Kelsey tried to turn in early the night before she was due to set off with Ren around India - sleep before a trip was important, after all - but by the time her watch ticked over to 11:30 pm she was still wide awake and entirely restless. With a huff, she tossed in her silk sheets to find a more comfortable position, but it was to no avail. With a sinking heart she realised that this would be one of those dreaded sleepless nights.
Another fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, she threw off the covers and padded out of the room. There was no point in wasting the night, just lying there and staring at the ceiling and thinking of her discussion of Romeo & Juliet with Ren. Even though Ren was no doubt sleeping, confined to his magnificent tiger form and unable to engage in human conversation, there were other ways she could keep herself occupied until exhaustion overwhelmed her - preferably some time before sunrise. Kelsey explored the mansion, peeking into rooms she'd previously been uninterested in and discovered - to her delight - a library and another verandah overlooking the haunting beauty of the Indian jungle. She browsed the bookshelf, recognising classic English titles by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and wondered if Mr Kadam had selected them for his own reading purposes. She'd never been much of a Dickens fan, preferring Jane Austen herself, but she flipped through Great Expectations and noticed that, while it was in good condition, it had been well-read and was clearly very loved. She tried to imagine Ren in his tiger form flicking through the book with his paws and tearing the pages no matter how gentle he tried to be, and giggled - then, when she came across a small dog-ear halfway through the book, the image was replaced by Mr Kadam, reclining in chair and tenderly turning the fine aged pages of the novel, reading glasses on his nose and in deep concentration.
Kelsey smiled to herself and replaced the book. It was almost midnight now, and she returned to roaming the house, still not feeling the pricks of exhaustion. Barring the rustle of the trees and jungle outside and her own breathing, it was deadly silent in the house. If she didn't feel so safe here, with Ren and Kadam around, she might have paranoid and frightened by the stillness and the isolation. Instead she just felt warm and cared for.
And on closer consideration, she realised, the house wasn't entirely silent. As she passed the gym, she noticed the lights were on and there was movement behind the half-closed door. I shouldn't, she thought to herself, creeping close to the door. It was late and she didn't want to intrude on a private moment, but the urge to peek and see what Mr Kadam was doing - it could only be Kadam, she'd realised - was too overwhelming. Kelsey peered around the door, and felt her mouth dry.
Mr Kadam was doing karate.
Of course, she remembered their conversation from the morning - it wasn't called "karate" back in the day, but his elegant movements - quick and calculated, like he was dancing - were unmistakable. His eyes were closed and he was in deep concentration; so deep, he didn't notice Kelsey standing in the doorway admiring his figure. It was hard not to admire it. For a man over 300 years old, he looked… well, he looked incredible. She shook her head, confused by her own response to watching him work out. She'd never seen Kadam without his shirt, but here he was - practicing martial arts at midnight, with his shirt off and his eyes closed.
He truly was a master of martial arts - even Jackie Chan and Jet Li in their films never moved the way Kadam was moving right now.
Mr Kadam was built, she realised after another few minutes of staring at him. His shoulders were strong and his arms and legs were muscled, something she'd not given thought to before. But now that she was watching him, she couldn't think of anything else or even yank her gaze away. Kelsey, stop it! she ordered herself, but still was unable to obey. Mr Kadam, completely unintentionally, had mesmerised her.
He moved with such elegance and speed that Kelsey found herself almost aching to learn it herself. If she asked, maybe he would teach her. Oh, now you've gone and done it, she scolded the part of her mind that started imagining Kadam standing behind her, brushing his fingers across her arms and gently easing her into the correct posture. He was so strong, and yet… so very gentle. Like a coursing river.
Finally, Mr Kadam's movements slowed and he pressed his palms together, bowing his head in a moment of what looked like deep self-reflection. She couldn't stop the thought that came next: he looked beautiful. Not just handsome, but somehow serene and intense at the same time, and it stirred something deep inside of her. Kelsey snapped back to reality in that moment, realising she'd been staring, dry-mouthed and… strangely warm and achy, at Kadam for almost half an hour. It was well past midnight now. Flushing furiously, Kelsey scolded herself again and started to close the door to turn away. She definitely wasn't tired now - she was oddly shaken, her heart pounding faster than before and her face and body warm, even for the humid night - but she resolved to go back to her room and pretend to sleep until morning.
Kelsey froze in place at the sound of Kadam's soft, enquiring voice. She couldn't very well run now - he knew she was here and that she'd been watching him. Wincing with embarrassment, Kelsey turned and laughed weakly. "Um. Hi?"
Stupid, stupid, stupid, her mind repeated, but Kadam just smiled gently. "It's very late."
"I… couldn't sleep," Kelsey admitted, feeling utterly ridiculous standing before him in her pyjamas. There he was, muscled and toned and his dark skin glistening with a light sheen of sweat… She swallowed hard. "I'm sorry, Mr Kadam, I didn't mean to intrude."
"You did not," he reassured her, and gestured for her to come into the gym instead of loitering in the doorway. Her face was surely burning red by now, but Kadam didn't say anything about it. "I, too, found it difficult to sleep," he admitted, walking back over to the centre of the room. Kelsey followed him, crossing her arms over her chest to quell the slight tremor of her body. "I often practice the ancient arts to calm myself." He smiled again, this time knowingly, and he tilted his head almost cheekily. "Did you enjoy the show?"
"Very much," Kelsey couldn't stop herself from saying. "It was - you were - amazing. I've never seen anyone move like that."
"Not bad, for an old man," he said wryly.
"You're not old," Kelsey blurted out. "You're…" Handsome. Strong. Attractive. Stop it. "...Very fit."
"I have to be if I am to keep up with Dhiren's active planning," he said, though the humour in his tone sounded almost superficial. "Tomorrow will be another large day for you, Kelsey." All wry amusement, false or otherwise, vanished now, leaving Kadam looking genuinely remorseful. "I am sorry for all that you are enduring."
She laughed weakly. "Well, it's… my destiny, isn't it? I don't really have a choice…" Even as she said it, a twist of anxiety clenched her stomach.
Kadam watched her for a few moments, then stepped forward closer to her - close enough that she could see a droplet of sweat roll down his chest - and held out his hand, silently asking her to take it. She unfolded her arms and rested her hand in his open palm - her heart thudded again, ridiculously - and he clasped it gently. "There is always a choice," he said, voice somehow firm and gentle at the same time. The words warmed her, calming the roiling anxiety in her chest and replacing it with that feeling of safety that was becoming second-nature in his presence. And not just safety, she realised - that blood-stirring feeling was back, putting her mind at war with itself. "Kelsey. Destiny does not mean your free will and autonomy is stripped from you."
"It isn't?" she asked quietly, voice strained even to her own ears. "I know I have to do this. What other choice is there? How can I just turn away?"
He was silent again for a long moment, gazing at her with intensely dark eyes, seeing straight through to her. "In the end, it is always your choice. I will not think less of you for turning away." He smiled sadly. "I know you will not, Kelsey. You are too principled for that, even if it meant your life was on the line. But if it ever becomes too much for you… tell me. I will not let you shoulder this burden alone."
"But you've been dealing with it for so long," Kelsey protested. "How can I ask you to save me when I've barely been at it for a week?"
He shook his head. "I am at peace with my destiny," he said. He lifted his hand to her face, his thumb lightly caressing her cheek. Her face was burning now, set afire by his touch. This is wrong, she thought, but it didn't feel wrong at all. "I will not, however, stand by and watch it consume you. You are young and brave, Kelsey Hayes - I would be most aggrieved if your light was quelled too soon."
She tried to speak, but had nothing to say. Her tongue wouldn't form words and her mind could hardly think straight. No-one had ever said anything like that to her before in her life - no-one, not even Ren, had been so gentle and yet so intense and reassuring. He was standing closer now, or maybe it was her who had moved, and when he brushed his thumb under her eye she realised she was crying silently.
"Forgive me, Kelsey," Kadam said. "I did not mean to upset you."
"No," she said, shaking her head and grasping his hand before he could pull away. With her free hand, she furiously wiped her eyes. "You didn't. I just - I'm sorry. No-one's ever said anything like that to me before, and I - I suppose I -" She laughed softly, closing her eyes, but Mr Kadam's toned chest and kind eyes were burned into her mind's eye, and the warm ache in her body refused to subside. "I'm being silly. I'm just so… I don't understand why I -"
She broke off before she could say anything damning. Kadam waited for her to continue, but she just swallowed and cleared her throat and lifted her chin. "Teach me."
He raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"
"Karate. Sorry, I mean - your martial arts." She bit her lower lip. "Would you teach me?"
After all, she was going deep into the jungle tomorrow with only Ren to protect her. It wouldn't be a half bad idea to learn how to protect herself.
That's what she told herself, at least. It certainly wasn't an excuse to stay in the gym with a shirtless Kadam. At all.
He was looking at her, as if trying to read her expression, then bowed his head and smiled. "Of course," he said, and Kelsey grinned. "Now?"
"Oh, please," she said, then looked down at her pyjamas. "Um. Should I change?"
He chuckled. "If you want, but it wouldn't make much of a difference." He gestured to the weight-lifting bench on the left side of the room, where his shirt was folded neatly. "If I am making you uncomfortable, I could -"
"No!" Kelsey said, far too quickly. Kadam raised his eyebrow again. "I mean… it's fine," she corrected. "Really. I don't mind, I'm not uncomfortable. It's probably easier to move without clothes on anyway."
And that particular statement led to a thought that was decidedly the opposite of innocent. Kadam cleared his throat and looked away, and Kelsey's cheeks flushed deeply again. "So," she continued, wincing a little. "Where do I start?"
Kadam moved behind her, just like she'd imagined earlier, and waited for her nod before placing his hands gently on her waist to straighten her posture. "You must relax," he said, his voice a murmur beside her ear. You're not making it easy, she thought, trying not to shiver at the proximity. For heaven's sake, Kelsey, this is wrong. Ren had completely disappeared from her mind. "Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders eased." His hand brushed against back of her neck. It was hard not to melt into his touch. "You're very tense."
"Too much time bent over a laptop," Kelsey joked weakly. She felt, rather than saw, him smile behind her.
"Centre your balance," he murmured. "Feel the floor beneath your feet. Three points of pressure - your heel, the front ball of your foot, and your large toe. Distribute your weight evenly across all three."
"Like in yoga?"
"A little," he said, amused. Kelsey tried, but it was hard to concentrate on her feet as well as how close Kadam was behind her, his hands still resting lightly on her waist. The urge to turn in his gentle hold and twine her arms around his neck was almost unbearable. "Now, move your left foot forward slowly and bring your arms…" His hands moved from her waist to her arms, encouraging them to rise into a pose. "This is an opening stance."
"Guess I'm pretty far away from chopping bricks in half with my hand, huh," Kelsey joked. Another stupid embarrassing joke - she'd lost all sense of intelligence, it seemed like. But Kadam chuckled softly.
"Just a little." His hand closed around hers, forming fists. "This isn't traditional, but it's important for you to know - when you make a fist, keep your thumb on the outside. If you fold your thumb under your fist when you punch something, often you'll just end up breaking your own thumb."
She hadn't known that. Kelsey adjusted her fists, already feeling better about self-defence. "What am I going to punch, a snake?" she laughed.
This time, Kadam didn't. He was silent, almost sad and contemplative. "Whomever you feel threatened by, Kelsey," he told her. "Weak spots - the throat, the solar plexus, the groin, and the knees. Never underestimate the power of your legs when you kick. You may not think yourself as physically powerful, but I assure you - you are stronger than you think. In more ways than one."
She had vague memories of similar lessons from a self-defence class in high school, but she hadn't paid very close attention, always assuming that she'd never have to defend herself because she wasn't the kind of person to draw attention of any kind. She'd never considered herself physically strong in any way either - until the cave traps. As for other kinds of strength… well, she appreciated Kadam's sentiment but she was feeling very weak at the knees at the moment, even more so when his hands returned to her waist to shift her centre of balance. His body was almost pressed against her back.
"I thought I was learning karate, not boxing," she said quietly. It was supposed to come out as one of her awkward jokes, but her tone was consumed by something more heated. It was completely unintentional and it just confused her more - the loud, noble part of her mind screaming that what she was feeling was wrong and her destiny was supposed to be Ren, while the other part of her mind (and, it seemed, body) was almost trembling for Kadam.
"The martial arts cannot be learned instantly overnight," he replied evenly. "But I can teach you self-defence while I introduce you to stances. You have a good centre of balance."
I'd rather my centre of balance be on top of you, she couldn't stop herself from thinking, and blurted out "Thank you" instead as her cheeks flamed red. For a long time, neither of them moved - Kelsey with her heart pounding and her breath becoming shallower, and Kadam standing close behind her with his hands resting gently on her hips. She could feel the heat radiating from his body, and caught his scent of sandalwood and spice. She closed her eyes, relishing the moment and hating that this was still so wrong, and lowered her arms as she turned around in his light hold until they were almost chest to chest. He didn't step back. When she opened her eyes, she met his gaze. It was darker than usual, more intense, and it just made her tremble again.
"Mr Kadam -" she started to say.
"You may call me Anik, Kelsey."
"Anik." She enjoyed the way his name sounded on her tongue.
"It is late," he whispered. "You ought to rest. I'm sorry for keeping you from bed for so long."
"I'm not tired," she whispered back. They stared at each other, the gym so silent except for the sound of their breathing that Kelsey fancied she could hear both of their heartbeats, pounding together in synchronisation. She wet her lips and his hands on her waist tightened, and Kadam's gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth.
"Kelsey…" he murmured, but she never heard the end of his sentence. She moved the same time he did, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and rising on her toes as his hands pressed into the small of her back, holding her close to him as their mouths met. The kiss was soft at first, tentative and enquiring, but it unlocked something deep inside of her she never knew was possible. It was like her body was set alight, her nerves shuddering for more, for him, and she moaned against his mouth as their lips parted and the kiss deepened. Her hand twined with his hair at the back of his head, and Kadam moved one hand up to cup her cheek as he kissed her.
She could barely breathe, let alone think. Thoughts of destiny and Ren and tigers and curses had vanished from her mind; all she could think about was Kadam, his intoxicating scent and his mouth moving in time with hers. Kelsey moaned again and angled her head to deepen the kiss - but in a split second, Kadam pulled back, letting his arms fall from her waist and putting distance between them.
"Forgive me," he said, voice hoarse and breath short. Kelsey was almost gasping for air herself and had to shake her head to get her thought-processing abilities back on track.
"For what?" she said.
Kadam looked away, taking another step back. "I should not have done that," he said. "I overstepped my boundaries. I - forgive me, Kelsey. I thought I would be better at controlling my emotions. I hope you do not think less of me for my lapse in judgement. It… will not happen again."
Kelsey stared at him wordlessly. Devastation rose first in her chest, stinging her eyes with tears. Was that what she was to him? A lapse in judgement? Then anger rose next, and faster, and snapped crossly, "Well it wasn't exactly one-sided!"
Kadam blinked at her. "Pard-"
"Don't pardon me, Mr K- Anik! You can't just - just kiss me like that and then apologise and say it won't happen again when we clearly both wanted it!"
His eyes widened and he took a tentative step forward, his hand rising towards her. "Kelsey -"
"No, if all you're going to do is call me a lapse in judgement again then - then I don't want to hear it," she said hotly, suppressing the urge to cry. "I'm going to bed."
She turned and fled. If Kadam tried to speak, she didn't hear him - she'd already rushed out the door and through the darkened house to her bedroom. There was no point in slamming doors - she wasn't a child, and she didn't want to wake up any tigers who happened to be creeping around. Kelsey shut the door behind her, sat down on the edge of her bed, and covered her face as she started to softly cry.
None of this made sense. She was supposed to love Ren, not desire the elder man. It was supposed to be her destiny to break the curse, not start to fall in love with Anik Kadam. But didn't he himself say the destiny didn't have to strip her of her autonomy? That she still had free will? Well, her damn free will wanted to kiss (and do other things with) Anik Kadam, and all he could do was apologise and say he had a lapse in judgement when it was more than obvious he wanted her, too.
Well, whatever was between them, it was clear he was just going to be ashamed of it and his inability to 'control his emotions'. And the worst part was, despite her tears, she still wanted him, more than ever. The kiss had left her aching for more, her appetite whetted and wanting his lips on hers again, his hands around her waist and tracing her back, slipping under her shirt -
Stop it! Kelsey groaned and pulled her knees up to her chest. Stop thinking about it. It's not…
Her thoughts were interrupted by a tentative knock on her door. She lept from the bed immediately, heart thudding hard again. It was Kadam - it had to be. Ren was too assertive and demanding to knock so tenderly. It sounded more like a question, giving her complete authority on whether or not to answer.
Stupid man, she thought furiously, storming over to the door. She threw it open, both furious and relieved to see Kadam standing there. He was wearing his shirt again now, to her disappointment, and he looked humbled - ashamed, but not (she hoped) of their kiss but rather his behaviour. His head was bowed, but his eyes - they were as dark and intense as they looked before they'd kissed.
"Kelsey," he started to say, but Kelsey said, "Oh, shut up," and grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him in to her room. He released a small, startled noise, but that was quickly quelled by her mouth on his and immediately his arms came around her again, pulling her close as she kissed him hard. With his foot, he kicked the door shut behind him and Kelsey moaned against his mouth again, parting her lips and exploring his mouth with her tongue, heat coursing between their bodies.
She wasn't sure how they made it from the door to the bed without stumbling all the way, but she suspected Kadam did most of the holding. Before she knew it they were kissing at the edge of her silk-sheeted bed, and with a firm shove she pushed him back so that he was sitting on it. Kelsey pressed close against him, straddling his legs, and Kadam groaned against her mouth.
"Shouldn't we - perhaps - talk about this…?" he asked breathlessly when they parted for air. He gazed at her like a man dying of thirst would look at an oasis - with wonder, desire, and unbearable need. She felt much the same.
"We can talk later," Kelsey gasped, urging him to pull his shirt off over his head. "Take this off. I like you better without it."
Kadam chuckled throatily and the sound just made Kelsey need him faster. He pulled his shirt off and rested it on the edge of the bed, and Kelsey took a moment to admire his physique before straddling him again and kissing him. His hands roamed her back, across her shoulders and down her spine until they reached the edge of her pyjama shirt, teasing the edge and silently asking permission to remove it. Kelsey made an impatient noise against his mouth, which made him smile against her lips, and freed her hand to pull her own shirt off.
Kadam's breathing was as ragged as hers. His hands, so gentle and undemanding but somehow still urgent, moved over her skin, the fire between them burning hot as he explored her body and she explored his. He kissed her neck, tracing her collarbone with his lips and cupping her breasts in his tender hands.
"Tell me if -" Kadam tried to say, but then Kelsey rocked against him and he faltered, closing his eyes and groaning and holding her hips firmly to ground himself. "Tell me if I - if I do anything you do not -"
Kelsey kissed him softly. "Anik," she said, gazing into his eyes. "I want this."
He watched her closely, in that way he always did when he was trying to work her out. Whatever he found in her eyes, he must have agreed with it because he nodded, smiled, and pulled her close against him for another deep kiss. She could feel his desire for her pressing against her, but before she could move her hand between their bodies to explore him, Kadam pulled her down with him to the bed and rolled them over, so that his legs were on either side of hers and he leaned over her.
"You are beautiful, Kelsey Hayes," he said, gazing down at her.
She'd been told by boys before that she was beautiful. She didn't believe any them, mostly because she knew she wasn't - she was plain and forgettable. Her guardians always said that if a boy told you that you were beautiful when a relationship was at "that stage", then they just "wanted something". But this wasn't like that, at all. Kelsey believed Kadam when he said she was beautiful. She knew he wasn't talking about her looks. He meant her.
"So are you," she whispered back, knowing he would know what she meant. He did - he smiled, caressed her cheek with his thumb, and kissed her softly.
"You're certain -"
"For mercy's sake, yes," she moaned, and reached for his pants to get as many clothes off of him as possible. He laughed, murmured something about taking her time, and when she couldn't quite get them off him he took care of that himself, and Kelsey kicked off her own pyjama pants and pulled him back over her.
He explored her first with his hands and mouth, brushing over her body and kissing her shoulders, her chest, her stomach. She trembled when his hands roamed her legs and inner thighs, and he in return groaned and arched into her touch when she held him in her hand. Her name was on his lips when he held her in his arms when he knelt over her. It was almost unbearable - she needed him like she needed oxygen, ached for him. "Anik," Kelsey breathed, and he kissed her softly as he took her slowly and deeply.
It was like heaven. She cried out silently and arched into him, and Kadam groaned and buried his face in the crook of her neck, stilling once they were joined so they could both relish the moment. He trembled above her, skin shining with a light sheen of sweat, and that ache inside of her sharply increased. Kelsey grasped and gripped his hair when Kadam started to move, and she moved with him, and it was just him and her and in that instant it was all she needed. No destiny, no tigers, no curse - just them, together, and their desire. The angle of his body against hers created a burst of friction and she cried out, though thankfully his mouth smothered the sharp sound. If anything, it just served to encourage him: Kadam grinned wickedly against her lips and moved faster, pressing against her in just the right way, and Kelsey groaned and panted and felt herself starting to come undone.
"Did they teach you this in martial arts class?" Kelsey moaned - it sounded more like a keening, desperate sob, a plea for more - and Kadam laughed breathlessly as he kept pace.
"Wouldn't you love to know the extent of my training," he replied, and oh, oh yes, she did want to know more, she wanted it now. He kissed her, and the friction between their bodies was just perfect and she felt like her whole body was on fire, all of her nerve endings lit up and sparking. Kadam's movements became faster, almost losing that steady paced control, and all it took was the whisper of her name on his lips as he made love to her to send her spiralling over the edge. Her cry was stifled by his mouth as pleasure flooded her body, consuming all sense of time and reason and drowning out everything except him. She felt him shudder over her, groaning against her mouth as he reached his climax as well, and she kissed him through it. Kadam moved to the side, rolling on to his back, and Kelsey - still shaking and her muscles weak, nestled close to him, resting her head on his chest.
"That was…" Kelsey breathed, holding him, and he hummed in agreement and pulled the silk sheet over their aching, trembling bodies, offering them a modicum of modesty. "Anik…"
He held her hand and drew it to his mouth, pressing a kiss to the back of it, and she knew that everything she was feeling - overwhelming love, joy, gratitude - was everything he was feeling, too. Nothing needed to be said. They already knew.
"I'm kinda tired now," she mumbled against his chest, and Kadam laughed, the sound a deep rumble.
"Then sleep," he replied quietly. "I will stay." She nodded and closed her eyes, her fingers tracing patterns on his chest. She had to leave with Ren later, she vaguely remembered, and it filled her with a sharp twist of grief, but then Kadam's hand stroked over her hair and she relaxed, pushing those other thoughts from her mind. Nothing else mattered right now but this. But them.
"Thank you, Anik," she whispered, just before sleep began to consume her. She felt his lips on her forehead, his hand on her cheek, and heard him whisper to her tenderly in Hindi. She didn't know what he said, but… whatever it was…