“A rising talent.” —Booklist
Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all—marriage, career, purpose. Until, while working for Doctors Without Borders in a Mumbai slum, his wife, Jen, discovered a black market organ transplant ring. Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.
Two years after the tragedy, Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze. On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim: she received Jen’s heart in a transplant and has a message for him. Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala’s story as absurd, but there’s something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.
Jess has spent years working her way out of a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters—her young son, Joy. She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication.
Delving beyond the surface of modern Indian-American life, acclaimed author Sonali Dev’s page-turning novel is both riveting and emotionally rewarding—an extraordinary story of human connection, bravery, and hope.
Praise for Sonali Dev and Her Novels
“Sonali Dev is a gifted writer who creates characters that capture the heart… I can’t wait for Sonali’s next book.” —Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author
“Exquisitely written... A bright, beautiful gem.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review, on The Bollywood Bride
“Dev's prose captures the rich and unique beauty of Indian culture while telling a story that is complex, culturally accurate, and full of emotion.” —Booklist on The Bollywood Bride
“Vibrant and exuberantly romantic…chock full of details that reflect India's social and cultural flux.” —NPR.com on A Bollywood Affair
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A Change of Heart
By Sonali Dev
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sonali Dev
All rights reserved.
Nikhil's here and I could just die of happiness. Shit, I shouldn't have said that. Especially not now. Please, Universe, scratch that.
— Dr. Jen Joshi
Nikhil's head felt like someone had squeezed it through a liquidizer. Whiskey burn stung his brain as if he had snorted the stuff instead of pouring it down his gullet. He leaned into the polished brass railing, letting the wind pummel his face. The ship, all twenty-four floors of behemoth decadence, was like the damn Burj Al Arab speeding across the Caribbean. And yet the only way to know they were moving was to watch the waves. His fingers released the glass sitting on the railing and it flew into the night, disappearing long before it hit the inky water.
He imagined hopping on the railing, imagined being that glass. Boom! And it would be over. Finally, there'd be peace.
The sky was starting to ignite at the edges, as though the glass of Jack he'd just tossed into the night had splattered amber flecks across the horizon. It would go up in flames soon. All of it orange and gold when the sun broke through the rim of the ocean. It was time for him to leave. The last thing he needed was the mockery of another breaking dawn.
"Sir, why don't you stay and watch today?" A man leaned on his mop, staring at Nikhil from under his windblown hair, that tentative, guilty look firmly in place. The look people couldn't seem to keep off their faces when they talked to Nikhil — the one that announced, rather loudly, that they were terrified of intruding. Because The Pathetic Dr. Joshi with the giant hole in his heart might break down right before their eyes.
"Very beautiful it is, no?" The man pointed his chin at the burgeoning sunrise that had just pumped Nikhil's lungs full of pain, and waited for a response. But while the blazing pain in Nikhil's heart was functioning at full capacity, the booze incapacitated his tongue. He wanted to react, wanted to have a conversation with the man who was obviously starved for it. He searched for words to say, but he came up empty.
Now there was a word: empty.
Still empty after two years.
The deckhand's smiling mouth drooped into a frown. He turned away and started working the spotless floor with his mop. Shit, had he just thought of the man as a deckhand? Jen would have clonked him upside the head for it. Jen would've —
"What's your name?" Conversation was better than the high-definition telecast of memories that kicked off in his brain.
"Gavin." The man looked surprised. "From Goa. In India."
Great. Goa. Jen's favorite place in the whole world.
The steady boat pitched beneath Nikhil's feet. His stomach lurched. The world somersaulted around him. He leaned over the brass railing and tried not to throw up his guts.
He failed. When the heaving stopped, the world was still spinning too fast. He lifted his T-shirt and wiped the foul-smelling puke off his mouth. Gavin from Goa was walking across the deck with a bottle of water in his hand.
Nikhil should have thanked him, should've told him he was fine. Instead he turned toward the stairs. In the light of day he could talk to people, pretend to be alive, but now when the world was as dark as his insides, he couldn't. The stairs dived into the lower deck. He grabbed the railing and stumbled down, landing on his ass on the last step.
The smell of chlorine from the three-tiered pool cut past the smell of regurgitated Jack on his shirt, setting off the churning in his stomach again. He pulled himself up and dragged himself to the elevator, rubbing his face on his shoulder like the snotty, cranky brat he used to be. But no tears came to dilute the unrelenting burn of wanting.
How could it be that he was still here? The sunset, the sunrise, it was all still here when she was gone.
He wanted her back. God. Please. Give her back to me.
"Look what you've done to yourself, Spikey."
His head snapped up. He didn't remember stepping out of the elevator, but he spun around now, his breath loud in the absolute silence. The brightly lit corridor swirled around him. The bloodred carpet, the gold-striped walls, every inch of garish splendor echoed that word.
There wasn't a soul in sight.
He followed the echoing word across the hallway and around the corner, his racing heart dragging the rest of his body along. He turned the corner, expecting to see nothing. Expecting to chase the sound the way he'd been chasing his dead wife's memories for two years.
A shadow clad in black stood all the way across the corridor. A wisp of dark against the overpowering gold of the walls. Bright red strands cascaded around her face and into her jaw in a razor-sharp edge. Hair he knew better than he knew his own name.
He reached out and leaned into the wall, but the ship continued to seesaw beneath him. She held steady for a moment and then she was gone, melting around the corner.
He sprang after her, running until he was standing in the spot she'd been in. Another long corridor stretched out in front of him. It showed no signs of life, only an endless line of doors connected by endless golden molding, and the endless buzz of the lights overhead.
The walls closed in around him, forcing him to stumble forward. His breath ricocheted against the heavily textured wallpaper.
And then there she was again, a flash of red hair peeking around the corner. He ran at it, at her. But his drunken legs tripped over themselves and he splattered flat on his face, arms and legs splayed like a dead arthropod someone had swatted into the floor.
When he lifted his head she was gone.
His face fell back on the rough, deep pile of the carpet with its polythene smell, and everything went black. Everything except the panacean sound of that name.
Only one person called him that.
Jen, his wife. And she'd been dead for two years.
* * *
Nikhil woke up to the sound of drums beating inside his cerebral cortex. And to claws plucking at his spinal cord as if it were a string on the guitar that still hung on the wall of his childhood room in his parents' home.
Pain vibrated down each vertebra, his usual wake-up call. He knew enough not to sit up immediately, because steady as the boat was, his inner boat would pitch and rock like a rabid Jell-O cup until he made it to the toilet and emptied his innards through his mouth and nose. So much for the comfort of morning rituals.
He was in his own bed. Although he didn't remember getting here. He lifted the sheet off his bare chest and rubbed his wife's misspelled name tattooed across his left pec. His running shorts were still in place over his jutting pelvic bones. They had always been prominent after he'd lost his chubby-kid fat in college. But now they were sharp enough to cut through skin. He pressed his hand into the knife-edged rise of bone, the exact place Jen had liked to hold when — He sat up too fast. Bile jelly-wobbled up his esophagus bringing back everything that had happened before he had passed out in that corridor. The over-deodorized smell of carpet. The flash of red hair. He tried to fight it, but his brain traced back his steps until it hit up against that word.
His wife had taken to calling him that after he'd told her how Spikey The Dinosaur had been his favorite TV show in elementary school. He had been a little obsessed with the young stegosaurus who wanted nothing more than for everyone to be happy, who always did the right thing, who had everything a little dinosaur could ask for but was always on the verge of losing it all. Nikhil's mother still had his Spikey toy collection stored in the basement.
When he'd shown it to Jen, she had twirled her fingers in his hair, finding that sensitive spot at the top of his head. Your hair stands up in spikes just like Spikey, Spikey.
He scrubbed his hand over the hair he now kept cropped down to a skull trim, over the scar slashing down the back of his head where they had cracked open his skull. Sometimes that sort of thing took your memories. With him it had jackhammered the memories into his brain. And what did you do with memories of your wife having her neck snapped in an alley while they held you down and made you watch what they did to her?
The newly grown hair scraped like a hundred two-sided needles into his palm and his scalp. Jen would have hated his shaved head. Hated it. She had loved his hair. She had loved every stupid thing about him. For the life of him he hadn't known why.
"What is wrong with you?" he'd asked her once.
"Actually, my weakness for men with pathetic self-esteem is my only flaw," she'd told him. She'd been more than a little pissed at him for asking.
He threw the sheets back and pushed his legs off the bed.
Look what you've done to yourself, Spikey.
She had been so real. The hair framing her face, that blasted hair color he'd hated so much. It had been so damn real. Maybe it was time to stop chugging the Jack. The whole point of it was to shut the memories down, not to bring them to life.
He reached out and gripped the nightstand to steady the endless pitching in his stomach. Then yanked his hand back when his fingers landed on two bright white pills on a writing pad. His thumb found its way to his wedding band and went to work, rotating it around his finger at a maddening skip. Around and around.
He knew the slanting scrawl on the pad. The T flying off the page; the g looping around on itself.
He knew what the note said even before he read it.
Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
His Jen was back.CHAPTER 2
My husband's G-spot is on his head. There's this point right at his crown under where his hair gets all spiky, and rubbing it makes him totally hard.
— Dr. Jen Joshi
One of these days she'd get used to calling herself Jess. Just think of it as a role, he had told her. Of course she thought of it as a role. How else could she possibly do this?
There had been a time when she would have given anything to be someone else, to have a new name, a new history. A fresh slate. Pure again. But there was nothing pure about what she was doing. It was yet another rebirth right into the gutter.
Speaking of gutters, she tried not to think about the smell of vomit in Dr. Nikhil Joshi's room when she had dragged him there last night and left him sprawled on his bed. Maybe pulling off his shirt had been stupid. What if he had woken up? But knowing he was Jen's husband, she just hadn't been able to leave him in soiled clothes. Which was definitely stupid because the sympathy squeezing in her chest was an indulgence she absolutely could not afford.
The good doctor saab's vomit had smelled like the hell he seemed to be trapped in. Booze and bile. Excess and starvation.
His ribs had been so stark against his skin, shades lighter than the burned tan of his forearms and face. The desire to toss his T-shirt into the trash had been strong, but only because she couldn't burn it. Instead she had dumped it on the scattered pile of laundry in the corner of his room, done what she needed to do, and left. Hanging around his kind of pain gouged out all her scabs, and she needed her scabs.
It had been a week. A full week away from her baby. The garish splendor of her shoebox-sized room did nothing to keep it from feeling like a jail cell. All she wanted was to be back in her little flat in Mumbai, with her baby in her arms. Being so far away from him made her feel scattered, as though all of her were parts and pieces floating around without glue. Before this, she'd never left him for so much as a day. Those two days when he'd disappeared, when they'd taken him from her, were something she couldn't think about right now. If she thought about that, she wouldn't be able to get through this.
She picked up her phone. She needed to hear his voice. Calls to Mumbai from the cruise ship were obscenely priced. Good. Because she wasn't the one paying for them. The thought of making the bastard who was paying for the calls pay for something, for anything, gave her a breath of satisfaction.
"Hello, darling." The husky sweetness of Sweetie Raja's voice released some of the tension in her body. Putting people at ease was her flatmate's special gift. She sank into the tiny bunk bed and slipped off her ballet flats, flexing her toes and stretching out her calves. If she wasn't able to dance soon, she was going to explode.
"Hi, Sweetie, is Joy up yet?"
"I'm fine, darling, thank you so much for asking."
"I'm sorry. Everything okay with you?"
He laughed. She could imagine his gorgeous ponytail swaying to his laughter, his kohl-lined eyes sparkling beneath lashes that drove women wild with envy and men wild with confusion.
"You're apologizing? Who are you, and what did you do with my best friend?" he asked, still laughing.
"Ignore me. I'll be my unapologetic bitchy self when I get back. Promise."
The laughter in his voice turned to worry. "Listen to you. You sound exhausted. When was the last time you got some sleep?"
Sweetie knew she couldn't talk about it. He hadn't once asked for details. This was why he was her best friend. He was completely at ease around secrets.
"Joy's brushing his teeth. You know you need your strength for the audition next month," he said.
She mumbled something. She knew Sweetie had pulled every string he could to get her the audition with Bollywood's top dance troupe. A dream she could almost touch after working toward it for five years. And here she was a million miles away, where the last thing on her mind was which bloody troupe she danced with.
He called out to Joy. "Joy, Mamma's on the phone, son. Brushing done?"
Her baby's sweet mouth had to be dripping white foam. The bubblegum smell of his toothpaste lumped in her throat. She always made him count ten brushstrokes for each tooth and he did it as though her word were law. Seven-year-olds were supposed to be willful, but it had probably never even occurred to Joy that he could argue with her.
With every one of her senses she gathered up his voice. "Hi, Joyboy."
"Ten times on each tooth. I counted." Her sweet, sweet baby.
"You sure?" she said as sternly as she could manage. "Because, you don't —"
"I know, I know, I don't want worms to dig holes in my enal-bum."
"Germs, babu, not worms."
She heard a soft smack. His palm striking his forehead and a self-conscious cluck. "Yeah, yeah, that."
"Are you taking good care of Sweetie-mamu?"
"I'm trying, but he won't stop drinking so many coffees. I told him you'd be angry if you found out. But ..." There was a pause, and he lowered his voice to a whisper. "But he told me not to tell you."
She laughed, and the sweet pain in her heart made her whole again. "You keep trying. All we can do is try, remember?"
"I made you something in school. But you don't have to come home soon to see it. Sheila-teacher said she'll keep it carefully for you, okay?"
It took her a moment to respond without letting her voice crack. "Mamma will be home as soon as she can. And you know what?"
"Yes, yes, I know. I know your heart is with me. And yes, yes, I'm taking care of it for you."
"Good, because hearts are important." Her hand went to her chest. The still unfamiliar raised scar pushed into her hand. It was only fair that it still hurt. "I love you, my Joy-baby-boy. Mamma's kissing you and holding you. Can you feel it?"
There was silence on the phone, and she knew he had squeezed his eyes shut, imagining her arms around him. "Did you feel mine?"
"Of course I did. But I didn't hear the kiss."
The smacking of his lips was so loud and clear she soaked up the sound and held on to it.
"I love you most in the world, Mamma."
"Hey!" Sweetie's voice was back on the phone. "What about me?"
"Is he rolling his eyes at you?" she asked, biting her lip.
"Of course he is. And he does it even better than you."
"Thanks, Sweetie." Her teeth dug into her lip. Tears were a luxury she couldn't afford either.
"Thank me by coming home safe."
She made an incoherent sound and let him go. Her safety wasn't the issue. How she wished it was, but it wasn't.
* * *
She watched Jen's Nikhil tuck his white uniform shirt into his white pants and walk out of the clinic. He always seemed to move as if an invisible crane were pulling him forward, always against his will.
Why a doctor had to dress like a cruise ship purser she had no idea, but despite the fact that the uniform was ironed and clean, he managed to make it look almost as soiled as his vomit-streaked T-shirt from last night.
Excerpted from A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev. Copyright © 2016 Sonali Dev. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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