The single word stopped Swara at the door. Her fingers grazed the brass knob.
Wisdom ordered her to turn the cold metal and ignore Sanskar’s nearly inaudible
directive. Her naïve heart, that so desperately wanted him to have a justification
she could forgive, instructed her to turn around. She pivoted slowly, pinning him
with a mistrustful stare. “Wait?”
He nodded and stood taller. His throat worked visibly as he swallowed, and
then the façade cracked and his stare dropped to Major. “You set the rules. This
was no strings attached.”
His voice was quiet, but it lashed like the crack of a whip, flaying her already
wounded heart into bits. She’d been so foolish. So absolutely stupid to think that
Michael Maheshwari III might have developed feelings for the maid’s daughter. He’d
known all along who she was. If he’d cared, if he’d come half as close to love as
she had, he’d have spit everything out days ago.
Swara steeled her resolve. This man had hurt her once before. She’d be
damned if she’d let him know he could wound the woman who’d moved beyond
her subservient social status. He and his family didn’t deserve that kind of power.
“You’re right, I set the rules. Now I’m holding to them and leaving.”
She yanked open the door and grabbed her purse. Chill winter wind rushed
through the plush fabric of her sweater.
Heavy boot steps followed her quick retreat down the stairs, crunching what
remained of the slush and ice on the pave stones. Swara quickened her steps, her
focus on the path leading into the woods.
“Swara! Your coat, your things! You can’t just walk out in the middle of
winter. Come back and we can talk about this.”
Like hell. Gritting her teeth, she refused to acknowledge the cold and lifted her
voice over the brisk breeze. “Burn them. I don’t want to see them again.”
No reminders of Sanskar—her favorite cashmere sweater might be in a heap at
the foot of his bed, but she could buy another. Keeping memories of him hanging
in her closet would make it impossible to erase their connection from her mind.
And she would erase him. One way or another.
Taking a deep breath, she ignored Major’s muffled bark and stumbled down
the four-wheeler’s path. Laksh could give her a ride. To the airport, to town where
she could catch a cab, all the way to Manhattan if necessary. It didn’t matter where
he took her, so long as it was far from Sanskar—no Michael’s—rustic home.
What in the world was he doing all the way down here anyway?
It didn’t matter. She no longer cared.
As she blinked back tears, she summoned the old, familiar walls around her
heart and turned the bend, trudging deeper into the forest. Above the tall pines, a
slender plume of smoke wove through the branches, marking the path back to the
life she could depend on. The life where everyone remained at a safe distance and
no one trespassed across the rock-hard boundaries she set.
So what if that meant Christmas, New Year’s, and all the rest of the holidays
would be spent alone? So what if that meant she’d have to go out and buy her own
So what if she never knew why Michael had ignored her mother’s death?
She didn’t really need to know. Like before, he’d said everything with his
Sanskar stood with one foot on the ground and one on the bottom step, hanging
on to Major’s collar. The disloyal dog wanted to go after Swara. Hell, he wanted
to go after her, but something held him dangling between advance and retreat.
No one knew his inner pain. Other than the therapist he saw ten years ago, no
one understood why he’d run away to Georgia.
Swara disappeared around a bend in the path. Gone. He looked down at
Major, who stared at him with censure in his gaze. “In the house, boy.” Major
walked inside, his head held low.
Sanskar stared down the path. He wasn’t ready to spill his weaknesses all over
the kitchen table for Swara to see. For Swara to judge. The way his father had
judged ten years ago.
The fear that Swara would respond the same way held him back. It wasn’t the
girl he’d known years ago, or the woman he’d gotten to know the last few days. It
was the Swara he’d met at the gas station that made him leery. The hard-driving,
demanding city girl who’d looked him up and down and jumped to categorize him.
It was too late, anyway. She was gone now, or would be as soon as…
“Shit.” He tugged his phone out of his pocket and dialed Laksh.
His neighbor answered on the second ring. “Brother, what’s happening over in
“Swara left me. She’s on her way to your place.”
Silence. “She’s dumping you for me?” His voice held a chuckle.
“She wants to get away from me. Do you have time to drive her to Atlanta?”
“You’re serious.” Laksh huffed out a long sigh. “All I’ve got is time. But I’d
rather hand you my truck keys and let you drive her.”
If Sanskar couldn’t talk to her in his own home, there was no way he’d be able
to break loose in Laksh’s truck. “Just make sure you get her there safe, okay?”
“Yeah, she’ll be safe.” He paused. “When I get back, if you need a drink…”
“Thanks. I owe you one.” He clicked the off button. No amount of alcohol
would wash away this mess. His lungs wouldn’t fill. As if something inside him
A rare nocturnal cardinal landed on a bare tree branch where Sanskar had hung a
feeder full of sunflower seeds. The yard light spotlighted the bright spot of color
against the dull landscape. Kind of like Swara… No. Not going to make up
metaphors about her.
He turned and walked into the house, the smell of the simmering stew hitting
him in the stomach. It wasn’t hunger. It tasted like guilt. He covered the pot and
turned off the stove.
In his stocking feet, he padded into the bedroom and found Major lying with
his head on Swara’s sweater. “That’s not yours. Off,” he chided, and the dog
raised his head.
Sanskar picked up the piece of fluff and fought the urge to press it to his nostrils
and suck in her scent. It probably smelled like dog anyway. Should he wash it and
dry it before he shipped it back to her with the rest of her stuff?
No, this had to be expensive and dry-clean only. He knew of a half-dozen
drycleaners, but all of them were in New York City. Different lives. Folding the
sweater carefully, he shook his head. Different worlds.
He opened her suitcase. It sat on top of his dresser, serving as a reminder of
the certainty that this relationship was over. He’d been counting on a few more
Setting her sweater in the suitcase, his fingers brushed a silky scrap of panty.
He jerked his hand back. She’d been so soft, so passionate in his arms.
Adventurous one hour and slowly seductive the next. The perfect lover.
Sanskar rubbed the heels of his hands over his closed eyes, needing to erase
those memories. He’d never hold her again. Never carry her to his bed and press
himself along her satiny length. Never kiss her, or taste her sweetness.
Fisting his hands, he punched them toward the ceiling and dropped his head
back, letting out an animal howl of pain. Major jumped onto the bed, barking and
He picked up a pair of her jeans, rolled them into a ball, and threw it into the
suitcase. “I’m so damned messed up…” Picking up her robe, he threw it into the
suitcase. “I let her go…” He hurled her boots in on top of her clothes. “The most
amazing woman…” Sanskar picked up her bra, then dropped it.
He collapsed on the bed, and Major instantly lay next to him, his head on his
chest, his canine eyes full of worry. Petting his best friend with soothing strokes,
Sanskar murmured, “The one I let get away
“Truck should be warm by now.” Laksh stamped his boots, knocking off snow,
as he stood just inside the door. “You ready to go, Swara?”
Swara turned from the window where she’d watched Sanskar’s neighbor clear
the snow from the windshield of his truck. “Yes, I’m ready.”
Laksh pulled a hooded sweatshirt from a hook by the front door. “Put this on.”
“Thanks.” She slipped the fleece around her and smiled at the elderly man.
Following him to the truck, her footsteps were heavy, but less from the soggy
ground than the sadness weighing her down.
“You sure you wouldn’t like to stop at Sanskar’s and get your own coat…or
anything else?” He put the truck in reverse and backed out onto the road.
“Wouldn’t be any trouble since we’ll pass right by.”
“I’m sure.” Swara didn’t mean to sound as icy as the weather but any
reference to Sanskar—to Michael—chilled her soul.
She stared out the window into the growing dark, not wanting to watch for
Sanskar’s place, but drawn to where she’d left her heart. The golden glow from the
windows flickered through the trees before the cabin came into view. Tears stung
her eyes. She could smell the wood burning in the fireplace, feel his arms around
“Sanskar might like to ride to the airport with us. Should we stop and ask?”
Swara shook her head and forced herself to look at the road. She shut her
eyes, damming the threatening tears. He’d made a fool of her. He’d played her,
gained her trust and love, only to smash her feelings without any explanation. She
never wanted to see that manipulating, heartless man again.
“You and Sanskar—”
“There is no me and Sanskar.”
“His name isn’t Sanskar. He’s not who you think he is.” Why the hell should
she protect his identity?
“He’s Sanskar. He might have another name, another life before this one, but to
all of us in Elridge, he’s just Sanskar.” Laksh gave her a serious, narrow-eyed glance
before turning his attention back on the road.
“You don’t know the real man. His name is Michael Maheshwari—”
Swara stared at Laksh, dumbfounded. She closed her gaping mouth when Laksh
snickered at her.
“I’m probably the only one around here who does know, but that’s Sanskar’s
“Why would he hide his identity?”
“I don’t think he’s hiding, exactly.”
“No? Then why are you the only one who knows?”
“Can’t say. We all have secrets, and our reasons are our own.” His voice was
quiet, the slushy road sounds nearly blocking out his words.
“Why, Laksh? Why did he change his name and move here?”
“I said I knew his real name, where he came from. Don’t know much more.
When and if Sanskar ever decides to tell me, I’ll listen. But it really doesn’t matter.
He’s one hell of a man, whatever he calls himself.”
“Oh, yeah, one hell of a man.”
They rode in silence for a few miles. The fact that Sanskar had told Laksh who he
was didn’t mitigate her anger. Michael, not Sanskar. But they were one and the
same. All those years ago, she’d loved Michael—a childish love but love
nonetheless—and he’d hurt her. What she felt for Sanskar—the love, anger, hurt—
was history repeating itself.
“The first winter Sanskar was here, Jenny Martin lost her husband. Sanskar went
to her house every day, though he didn’t really know her.” He held up his hand
when she opened her mouth. “Before you jump to conclusions, Jenny’s a grandma.
But he was there, doing all the chores, helping her get the house ready to sell.” Laksh
nodded at her as if he’d relayed the news of the week.
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“A man’s actions speak louder than words.”
Swara hugged the fleece around her. Sanskar’s actions were loud and clear.
He’d concealed the truth. That said it all.
“I was down with a broken leg a while back. Sanskar was handy whenever I
needed something done.”
“Fine, Laksh. I understand he’s a Good Samaritan.”
“There’s a lot more to the man.”
“Like what? How can you be sure if you don’t know why he’s here? Why he
lives under an alias?”
“I could tell when he first moved here, he needed to set something right.”
“What do you mean?” Swara squinted to see his face in the dim light of the
truck cab. If he knew something, anything that would absolve Sanskar for his
deceitful actions, she wanted to know. God, was she still harboring a sliver of
“Sorry, Swara. I don’t know exactly what I mean. It’s just a feeling. But he’s
a good man.”
She shook her head and turned away from him.
“When he was with you…happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
“You don’t understand, Laksh. You can’t know…” She leaned her head back and
closed her eyes.
The good neighbor took the hint, and they rode in silence the remaining miles.
Swara dozed; pleasant dreams of Sanskar’s kisses laced her slumber. She jerked
awake when Laksh turned a sharp corner and pulled into a parking space at the
The engine noise died, and Laksh opened his door. “I’ll walk you in.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“My orders were to make sure you were delivered safely.”
His only response was a smile.
Tears came from nowhere. “Well, consider your task accomplished.” She
swiped the tears away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Oh, jeez, sorry.” She
dabbed at the wet spot with her hand. “Look, let’s just say goodbye here. There’s
no need to walk me in. You’ve been so very kind and helpful. Can I pay you for
“You most certainly cannot.”
“Then I’ll give you back your hoodie and—”
“No, no.” He shut his door and waved a hand in the air. “You keep it. You can
return it when you come back.”
“Laksh, I’m not—”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
She leaned across the cab and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Goodbye, Laksh.”
“Until next time.”
There was no use arguing with him. She hopped out onto the asphalt of the
cold parking garage, pulled the hoodie tighter, and walked to the elevator. As the
doors closed, she waved goodbye to Laksh. Goodbye to what might have been……..
Credit to: JANPA