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'Dubeyji, utho. Wake up!' Riya hissed at the watchman snoring away behind the locked gates of her apartment building.
It was a Friday, and she'd gone out for dinner with a bunch of colleagues in central Mumbai to celebrate a deal they'd just cracked. She'd not bothered to check if the gate was open when her friends dropped her off, and now she was standing all alone on a deserted and not very safe road in the middle of the night, dressed in form-fitting black and fake designer jewellery. She pulled her scarf around her a little more closely as a pair of young men roared past her on a bike. For a minute she contemplated calling her flatmateonly he had a cousin coming down from Singapore that evening, and was likely to be out partying as well.
The snoring rose to a crescendo as Dubeyji settled himself into a more comfortable spot on his plastic chair. Riya rattled the gate a few times, then picked up a handful of little blue pebbles from one of the fancy flowerpots flanking the entrance. The third pebble did the trick, shaking Dubeyji out of what was probably a most interesting dream starring a bevy of luscious Bhojpuri beauties.
'Yeh koi time hai, ghar aane kamadam, is this any time to come home?' he grumbled as he unlocked the gate.
Dubeyji hadn't got over his disapproval yet that the multinational firm Riya worked for provided accommodation for both male and female employees. He still liked Riya, though, partly because she looked a bit like his favourite movie star, and partly because she came from his part of the country.
Riya was still giggling to herself when she reached the flat, remembering Dubeyji's outraged expression when the pebble hit him. It took her a minute to open the doorGaurav had dutifully left it on the latch. He had, however, neglected to leave a single light on, and the living room was in complete and utter darkness when she finally got in.
'Dumb idiot,' she said out loud, and then she struggled to get her strappy high-heeled sandals off in the dark. 'Damn these shoes!'
Barefoot at last, she began padding across the roomto find herself suddenly tripping and falling down in a heap right onto the warm, hard, very muscular and very male body sprawled across the middle of the floor.
For a wild moment Riya wondered if she was in the wrong flat. Then, as she yelped in alarm and tried to push herself off the man, an amused voice drawled in her ear.
'Gaurav's missing flatmate, I presume?'
By then she'd found her footing, and she bounced off in a hurry and snapped a switch on. Bright fluorescent light bathed the room as she glared at the man trying to get free of the scarf that had landed on his face. An extremely appealing-looking man, she thought, her annoyance abating as she took in the perfectly sculpted physique, the rumpled hair, and hang on the extremely familiar face. Not to mention the extremely, familiar golden-brown eyes, blinking now as they adjusted to the bright light, and the excruciatingly familiar, eminently kissable lips, and the strong hands, with their long, sensitive fingers
'Dhruv Malhotra!' she wailed, sitting down abruptly on the nearest sofa.
'Shh people are sleeping inside,' he said, his deep voice with its slight gravelly undertone as sexy as ever.
'Butbut I don't understand,' Riya stammered. 'What are you doing here? Are you Gaurav's cousin?'
Dhruv nodded, standing up from the makeshift bed spread out on the floor.
Riya automatically ran her eyes over him. Even in a ratty black vest and faded jogging bottoms, he looked gorgeous. He'd filled out since collegethe once boyish frame had morphed into a body worthy of an athlete, all lean limbs, broad shoulders and taut muscle.
'I'm sorry I couldn't warn youI figured out you lived here only when we arrived and I saw your name on the door. We came in quite late and I thought we could deal with the situation in the morningI wasn't expecting you to fall over me.'
'And you were sleeping right in the middle of the living room because.?'
'My kid sister decided to come along at the last moment, so she's in the spare room and there was no place left for me.' He flashed her a sudden grin. 'I didn't think you'd appreciate coming home and finding me in your bed.'
'You're right. I wouldn't have,' Riya said firmly.
She walked up to him and took the scarf from him, willing herself not to touch his hand while she did so.
She'd thought about him a lot in the twelve years since they'd last met, and rehearsed countless scenarios in which she confronted him/pretended he didn't exist/ made crazy, wild love to him Now that they were finally face to face, all she wanted to do was run away and keep going.
She turned. He was looking at her, an oddly appealing glimmer in his eyes. 'It's good to see you again.'
Riya gave him a tight little smile and went on to her room without answering.
Dhruv switched off the light and got back into bed. He'd been awake when Riya came in, and had smiled to himself when he'd heard her cursing in her adorably husky voice. Seeing her again had been more of a jolt than he'd expected, even though he had been mentally prepared. She had changed. Not so much in appearance, though she'd probably put on a few kilosshe'd been waif-like in college, so thin that he'd been able to pick her up with one hand, but so energetic and full of life that she'd seemed twice her real size. Now she'd developed some womanly curvesas he'd discovered when she landed on top of him.
For a few seconds he'd been tempted to drag her closer, enjoy the feeling of her soft breasts heavy on his arm and her silky hair spread over his chest. Her hair had been short in college, and she'd always been bundled either into a shapeless salwar kameezthe traditional Asian tunic and loose trousersor an oversized T-shirt and scruffy jeans. She looked far more sophisticated now, with figure-hugging clothes and long, wavy perfectly styled hair cascading down her back.
Her face was unchanged, with large eyes, sooty eyelashes, flawless dusky skin, rosebud mouth and dainty little tip-tilted nose all present and correct. The eyes were wary, though. Nowhere near as open or as trusting as they'd used to be.
Dhruv punched his pillow in frustration. Five minutes and the woman had already got him tied up in knots. He should make some excuse to Gaurav and move into a hotel for the remaining two days he needed to be in Mumbai. On the other hand Gaurav was getting married in a week, and the whole point of this visit was to spend time with him before the weddingthey'd been very close when they were younger, but hadn't met in the last six years. Moving out wasn't the best optionperhaps he should try talking to Riya, laying old ghosts to rest.
Riya latched the door to her room and slowly started clearing the mess of books off her bed. Dhruv still affected her strongly, she noted, feeling extremely displeased with herself.
Over the years she'd come to believe that he had only managed to completely bowl her off her feet because he'd been the first really attractive man she'd come across in the seventeen years she'd spent growing up in a small, conservative North Indian university town. Her schoolmates had been OK, but she'd known them all her life, and the fact that some were male hadn't really registered even when she was in her teens. It was difficult to lust after someone you'd seen peeing in their pants in kindergarten!
In college Dhruv had stood out among a largely nerdy and uncouth crowd like like a peacock in a yard full of sparrows. Or, she thought, trying to think of a more appropriate simile, a Swiss chocolate in a bowl of peppermints. Or a Ferrari in a line-up of taxis.
But after college she'd met at least a dozen men who displayed at least as good a combination of looks and brains as Dhruv, and not a single one of them had made her heart race the teensiest bit. Not Sandeep, the hottest man on her graduate course, nor Sikandar, serial heartbreaker and her second boss. Not Marcelo, the drop-dead gorgeous Brazilian she'd met in a training course last year. Not Vinay, whom she'd dated for almost two years before deciding not to marry him. Not even Anurag, the CFO of one of her top corporate clients. Well, maybe Anurag. Just a little bit. Even though he was married and at least fifteen years older than her. But compared to the effect Dhruv had on her even Anurag faded into insignificance.
'Concentrate on the bad things,' Riya told herself firmly, chewing on her toothbrush fiercely. 'He walked away from you without any explanation whatsoever' she spat into the sink and rinsed her mouth vigorously 'and never bothered to get in touch with you afterwards.'
She climbed into her pyjamas and got into bed. She lay for a while looking up at the ceiling, remembering the feeling of utter bewilderment and loss that had stayed with her every waking minute for months after Dhruv had stepped out of her life. Even now just thinking about it made her feel empty inside. Humiliating as it was to admit, unless she was very, very careful she was in just as much danger of falling for him now as she had been when she was seventeen.
'Pathetic, man-crazy moron,' she said sternly to herself, but it didn't help. Not when Dhruv lay stretched out on the floor in the next room. So close
'He might be married,' the pragmatic part of her brain prompted, and her eyes flew open at the thought. No, he wasn't marriedshe distinctly remembered Gaurav saying that his cousin was single, thank goodness. Not that it should affect her; she shouldn't care even if he'd turned Mormon and married seven wives.
Riya finally managed to fall asleep around five a.m., and slept soundly till well after nine. She was still groggy when Ranjana, their stickler of a cook-cleaner, marched firmly into her room and prodded her awake.
'Utho, didiwake up. Everyone else woke up hours ago.'
'Good for them,' Riya mumbled, rolling over in bed.
'The little didi also just woke up.'
Riya opened her eyes, wondering if Dhruv had been enterprising enough to smuggle a girlfriend into the flat. Or not. Hadn't he said his sister had come down with him? Curiosity stirred. Dhruv had talked a lot about his kid sister when they were in college. She must be around twenty now, as she was some twelve years younger than him. Clearly an afterthought on the part of their parents, but her older brother adored her.
Dhruv was sitting at the breakfast table watching Gaurav efficiently work his way through a triple-egg omelette and a small mountain of buttered toast. If possible, Dhruv looked even better than he had the previous night. His hair was damp from the shower and curling slightly at the nape of his neck, and his white T-shirt set off the honey-gold of his skin perfectly. Riya's treacherous heart started doing a little jig of excitement inside her chest. Evidently the previous night's self-administered homily had gone to waste.
'Hey there, Sleeping Beauty!' Gaurav said as he caught sight of Riya. 'Come heremeet my cousin.'
Dhruv gave her a brief smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
'We've met,' Riya said, sliding into the chair opposite her stocky flatmate. 'Gaurav, don't use the jam knife for the butterno wonder the chicken butter masala Ranjana made last week was pink!'
'I thought that was for Valentine's Day,' Gaurav said cheerfully. 'I've suspected Ranjana of nursing a secret passion for me for the last five years.'
'Who's Ranjanathe cook?' A curvy, impish-looking girl walked into the room. She was wearing a black T-shirt with a skull embroidered on itthe skull sported a pink bowand the matching pyjama trousers had 'Sweet Devil' embroidered over the butt in pink.
'Look who's awake!' Gaurav said. 'Riya, this is ChutkiDhruv's little sister and officially the most painful brat alive. Chutki, say hello to Riya like a good girl.'
Chutki stuck her tongue out at him. 'Stop calling me by my nickname. It makes me sound like a two-year-old. Hi, I'm Drishti,' she said, smiling at Riya. Then she looked a little closer. 'Hey, you look awfully familiar. Have we met?'
'I don't think so,' Riya replied, wondering if Dhruv had told his sister something about her.
She'd never met Chutki before, but she'd heard a lot about his cute little sister. She was the only person in Dhruv's family that he'd ever talked about. They had a brother, too, who was a couple of years younger than Dhruv, she remembered, but Dhruv had only mentioned him once in passing, saying that he was crazy about photography. He'd never talked about his parents, giving evasive answers to even the most pointed questions, and very early on in their relationship Riya had learnt not to ask too many questions about them.
Chutki was still observing Riya closely, trying to puzzle something out.
'I get it,' she said suddenly. 'Dhruvdoesn't she look just like that girl whose photo you used to keep hidden in your cupboard?'
Riya couldn't help it. Her cheeks flamed in embarrassment and Gaurav, who'd opened his mouth to make a wisecrack, shut it hastily after one look at her face.
Dhruv looked up.
'Thanks, Chutki.' He'd been furious with her when she'd found a faded photograph of Riya hidden under a stack of T-shirts in his cupboard, and he'd caught her and shaken her hard when she'd gone dancing out of his room with the photo to show it to their mother. He still remembered the shock on her little face, the tears filling her eyesit was the first time her beloved big brother had lost his temper with her.
She looked almost as upset now. 'You mean she's the same Oh, God, I'm so sorry. Open mouth, change feetthat's me. But if you guys know each other, how come you didn't realise you were ?' She shut up abruptly as Dhruv gave her a look.
'It was a long time agowe knew each other in college,' said Dhruv curtly, wishing he'd never been a sentimental idiot and hung on to the photograph. 'We haven't been in touch since then.'
'Oh, right,' Gaurav said easily. 'I knew you went to the same college. Never thought to ask Riya if she knew you. I just assumed you'd have graduated before she joined. Given how ancient you are and all.'
Dhruv smiled. 'I'm three years older than the two of you. Architecture is a five-year course, remember?'