A sneak peek at Chapter 2 of Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron… on sale March 2, 2021.
Reena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Crap. Not this again. Her captivating stranger tuned out to be just the same as the countless other men her parents had dug out of the Muslim Bachelors “R” Us warehouse. She met his sheep-ish smile with a blank gaze for several seconds before mumbling something about being late and rushing down the stairs. Cute smile, sexy voice, and strong legs could not even come close to overriding this monstrous problem with the new hottie across the hall: Nadim worked for her father, and his presence in her life had been orchestrated by her parents. That was a great, big no. Yet another thing she couldn’t have because of them.
There were two things Reena could always count on during her weekly brunches at home. One, there would be soft puri. Puffy, pillowy rounds of fried flatbread ready to sop up spicy channa and yogurt. And two, her overinvolved parents would attempt to insert themselves into every aspect of her life, all while her younger sister, Saira, managed the impossible feat of being both passive-aggressive and self-involved in the same breath. Reena attended these brunches religiously for the puri, not for the quality time with her family.
And, as expected, the heady scent of strong chai and spices eased her annoyance as she walked into the house after driving the ten minutes while fantasizing about being an orphan. She inhaled deeply as she removed her shoes. This. This was why she decided to come today. Nothing like her mother’s cooking to ease stress, even stress induced by her parents themselves.
Of course, Reena was deluding herself. She hadn’t decided to come to brunch for the puri any more than she had decided to come for the family judgments disguised as scintillating conversation. The word decided implied free will. And when it came to family, free will was nothing but a convenient illusion Reena created for her own sanity.
She operated under the assumption that giving in to these insignificant demands on her life would trick them into leaving her alone with the big stuff. It sort of worked. She’d stood her ground on some big decisions. Like her decision not to work in the family real-estate development business. Her decision not to live at home, despite being single. And her controversial decision several months ago to insist her sister move out of her apartment. But it became harder to make her parents understand she had no interest in any of the approved Muslim men they had been parading in front of her since she reached the age of twenty-five. Including this new overseas model.
But at least the puri helped make up for this emotional torture. She took another from the platter and added it to her plate heaped full of channa masala.
“Reena,” her father said, pouring himself more chai, “I don’t know if I told you, but my friend Shiroz from Tanzania is investing in the Diamond building project. His son Nadim has come from Dar es Salaam to work with me. I’ve put him in your building.”
Dar es Salaam, Reena’s parents’ hometown, was the largest city Tanzania, a country with an active and vibrant minority Gujarati-Indian population. The Diamond project was her father’s biggest real estate development to date—a large retail/ residential building north of Toronto. She knew there were foreign investors from Africa involved but hadn’t heard about the involvement of any flirty beefcakes who sounded more British than Tanzanian.
“I hope you will make Nadim feel welcome. He’s a very smart man. Graduated from the London School of Economics. He’s religious and well-mannered, and has a promising future ahead of him. You two have much in common.”
Proof that Dad knew nothing about his middle child. No one acquainted with the real Reena would call her well- mannered. Her sweetness ran surface-level only. And clearly, her father didn’t know Nadim too well either. The man swore like a Manchester United hooligan and invited her out for a pint upon first meeting, all while holding a six-pack of beer. Reena had nothing against drinking, as evidenced by her low-key hangover most Sunday brunches, but in her religious Muslim father’s opinion, well-mannered and respectful meant no alcohol.
Also, Nadim seemed a bit of a player—winking at her, calling her a goddess, and asking her out before even knowing her name. Reena enjoyed players for a good time every now and then, so long as she recognized what they were. But it was troubling that Nadim asked her out when he knew he was supposed to marry his boss’s daughter (the fact that he un- knowingly flirted with his fiancée seemed beside the point.)
Saira smirked across the table while stirring a green smoothie. “Sounds a little ambitious a match for Reena, don’t you think? He’s probably completely bald, like that architect guy you dug out for her.”
“Saira!” Dad said, his hand up to quiet his youngest daughter.
Wow. Was Dad standing up for Reena?
Reena herself didn’t bother glaring at Saira. Didn’t even glance at her. Just mopped up her channa with that last bit of puri before licking the masala off her fingers. It wasn’t worth it.
Saira was currently smack dab in the middle of a year from hell, and her coping strategy of taking subtle jabs at her older sister seemed to be working for her, so Reena kept her mouth shut. It was the least she could do after Saira lost her job and came home to cry to her fiancé Joran, only to get an eyeful of Joran’s naked ass above his cousin visiting from his home- town in Holland, or something. Saira wasn’t Reena’s favorite person, but she wouldn’t wish that sequence of events on her worst enemy.
“Reena, I know you will be on your best behavior with Nadim, and make the man feel comfortable at home,” Mum said, smiling. “Your father has known Shiroz Uncle since primary school. They are already like family.”
Reena tensed. It was impressive the way Mum could say marry this man, without actually saying marry this man. Even if the proposed groom himself hadn’t leaked her parents’ inten-tions himself, she would have known what they were up to.
“Mum . . . ” Reena groaned. “I just—”
“Na!” Mum snapped. “No more excuses. You’re thirty-one, beti. No more single in the city . . . it’s time for you to settle down! Look at Khizar! He’s having twins! Even Saira was engaged, and when that didn’t work, she found Ashraf!”
“Seriously, Mum? What do you mean, even?” Saira snapped. Mum smiled, patting Saira’s hand. “Shush. Reena is older than you. It’s her turn to find someone successful.” Mum looked at Reena with a proud smile. “Ashraf is management!”
Technically. Reena was happy that her sister had put her life back together and was dating again, but managing a mall kiosk selling prepaid cell phone plans hardly made Ashraf upwardly mobile.
“We’re getting older,” Mum continued. “I don’t want to worry about my children anymore. Who will take care of you when we’re gone?”
Reena had no idea if Mum realized how ridiculous she sounded. This wasn’t Regency England and she was no Mrs. Bennett, desperate to marry her children off well to prevent financial ruin. How the hell could a beer-drinking, douche- bearded, bicycle-dragging flirt be Reena’s answer to avoiding spinsterhood?
“Promise me, Reena. Don’t be like with the other ones. Promise me you will make an effort with Nadim,” Mum pleaded.
Reena forced a smile. “Anything else going on?” she asked. Deflect and distract. Reena wouldn’t make promises she had no intention of keeping.
“I heard on the Facebook site that Salim Shah lost a small fortune on a hotel deal gone bad,” Dad said.
Holy crap, the Facebook site?
“Dad, since when are you on Facebook?” Reena made a mental note to switch her profile to unlisted.
“I’ve joined a new group there. Ismaili business network- ing group.” Keeping tabs on his professional rivals was Dad’s favorite pastime.
But Reena was trying very hard not to be as judgmental as her parents. Time to change the subject again. “What’s that?” She pointed to a glossy black bag on the sideboard.
“Oh, it’s for you.” Mum reached behind her to get the bag and handed it to Reena. “I was in Zipporah yesterday and they had these lovely rollerball perfumes. I bought you a langi langi one.” She handed the bag to Reena.
“Sephora, I’m assuming.” Reena took it and peeked at the small glass bottle in it. It was ylang-ylang essential oil fragrance. Langi langi was the name used for ylang-ylang flowers in Dar es Salaam, and Mum knew Reena had always loved the scent. It was a generous gesture . . . but Reena had to wonder . . .
“You know in the summertime all of Dar es Salaam smells like langi langi. There is even a big tree in the courtyard of the Jamatkhana in town. I’m sure the smell will remind Nadim of home.”
There it was. The gift was to lure the man in with a siren scent. Reena opened the bottle. It did smell amazing.. She’d been to the Dar es Salaam Jamatkhana, the Ismaili Muslim place of worship, and the entire courtyard was filled with huge trees with fragrant blooms. This scent totally reminded her the warm tropical breezes there. She sighed, closing it and putting it in her bag. “Thanks, Mum.”
“Now tell me, Reena,” Dad said, “is there any more news about your company hiring a director of finance? It’s high time you took a management role. If not at Railside, I am sure we can find a company with more growth opportunities.”
Reena finished chewing her channa before answering. “I’ll definitely inquire, Dad, but I have no interest in leaving Railside right now. I love it there,” she said, an enthusiastic smile plastered to her face. It was a lie. She hated her job. In fact, she hated working in finance altogether. But if Dad knew that, she’d once again get grief for insisting on this line of work instead of working in the family business. She wanted that like she wanted to lick a metal pole in January.
Reena had enough of a life outside of work that she didn’t care that she didn’t find her work fulfilling. But Dad would never ask her about that life—in his eyes, only her work mattered. Not hobbies. Not bread. She couldn’t let on she’d been seriously thinking of enrolling in a night school program in artisan bread baking, hoping it would temper the monotony of the day job. That conversation would be weird—hey, Mum and Dad, my finance job is sucking out my soul every day, so I’m draining my savings to take an insanely expensive class to learn to make better baguettes and a really good pain de campagne.
“Well I’d hate to hear that your career is stagnated,” Dad said. “You know, at your age I had—
“Saira has news,” Mum interrupted as she passed the dish of channa to Reena to refill her plate.
Saira smiled. “Mum, I wasn’t going to tell Reena yet! It’s still not confirmed.”
Reena prepared herself to hear Saira’s fabulous news. It would be fabulous—in the Manji house bad news came whispered in hushed voices in darkened rooms, not told at the brunch table.
If told at all. Maryam Aunty had been admitted to hospice before anyone told Reena she had cancer. Straightening her spine, Reena took the bait. “What’s going on, Saira?”
Saira’s brows shot up as her smile widened. “Remember Janice? From high school? She works PR for publishers, now. She saw my posts on the Nourish blog and thought I should write a cookbook. She’s helping me with a book proposal!”
Reena blinked. Her sister was aiming to get published? A cookbook?
“Clean living is so big now, and Janice thinks I can sell my Indian take on it.”
Reena took another puri and squeezed the whole flatbread in her mouth at once, cheeks expanding like a hamster eating a burrito.
“Careful, Reena,” Saira said. “That’s how many puri now? You don’t need all that refined wheat.”
Sage advice from her sister. The puri was now a gummy, doughy ball in her mouth. She took a long gulp of lukewarm chai to wash down the bread before speaking. “That’s great, Saira. Good luck.”
“Yeah, isn’t it amazing! My therapist thinks it will be healing for me.”
Reena drained her chai, wishing for whiskey in it. Healing. That was why she couldn’t be angry at Saira. Saira needed this more than Reena did. And technically, no one in the family knew it was Reena’s almost lifelong fantasy to write her own cookbook. And they didn’t know just how close she’d come. That a small independent publisher had approached her and asked her to pitch a project when her cooking blog was still going strong. But the book deal fell through thanks, in part, to Saira. Reena wasn’t over her dream crashing and burning, and having the very person who lit the match now rub it in her face felt a bit much.
She ate another puri, chewing until the gummy mass almost choked her.
“Reena, you should be proud of your sister. Look how well her life has turned around,” Mum said.
After hitting some serious rock bottom, Reena was glad Saira had a job at Nourish, her favorite health food store. Was glad her depression was being managed with professional help. Even glad Saira had a new relationship. But being glad about Saira writing a cookbook? She tried to be a good person, but Reena wasn’t Mother Teresa.
“Reena, did you hear Khizar is being considered for junior partner in his firm?” Dad asked. No surprise he changed the subject—a cookbook project couldn’t come close to the pres- tige of his eldest child being promoted in one of the capital’s biggest accounting firms.
And that’s when Reena decided she had done her filial duty for the week. Time to get the hell out of this house. She had already heard about Khizar’s likely promotion—he’d texted her about it before he even told their parents. But any conversation with Mum and Dad about her brother’s success would very quickly delve into the type of firstborn hero worship that usually left Saira in tears and Reena wondering if a thirty-one-year-old could emancipate from her parents. True, Khizar always outshined his younger sisters, with a great job, a loving wife and not one, but two babies on the way (trust Khizar to take overachievement way too far). But Khizar also had the distinction of being the nicest of the three of them. Reena tried to avoid the sibling rivalry her parents seemed to want to instill, lest she start to resent the only member of her family she really trusted. She knew her limits—she already felt mighty small because of Saira’s cookbook news. Khizar’s absolute winning at adulting might be a bit too much to pile on top of that heap of self-loathing.
Reena mopped up the final puddle of channa on her plate with the last bit of her puri. “I didn’t notice the time.” She took her plate to the kitchen, rinsed it, and placed it in the dishwasher. “I have to feed . . . Brian.” Crap. That was a terrible excuse.
“Brian? You got a dog?” Saira asked.
Mum snapped her head toward the kitchen. “Keeping dogs is haram in Islam. You can’t have a dog.”
“I don’t have a dog.” Reena sighed. “Brian is a sourdough starter. A rye bread one. Get it? Bri the rye?”
Mum’s nose wrinkled. Reena needed to get out of this house before Dad and Saira joined in voicing their displeasure about Reena’s obsession with bread.
Saira’s face puckered in the exact expression Mum had just sported. Uncanny, really. “I guess rye flour is better than all that refined wheat, but maybe you’re taking this little hobby too far?”
“Noted, Saira. Thanks for brunch, Mum and Dad. See ya later.”
Reena rushed out before someone else could drag her through the mud anymore. And she really did need to feed Brian.
When it comes to bread, Reena Manji knows exactly what she's doing. She treats her sourdough starters like (somewhat unruly) children. But when it comes to Reena's actualfamily—and their constant meddling in her life—well, that recipe always ends in disaster. Now Reena's parents have found her yet another potential Good Muslim Husband. This one has the body of Captain America, a delicious British accent, and lives right across the hall. He's the perfect, mouthwatering temptation . . . and completely ruined by the unwelcome side dish of parental interference.
Reena refuses to marry anyone who works for her father. She won't be attracted to Nadim's sweet charm or gorgeous lopsided smile. That is, until the baking opportunity of a lifetime presents itself: a couples' cooking competition with the prize of her dreams. Reena will do anything to win—even asking Nadim to pretend they're engaged. But when it comes to love, baking your bread doesn't always mean you get to eat it too.