Busted in Bollywood
By Nicola Marsh, Libby Murphy
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2011 Nicola Marsh
All rights reserved.
Look up stupid in the dictionary and you'll find my picture.
Along with revealing stats: Shari Jones, twenty-nine, five-seven, black hair, hazel eyes, New Yorker. Addicted to toxic men like my ex, cheesecake, and mojitos (not necessarily in that order), and willing to do anything for a friend, including travel to India and impersonate aforementioned friend in an outlandish plot to ditch her fiancé.
"You're the best." Amrita Muthu, my zany best friend who devised this escapade, cut a wedge of chocolate cheesecake and plopped it on my plate. "Have another piece to celebrate."
I loved how she always had cheesecake stocked in her apartment freezer but as I stared at my favorite dessert I knew I couldn't afford the extra calories. Not with my destination of Mumbai — land of food hospitality — where I'd be bombarded with rich, sugar-laden treats that I'd have to eat to be polite.
Despite my Indo-American heritage, jalebis, gulab jamuns, and rasmalai are not my idea of heaven. The sickly sweet morsels were a testament to years as a fat kid, courtesy of an Indian mother who wasn't satisfied until my eyes — as well as my waistline — were bulging from too much food.
"Eat up, my girl," Mom used to say, shoveling another mini Mount Everest of rice and dahl onto my plate. "Lentils are strengthening. They'll make you big and strong."
She'd been right about the big part. Still waiting for my muscles to kick in.
But hey, I survived the food fest, and thanks to hours in the gym, smaller portions of dahl(yeah, I'd actually become hooked on the stuff), and moving away from home, I now had a shape that didn't resemble a blimp.
"Shari? You going to eat or meditate?"
"Shut up." I glared at Amrita — Rita to me — then picked up my fork and toyed with the cheesecake. "Too early for celebrations." Commiserations were more likely if this wacky plot imploded. "You're not the one spending two weeks in Mumbai with a bunch of strangers, pretending to like them."
"But you don't have to pretend. That's the whole point. I want you to be yourself and convince the Ramas I'm not worthy of their son." Rita stuck two fingers down her throat and made gagging noises. "Bet he's a real prince. Probably expects the prospective good little Hindu wife he's never seen to bow, kiss his ass, and bear him a dozen brats. Like that's going to happen."
She rolled her perfectly kohled eyes and cut herself another generous slab of cheesecake. Curves are revered in India and Rita does her heritage proud with an enviable hourglass figure.
"You think my naturally obnoxious personality will drive this prince away, huh? Nice."
Rita grinned and topped off our glasses from the mojito pitcher sitting half-empty between us. "You know what I mean. You're flamboyant, assertive, eloquent. Except when it came to your ex." She made a thumbs-down sign. "I'm a wimp when it comes to defying my folks. If anyone can get me out of this mess, you can."
Debatable, considering the mess I'd made of my life lately.
"No way would I marry some stooge and leave NYC to live in Mumbai. Not happening."
She took a healthy slurp of mojito and ran a crimson-tipped fingernail around the rim of the glass. "Besides, you score a free trip. Not to mention the added bonus of putting Tate behind you once and for all."
That did it. I pushed my plate away and sculled my mojito. The mention of Tate Embley, my ex-boyfriend, ex-landlord, and ex-boss turned my stomach. Rita was right — I was assertive, which made what happened with him all the more unpalatable. I'd been a fool, falling for a slick, suave lawyer who'd courted me with a practiced flair I'd found lacking in the guys I'd dated previously.
I'd succumbed to the romance, the glamour, the thrill. Tate had been attentive and complimentary and generous. And I'd tumbled headfirst into love, making the fact he'd played me from start to finish harder to accept. Maybe I'd been naïve to believe his lavish promises. Maybe I should've known if something's too good to be true it usually is. Maybe I'd been smitten at the time, blinded to the reality of the situation: an unscrupulous jerk had charmed me into believing his lies to the point I'd lowered my streetwise defenses and toppled into an ill-fated relationship from the beginning.
"Oops, I forgot." Rita's hand flew to her mouth, a mischievous glint in her black eyes. "Wasn't supposed to mention the T-word."
I smirked. "Bitch."
"It's therapeutic to talk about it."
Morose, I stared into my empty glass, knowing a stint in India couldn't be as bad as this. If there's one thing I hate, it's rehashing the mess I'd made of my love life. "What's there to talk about? We're over."
"Over, schmover. If he came groveling on his Armani knees you'd reconsider." She jabbed a finger at me. "If he comes sniffing around you again I'll kick his sorry ass to the curb."
"I already tried kicking him to the curb and now I'm homeless and unemployed."
Three months later, I couldn't believe he'd played me, thrown me out of his swank Park Avenue apartment, and fired me all on the same day. So what if I'd called him a lying, sleazy bastard with the morals of a rabid alley cat? If the Gucci loafer fit ...
Rita refilled my glass, her stern glare nothing I hadn't seen before. "He'd reduced you to ho status. He paid your salary, your rent, and left you the odd tip when he felt like it."
She stared at the princess-cut ruby edged in beveled diamonds on the third finger of my right hand and I blushed, remembering the exact moment Tate had slipped it on. We'd been holed up in his apartment for a long weekend and in the midst of our sex-a-thon he'd given me the ring. Maybe I'd felt like Julia Roberts getting a bonus from Richard Gere for all of two seconds, but hey, it'd been different. I loved the guy. He loved me.
Tate had strung me along for a year, feeding me all the right lines: his wife didn't love him, platonic marriage, they never had sex, they stayed together for appearances, he'd leave her soon, blah, blah, blah.
Stupidly, I believed him until that fateful day three months ago when someone at Embley Associates, one of New York's premier law firms, revealed the latest juicy snippet: Tate, the firm's founding partner, was going to be a daddy. After years of trying with his gorgeous wife, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
Say no more.
Unfortunately, Tate had tried some schmoozy winking with me to gloss over his 'I was drunk, she took advantage of me, it won't change a thing between us' spiel. I'd nudged him right where it hurt and things had spiraled downhill from there.
Hence, my homeless, unemployed, and dumped status.
I folded my arms to hide the offending bauble — which was so damn pretty I couldn't part with it despite being tempted to pay rent. "Your point?"
"Forget him. Forget your problems. Go to India, live it up."
"And save your ass in the process?"
Rita grinned and clinked glasses with mine. "Now you're on the right track."
"I must be crazy."
"That, too." I shook my head. "Have you really thought this through? Word travels fast in your family."
"We've been planning this for a month. It'll work." Rita lowered her glass, an uncharacteristic frown slashing her brows. "You've been living here. You've seen my mom in action. You know why I have to do this."
She had a point. While every aspect of Rita's Hinduism fascinated an atheist like me, her double life was exhausting. Her folks would be scandalized if they knew she drank alcohol and ate beef, forbidden in her religion. But according to my inventive friend, who liked to stretch boundaries, cows in New York weren't holy and the alcohol helped her assimilate. Likely excuses, but living beneath the burden of her family's expectations — including an arranged marriage to a guy halfway around the world — had taken its toll. She needed to tell her folks the truth, but for now she'd settled on this crazy scheme to buy herself time to build up the courage.
I could've persuaded her to come clean, but I went along with it because I owed Rita. Big-time. She'd let me crash here, she'd listened to my sob story repeatedly, she'd waived rent while I fruitlessly job-searched. Apparently out-of-work legal secretaries were as common in job interviews as rats were in the subway. Didn't help that the low-key, detail-oriented job bored me to tears in my last year at Embley Associates, and I'd been wistfully contemplating a change. Therein lay the problem. I needed to work for living expenses and bills and rent but my personal fulfillment well was dry and in serious need of a refill.
Another reason I was doing this: I hoped traveling to Mumbai would give me a fresh perspective. Besides, I could always add actress/impersonator to my résumé to jazz it up when I returned.
"Telling your family would be easier." On both of us, especially me, the main stooge about to perpetuate this insanity. "What if I mess up? It'll be a disaster."
Oblivious to my increasing nerves, Rita's frown cleared. "It'll be a cinch. My aunt Anjali's in on the plan, and she'll meet you at the airport and guide you through the Rama rigmarole. She's a riot and you'll love staying with her. Consider it a well-earned vacation." She clicked her fingers and grinned. "A vacation that includes giving the Ramas' dweeby son the cold shoulder so he can't stand the thought of marrying me. Capish?"
Could I really pull this off? Posing as an arranged fiancée, using a smattering of my rusty Hindi, immersing in a culture I hadn't been a part of since my family had moved to the States when I was three. Though I was half Indian, spending the bulk of my life in New York had erased my childhood memories of the exotic continent that held little fascination for me. Sure, Mom told stories about her homeland and continued to whip up Indian feasts that would do a maharajah proud, yet it all seemed so remote, so distant.
It hadn't been until I'd become friends with Rita, who worked at Bergdorf's in accounts — and who gave me a healthy discount once we'd established a friendship — that my latent interest in my heritage had been reawakened.
Rita had intrigued me from the start, her sultry beauty, her pride in her culture, her lilting singsong accent. She encapsulated everything Indian, and though my life had temporarily fallen apart thanks to the Toad — my penchant for nicknames resonated in this instance, considering Tate was cold and slimy — the opportunity to travel to India and help Rita in the process had been too tempting to refuse.
"You sure this Rakesh guy doesn't know what you look like?"
"I'm sure." Her smug smile didn't reassure me. "I'm not on Facebook and I Googled myself three times to make sure there were no pics. You'll be pleased to know I'm decidedly un-Google-worthy. As for the photo my parents sent before they left ... well, let's just say there was a little problem in transit."
"Tell me you didn't interfere with the U.S. Postal Service."
"'Course not." Her grin widened. "I tampered with the Muthu Postal Service."
"Mom gave Dad a stack of mail to send. He was giving me a ride, and when he stopped to pick up his favorite tamarind chutney I pilfered the envelope out of the bunch."
"I think so." She blew on her nails and polished them against her top, her 'I'm beyond cool' action making me laugh. "Besides, we look enough alike that even if he caught a sneak peek at some photo, it shouldn't be a problem."
Luckily, I had cosmopolitan features that could pass for any number of backgrounds: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, or Mexican. Few people pegged me for half Indian, not that I'd played it down or anything. In a country as diverse as the U.S., an exotic appearance was as common as a Starbucks on every corner.
"I like your confidence," I said, my droll response garnering a shrug.
"You'll be fine."
"Easy for you to say." I twirled the stem of my cocktail glass, increasingly edgy. "Even if this works, won't your folks fix you up with another guy?"
"Leave my parents' future matchmaking propositions to me." She snapped her fingers, her self-assurance admirable. "If they try this again, I'll pull the 'I'm your only child and you'll never see me again' trick. That'll scare them. I would've done it now but they've planned this Grand Canyon trip for a decade and I would've hated seeing them cancel it, and lose a small fortune, over me."
She paused, tapped her bottom lip, thinking, as I inwardly shuddered at what she'd come up with next. "Though I do feel sorry for them, what with Anjali being their only living relative, which is why I pretended to go along with this farce of marrying Rakesh in the first place."
"You're all heart."
She punched me lightly on the upper arm. "You can do this."
"I guess." My lack of enthusiasm elicited a frown.
"Here's the info dossier. Keep it safe."
She handed me a slim manila folder, the beige blandly discreet. Welcome to my life as a 007 sidekick. Halle Berry? Nah, I'm not that vain. Miss Moneypenny? Not that old, though considering the time I'd wasted on Tate, I was starting to feel it.
"My future as a single woman able to make her own life choices depends on it."
I rolled my eyes but took the folder. "I know everything there is to know about the Rama family. You've drilled me for a month straight."
"Okay, wiseass. Who's the father and what does he do?"
I sipped at my mojito and cleared my throat, trying not to chuckle at Rita's obvious impatience as she drummed her fingernails against the armrest. "Too easy. Senthil Rama, musician, plays tabla for Bollywood movies."
"Anu. Bossy cow."
A smile tugged at the corners of Rita's crimson-glossed mouth. "Sisters?"
"Three. Pooja, Divya, and Shruti. Watch them. If the mom's a cow, they're the calves."
Rita's smile turned into a full-fledged grin. "And last but not least?"
"Rakesh Rama. Betrothed to Amrita Muthu, New York City girl shirking her familial responsibility, besmirching her Hindu heritage, shaming her mother, disappointing her father, embroiling her best friend in deception —"
Rita threw a silk-covered cushion at my head, and thanks to the four mojitos I'd consumed my reaction time slowed and it hit me right between the eyes. Reminiscent of the lapis lazuli paperweight I'd thrown at Tate as I slammed out of his office that last time. Pity my aim wasn't as good as Rita's.
Her scheme might be crazy but I knew I was doing the right thing. India would buy me some thinking time about what I wanted to do with my life.
I dribbled the last precious drops from the mojito jug into our glasses and raised mine in Rita's direction. "To Bollywood and back. Bottoms up."
* * *
"Oh. My. God."
Shielding my eyes from the scorching glare of Mumbai's midday sun, I ran across the tarmac like a novice on hot coals, seeking shade in the terminal yet terrified by the sea of faces confronting me. How many people were meeting this flight?
A guy jostled me as I neared the terminal, my filthy glare wasted when he patted my arm, mumbled an apology, and slid into the crowd. I wouldn't have given the incident a second thought if not for the way his hand had lingered on my arm, almost possessively. Creep.
I picked up the pace, ignoring the stares prickling between my shoulder blades. Were the hordes ogling me, or was that my latent paranoia flaring already? There's the imposter — expose her.
I battled customs and fought my way through the seething mass of humanity to grab my luggage from the carousel. Caught up in a surge toward the arrival hall, culture shock took on new meaning as men, women, and children screeched and waved and hugged. On the outskirts I spotted a woman holding aloft a miniature Statue of Liberty, like Buffy brandishing a cross to ward off the vamps.
I'd laughed when Rita told me what her aunt would use to identify herself at Mumbai airport; now that I'd been smothered by a blanket of heat and aromas I didn't dare identify, jostled by pointy elbows, and sweated until my peasant top clung to my back, it wasn't so funny. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Busted in Bollywood by Nicola Marsh, Libby Murphy. Copyright © 2011 Nicola Marsh. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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