Completely comfortable in Swara’s bed, Sanskar yawned luxuriantly. It was Monday, he
was already late for work, and since the moment he’d walked into Swara’s bedroom last
night he’d crossed every line of morality and self discipline he owned.
But somehow, with Swara curled up under his nose, Sanskar couldn’t work up the energy
to hate himself.
Indeed, as he lay there and sensed Swara’s limbs shift, her muscles tensing in a stretch,
he felt nothing but pleasure; pleasure to be next to her, delight that they were in bed
together, and a pure, mindless contentment with the whole situation.
“Hey, beautiful.” Silly words. They just popped out of his mouth.
But they accomplished what he wanted. When Swara looked up at him she was
smiling. “Hey beautiful, yourself,” she whispered, morning hoarse.
Sanskar knew he was grinning like an idiot. He supposed he was an idiot. “You really
are drop dead gorgeous, you know.”
“Sanskar.” Her tone was half embarrassed, all pleased.
He smoothed his hand over her shoulder and decided he liked embarrassing her, and
pleasing her. Maybe he would do more. “Say. It occurs to me that in all this time I still
know next to nothing about you.” Nothing, that is, besides what he’d learned from the
private detective he’d hired at the beginning.
Swara raised her eyebrows. “And you want to know more?”
Yes! No. Hell. Personal questions. That meant probing, getting closer. Was that
smart? And yet — And yet — he did want to know more about her.
Sanskar shifted onto his side so that he could look directly at her. “First thing I don’t
understand — ” and what couldn’t have made its way into the private detective’s report.
” — Gorgeous as you are, why Las Vegas?”
She tilted her head. “Las Vegas isn’t such a terrible place.”
She brushed the hair from her eyes with a smile. “It isn’t. Not if you love dancing.
Besides, my parents encouraged me to move there.”
“Sure. They wanted me to be able to make a living doing something I loved.” Swara
grinned. “And dancers can make a good living in Las Vegas.”
“But — ” Sanskar started to frown. But — the detective’s report had described her
run-down apartment building, had listed her monthly credit card debt. She didn’t appear to
make a good living. He shook his head. “Even so, what kind of parents send their child —
their female child — to the gambling capital of the world?”
Swara’s eyes sparkled. “My Dad was a minister. My mother helped him in the church.”
Sanskar just looked at her.
She laughed, delighted.
“You’re not kidding.”
Obviously enjoying herself, Swara tapped his chin. “Call it ‘only child’ syndrome. All
they wanted was for me to be happy.”
All they’d wanted was for her to be happy. Sanskar shook his head. For most of his life,
he’d been an only child, too, but neither of his parents had thought beyond their own
happiness. His mother had taken off before he’d turned two. To that day, his father was
still too busy womanizing to care about Sanskar’s happiness.
“Do you still see them?” Sanskar asked.
The grin on her face faded. “My Mom passed away three years ago. My Dad went
soon after that.”
“Mm,” Sanskar gazed at her, feeling like he was getting a window into a world he’d
never known. He had the urge to comfort her, though surely there wa
s nothing he could
do about her parents’ deaths at this late date. “I suppose that was…hard,” he essayed
Swara’s eyes swept back to him. “Yes. Yes, it was, especially with my mom.
Sanskar reached out to clasp a hand around Swara’s. Emotions rose up in his chest,
emotions he had no business entertaining. For the love of Pete, he’d already gone past his
deadline. They were supposed to be back in reality again.
He drew his hand away. “I should get up.”
Swara wrinkled her nose and snuggled closer. “Say that again.”
“I should get up.”
She laughed. “Just as I thought.”
Her eyes flicked upward. “You don’t really want to.”
Well, of course he didn’t want to. He was in bed with a delightful and fascinating
naked woman, one to whom he felt suddenly, perhaps dangerously, closer. “It wouldn’t
kill me to take a day off,” he heard himself say. Am I crazy? I’ve already taken one day
Meanwhile Swara lifted a hand to his cheek. Her expression sobered. “Do you mean
that? I mean, could you?”
Sanskar looked deep into her eyes. Did he? Could he? He was supposed to have ended
this business last night. Instead he’d delved even further into it. It was crazy. Persisting in
this thing was only going to hurt them both. This was the moment to tell her.
Sanskar threaded his fingers through her hair, hair generously mussed from their
lovemaking of the night before. He looked into her eyes, eyes that seemed deeper, more
three-dimensional than the day before. His insides clenched. This was the moment to tell
If he were about to do anything of the sort.
Sanskar smiled. Everything within him calmed. He was not going to tell her. Not now,
and maybe not tomorrow, either. This simply felt too good. And, wrong or right, he
wanted to feel good.
“I’m sure,” he said. Still smiling, he kissed her.
That day, a Monday, Sanskar drove Swara up to Rockport, the old fishing village. They
wandered the streets of gift shops, then toured the Revolutionary-era mansions. While
enjoying herself, Swara watched Sanskar. He was spontaneous. He was relaxed. But he also
took care of his responsibilities. At one point in the afternoon he bought Swara a fat
paperback, installed her in a quaint café, and went off for forty-five minutes to make
phone calls. When he came back he was smiling. Indeed, he was relaxed enough to sit
down and order a fancy coffee, after which he suggested a hike.
Swara found herself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sanskar had spent so much of his
life behind emotional walls. It didn’t make sense for him to act the way he was today, as if
he’d overcome all his fear. And yet, one couldn’t deny he was having a good time with her,
laughing, connecting. And that morning in bed, he’d really seemed to, well, care.
She felt torn between wanting to accept things the way they seemed to be, and
wondering if she ought to push the issue.
She ended up choosing not to push the issue. Everything was too nice, too dreamy
and marvelous. She didn’t even question matters when Sanskar pulled off the road on their
way back home, when they began kissing — and more — in the back seat of his car. If
ever there was a time Swara should have been protecting herself by making sure of a man’s
feelings, this was it. Yet she did nothing.
All right, maybe there was something wrong here, something off, but most of it felt so
good and right. The last thing Swara wanted to do was ruin what appeared to be Sanskar’s
awakening, and the beginning of true love.
“Okay, so that’s taken care of.” Ragini folded the budget request that Ankita, director
of the Boston Family Aid Foundation, had just given her, and put it in her briefcase. Then
she smiled at Ankita across the functional desk in the tiny office of the family shelter
facility. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you those folding chairs and call you later in
“That’d be great.” Ankita stood to bid Ragini goodbye. Her mop of frizzy brown hair
and ubiquitous blue jeans belied the sharp competence of a first-rate administrator. So
when Ankita’s smile turned questioning and her eyes went past Ragini’s shoulder toward
the door, Ragini turned around to see what had caught Ankita’s attention.
She found Laksh Maheshwaristanding in the doorway.
Ragini hoped she didn’t gasp. But, for the love of — there was Laksh , with his sharpfitting
clothes, his easy grace, and his thousand-watt smile. Laksh , who instantly made her
stomach sink to her toes and her heart start racing. What on earth was he doing at the
Boston Family Aid shelter?
“Hey, Ragini,” Laksh said, and his smile managed to widen.
As inconspicuously as possible, Ragini cleared her throat. “Hello, Laksh .” His
appearance made no sense at all. Laksh had been the one to suggest they never speak to
each other. But Ragini recalled her manners and turned to Ankita. “This is Laksh
Singleton, Sanskar Singleton’s cousin. Laksh , please meet Ankita Shapiro, director of the
Boston Family Aid shelter.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Laksh smiled and came through the door to shake hands with
Ankita. “I’ve heard so much about this place from Ragini. Thought I’d come check it out.”
Then he turned to look at Ragini.
It was a request. No, a demand. She was supposed to help him ‘check it out,’ by
offering a tour.
No way. Ragini wasn’t about to give Laksh a tour. She didn’t want to spend five
minutes in his company. Or, more accurately, she wanted to spend a great deal longer than
five minutes in his company, while committing unspeakable acts with him. Oh, her
response to him was so dangerous.
She could easily imagine falling under his spell, losing herself, forgetting that Laksh
was not the kind of man a woman could trust. He wasn’t Sanskar. Not solid or reliable or
But as she stood there being watched by both Laksh and Ankita, she couldn’t decently
refuse to give him a tour. Ankita would wonder what the problem was. Laksh would
know. Ragini couldn’t let him think she was weak. If he could take being in her company,
then she could take being in his.
And besides, there was always the possibility that a tour of the facilities might
convince Laksh to bestir himself and use his sleeping charm to bring in some badly needed
“Oh,” she said, smiling innocently. “Would you like a tour?”
Laksh ‘s dark eyes gleamed. “Why, yes,” he replied. “A tour would be ever so nice.”
Ragini inclined her head. It was anybody’s guess why Laksh was really here.
“Oh,” Ankita said, and winked. “Be sure to show him our ‘new wing.'”
Laksh turned to Ragini with a lifted eyebrow.
She smiled with even more innocence. “We’ll save that for last.”
With a curve of the lips that said he was willing to play along, Laksh lowered his
It was all Ragini could do not to gnash her teeth. Lord, but he was appealing, all lithe
and athletic and bedroom-eyed. She smiled her farewell to Ankita and then walked
quickly past Laksh and into the hall. Fortunately, every room in the place was full of
people; volunteers, staff, and clients. She would have no opportunity to give in to the
temptation to press her hands against his hard chest or run her fingers through his silky
Ragini’s pace was brisk as she strode down the hall. No, nothing that way was going
to happen between them here…but perhaps she could make something more constructive
happen. If she were very clever she might manage to provoke the sleeping philanthropist
in Laksh ‘s soul.
She started where the clients would start, at reception. There, under Laksh ‘s polite
attentiveness, she pointed out the comfortable furniture, the carpeting, and painted
landscapes on the walls. Prospective clients, often fleeing horrific situations, should feel
safe and at home.
Laksh nodded. He was doing his best to appear detached, but Ragini noticed his eye
catch on one client who was sitting on the sofa, paging through a People magazine. The
client looked about fifteen years old, and had a black eye. Ragini saw a muscle jump, ever
so slightly, in Laksh ‘s jaw.
After a hike through the kitchen and dining room, Ragini led Laksh through the
dormitory, where the rooms had been designed to give privacy to family groups. There,
touring a one-bedroom suite, Ragini got her second hint she might be getting through.
Occupying the suite was Roberta Brown, a single mother suffering from cancer. With
hollowed cheeks, she sat in a rocking chair and slowly read a book to Shane, her six-yearold
son. Shane huddled in her lap, his arms clutched around his mother’s neck as he peered
out at Ragini and Laksh .
Ragini could feel Laksh stiffen beside her. At the same time, his sleeping charm seemed
to leap to the fore. “Hey, buddy, whatcha reading there?” He waltzed easily up to the pair,
then leaned sideways to peer inside the book.
Roberta smiled wanly up at him. “It’s Dr. Seuss.”
“Oh, Seuss is the best.” Laksh put on a mock stern look and pointed at finger at Shane.
“I hope you’re paying attention.”
Looking cowed, Shane nodded.
“Good,” Laksh said, and grinning widely, chucked Shane under the chin. The boy
laughed in surprise at the sudden reversal in attitude, and reflexively grabbed onto Laksh ‘s
hand. There followed the kind of tussle Ragini had often witnessed between males,
something from which they seemed to derive a mysterious joy.
Both Shane and Laksh were beaming by the time Ragini led the latter from the room.
But Laksh ‘s grin dropped once they were in the hallway with the door closed after them.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked Ragini.
“Leukemia. She’s getting treatment through government aid, but meanwhile she’s too
weak to make a living.”
“Huh,” said Laksh , and his eyes flicked away from Ragini’s. She suddenly remembered
a fact about Laksh that she’d long known, and had long forgotten. Both his parents had
been killed in a small plane crash when he’d been a teenager.
Quickly, Ragini turned away. Funny, how she’d forgotten that, and funny how it now
hit her. How hard it must have been for him to lose both his parents at once, and at such a
young age. But he never showed any lingering ill effects.
Or at least, not in any obvious way.
“Ahem. This way.” Ragini started down the hall. Unfortunately, the idea that Laksh
might harbor some vulnerability poked at her. It made him, somehow, more real.
Impulsively, she changed her mind about ending the tour before they got to the ‘new
wing.’ She turned right instead of left. She strode toward the locked door that led to the
attached building next door.
Torturing herself? Taking an unnecessary risk? …Or pushing that final button, the one
that was going to move Laksh .
Ragini had a key, given to her by the hopeful realtor. She used it now to unlock the
door and open it onto the large, empty warehouse space. She walked in and flipped the
switch for the set of naked light bulbs around the walls. Her skin tingled as Laksh walked in
after her. They were now alone together in the big, echoing space. But she put on a serene
smile as she turned to face him.
“And this,” she told him, “is our ‘new wing,’ or what we hope to acquire. We could
really use it, as I imagine you can now see. But…we don’t have a down payment.”
Laksh hummed and took a polite look around the empty space. Ragini knew he
understood what she’d actually said. She could really use his services. Oh, if he would only
deign to exert himself, Ragini just knew he could get that down payment together.
Smiling wryly, Laksh leaned against the open door jamb. “I was right the other night.”
He laughed softly. “About you being a good person. You are that, in spades.”
“Oh, please. And didn’t we agree, that same night, that it wasn’t a good idea to trade
Laksh chuckled and looked down at his shoes. “Yeah, we did, but…why did we decide
that, Ragini? That is, it seemed to make sense at the time, but I’ve been having a harder
and harder job remembering our reasoning.” His gaze came up to hit hers. “Remind me.
Why did we decide it wouldn’t work out for us to get together?”
Ragini stilled. Was this why he’d come today? To test her resolve? “You know why.”
“Because we’re too different?” He sounded doubtful.
Ragini wasn’t to be deflected. “Yes, because we’re too different.”
His head canted to one side. “But that could be a plus, don’t you think? Maybe we
could, oh, balance each other out.”
It was Laksh ‘s turn to go still. Ragini knew then that she’d blown it. She’d dismissed
the idea too quickly, betraying she had another, better reason for refusing a relationship
“O-kay,” he said, and looked at her.
Ragini expelled a breath and took a pace away, one hand to her forehead. Maybe she
should tell him. If he understood, he might go away. With her hand still on her forehead,
she spoke. “Look, my mother married my father when he got her pregnant with me. She
was wildly in love with him. But my father, well — ” Ragini lowered her hand and
released a dry laugh. “My father had never wanted to be married. And so…he didn’t bother
to act like he was married. I don’t think he lacked some kind of girlfriend the entire span of
my parents’ marriage. But my mother hung on…for too long.”
Laksh ‘s dark eyes watched her, not with the mockery that was so familiar but with
something else; close attention, processing, and finally, it appeared, comprehension.
“You don’t want to be in love,” he said.
Ragini let out a long breath. He did understand. And now she didn’t have to say such
a difficult thing out loud. She nodded.
Slowly, Laksh straightened. “I must admit, it’s flattering that you believe you could fall
in love with me.”
“‘Could’ being the operative word.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. Anyway, I’m grateful for that much, since I’m pretty sure I’m
already in love with you.”
Her head whipped toward him.
His smile was rueful. “I was halfway there and then Sanskar dropped out of the running.
It didn’t take long to fall the rest of the way.”
Ragini knew she was staring. “You,” she demanded, “are in love with me?”
He shot her a deriding glance. “Don’t look too impressed. My being in love doesn’t
mean as much as some other guy doing it. I must have been in love, oh, a dozen times —
just this year.”
She laughed, but was painfully certain it hadn’t come out right, light and unconcerned.
But she should be unconcerned, because he was correct. Him being in love wasn’t nearly
the serious matter it might be for another man.
Meanwhile Laksh lifted a shoulder and leaned against the jamb again. “But now that
you’ve explained, I can see where you’re coming from. It wouldn’t do for a serious woman
like you to get involved with a man who thinks two months is akin to a lifetime
Their eyes met. Two months, Ragini thought. No, she shouldn’t be concerned — or
impressed or excited or any other stupid thing — if that’s what Laksh meant by being in
“You were right about me,” Laksh went on, sobering. “In every respect. What you said
about how I don’t want to do or be anything because I’m afraid I wouldn’t measure up.
You were so right. And — And it’s safer not to want things.” He looked away and sucked
in his lips. “Much safer.”
Ragini gazed at him as he stood there, so handsome with his hair falling over his
forehead. Yes, he was sensual, but more. She’d never again be able to dismiss him as that
nasty Laksh Singleton. He wasn’t a monster, but a human being, with a human being’s load
of dreams and desires — and wounds.
For the sake of that human being, she smiled and claimed, “Well, for what it’s worth, I
do think you could be more. And measure up.”
Laksh looked back at her and his eyes crinkled. “Ah, Ragini. You are never going to
He looked ceilingward. “You are still trying to get me to be your fundraiser.”
“Well! I’m sure I — ”
“Don’t worry.” Laksh was back to his lighthearted self. “Now that I’ve seen the place
and everything you do here I’ll be sure not to ruin things by sticking my oar in the water.”
“Oh, Laksh .” He was impossible.
“But thanks for showing me around.” Laughing now, he pushed off the jamb and
walked toward her. His hilarity sobered as he reached quickly, gently, to touch her cheek.
“And thanks for explaining things to me. It helps…kind of.”
He looked into her eyes and she felt punched. There was so much person, so much
Laksh in his eyes. Then he smiled again, jaunty. “Goodbye, Ragini.”
“Goodbye, Laksh .” She told herself that whatever she’d just seen in his eyes meant
nothing. This idea of being in love with her was a mistake or a joke. Or — or just some
passing fancy. Two months, right? Whatever he felt, it couldn’t be love.
But before she’d even started ironing it out he was gone, striding athletically out the