Read an Excerpt: Chapter One | Chapter Seven
Shivani Rai stared at the black velvet box in the palm of Shaan Randhawa’s hand. A sizzling knot churned in the pit of her stomach. She hoped it wasn’t what she thought it was. Please, no. A lump formed in her throat.
“Shivani.” Shaan smiled, knees bent, as he sat on the carpet in his bedroom. He took a gigantic breath and his eyes sparkled.
Shivani leaned forward in Shaan’s bed. Her blood turned cold. A tornado of questions whirled in her head: Was he really going to say it? Was she even ready? Was this the right time?
“Will you marry me?” The words finally shot out of his mouth. He flicked open the box to reveal a sparkling diamond ring.
“Um, oh my God. Shaan,” she whispered, her throat suddenly parched. She wanted a sip of water desperately. Scratch that. Make that a gallon.
A pain shot up her right arm and she instantly rose from his bed. Her hands trembled. She inched forward and before her brain could register, her foot landed on a half-filled water bottle and she tumbled face forward into Shaan’s lap. The weight of her body knocked the black velvet box from his hand and it whirled across the room, the diamond ring hurling to the other end of the bedroom.
His hand held knots of her long curly hair. She gasped for air. She squeezed her eyes shut, afraid to open them. Her face grew hot.
“Are you okay, Shivani?” His eyes widened.
Her eyes fluttered open and she lifted her head to peer at his face. Her cheeks grew hot. She was lying like a baby cradled by his mother – except she was being cradled in her boyfriend’s arms – while being proposed to by her boyfriend. That must have been a first in the history of proposals.
“Sorry, Shaan. That water bottle,” she said, trying to move her face from his lap.
He held her hands and pulled her up. She touched her hair, attempting to calm the frizzy bird nest on top of her head.
A glint cut across Shaan’s eyes. Uneasiness flowed through her body again. An urge to throw up grasped her.
He grabbed both her hands and stared into her eyes. She gazed back at him, into his deep brown eyes, her stomach curdling.
“Baby, now that we have you out of my lap, will you please answer my question?” He smiled.
She was trapped. Her eyes scanned him from top to bottom. Black boxers hugged the bottom half off his body. His tanned toned chest glistened in the morning sun. His black tousled hair made him look adorable. He was thirty years old, but suddenly, he looked like the adorable guy she had met in college.
Her breath felt thick as she exhaled and her throat tightened. What choice did she have?
“Um…sure, Shaan,” she muttered.
Shaan’s eyes lit up and he hugged her tightly. That sharp piercing knot was forming again in the pit of her stomach. He loosened his grip on her and moved his face closer to hers. Suddenly, she floated back to the time to when Shaan had asked her to be his girlfriend and they kissed for the first time. His brown eyes had sparkled and his face had moved closer, his thick breath clouding the space between their hungry lips. When his lips had pressed against hers, an astonishing burst of energy had pulsed through her body, shocking and invigorating her at the same time.
Her mind snapped back to reality and she looked down at his strong lips. She shuddered as she watched them close the space and finally press against hers. Instinctively, her body made the decision to surrender to his electrifying warmth. Her eyes flapped shut. She would deal with the panic of getting married later.
Shivani tore open her purse and dug out the keys from her stuffed purse. With the keys held tightly in her hands, she stood outside the main door of her family’s home lost in thought.
She took a step forward and aimed the key at the door, but stopped midway. The keys slipped from her hands and fell with a thud on the ground.
What should she tell her parents? Should she tell them Shaan proposed to her? Or should she act like nothing happened? But what if Shaan already told her parents? She sighed. She loved Shaan and in the deep corners of her heart, she’d wanted him to propose. Why wouldn’t any girl want that? He was thirty years old with several notches of accomplishment already on his career belt. He was a successful investment banker working for a leading hedge fund in San Francisco. He came from a wealthy upper-class Indian family where everyone seemed to be rapidly climbing the ladder of success. He had a younger sister, Sandhya, who had just graduated from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley School of Law. His parents owned a mobile development company in Silicon Valley which produced indoor maps and was in the middle of being bought out by a few corporate giants. In short, his family bred success.
The door swung suddenly open and two startled eyes riveted on her.
“What the hell?” her brother, Abhay, yelled.
She immediately jumped, realizing she had been standing in front of her own home’s entrance for a couple minutes.
“Hi, Abhay,” she said, leaning down to pick up the keys.
“You know that thing over there? The round button. It’s for ringing the door bell when you want to enter someone’s house.” He chuckled, pointing at the door bell.
Shivani rolled her eyes. “I was just about to ring the door bell.”
“Are you sure, big sis?” He arched his eyebrow in jest.
She punched him playfully in the arm.
“Ouch,” he yelped.
“You deserved it,” she muttered and entered the house.
“Mom’s made your favorite meal today. Go on. She’s been raving about you all morning.” He shook his head.
“That’s nothing out of the ordinary. Mom always raves about me.” She smiled.
“Shut up. It’s only because you moved out and she misses you.”
Abhay stood with a bag of empty juice cartons. Her twenty-two year old brother was wearing a crisp white T-shirt and comfortable faded blue jeans. He was in his final year at Santa Clara University and was majoring in business administration. His lips curled into a mischievous smile. He had not changed once since his childhood. Her mother often joked how Shivani had the face of an angel, while her brother had the face of a devil.
As a child, Abhay was reckless and often broke one of their mother’s precious glass bowls or cups, for which her mother fumed at him. Despite multiple warnings, Abhay was playing ball in the house again and ended up breaking another one of her mother’s glass bowls. Then, at the age of seven, he had masterminded an operation to throw the shattered pieces into the trash, without their mother finding out what had occurred. As well, he had managed to convince Shivani to hurl the broken pieces into a white trash bag, while his gaze lurked around the family room, detecting any sign of their mother’s footsteps. Then he commanded her to take his spot of watching the area while he scrambled off to throw the bag filled with glass in the trash can in their backyard.
“Shivani, if she asks you where I am, just smile and shrug your shoulders,” he had offered in way of an excuse. “If she insists, just say I’m studying in my room.” His eyes had twinkled.
She shook her head. A soft chuckle escaped her mouth. How little had changed in her brother even after all these years.
“In your dreams, baby brother,” she shot back.
Abhay disappeared to throw away the empty juice cartons, while she trudged inside to the kitchen. The aroma of fresh Indian cuisine filled the air. She smiled. Her mother stood in front of the stove, stirring a simmering pot of rajma. Rajma was a popular North Indian vegetarian dish consisting of red kidney beans in a thick gravy made with several whole Indian spices. It was eaten with rice or roti, a South Asian bread made from stone ground, whole meal flour.
“Surprise!” Shivani sauntered over and wrapped her arms around her mother.
“God, you scared me, Shivani!” her mother uttered.
Shivani let go of her embrace and her mother twirled around to face her. Her mother was still beautiful as ever, with porcelain milky skin that glowed even at her age and luscious straight shoulder-length hair. Her eyes were small, but gave her the look of being half-asleep. Her mother had a slim figure that she maintained by eating right and speed walking daily. She wore an elegant satin light pink blouse and black fitted pants that stopped at the ankles.
“Beta, I made your favorite, rajma,” her mother said. “Beta” was a term in Hindi used endearingly for child.
“I know, thank you, Mother!” Shivani beamed, ogling at the pot of hot red rajma.
“Of course. You know I’m the best.” Her mother smiled.
“Not the best,” she said.
Her mother threw her an icy glare.
“You’re the bestest!”
“That’s not a real word, beta. Look it up in the dictionary,” her father yelled.
Shivani turned around and spotted her father making his way towards the refrigerator. He swung the refrigerator open and pulled out a tray of cheesecake.
“Stop it! Put that back,” her mother yelled.
“Just one bite. Please,” her father begged, his fingers already working the plastic wrap around the plate.
“Shivani, go over there and grab it from him. It’s almost dinner time and he’s going to stuff himself with cheesecake.”
“Daddy! Please put it back.” Shivani walked towards her father.
Not a word had reached his ears. He was the king of ignoring. He processed only the information he wanted to hear. If it didn’t suit his needs, he simply ignored her and her mother. His eyes greedily gawked at the cheesecake.
“Freeze! You’ve just been charged with the illegal possession of a cheesecake, sir,” Abhay squawked, entering the kitchen.
Her father looked up. “Abhay, I’m putting it back.”
Shivani rolled her eyes.
Abhay flung his arms into the air and positioned his hands like he was holding a gun. “Put the cake down, sir. I said put the cake down,” his voice boomed.
Her mother shook her head. “See what I have to deal with everyday at this house.”
Shivani laughed. “I miss these family episodes.”
She indeed missed these crazy times at home. Her brother with his mouth that ran faster than the speed of light and her father who lived for food.
Her father slid the tray of cheesecake back into the refrigerator. Her mother was right. He did need to shed a couple pounds. Dangling her head, she studied him carefully. More like a couple fifteen to twenty pounds. His belly seemed to be growing like a pregnant woman’s and, despite his increasing weight, he had no control over his eating. Not to mention the zero minutes of exercise her father performed every morning.
Suddenly, she spotted her mother steal a lingering glance at her left hand. Her body tensed up. Did she already know? Shivani tucked her hand behind her. Her heart thumped and her breathing quickened.
“Dinner is ready, Shivani. Help me serve the food.”
“Okay, Mom,” she replied, her eyes downcast.
“How’s Shaan?” her mother asked suddenly.
“He’s good. Busy with work.”
“Of course. He works for one of the best firms.”
“True,” Shivani replied. She opened the cabinets and pulled out plates and cups, trying to act casual, hoping her mother wouldn’t hurl any more questions about Shaan.
“Shivani beta, do you have something you’d like to share?” her mother finally said, looking at her left hand again.
“Um, maybe.” She gulped.
“Maybe news that you just got engaged!” her mother exclaimed.
“Yes, Mom. I was about to tell you. I wanted to wait until after dinner,” she admitted, striding over to the dining table to place the plates and cups, her eyes suddenly focused on the table cloth.
“Where’s your ring? I’ve been waiting forever for that boy to propose to you.” Tears streamed down her mother’s cheeks.
An overpowering tremor of guilt pricked her chest. She shouldn’t try to hide this news from her mother. She knew better than that. Shaan shared a great relationship with her parents and brother. Shaan had probably called her parents for permission. A lump formed in her throat. Was something wrong with her? How could she even want to hide such news from her parents?
“Krishnaraj, please come here,” her mother called to her father. “And Abhay, come here. Shivani’s engaged!”
Abhay and her father walked closer to the stove where her mother was flinging her hands in the air wildly.
“To a guy, right?” Abhay asked.
Shivani forced a smile. “Shut your mouth.”
Her father hugged her and whispered into her ear, “I’m very happy, beta. Congratulations.”
Shivani wrapped her hands around her father’s back. The queasy feeling was returning and an ocean of suffocation enveloped her being.
After her father let go, her brother came and hugged her. “Congratulations, Sis. Shaan told us yesterday that he was going to pop the big question today.”
Her mother chimed in, nodding, “We knew, beta. Now I can be a grandmother!”
“Mom, calm down. Let me first get married,” Shivani muttered.
Her mother waved her hands in the air again and hugged her tightly. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“Come, let’s eat dinner and celebrate this happy occasion. And where’s your ring?” Her mother examined her left hand again.
“Um, I forgot it at my apartment. I’ll bring it next time. Let me go wash up,” Shivani replied and slipped away from the kitchen. She padded across the hallway to the restroom.
She flicked on the lights and turned on the faucet, the back of her eye lids burning. A river of water surged below and she dug her hands into the cold water and sprinkled it into her eyes. The cutting coldness soothed her eyes. A knotty tension jabbed her throat and her breath became thick and deep. She loved Shaan, but she did not feel ready to get married just yet.
Shivani yawned and got up from her desk, her coffee in her hand. She padded across the long hallway to the office break room.
“Hey, there,” said Samantha, a pretty curvy lady.
“Hi, there.” Shivani smiled. “How’s the mouse?”
In her early thirties, Samantha was married and had a two year old son. Yet to look at her, she did not appear a year above twenty-seven. Her hair was styled impeccably with not a strand out of place and her makeup was flawless.
Samantha giggled and pulled out a lipstick from her purse. “Mouse? Are you kidding me? Today, I saw him patrolling the office like Kevin James in Mall Cop. He walked so close to our cubes trying to sneak a look at our computers, I could hear his heart beating.”
Shivani poured coffee into her mug. “God! You should have stuck your feet out and made him trip.”
Mouse was the nickname Samantha and she had come up for their boss. He was a short Indian man with a moustache who kept tight control of the operations in the office. Her company was a small company of about 120 employees and he was the CEO. His real name was Prakash, but he walked around in the office with short, brisk steps like a mouse. Not a peep could be heard from him while he swept the hallways of their office.
“I wish. Come on, add a shot of vodka into your coffee. We got that weekly meeting in ten minutes.” Samantha winked.
“One of these days, I sure will.” Shivani winked back, ripping open a bag of Splenda to pour into her mug. She picked up her hot coffee and strolled into the oval shaped conference room. “Hi, Prakash,” she said, placing her mug on the table.
“Hi, Shivani,” Mouse said, staring into his smart phone.
She exited the conference room, walked back to her cubicle, and picked up her laptop and notepad. Lugging the items in her hands, she hobbled to the conference room again in her three-inch brown heels.
The large table was filled with the sales team who were all in their late forties or early fifties. Sales was responsible for bringing new business to the company and fostering the relationships they already had with clients across the financial, high-tech, healthcare, and logistics industries. They were all friends of the CEO and had worked together in their previous company. The majority of them were lazy with no interest in stimulating new business as this was simply the last step in their long career before retirement. Their children were in college and their backgrounds were in engineering, not a drop of interest in sales.
Shivani pulled up the weekly spreadsheet on her laptop and peered at the projector.
She clasped her hands together. “Hi, everyone, good morning. We’ll get started.”
Samantha sat next to her and her latest Victoria Secret perfume filled the air. Shivani led the weekly meetings on the status of the requirements and posed questions to the sales team obtaining updates and pushing them to present the candidates to the clients she and Samantha submitted to them. These meetings were total bullshit. Everyone in the office knew that. Nonetheless, Shivani worked hard to prove herself at the company, putting in long hours and ensuring submittals resulted in confirmations. Confirmations meant candidates submitted were selected and were to work at the client site. That meant Mouse would make money and be happy. She could see dollar signs flash in his eyes. Her appraisal was right around the corner and she hoped Mouse would see her hard work and promote her to lead recruiter.
She went through the spreadsheet, addressing each sales team member’s clients, and Samantha interjected her own comments when necessary.
“Now I believe we’ve covered everyone, except for Aman.” Shivani looked up from the computer screen at Aman.
Aman had a bulging stomach and looked like he was going to collapse on the table. At the mention of his name, his ears perked up. Shivani eyeballed the rest of the team who were practically sleeping with their eyes open.
“Yes, my turn. Any update on the Maxis Healthcare requirement?” Aman asked.
Careful, Shivani. Aman was not only a part of the sales team but shared a close relationship with the CEO. It was office gossip that he had invested money into the company and that was why he was able to get away with ridiculously low amounts of work. Maxis Healthcare happened to be one of their largest accounts in the Chicago area. Mouse would be concerned about this account. It was a long-term five year project and her company had been exclusively in charge of handling all the phases of development and implementations. The cash registers would be ringing for Mouse. The need to recruit the entire team was their number one priority.
“Samantha and I reached out to many candidates. Not only on Dice, Monster, but on LinkedIn and our network of connections. So far, no luck,” Shivani said.
“But Chicago is a large metropolitan city. It should not be difficult to find .Net developers there,” Aman drawled, replacing the sleepy look with an alert one.
Shivani nodded. “We’re coming across candidates interested. But the salary expectation is much higher. Any flexibility there?”
“Aman,” Samantha chimed in and nodded. “I’m talking to two candidates at the moment. I’m encountering the same challenge. Their salary expectation is ten to fifteen thousand higher than what we’re looking at. One is local and other is willing to relocate to Chicago.”
Aman frowned. “The market for .Net developers in Chicago is less expensive than the Bay Area. Ten years ago, this was the salary most of them expected.”
Shivani found herself breathing heavily and wishing her hand grew long enough like an octopus’s so it could smack Aman in the face. Um, ten years ago and today is a huge difference. Damn it. They were not a brand name company like Google that had candidates lined up. Mouse stared at her and tapped his fingers fifty miles an hour on the table. It was his signature trait when he was nervous.
Shivani ran a hand through her long curly hair that hung loosely over her shoulders.
“Sure, Aman. We’ll try again today,” she muttered.
Aman pushed his heavy body up his chair. “Thank you.” He turned his attention to Prakash who continued tapping the table so hard that the wood would split. “Today, the vice president of Maxis Healthcare called me again. He mentioned this was very urgent and was counting on us to bring top-notch resources and talent to the project. It was a two hour long conversation.”
Shivani wanted to roll her eyes but maintained her composure. Aman was rightly named “Bullshitter” by her and Samantha. He talked big, but rarely walked the walk. He claimed to know everyone in the business, especially senior management and how they were on such back-slapping terms.
Prakash stopped tapping and looked at her. “Shivani, let’s focus all our efforts on Maxis today and tomorrow. Everything else is second priority.”
The meeting ended. She and Samantha left the conference room together.
Samantha nudged her on the shoulder and said in a low tone, “Did you see Bullshitter?”
Shivani nodded her head. “Hell, yeah. I wonder what era he lives in that he thinks people will come for the salary he’s proposing. Freaking peanuts!”
“Come, let’s get some shots of vodka,” Samantha cleared her throat. “Um, excuse me, I mean coffee.”
Shivani laughed. “Always the professional.”
Shivani kicked her feet on the coffee table and stared at the television screen like a zombie. Her eyes traveled to the empty cream walls and boxes of kitchenware resting on the wooden dining table. She still needed to decorate the apartment that she had moved into two months ago. It was not a swanky place like Shaan’s, but it was something she could finally call her own home where she could live the life of an independent professional working woman. She shared the apartment with another girl who was a software engineer by day and professional partier by night. She had thought her best friend, Carmen, was the wacky party animal, but her roomie stumbled home each night after one too many drinks. Shivani didn’t mind it, as long as she didn’t bring the partying home and besides, each evening after work the place was all hers. Though her parents didn’t like her decision to move out of the house, they supported her. Her parents were open-minded on many matters, but they still held a conservative mindset when it came to living on her own. Soon, she was going to be twenty-five and she wanted to enjoy and experience living as a working woman who had her own place. Lately, evenings after work were spent lazing at her apartment or going for dinner dates with Shaan. But today, her body was so tired that she didn’t even want to move a limb.
Her phone suddenly vibrated.
She swooped the phone from the table. “Shaan” flashed across the screen. A smile plastered across her face. It had been a long, grueling day and talking to Shaan provided relief.
“Hi, Shaan,” she said into the receiver.
“Hi, baby. Or should I say fiancé?” Shaan drawled.
Her ears perked up and she removed her feet from the coffee table and planted them on the carpet.
She let out a nervous laugh. She didn’t feel ready to be married just yet. Secretly, she wanted to enjoy her freedom a little longer. She wanted to do so many things, like start her own company and become an independent successful woman. Fear pricked in her heart. What if Shaan expected her to bow down to his expectations? What if his family expected her to bow down? She remembered how his mother hadn’t liked Shivani initially because she wasn’t an engineer or doctor. Over time though, the woman had warmed up to her as Shivani started to spend more time at his house, helping her cook meals and bob her head up and down in agreement at Mrs. Randhawa’s endless gossiping, even though Shivani had no idea who she was talking about. Being Shaan’s girlfriend and becoming his wife were two different matters. And she had no idea how his parents felt about that.
It was not as if she did not want to marry him. She did. Most girls had the opposite problem. Half the battle was getting their boyfriend to propose, and here Shaan had already done it. But was two years the cutoff date for a relationship? Was a relationship like canned goods in that it came with a set expiration date? She imagined a leprechaun waving his hands across in the air with a flag that contained this emblazed in bold red: “Two years, Shivani. Time to get hitched.”
She shook her head. Get a grip on yourself. She did not know what was more disturbing, that she just imagined a leprechaun demanding her to get married or that she did not just want to get married.
“So you told my parents before you were going to propose?” Shivani asked.
“Of course. I wanted to get their permission first. How did they feel? You went home yesterday, right?”
“They were happy,” Shivani responded. “How did your parents feel?”
“They were thrilled,” Shaan said. “And you?” he then suddenly asked.
Beads of perspiration rolled down her neck. Her heart began to race again. “Um, Shaan, yes, I am, but-”
“I thought so, baby. You’re gonna turn twenty-five this Saturday. How would my special lady like to celebrate the day?”
“Hmmm. Dinner with you and a couple friends?”
“Shucks! I was hoping it was just gonna be you and me.” His voice took a hushed turn.
“I haven’t seen my friends in a while. But afterwards, I’ll spend the night at your place. I’ll be too buzzed,” she replied in a naughty tone.
“Would you have anything naughty in mind?”
Shivani laughed. “Naughty, but not what you’re thinking.”
“Come on, Shivani. We’re engaged now,” he insisted.
“We’ll have some fun. But let’s wait until-”
“Not yet ready? You’re getting married to me, God sake!” Shaan yelled into the phone.
She frowned. Her stomach knotted. Since when did the conversation steer in this direction? She’d known Shaan from childhood. Their parents were family friends and they’d seen each other at parties frequently and grew up together. They had both attended the University of California, Berkeley. She had been there for her undergraduate education, while he was there for his MBA. In her university days, she had dated a bunch of guys. She wanted to have fun and experience what dating was like, but she had never culminated a relationship.
When she returned home after graduation, she began attending parties among her family friends again and each time, she spotted Shaan. They caught up on one another’s lives, then moved to friendship, and finally to a relationship. As boyfriend and girlfriend, it had been officially two years. Throughout that time, they kissed and crossed different bases, but never reached fourth base.
“Shaan, please. Not yet,”
“I’m probably the only thirty year old guy who doesn’t have sex with his girlfriend,” he grumbled.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. Her eyes became moist and a heaviness crawled in her chest.
“And you’re the only twenty-five year old virgin!” he exclaimed and hung up the phone.
Why was she nervous about getting married to him? This was a nice little reminder. She picked up the diamond ring lying on the coffee table and looked at it hard for a minute. After carefully placing it back on the table, she twisted her body on the sofa and closed her eyes to bitter slumber.