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'In the event of a water evacuation
The stewardess's voice droned on and Shefali leaned back in her seat and shut her eyes. Water evacuation, indeed! Unless they crash-landed in a river it was very unlikely they would need life jackets during this flight between one completely land-locked city and another. She winced. If there was only some way to block out all sound. Her head was pounding like crazy, and she had to stop herself from opening her bag and digging out yet another painkiller.
'Cabin crew to stations for take-off,' the Captain's voice said over the plane's PA system, and Shefali's eyes flew open.
She looked out of the window involuntarily. It wasn't the first time she'd seen Delhi from a plane windowthere had been trips to Mumbai, to Thailand, even to Parisbut this time she was leaving for good, and she couldn't help but feel a lump in her throat.
The comfortable-looking matronly woman in the seat next to Shefali gave her a reassuring smile. 'Flying for the first time?' she asked.
Shefali shook her head. She didn't want to spend the two-hour flight making polite conversation, and this lady looked the chatty kind. Before Shefali could shut her eyes again, she had started.
'Are you from Delhi or Jabalpur?'
'Neither,' Shefali replied.
But the lady wasn't about to give up. 'Going for a wedding?' she asked, pointing at the henna tattoos that covered Shefali's hands.
Shefali pulled the long sleeves of her shirt down a little further to hide the elaborate designs that extended all the way up her forearms. The traditional mehandi ceremony had been held three days before her wedding-that-never-happened, and she'd had to wait for hours afterwards for the henna paste to dry. The rich black had now faded to orange, but to Shefali's paranoid eyes her hands and arms still screamed out jilted bride.
'Excuse me a second,' she muttered, and pressed the button to call the flight attendant. 'Can I shift to a seat in the emergency exit row?' she asked when the attendant came up to her. 'I have a a knee problem. I need more leg-room.'
She picked up her handbag and moved gratefully to the seat pointed out to her. It was an aisle seat two rows ahead, and the window seat next to it was occupied by a man around her age who was peering intently into his laptop screen.
Shefali was fastening her seatbelt when the man spoke without looking up from the screen.
'So where are you from, then? If you're not from Delhi or from Jabalpur.'
She gave him a startled look. 'I'm sorry?'
The man turned, and Shefali saw his face for the first time. He was quite strikingly good-looking, with blue-grey eyes and perfectly chiselled features. For a few moments Shefali found herself staring stupidly without a word to say. Fortunately he gave her a quick smile and turned back to his computer.
'I couldn't help overhearing,' he said, and lowering his voice. 'Good thinking with the knee problem.'
'Thanks,' Shefali said. 'I think.'
The man nodded and started typing something into the computer. He didn't seem disposed to talk any more, and Shefali felt a pang of something approaching disappointment. A random conversation with an attractive stranger might have helped take her mind off things. But who was she kidding? Nothing could take her mind off the single, mind-numbingly humiliating fact that her fiance hadn't bothered to turn up for their wedding. The wedding that she had spent the last year planning and preparing for.
Sometimes it felt as if her whole life had been geared towards that one day when she'd marry the perfect man and settle down into happy domesticity. And Pranav had seemed perfect when her parents had introduced him to her. He was rich, successful, and very attractiveand though it was to have been an arranged marriage she'd very quickly started weaving him into her daydreams. Finding out on their wedding day that he'd decided to go back to his ex-girlfriend had been the biggest shock she'd ever had in her sheltered and slightly pampered life.
The attendant brought across their preordered lunch trays. Her neighbour closed his laptop and took his. Shefali shook her head abruptly.
'No, thanks,' she said. Her head was still aching, and even the sight of food was off-putting.
'Can I have it?' the man next to her asked. He gave her a quick grin. 'I missed breakfastand, well ' He gestured towards his tray. 'This doesn't look like enough to keep a mouse alive.'
'OK,' Shefali said, taking her tray from the attendant and passing it on. His hands were good, she noticed. Strong, with square-tipped fingers, sinewy wrists and no rings. She'd never liked Pranav's handsthin and hairy: an awful combination. Pity they hadn't been grounds enough for her to decide against marrying him.
'You're sure you don't want any of this?' the man was asking, gesturing towards the two trays.
Shefali barely repressed a shudder. 'I'm sure, thanks. Just the bottle of water, please.'
He handed it to her, and she took it, carefully avoiding touching his hand. His proximity was affecting her weirdly, and she didn't want him to notice. Her head still ached, and she picked up her bag, rummaging around in it for the package of painkillers. They seemed to have vanished, so she pulled out her table and starting putting the contents of her designer bag on it one by one. The painkillers finally turned up, wedged between the pages of the novel she'd been too stressed to take out and read. Heaving a sigh of relief, she popped open the blister pack and put one into her mouth.
She hadn't opened the bottle of water yet. She tried to twist it open, but the seal stubbornly refused to break. And the pill she'd put in the centre of her tonguebecause, according to her primary school science teacher, there were no tastebuds therewas slowly dissolving in her saliva and spreading to parts of her mouth where there were tastebuds. It tasted vile.
'Ugh,' she said, as politely as she could to the man next to her.
He had stopped eating and was staring with horrified fascination at the heap of things that had emerged from her bag.
'Ugh,' she said again, and finally nudged him with her elbow and pointed at the bottle.
'Ohsorry,' he said, taking the bottle from her and opening it with an effortless twist of his wrist. 'Here you go.'
She grabbed it from him with more haste than grace and took a few rapid gulps. The pill finally went down, though it cleaved lovingly to the roof her mouth for as long as it could. She made a facethe bitter taste in her mouth was refusing to go away.
'Have some sugar,' the man suggested, giving her a little sachet from one of his two lunch trays.
His voice was perfectly grave, but he was laughing, his eyes crinkling up at the corners in the most attractive way possible. His teeth were perfect, Shefali noticed. Having gone through years of painful and extremely expensive orthodontic treatment to achieve her own current flawless smile, she resented people who'd been born to have perfectly aligned teeth. He looked as if he'd never had to go to a dentist in his life.
Her neighbour polished off his second dessert and handed the empty trays to one of the stewards. 'We've almost arrived,' he remarked, looking at his watch, and the seatbelt sign came on as if on cue.
Shefali didn't answer, but clenched her hands unconsciously. This was it, then. The start of her brand-new life. In a few minutes they'd be landing in a city where no one knew about her engagement and the disastrous end to it, and she could make a completely new start. She'd never taken her job very seriouslyteaching at a playschool had been just something she did to fill the time between graduation and marriagebut when she'd wanted to get out of Delhi it had been her boss who'd come to her rescue, offering her the job of centre manager at their Jabalpur branch, and she was determined not to let him down.
Neil Mitra was looking at his neighbour curiously. There was something odd about hersome kind of pent-up anxiety that came through in her strained expression and rather jerky movements. Also, from what he'd been able to see of the packaging, the pills she'd been popping were either anti-depressants or pretty strong painkillers. If not for the haunted look in her eyes she'd be an attractive girlshe had neat, very regular features, a flawless complexion, and rather nice eyes with lovely long eyelashes.
'Everything OK?' he asked quietly as the plane came to a halt and girl tried to jerk to her feet without undoing her seatbelt.
'Yes, of course,' she said, but her voice sounded artificially cheerful.
Her glossy, perfectly styled hair fell across her face and hid her expression as she bent to open the recalcitrant catch of her seatbelt. Finally getting it undone, she stood up and opened one of the overhead lockers, tugging valiantly at her bag. After watching her struggle for a few seconds, Neil got up to free it for her. She was taller than he'd thought, just half a head below his own imposing six-foot two inches. The flowery scent from her hair teased at his nostrils, and for a second their eyes met and held as he took the case out and handed it to her.
Shefali looked away first, flustered by her reaction to him. Perhaps she was going crazy, she thought, suddenly furious with herself. Pranav's betrayal was making her overly susceptible to the slightest bit of attention from any good-looking man. She tried to take a step away from him, but there was nowhere either of them could moveeveryone in the plane was standing in the aisle, trying to get at their luggage, and the doors hadn't opened yet.
'Relax, I don't bite,' he said, sounding amused as he noticed her trying to move away.
Shefali flushed angrily. It was bad enough realising how pathetic she was without him noticing too. Luckily the doors opened just then, and she was able turn towards the exit.
'Herelet me take that,' he said, leaning down to take the handle of her case from her.
Relinquishing it, she followed him into the airport, her nose wrinkling just a little as she noticed how tiny it was.
Neil grinned at her reaction, Neil grinned. 'Doesn't match up to Delhi T3, does it?' he asked.
Refusing to be embarrassed any further, Shefali shrugged. 'It's quaint,' she said. 'Oh, lookmy cases are here.'
Neil helped her get the bags off the carousel, his smoky blue eyes widening as he realised how many there were. 'Arctic expedition?' he asked, his brows quirking up.
'I'm moving here for work,' Shefali said stiffly. 'Two of the cartons are full of educational aids I'll need for my job.'
It had taken her days to pack, choosing between sentimental reminders of her growing-up years in Delhi and more practical things like dishes and clothes. And then her boss had landed her with the two cartons to carry, airily offering to pay for the extra baggage. The last thing she needed now was to be given grief for the amount of luggage she had. She eyed his mid-sized rucksack contemptuouslyhe was probably carrying clothes for a two-day trip, and she had her entire life in her bags.
Suddenly overcome by the enormity of what she was doing, she shoved her remaining bags onto the trolley and said gruffly, 'Well, thanks for everything. I guess you need to head off now.'
Looking slightly taken aback, Neil gestured towards the trolley groaning under the weight of three cases, two large cartons and a carryall. 'Are you sure you'll be able to manage that?'
'Perfectly sure,' Shefali said, dredging up a polite little smile, though her heart sank into her shoes at the thought of having to wrestle with all that stuff on her own. Then her sense of pride reasserted itself. She wasn't helpless. She'd be fine. She didn't need help from random strangers, however good-looking they were. 'Thanks again for your help,' she said, trying to sound as gracious as possible. 'I'm sure we'll see each other around, this is such a small place.'
'It has a population of over a million,' he said drily. 'But if we do run into each other I'll come across and say hello.'
Someone from the throng of people outside the airport yelled, 'Neilover here!', and the man gave Shefali a brief nod before turning away.
Flushing, Shefali watched him stride off, his broad, athletic frame a stark contrast to the frankly pudgy man with a ponytail who'd greeted him exuberantly as soon as he'd stepped out.
He was nowhere in sight when Shefali finally managed to get her trolley out, but by then she had other things to worry about. The airport seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Apart from a small car park there was nothingtrees and more trees surrounded the area, and there was not a cab in sight. Everyone else who'd got off the flight was being met by someone, and the couple of auto-rickshaw drivers who were hanging around looked as if they spent their spare time mugging little old ladies and stealing candy from kids.
She looked around a little helplesslythe man Neil was driving out of the airport in a black SUV, and she wished she'd asked him for a lift.
'Need a lift somewhere?'
Shefali turned to look into the concerned eyes of the motherly woman she'd been sitting next to at first. Shefali shook her head. The woman seemed nice enough, but she reminded her way too strongly of all the curious aunties back in Delhi, who'd been simultaneously horrified, pitying and excited at her wedding being called off.
In her hurry to get away Shefali beckoned to the least ruffianly-looking of the auto-rickshaw drivers and gave him the address of her hotel. The auto was crampedher bags took up most of the back seat of the three-wheelerand she had to sit to one side, almost falling out of the open vehicle as it zipped through almost deserted roads. For a while she tried to look out and interest herself in her surroundings, but then her shoulders slumped and she leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. The first day of her new and independent life had been exhausting, to say the least.