FIRST TWO CHAPTERS

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CHAPTER ONE

'You'd better catch her!'

Exhorted by her mother-in-law, Stuti sped after the small figure of her daughter running off like a torpedo. Why did two-year-olds just take off on jet speed when they knew they were being chased? She couldn't not chase her...rows and rows of pillars loomed ahead, supporting ornately curved archways, proclaiming the creative architecture of the sixteenth century citadel. Who knew if she might not bump into one of them?

Jaipur had given them beautiful sights of the Rajmahals and Amber Palace was no less. But who had leisure to appreciate it now? Her flats plop plopped on the marble flooring as she jogged across, trying not to slip.

'Tina! Stop!' It was no use. Tina had found a passageway and her pleasure in running increased at the discovery of open space. From behind them came cries of 'Mama, mama.' Stuti bit her lip. It had been a mistake to bring her precious threes here. The holiday was proving more harrowing than even her usual routine, nothing less than a walk through Amazonian forests in terms of the mental and physical writhing that she had to go through. She had a good mind to take her troop back home. Only she couldn't face the thought of the struggle involved in a change of plans. And besides, Mil had been waxing enthusiastic about this trip for ages...she hadn't the heart to let her down...not when she had only the kids' company for the duration of Stuti's work hours. As she had hinted broadly, it was least Stuti could do for her.

She turned a corner and nearly stopped in shock. The passage led to a large atrium of sorts. An array of slender women dressed in traditional saris lounged against the pillars there with people fiddling with cameras, wiring and spotlights.

Her daughter streaked across, stumbled at the wires but regained her balance while the ice cream she held plopped over a gorgeous zardozi. Like pie right in Miss World's gorgeously made up face.

'Hey! Where did the kid come from?'

'Whose kid is that?'

God no. This couldn't be happening. The cost of these garments probably went to lakhs of rupees. A volley of self-castigation burst into her mind that would have put a shotgun hunter to shame. Why hadn't she moved faster? Why hadn't she yelled at her? Why hadn't she brought up her kids better? She really, really should find some time to get into shape.

Ridiculous thoughts. Surviving on an average of four hours' sleep as she did, getting into shape via regular gym visits was the last on her list of priorities. In fact, it was on the other sheet. The one that hadn't even been thought of yet.

'I'm sorry...' She caught up and finally scooped the culprit from the scene of the crime. Blissfully ignorant, the child smiled engagingly and indicated the tall model. 'Sunder hai!' she told Stuti, meaning she's beautiful.

To do her justice, despite the mess of her apparel, the model smiled at the compliment. 'What's up, cutie? You're being hard on your mom?' She shook her head at Stuti. 'Don't know what the boss man will say to this.' People galvanized into action. Someone ran up and removed the offending ice cream. But the stain was well and truly on it. Not to mention a small footprint. Again the model shook her head slowly, wearing a look of dismay.

Stuti could hardly breathe. This trip had been managed by scraping together all her savings. With three kids and two adults in the household, the expenses weren't small. Her mom-in-law had wanted to see her native Rajasthan just once, before, in her words, she became too debilitated to travel.

'What's going on...?'

She turned, the familiar tenor of the voice registering too late. Surely it wasn't...? It couldn't be...! Before her head could frame the denial arising instinctively but getting lodged in her throat, she was already looking at the three-day unshaven yet strikingly handsome face. Recognition dawned in his expression, dark eyes intensifying, as his brows drew together. Disbelief. Familiarity. Then a shutter going down as he saw the kid in her arms.

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