The Marriage Game Page 2

It was the closest to sympathy Layla was going to get. Sometimes it was easier to discuss painful issues with her mother because Layla had to keep her emotions in check. “I always seem to pick the bad ones. I think I must have some kind of dud dude radar.” Emotion welled up in her throat, and she turned away. Her mother gave the lectures. Her father handled the tears.

“That’s why in our tradition marriage is not about love.” Her mother never passed up an opportunity to extol the benefits of an arranged marriage, especially when Layla had suffered yet another heartbreak. “It’s about devotion to another person; caring, duty, and sacrifice. An arranged marriage is based on permanence. It is a contract between two like-minded people who share the same values and desire for companionship and family. There is no heartache, no betrayal, no boys pretending they care, or using you and throwing you away, no promises unkept—”

“No love.”

Her mother’s face softened. “If you’re lucky, like your dad and me, love shows up along the way.”

“Where is Dad?” Layla wasn’t interested in hearing about marriage, arranged or otherwise, when it was clear she didn’t have what it took to sustain a relationship. No wonder guys always thought of her as a pal. She was everybody’s wingwoman and nobody’s prize.

She looked around for her father. He was her rock, her shoulder to cry on when everything went wrong. Usually he was at the front door greeting guests or winding his way through the linen-covered tables and plush saffron-colored chairs, chatting with customers about the artwork and statues displayed in the mirrored alcoves along the walls, talking up the menu, or sharing stories with foodies about his latest culinary finds. He was a born entertainer, and there was nothing she loved more than watching him work a room.

“Your father has been locked in his office every free minute since you called about that boy. He doesn’t eat; he hardly sleeps . . . I don’t know if it’s work or something else. He never rests.” Layla’s mother fisted her red apron, her trademark sign of anxiety. Pari Auntie had given the apron to her to celebrate the opening of the Spice Mill Restaurant, and she still wore it every day although the embroidered elephants around the bottom were now all faded and frayed.

“That’s not unusual.” Layla’s father never rested. From the moment his feet hit the floor in the morning, he embraced the day with an enthusiasm and joyful energy Layla simply couldn’t muster before nine A.M. and two cups of coffee. Her father accomplished more in a day than most people did in a week. He lived large and loud and was unashamed to let his emotions spill over, whether it was happiness or grief or even sympathy for his only daughter’s many heartbreaks.

“He’ll be so happy that you are home to visit.” Her mother gave her a hug, the warm gesture equally as unexpected as their brief talk. Usually she was full on when the restaurant was open, focused and intense. “We both are.”

Layla swallowed past the lump in her throat. It was moments like these, the love in two sticky kisses from her nieces and a few powerful words from her mom, that assured her she was making the right decision to move home. She had hit rock bottom in New York. If there was any chance of getting her life back on track, it would be with the support of her family.

“Beta!” Her father’s loud voice boomed through the restaurant, turning the heads of the customers.

“Dad!” She turned and flung herself into his arms, heedless of the spectacle. Except for his traditional views about women (he didn’t have the same academic or professional expectations of her as he’d had for Dev), her father was the best man she knew—reliable, solid, dependable, kind, and funny. An engineer before he immigrated to America, he was practical enough to handle most electrical or mechanical issues at the restaurant, and smart enough to know how to run a business, talk politics, and spark a conversation with anyone. His love was limitless. His kindness boundless. When he hired a member of staff, he never let them go.

All the emotion Layla had been holding in since witnessing Jonas’s betrayal came pouring out in her father’s arms as he murmured all the things he wanted to do to Jonas if he ever met him.

“I just bought a set of Kamikoto Senshi knives. They go through meat like butter. The bastard hippie wouldn’t even know he’d been stabbed until he was dead. Or even better, I’d invite him for a meal and seat him at table seventeen near the back entrance where no one could see him. I’d serve him a mushroom masala made with death cap mushrooms. He would suffer first. Nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then liver failure and death.”

Laughter bubbled up in her chest. No one could cheer her up like her father. “Mom has made you watch too many crime shows. How about just shaking your fist or saying a few angry words?”

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “If I have to defend your honor, I want to do it in a way that will be talked about for years, something worthy of the criminal version of a Michelin star. Do you think there is such a thing?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nasir.” Layla’s mother sighed. “There will be no murdering of itinerant Internet celebrities when we have a restaurant to run. Things are hard enough with the downturn in the market. I can’t do this on my own.”

Frowning, Layla pulled away from her father. “Is that why the restaurant is almost empty? Is everything okay?”

Her father’s gaze flicked to her mother and then back to Layla. “Everything is fine, beta.”

Layla’s heart squeezed at the term of endearment. She would always be his sweetheart, even when she was fifty years old.

“Not that fine.” Her mother gestured to the brigade of aunties filing through the door, some wearing saris, a few in business attire, and others in salwar kameez, their brightly colored tunics and long pants elegantly embroidered. Uncles and cousins took up the rear. “It seems you bumped into Lakshmi Auntie’s nephew at Newark Airport and told him you’d broken up with your boyfriend.”

Within moments, Layla was enveloped in warm arms, soft bosoms, and the thick scent of jasmine perfume. News spread faster than wildfire in the auntie underground or, in this case, faster than a Boeing 767.

“Look who is home!”

While Layla was being smothered with hugs and kisses, her father ushered everyone to the bar and quickly relocated the nearest customers before roping off the area with a PRIVATE PARTY sign. The only thing her family loved better than a homecoming was a wedding.

“Who was that boy? No respect in his bones. No shame in his body. Who does he think he is?” Pari Auntie squeezed Layla so hard she couldn’t breathe.

“Let her go, Pari. She’s turning blue.” Charu Auntie edged her big sister out of the way and gave Layla a hug. Her mother’s socially awkward younger sister had a Ph.D. in neuroscience and always tried to contribute to conversations by dispensing unsolicited psychological advice.

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