A/N - Hello lovely people! Thank you so much for all your lovely messages and understanding for the big break in this story. I'm back now, and will be updating fairly regularly!
Several of you have been waiting for a real conversation between Aryan and Imlie and not the hide and seek they seem to be playing with each other since they met. Your wait is over! This chapter makes the first step towards them building a real bond. I hope you enoy it!!
As always, please do share any good or bad feedback!
In the previous chapter....
.....we saw Imlie standing up to Aparna's unreasonable expectations and comments when she meets her. Imlie decided to never fall in the same loop again and refuses to give Aditya another chance, disgusted at Aparna's insinuation. Aryan works late in the office reflecting on his brother-in-law, Arvind's support and how much he values it, when he gets another call about Mahesh Dubey.
15 minutes later, Aryan hung up on the secure line, the private investigator having relayed the information on Mahesh Dubey to him. He placed the phone on the table and cupped his face with his palm, massaging his forehead with his fingertips.
Leaning back in his chair again, he was only beginning to process what he’d learned when he heard a clunking noise from outside his office.
He flipped his wrist to look at his watch as he pushed out of his chair.
Who’s in here at this time of the night?
He walked towards the door and pushed it open, treading on to the seemingly empty office floor.
A shuffling sound.
He continued walking in the direction of the sound which seemed to be coming from a section of desks a couple rows down from him.
Aryan stopped mid-sentence at the sight of a petite figure crouched on the floor, her back to him, frantically gathering a stack of papers that was strewn on the floor. A tote bag lay horizontal on the floor beside her, its contents spilling over.
Imlie? There was no mistaking her. He recognized her kurta she was wearing earlier that morning when they had bumped into each other in the pantry. Quite literally.
He smiled inwardly at the thought of their interesting encounter, feeling an inexplicable delight at the knowledge that she was here. She’d run away earlier in the morning, and he hadn’t got a chance to figure out why. Maybe he could now?
“Ahem…”, he cleared his throat in an attempt to get her attention.
Imlie snapped her head around, a startled gasp escaping her.
Several loose strands of hair covered her partially visible face, evading the long messy braid that was neatly woven in the morning but now looked like it had survived a tornado.
“Mr. Rathore...” she breathed as she cast a panicked glance towards Aryan before turning her head away from him, back to the pandemonium she was trying to manage.
Aryan took a step towards her, her back still facing him.
“Ms. Narayan, is everything okay?”
“I…. uh, yeah, I just…I was clearing this up. Give me a moment”
Was that a quiver in her voice?
He watched her patiently as she stacked several sheets of paper on top of each other, tapping the pile vertically on its side to align the edges. Placing the stack securely on the desk next to her, she went back to pick her bag, hastily shoving its content back inside before picking it up.
She flung the strap of her bag over her shoulder as she turned to face Aryan, her gaze fixed on the ground at a point next to his shoes. Aryan’s brows arched into a frown.
Something is wrong.
“I’m sorry for the distraction, Mr. Rathore. I didn’t know you were still here. I bumped into the copy machine, and…” she trailed, waving a helpless hand signaling to the clutter on the floor that she had just cleaned up.
“No apology necessary. Are you okay?”
Imlie looked up at him for a fleeting moment before lowering her gaze again and nodded.
Aryan surveyed her face. Her usually smooth dusky skin was red and blotchy, eyelids puffy and her eyes bloodshot. He felt a curious constriction in his chest.
She’s been crying.
Feeling a perplexing urge to reach out and comfort her, he curled his fingers into soft fists to restrain himself from acting on the impulse.
“Are you sure?”
Imlie bobbed her head a few times in affirmative, turning away from him again and taking small steps towards her desk.
“I…ummmm”, Aryan said hastily, not wishing to finish the conversation. He needed to know what was going on but he didn’t think he had the right to ask directly. Yet.
Imlie paused and turned, still avoiding his gaze.
“I wanted to apologize for this morning, Ms. Narayan”
Confused, watery eyes rose to meet his.
“If I made you uncomfortable…”, Aryan explained. “That wasn’t my intention”
Awareness dawned on her. She glanced at his shirt. A clean pale blue had replaced the stained white. He must’ve requested a change.
Aryan continued to watch her with bated breath as she shook her head, her expression glum.
“Nothing of the sort. I should be the one apologizing”, Imlie responded after several seconds, her voice still shaky.
The urge to gather her in his arms and comfort her in that moment was all-consuming. It was taking him every ounce of effort to not give in to that instinct. Instead, he decided to try and lighten the mood.
“That shirt wasn’t as expensive. You needn’t cry over it”
It took her a second to register his quip. A sad smile broke at the corners of her lips when she did.
Aryan let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, warmth spreading in his chest as her expressions softened. He didn’t like her looking so dreary.
“That’s better. Why don’t you take a seat?”, Aryan cocked his head in the direction of the chair behind her.
Imlie nodded and spun around to find her chair, her hands still clutching on to the straps of her bag.
She’d lowered herself to drop her frame into the chair when she saw Aryan walking away from her. Assuming he’d gone back to whatever it was he was doing before she interrupted him, she turned towards her monitor, letting her emotions take over again.
Unshed tears rolled down her cheeks as she closed her eyes, the conversation with Aparna playing in her mind over and over.
She was surprised at her flare up earlier that evening. Imlie had never questioned any of the Tripathi elders so harshly before…not even when she’d been frustrated at their lack of compassion to what she was going through right under their noses.
Angry as she was about her ex-husband’s treatment of her, she’d always stood up for herself without letting her ire get the better of her. She had handled things with utmost dignity, and in the process, bottled up several emotions.
Aparna’s inconsiderate proposal and the insensitive words that followed had broken the dam on those sentiments. Like a pressure cooker bursting.
Imlie wiped her damp face with the pads of her fingers and let out a sniffle. When she opened her eyes, she saw a glass of water held in front of her face by a large hand, a hand that was attached to an arm extended out to her.
Her gaze travelled along the length of the arm to its owner and settled on a worried face that was peering down at her.
Imlie groaned, embarrassed at being discovered crying by Aryan.
I thought he’d left! This just keeps getting worse and worse.
“Take a sip”
She shook her head, lowering her gaze to her lap.
Trembling fingers closed around the glass as she took it from him, mumbling a thank you.
Aryan took a step back and leaned against the long desk that seated the interns in a row, shoving his hands in his pockets. His eyes stayed fixed on her as Imlie raised the glass to her lips and took a couple of small sips of water before placing the glass on the desk in front of her.
He waited a few moments to let her gain some composure before speaking again.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Imlie shook her head again, avoiding his gaze.
“I’m sorry for this, Mr. Rathore”, Imlie waved both hands around her in a resigned explanation, hoping he’d know she was referring to her current state.
“Ms. Narayan, there’s no need to be…. embarrassed. Grief can hit in the most bizarre moments. When it does, never apologize for dealing with it”
Imlie tilted her head and raised her chin to look at Aryan, surprised at the profound comment. There was so much empathy in that simple statement.
“Sounds like you’ve had experience dealing with grief”
“I…have been dealt my fair share”
Imlie continued to stare into his deep brown eyes, both wondering what the source of his grief could be and feeling for him at the same time.
Aryan lifted his brow in question.
She smiled ruefully, switching her gaze back to her palms sitting on her lap.
“You’re working late?”, she asked.
She’s changing topics.
“There’s much to review when one buys a new company”
She nodded in understanding.
“What are you doing here at this hour?” It was his turn to question.
“I…have an opinion paper to write. I thought I’d do it better in the office”
Aryan’s brow shot up again.
“Well, that was the plan until…. stuff happened. I didn’t feel like going home” Imlie smiled regretfully, pointing to her blotched face.
“Still don’t want to talk about it?”
She gave him another silent shake of her head.
“Tell me about this opinion paper”
If she wasn’t ready to share whatever it was she was going through, he had to respect her wish to stick to neutral topics. Pestering her into divulging details of her personal life would only drive her away.
We are still, practically strangers, after all…and driving her away is the last thing I want to do.
Aryan pinched the bridge of his nose at that moment, pretending to scratch it so he could conceal the wave of desire that he knew had crossed his face at the thought.
“The editor-in-chief has given all of us interns an assignment to write an opinion paper”
“He said he will personally review our submissions and the one he likes the most will get published in the op-ed of Bhaskar Times”
Trust Sushant Tiwari to make the internship for folks most effective. I wasn’t wrong about the guy, Aryan thought.
“So, what’s the topic for this opinion paper?”
“The importance of investigative journalism in modern society and how we can make it more responsible. Every intern has the same topic”, Imlie informed him.
Aryan nodded silently, impressed at the topic that the editor had picked. This was a brilliant way to build character in young journalists in the early days of their careers.
The mainstream media of the country had little integrity left and that was a public fact. Aryan did not want Bhaskar Times to become one more media group in the mix. Sushant Tiwari was clearly the right candidate to assist him in rebuilding BT with the right foundation.
Satisfied, he turned his attention back to Imlie.
“Do you have any thoughts on how you want to write this paper?”
Imlie bobbed her head excitedly, whatever sorrows she was carrying forgotten in that moment.
“I do! I think investigative journalism is unlike other mainstream media. It’s motivated by the age-old incentive to search for the truth. And truth will always remain relevant”
“Hmmm…but…. there’s usually no reward associated with finding the truth”, Aryan contested.
She had piqued his interest. He wanted to see what her thought process was, and deep down he hoped it was substantial.
Imlie swiveled her chair in his direction and rested her palms over her knees, her posture leaning slightly towards her sole audience like she was prepared for a good debate.
“You’re right. Investigative journalism requires a certain moral compass. But very few journalists get rewarded for their work. We need to change that. If we don’t promote responsible, unbiased journalism, how will the truth get told! It’s so important for democracy!”
Aryan crossed his arms across his chest and a leg over the other as he continued to lean against the desk, his gaze fixed at Imlie.
“Does the modern society care? Entertainment news seems to sell more”, he offered.
“I think they do. The youth is more and more vigilant, aware, and engaged with the world news. They want the data offered to them to be as accurate as possible. They have access to so much information, especially through social media and they voice their opinion on everything they read”
Aryan smiled, already impressed by her clarity in thought and the confidence with which she spoke on the topic. Evidently, she was passionate about this.
Then, assuming a thoughtful face, he asked another question.
“Don’t you think social media does the opposite of promoting responsible journalism?”
“Sadly, it does. Investigative journalism requires dedicated hours, sometimes weeks, of following a story and piecing information together. Social media on the other hand operates on barely sourced stories contributed by the common audience and inexperienced providers. Everything is content”
Imlie made a face and rolled her eyes as she said the last part. Aryan was amused at the play of emotions on her face.
“So, the solution?”, he prodded.
“Print media like Bhaskar Times needs to continue to sponsor investigative journalism and endorse responsible journalists”, she responded immediately.
Aryan was nodding in agreement when he saw her expression turn from decisive to reflective. She raised her hand to her face and held her chin between her thumb and her index finger, as if in deep deliberation.
“However, …”, she continued, “I think my paper should touch upon how we can make social media and web reporting more responsible as well. How could we tackle those challenges?”, she thought out loud.
Aryan observed her quietly as she debated with no one in particular.
There it was again, the childlike innocence. Her pretty eyes danced around, looking through things in front of her as she drifted into her thoughts.
Mesmerized, Aryan pushed himself off the desk he was leaning on, his legs taking steps in her direction off their own accord. He stopped a couple feet from her and continued staring. Imlie was brought out of her reverie as she apprehended his tall frame towering over her.
Wide eyes stared back at him in confusion.
Aryan pointed to her face with a barely discernible tug of his chin in her direction.
Imlie frowned, confusion marring her face.
Aryan made the gesture again, tapping his index finger under his own eyes first and then pointing it back to her face.
Her hand shot up to her face, tiny digits feeling her cheeks to locate the source of Aryan’s concern. Unable to determine what exactly he was pointing at, she looked back at him inquiringly.
“Your Kajal…”, Aryan explained in a low, deep voice, “You’ve smudged it”
Understanding washed over her face, replaced immediately by embarrassment as she swiped the back of her hands under her eyes to remove the apparent streak.
Aryan shook his head when questioning eyes met his again, indicating that the blemish was still there.
He took out a handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her.
Hesitantly, she took the kerchief from him and wiped her face with it before turning to him again for assessment.
Aryan shook his head again, his lips curving slightly.
“May I?”, he asked, extending his hand to her.
Imlie gulped as she placed the handkerchief back in his hand.
He leaned forward and lowered his face to her level, gently swiping the corner of her eye with the material. Imlie held her breath, her heartbeat picking speed at the sudden proximity. Lowering her gaze, she tried to avoid eye contact, his piercing gaze and the waft of his musky scent making it difficult for her to form coherent thoughts.
Dear God, he smells good even at the end of a long day!
When she lifted her lids again, deep amber eyes were regarding her with…. was that adoration?
She kicked herself mentally, admonishing herself for her wishful thinking that Aryan Singh Rathore, the new CEO of Bhaskar Times, her boss’s boss’s boss, would find her adorable.
Aryan swiped the smudge away from one eye, moving on to the other, dabbing in slow, gentle movements. He wanted to prolong this moment as much as he could. Her skin looked silky soft up-close, and his fingers itched to caress her cheeks that had turned scarlet.
Unwillingly, he stepped back after a few moments.
“There, it’s done”, Aryan quipped with a smirk, very aware of the effect he’d had on her.
“Th…thank you” Imlie stammered, her throat feeling like it was lined with sandpaper.
Nervously, she tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and turned back to her desk, still feeling the heat in her cheeks and down the back of her neck. She turned back to her monitor to avoid his gaze and reached out to turn it on.
Aryan looked at his wristwatch for the time again.
“It’s pretty late, Ms. Narayan. You should continue to write this paper at home or tomorrow”
Still flushed, Imlie nodded, unable to muster the courage to protest.
“I will drop you home”, Aryan offered.
“Oh, that’s very kind of you to offer, Mr. Rathore but I can manage”
“I wasn’t asking. It’s very late and the safety of my employees is my responsibility. I’ll be back in a moment”
Imlie frowned at his ultimatum before yielding. It really was very late, and the truth was that she didn’t have a mode of transport she could rely on at this hour.
Aryan walked away to his office and a minute later, appeared at her desk again, his jacket swung over one forearm and his bag held in the other.
Imlie nodded and gathered her bag, following Aryan towards the elevator.
Aryan stole sideways glances at her through the elevator ride and as they exited the office building. She was determined to continue dodging his gaze.
The charged attraction that accompanied their proximity was obvious, but Aryan couldn’t help noticing that she tended to withdraw soon after. It was becoming a pattern.
Having her go into mute mode wasn’t what I was going for.
They had had their first real conversation ever since fate kept bringing them face to face and he found himself craving to hear more. This silent treatment, howsoever brief, was unsettling for him.
He took a few long strides to reach the car before her, opened the passenger door and stepped back, inviting her to step in. She took small, hesitant steps towards the open door, her anklets filling the quiet night air with a light jingle that Aryan had come to relish.
As she settled in the passenger seat, he closed the door behind her cautiously and strode around the hood to get into the driver’s seat himself.
He paused before turning the ignition.
“Uh, yes. of course!” she exclaimed, mildly startled at him breaking the silence, and reached behind her to pull the seat belt across her.
“What’s your address?”, he asked as he pondered on how he could get her to be not-so-jumpy around him. She was at ease talking about work earlier.
Punching the address she narrated to him in the GPS console, he turned the ignition on and rolled the car out of the parking.
Safe topics, Aryan. Stick to safe topics.
“Did you always want to be a journalist?” he inquired, finally deciding on the safest topic of them all, fully intending to bring her out of her nervous shell.
Imlie turned her head to glance at him. It’s a simple enough question, Imlie. Stop with the fidgeting and answer it, she consoled herself.
“Investigative journalist”, she started in a low voice. “It’s been a dream of mine since I started reading the Hindi newspaper we got in our village. I was 9 then. My Dadda…”
Aryan raised a brow in question, looking in her direction momentarily before turning his attention back to the road.
“Father…” she explained before continuing, “My father taught me how to read the big words and make sense of the stories. I was always intrigued by what went behind putting those articles together”
“What village are you from?”
“Pagdandiya”, she replied. Then looking at him and realizing he hadn’t heard of it, she explained further, “It’s a small village near Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh”
Aryan nodded before moving on to his next question.
“Did you grow up there?”
“And your education?”
“I went to elementary school in Pagdandiya. My Dadda’s father had helped establish one in the village before I was born”
Aryan smiled, giving her another quick glance.
“That’s very noble of him”
“What about college?”
“I did an undergraduate course in Journalism and Mass Communication from Delhi University”
“That’s really nice. What year did you graduate in?”
“2 years ago. 2020”
Aryan frowned. 2 years. Why is she still interning?
“Bhaskar Times is your first job?”
Imlie bobbed her head in affirmation.
“I had secured an internship with a small magazine after I graduated which I couldn’t join because I had to go back to Pagdandiya. Amma…” she paused, then amended herself, “…my mother fell ill, and I had to care for her. I’d thought I’d lost the opportunity, but they offered to move my start date by a month. I was so happy! But then….”
Imlie caught herself. She didn’t want to lay out her past in front of her company’s new CEO.
What would she tell him? That she comes from an archaic village where they marry off their daughters to strangers on a whim? That she had fallen prey to that tradition days before she was going to join her internship? Or that the person she was married to never thought of her as his wife? Or that she had to live the embarrassment of being cheated on in her own bed?
And then what? He’d feel sorry for her…like everyone did. She didn’t want that. It was better to keep that portion of her life to herself.
“But then?”, Aryan prodded.
“Just…life happened, and I couldn’t join”
Aryan didn’t miss her dismissive tone as he peered into the rearview mirror before changing lanes.
What was she about to say? Why this gap of two years and why wouldn’t she talk about it?
“What about you?”
Imlie’s question brought his attention back to her.
“Your education? You must’ve studied so much to be such a hot shot!”
A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. Did she just call me a hot shot?
“Schooling in Delhi and Mumbai. I went to the U.S. for my undergraduate college and MBA”
“I knew it. Hot shot”, Imlie joked, amusement evident on her face.
Aryan chuckled, feeling lighter immediately. What is it about her smile that makes my heart warm? I want her to smile all the time.
They’d just turned into the driveway under her building when she continued.
“When did you come back from the U.S.?”
“A year before…” Aryan started, pausing immediately. His smile disappeared and was replaced by a pained expression that Imlie couldn’t understand. She stared at him intently.
Aryan brought the car to a slow halt at the entrance of her building but continued to stare ahead.
“Ummm…” he looked down at the stick shift gear he’d rested his hand on, absently nudging it around before speaking again, “…a year before…my father died”
Imlie had heard the other interns talking about Aryan’s father, the founder of the Rathore Group of Industries and his untimely demise that had led Aryan to take over the business.
The agony on his face tugged at her heart.
“I’m sorry about your father, Mr. Rathore”
Aryan gave her a curt nod, acknowledging her sympathy, but did not say anything.
The air in the car was suddenly thick with an awkward silence. Imlie twisted the end of her dupatta between her fingers, trying hard to think of something to say.
After a few moments of quietness, he spoke.
“I’ll…. wait here until you’ve entered the building”
With that, she recognized that the conversation was over.
“You don’t need to, Mr. Rathore. I should be okay. Thank you for dropping me home. Goodnight”, she said as she unbuckled her seat belt and started out of the car.
“Goodnight, Ms. Narayan…. good luck with your paper” he added after a small pause.
Imlie offered a small smile and climbed out of the car.
She scrambled towards the building entrance without looking back, determined to not let on her disappointment at the conversation ending abruptly. In her rush, she didn’t notice that Aryan waited until she disappeared into her building anyway, before driving off.
PRECAP: Imlie reminisces about her conversation with Aryan. Aryan fills Arvind in about the latest on Mahesh Dubey. Arpita finds out that Aryan is still looking for their father's murderer.