The Betrayal Ch. 02

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THE BETRAYAL

CHAPTER TWO

This is the second of twelve chapters in this story. It doesn’t have the same degree of sexuality as the other stories. It serves as character development. If you want to get straight to the sex, you can skip this chapter and not really lose anything to the plot.

Banners waved in the breeze. They were almost as bright and colorful as the roses adorning Asha’s booth. Gajras hung from the eves of the stall and assortments flooded the tables. Sunlight drifted across Asha’s fingers as she trimmed a ribbon and fastened it around a cluster of marigolds. People in suits came and went through the plaza. Some tourists. Others were regulars. Always busy.

Yet it wasn’t enough to keep her mind off of her suitor and what he could mean to her family. Hari wasn’t anything like Neha’s father. Maybe that was a good thing. She snipped another ribbon before her gaze shifted from her work. When she saw him standing not three feet away, her eyes went wide.

“I didn’t mean to alarm you,” Hari assured her, noticing her jump. His dark hair was smoothed back. His voice was warm as the pleasant temperate morning around them. Asha’s hands tightened on fragile stems. Why was she so nervous?

Hari wondered if it was too much for her, but his gut told him to come. Rarely were his instincts wrong. Especially about women. He often knew what they wanted before they did. Women craved spontaneity in a man and thoughtfulness. Still, Asha was more conservative than he was used to.

“No, not at all,” Asha told him. Her usually dependable fingers struggled with the ribbon. She could smell faint cologne. Was he wearing it for her? She still wasn’t used to being the subject of his attentions or anyone’s for that matter.

“You’re far from campus,” she mentioned, attempting to sound casual.

“All done for the day. It was a nice walk. Not too far,” he replied. “I wanted to see you. Before the weekend, I mean.”

“Oh, I see,” Asha responded. She was at a loss. He kept his distance, respectful as always. She admired that about him, but even with the distance, she was undone. She wasn’t ready to confront him. Not on her own. This time, Neha wasn’t there to fill in the gaps of their conversation or be one of the few things they had in common.

“I suppose you’ll never want me to bring you flowers,” Hari said in attempt to lighten the tense silence between them.

“I would accept flowers,” Asha told him with a smile. She could feel heat in her chest.

“Ah, but how could I be sure they would meet your standards?” Hari asked. “Maybe, I should start over. I want to give flowers to someone special. I heard that you are an expert in this area. Perhaps, you have suggestions for me?”

That brought another smile to her lips. She didn’t let it get far but he could see it budding at the base of her long cheek bones. The flirtatious compliment and inquiry had her fingers tumbling over to the next cluster of flowers. Customers walked in then. He gave her a knowing look and a wistful grin.

“Well, I didn’t come in here to distract you,” he told her. ‘Didn’t you?’ she wanted to ask him. Could she manage to flirt after all this time? But the moment passed. “I’ll see you at dinner,” he told her.

She nodded. He bowed back. It was subtle but courteous. He walked away but her chest was tight. She could just let him go, but that didn’t feel right.

“Lilies,” Asha blurted. Her hands jerked as she resisted the impulse to cover her mouth in embarrassment.

The customers looked confused. Hari turned toward her, trying to hide his triumph. He already knew her favorite flower from Neha among other things, but it was more rewarding to hear it from Asha herself. To know that he was getting through her walls.

“If you want my- recommendation,” she finished, her voice faltering ever so slightly at the end. His smile was bright as the sun peeking from the hazy sky.

“Thank you,” he told her. “She gives the best recommendations,” he confided to the customers before leaving. They looked bewildered as he rounded the corner, not understanding why he was leaving empty handed. It seemed like ages before Asha’s fingers steadied again.

~

Could she get used to him in her life? Asha found herself thinking this as the months passed in their courtship. It was her right to take it slow. Rushing a marriage was the same as encouraging regret. It was different, being older and having been married once before.

A few weeks had passed since the day that Hari walked with her and Neha by the Yamuna. They strolled by one of the northern sections, where it was less polluted. Still, it was bittersweet. Asha longed to see it run clean like a polished jewel, to live long enough to witness wild flowers returning to its banks. The barren shores left her heart aching, almost as much as seeing men and women praying in its murky waters.

Hari talked about the research escort bursa being conducted on campus and recent discoveries that had been made. Neha chimed in. He nodded at her suggestions and questions, listening intently to her. It made something warm inside of Asha to see her daughter comfortable around him.

Hari noticed that Asha was lagging behind and waited until she was in front of him to resume talking. The regard for her was causing a stir within her but not nearly as much as his proximity was. Asha felt a breeze from behind. Her skin tingled where she expected him to touch her. His hand hovered just inches from the small of her back.

The moment passed. He was gesturing again. Asha was grateful for him giving her space, especially in public but there was a fragment of her left wanting. Wondering what it would be like. It was a relief that he wasn’t acting like he owned her just because they were dating. It put her at ease knowing he wasn’t the domineering type, expecting more from her than she was ready for.

They came to a staircase leading up to a bridge. Hari offered Asha his hand. She hesitated. Neha was already halfway up the steps. She looked back at them as if telepathically asking her mother what was taking so long. Asha looked up at Hari.

There wasn’t a shred of uncertainty in his gaze. Only patient confidence. Asha placed her hand in his. Her heart clenched upon contact. She didn’t expect him to have such an effect on her. His chivalry was welcome after so many years of rejection and even scorn.

Neha looked away from them. She saw what was happening between them. Maybe Hari was pretending, but her mother wasn’t. She was learning to trust again. The sight made Neha joyous, but also made her ache with jealousy and guilt.

A grin teased Hari’s lips, so faint that it almost went unnoticed by Asha who lowered her gaze. It wouldn’t do to have him see through her like this, she thought to herself. For him to know that there was a longing growing as sure as clouds gathering before a summer storm.

It was only when his hand let go that she realized how long it had been since she’d been touched by a man. Not only that, but Hari was not just any man. He was lean with the demure of a lion at ease, and he was circling her. Not as prey, but as an equal. How rare that was.

~

Asha hung up the phone with her mother. It was official. He had asked for her parent’s permission. They had not only given it, but her mother implied that rejecting him would be a shameful disaster. He would, of course, propose to her. She was dazed. It didn’t feel real. After years of living a certain way, of raising Neha on her own.

Her life alone was safe, predictable and on her terms. She learned to live with the stigma, the exclusion. They had enough of an allowance to be comfortable and Neha had a whole life ahead of her. A life of promise.

That was all she needed. Until now. Was she truly foolish if she refused Hari’s offer as her parents suggested? Selfish even for denying Neha the chance at having a father figure in her life? They already seemed to be so close in only a few months’ time.

“What’s wrong, mom?” Neha asked when she saw the look on her mother’s face.

“Nothing,” Asha said, but Neha’s expression changed.

“It’s about Hari, isn’t it?” Neha was giddy, seeming much younger than her age in that moment at the prospect. “Admit it, mom. You like him!” There was an edge to Neha’s voice. One that Asha couldn’t interpret.

“I- don’t know what to think,” Asha admitted. It was true enough. She didn’t need him, but did she want him? She thought of how he helped her up the stairs by the river. Of all the compliments he had given her over the months. He told her she was elegant. He had met no one so poised and collected. Hari told her that she was a rare beauty. All his compliments sent color to her cheeks and made her feel young again. She wasn’t prepared for the rush she’d experienced from a brief touch, but there was something missing. She couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

She couldn’t help but think back to Neha’s father. How one look from him could ignite her. He hadn’t needed words. There was a pull between them. How he’d made her feel unique and complete. Hari didn’t make her feel the same despite his efforts, but perhaps it was because she was only meant to experience that level of attraction once. In any case, how could she be so picky?

“I think he is very admirable,” Asha managed under her daughter’s scrutiny.

“Admirable enough to marry?” Neha pressed.

Asha sighed. Thinking about weddings made her nervous more than anything and almost exhausted. So much preparation went into them. There was a time when planning a wedding was her dream, when marriage was her goal. That had long since shifted.

“What if I am bad luck like everyone says?” Asha asked Neha. Yet another worry in her mind, one that was difficult to admit. She’d tried to distance herself bursa merkez eskort from the assumptions and biases that were made about widows, but one of them had made its way into her heart.

What if it was her fault that Neha’s father was gone? Would if she went through another wedding only to be a widow again because she wasn’t worthy of being a wife? Neha’s face shone with empathy as she reached for her mother’s hand.

“Mom, it isn’t right for people to say that,” Neha said. “And it doesn’t matter what they say. I don’t believe that and neither does Hari.” Asha was unconvinced. “It comes down to you and what you believe. I think that you are afraid of being happy again,” Neha said.

When Asha said nothing, Neha’s hand slid away. She was alone with her thoughts again.

~

“You’re letting me do all the talking,” Hari said.

Neha was in the living room. Asha stared at him from across the dinner table where he’d set down a bouquet of lilies. She said nothing. He reached for her hand for the first time since the day by the river. His eyes searched hers and he could detect the worry in her gaze.

The silence was heavy and Asha had no remedy for it and to make matters worse, his fingers were sending her on another spiral. As if her thoughts weren’t chaotic enough. She knew what was coming. Why he was here.

Asha slipped away from him. She mumbled something about grabbing a vase for the flowers before descending on the kitchen. She rummaged through cabinets and took as much time as she could. Should she ask him to leave?

It was too much too soon. Wasn’t it enough for her to have to be a wreck like this the first time when Neha’s father had asked. Why couldn’t it at least be easy and instead nerve racking in every way. Asha chose a vase and sighed.

She should tell him she wasn’t ready, even if it was the most reasonable decision that she could make. When she rounded the corner to tell him, her fingers almost lost their grip on the glass. Hari was down on one knee. His arm was holding onto a velvet ruby red box.

“I can’t wait any longer, Asha,” Hari told her. “If you don’t want me, tell me now. I’ll understand. And, no shame to you or your family. I will say I was the one to change my mind.”

Asha was speechless. How could she be so impacted by something she expected? Yet, seeing him on one knee was unbelievable to her. Neha rounded the corner, and her eyes went wide. She took the vase from her mother and set it on the table.

Moments later, a rosy smile crossed her lips and her phone was held high, filming the whole thing. Asha wanted to tell her to turn it off, that she wasn’t going to marry him but the words didn’t manifest on her tongue. When she didn’t respond, Hari continued.

“Asha, are you okay with marriage?”

Everything her parents and Neha had told her over the last few weeks replayed in her mind. It was unheard of to refuse a man like Hari. He was the bachelor of anyone’s fantasies, let alone a widow’s only prospect. Yet it wasn’t desperation or anything anyone had said to her that convinced Asha to marry him.

It was the look in his eyes. As if he expected the worst but was doing it anyway. Asha held her breath. For the first time in years, she couldn’t busy-body her way out of a situation. She couldn’t walk past him and put the flowers in the vase or turn her back to them both and scrub the counters into an unparalleled shine.

Asha was rooted to her living room floor. Years were passing in her mind even though it was mere seconds. Asha looked over at Neha. She nodded in encouragement. Asha’s chest tightened. Her fate was sealed.

“Yes,” Asha told him. Neha’s shouts filled her ears and Hari smiled. He got up from his knee. Was he going to kiss her? Hari approached her, his lips inches from hers. But he only looked down between them, holding her hand as if it might break as he coaxed the ring across her finger to her knuckle. It was a modern touch. A western touch. It was very Hari. Always the romantic.

The stone in the ring glimmered in the lamp light not unlike the lilies that were left on the table, awaiting their new home. Asha couldn’t speak. It had taken everything in her to say yes and she was happy. It was resolved. She wouldn’t have to dwell on it anymore or second-guess it. There was a finality to it.

Hari was filled with thrill and relief. Despite all of his charm and everything he had done, he still hadn’t been sure that she would accept him as her husband. While Asha stared down at her ring, he risked a glance at Neha.

He could sense her unease, but when their eyes met, he could see that she was somewhat reassured and excited. Neha wanted him more than anything. Of that, he was certain. Their plan was a success and his had only just begun.

~

Gold jewelry. Colors everywhere. Laughter. People. Asha chose to focus on the henna designs that extended down her arms to her fingertips bursa sınırsız escort underneath the ring, blessing her with another chance at marriage and happiness. There was assurance in the art form, that pervaded through her skin. It was supposed to be a small affair when a widow remarried. Something demure. Something to be accepted not celebrated. Hari would have none of it. This was to be a celebration even if a small one.

She thought that being on her own was safe and predictable, but marriage would protect her. That’s what she told herself during the ceremony. It was small and intimate, but still she was around more people at once than she was used to.

Asha thought of all the bridal arrangements she had made over the years. She had always helped make someone else’s day special and unforgettable. This was her day. Hari reached for her hands. The music was picking up around them. Asha’s mother was crying from happiness and her father was beaming.

Neha was standing next to Sonu, the son of a family friend – one of the only rare ones to keep a close relationship with Asha. He kept looking at Neha but she looked unaware. Asha could see them getting married one day. He would ask both her and Hari’s permission in only a few years’ time. There was a tremor in her heart when she considered that Neha’s future was no longer her burden to bear, at least not by herself.

The realization made her dance with more flare. She was following him and the beat. There was vigor in his eyes, a veiled passion that hadn’t been there before. Her steps had been calculated. Now they were elated. Asha was smiling, not grinning like she had at her first wedding but she was glowing as only a bride could.

He whisked her around the middle of the room. Other couples joined in. There were less than 20 people present, some of whom Asha had not seen for years. It was surreal to acknowledge that truth. People who had distanced themselves from her since her husband’s death making her feel unworthy of friendship were there to partake in the celebration.

There was no bitterness in Asha, now. Only acceptance as she danced with her groom, only contentment when the crowd dispersed hour by hour but he was still by her side. Asha had no way of processing the feelings and thoughts that surged through her. All she had was gratitude. Gratitude to Hari for seeing a partner in her and gratitude for her daughter for arranging their meeting.

Watching them dance was driving a wrench of resentment deep into Neha’s core. She could feel Sonu’s questioning eyes on her, but she couldn’t look away from Hari. He was hers but there he was holding her mother as if she were a precious jewel and her mother was not shying away from it. Instead, she was shining.

Weddings should be merry, not sickening. Neha thought to herself. She fought the urge to hug herself in public, instead clutching her lengha. Maybe it would look like she was bunching up the hem, preparing to dance. Sure enough, Sonu asked her mere moments later.

She couldn’t refuse even though she didn’t want to dance in the slightest, least of all with him. What was the alternative? Watching them from the sidelines or storming off? As Sonu’s hands landed on Neha’s waist and they drew closer to the married couple, another wave of envy overtook her.

Her mother was beaming in Hari’s arms for everyone to see. Neha was torn as they moved closer. Sonu loved parading her around, attempting to sweep her off her feet. Neha looked over to Hari. He didn’t have to show off like Sonu. His moves were calculated and her mother looked like she belonged at his side.

Despair clutched at Neha. She wanted to dance with Hari, to kiss him on the cheeks and laugh. What she wanted more than anything was for her family to be watching them dance as man and wife, for their love to be accepted. Instead, it was more acceptable for Hari to marry a widow than her.The room was spinning and everything was blurring at the edges. Thankfully the music stopped. Sonu didn’t notice that anything was wrong but her mother did. Neha tried to plaster a fake smile on her face but knew it wasn’t sticking.

She sat down at a nearby table while her mother was swamped with people. They were complimenting her, sending her well wishes. Hari shook hands with Asha’s parents and headed over to the table. Neha couldn’t look at him. Was he going to be angry with her? That she couldn’t hide her emotions as well as he could?

For the entire wedding, he was reserved but appeared to be enjoying himself. Didn’t it kill him not to be with her? To lie to all these people about who he truly loved? Neha swallowed the bitterness on her tongue as Hari leaned in.

“Are you alright?” Hari asked. He moved to reach for her knee but thought better of it. Neha saw his faltering hand. He could hardly even comfort her without raising suspicion. She nodded; her throat tight.

There was nothing left to say. Hadn’t they gone over this day enough? Hadn’t he warned her that it was just another part of the process. He had told her before the ceremony that it would be over before she knew it. But it was dragging on for an eternity and Neha was losing her nerve and sanity. Her mother tore from the crowd. Neha straightened up in her chair.

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