped her to drink it. She gazed up when Dev came to stand by them. Dev said nothing, unable to move past his own guilt. Although it was Sameera that had ruined this event, but would things have been different if he hadn’t run away all those years ago? Shaking those thoughts aside, knowing that they were useless now, he focused on what was important. Leaning down, he put a supportive hand on his grandmother’s shoulder to offer what comfort he could.

Dadi Ma acknowledged his efforts by reaching up and patting his hand. Looking up, she smiled at him. She no longer blamed Dev for his actions so long ago. He had been young and in love. Could one really expect intelligent choices from a youth in love? She hoped that her smile conveyed to him that there was no need for further penitence.

Dev gestured to Meera, and the two helped Dadi Ma up. They escorted her from the room, knowing that staying would only further upset her. Maan could handle Sameera. The older woman acquiesced, feeling too old for this drama.

Pari stood to the right and watched Maan frowning at Sameera. Sameera looked back at him coldly. Pari sighed, knowing that she needed to get her parents out of here. Turning to them, she said, “Mom, dad, please leave for now. I need to stay here and make sure everything is okay.”

“Pari! Leave with us. We don’t want you staying in a house with a murderer!” her mother protested, gripping Pari’s arm. “How could we just leave you here? That woman ruined your engagement party with her mere presence, and now you want us to leave you behind in the same house? We don’t even know where she is or what she could do.”

“Mother, you know nothing about what is going on here!” Pari protested hotly, her face reddening at such prejudice from her loving parent. She removed her mother’s hand from her arm. “You have always been fair-minded. Don’t take anything at face value. Geet is a wonderful person, and whatever happened . . . there has to be a reason for it. I will come home later.” She quickly ushered her parents out, asking Nakul to see them to the door. That task completed, she looked around, only to wrinkle her brow in confusion. “Where did Vicky go?”

Maan glared at the woman standing at the foot of the stage, her arms crossed across her chest. She was tapping her foot impatiently, a pout on her pink lips. “What?” she whined, noticing the look he was directing towards her.

Maan stepped off the stage and moved over to tower over her. His eyes revealed the anger burning inside of him. This woman had broken Geet’s heart, holding her past up in front of the world. She had ruined the life that Geet had so carefully planned for herself. She had brought trouble into their lives even before they had had a chance to enjoy the beginning of their lives together. A muscled tightened in his jaw, as he struggled to control himself. The way things were right now, the fury bubbling strongly inside of him, that he knew if he opened his mouth he would begin to yell.

“Look, I wasn’t lying,” Sameera asserted, and pulled papers out of her clutch. They were small scraps of articles, carrying the headlines of “Killer in Hoshiarpur!” and other similar things. “Look at these newspapers. She was infamous in her little town and the surrounding areas. She murdered her own cousin. And if that wasn’t enough, her cousin was a serial killer. She has that blood running through her veins,” she pointed out boldly. “Her grandfather died when the truth came out. Most people say that it was from the shame of having his name tainted, not because his grandson was a killer. Some even say that he might have known and encouraged his grandson’s homicidal tendencies.”

Maan stepped back at that revelation, his arms falling to his side.

“I revealed nothing that wouldn’t have been found out in time,” she argued, backing up to put some more distance between the two of them. “She was going to be your fiancé. The world would have been rabidly curious about the Khurana heir’s bride. I just pushed things along. It was so easy for me to find out, and I’m no special detective. You think others wouldn’t have discovered the truth?”

“You knew about her before you even came into this house. You were prepared,” Maan noted, his head tilted to the side. “How did you know?”

“It wasn’t hard to pay one of your servants to disclose the goings on of this house,” she revealed, throwing that nameless servant under the bus.

Maan silently made note of this, planning on ferreting out the individual. He wouldn’t bother asking Sameera, since the woman knew his employees. What would stop her from naming someone else out of malice? “Why do you even care who I’m with?” he barked at Sameera, moving forward to lean over her threateningly. “You ran out on me!”

Sameera began to laugh incredulously, as she gazed up at him. “You really don’t get it, do you?” She took a deep breath, visibly calming herself down. “You deserved some sort of payback!” she yelled in his face, incensed for some reason known only to her.

“Payback for what?!” he roared back at her. “I thought I loved you. You’re the one who fooled me! I was about to propose to you when you ran off with my little brother.”

Sameera’s mouth fell open at that revelation, her eyes blinking in shock. It was as if she was unable to process that revelation. A moment of silence and one deep breath later, she shook her head and turned to glare around the ballroom. “I see your younger brother has disappeared. Again.”

Maan looked around, surprised that Vicky had left at such a moment.

“He fooled me into leaving with him and then left me!” Sameera ranted. She began to pace back and forth. “You think that I didn’t figure out what his grand plan was when he came running back home to you? Imagine how not surprised I was when I heard about this engagement!”

“Sameera,” Maan pointed out, “Why are you changing history? He didn’t leave you. You left him, remember? You thought that he no longer had any money and decided to move on to greener pastures.”

“Well, he lied about not having money, didn’t he? What makes it okay for him to lie to me like that?” she demanded, her arms crossing over her chest.

“Are you for real?” Pari cried out, unable to listen to this drivel for a moment longer. Striding over to stand next to Maan, she angrily stabbed her finger towards Sameera. “How deluded can you be? You made Maan believe that you loved him! He was going to propose to you when you ran off on him! You broke his heart. You ran off with the man you clearly knew was my boyfriend. Oh, don’t act like you didn’t know,” Pari spat at Sameera. “You saw us! You ran off with him because you wanted his wealth. You thought that he was an easier mark than Maan Singh Khurana. You thought that he would be easier to manipulate. You made the wrong bet, didn’t you?” Pari asked with a smirk.

Sameera silently rolled her eyes in reply.

“And now you say that they made a fool out of you?! What is wrong with you?” Pari asked, continuing her harangue at the woman standing in front of them, not missing a beat.

When Sameera only blew on her nails nonchalantly, Pari lost it. She reached out and grabbed the other woman by the shoulders, roughly shaking her. “You clearly wanted their money. Newsflash, babe. If you’re that desperate for money . . . then work for it! You don’t get to pull this sh–, you gold-digger!” Pari snorted derisively, making her disbelief patently clear.

Maan carefully pried Pari’s hands off of Sameera’s shoulders, and nudged her behind him, fearing Sameera’s reprisal. He did it just in the nick of time.

“How dare you pass judgment on me?” Sameera screeched, lunging at Pari. Maan quickly grabbed her around the waist, holding her in place. “You have it easy. You have a man who loves you and worships the ground you walk on. You’re getting engaged. And you dare to judge me!” she shouted, struggling against Maan’s hold.

“Just who do you think you’re talking to?” Pari yelled incredulously, looking over Maan’s shoulder. “Did you get amnesia? Do you not remember that my boyfriend left me and ran off with you?”

Sameera paused at that. “He only did it to save his brother!” she shot back. “So really, how much did you suffer? Your love came back to you within months. You had to suffer nothing.”

“Regardless of when he came back, I was ready to forgive and forget even before he explained anything to me,” Pari responded. “I loved him. When he came back into my life, I got engaged to him. I will marry him. You had a second chance with Maan,” she said pointedly, “and you threw it away. For what? Money? You didn’t love Maan. You didn’t love that wonderful little boy. You ruined your own life. Don’t blame them for making fools of you. You were already a fool.” Saying those words, Pari turned and walked out of the room.

Sameera stopped struggling in Maan’s hold, standing their quietly. Maan let her go. She backed away, taking deep breaths to calm herself. She turned and walked towards the stage. Turning back, she looked around the ballroom, her eyes moving over all the preparations that had been made for this night. Her shoulders slumped. “Broke your heart?!” Sameera asked, laughing darkly. She gazed at him somberly and then smiled. “I guess you just got your what you deserved,” she said.

Maan looked at Sameera in confusion.

“Did you even give me a second thought before you married Naintara? Did anyone think to ask while all of this was going, ‘What about Sameera?’ when you made that great, noble sacrifice?” She stopped talking when her voice trembled, biting her lip.

Maan stepped back at that display of emotion. It was surprising, as well as unwelcome. “Don’t use your tears to manipulate me,” he ordered coldly. “They no longer work on me.”

“As your charm no longer works on me,” she retorted. “We were in a relationship, Maan Singh Khurana! Do you even know what happened to me after you got married?” she demanded. “If anyone is to blame for what I’ve become today, it’s you.”

“I don’t need to listen to your excuses. Bad things happen, Sameera. But that doesn’t mean people let their bitterness turn them into inhumane beings. You took your bitterness out on my son, and I will never forgive that. You terrorized him. And you think a few crocodile tears will make it all okay?” he yelled, beginning to move towards her. He checked that motion, when he saw the surprising grief in her face. Was she playing him again? His brow wrinkled in confusion. It wasn’t like him to be so indecisive. He had sworn to himself that if this woman came back into his life, he would make her pay for what she had done to his son. Coupled with what she had pulled today, his vengeance would have been doubly deserved. But he was hesitating.

She sat down on the stage, unable to stand any longer. “You weren’t in love with me,” she said to him. “Don’t blame me for your stupidity. You brought me back into this house, not knowing what I had become.” It was a shockingly honest admission, said in a moment of sincerity. She didn’t know why being around Maan pulled her back toward a Sameera who used to be a better person. “You wanted to go back to a time where you were young and innocent. You wanted to go back to a time when you believed in good. You were just using me as the method of returning to your bygone innocence. I sincerely doubt you would have married me, no matter what you say.”

“I was ready to propose,” he pointed out through gritted teeth, continuing to keep his distance.

“Then more fool you.” She allowed her shoulders to slump, resting her arms on her legs. “You left me high and dry because of your family honor. Do you even know the pain of being abandoned? Of waking up one morning and realizing that the person you loved and trusted to be there for you above all else has left you without warning. Of having to deal with that reality and to struggle to survive. Of being unable to move on, and being unable to do anything about it. Of letting the bitterness seep into your soul and let it warp you into a crazy being that even you come to hate in the darkest hours of the night. You have no idea,” she said heavily.

Maan stared at her quietly, truly realizing for the first time there had been another victim in all that had happened years ago.

“You thought that just because you were conveniently free, I would just come back into your life and we would fall back into love and live happily ever after.” She sprang to her feet. “That is not how it works, Maan! You don’t get another chance to love the person you betrayed. It’s not that easy.”

“I don’t need to hear this. You’re making excuses for your behavior. Get out,” he ordered. “Don’t ever come back in our lives.”

She began to laugh. “They’re not excuses. Why would I excuse my behavior? Even I know what I did was inexcusable,” she blurted out, her eyes widening when those words left her lips. More honesty. She needed to get away from this man as soon as possible. “I’m just explaining. When I heard that you were free, I decided that it was my turn to get something out of you. But knowing you, I had to bet on a sure thing when it came along. With our past history, how could I trust you to keep your word? How could I trust you not to run off and get married to someone else?” She shrugged her shoulders. “Ah well, you win some, you lose some.”

“If that was your attitude, then why the hell did you come back and hurt my Geet?!” he shouted, striding forward to grab her by the shoulders.

“You don’t get to fall in love and live happily ever after!” she retorted, pulling away from his grip. “You don’t get to have those emotions, when that ability has been burned out of me! You don’t get to live a carefree life now, when I can’t. I wanted revenge,” she finished simply. “You hurt me. I hurt you through her.”

Maan stared at the woman before him . . . a woman he thought he had loved. And realized that she was right, he had never truly loved her at all. To see what she had become . . . partly because of him, saddened him. But even so, that was no excuse for what she had done to Rahul . . . for what she had done to Geet.

“We all have events in our lives that hurt us,” he said, after a long pause. “It’s how you handle them that reveals your character. No one has a carefree life. We all suffer. But that doesn’t mean we let bitterness make us into monsters . . . like you. Even I, who came the closest to surrendering to my bitterness, found the courage to fall in love again. And she is worth it. She has changed me. And because of her, and because of the love I found, which you may never find, I will give you one chance. Leave now. I don’t want to see you again. If I see you trying to create problems in my life or my family’s life, I will make you pay.”

Sameera backed up at his quiet promise.

“Would your family thank you? Would your future kids thank you for picking a murderer as their mother, when they will have to live with the stigma?” she asked, getting that one last zinger in.

“I know about Dubai, Sameera. And the Sheikh you defrauded out of billions of rupees. One more chance, Sameera.”

Her face paled at that revelation.

“Get out.”

She turned and fled.

“Nakul, make sure she leaves!” Maan called out.

Maan turned and swiftly exited the ballroom. Running up the stairs, he eagerly opened the door of the storage room. “Geet?” he called out, entering the darkened room. There was only silence. Turning his head left and right, he sought out her figure. But he couldn’t see her anywhere. Where was she?

He heard a noise near the door, and turned towards it smilingly. “Geet.” His face fell. It wasn’t Geet.

Vicky stood there, an unhappy expression on his face.

“Do you know where Geet is?” Maan asked.

“She’s not here, bhai,” Vicky revealed somberly. “She left.”

Maan shook his head in disbelief. “She can’t be gone. I asked her to stay.”

‘Do you understand the pain of being abandoned?’

Maan moved further into the storage room, looking around. Hoping to see some sign that explained Geet’s absence. His eyes moved over the old, broken furniture . . . the trinkets . . . the pictures. He zeroed in on a picture that he had never expected to see again. It was a picture of him . . . smiling. So carefree.

‘Of waking up one morning and realizing that the person you loved and trusted to be there for you above all else has left you without warning.’

“Bhai, you have to go after her,” Vicky urged. “Don’t you see? She ran away, but I’m sure she doesn’t want to stay away. She’s doing this to protect you. If you don’t go after her, and she stays away . . . it’ll become really hard for you both to come back to each other. She knows . . . if she’s thinking at all, that she should have stayed. That she made a mistake. But she won’t be able to admit it. So, you have to go after her.”

Maan moved closer to the picture of his younger self, his eyes almost flinching from the happiness he saw in that gaze. That picture had been taken days before his parents had their accident. Days before his world imploded. His eyes fell on the other items on the table, and his heart froze upon seeing the ring she had laid so carefully in that box. His ring. She had left it behind. She had left him behind.

‘Of having to deal with that reality and to struggle to survive.’

He exhaled sharply, finding it difficult to breathe. He brought his breaths under control, that lapse making him even more aware of what else he’d lost. She could not have left him. She could not have abandoned him. Why? Geet. He clutched the ring to his heart, unable to think any further.

“You’re going to go after her, aren’t you, bhai?” Vicky asked. “You love her. She loves you. What else is there to consider?”

‘Of being unable to move on, and being unable to do anything about it.’

Maan put up his other hand, telling Vicky to be quiet.

“But, bhai!” Vicky exclaimed.

“Why wouldn’t I go after her?” Maan asked hoarsely.

Vicky’s eyes widened. “But you have never gone after .. . ” his voice trailed off. How could he have said that Maan bhai had never gone after any of them? Did he . . . feel a little jealous right now? He shook his head quickly, shaking that petty thought right out of his head.

“I love her, Vicky,” Maan said. “I know her. She didn’t run away for selfish reasons. She ran away to save me. Why would I punish her for that?”

He stared down at the ring in his now open hand, and gently caressed the message he had the jeweler inscribe on it. Geet hadn’t even had the chance to see that inscription. Unlike Sameera, he could and would do everything to get his love back.

Closing his fingers around it once more, he said reflectively, “She’s my heart. I can’t live without my heart now, can I?”

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24 thoughts on “FFY 21 – 25

  1. Thank u for updating sweetie. It was so emotional. Sameera may have suffered, due to maan’s act. But what kind of person claims to love someone and seek revenge from them. If you love someone truly need to be happy with their happiness. Anyways what else can be expected out of her. I loved the update. Maan understood geet and i am so happy about it. Now he will go behind her and find her. Yay 🙂

  2. Thank u fpr updating sweetie. It was so emotional. Sameera may have suffered, due to maan’s act. But what kind of person claims to love someone and seek revenge from them. If you love someone truly need to be happy with their happiness. Anyways what else can be expected out of her. I loved the update. Maan understood geet and i am so happy about it. Now he will go behind her and find her. Yay 🙂

  3. you won’t believe me I used to comeback everyday to see if there’s an update from you. And guess what there was one today :))) isn’t it a great news 😉

    Well coming back to the the update .Geet has a terrible past. It amazed me how she was trying to build her small world for herself without anyone’s help. She is a wonderful person. One thing is bothering me though she did not talk to maan… poor maan 😦 though i understand her still!! Thanking for updating 🙂

  4. Hey just wanted to mention… you used some of the lines from the show, loved it. Very apt to the situation Love Ya. Thank you for using them 🙂

  5. oh my goodness that was outstanding! what wold happen next?? i am so curious to read the next chapter! Geet did not get a chance to tell maan about her past at all and it is getting exposed on front of everyone!!! what can be more scarier than that moment. Don’t know what would maan do next? thank you for the update. Hope to read the next ch soon. Loved it. Happy New Year 🙂

  6. Sameera b*tch. How come she know about geet past. I believe that maan would trust geet and listen to her explanations 😦

  7. yayyy…update woot 🙂

    I am speechless! Both the brothers are back in his life. Maan forgave dev too. Its so true, if not for his betrayal, geet wouldn’t have been in maan life. Rahul is happy that geet will be his Mommy. How sweet and geet is still in denial huh. Pammi Bhabi has been the eye opener in geet life with regards to maan. Now geet will reveal her past. I’m eager to read the next one. Thank you for the update sweets. Hope to read the next one soon 🙂

  8. Awww… that was awesome. to protect his brother he made such a big sacrifice. He succeeded in protecting his brother and showed himself as a betrayer in front of all and pari too! Maan and his family has gone through so much.. Superb update. Maan kept track of all his siblings, he even knew Dev is back!! Thank you for updating sweets. Will wait for your next update. Hope to read it soon….

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