She reached for the bottle of water next to her bed and took a long swig from it before casting a look around her usually spotlessly clean bedroom. It was a monumental mess. Her clothes were lying all over the place and the culprit for her Godzilla-sized headache was right there on the bedside table--a bottle of tequila. She, who was notorious for passing out even if she so much as inhaled champagne, had needed just a couple of shots before she’d switched off like a fused bulb. She should thank her lucky stars the bottle had been less than a quarter full when Sid had left it behind last week.
Sid. The very name made her head pound harder. Sid Verma, the Dumper.
Rayna Dutt, the Dumpee! Dumped, Drunk…
Bang. Bang. Bang. This time the drumbeat seemed to come from a different direction. And it was accom- panied by a hysterical, piercing wail. ‘Madam, please! Aapka f light miss ho jayega.’
…and soon to be Dead!
Leaping out of the bed, Rayna dashed for the door of her hanky-sized apartment--or one BHK as it was re- ferred to in rent-speak in the great metropolis of Mumbai. She still couldn’t believe she’d snagged this cosy little bedroom-hall-kitchen unit in an upmarket neigh- bourhood. Best of all, it had a balcony with a view of the Arabian Sea to die for. And if it hadn’t been for Sid the Dumper’s high-f lying contacts in the city, this would have been way beyond her reach.
The brass knocker went bang-bang-bang and she winced as the noise reverberated painfully inside her head. She undid the safety latch as she yelled out, ‘Hang on for a second, will you?’
A short, thin fellow with bug eyes and a huge handlebar moustache which shrouded his emaciated face stood staring at her as if she was a ghostly apparition.
‘Madam, your mobile is switched off. You will miss the f light,’ he squeaked.
Zombie-like, she shook her head, and even that tiny movement made her head hurt. ‘Oh, no!’ How could she have forgotten? Today was D-day. The twenty-first of April, the day she had been planning for, for more than six weeks. The chartered f light to the Andaman Islands, where Milee’s week-long wedding celebrations were being held, was scheduled to take off at 10:15 a.m. Her eyes darted to the wall clock and she nearly died of shock. Nine-forty-three!
‘Milee will kill me,’ she screeched at the confused man before banging the door shut on his face.
A second later, she yanked it open again. Handlebar Moustache, who had been deputed to ferry her to the airport, looked as if he was about to have a coronary.
She stuttered, ‘Sorry, sorry, bhaiya. Wait for me downstairs. I will be with you in two minutes. And, please, could you take my suitcases?’ She waved in the general direction of the luggage she had so meticulously packed. There were four large cases--three of them contained Milee’s trousseau, while one had her own stuff.
Oh, dear… If she missed the f light and those suit- cases weren’t on board, Milee’s big fat Indian wedding was doomed. Whoever had heard of a bride at a luxury boutique resort minus her bridal finery? She had painstakingly coordinated every little detail with two top fashion designers in the city. She wanted her best friend’s trousseau to be beyond perfect but it seemed like her hard work was about to go down the tubes.
She raced to the bathroom and speed-showered, throwing on the first skirt and blouse ensemble she could lay her hands on. It was a good thing she had her standby make-up kit ready for just such an emer- gency situation. Stuffing it in her large handbag, she grabbed her dead-as-a-dodo mobile phone and charger from the table top, lunged for the house keys and shot out of the apartment.
As she emerged from the building lobby, she looked for the familiar yellow and black taxi but there was none. She heard a honk behind her and spun around to find Handlebar Moustache behind the wheel of a gleam- ing black Mercedes-Benz. Well, at least she needn’t worry about the taxi breaking down en route to the airport. In the Rayna Book of Immutable Laws--also known as RBIL—anything that could go wrong usually did!
She piled into the car and impatiently instructed,‘Chalo…chalo… Hurry. Let’s go.’
The Mercedes soundlessly swept out of the driveway and raced down the road skirting the seafront on its way to the airport. Rayna looked out anxiously, praying they would not get stuck in a traffic jam. Thankfully, being a Sunday morning, the streets were devoid of the usual weekday bumper-to-bumper traffic. If all went well— fingers firmly crossed--they should cover the distance to the airport in twelve minutes, tops. She glanced at her wrist and realised she’d forgotten to strap on her watch. Shoot! Her eyes strayed to her feet and she froze in horror. Holy crap! She was still wearing her f lip-f lops with the cute f luffy pink teddy bears on them.
RBIL #1 had kicked in: Footwear gaffe equals a disastrous day ahead.
Not only would she arrive late for a f light transporting some of the Who’s Who of the city to the grandest wedding of the decade, but she was also set to make a cringe-worthy entrance. She hoped there would be no press photographers around to shoot hotshot model Rayna Dutt boarding a chartered f light to the Andaman Islands in pink teddy-bear-topped f lip-f lops. Maybe she should just hop off, hail a cab, go home and fall uncon- scious with the help of some more tequila shots? What if Handlebar Moustache delivered the trousseau suitcases to the aircraft?
No matter how tempting the thought, she knew she would never be able to do it. She couldn’t ditch Milee, the only true friend she’d ever had. The one who had stood by her through thick and thin back in the days when she was a scared, scrawny kid with a bunch of emotional issues that should have made her the perfect candidate for non-stop therapy.
Flip-f lops and paparazzi be damned; she would put her haughtiest foot forward. First, she needed her ar- mour on. She pulled out her compact mirror from her handbag and set about doing up her honey-coloured, almond-shaped eyes. On any other day, they were eas- ily her most attractive feature but today they were red- rimmed and blotchy from the torrent of tears that had come before the tequila had finally knocked her out. Sid had dumped her but, if she’d anything to do with it, it would be the best kept secret in the world. She would make a grand entrance…f lip-f lops and all!
Neel Arora was hanging on to his temper by a hair’s breadth. He paced the tarmac as he stopped himself from dialling the hapless driver yet again and checking on his whereabouts. The specially chartered f light was scheduled to depart at ten-fifteen and the VIP guests had checked in, including an entrepreneur who was currently the toast of Wall Street, the country’s top media mogul and his fashionista daughter, the husband-and- wife owners of one of the largest vineyards in Australia, a wildlife photographer whose documentaries had won a clutch of international awards, a couple of politician hotshots and a celebrity photographer. Except for one. The bride’s best friend, Rayna Dutt! If they didn’t take off in another eight minutes they would have to cancel. Not an option--coordinating the f light schedule with the invitees had been a nightmare for his staff and, besides, Port Blair Airport closed for traffic at 2:00 p.m. every day. Too bad if Ms Dutt didn’t have the decency to show up on time! She’d just have to miss the f light.
He raked his hands impatiently through his thick jet-black hair. This whole wedding celebration gig had seemed like a bad idea right from the get-go. What did he, a hotelier, know about ferrying celebrities to a wed- ding that was being touted as the event of the year? Un- fortunately for him, the venue of the said event was his very first boutique resort project. It made perfect busi- ness sense to have some of the country’s rich and famous staying at his hotel, located on the pristine white sands of the Andaman Islands. Though on a personal level the idea left him cold--he was not into weddings, especially the over the top, ostentatious Indian kind. Besides, how could he have said no to Chris Taylor, soon-to-be bridegroom, who was not just his business partner but also a dear friend?
A frantic air hostess rushed up to him. ‘Sir, the captain says we should be on our way now.’
It seemed like the bride’s best buddy would be a no-show after all and he couldn’t risk delaying the f light any longer. Nodding curtly at the stewardess, he strode briskly towards the aircraft and signalled to the pilot that they were ready to move. He jogged up the steps and turned around for one last look at the terminal.
The heat shimmered off the runway, though the light sea breeze made it somewhat bearable. Just as the air stairs were about to be pulled away, he spotted a woman in a short black skirt and blouse, sporting huge sun- glasses, long dark tresses f lying in the wind, tearing down the tarmac. She dragged two large suitcases be- hind her. Close on her heels, a short, thin man struggled with two equally bulky pieces of luggage. Neel waved to the attendant to stop as he gritted his teeth and bit out, ‘Here she comes.’
The air hostess spoke urgently into her walkie-talkie and a couple of helpers rushed forward to take charge of the baggage and stack them in the hold of the aircraft. Neel turned to go inside as he saw the woman hurry up the steps.
Rayna struggled to catch her breath. She was relieved she had made it just in time. But before she could relax she felt a prickle of tension. As honey-brown eyes clashed with steel-grey ones hooded under dark eye- brows, a sliver of delicious sensation sliced through her. She stared at the rock-hard, chiselled jawline, aquiline nose, the lock of inky-black hair that skimmed a broad forehead and thin delectable lips which, right now, were curved in a sarcastic smile. A round of applause accompanied by jeers of ‘well done’ cut short her appraisal of the six-foot-plus hunk who looked far from pleased at her late arrival. Burning with embarrassment at the public mocking, she was grateful for the shelter her dark glasses provided.
Her self-preservation instinct kicked in and she slipped on her practised mask with ease. Flicking back her hair with her long fingers, whose tips were painted a fire-engine-red, she decided to brazen it out. She bent her knees in a brief curtsy, though her attitude screamed f lirty and f lippant rather than respectful.
‘Sorry to keep you all waiting,’ she said, f lashing her million-watt smile. ‘I’d love to blame the horrendous traffic but, the fact is, I got a little carried away last night and decided to start the wedding celebrations a few hours in advance and overslept. Subsey pyaari saheli ki shaadi hai…thoda toh partying banta hai, na?’ Surely a girl couldn’t be blamed for partying through the night on the occasion of her best friend’s upcoming nuptials?
Her saucy remark got some laughs, smiles and a lusty ‘banta hai, banta hai!’--absolutely!--from a passenger seated at the rear of the plane. Waving in acknowledgement to her unknown ally, she collapsed into the creamy soft seat just as a f lashbulb went off in her face.
RBIL #2: Trust a photographer to be around at the most inconvenient moment.
Pushing her sunglasses firmly back on her nose, she peered up to find a man in a canary-yellow shirt waving a camera at her, a supercilious smirk plastered on his ugly face. It was none other than the obnoxious photographer who freelanced for gossip rags, and with whom she’d already had a couple of nasty run-ins. ‘That was really cute, Ms Dutt. Goes with the cutesy footwear too.’
His eyes travelled down to her pink f lip-f lops and she struggled not to give in to her instinct of hiding her long legs under the seat. Instead, she thrust them forward and wiggled her toes. ‘Don’t you love the teddy bears? If you promise to behave, I swear I’ll give them to you, even though it will break my heart. They would go well with your yellow shirt and pink pants.’
Before he could think up a comeback to her smart-alecky comment, the stewardess firmly but politely steered him away to his seat as the aircraft prepared for take-off.
Heaving a sigh, Rayna pulled off the sunglasses and closed her eyes. She cursed her luck--of all the press photographers in Mumbai, why did Milee’s wedding planner have to invite the sleaziest among them to cover the event? Now, she just had to make sure he remained clueless about her break-up with Sid, otherwise this wedding would be unbearable for her!
How had things come to such a pass? she wondered for the hundredth time during the past five days--ever since she’d acquired her Dumpee status.
She had met Sid on a commercial shoot less than a year ago and they had really hit it off. He had been more than helpful, recommending her to his contacts and sending modelling assignments her way. Soon their professional and private lives had begun to collide and she would often bump into him socially. It had been fun hanging out with him and their gang of friends but when Sid had then f launted their ‘couple’ status on Facebook it had come as a shock.
Their relationship had grown more intimate than she had initially intended. Her protests about his online declaration had met with resentful accusations that she wasn’t taking their relationship as seriously as he was. Naively, she had actually believed that perhaps this was his way of committing to her and she had been willing to give him a chance. Thank God, she hadn’t completely lost her sanity and given in to his pressure to move in with him. Or else today, as well as being dumped, she would also be homeless.
Like she had found herself at the age of thirteen— when a sudden catastrophic event had snatched away everything she’d taken for granted. The love of her parents, the safety of a home, the belief that she would be untouched by sorrow. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing away the claustrophobia threatening to swamp her. Her head throbbed with tension. She felt someone sink into the seat next to her and instinctively welcomed the diversion from her morbid thoughts.
A delicious spicy male scent floated towards her. Her eyes flew open as a velvety-smooth voice with notes that hinted at rich dark chocolate spoke huskily close to her earlobe. ‘I don’t think your apology would have cut any ice if the f light had been cancelled.’
It took her a few moments to reorient herself in the present. Her head ticked like a bomb and she was certain it would explode if she as much as moved a single muscle. Nevertheless, she managed a weak smile. After all, she had had years of practice at presenting her all-is-right-with-the-world face. ‘Well, it wasn’t and we’re on our way on time. So cut me some slack, will you?’ His face remained impassive as he offered her a bottle of mineral water. ‘Here, drink up. You need to hydrate. We have a long f light ahead. And a nap will do wonders for the massive hangover you’re nursing.’
She bristled. Did those intense grey eyes not miss a thing? She accepted the bottle gratefully and took a large gulp of water. A few drops dribbled down her chin and his eyes swivelled to her lips. Her body thrummed with awareness as she brushed her hand across her mouth. ‘Thanks. But what makes you think I have a massive hangover?’
He turned his smouldering grey eyes to stare into hers and her heart stuttered. He settled his muscle- bound six-foot-plus frame more comfortably into the seat and shrugged casually. ‘Deductive logic.’
‘Sounds fascinating. Care to explain that?’
‘One. For a model, who’s trained to meet deadlines, late night parties shouldn’t be a problem. So, if you overslept, it could be only because you were too wasted to get up.’
Wasted? She sucked in her breath sharply as a hot wave of anger gushed through her bloodstream. True, she had had the exact same thought this morning but hearing a stranger voice it shattered her already fragile pride. ‘Really, how presumptuous of you, Mr Whatever-Your-Name-Is!’
Ignoring her angry reaction, he continued coolly. ‘Two. Your choice of footwear is a dead giveaway. Unless…’
Heat f looded her cheeks as embarrassment and annoyance warred to gain control over her emotions. ‘Unless what?’
His eyes had a distinct twinkle in them as if he was enjoying rattling her. ‘I’m no expert on women’s attire,’ he elaborated. ‘But one thing is clear--those f lip-f lops, cute as they are, don’t quite work with the rest of your outfit. So, unless you’re making some kind of quirky fashion statement…it’s pretty obvious that your condition led you to make an unfortunate choice.’
Delicately phrased, but his emphasis on condition couldn’t be missed and the humour in his deep rich voice was unmistakable. She didn’t know what upset her more--his tone or his remarks!
‘Wrong choice of footwear is hardly irrefutable evidence of my so-called condition,’ she said haughtily. ‘I hope you’re not a detective or something because that kind of deductive logic can only get you fired.’
She hoped he didn’t extend his ‘deductive logic’ to the reasons for her hangover. She didn’t want him to know how fragile she was emotionally--a text message break-up was not exactly cause for celebration. She would gladly suffer Mr Deductive Logic's scorn rather than his pity for being an emotional wreck!
It was one thing to have her name tagged with Sid’s on his Facebook status. But quite another to have her photograph splashed in a gossip rag with the demean- ing caption: ‘Sid Verma’s latest squeeze.’ As if Sid’s constant hints about ‘taking their relationship to the next level’ hadn’t already messed with her mind, now she would need to explain to all her friends and family that she wasn’t quite the bed-hopping social butterf ly the gossip magazine had made her out to be.
With Milee’s wedding coming up, she had been prepared for the worst. Tongues would be wagging back in her home town about her decadent lifestyle. Comparisons between Milee and her would be inevitable. Her friend was not only the bright young chartered accountant who had scored brilliantly in her studies at the London School of Economics but she’d also snagged the most suitable man in Chris Taylor. And now that she was well on the road to marital bliss with her blue-eyed, blond-haired classmate, who was the rising star at a top venture capital group in the UK, the spotlight would no doubt be shining brightly on her maid of honour! The question on everyone’s lips would be: When is Rayna going to settle down?
Sid’s proposal of committing to a relationship had begun to look more and more attractive as the wedding got closer. She had even hinted as much to Milee at her bachelorette bash. Of course, she had no intention of disclosing that she was about to enter into a live-in relationship--oh, God, that would surely put her firmly in the f loozy category!--but if she made it known she had an eligible man in her life it would definitely deflect some of the criticism of her highly inappropriate lifestyle. With Sid shooting in Bangalore for a week, she’d been waiting for him to return to Mumbai to give him the news of her decision. But instead she had got a nasty shock in the form of a pithy text message.
‘It’s over’ Sid had texted. Two words--and she had morphed from a woman on the verge of committing to a long-term relationship for the first time in her life to a Dumpee struck down by a case of HTRB syndrome. Along with the tears came the recriminations every victim who’d suffered a high-tech relationship breakdown did. After badgering her about her reluctance to commit, why had he suddenly changed his mind? Was it just a game for him? Why hadn’t she seen it coming? And the most worrying of all: How would she face her friends and family when she met them at Milee’s wedding? Last night it had played on and on in her mind like a song on an endless loop till she had hit the tequila in sheer desperation just to get a few hours of blissful oblivion.
‘Are you all right?’ Her aggravating co-passenger with the oh-so-sexy voice butted into her musings.
‘Yes, of course,’ she snapped back.
‘No smart comeback?’ A sardonic smile tugged at the corner of his lips and her thoughts, which were already scrambled, churned as if they had been buzzed in her rickety old blender. Now what had she missed? Oh, yes. She’d made some snarky remark about him being fired from his job.
It suddenly occurred to her she didn’t have a clue as to who he actually was. She’d assumed he was one of Milee and Chris’s invitees, but perhaps he worked for the chartered f light company and had been told to look after the guests? ‘If it’s any consolation, I shall write a personal letter of apology to your boss and beg him not to fire you.’
Instead of taking offence at her barb, he let out a deep throaty laugh.
She was momentarily dazzled by the crease that appeared in his light-stubble-grazed cheek. On any other man, a dimple would have been effeminate, but no, sir, not on him! It just gave his already razor-sharp jawline a masculine edge that cut right through to the core of her heart.
‘You do have a quirky sense of humour.’ The laughter still echoed in his voice. ‘What makes you think I need your help to save my job?’
‘Deductive logic,’ came her quick reply as she struggled to control her totally insane reaction to his silky smooth charm.
Honestly speaking, her ‘logic’ was all screwed up. His demeanour, body language and the proprietorial air he had about him were definitely not ‘servile’ in any sense. Instead, they screamed alpha male arrogance, fuelled by supreme self-confidence.
Her tummy lurched ominously--this time as a physical reaction to the plane hitting an air pocket. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the armrests with all her strength. Even as the captain alerted the passengers of a turbulent patch, her stomach did yet another desperate dive and something hot and horrid gushed up to her throat.
RBIL #3:--a brand-new entry--Turbulence, emotional turmoil and tequila make for a lethal combination.
She leaped out of her seat, hand clamped hard against her mouth and headed for the washroom. But one of her f lip-f lops caught the back of the seat and she f lailed her arms to grab something--anything. Just then the stewardess emerged, balancing a tray containing a pitcher of orange juice and savoury snacks. Rayna clutched at the hostess’s arm as she desperately tried to save her- self from hitting the floor of the plane face first and throwing up at the same time. But the pitcher had no such luck. It headed southwards and Rayna cringed as its contents splashed all over Mr Deductive Logic. She heard him mutter a savage curse and then felt his strong arm steady her. Breaking free, she made it to her destination and threw up into the toilet bowl in the nick of time.
Hey Bhagwan! She was living her worst nightmare ever!
About the Author
During her exciting and fulfilling career as a business journalist, she found the time to indulge her passion for both Bollywood romances and M&Bs. But after years of reporting and writing about the real world, she chose to return to her love for fiction and turned screenwriter. She turned Harlequin author after winning the 2012 Passions Aspiring Authors Contest.