Mili was in the middle of peeling the wrapper off her last remaining chocolate bar when she heard the knock. She took a quick bite and put the rest of it back in the empty fridge. Her stomach growled in protest. She hadn’t eaten anything all day. There were some noodles from Panda Kong in the fridge but she needed those for dinner.
Who could be knocking on her door? No one, and she meant no one, had ever knocked on that door in the four months that she had lived here. Except that one time those Jesus Christ people had stopped by and tried to give her a Bible. Another forceful knock. Too forceful. The Bible people had been too polite to knock this hard. Something about that knock made her defenses bristle.
It couldn’t possibly be Ridhi’s brother, could it? Ridhi had said they’d send him first.
Oh Lord. Oh Ganesha. Oh Krishna. What now? Ridhi was gone only about half an hour. If Mili let anything slip they would find Ridhi and Ravi before they got away. A complete tragedy-style ending to their love story. Mili could never let that happen. Never. Never.
She tiptoed to the door.
“Hello? Anybody there?” A deep, authoritative man’s voice shouted from the other side. A deep, authoritative Indian man’s voice. She looked through the fuzzy peephole. All she saw was a blurred outline of a large figure. Oh. Lord. She tiptoed backward and tripped over the shoes she’d left in the middle of the floor, and landed on her bum with a thud, knocking over the lone chair that stood in the middle of the room. Oh no, she had probably broken the one piece of living room furniture she owned.
“Hello?” the voice called again, sounding a little confused. He’d heard her. Oh Lord. She hurried to the balcony. No way was she going to be the reason for Ridhi taking on her monosyllabic-slash-near-suicidal avatar again. She leaned over the white spindle railing and saw her new bike on the bike rack just below her. It wasn’t much of a jump. Just about seven feet to the grassy mound below. She jumped.
She landed on her feet and then toppled headlong into her bike, which in turn crashed into the three other bikes next to it. Metal tore through her shirt and jabbed her shoulder. The crash made her ears ring. “Shh,” she hissed at the bike she was lying on and tried to straighten up.
Samir heard a loud crash. He ran to the open stairwell and leaned over the railing. Some sort of crazy creature with the wildest mass of jet-black curls was dusting herself off and trying to grab a fluorescent yellow bike from a jumbled heap. Was she stealing it? In her rush to pry it free she stumbled backward and her eyes met his. Something in the way she looked at him set alarm bells gonging in his head. His eyes swept from her panicked stance to the low-hanging balcony. Had she jumped? Damn it.
“Hey! Wait a minute. Are you Malvika?” he yelled at her.
Her eyes widened to huge saucers, as if he’d accused her of something truly heinous. Was she crazy? She had to be because before he knew what to do next she yanked the bike free, hopped on it, and took off as if he were some sort of gangster chasing her with a gun.
He ran down the stairs, taking almost the entire flight in one leap, and saw her desperately peddling away from him. The rickety piece of shit she was riding wobbled and teetered, looking even more unstable than she did. She turned around and gave him another terrified glance. What was wrong with the woman? Just as she was about to turn away again the bike’s handle jerked at the most awkward angle as if it had a mind of its own and she went hurtling into a tree at the end of the street.
“Holy shit!” He ran to her.
By the time he got to her she was lying on her back, her butt pushed up against the tree trunk, her legs flipped over her head like some sort of contortionist yoga guru and the bike intertwined with her folded body. Through the tangle of hair, limbs, and fluorescent metal he heard a sob and a squeak.
“Hello? Are you all right?” Leaning over, he lifted a long spiral lock off her face. It bounced against his palm, soft as silk.
One huge, almond-shaped eye focused on him.
“Teh thik to ho?” he repeated in Hindi. He had no idea why he’d spoken it or why he had used that rural dialect he now used only with his mother, but it just slipped out.
The tangled-up, upside-down mess of a girl, looking at him from behind her legs, literally brightened. There was just no other way to describe it. Her one exposed eye lit up like a firework in a midnight sky. He pushed more hair off her face, almost desperate to see the rest of that smile.
“You can speak Hindi,” she said, her surprisingly husky voice so filled with delight that sensation sparkled across his skin.
For one moment the almost physical force of her smile and the uninhibited joy in her voice stole his ability to speak.
She squinted those impossibly bright eyes at him. “Sorry, is that the only line you know?”
“What? No, of course not. I know lots of lines.” Wow, that must be the stupidest thing he’d ever said in his life.
She smiled again.
He gave his head a shake and forced his attention on her mangled situation instead of that smile. As carefully as he could he pulled the bike off her. “Can you move?”
She bit down on her lip and tried to push herself up. But instead of her body moving, her face contorted with pain and tears pooled in her eyes.
He dropped down to his knees next to her. “I’m sorry. Here, let me help you.” He ignored the absurd shiver of anticipation that kicked in his gut as he reached for her.
No man had ever touched Mili like that. Ridhi’s ridiculously handsome brother wrapped his arms around her and tried to ease her into a sitting position. Pain shot through her back, her legs, through parts of her body she wasn’t even aware she possessed, and all she could think about was the warm bulges of his arms pressing into her skin. So this was what a man’s touch felt like.
Yuck. She was an awful pervert. You’re a married woman, she reminded herself.
But then he gave her another tug and she forgot her own name. Pain buzzed like a million bees in her head. She tried to be brave but she couldn’t stifle the yelp that escaped her.
“Shh. It’s okay. Let me look at that.” He propped her up against his chest and reached out to inspect her ankle. His face faded and blurred and then came back into focus. His skin was almost European light and his hair was the darkest burnt gold. If he hadn’t spoken Hindi the way he had, she might have mistaken him for a local.
He touched her ankle and she was sure something exploded inside it. She sucked in a breath and her head lolled back onto his chest. A very bad English word she had heard only in films rumbled in his chest beneath her head, which suddenly weighed a ton. Her stomach lurched. She heard a pathetic whimper. It had to be her. He didn’t look like the whimpering type.
“Shh, sweetheart. Try to breathe. There, in, then out.” His breath collected in her ear. His voice had an almost magically soothing vibration to it. He slipped a cell phone out of his pocket. “Is there anyone I can call? We need to get you to a hospital.”
At least that’s what Mili thought he said, because her ears were making funny ringing sounds. She leaned back into his wall-like chest and tried to focus on his face, which started spinning along with the fading and the blurring. “Snow Health Center is around the corner. I can walk.”
“Right,” he said. “Or why don’t you ride your bike?”
She was about to smile, but he made an angry growling sound and scooped her up in his arms. How could a flesh-and-blood body be so hard? Like tightly packed sand, but with life. The buzzing in her ears was a din now and she had to fight to keep her eyes open. He jogged across the parking lot to a very shiny action-film-style car.
“I’m going to put you in the backseat, okay?”
She nodded. As long as he kept talking to her in that soothing voice of his, she didn’t care what else he did. “Your car is yellow,” she said. “Just like my bike.”
He grinned and laid her down on the backseat of the roofless car so slowly, so very gently, she felt like she was made of spun sugar. Her ankle hit the seat and she felt like a sledgehammer on an anvil. She dug her fingers into his arm to keep from screaming. He didn’t pull away. He just kept talking in that magical voice until finally he faded out. The last thing Mili remembered was asking him to put her bike in the rack. No, the last thing she remembered was his smile when she asked him to do it.