The Marriage Game Page 1

Author: Sara Desai

Genres: Romance

• 1 •

WHEN Layla walked into The Spice Mill Restaurant after yet another disastrous relationship, she expected hugs and kisses, maybe a murmur of sympathy, or even a cheerful Welcome home.

Instead, she got a plate of samosas and a pitcher of water for table twelve.

“There are fresh poppadums in the kitchen,” her mother said. “Don’t forget to offer them to all the guests.” Not even a glimmer of emotion showed on her mother’s gently lined face. Layla could have been any one of the half-dozen servers who worked at her parents’ restaurant instead of the prodigal daughter who had returned to San Francisco, albeit with a broken heart.

She should have known better than to show up during opening hours expecting to pour out her heart. The middle child in a strict, academic, reserved family, her mother wasn’t given to outward displays of affection. But after the emotional devastation of walking in on her social media star boyfriend, Jonas Jameson, as he snorted the last of her savings off of two naked models, Layla had hoped for something more than being put to work.

It was her childhood all over again.

“Yes, Mom.” She dutifully carried the plate and pitcher to the table and chatted briefly with the guests about the restaurant’s unique decor. Decorated in exotic tones of saffron, gold, ruby, and cinnamon with accent walls representing the natural movement of wind and fire, and a cascading waterfall layered with beautiful landscaped artificial rocks and tiny plastic animals, the restaurant was the embodiment of her late brother’s dream to re-create “India” in the heart of San Francisco.

The familiar scents—cinnamon, pungent turmeric, and smoky cumin—brought back memories of evenings spent stirring dal, chopping onions, and rolling roti in the bustling kitchen of her parents’ first restaurant in Sunnyvale under the watchful army of chefs who followed the recipes developed by her parents. What had seemed fun as a child, and an imposition as a teenager, now filled her with a warm sense of nostalgia, although she would have liked just one moment of her mother’s time.

On her way to the kitchen for the poppadums, she spotted her nieces coloring in a booth and went over to greet them. Her parents looked after them in the evenings when their mom, Rhea, was busy at work.

“Layla Auntie!” Five-year-old Anika and six-year-old Zaina, their long dark hair in pigtails, ran to give her a hug.

“Did you bring us anything from New York?” Zaina asked.

Layla dropped to her knees and put her arms around her nieces. “I might have brought a few presents with me, but I left them at the house. I didn’t think I’d see you here.”

“Can we go with you and get them?” They planted sticky kisses on her cheeks, making her laugh.

“I’ll bring them tomorrow. What have you been eating?”

“Jalebis.” Anika held up a bright orange, pretzel-shaped sweet similar to a funnel cake.

“Yesterday we helped Dadi make chocolate peda,” Zaina informed her, using the Urdu term for “paternal grandmother.”

“And the day before that we made burfi, and before that we made—”

“Peanut brittle.” Anika grinned.

Layla bit back a laugh. Her mother had a sweet tooth, so it wasn’t surprising that she’d made treats with her granddaughters in the kitchen.

Zaina’s smile faded. “She said peanut brittle was Pappa’s favorite.”

Layla’s heart squeezed in her chest. Her brother, Dev, had died in a car accident five years ago and the pain of losing him had never faded. He’d been seven years older, and the symbol of the family’s social and economic strength; expectations had weighed heavy on Dev’s shoulders and he didn’t disappoint. With a degree in engineering, a successful arranged marriage, and a real estate portfolio that he managed with a group of friends, he was every Indian parent’s dream.

Layla . . . not so much.

“It’s my favorite, too,” she said. “I hope you left some for me.”

“You can have Anika’s,” Zaina offered. “I’ll get it for you.”

“No! You can’t take mine!” Anika chased Zaina into the kitchen, shouting over the Slumdog Millionaire DJ mix playing in the background.

“They remind me of you and Dev.” Her mother joined her beside the booth and lifted a lock of Layla’s hair, studying the bright streaks. “What is this blue?”

Of course her mother was surprised. She had given up trying to turn her daughter into a femme fatale years ago. Layla had never been interested in trendy hairstyles, and the only time she painted her nails or wore makeup was when her friends dragged her out. Dressing up was reserved for work or evenings out. Jeans, ponytails, and sneakers were more her style.

“This is courtesy of Jonas’s special hair dye. His stylist left it behind for touch-ups. Blue hair is his signature look. Apparently, it shows up well on screen. I didn’t want it to go to waste after we broke up, so I used it all on my hair. I had the true Jonas look.”

Unlike most of her friends, who dated behind their parents’ backs, Layla had always been honest about her desire to find true love. She’d introduced her boyfriends to her parents and told them about her breakups and relationship woes. Of course, there were limits to what she could share. Her parents didn’t know she’d been living with Jonas, and they most certainly would never find out that she’d lost her job, her apartment, and her pride after the “Blue Fury” YouTube video of her tossing Jonas’s stuff over their balcony in a fit of rage had gone viral.

“You are so much like your father—passionate and impulsive.” Her mother smiled. “When we got our first bad review, he tore up the magazine, cooked it in a pot of dal, and delivered it to the reviewer in person. I had to stop him from flying to New York when you called to tell us you and Jonas split up. After he heard the pain in your voice, he wanted to go there and teach that boy a lesson.”

If the sanitized, parent-friendly version of her breakup had distressed her father, she couldn’t imagine how he would react if she told him the full story. “I’m glad you stopped him. Jonas is a big social media star. People would start asking questions if he posted videos with his face covered in bruises.”

“Social media star.” Her mother waved a dismissive hand. “What job is that? Talking shows on the Internet? How could he support a family?”

Aside from her family’s disdain for careers in the arts, it was a good question. Jonas hadn’t even been able to support himself. When the bill collectors came calling, he’d moved into the prewar walk-up Layla shared with three college students in the East Village and lived off their generosity as he pursued fame and fortune as a social media lifestyle influencer.

“That boy was no good,” her mother said firmly. “He wasn’t brought up right. You’re better off without him.”