Neapolitan City

Chapter 4: The Ghosts of the Past

Ishaani stared at Ranveer wide eyed. There was some unwarranted emotion bubbling within her but she could not understand what it was because her mind was in a blur, as though sailing through a mist. It was as though time was misplaced and she was standing on the edge of a paper, her one fall on either side determining where life took her next or what life would throw at her. But somehow, amongst that blur, there was one thing that cut clear through the mist - Ranveer's cold eyes.

She had seen them widen in shock in that moment - disbelieving and something more. Something, which she could not really define. But there it was, something that had sprung to life at her sight. She tried to smile at him, but her lips wouldn't move. But Ranveer's eyes settled back into cool buckets of ice the next moment, ice that somehow restricted her own breathing. This was a look that she did not like at all.

She had imagined this moment every single day in her life, not daydreaming, but in the nights, where her dreams and nightmares contained this one moment alone that seemed to stretch during the entire night. That moment was always filled with suspense and anxiety, where each night the version of the dream altered, sometimes Ranveer accepting her into his open arms, sometimes ignoring her, sometimes walking away from her or she walking away from him after being unable to face his eyes, sometimes simply stationery, as though he clearly did not believe her, or sometimes just holding on to her.

But now that the moment had actually happened, she realized that she was not ready for it. She would never be. And Ranveer's reaction made her realize that. She would have borne anything - him yelling at her, hugging her, crying for her, angry at her, anything, but not this cold ignorance. She could never bear that from him. The moment she made a proper eye-contact with him, Ranveer curled his lips in what was supposed to be a courteous smile, but it only frightened her.

"Ofcourse you are. It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Parekh." There was no pleasure evident in his voice neither did his eyes betray any emotions apart from the cold curtains. There was a curt and cold tone to his voice, something that Ishaani identified as a strict business voice. It was as though something had died within him, something that robbed him of everything and left a shell to walk around. Unfortunately, the shell left behind was so cold that it made her recoil. She did not know him anymore.

But if this was how he wanted to play it, she was willing enough to let it be.

"It's a pleasure to meet you too, Mr. Vaghela." Ishaani was surprised, for she was certain that the voice that had escaped her lips could not be her own. Her voice was as cool as his, a strange detachment latched along with it, a polite courtesy accompanied alongside. Her voice was nowhere close to the malicious fear in her heart.

They stared at each other for several more minutes before Mrs. Brandt broke up their party.

"Mesdames et Messieurs, could I have your attention please?" Everyone turned around to see Mrs. Brandt standing in the middle of the marquee, along with a tall, middle-aged man, who Ishaani recognized to be the other trustee of the library, Mr. Ambrose.

"First of all, a very warm and heartfelt welcome to all of you in this lovely city of Greece. And an even more heartfelt welcome to this library of ours, that has now been a monument of wisdom and strength from the past fifty years." A gentle round of applause went about while Mrs. Brandt waited for silence to reign once more before she continued.

"Now that you all are in this city of ancient customs and traditions, it's time we gave you all an insight into a traditional Greek party. As is the custom of our parties here, a round of waltz is a must before we get befuddled with the apperitifs and the hors d'oeuvres."

Smiling benignly at the crowd as every single person's eyes were on her, she clapped her hand twice and the band played a tune from the song "Loveless". Mr. Ambrose took Mrs. Brandt's hand in his own and led her into the opening dance.

Following suit, each and every single guest had a partner after 20 minutes, save for two or three, who preferred to watch others dance rather than dance themselves. Ishaani looked at the happy couples dancing, having refused several of the men who asked her to dance, for her mind was lost in the episodes of the past.

A tear fell from her eyes as she remembered several of the parties at the Vaghela mansion from three years ago, where Ranveer would always lead her to the dance first and the two of them would dance to their heart's content. Ishaani shut her eyes, remembering the touch of Ranveer's hand on her waist, a touch that was as electric in her memory as was in reality.

Sighing, she opened her eyes and looked towards Ranveer once again, who was already staring at her, a curiosity filled in his eyes, some long lost memory fading away rapidly. Slowly, he held out his hand to her and asked her simply.

"Would you like to dance with me?" Ishaani stared at him hard for several moments, her mind torn between running away from the party where his eyes could never reach her again, and simply accepting his hand. Finally giving a resigned look, she accepted his hand and he led her to the center of the hall. He put his hand around her waist and Ishaani threw her hand over his shoulder as their fingers interlocked simultaneously. They swayed in the rhythm of the song, their eyes locked in a battle while the band now played 'Den of Love'.

Ishaani let herself fall free into Ranveer's arms, her tired head finding refuge in his strong chest, her arms and feet moving in accordance with the rhythm of the music, their breathing even and calm. Ishaani took it as a good sign that Ranveer did not push her away from himself nor did he walk away from her abruptly, but instead just held her in his arms, his head leaning over hers while she breathed in his scent just like old times and for once, the world seemed to become a better place.

When Ishaani felt strong enough, she looked up at Ranveer once again and her eyes brimmed up. His eyes stared into her own - empty and lifeless, his face devoid of any feelings or emotions. Ishaani turned her face away for she could not look at Ranveer anymore, his eyes now only empty basins where once pools of love resided within them, his eyes afire with love and passion for her. Her strength in life was always that pair of eyes that would give her the will to fight anything and everything.

But today, those same pairs of eyes had dismantled her completely. Three years of pulling herself together had shattered within one moment, this empty look from Ranveer burning her insides. There were countless number of things that were unsaid between them, weighing and pressing around them from all angles, but neither of them had the strength nor will to confront those brutal wounds from the past anymore.

The moment the song got over, they disentangled from each other gracefully, Ishaani's fingers still tingling from the prolonged contact with Ranveer's fingers and the last prickles of excited adrenaline leaving her body. She quietly walked away and occupied a seat on the nearest table, where Mrs. Brandt was now sitting alone.

"So, it looks like the two of you got along just fine." Ishaani looked at Martha and smiled in spite of herself. Martha noticed her pale pallor and looked confused.

"What happened? You look completely pale. Is everything alright?"

"I'm fine. Just feeling really tired."

"This was precisely what I was worried about. You weren't looking well enough to me these past few days."

"No, it isn't that Martha, I just..." Ishaani trailed off, her eyes staring into the distance where Ranveer was once again in conversation with another delegate.

"Is it him?" Ishaani looked shocked for a moment, her face draining of the little color it had. She could not imagine how Martha could have found out about the two of them, but then it struck her. She wasn't talking about Ranveer directly, but was instead referring to Ishaani's anonymous love and husband.

"Yeah... It's just, I really miss him today. I don't know how he-"

"Shhh, it's alright. I understand." Martha held her hand gently and Ishaani looked at her gratefully. Ishaani shut her eyes for a couple of minutes and relaxed herself and poised a calm that her mind did not even remotely feel. Opening her eyes once again, she nodded reassuringly at Martha. Taking it as a sign that Ishaani was alright, Martha got up and once again returned to tending her guests, leaving Ishaani lost in thought.

Dinner was a sumptuous affair. After the end of their 7-course meal, all the delegates were talking and chattering, light banter filling up the now drowsy air. Ishaani and Ranveer did not get any chance for another rendezvous, for they were both separately handling the guests on opposite sides on the marquee and playing the perfect role of gracious hosts.

Ranveer was going to have all the delegates lodged at his place for the night and as the night prolonged, the guests were escorted to Ranveer's mansion, the drivers of the respective delegates being given the location while their belongings were already awaiting them back at the host's house. After having escorted nearly all the guests, Ranveer, Ishaani and Mrs. Brandt were the only ones remaining along with the cleaning staff while the band had finally taken their leave, happy that their remuneration was paid well.

Suddenly Ranveer, who was on the other side of the marquee, heard loud bickering from the other side and saw Martha and Ishaani in a heated argument. Walking up to them, he cleared his throat softly and the two women stopped abruptly.

"What's the matter?"

"Well, I've been asking Ishaani to stay over at my place tonight, because it's really late and the place where she stays is pretty dangerous for a girl at this time of night. Lots of muggings."

"So, what's the problem then?" Ranveer directed his question straight at Ishaani, his eyes cocked up in skeptical confusion while Ishaani glared at Martha. Looking back at Ranveer, she muttered furiously.

"Martha lives in a studio apartment. There is no place for two people to stay. Besides, if I end up occupying the apartment, Martha won't really have much place for herself and I don't want to burden her." Martha was about to retort when Ranveer held up his hand.

"You can stay over at my place for the night." Martha looked surprised and Ishaani shocked. Ranveer continued as though their expressions were blank slates. "I have all the delegates over and you can stay over too. It's not as though you would be all alone in the house. Lodge over tonight and you can leave the next day."

"But my car and my belongings-"

"That can be arranged for."

"Ran... Mr. Vaghela, your offer is generous enough but-" Ishaani had a pleading note in her voice but Martha cut her off.

"She'll lodge over at your place, Ranveer. Thank you for being such a dear, son, you've solved quite a problem for me." Martha smiled at Ranveer and patted his face affectionately while she looked at Ishaani closely, hoping that Ishaani wouldn't contradict her. She didn't.

Ranveer looked at Ishaani before asking her softly.

"Shall we?" Ishaani looked at him and nodded reluctantly. Martha smiled and bid them goodbye, her house three blocks away from the hall. Ranveer walked towards his car and Ishaani followed him silently, both lost in their own train of thoughts. Ranveer went and sat over the driver's seat and Ishaani occupied the side passenger's seat with the past's reflex instinct before she snapped her head and looked at Ranveer. Ranveer looked at her and smiled. It was not as frightening as the one in the party, yet it wasn't any much better than the last.

"My driver will be escorting your car to my place."

"Oh, okay." Ranveer started the car and the automobile sprung back to life while he steered the car out of the drive and back on the road. The car was as silent as it could be, but there was a warmth in the air, a warmth created by several pleasant memories that were unlocked unconsciously from the past where the two of them, from a different time had gone for several such drives like this, first as friends, then as life partners.

What they were now, was still questionable.

Ishaani looked out from the window, the cool breeze whipping her face, its effect stinging yet relaxing. The memories from the party kept resurfacing in her mind, her dance with Ranveer in particular. They hadn't spoken a word of acknowledgement to each other and were as good as random strangers meeting for the first time, yet there was an undercurrent of something. Something that ran much deeper than they both knew.

Ishaani, for the life of it, could not understand why Ranveer was behaving like this, but it did not hurt her at all. It was as though her heart was too numb to know pain and too dead to have hopes anymore.

Out of the floating memories of the night came up the strongest memory of all, the memory of her freely falling into his arms and his holding her to himself, without pushing her away. Words left her lips before she even knew it, breaking the sweet, serene silence of the car.

"Thanks for not pushing me away." She looked at Ranveer, a weariness creeping its way in her voice. Ranveer looked at her, a painful memory playing in his mind that visibly grew larger in his eyes by the passing moments. In that moment, she knew it, knew what memory he was thinking about.

Smiling at her painfully, Ranveer whispered back in response, a hoarse resignation in his voice.

"I never could. I never would."

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