For the next few days, it stayed like a game of ‘Tom & Jerry’ for both Manik and Nandini. Despite living next door to each other, they kept missing each other. Almost like hide and seek.

Their course at Pembroke Pines university was coming to an end. In the final semester, they had opted for different courses. Hence, their timings of coming and going to the classes were different. They met some of their friends in the canteen, cafe, pub but not everyone. Everyone was suddenly busy with their grades, wrap-ups, projects, presentations, assignments, and attendance.

Almost a week that passed like this. Manik started getting restless and needed to see Nandu as soon as he could. Since grade 5, this was the longest they had stayed without talking to each other.

Manik started thinking of ways to meet her. Once, he even stayed outside his house for more than two hours, cleaning his dad’s car, just in a desperate attempt to bump into Nandu and talk to her, oh-so-casually. To his bad luck, she was busy doing a painting at Tina’s house, on that day and came home late.

Frustrated Manik strolled around for a while, craned his neck here and there to get a glimpse into the window that lead to her room and calculated how safe or cool it looked if he just walked into her house, that he had always been to, as a kid and asked to see her. After all, he used to do that when they were simply friends. He didn’t know why it felt so weird now.

He wondered if Nandu was as restless as he was, to meet him. He felt a weird fuzzy feeling deep inside his chest that went through his back and travelled down his spine. It left him smiling and feeling ‘in-air’.

Love had strange ways. It gave immense relief and satisfaction even in waiting and despite every pain. Manik smiled hopelessly.

…………

The next day was Sunday. Nandini received a call from Lauren. All of their friends and few other college mates had planned a small get-together, a volleyball match, and barbeque at the nearby beach.

Nandini had been painting when she received this call. She toyed with the brush in his hand and blushed. Slowly, she placed the tip of the brush on her lower lip and blushed more, thinking about him. Somehow, she knew that this plan was conceived and concocted by the uncrowned leader of the gang, someone she had been aching to see for almost an entire week.

………..

Tina, Sammy, Mark, and Lauren, along with Manik and few other friends of their college met at the beach and it was almost a riot of cheer, laughter, pranks, and food.

Manik was chatting around with everyone when someone asked a question and found him blank. Manik realized that he didn’t even know what they were talking about. His mind was pre-occupied with Nandini.

When Nandini arrived, all eyes turned towards her. She looked gorgeous, in dark pink, halter neck, beach dress.

Manik turned to her too and after that, he couldn’t lift his eyes off her. She was a perfect beach beauty. Even her eyes scanned through the group casually before she fixed them on Manik. He was shirtless and wearing only his denim jeans rolled up till his calves. He had chiseled features and Greek God looks, bestowed on him in luxury. She must have been an idiot to not notice earlier, how stunning he was, she thought. Or maybe she did.

Nevertheless, he was thrilled at the attention given by her even when she didn’t speak anything, verbally to him.

They met with everyone and chatted about their college, last term classes. shared jokes with friends, and gossiped about the new teachers and juniors batches. Only that, they didn’t talk to each other. There was neither time nor opportunity to be alone at any point of time. They were always surrounded by friends.

After a while, boys from their group went to play a game of volleyball with the other group, leaving the three girls to catch up with each other.

Tina and Lauren headed towards the beach for a long swim. Nandini was not interested in swimming so she asked them to leave her for a while. It was peaceful to sit at a place and observe the beautiful ambience around them.

From far, Manik noticed that she was sitting alone, so he excused himself from the group playing the match and ran towards her. She flashed a grin when he came nearer. It was so good to see him after so many days. Suddenly the day appeared brighter. The sun was high and Manik’s smile raised the temperature further.

He came near her and without saying anything, he bent down just close to her, making her nervous. His sweat had a scent that she tried hard not to remember. They had been so close that the scent of ‘him’ had stayed with her. Again, unknowingly that scent hovered over her mind, the moment she imagined him pulling her in his arms and crushing her below his weight.

Such stupid, crazy thoughts had already spoilt a lot of her mind. Now, she decide to be careful about her thoughts, especially around Manik. But he didn’t help either. His bare torso, when he bent just facing her, made her heart skip a beat. His legs and denim jeans, smeared in dry sand, compelled her to run a hand over them to dust the sand away. She fought an urge to touch him.

He picked up his hat which was lying on the beach mat, just near her. She hadn’t noticed that it was his. He looked like a cowboy in that hat. He wore his hat and stretched his hand towards her. She was confused, yet again, but soon she realized that he was pointing towards a small bag kept just near her. It was his. She mentally smacked herself. When she passed him the bag, he unzipped it to take out a hand towel. All this while, he kept looking at her. His eyes stayed stuck on her, holding a look that was hard for her to decipher. ‘God, what does he even want from me?’ She wondered.

“Nice game.” She commented, casually, with a big grin on her lips.

“I won’t go back if you ask me to.” He said in a soft, husky voice, looking at her straight.

His smile and those words sent a queasy rumble inside her belly. He was flirting with her, so unabashedly. And she was loving it. Sporting a naughty smile, she said, “I won’t stop you if you want to go.”

He clicked his tongue and chuckled, “What a tease you are!”

She burst out in a peal of sweet laughter. “What do you want? Do you want me to stop you?”

He rolled his eyes, “Forget it.”

He turned towards the area where the match was being played. By now, 2-3 more girls had joined the group and were talking to Mark and Sammy. Both Manik and Nandini noticed the new girls –  tall, pretty Americans with perfectly sculpted bodies complemented by attractive bikinis. They looked like ‘Baywatch girls’ as Nandini would often refer them as.

The group was waiting for Manik to resume the game. They turned to him and waved him to come back faster. Manik waved back and threw a casual glance at Nandini who was gritting her teeth by now.

Nandini noticed that one of the girls from the new group was their junior and she had joined one of their courses, only recently. She was a big ‘chipku’,a everybody knew, nd people teased her for she had a big crush on Manik. She was quite tall and pretty. In fact this was the first time, Nandini was watching her so keenly. This girl, in a red two-piece bikini, started walking towards Manik and Nandini, to obviously spend some time with Manik.

Nandini grumbled something in anger which Manik couldn’t understand but was almost sure that this reaction was for the girl coming towards them.

He chuckled more and moved just his neck towards her, “Okay, fine… I’m going.”

Jealous to the core, so strongly that she couldn’t hide it despite wanting to. Nandini almost jumped to her feet, “Manik, one moment.”

He stopped. She was dusting her dress by now, walking to reach closer to him. He grinned and focused his eyes deep into hers.

“What?”

She didn’t speak anything though her eyes spit fire in the heat of envy. She walked to be near him, held his cheek with her palm and slightly tip-toed to reach him.

Before Manik could comprehend what was happening, she tilted her chin upwards and slightly lowered his cheek by her hand. He didn’t want to believe what he was thinking was true. He could open his mouth to talk, before that, she kissed him, taking his lips in a sultry smooch.

He wasn’t someone to waste a godsend opportunity. That too, when Nandini Murthy, had taken the step.

He sighed and kissed her back.

…………………..

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