The Girl Who Died Next Door - 5

I contemplate calling my parents. My cell phone lies on the sofa, inert, offering me not the slightest hope of sage advice. Outside, the streets stay cool and quiet, unhindered by the clatter of wheels and the unseemly chatter of passers-by. My mind is exactly the opposite. This morning, I woke up with a thousand voices in my head and all of them spoke of the same man - Shayan. Disbelief, mockery and dismissal - it was more than I could bear. Sub-consciously, I find myself moving to the veranda. I'm bare-foot and the stone floor beneath me is cold and alert. Furtively, I gaze to my right and what I see takes my breath away. The unyielding planes of his wide shoulders and lean, tanned torso are set aglow by the soft morning sunshine. Smoke rings billow idly from his mouth, as he paints rapturously. I strain to see the graceful movement of his fingers, the slight incline of his head as he attempts to perfect a stroke. Loose cotton pants, his garment of choice as I've learnt, compliment the ease with which he creates what I know will be a thing of beauty. I wonder what he smells like and I wish the wind would carry his fragrance to me. So great is his engrossment in the task before him that Shayan does not notice my desirous eyes. He turns slightly, obscuring his face but providing me a more fulfilling view of the rest of him. I feel unabashedly voyeuristic. I'm suddenly more aware of the wind lapping at my nightie, of the sunshine warming my skin. I hope that it's not Suvarna he's painting. Her spectre has been looming over my life uncomfortably close. I shut my eyes and imagine Shayan's arms around me, enveloping me with silken heat and tracing my curves with knowing fingers. A tiny breeze becomes my nightie's accomplice in teasing the sensitive backs of my knees. I open my eyes and the veranda  is empty but for the lone easel. I sigh, desolate and disappointed.
***
I bump into him while I'm rushing out to meet a friend, already late by half an hour and feverishly concocting plausible excuses in my head. "Is that just one perfume I smell?" he asks, putting both arms on my shoulders to stop me from colliding headlong into his leisurely stroll. The touch and the question, successfully throw me further off-balance and I gape at him like a startled fish. His hands are warm and for some reason, he smells of the sea. "Are you saying I've overdone it?" I smirk finally. "More like overpowered my senses," he says calmly, wiping the smirk of my face. He releases me, and thankfully, I don't fall. "So..um, you just went for a walk?" I mumble, fidgeting with the lapel of my soft wool jacket. He nods, runs a few fingers through his longish, silky hair. "It's refreshingly quiet today. And I don't really like it at the house." I notice how he doesn't call it 'home'. Is Suvarna playing tricks on his mind? He does have dark circles under his eyes. I look up to see him regarding me, bemused. I blush furiously. Was I staring? Why does he unsettle me so? "Oh my god, I was already half an hour late and now you've made it even worse!" I blurt out, making a dash for my car. Shayan stops me with a hand on my arm. I pause but I don't look at him. "Don't go," he says softly. "You're anyway so late. There's no point." His words are hypnotic and they begin to make sense. I swallow. "Keep me company. I hate being alone in that house. It's more than depressing," Shayan continues. If I'm honest with myself, that sounds like the most appealing prospect in the entire world. "Yeah, I've anyway missed nearly half of the film," I say, trying to sound nonchalant. "Great, come on," Shayan says, putting a casual arm around my waist and embarrassing me with the resultant pooling of fire in my groin. With shaky fingers, I type an incoherent apology to my friend and switch the phone off. I'll explain later.
***
His house looks more orderly than it did the last time. I recall imagining it in shades of purple, coffee and cream. He has chosen mahogany and mauve instead. I can work with that, I think ridiculously. "Have you painted any new portraits?" I ask, following Shayan into the kitchen where he prepares coffee, oblivious to my eyes following every little movement of his incredibly graceful hands. The aroma of the Arabica beans mix he's using is rich and intoxicating. I wander back into the hall, wanting some distance from the man and the aroma. I can see books - tons of books, lining the walls, filling the shelves and crowding the couches. This is my own private wonderland. I run my fingers along the titles - quaint classics, modern literature, theses on art, music, poetry, dance. I'm mesmerised. And a violent shiver goes up my spine when I feel Shayan's hand on my shoulder. "I see you share my passion for books," he murmurs. I lick my lips and take a deep breath. I must not allow myself to be so affected by a man who doesn't even trust what I say. "Yes, books were my first love," I smile, accepting the mug of fragrant coffee. I take a sip and it's divine. "You make a mean cuppa coffee," I compliment him. "A skill I picked up from my Egyptian maid," he says. "You lived in Egypt?" "For a while. I had a job there doing commercial art for a local agency. It didn't pay much but I was in it for the adventure." I nod. I would love an opportunity like that. "So where do you keep your paintings?" I ask. "I haven't unpacked them yet," Shayan says. I wonder if he just doesn't want to show me. I do not ask the question I'm really dying to ask - whether he felt inclined to paint Suvarna again. "Somehow this house isn't quite what I thought it would be," he murmurs, almost talking to himself. "What do you mean? People would kill to live in this area of Bombay," I grin. Shayan stays impassive. "I'm very sensitive to the vibes of a place. And this place is heavy with something sad and dark." I can almost feel something hanging in the air as he speaks. The room dims visibly as the sun begins to bid goodbye and the long shadows cast across the hall where we sit, send nameless tingles up my nerves. "So you believe me about Suvarna?" I ask tentatively. After all, he is veritably admitting that the place is haunted by her presence. Shayan raises an eyebrow. "Not at all. I don't see the connection." Either he enjoys nettling me or he really is too thick to understand. "That's amazing, for someone so sensitive," I say with my trademark bite. "I told you - your portrait resembles Suvarna. And now you say you get negative vibes from the place. Doesn't it all add up?" I'm irrationally angry and I'm vaguely aware of blood pumping in my face. Shayan seems more fascinated by my lividness than what I'm trying to say. "So much passion in your anger," he murmurs, transfixed. "I may have to paint you after all." I try not to be pleased about that and fail monumentally. And then Shayan reaches out to caress my cheek ever so lightly with his thumb. "Warm, just like I thought." He's gazing at me not like I'm a woman he desires but like an interesting object he'd like to dissect. I have no idea how to feel about that. All I know is I want his eyes to drink in my face for as long as possible.
***
We sat like that in silence, observer and observed, until our coffees grew cold and the stars assumed reign of the sky. And when I left, it was only because I couldn't possibly sleep in the house where 16 year old Suvarna had snuffed out her life.