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'That,' Priya Said, pointing dramatically, 'is the hottest man I have ever seen in my life.'
It was the first evening of their annual office convention and Shweta was already exhausted. The flight from Mumbai to Kerala was short, but it had been very early in the morning and she'd not slept much. Then the day had been crammed with intensely boring presentations that she'd had to sit through with a look of rapt attention on her face.
'At least look at him!' Priya was saying, and Shweta looked in the direction of her pointing finger.
A jolt of recognition made her keep staring for a few seconds, but there was no answering gleam in the man's eyesclearly he didn't remember her at all. Not surprising, really. She'd changed quite a bit since they'd last met.
She shrugged, turning away. 'Not my type.'
Priya gave her a disbelieving stare. 'Delusional,' she said, shaking her head sadly. 'You're so out of touch with reality you can't tell a hot man from an Excel spreadsheet. Talking of spreadsheetsthat's one guy I'd like to see spread on my sheets '
Shweta groaned. 'Your sense of humour is pathetic,' she said. 'Every time I think you've reached rock-bottom you find a spade and begin to dig.'
Priya took a swig from her glass of almost-neat vodka. 'Yours isn't much better,' she pointed out. 'And, pathetic sense of humour or not, I at least have a boyfriend with a pulse. Unlike that complete no-hoper Siddhant.'
'Siddhant is not ' Shweta began to say, but Priya wasn't listening to her.
'Ooh, he's looking at you,' she said. 'I bet you can't get him to come and talk to you.'
'Probably not. I'm really not interested.' The man had given her a quick glance, his brows furrowed as he obviously tried to place her.
'You're a wuss.'
'This is childish.' She'd changed a lot since he'd last seen herif he'd recognised her he'd have definitely come across.
'Bet you a thousand rupees.'
Shweta shrugged. 'Sorry, not enough. That pair of shoes I saw last week cost.' 'OK, five thousand!'
'Right, you're on,' Shweta said decisively.
The man across the room was looking at her again. Shweta took a comb and a pair of spectacles out of her purse. By touch she made a middle parting in her hair and, with little regard for the artfully careless style she'd spent hours achieving, braided it rapidly into two plaits. Then she scrubbed the lipstick off her lips with a tissue and put on the spectacles. She still had her contact lenses in and the double vision correction made everything look blurry.
Even so, Priya's look of horror was unmistakable.
'What's wrong with you?' she hissed. 'You look like the Loch Ness monster. Where did you get those spectacles from? They're hideous!'
Shweta cut her off, nodding at the man, who was now purposefully headed in their direction. 'Mission accomplished,' she said, and Priya's jaw dropped.
She was still gaping at him as he came up to them. Close up, he was even more breathtakingover six feet tall, and exuding an aura of pure masculinity that was overwhelming. He was looking right at Shweta, and the quirky, lopsided smile on his perfectly sculpted mouth made him practically irresistible.
'Shweta Mathur!' he said. 'My God, it's been years!'
He'd thought she looked familiar, but until she'd put on the spectacles he'd had no clue who she was. It was fifteen years since he'd seen her lastthey'd been in middle school then, and if Shweta had been the stereotypical hard-working student, he'd been the stereotypical bad boy. He hadn't changed much, but Shweta had blossomed. She'd always had lovely eyes, and with the spectacles gone they were breathtaking, drawing you in till you felt you were drowning in them.. Nikhil shook himself a little, telling himself he was getting over-sentimental as he neared his thirtieth birthday. But the eyes were pretty amazing, even if you looked at them with a completely cynical eye. Her features were neat and regular, her skin was a lovely golden-brown, and even in her prim black trousers and top her figure looked pretty good. Somewhere along the line she'd even learnt how to use make-upright now, in her bid to make him recognise her, she'd scrubbed off all her lipstick, and the vigorous treatment had made her unexpectedly lush lips turn a natural red.
'Hi, Nikhil,' Shweta said, holding her hand out primly.
Nikhil disregarded it, pulling her into his arms for a hug instead.
Shweta gave a little yelp of alarm. She'd recognised Nikhil the second she'd seen himthe slanting eyebrows and the hint of danger about him were pretty much the way they had been when they were both fourteen. But back then his shoulders hadn't been so broad, nor had his eyes sparkled with quite so much devilry. There was something incredibly erotic about the feel of his arms around her and the clean, masculine scent of his body. Shweta emerged from the hug considerably more flustered than before.
'You cheated!' Priya wailed. 'You crazy cow, you didn't tell me you knew him!'
Nikhil raised his eyebrows. 'Does it matter?'
Priya turned to him, eager to vent her ire on someone. 'Of course it bloody does. You looked at her a couple of times and I bet her five thousand she wouldn't be able to get you to come across and introduce yourself. She should have said she knew you.' She glared at Shweta. 'You're not getting that five grand.'
'Fine. And the next time your mother calls me to ask where you are I'll tell her the truth, shall I?'
Shweta and Priya shared a flat, and Shweta had spent the last six years making up increasingly inventive excuses to explain Priya's nights away from the flat every time her mother called to check on her.
Priya's eyes narrowed. 'Wait till I catch you alone,' she said, and flounced off in deep dudgeon.
Nikhil grinned and tweaked Shweta's hair as she shook it out of the braids. 'Still not learnt how to play nicely, have you?'
Oh, God, that took her back to her schooldays in an instant. And the feel of his hands in her hair. Shweta shook herself crossly. What was wrong with her? She had known Nikhil Nair since kindergarten, when both of them had been remarkably composed four-year-olds in a room full of bawling children. They'd grown up together, not always friendsin fact they'd fought almost constantly. A dim memory stirred of other girls sighing over him as they reached their teens, but she didn't remember thinking he was good-looking. Maybe she'd been a particularly unawakened fourteen-year-old. Looking at him now, she couldn't imagine how she had ever been impervious to him.
He was still laughing at her, and she tossed her head. 'And you are quite as annoying as you ever were,' she said, realising that she was willing him to comment on her hugely improved looks since the last time he'd seen her. He was looking at her intently, and as his gaze lingered around her mouth she wished she hadn't rubbed off the lipstick. She put up her hand self-consciously. Given her general clumsiness, she'd probably smudged the stuff all over her face and now looked like Raju the circus clown.
He smiled slightly. 'It's all gone,' he said, and then, almost to himself, 'Little Shwetawho'd have thought it.? You're all grown-up now.'
'You haven't shrunk either,' she blurted out, and then blushed a fiery red.
Thankfully he didn't come back with a smart retort. 'I lost track of you after I left school,' he said instead, his eyes almost tender as they rested on her face.
Ha! Left school! He'd been expelled when the headmaster had found him smoking behind the school chapel.
'What have you been doing with yourself?'
'Nothing exciting,' she said 'College, then a chartered accountancy course. Shifted from Pune to Mumbai. And I've been working here ever since.' The 'here' was accompanied by a gesture towards the stage, where her firm's logo was prominently and tastelessly displayed. 'How about you? How come you're here?'
She didn't know everyone who worked in the firmactually, she didn't know more than two or three of the people from the Delhi officebut she would have bet her last rupee that Nikhil hadn't buckled to convention and become an accountant. School gossip had pegged him as the boy most likely to become a millionaireit had also estimated that he was the one most likely to go to jail. Not because he was a cheat or a thief, but he had always had a regrettable tendency to get into fist fights.
'I'm helping organise the convention for your firm,' he said.
Shweta looked surprised. 'You work with the event management company, then?' she asked. 'Leela Events?'
Nikhil nodded. 'Sort of,' he said.
Leela Events was big, and organised everything from Bollywood movie launches to corporate bashes. This was the first time her firm had engaged them, but she remembered the HR director saying that it had been quite a coup getting them in for a relatively small event.
The doors of the banquet hall opened and Nikhil touched her briefly on the arm. 'I'll catch up with you in a bit,' he said. 'I need to go and start earning my living.'
Shweta watched him go, her senses in turmoil. She had never been affected so strongly by a man, and even all the alarm bells clanging in her head weren't enough to stop her wanting to pull him back to her side.
'He owns Leela Events,' Priya said, reappearing by her side. 'Hot and loaded. If you're thinking of making a play for him, now's the time.'
Shweta turned away, coming abruptly back to earth. She should have guessed that Nikhil wouldn't be working for someone else. Owning a company at twenty-nine. Wow! So, definitely on the millionaire path, thenif he wasn't one already.
'I'm with Siddhant,' she said, her tone turning defensive as Priya raised an eyebrow. 'Well, kind of .'
Siddhant Desai was the youngest partner in the accounting firm Shweta worked for. They had been dating for a while, and things were on the verge of getting serious, though Siddhant hadn't actually popped the question yet.
'Don't marry him,' Priya said impulsively. 'He's beady-eyed and boring and he ' She wound to a stop as Shweta glared at her. 'He's just not right for you,' she said lamely.
'I don't want to discuss it,' Shweta snapped, but she had a niggling feeling that Priya was right. She'd never pretended even to herself that she was in love with Siddhant, but he was nice, her father would approve of him, and she'd thought that she could make it work. Of late, though, he'd begun to get on her nerves with his constant carping and complaining if things didn't go exactly as he'd planned.
'Talk of the devil ' Priya said, and made herself scarce as Siddhant came up to join Shweta.
He was good-looking in a conservative kind of way, and right now he was in an excellent mood. Shweta gave him a critical look. He was safe, she decided. That was what had drawn her to him. But safe could be boring sometimes..
'Sweetheart, you shouldn't be drinking that muck,' he said, smiling at Shweta and trying to take her glass away from her. 'Let me get you a proper drink.'
'Apple juice is a proper drink,' Shweta said, stubbornly holding on to her glass. She never drank at office partiesalcohol had the effect of disastrously loosening her tongue. There was a very real risk of her mortally offending a senior partner and finding herself without a job. 'Look, they're about to begin,' she said, pointing at the stage to distract Siddhant.
It was set up on one side of the banquet hall, and designed to look like a giant flatscreen TV. A rather overenthusiastic ponytailed male MC was bouncing around exhorting people to come and take their places.
'I'm back,' Nikhil announced, materialising at her side so suddenly that Shweta jumped.
'I thought you'd gone off to earn your living,' she said.