“Here we are Di...”
Mahek hit the brakes and slowed down to park her truck in front of the big white building that housed Sonal's studio. Getting down, she went around the truck to open the passenger side door. Nehal got down slowly and stared at the building, her face pale with apprehension.
“I'm still not sure of this Mahek,” Nehal said, chewing her lip. “I don't think I am up to it.”
Mahek clucked and shook her head. “Don't worry Di. You will be all right,” she reassured her sister. “Sonal is very excited. In fact, she insisted that you work with her.”
Nehal shook her head unsurely. “But I have never worked before, Mahek. It was nice enough of Sonal to let me help her a couple of times. But I am not sure I'm up to a proper job.”
“You are thinking too much Di. At least give it a try,” Mahek tried to calm her. It had been months since her sister last ventured out of the house. An unhealthy pallor tinged her skin. It had taken a lot of coaxing, persuading to get Nehal to come here today. But her sister needed it.
“You can't spend your life cooped up in the house. You have to get out,” Mahek pressed on. “You will be fine. It would be just us working together. And we would bring the baby over whenever you want.”
That was one of the things that worried Nehal the most. Leaving the baby with her parents when she would be out to work. Mahek sighed. Her sister's life had turned into a roller-coaster. She was still adjusting to the eternity of being a mother when she had barely spent any time being a wife. But at least she had warmed to the baby, which was not a small thing considering her initial detachment.
The sisters walked into the studio only to be greeted by a hulking Sandeep Khurana lounging in the reception sofa. Nehal's face paled. Every Time she saw the lawyer, he reminded her of the court case. The sword that hung on her head constantly. And the man's callous attitude was even more infuriating. How could someone be so indifferent to their client's sufferings, she could not fathom.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kapoor. It's good to see you here,” Sandeep drawled, casually strolling towards them.
Nehal's fists clenched. “I told you not to call me that,” she spat as he looked at her in surprise. “Speaking of which, I do hope you have an update on my divorce petition. It's been weeks since when I asked you to file it.”
“Whoa…calm down, Mrs. Kapoor,” Sandeep backed instantly, raising his hands in front of him. Mahek's hand shot up to rest on her sister's arm in a calming gesture.
“I mean...Ms. Sharma,” he rectified hurriedly when Nehal's eyes hardened again. “I have filed your petition in the court. Mr. Kapoor has been notified. We will get a hearing date soon.” He paused for a while and saw his words had an effect. Nehal looked appeased. But barely.
“So how long until I am rid of that man?” She asked evidently still in her rage.
“Well, it’s early days still. And these things take time.” He looked at Mahek beseechingly, willing her to rescue him and she took his cue.
“Di, let's not talk about it on your first day here.” she held Nehal's arm and steered her to the room that they had set up as an office. Sonal was already there looking at some designs. A strong smell of coffee wafted through the air. She saw the sisters enter and jumped to her feet.
“Oh, thank goodness. I am so happy you are here,” she chirped and came forward to hug Nehal. “I was getting so lonely now that Mahek spends half her time at the restaurant.”
Mahek raised her eyebrows and Sonal smiled sheepishly. She knew Mahek did more work in that half-day than she ever managed in two. But still...being alone here was not nice.
Nehal smiled and looked around. She took in the half-finished designs on the board and the general clutter. The place was light and airy. It already felt reassuring.
“So you have decided to join this office?” Sandeep asked, having followed them into the office. He went to the coffee machine and pulled three mugs out of the cupboard. A whirring sound of the machine filled the room while he readied the three mugs.
“Yes. I would like to give it a try.” Nehal answered, accepting a mug from him.
“Isn't it a great idea?” Sonal blabbered excitedly. “I saw some of Nehal's work a few days back. She has some fresh ideas. And she would be a great company for me as well.”
Sandeep nodded sagely. His sister was a chatterbox. He could not imagine her cooped up in the office with only walls to keep her company. Sighing through his nose, he turned his attention to the other sister.
“So how are you finding your new partner, Mahek?” Sandeep asked, handing Mahek the other mug. “Has he actually started to carry his weight yet?”
Mahek laughed. “Veer is an investor, not a partner,” she replied, taking a sip and rolling her eyes. God knew she had enough partners. “It's enough that he is investing his money. And it's just as well that he is staying away from the building work. I don't want anyone meddling about.”
Sandeep looked curiously. So Mahek was the sole owner of the restaurant. But she still needed Veer's investment. And Veer Malhotra seemed content to play along. Interesting.
“I would be careful before discounting Mr. Malhotra as just an investor,” he said cautiously. He had to warn this girl. She seemed to be hurtling from one disastrous partnership to another. First Rajeev and Shaurya. And now this Veer. He conveniently omitted his sister; she was a darling.
“He should have returned to the UK by now, to open his restaurant chain, seeing as that was his initial plan. Men like him don't dawdle around for nothing,” he said.
Mahek frowned. She had had the same doubt, but she had brushed it under the carpet. Veer's interest seemed professional enough, at least she had not given him an excuse to think otherwise. And she had nothing to worry about as long as she was careful.
“Thank you Sandeep, I'll keep that in mind.” Mahek smiled sweetly. “Let me remind you that you proposed to me thrice on our first meeting, and I was the third girl you proposed that night. Veer is practically a saint compared to you.”
Sonal laughed out loud while Nehal looked at him scandalized. Sandeep just shrugged his shoulders. “It was just my bad day. I would never have proposed to you if the first two had agreed.”
“Aww...my poor brother.” Sonal guffawed and tried to pull his cheek but he managed to swat her hand away.
“So when do we get to see your restaurant? Sonal tells me it's a beautiful place,” he asked, leaning back in his chair. Sonal had talked about it at dinner every night. He thought her reservations about the location were justified. But there must be some reason why Mahek had chosen it. And a very good reason, if he were to believe his father. Apparently, Mahek Sharma had a nose for these things.
“Soon,” Mahek answered with a smile. “We are almost there. Maybe we'll open in a couple of weeks if everything goes well.”
“Woohooo,” Sonal whooped with joy. “Then we must begin preparation. It has to be a grand inauguration.”
Mahek smiled. Yes. It would be grand. So grand that it would send a message loud and clear. That she had survived. That she had moved on.
Mahek walked on the garden path at the back of her restaurant, which took her to the eastern boundary of the property. The landscaper had done a fabulous job. The hedges and bushes that had appeared overgrown and neglected a few weeks ago now appeared well-cared for. The plants were neatly trimmed, the paths cleared and resurfaced. The garden was in full autumn bloom, a riot of yellows and oranges covering the trees and the ground alike.
Mahek reached the end of the path and turned to the wooden gazebo where she found an electrician still fiddling with some wiring. He paused as he saw her nearing and raised a hand in greeting.
Acknowledging him back with a smile, she inspected the gazebo. It was just one of the many she had installed in this garden, and it had turned out just as she expected. A beautiful, carved wooden structure standing on tall posts. Matured creepers and vines cascaded from the roof and the look would complete when they bloom come spring.
“Have you checked the connection from the other gazebos?” she asked the electrician. “I want them directly connected to the reception and the staff area.”
“Yes, mam,” he replied. “The other fourteen are already connected. We tested them this morning. This is the last one. Would you like to test it?”
Mahek went closer and looked to see the wires were hanging out. The electrician followed her gaze and bent to continue his work of fitting boxing around them to make them inconspicuous. His work was good, she had checked some other gazebos coming this way and was satisfied.
Picking up the receiver she punched a number and heard a ring trilling at the other end. Couple of seconds and it was answered by a deep voice, albeit a little irritated. “Is it you again, Suresh? How many times are you going to test this thing today?”
Mahek raised her eyebrows. It seemed Veer Malhotra was at the reception. And he had answered the phone instead of the receptionist she had appointed a couple of days back.
“It's me, Veer. Just checking the connection from gazebo 15.” Mahek answered.
“Oh it works all right,” he drawled from his end. “I can see the number here. Care to join me if you are not very busy? I have something important to discuss.”
“I'll be there shortly,” Mahek replied. “But where's Rebecca? And why are you answering the phone instead of her?”
“Your receptionist was here a minute ago. I sent her to get a coffee for me.”
“That's not her job.” Mahek rolled her eyes. “I have also hired some waiting staff to do your bidding,” she said sarcastically. “Please make sure Rebecca is back at the reception and stays there.”
She could hear Veer chuckling and grimaced. He had caused so much disruption in the initial days with the builders that she had forbidden him to visit until the work was over. But now it was almost done, and he was here again.
Cutting the call, she turned to walk towards the restaurant building, leaving Suresh to get on with his job.
She was thrilled. The electrical wiring was one of the last pending jobs. It would be over today, effectively meaning they were ready to open any time. She hugged herself against the chill and hummed a jolly tune. It had been ages since she had felt this excited.
Mahek walked in and saw Rebecca manning the reception. The girl looked flustered, with a slight blush tinging her face. Mahek raised her eyebrows. Poor thing. It seemed there were not many immune to the charms of Veer Malhotra. And this girl seemed to have taken the hit. Walking past the reception, Mahek gave her a reassuring smile and Rebecca looked visibly relieved. She spotted Veer sitting at a window table and moved towards him.
“So we are nearly done,” he said in the way of greeting as Mahek joined him at the table. She gave him a look and pulled a chair to sit down.
“Very nearly,” she answered. “I just need a few finishing touches here and there.” She scanned the place with a critical eye as she noted a few bits and pieces. “But that would hardly take half a day.”
Veer nodded as he sipped the coffee. “And the staff?”
“All done. Interviewed and verified. Many have joined already. The rest will start in a week.”
Veer was impressed. This woman had single-handedly turned this place around. If he had any doubts about her capability, there were all but assuaged now.
“I must say this looks great,” he confessed.
She waited for him to go on, but he seemed to hesitate. She pressed her lips to contain a snort. “But you still think no one would come here as it's too remote?”
He looked at her steadily but did not answer. It was true. Beautiful as it might be, he still did not see anyone traveling miles just for a plate of food.
Mahek shrugged. She agreed. No one in their right mind would travel this far just to eat. But that was the catch. They wouldn't be here just to eat, would they? Not if everything goes as per her plan.
“Anyway, you said you had something important to discuss?” she asked, looking out of the window at the garden. Her garden. The extravagance of rich colors flooded the outlook. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the crisp scent of the autumn morning and her face lightened with a smile. Divine. This was just divine.
“Umm...yes,” Veer said, slightly taken aback. He had been with Mahek Sharma for weeks now. He had rarely seen her smiling. The first time he had seen it was when he had offered her a chef's position at the fashion show. Her smile was a delightful surprise then, its effect had sent him tingling in all the right places. And now! How should he put it? His heart seemed to be racing and slowing down at the same time. He was getting hot and cold, both relieved and agitated. This magnificent woman in front of him had him in her thrall. And she did not seem to know it.
He fidgeted a bit with the coffee mug before gathering up the courage to speak.
“We have this meeting with the bank manager today afternoon. I was wondering if you could join me for dinner afterward?”
Mahek turned her face from the window and looked at him.
“Dinner? I don't think so, Veer. I have to be at the studio to pick up Di before 6. I might even have to leave earlier if the baby gets upset without her.” Mahek replied apologetically. “In fact, I was going to ask you to handle the meeting yourself today. I have to be here with the electrician to make sure everything is right before I make his final payment.”
Veer's brow furrowed. Excuses, and more excuses. That was all he got from her when he proposed to spend any time with her. Was it genuine this time or was she making it all up? A bizarre irritation tried to surface his mind, but he quickly suppressed it down.
“Don't worry. I'll take care of the meeting,” he said finishing his coffee. “How about tomorrow evening? There's no meeting tomorrow.”
Mahek chewed her lips and made a face. “I'm sorry Veer. Di is going to be at the studio every day from now onwards. She can't drive, neither does Sonal. I have to be around.” She saw his face going grim and straightened. “But we can have lunch here. Why not try our own food and see if our chefs are up to the job?”
He looked thoughtful as he considered. His hand left the mug and neared hers that rested on the table near her phone.
“Lunch it is then,” he said softly covering her fingers with his. “I hope this is not another of your empty promises.”
Mahek pulled her hand away with a start. Her brow furrowed as she remembered Sandeep's warning just a few hours ago. If this was Veer's way to make his intentions clear, he had done it successfully. She had to tread carefully. She could not afford to antagonize him.
“I never make empty promises, Veer,” she said trying to control her unease. “We'll have lunch together today.”
That seemed to satisfy him as he relaxed in his chair. Mahek wondered if his pleasant manner would continue when he knew they would be joined by another guest for lunch today.