They met almost every day over the next two weeks at different meetings and activities, though they barely had any chance to talk for any length of time. Not with the Aunties watching their every move.
Kiran had a feeling Devi was waiting for…something. Watching him for signs of something. The first few days, he hadn’t been sure what it was. The look in her eyes every time he walked into one of the meetings, the tentative smile when he offered an idea…he realized she was waiting for him to get bored.
To walk away. To…change his mind.
He felt a surge of anger at her lack of trust in his commitment, but it left as quickly as it came. His history showed her that he’d only come home when he needed respite from the stresses in his life. So it was up to him to prove that this time was different. This time, he hadn’t come home to lick his wounds, to use her as a comfort blanket… This time, he’d come home for her.
To be with her. To prove to her that he was the man for her, whatever it took.
A week to the Mela, they were meeting at Devi’s parents’ place to pack up hundreds of sweet boxes—homemade sweets made by the Aunties, to be sold at a high profit margin. He felt a certain sense of pride and accomplishment that he’d talked them all into raising their prices. The entire community would be obligated to buy the boxes even at an inflated price when fifteen sixty-five-year-olds had slaved for more than a week to make them using recipes handed down through so many generations.
It was nearly nine thirty by the time they packed most of the boxes and the Aunties had begun to sway on their feet. Not that they’d admit it. With her mouth tightly drawn, even Devi was beginning to list and Kiran had the most overwhelming urge to pamper her. So he called a halt, rushed them through their goodbyes, dropped off all the Aunties at various destinations and then returned to help her bring the kitchen and dining area into some semblance of order.
Only to find Devi had already sorted everything and was waiting to see if he wanted to share a glass of wine from the bottle he’d brought along earlier.
They took their wine glasses into the living room and settled down on the couch.
“They return next week,” Devi said, in answer to his question about her parents’ whereabouts. “They love visiting all the grandchildren at least once a year.”
Kiran nodded, glancing at a huge family portrait on the opposite wall. Her two younger sisters, Vani and Lakshmi, had five children between them. “I’m sure they love having you living so close.”
“Amma still tries to convince me every other day to move back in with them. I think she misses having someone at home to pamper. Keeps telling me I can have the walkout basement, all for myself. And that she wouldn’t dream of invading my privacy.” She laughed. “As if that’s even possible. Although it would be nice to save my rent money.” She cast him a quick look.
Kiran took a sip of his wine, put his wine glass on the coffee table and turned toward her. “You know you can share anything with me.”
“I mean, I have a good income from work, but it doesn’t make much of a dent in the student loans. Dad keeps offering to pay a good chunk off, but I don’t want to take his money. It feels like too much of a…handout. Especially since Vani and Lakshmi don’t need his help at all.” She looked up, dismayed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say so much. What’s in that wine you brought?”
Kiran ran his fingers over her forearm in reassurance and quickly pulled his fingers away. She was like silk under his fingers. And all he wanted every time he touched her was more. And more. “I’d like to think it has less to do with the wine and more to do with the fact that you want to talk to me about this.”
She nodded, without looking at him. “I love the Aunties, truly, but there aren’t any of my old friends who still live here who understand.”
“How lonely it can get sometimes.”
He’d been lonely even with a surfeit of friends around him. Because he’d filled his life with empty pursuits, with trying to reach an ideal that was never attainable—more wealth, bigger houses, faster cars. But hers was a different kind of loneliness and no less painful.
“I’m sorry for not—”
She pressed a hand against his mouth and his lips stung at the contact—in the most delicious kind of way. He clutched her wrist before she withdrew from him again. And kept his hand there.
“You’ve got to stop apologizing for choices I made. I chose to stay here. Chose to be closer to Amma and Dad. For the most part, I love it.”
Kiran acknowledged it with a nod. “If you like,” he said tentatively, “I can give you some direction about investing—make your money work for you. Only if you want to.”
Her fingers were warm in his clasp. “I’d like that very much, yes. But only if it’s like a professional consultation.”
“Now who’s pushing me away?” he said. “It’s not a job anymore for me, Devi. It’s a hobby and I’d like to help a friend out with the knowledge I have.”
“Okay,” she said with a smile, and leaned her head on his shoulder. There was still enough of a gap between them that it was their only point of contact. The trust in the gesture made him feel eight feet tall.
The silence that fell then, to the background of some old Telugu vocals, had almost a soporific quality to it. But Kiran was anything but sleepy. He clung to the moment, noting every small detail about her afresh. The sweep of her eyelashes over closed eyes, the small mole she had near her upper lip that enhanced the beauty of her mouth, the fine lines that appeared when she smiled…
The thick curls of her hair with only a hint of gray, the long, slender fingers, the small, pointed nose and generous mouth and the alluring softness of her curves…everything about her called to him.
Everything about her was…simply glorious. And it had taken him a lifetime to see it. To appreciate it. To love it.
“Why didn’t you ever marry?” The question shot out of him, before he could think it through. But suddenly, he wanted to know all about her.
She jerked away from his shoulder, her brown eyes alert again. But thankfully, she was smiling. “A few hours with the Aunties and you’re beginning to sound like one.”
He flushed. “I just wondered… You don’t have to point out that it’s none of my business.”
“I can take harassment over being single from my mom and my sisters. But you… Don’t tell me you think a woman is nothing without marriage.”
His hackles rose, but then he had opened the topic. “You know me better than that,” he said stiffly, wishing she’d move back into reach. He wanted her head on his shoulder again, her warm curves pressed against him.
“Then why ask that question?”
Pulling one leg up onto the couch so that he was sitting sideways, he tugged her back against his chest. When she settled, he felt his breath leave him in a ragged exhale. He wrapped one arm loosely around her waist and the other he used to find the tight knots in her shoulders. “Of course, I don’t think your life is incomplete. Of all the people to think that…you know better than anyone how much of a mess I made of my own life. I had to hit rock bottom before I even realized I was unhappy.” Her fingers clamped over his and squeezed tight.
“You’re the opposite. You’ve let more important things guide you. Even a stranger could see what a fulfilling, rewarding life you’ve built here. Laughter and genuine connections and people who adore you and see you for who you are, not what you can do for them…it’s precious.”
She stilled in his hold. Was it such a surprise to her? Didn’t she see her life like that?
“Thank you for saying such a beautiful thing,” she replied, not shyly but with an almost reluctant belief in his words.
“Why do you sound surprised? I never thought you self-deprecating.”
“It’s not that.” She looked into her wine glass as if it held all the answers. “Sometimes it becomes a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. I have days, bad days, when I feel like I’m stuck in a rut. Sometimes, when I listen to the lives my sisters are leading, full of ambition and important things, with children and husbands and big careers in medicine and law—” her gaze flicked to his and away, a flash of shame in it “—I wonder if I made all the easy choices. That I chose safety instead of adventure. That I never quite flew out of the nest.”
Lust and affection, Kiran recognized. But the tenderness he also felt in his heart for the ache he saw in her eyes, it blew him away. He chose his words carefully, not wanting to hurt her. “I wish I could simply tell you that that’s not true. But it’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves, I think.” He took her hand in his. “I can only tell you what I see.”
“Which you did. In a way I’ve never seen it myself,” she said, facing him, her tentative smile chasing away the earlier doubt, her fingers clasping tightly around his. Her face was so close that he could see his reflection in her eyes. “There is a but, right?”
“It’s not a but so much as a…” He hesitated, searching for the right word.
At the best of times, he wasn’t great with words. With Devi, he was fast learning that his forty-four-year-old body reverted back to a teenager’s. Only instead of impulses and urges, there was also over two decades’ worth of hard-earned wisdom.
“Don’t leave me hanging now,” she said, gently digging her elbow into his belly.
He tried to put into words the earlier awe he had felt simply watching her. Getting a peek into the life she’d built here. “I think what I meant is that…you’re the warmest, most giving person I’ve ever known. And I don’t say that lightly. You nurture anyone that comes into your sphere. You should be cherished and loved just as much in return.”
Her gaze glittered with a mix of humor and seriousness. “And only romantic love can do that?”
“Of course not. Those blinders have been stripped from my eyes a long time ago. If it’s not between the right people, romantic love can just as easily turn into poison.” He took quite a big gulp of his wine and then regretted it. “I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s a sorry reflection on my sex that no one has realized what a wonderful woman you are and snapped you up.”
Another brow rose and he winced. “God, I can’t seem to get my foot out of my mouth today.”
When he looked at her, she was giving him the kind of smile that made him feel like he was drunk and started that yearning behind his ribs again. The kind of smile that he wanted to taste.
The moment stretched and Kiran had the most insane urge to lean forward and cover her mouth with his. Her hand was still in his and slowly she put her wine glass on the coffee table and freed the other. Then she was moving closer to him, and his heart decided it was an Olympic runner, chasing after her.
She was the prize he wanted, with a desperation that took his breath away.
Sitting on her knees between his legs, she simply looked at him—big eyes and bigger dreams, and he wanted to turn every one of those into reality. Starting with satisfying the naked desire in her eyes…
Her palms landed on his chest, her mouth mere inches from his. There was a shyness about her, but there was also a resolve to her mouth that he was so thankful for. “Whatever you’re thinking, yes,” he said, with a ghost of a smile.
“So this—” she moved her hands between them “—you do feel it just as strongly?”
“It’s like I’m a randy teenager again,” he said with a groan, running a hand over his face. “But deeper than that. Better than that. I feel it here,” he said, pulling her palm to press against where his heart was thundering away. It was so easy to be vulnerable with her…because it didn’t feel like this was a power play. The truth simply was.
She nodded, her eyes full of the awareness of the magic he felt in every pore.
Her hand rose toward his face. One slender finger traced the line of his jaw, leaving a trail of sensation in its wake. “I…” She licked her lower lip and then pressed her lips to his skin. Her breasts grazed against his chest and that slow hum became a roaring engine fueling need through his veins. “I’ve been wondering if that kiss we shared…was it real? Was it…”
“Just an echo of our long past together and me clinging to you because my life was in shambles? Yes, I wondered that too.”
“I don’t want it to be like before. An accident, a twist of fate… And I don’t want to spend another two decades wondering if I should’ve been brave, if I should’ve just asked for what I wanted. I don’t want to make the safe choice again. Not where it matters. I’d rather know now,” she said.
Two decades… His heart thundered at what that admission meant. Had she wanted him even before their accidental kiss? Had she wanted a future with him? When? For how long? Why hadn’t she ever told him? Why hadn’t he recognized it in her eyes when they had always told him the full truth however painful or joyous? How much time had he wasted? An ache bloomed in his chest—could you lose something you didn’t know you had?
“Know what?” he asked deliberately. Suddenly needing her words too. Suddenly wanting everything she’d ever wanted to give him, everything she thought he deserved. Even when he hadn’t been good enough or ready enough for her.
“That you want me as much as I want you.”
“Yes,” Kiran said with a swallow. “God, yes. There hasn’t been a day I didn’t think of that kiss, a moment when I didn’t kick myself for not going back to your room.” There was still time, he told himself. Time to ask her how long she’d felt this for him. Time to show her that while he’d been slow arriving at this point, now he was here he was all the way in. “But…” he said, determined to be the sensible one this time. The one with whom she could take the risk without worrying about it. He grazed a finger over her lips, unable to not touch. She panted slightly as he gently rubbed the pad of his thumb over her lower lip. And that small gasp of breath lit a flame in his blood. “I want to make sure you understand one thing.”
“What?” she said, pressing into his touch.
“Whatever happens, you’ll always be one of the most important people in my life. Nothing’s going to change that.”
Her smile was as big as the sky. And he felt as if he was finally getting the hang of this. Finally, he was getting it right with this woman. “Got it. You’re staying and we’ll be friends with benefits,” she said, with a wriggle of her brows. “I can live with that.”
And then her lips met his and…pleasure exploded at the contact.
Eyes wide in that small face, she slanted her mouth this way and that, nibbling at him with her lips, sending arrows of desire shooting straight through to his groin. With a concentration that blew his mind, she tasted him and tested the fit. Her lips were like butterfly wings over his, her breath coasting over his skin like the touch of a warm flame. How could she ever have considered herself boring?
It took everything he had in him to not take over the kiss. To let her explore and tease him. To let her take what she wanted from it. But this urgency was different too. It wasn’t just base hunger or a race to satisfaction. This was deeper and more mature and his soul sang with joy and pleasure to be found, right there in the present with this beautiful woman whom he wanted with such deep, abiding love.
One hand around the nape of his neck, she drew him closer for a deeper kiss and Kiran went happily. She tasted like wine and sweetness and a new beginning. He threw himself into the kiss, into her, happy to give her whatever she needed. Without asking for anything more.
If all he could have for the rest of his life was this kiss, then he would die a happy man.
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