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If there was one thing she didn’t need, Swara thought a few days later, it was to be pulled off the job and into a meeting. She had mechanics working on the main building, riveters working on the health club, and a running feud between Vishwa and that other idiot to deal with. It wasn’t as though those things couldn’t be handled without her – it was simply that they could be handled better with her. And here she was cooling her heels in Adarsh’s office waiting for him to show up.
She didn’t have to be told how tight the schedule was. Damn it, she knew what she had to do to see that the contract was brought in on time. She knew all about time.
Her every waking moment was devoted to this job. Each day was spent sweating out on the site with the crews and the supervisors, dealing with details as small as the delivery of rivets. At night she either tumbled into bed at sundown or worked until three, fuelled by coffee and ambition, over her drawing board. The project was hers, hers more than it could ever be Adarsh Gujral’s. It had become personal, in a way she could never have explained. For her, it was a tribute to the man who had had enough faith in her to push her to try for more than second best. In a way, it was her last job for Ravinder Gujral, and she wanted it to be perfect.
It didn’t help to have an architect who demanded materials that made cost overruns and shipping delays inevitable. Despite him and his marble sinks and his oversize ceramic tiles, she was going to pull it off. If she wasn’t constantly being dragged into the office for endless meetings.
Impatient, she paced to the window and back again. Time was wasting, and there were few things that annoyed her more than waste of any kind. If she hadn’t had a specific point to bring up to Adarsh, she would have found a way to avoid the meeting altogether. The one thing about Adarsh, she thought with a humourless smile, was that he wasn’t really bright enough to recognize double-talk. In this case, she wanted to make the pitch herself, so she’d come. But – she glanced at her watch – she wasn’t going to twiddle her thumbs much longer.
This had been Gujral’s office. She’d always liked the cool, authoritative colours and the lack of frills. Since Adarsh had taken over, he’d made some changes. Plants, she thought, scowling at a ficus. It wasn’t that she disliked plants and thick, splashy pillows, but it annoyed her to find them here.
Then there were the paintings. Gujral had preferred Indian paintings and landscapes. Adarsh had replaced them with abstracts that tended to jar Swara’s nerves. The new carpet seemed three inches thick and was salmon-colored. The elder Gujral had used a short-napped buff so that the dust and dirt wouldn’t show. But then, Adarsh didn’t often visit the sites or ask his foremen to join him for an after-hours drink.
Stop it, Swara ordered herself. Adarsh ran things differently, and that was his privilege. It was his business in every way. The fact that she had loved and admired the father so much didn’t mean she had to find fault with the son.
But she did find fault with him, she thought as she studied the tidy, polished surface of his desk. He lacked both the drive and the compassion that had been so much a part of his father. Gujral had wanted to build first for the love of building. With Adarsh, the profit margin was the bottom line.
If Ravinder Gujral had still been alive, she wouldn’t have been preparing to make a break. There was a certain freedom in that, in knowing that this current project would be her last for the company. There would be no regrets in leaving, as there might once have been. Instead, there was excitement, anticipation. Whatever happened next, she would be doing it for herself.
Terrifying, she thought, closing her eyes. The idea was as terrifying as it was compelling. All unknowns were. Like Sanskar Maheshwari.
Catching herself, she walked back to the window. That was ridiculous. He was neither terrifying nor compelling. Nor was he an unknown. He was just a man – a bit of a pest, with the way he kept popping up on the site. He was the kind of man who knew he was a pleasure to look at and exploited it. The kind who always had a line, an angle and an escape route.
She’d seen men like Sanskar operate before. Looking back, Swara considered herself lucky that she’d only fallen for a pretty face and a smooth line once. Some women never learned and kept walking blindly into the trap again and again. Swara wasn’t interested in Sanskar Maheshwari personally and could barely tolerate him professionally.
When he walked in seconds later, she wondered why her thoughts and her feelings didn’t seem to jibe.
“Swara, sorry to keep you waiting.” Adarsh, trim in a three-piece suit, offered her a hearty smile. “Lunch ran a bit over.”
She only lifted a brow. This meeting in the middle of the day had caused her to miss her lunch altogether. “I’m more interested in why you called me in from the field.”
“I thought we needed a little one on one.” He settled comfortably behind his desk and gestured for both her and Sanskar to sit.
“You’ve seen the reports.”
“Absolutely.” He tapped a finger on a file. He had a nice, engaging grin that suited his round face. More than once Swara had thought he’d have done well in politics. If anyone knew how to answer a question without committing himself, it was Adarsh Gujral. “Efficient, as always. I’m having a dinner meeting with Oberoi senior this evening. I’d like to give him something more than facts and figures.”
“You can give him my objections to the interior layout of the main building.” She crossed her ankles and spared Sanskar the briefest glance. Adarsh began to fiddle with one of his monogrammed pens.
“I thought we’d settled all that.”
Swara merely shrugged. “You asked. You can tell him that the wiring should be completed on the main structure by the end of the week. It’s a tricky process, given the size and shape of the building. And it’s going to cost his company a fortune to cool.”
“He has a fortune,” Sanskar commented. “I believe they’re more interested in style than saving on the electric bill.”
“Indeed.” Adarsh cleared his throat. The way things stood, the Oberoi project was going to bring him a tidy profit. He wanted to keep it that way. “Of course, I’ve looked over the specs and can assure our client that he’s receiving only the best in materials and in brainpower.”
“I’d suggest you tell him to come see for himself,” Swara said.
“Well, I don’t think – ”
Sanskar cut in. “I agree with Ms Gadodia. Better he should buck now about something that doesn’t suit him than buck later, after it’s in concrete.”
Adarsh frowned and backpedalled. “The plans have been approved.”
“Things look different on paper,” Sanskar said, looking at Swara. “Sometimes people are surprised by the finished product.”
“Naturally, I’ll suggest it.” Adarsh tapped his pen on his spotless blotter. “Swara, you have a suggestion in your report about extending the lunch break to an hour.”
“Yes, I wanted to talk with you about that. After a few weeks on the site I’ve seen that until and unless we get some relief in the weather the men are going to need a longer break at midday.”
Adarsh set down the pen and folded his hands. “You have to understand what a thirty-minute extension means in terms of overall time and money.”
“You have to understand that men can’t work in that sun without a reasonable reprieve. Chugging salt tablets isn’t enough. It may be March, and it may be cool inside when you’re having your second martini, but out there it’s a killer.”
“These men get paid to sweat,” Adarsh reminded her. “And I think you can only agree that they’ll be better off to have the buildings under roof by summer.”
“They can’t build if they drop from heat exhaustion or sunstroke.”
“I don’t believe I’ve had any reports of that happening.”
“Not yet.” It would be a miracle if she held on to her temper. He’d always been pompous, she thought. When he’d been a junior executive she’d been able to skirt him and go straight to the top. Now he was the top. Swara gritted her teeth and tried again. “Adarsh, they need the extra time off. Working out in that sun drains you. You get weak, you get sloppy, and then you make mistakes – dangerous mistakes.”
“I pay a foreman to see that no one makes mistakes.”
Swara was on her feet and ready to explode when Sanskar’s calm voice cut in. “You know, Adarsh, men tend to stretch out breaks in the heat in any case. You give them an extra thirty minutes, makes them feel good – obliged, even. Most of them won’t be as liable to take more. You end up getting the same amount of work and good PR.”
Adarsh ran his pen through his fingers. “That makes sense. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“You do that.” With an easy smile, he rose. “I’m going to hitch a ride back to the site with Ms Gadodia. Then we can discuss that idea about our working more closely together. Thanks for lunch, Adarsh.”
“Any time, any time.”
Before Swara could speak, Sanskar had her by the elbow and was leading her out. They were in front of the elevators before she managed to jerk away. “I don’t need to be shown the way,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Well, Ms Gadodia, looks like we disagree again.” He strolled into the elevator with her, and then punched the button for the parking garage. “In my opinion, you could definitely use some guidance – in how to handle birdbrains.”
“I don’t need you to…” She let her words trail off, glancing over at his face. The hint of amusement in his eyes matched the reluctant smile in hers. “I assume you’re referring to Adarsh.”
“Did I say that?”
“I have to assume you were – unless you were talking about yourself.”
“Take your choice.”
“That leaves me with a tough decision.” The elevator shuddered slightly when it reached the parking level. Swara put her hand out to keep the door from sliding shut again as she studied him. There was a sharp intelligence in his eyes, and an easy confidence around his mouth. Swara nearly sighed as she moved through the doors and into the garage.
“Made up your mind?” he asked as he fell into step beside her.
“Let’s just say I’ve already made up my mind how to handle you.”
The slap of their boots echoed as they walked between the lines of cars. “How is that?”
“You’ve heard of ten-foot poles?”
His mouth quirked at the corners. She was wearing a braid again. It gave him the urge to loosen it, strand by strand. “That’s downright unfriendly.”
“Yeah.” She stopped in front of a compact station wagon. Its white paint was scarred and dusty, and its windows were tinted violet to combat the merciless sun. Thoughtfully she dug out her keys. “Are you sure you want to go to the site? I could drop you by your hotel.”
“I do have a mild interest in this project.”
She moved her shoulders in a quick, restless gesture. “Suit yourself.”
Once in he cocked his seat back and nearly managed to stretch out his legs. When she turned the key, the engine coughed, objected, and then caught. The radio and air conditioner sprang to life. Music jangled out, but she didn’t bother to turn it down. Scattered across the dashboard were a family of decorative magnets – a banana, an ostrich, a map of Kolkata, a grinning cat and a lady’s hand with pink fingernails. Scribbled notes were Held in place by them. As far as Sanskar could make out, she had to pick up milk and bread and check on fifty tons of concrete. And call Mongo? He narrowed his eyes and tried again. Her mother. She was supposed to call her mother.
“Nice car,” he commented when it shuddered and bucked to a stop at a light.
“Its needs a tune-up.” She shifted into neutral to let the engine idle. “I haven’t gotten around to it.”
He studied her hand as she jammed the car into first and accelerated. It was long and lean and suited her build. She wore her nails short and, unlike the plastic depiction of a lady’s hand, unpainted. No jewellery. He could imagine those hands serving delicate cups of tea – just as he could imagine those changing spark plugs.
“So how would you handle Adarsh?” she asked
“What?” He’d been lost in a quiet little fantasy about how those narrow, competent hands would feel stroking along his skin.
“Adarsh” she repeated. She gave the car more gas as they headed south out of the building. “How would you handle him?”
At the moment he was more interested in how he was going to handle her. “I take it you two don’t always see things the same way.”
“You’re the observant type, Mr Maheshwari.”
“Sarcasm, Ms Gadodia.” He didn’t ask permission to smoke, just rolled the window down an inch and began to search through his pockets for matches. “Personally, I don’t mind it a bit, but when you’re dealing with Gujral you’ll find oil does better than vinegar.”
It was true, absolutely true. It annoyed her that she’d put herself in a position where she’d had to be reminded of that. “He doesn’t recognize sarcasm if you pour it over his head.” She punched in the car lighter for him.
“Not nine times out of ten, maybe.” He touched the tip of the lighter against his cigarette. “It’s that tenth time that could get you in trouble. Before you say it, I already know you don’t mind a little trouble.”
Despite herself, she smiled, and she didn’t object when he turned the radio down. “You know those horses, the parade horses that wear blinders so they’ll follow the route and not look around and get spooked by crowds?”
“Yeah, and I’ve already seen that Gujral wears blinders so that he can follow the route to profit without being distracted. You want better working conditions for the men, a higher grade of material, whatever, you’ve got to learn how to be subtle.” Sanskar said
She made that quick, restless movement with her shoulders again. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can. You’re smarter than Gujral, Ms Gadodia, so you sure as hell ought to be able to outwit him.”
“He makes me mad. When I think about – ” she shrugged again, but this time there was sorrow in the movement. “He just makes me mad. When I get mad, whatever I think comes out.”
That was something he’d already figured out for himself. “All you have to do is use the common denominator. With Gujral, that’s profit. You want the men to have an hour lunch break in the heat of the day, you don’t tell him it’s for their benefit, you tell him he’ll get higher efficiency and therefore higher profits.”
She scowled for a minute, and then let out a long breath. “I suppose I’ll have to thank you for talking him into it.”
“Okay. How about dinner?” he quipped
She cast him a short, level look. “No.”
“Why not?” he asked
“Because you’ve got a pretty face.” When he grinned, she granted him the briefest of smiles. “I don’t trust men with pretty faces.”
“You’ve got a pretty face. I don’t hold it against you.”
Her smile widened for a moment, but she kept staring at the long road ahead. “There’s the difference between you and me, Mr Maheshwari.”
“If we had dinner, we could find other differences too.” He teased
It was tempting. And it shouldn’t have been. “Why should we want to find other differences?”
“Passes the time. Why don’t we – ” He broke off when the car swerved. Swara swore and wrestled the car to the shoulder of the road.
“A flat tyre,” she said in disgust. “A lousy flat tyre, and I’m already late getting back.” With that, she slammed out of the car and stomped around to the back, swearing with admirable expertise. By the time Sanskar joined her, she’d already rolled out her spare.
“That one doesn’t seem to be in much better shape,” he commented, eyeing the tread.
“I need new ones all around, but this one should hold a while.” She hauled out the jack and, still muttering curses, hooked it under the bumper. It was on the tip of Sanskar’s tongue to offer to change it himself. Then he remembered how much he enjoyed watching her work. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and stayed out of her way.
“Where I come from, engineers do pretty well for themselves. Ever think about a new car?”
“This one does the job.” She spun the lug nuts off. With easy efficiency she pulled off the flat and rolled the spare into place. The breeze from a passing car fluttered through her hair.
“This is bald,” Sanskar said when he took a look at the flat.
“Probably.” she said
“Probably, hell. I’ve got more tread on my sneakers. Haven’t you got more sense than to drive around on bald tires?” Even as he asked he started around the car to examine the tread on the remaining three. “These aren’t much better.”
“I said I needed new ones.” She brushed the hair out of her eyes. “I haven’t had the time to take it in and deal with it.”
“Make time.” He said in an authoritative tone
He was standing behind her now. From her crouched position, she aimed a look over her shoulder and said “Back off.”
“When I work with someone who’s this careless personally, I have to wonder how careless they might be professionally.” He said
“I don’t make mistakes on the job.” She went back to tightening the lug nuts. He was right. Because it embarrassed her, she refused to admit it out loud. “Check the records.”
She stood, and was more annoyed than surprised when he turned her around to face him. It didn’t bother her to be close. It bothered her to feel close. “How many do you make off the job?”
“Not many.” She should move away. The warning flashed in and out of her mind as her throat went dry. They were standing toe-to-toe. She could see the light sheen of dampness on his face and throat, just as she could see, whether she wanted to or not, the flicker of desire in his eyes.
“I don’t like to argue with a woman who’s holding a tire iron.” He took it from her and leaned it against the bumper. Her hands curled into fists at her sides, but it was nerves, pure nerves, and had nothing to do with anger.
“I’ve got an inspector coming this afternoon.” She said through her teeth
“At two-thirty.” He took her hand, turning the wrist up to glance at her watch. “You’ve got some time.”
“Not my own,” she said evenly. “I’m on Gujral’s clock.”
“Consciously.” He looked down at the bald tire. “Mostly.”
It was uncomfortable and unnerving to feel her heart thud against her ribs. As if she’d been running, Swara thought. She didn’t want to admit that she’d been running since she’d first laid eyes on him.
“If you’ve got something you want to say, say it. I’ve got work to do.” She said
“Can’t think of a thing at the moment.” But he still held her hand. His thumb lightly grazed the underside of her wrist, where her pulse beat hard and steady. “Can you?”
“No.” She started to move past him and found herself brought up firmly against his chest. She’d always been lousy at chess, she thought, flustered. Never looking past the immediate move to the future consequences. It took more effort than it should have to keep her voice steady. “What’s your problem, Sanskar?”
“I don’t know.” He was every bit as intrigued as she. “There’s one way to find out.” His free hand was on her face now, not resting there but holding her still. “Do you mind?” Even as he spoke, his lips lowered toward hers.
She wasn’t sure what made her pull back at the last moment – or what made her able to pull back. She lifted a hand to his chest and pressed firmly, even as she tasted the warmth of his breath on her lips. “Yes,” she said, and was amazed to realize that it was a lie. She wouldn’t have minded. In fact, she’d wanted the feel and taste of his mouth on hers.
There was only an inch separating them, perhaps less. He felt, unexpectedly, a churning, a tug, a heat that drew together and centred in his gut. It was more than curiosity, he realized, and he found himself not entirely comfortable with the knowledge. When he stepped back, it was as much for his own sake as anything.
“I shouldn’t have asked,” he said easily. “Next time I won’t.”
She’d start trembling in a moment. It stunned her to realize that any second her system was going to betray her and shudder and quake. Again, not from anger. She held it off through sheer will and bent to the ruined tire. “Go find someone else to play with, Sanskar.”
“I don’t think so.” He took the tire from her and stored it in the rear of the car. Before she could see to it herself, he had lowered the jack and stored that, as well.
Taking slow, steadying breaths, she walked around to her door. A tractor-trailer rattled by, and the force of the air it displaced hit her like a wall. She braced herself against it, as she had braced herself against him. Her palms were sweaty. Carefully she rubbed them against the thighs of her jeans before settling inside and turning the key.
“You don’t strike me as the kind of man who keeps knocking at a door when no one answers.” She said
“You’re right.” He leaned back again as she pulled onto the road. “After a while I just open it myself,” With a friendly grin, he turned the radio up again.
The inspector had come early. Swara swore about it but couldn’t do much else, since the wiring passed. She walked through the building, which was already taking shape, and climbed to the second and third floors to supervise the insulating and the first delivery of drywall. It was moving like clockwork, and she should have been more than satisfied.
All she could think of was how she had felt standing on the shoulder of the road with Sanskar’s lips an inch from hers.
She was an engineer, not a romantic, she reminded herself as she stood on a platform twenty feet up and unrolled a drawing. The cooling system, she thought as she went over the specs again. That was going to take enough of her time and energy over the next few days. She didn’t have the time or the inclination to stand around and wonder what it would have been like to kiss Sanskar Maheshwari.
Hot. Hot and exciting. No woman could look at that mouth and not see the kind of damage it could do to the nervous system. It had already jangled hers, and without even making contact. He probably knew it. Men like him always knew what kind of effect they had on a woman. They could hardly be blamed for it, but they could – and should – be avoided.
With another oath, she rolled up the drawings. She wouldn’t think about him or what would have happened if she’d said yes instead of no. Or if she’d said nothing at all and had moved on instinct rather than brainpower.
There were the elevators to consider. It wouldn’t be long before they’d be going in. She’d worked hard and long with another engineer on the design. What was now on paper would be reality soon enough, running up and down the walls, glass glittering as they rose and fell without a sound.
Some men could do that – make your heart rise and fall, make your pulse hammer though it couldn’t be heard by anyone but you. No matter how you tried, how you pretended it wasn’t happening, inside you’d be shooting up and shooting down so fast that a crash was inevitable. No matter how clever you were with a calculator, you could never quite fix the kinks in the system.
Damn him. Damn him for that – for taking that one step beyond and making her vulnerable. She couldn’t forget the way her hand had felt in his, the way his eyes had looked when his face had been that close. So now she would wonder. The blame for that was his. She’d do well to remember that.
Glancing down, she saw him on the first floor, talking with Rohit. Sanskar was gesturing toward the rear wall. There would be long panes of glass there to form the ceiling, curved glass that would blend the line from the rock to the dome. She’d already decided it would be ostentatious and impractical, but as she’d been told, it was her job to make it work, not to approve.
Sanskar shook his head at something Rohit told him, and his voice raised a little, enough to carry but not enough to make the words clear. Annoyance was there. It pleased her.
Let him be annoyed, she thought. Let him go back to Mumbai and be annoyed where he would be out of her way.
She started down, using the temporary stairs. She had the progress on the health club to check out, and the excavation work on the first set of cabanas. As long as they could keep one job overlapping the next, they’d be all right. Adarsh should have been there, overseeing the scheduling. Swara moved a shoulder to work out a kink. It was better that he wasn’t, that he had left the responsibility to her. He had a way of irritating the men when he showed up on the site in his expensive suits.
Just as she checked her watch, she heard a shout from above. She had enough time to see the metal stud falling toward her before she was grabbed by the waist and dragged aside.
The stud landed inches from her feet, spewing up dust and clattering. Hard hat or no, she’d have been taking a trip to the hospital now if she’d been under it.
“Are you alright? Hey.” Arms were still around her waist, but now she was turned and pressed against a hard male body. She didn’t have to see to know who was holding her.
“Yes.” But her voice wasn’t steady. Neither were her hands. “I’m okay. Let me – ”
“Who the hell’s responsible for this?” Sanskar shouted up, still holding Swara against him. He knew now what it meant to be sick with fear. He’d moved instinctively, but the moment the stud had hit harmlessly his stomach had heaved. Looking at it, he could envision her lying there, bleeding. Two men were already scurrying down the ladder, their faces as white as his.
“It got away from us. God, Ms Gadodia, are you okay? There was an electric box on the floor. It tripped me up, and the stud just went.”
“It didn’t hit me.” She tried to move away from Sanskar but didn’t have the strength.
“Get up there and make sure those floors and platforms are clear. If there’s any more carelessness, people are going to be out of a job.” He roared at the workers
The hammering, which had stopped dead, resumed hesitantly, then with more vigour.
“Look, I’m all right.” She had to be. Even if her hands were clammy, she had to be all right. “I can handle the men.”
“Just shut up.” He fought back the urge to pick her up, and pulled her along instead. “You’re white as a sheet.” He shoved her down on a crate. “Sit.”
Because her legs felt like rubber, she didn’t argue. A few deep breaths, she told herself, and she’d be fine.
“Here.” Sanskar pushed a cup of water into her hand.
“Thanks.” She drank, forcing herself to take it slow. “You don’t have to bother.”
“No, I could just leave you in a puddle on the ground.” It hadn’t come out the way he’d intended, but he was angry, as sick with anger as he’d been with fear. It had been too close, way too close. If he hadn’t glanced over at her… “I could’ve stood there and watched you get smashed, but it seemed a shame to get blood all over the fresh concrete.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She swallowed the last of the water and balled up the paper cup in her hand. He’d saved her from a major injury. She’d wanted to thank him, nicely. And she would have, too, Swara thought, if he hadn’t been scowling at her. “I would have gotten out of the way myself, in any case.”
“Fine. Next time I’ll just go about my business.” He seethed
“Do that.” Biting off the words, she tossed the paper cup aside. She rose and fought back a wave of giddiness. Hammers were still pounding, but more than one man was watching out of the corner of an eye. “There’s no need to cause a scene.”
“You’ve no idea the kind of scene I can cause, Ms Gadodia.” He was tempted to show her, to release some of the fury that had boiled together with the fear and let her have a good long look at what he could throw. But her face was chalk white, and whether she knew it or not her hands were shaking. “If I were you, I’d have your foreman drill some safety rules into these men.”
“I’ll take that under advisement. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
When his fingers curled around her arm, she felt the temper in them. She was grateful for it. It made her stronger. Very slowly she turned her head so that she could look at him again. Fury, she thought with a kind of edgy curiosity. The man was absolutely furious – more than a few cross words warranted. His problem, Swara told herself.
“I’m not going to keep telling you to back off, Mr Maheshwari.”
He waited a moment until he was sure he could speak calmly. In his mind he could still hear the sickening crack of metal hitting concrete. “That’s something we can agree on, Ms Gadodia. You won’t keep telling me to back off.”
He let her go. After the briefest hesitation, she strode away.
She wouldn’t keep telling him, Sanskar thought as he watched her disappear outside. And even if she did, it wasn’t going to do her any good.
Credit to: Anvita