Sometimes in life you do not need the close ones to be around for you, just a stranger is enough.

She slide off her Persol shades to meet the filtering rays of sun over the hill. In a scarlet convertible Mustang, she was curled up close next to him. The extremity of her bliss was apparent on her face. It was like she could never have been happier. And this ecstatic feel was due to sole person nestled right with her, Ryan Allen. She knew, off all the past months they had been together, it was going to be an ineradicable one from her memory. That is why she was desirous to live up to it fully.

Their sporty Mustang sped up the rickety track of hillock. It was well time-worn and badly decrepit, however, they chose it for the shortest way up. She leaned in briskly and inclined her pate right to peck him on the cheek. Distractedly, he twirled round to caress back. The skyline over their heads was failing into prepossessing hues of sundown.

As Ryan drew his eyes back on the road, a large crevice just a few feet ahead left him panic-stricken. Startled, he swerved the car left, unluckily knocking its whole weight on the fringe. And in no time, overturned, it plummeted deep down the abyss. A large shriek followed the fall before it all went insensate….

(Outside Ayers Enterprises Holdings, Inc.)

A well-ridden arsenic Chevrolet rode into the parking lot and pulled up. A sylphlike figure scrambled out of the car and moved around to see the lofty glass and steel edifice. On its tip, a gauzy panel fashioned with inscription, ‘Ayers’.

She fidgeted, felt a chill down her spine. Was she ready for it? She asked herself. Turning over a new leaf would never be easy. She sighed off, held it and pulled through the doors inside the foyer. Jeez—the swanky interior. Reception desk was to her right, she walked up to it where a young male and female were bearing poised. They apprised her way up to the interview-room. Flustered, she rushed off upstairs. Making it through a hallway and down to its left was the door.

Two mild taps, and she went in.

The room was spacious and pretty much sumptuous; she felt a breath of crisp air inside. Two suave gentlemen—nah, just one for that matter, the solemn-type was snuggled in a high back swivel chair behind the desk. He shot a glance up and then instantly to his partner. The other—gosh, seated up on the desk and just as she stepped in, snapped off it. When he spun around—tousled copper brown hairs with mousy stubble on pale face and his white dress shirt was rolled up the sleeves. Even though, she gave away nothing.

She held her brittle mein.

But the strange gleam in his eyes after looking at her—two big nut-brown eyes on a European face with the natural waves curling down the back and in those faded treggings, it was downright, stone me!

Just then a gruff voice broke through the prevailing air,

“Miss Janet Price, right?” It was the sober one. “We’ve been expecting you.’’

“Believe me, Chris, waiting would be the right adjective. I’m Ian Ayers by the way.” his silvery voice cut in. Already, settled in a chair but yet flustered, she looked up.

“I’m sorry—’’ for a moment she felt real embarrassed at the odd ‘waiting’. But right away, he spoke off,

“No, no, we didn’t mean that way. Janet—mean, Miss Janet, nah—Price…Miss Price!” Janet remained silent, figuring to act her way through this bizarre situation.

“So what should we start with about you?’’ Chris said, his voice low but officious (outright, if he’s not the boss out here, then I’m the worst speculator, her sub-conscious frowned)

“We know everything about her—’’ Ian’s soft and dulcet words were straight out and his expressions—kittenish. “I meant we have her CV and documental files” readily, he tried to rectify. She raised her eyebrow, frustrated.

Ian shifted in his chair as if getting a better posture—or might be exhausted and want to go back on the table-top, Janet retorted.

“Actually, we have a three-question policy in my interview going around. Answer them and you’re in” Ian arched his brow and did mean it as a matter-of-fact. “Don’t worry, they’re going to be apposite” he gently added but it sounded extremely coquettish.

She was failing to get his attitude or perhaps it was something else about him that strangely irked her.

However, he began off with the questions. First one, second one and then thankfully last. She gave a ghost of a satisfactorily grin in the end. Incredibly, she was good. And just what was imminent, Mr. Ian spoke off,

“So how did you like me?” Chris sat quite preoccupied with his laptop since that mere initiation of words and did not even react now. But Janet, completely flustered as what to answer had a first thought, ‘pretty much, provocative.’ She scowled inwardly for a moment but then finally understood, he was asking about the questions. Gordon Bennett!

“Good as ever get, sir.” She replied wryly.

His facial expressions curved plain, giving nothing. He changes fast, she perceived and more like, the man before her was stupid, strange and arch. Could not say, which one was him or perhaps all but it just piqued her.

The interview was over. She was being asked to wait for the email in case she would be selected. But as soon as she left, Chris gone snappish on Ian.

“Now, what was that?’’ He furrowed his brow.

“You’ll never get it, Chris. So leave it be.” he replied, wearily.

“Oh, I thought I was the only one who got it for sure that you developed a thing for her instantly.” “I was doing it for the company. See, our company sponsors for the weekly fashion Mag too apart from the work. And the employees here shouldn’t merely have the brains but contented personality as well. That’s what I thought of all.’’ He explained it drily to him and shrugged in apathy. It was pretty evasive of him, apparently.

“Very well, but do contemplate it before you send her the e-mail.” He announced, circumspect in his tone as he made his way out the office.

“Okay, dad!” he gestured ironically after him but he was long gone and Ian was left all alone in the interview-room.

After driving back fully 6o-miles from the downtown to her doorstep, she was patently ready to drop. She did not even like the idea of changing and went straight up to hit the hay. About in the early evening, the sleeping spell broke and she scrambled out to freshen up. Everything about the interview was in her mind but it was true that she had not given a much thought over it since she had come back. Certainly she wanted the job more than ever if she has made this choice. And no gainsay, she needed to stay optimistic for it.

However, she realized she has not even eaten anything since morning and was really starving. She rushed off to the kitchen and made herself some bacon with cheese. Now huddled on her bole- shaded settee in the living room, she was having it down. The actual truth was that she did not have much things to do at home. But a sudden recollection brought a girl from some other time who would have been ready to go out sightseeing around the town. She shook her head and grab a book to somewhat while away the time.

Around 11:00 pm, she turned on the laptop to reply to her overseas alter ego’s e-mail. It was when she actually saw the mail from the Ayers Company and hastily opened it. Her eyes stayed put.

FROM: Ian Ayers SUBJECT: Appointment Affair DATE: 27 June, 2016 5:30 pm

TO: Janet Price

Dear Miss,

I am contented in apprising you about you being appointed as an accountant to assist in our financial department.

P.S. Hope to look forward to see you tomorrow on your joining. Good day till that.

I.A

From the Ayers Enterprises Holdings, Inc.

I am astounded! He e-emailed it himself. Now that was something to ponder over. She could not believe—she was simply happy. A feeling that had been a distant stranger to her for a very longtime. But she was up for it. It was a new beginning and she knew she will make it worth it but what about this kittenish boss—oh, never mind.

First day, new place, though, she was acquainted with the crisp and bracing air there. Sofia was the head of Company’s financial section. By name, she felt Spaniard to Janet but she never asked. She was slender, had close-cropped raven-coloured hairs and two clear, beady eyes on short face. As plain as it was, she was a real smarty and grounded in her work. But where she was an adept, she was as good a human being and a benign person to work with. They went along rather quick.

As it happened, her work was nor much — neither less, become more like run-off-the-mill over the weeks. She had to assemble the finance files, analyze them and provide her propositions’ and report forward. And day-after-day, she was grown acclimatize to her new job, all work and customary schedules. Actually, she was setting to like it.

Several weeks swept away. The ambience of Ayers Company had relatively embraced her well. And as for Mr. Ian Ayers himself, he had been around. Crisscrossing about there, some glances and

bumps were inevitable. Although, whenever she saw him (at first, all the time with his business- partner, like a magnet, faugh!) she had irrefutably picked up a long, inspecting gaze and facial

expressions giving nothing away or either the evident hints of wryness. This man was really difficult for her to read.

Account files submission was close. Snuggled behind her work table in the room she looked up, directed towards Sofia,

“Hi, Sofia, did you ever think Mr. Ayers being gay?” Blimey! Seriously, if that’s how much she was grown ho-hum.

Sofia arched her brow and then ridiculously replied, “how’d I know, girl? Besides, a tip for you, don’t forget to ask him when you go to submit those files.” She playfully added.

They both turned around, staring at each other one moment and next bursted into chortle. For all that, they were undoubtedly became good friends.

The glass and timber office room was rather plush than the interview-room she had been in weeks ago. Knocking on, she went in, bearing herself on edge. He was holding on right next to his ebony work-desk. Must have seen her coming. His sapphire eyes were transfixed. She took forward a few

introverted steps and extending out the files,

“Account files, sir.” Barely, the last word was out when the folder slipped off their hands and glided down the floor sprawling papers all over it.

That was awkward, Janet felt a rush of agitation and before she was about to kneel down and gather them, a soft and cold hand on her arms stopped her.

“Don’t worry, let me collect them for you.” He reached down and filing together every piece of paper, he was back on his feet in a minute. A cosy simper crossed his face and it reflected towards her. She felt pretty much pleased inwardly, though, he had captured its whisper from her face already.

She trotted out of the office and straight into her cabin-room. Sofia was there and seeing her coming friskily asked, “got your answer, girl?” A smirk conspicuous on her face.

“As if, it’s a death wish and I would love to keep this job a little longer.” She replied back, a playful grin her face too.

“Be that as it may, don’t you think, Mr. Ian is hard to figure out? Sometimes it feels like a strange camouflage on him.” Janet asked, after a real thoughtful this time.

Surely got her ear, Sofia shifted around and mused on her for a moment then spoke, “might be. Never given much my head over it. See, to me, sometimes, even you act different. Like a hard veneer. Like trying to put something off. But think, it’s just us—complicated.’’

Their conversation was over right away at that time. But after making it home, it put her mind through consternation, urged her to question herself. And she owned it, after everything she had gone through, after every relationship that just wend away, it was a disguise to keep it buried. To go back and wearing everything on her sleeve—she was afraid of it. Now that life had given her a fair chance, she could not possibly let that person float to the surface and ruin it. As what could be worse than your own father who left you. Just a sufficient money every month and the house left behind— wish somebody could tell him, Materials are no replacement of hearts.

She seemed nonplussed for next few days. But it was not long before she held the equilibrium and got normal again.

She was nestled around the corner table at a coffee bar. It was a bijou middling place across the left alley from the Ayers edifice. Many employees by lunch-time comes down there for a bite. But there were merely thin on the ground people down there today.

Unmindful, it was only when he came at an edge of her table that she shakily bobbed up and…could not take her eyes off in awe until it sink in. Drawing back a side-chair, he slipped in, unruffled. How on earth—he just never comes here. More than surprised, she was muddled up. And more than him, about herself and her feelings. Phew! Phew! She snorted inwardly. In a bar of precisely five-tables and marked twenty-chairs, he just found around here to clamber in.

“No doubt, you are liking your new job!” he break the uneasy silence hung in for a minute. “Declaring or you really want to know?” shut it, she told herself but her sub-conscious was giving it away.

“Should I say ‘neither’ or ‘both’? The most clichéd reply if you want.” She chuckled. He has got a dry sense of humour.

“You have got wry comic aspect.’’ No filter in her mouth. For havens’ sake, he is smirking. “Your money returned, mam. Pardon me.” he responded ironically.

This time they both gave a muted chuckle. His eyes—like wherever darts around but founding last spot, just her. She sensed it, the dark blue ocean of invitation. He was surely here for something. Then with sudden gleam, like he had a moment of epiphany, he shifted around in his chair, leaned closer and said,

“I want you to marry me. Right today.” He finished it off so nonchalantly that his body did not squirm for once.

“I won’t take no. Because the contract that you subscribe to my company clearly incorporates the clause that dragoons you to pay considerable amount of money in case you lose it mid-way. And I’m sure that’s not an option for you.” For one moment, an ocean and for other, mere coldness in his eyes. His tone turned low and surprisingly distant.

The height of outrage left Janet numbed for a moment. Adrenaline rushed like a whirlwind through her brain. And with every ounce of herself, she was hell bent on to fling the icy glass of lemonade lying in front of her off his face. But she did not because it was not worth it. She was cussing inwardly on herself for believing for just one moment that they were similar in their ways that he was different that he would not be like her past. She was bitterly wrong. All her notions and conventions about men were just grown more firm because of him now.

Then he slid off and strode out of the café just like that, leaving her world on rage. Her heart leapt suddenly leapt into her mouth and that man could not imagine the resentment and loathe him had filled against himself in this woman.

The contract-marriage was done. The day after it, they were leaving for Malaysia for some overriding business meeting.

During their utter course of flight, an over-wrought and recherché silence hung between them. Janet’s mind was turning jittery. She did not for once consider the ramifications of her any act or submission in past many hours. If it get betrayed before all her office associates? What when Sofia would come to know any of this? She would judge her without ever knowing her. Was she going to lose her only best friend as well?

A dusky Escalade ESV was lined up to receive them outside the Kuala Lumpur’s International airport. They settled in, pretty exhausted and headed towards the heart of the city.

Janet laid her eyes outside the side-window and watched the skyline of soaring skyscrapers and Petronas towers fading into dreary nightfall of late-December.

The next thing she recalled she was lying curled in a bed with a snowy duvet covering her and suddenly, risen off. He was sitting at a breaths length to her. His azure eyes restlessly settled on her. “What hap—how did I?” the words barley came out, groggily.

“You passed out. I brought you here.” He got to his feet, turned and recalling her, “the meeting’s tomorrow night,” left the room. For the least, if he was holding on to grudge, he was doing it intensely.

The meeting involved a fair group of exotic delegation. There was a jamboree after it at the same hotel’s reception. And they both played submissive faces together, grabbed a drink or two, kept up with the people around and even danced. His velvety hands felt cold and crisp to her as always. And the long black looks never going away for a second.

Thankfully, for both of them, it got done but roughly about after the mid-night. They were grown weary by that, not just bodily but mental strain also.

The next daybreak; she was huddled up with legs stretched out in the pool. Biting breaths of light wind were whirling over the still water. It was sharp even so bracing. Just then someone enfolded a warm cape around her bare arms. She wriggled around but he was already curled up beside her.

Why was he doing it? He was difficult. Really for one moment, an ocean and next—.Absently, he looked away. The pool area was all deserted except them.

“Afraid to swim?” he finally spoke, his voice low and husky. Her gaze veered in his direction. She shook her head and murmured, “Nope, was afraid to learn.” Without thinking, he reached down and slithered off his subdued polo shirt. She sat outraged googling at him. His pale and handsomely shaped naked torso was striking. And out of the blue, very next moment, he wrenched on her, pulling her into squeeze and dived straight into the frosty pool. More than ice-cold water, his chest stroked against her body sent a trail of electricity down her veins. Water splashed around uncontrollably, sending away large wavelets. Stood frozen to the spot, both of them quivered, looked at each other glassily for a second then erupted into a loud and cheerful chortle. But it lived ephemeral and a minute later, they were out the pool back at outs again. However, for short but it did manifest their tendency to laugh together.

That night, they were coming back. After the pool episode, the exchange of glances was turned awkward. They were so close to each the other day and yet, strangely far and far away.

Janet’s mind was clear about it—she did not ask Ian for any elucidation about anything and he simply did not try to give one. When things are uncertain, people become unusually different and an alien version of themselves.

On arriving, Ian dropped her home. She said she wanted some time alone and also took some days off from work. His face was curved into wry expressions on it but he did not say anything.

Making it back at home, she has had enough time to contemplate many things. The contract; everything had occurred in so spur of the moment that she was actually forgotten about it. But things had changed and moved far away from some mere folio of papers. She needed the answers. Because somehow she is the one in the end who always left to suffer. To get hurt. But at least, not for this time.

As she walked inside the lobby of the building, the whole ambience of it felt off-center. She felt like a stranger to it despite the fact that she has been there before countless times. Encountered several questioning gazes, finally she saw Sofia coming downstairs, she paced towards Janet and briskly hugged her. Totally flustered. She thought the tittle-tattles around would be potent on her. But loosened her squeeze, she murmured, “I trust you, that’s what friends are for. Besides, I forgot, Mr. Chris was asking for you, in his office.’’ She added, directing to the front corridor under stair-way. A tingle of heebie-jeebies in her stomach, she was already fretful about confronting Ian but now Chris had made it even more complicated for her. He was nestled in his swivel chair spinning it like a children when she went in. He stopped on seeing her.

“I believe, Ian should never have done what he did. But all he cared about is his Company.” His brow wrinkled. His flat voice sounded outlandish. Holding herself confused, she was listening intently.

“His meeting in Malaysia could not have been successful without you, Janet. He needed a marital status to subscribe the delegations contract. Their agreement, their ways. If you know, I only mean good for your sake. You should not let yourself stay around him.” He announced it all on her face as a-matter-of-fact. But to Janet, the blood rushed through her brain nerve-rackingly. The answer she seeking was front of her, and it was not sinking in. Jeez—it was all about money and a contract from the beginning. She felt wretched for being the fool who just got played in all of this.

She lurched, bearing herself on the edge. There was a stream of tears welded up behind her mousy doe-eyes and she sprinted out of the room. Chris shouted after her but she was gone.

Treading up the meandering stair-case, her mind was revolving around a web of emotions. She recalled the first day she met with Ian, the interview, his dry humour at the bar, his soft, cold hands enfolded around her arms and all the way up the elevator to their room in hotel. When he pulled her with him in the ice-cold pool water, and everything so far. It was all an overpowering swell of vehemence.

She shoved past the door inside his office -room, her lungs screaming for breath but she tripped it all out,

“I got my every answer, Ian. Chris told me all of it. He is right, you’re nothing but a self-seeking man with no conscience.” Astonished, he sprang up from his working place. His eyes full of agitation. More than surprised, he seemed disoriented. Moved around the desk, he drew closer but she was yelling unaware,

“I was just the piece of meat you needed to crack your freaking deal in Malaysia. Good trickster.” Fuming, she plunged him back forcefully with her both hands and turning, rushed out. He leapt after her down the hallway and loudly called out,

“Ryan is alive, Janet. Chris is Ryan.”

She stopped dead in her tracks. Tears were already trickling down her chin. Anything but not Ryan. Janet turned around, made her way back to him and yanking her hand out hit him hard on the face. Ian could have taken in anything in return for one chance to explain himself. But the time was calling for both of them to come clean.

Janet began it first.

‘Two years back, we were on a hill-drive when that terrible accident happened. But we managed to lunge out before the vehicle tipped over. Unluckily, we barely made it to the rock face and propping on, Ryan’s face was badly pressing against it. I was only holding on to his hand. Then he chose and let my hand go.

He would have think I died. But it was a mound. And some hikers bivouac supported me on the fall. They weren’t local and took me with them. I was in trauma for a whole week. And for one complete year, I suffered through the post stress disorders. It was only when I was ready to come back to start fresh.’

The story swapped. And he began it.

I knew everything about you the day you stepped in. I wasn’t joking about that. But there were some

pieces to the puzzle about you, I yet needed to collect. You would not know but that day on the hill I found Ryan. He was in bad shape and his face—indescribable. He got a face surgery. I took him home and in time as he convalesced, he joined my office and starting working with me.

‘He sold me some well-rehearsed story about his accident. I didn’t buy it because that day, I found a women piece of crimson scarf at the site. Combed around for you in town but nothing.’

“And believe me, the marriage was merely to protect you. Yes, I needed to crack the deal but there were no cranky terms in it. I could not leave you here, Chris would have made it miserable for you. I had no choice. I’m sorry. Taking you with me as my wife than a financial assist was better.’’ Ian felt heavy on adding these words. He was just on an edge to yield away.

“Someone, no less than a stranger fought this all for me. That even your love ones possibly don’t” “Who says I’m no one to you. I love you, damn it.” He hysterically replied.

Form a corner of their eyes, they saw Chris standing down the hallway. Eavesdropped it all for certain. His countenances’ were contorted into furrow. But he backed off, brusquely. Ian rushed after him and called the building guards to grab him down. Janet right on his feet along. “I’m never going to let him get away with this. He will pay for what he did.” Ian retorted.

On a sandy beach a few days later, she was curled up between his arms around her. With her favourite Persol shades on, she had bought him one too and he was wearing it.

“So what do you want to do next?”

“Want to be picked up and carried all the way to a hotel room—awake this time. Then, on some crack of dawn, would learn swimming by a familiar charming instructor.”

“Anything else, mam?’’ He playfully asked on her flirtatious reply.

“Yeah, and would want to rejoin my best friend, Sofia at work. Of course, sympathizing your company a beautiful accountant. ” She gleefully added.

“Above all, she continued, I would want to thank you for making me me again. It was tough for me after my mother’s death when dad left me to live off his life. Then, Ryan. I could never make it out and see the beauty in people around’’

He slid his face in, and stroke it gently against her neck. Cuddled closer, he abruptly leaned in and brushed his lips against hers’. Then they kissed, longer and deeper till the infinity of space and time. The vast sea line was meeting the horizon at the end of their worlds from where a sun was fading into twilight, giving signs of a promising tomorrow.

By Hassan Raza from Pakistan



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