None who knew Pallavi Deshmukh would characterise her as immodest. From the nuns at boarding school to the matrons at hostel, all could depend on Pallavi to conduct herself with dignity. Indeed, she was seen as a refining influence on the girls in her company. So how do I then begin to explain why we find her at Sagar Lake Resort & Casino this evening resembling a high-class escort?
Pallavi’s willowy frame was encased in a clingy dress of a colour which might fittingly be called ‘nude.’ The never-worn dress had been fished out from the suitcase packed one year ago for her honeymoon. Paired with open-toe high heels with red nail varnish peeking through she was sending a bold message. With her long hair parted in the middle, smooth and straight, her green eyes appeared all the more alluring. The fire-engine red lip colour completed the impact.
Not that our Heroine could ever fail to make an impact.
Pallavi possessed the kind of beauty which would have still rivalled every woman in the room had she worn a gunny sack. She didn’t require figure-hugging clothes and carefully-applied makeup for heads to turn. But all this was necessary because this evening was not only about presenting herself in a certain disguise—but also disguising her real identity.
The effect of her costume was exactly as expected: She received some looks of admiration mingled with many looks of contempt. An attractive woman—alone!—in such a place as this, dressed such as she was, was obviously conducting business. The sort of business which concluded in a luxury suite at the attached resort hotel.
These narrow minds were not entirely wrong.
Pallavi was here on business.
But she had no intention to see the inside of any suite however luxurious. She was here to extract information which only one man could provide—and her appearance was designed to make him voluble.
At that very moment, she saw him.
Even more imposing than he had been in the brochure photograph.
He was speaking to an older gentleman. Soon he moved away and then stopped to briefly chat with a couple.
He was attractive, she decided.
But it was not owing to any particular feature. It was his demeanour. His deportment. He carried himself with self-knowledge and self-confidence. That is what made eyes follow him. This attention was not from women alone. Just as many men watched him.
No wonder he visits his casino every night, she mused. Like a false guru, it must be such a boost to his ego to have the glitterati of Hyderabad pay nightly darshan to him at his temple.
He was on the move again. She followed him. He was walking towards a set of doors which parted as he approached. They shut softly behind him—and he was gone.
No! Bappaji, please!—don’t let him leave!
She prayed under her breath, moving quickly on dangerously high heels towards the same set of doors. Pallavi was not the first—nor would she be the last—to summon divine assistance in a casino but she begged her prayer would be granted.
She must speak with him.
Until she learnt why Raghav Rao possessed the ring she had given her husband, she would have no peace.
The two guards did not move to open the doors with the same alacrity for her as they had done for him. In fact, they ignored her. And when she reached for the door they prevented her from entering.
“For members only, madam,” one informed her.
“I’m a guest of Mr Rao.” The lie flowed easily from her tongue.
The guards exchanged looks.
Pallavi took advantage of their hesitation. She said, “Never mind. I’ll call Raghav and he can speak with you.”
Sighing with exaggerated vexation, she removed her phone from her clutch, touched a random button, and lifted it to her ear.
That did the trick.
The men immediately parted the doors and ushered her in.
The members-only space was in stark contrast to the main hall. That vast marble space was shimmering and ornate; whereas this room was all dark panelled walls composed of semi-private rooms. She sensed serious gaming was taking place. There was a palpable hush of risk and assessment in the air. It was mostly gentlemen at the tables but a few ladies were present too. None lifted their heads to notice her as she strode past. Their entire focus was on the cards they held.
Pallavi spotted Raghav standing at the bar. He was alone.
“May I join you?” she asked, approaching him.
He turned at her words.
Not quite the auspicious beginning she had hoped for.
Pallavi had imagined if she dressed alluringly and spoke enticingly she would have met with a more friendly greeting. Men could generally be depended upon to behave as men, but this man seemed entirely indifferent to her visible charms.
Wait!—what if Raghav Rao was uninterested in her gender?
While researching him it had surprised her that a man with his magnetism and wealth was at thirty-five yet unmarried. Of course, that did not confirm he was gay—but she had not found even one photo of him online with a woman on his arm. He appeared always alone or surrounded by men.
And further to her frustration—his left hand was tucked into the pocket of his trousers. She couldn’t see whether he was wearing the ring. If she was unable to confirm whether Raghav had the ring, this entire evening would be a fruitless—and mortifying!—exercise.
However deflating all this was, our Heroine was not so quick to give up.
She ignored his rudeness and climbed onto the barstool.
“I’d love a glass of champagne,” she smiled.
Prepared for yet another chilling setdown, she was relieved when Raghav indicated to the bartender that he should serve her.
She had only had alcohol once before. On the evening Mandhar had proposed to her he had produced a bottle of champagne. It had once been a sweet memory. Yet it seemed fitting to her that she enjoy champagne on this occasion. After all, this evening was all about Mandhar.
“Are you a guest of a member?” Raghav asked.
She noticed his Hindi was stilted. As though he spoke it rarely.
But as her Telugu was worse than his Hindi, she replied in Hindi. “No. I was curious what happened behind these grand doors.”
His dark brows drew together in displeasure. “The guards didn’t stop you?”
“Oh, they did. But I told them I was your guest.” She added a girlish giggle to convey that this was all just a harmless whim on her part and he mustn’t be angry with the guards—nor with her.
“So you know who I am.”
At this she gave a genuine laugh.“You are well aware that all of Hyderabad knows who you are, Mr Rao.”
“Only Hyderabad?” he asked rhetorically.
There. That was it. That was what men and women were drawn to: Raghav Rao’s utter lack of humility.
The bartender brought the champagne and glasses. Raghav waved him off. He uncorked the bottle and poured a glass.
That is when she saw that he was wearing the ring.
The ring he had been wearing in the brochure photograph. The ring which had been given to her after her parents’ death. The ring she had guarded all those intervening years until placing it on Mandhar’s finger at their engagement.
She was momentarily lost in her sad reflections so she didn’t realize Raghav was speaking. The sight of the ring had evoked memories of Mandhar. Their speedy courtship. Their speedier wedding. Then the memories drew dark. His vanishing on their wedding night—and then that most grievous shock of all—the discovery that ended every regard she had ever held for him.
“Oy, madam!” Raghav snapped his fingers in front of her nose jolting her out of her bittersweet reverie. “Ardham ayyinda?”
“One drink and then you’ll return to the main hall.”
“Why? What harm am I doing?” she asked as she took her first tentative sip.
Aah! The champagne was delicious. The floral bubbles slid down her throat and pooled into a rosy glow in her stomach. It was then that she realized she had not eaten anything all day. Besides a hasty cup of tea this morning, she had been too anxious about the evening ahead to eat. It might be wiser to leave the glass. She was not accustomed to alcohol and this was not the time to lose her wits.
Nevertheless, Pallavi took a long sip. It was so tasty.
He did not touch the champagne. His glass was filled with an amber liquid. He drained it and poured himself another from the decanter at his side. The ring glittered with his movements as though calling for her attention.
He said, “Members pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of privacy. They don’t appreciate voyeurs.”
“Believe me—I understand about men and their desire for privacy,” she said. She had tried to make her tone playful and light but it was difficult to speak these words without thinking of Mandhar and all his secrets.
Raghav’s eyes swept her form. “Then you should understand better than most that barging into rooms uninvited is not good for business.” There was no judgement in his tone nor anything vulgar in his appraisal. It was simply a statement acknowledging that he knew what she was.
Or rather—what she wanted him to believe she was.
He tossed back his drink and refilled his glass.
Did he always drink this much?
Perhaps if she waited to interrogate him after he had a few more drinks she might learn more from him.
But—could she risk it?
She suspected Raghav Rao was not in the habit of making empty threats. He had granted her one drink. It was best to not delay or she may be escorted out of the room without having gained any information on the ring.
So she offered a prayer and plunged in. Indicating his hand, Pallavi said, “that’s a distinctive ring.”
His eyes dropped to the ring but he said nothing.
She tried again. “I’ve never before seen a green diamond.”
Immediately she had his full attention. He turned to face her and asked, “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” Pallavi repeated.
Oh! How could she have been so foolish as to not give herself an alias?
“Your name?” he demanded.
“Oh, Mr Rao. Women in my line of work—you know, we never reveal our names,” she said, rather impressed with her ability to improvise.
His lips curled in amusement. “If I’m going to employ you, I’m going to need your name.”
“Anyone who knows what a green diamond is is someone I want working for me at Jayati Jewellers.”