Excerpt for If I Say Yes (Love & Alternatives #1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

IF I SAY YES

Love & Alternatives Book 1

NEHA YAZMIN


Copyright 2017 Neha Yazmin

Smashwords Edition


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This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.


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Books by Neha Yazmin


Contemporary Romance:

If I Say Yes (Love & Alternatives #1)

If I Say No (Love & Alternatives #2 ~ Coming Soon!)

~

Chasing Pavements (Soulmates Saga, Book 1)

Make You Feel My Love (Soulmates Saga, Book 2)

Someone Like You (Soulmates Saga, Book 3)


Paranormal Romance:

Poison Blood, Book 1: Revelation

Poison Blood, Book 2: Absolution

Poison Blood, Book 3: Prophecy

Poison Blood, Book 4: Apocalypse


Witch’s Blood, Book 1 (Coming Soon!)

Witch’s Blood, Book 2 (Coming Soon!)


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About the Author

Neha Yazmin graduated from University College London (UCL) with a degree in Psychology and now lives in London. She writes both contemporary and paranormal romance. She is currently working on a number of projects.


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Contents


PROLOGUE

Part One (Chapter 1-4)

Part Two (Chapter 5-16)

Part Three (Chapter 17-27)

Part Four (Chapter 28-35)

Part Five (Chapter 36-41)

Part Six (Chapter 42-51)

Part Seven (Chapter 52-60)

Part Eight (Chapter 61-66)

EPILOGUE

About the Author

Books by Neha Yazmin

Questions with the Author

Chasing Pavements - Blurb

Chasing Pavements - Sneak Peek

Poison Blood, Book 1: Revelation - Blurb

Poison Blood, Book 1: Revelation - Sneak Peek



PROLOGUE


Shell


You know the story where the girl-next-door-type is getting married to a jerk – and she’s only marrying him because she’s given up on finding Mr. Right – only for the man of her dreams to walk into her life days before the wedding?

This is not that story.

How about the story where the girl is engaged to the nicest guy in the world, but the appearance of a mysterious hunk rocks her world off its axis and makes her wonder if she should select sexy instead of sweet?

This isn’t that story, either.

My story does however, include a man I’m going to marry and a man that…

You’ll find out soon enough…




Part One




Chapter 1: Shell


God, I probably look terrified.

I am.

I’m afraid of how tempted I am to break the rules.

Imran waits, understanding in his dark eyes.

He’s figured out that he’s the first guy to ask for my phone number.

Can he tell that I’m considering it – giving him my number?

Breaking the rules for a guy I met just this morning?

“Um, err…” is all that comes out of my mouth as my hand reaches into my bag, rummaging for my iPhone.

Am I really doing this?

What if he doesn’t like me like that?

If he’s only asking for my number for the sake of networking?

After all, we both work in the same sector.

We just completed the same leadership training course, in the posh hotel behind us, sitting at the same table, getting along like a house on fire.

Over the course of the day, I’ve realised that I’ve taken to Imran more than I have to any other male I’ve ever met.

But if it’s just business for him… my nervousness and hesitation when he said, “We should exchange phone numbers…” is a really embarrassing reaction.

If he does like me like that, then… it’s scary to think what’ll come of this swapping of contact info.

Giving my phone number to a boy is against the rules.

Pre-Marital Relationships are against the rules.

I’m breaking the first rule which might lead me to break the second one.

My thumb punches in the wrong pass-code for my phone two times. Happens when I’m nervous.

When someone’s watching me enter my pass-code and I instinctively type faster, I end up pressing the wrong letters.

Before I attempt it a third time, Imran asks, “Do you know your number off by heart? I could give you a missed call and…”

That’s what I’d planned to do – let him recite his number for me to give him a missed call.

If I could only unlock my phone!

My number stumbles off my tongue and Imran enters it in the keypad of his iPhone.

“So you didn’t set-up the fingerprint touch ID thing?” he murmurs, a smile in his tone.

The new iPhones – the ones Imran and I use – have fingerprint recognition technology.

I shrug.

“Didn’t have the patience to set it up,” I tell him.

Truth is: I’d feared that people would unlock my phone by touching my thumb to the home button when I’m asleep…

When I say people, I mean my little sister.

“I might sound paranoid,” Imran says with a smile, “but I worry that my little sister will unlock my phone with my fingers when I’m asleep.”

I just smile because I can’t say, “Same here”.

The vibration of my phone makes me jump.

Imran chuckles before mouthing the word, Oops.

I glance down at the screen, an unfamiliar number flashing on it.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he murmurs.

The vibration stops.

While he glides his fingers over his phone, I calmly – and therefore, successfully – unlock mine and save his number.

First name: Imran.

Last name: Khan.

Company: Buxton Jones.

Normally, I wouldn’t enter anything in the Company field, but I need to make it look like a work-related entry in my contacts list.

“Did I spell your name right?” Imran holds up his phone for me to see.

He’s only filled in the First name field: Shel.

“Two Ls,” I tell him as I put my phone away.

“Oh.”

He adds the second L to Shell and saves my profile.

“And by the way, I didn’t ask whereabouts in Bangladesh you’re from,” he asks as an afterthought.

My forehead creases in surprise.

People of our generation don’t ask such questions; it’s usually the people of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation that are interested in our Bengali roots.

“My dad won’t forgive me,” he adds, “if I tell him I met a fellow Bengali professional at the training and didn’t ask where they’re from.”

Nodding as though that’s exactly what my dad’s like – though he isn’t – I tell him our address in Bangladesh.

He nods as though he’s heard of it.

“My dad probably knows it,” he says quietly. “He seems to know at least one person in every village in Bangladesh. What’s your dad’s name – he’s probably heard of him too?”

He chuckles, rolls his eyes.

I laugh with him.

But he’s waiting for an answer…

“Aminul Hoque,” I tell him eventually.

“Yep, he’ll definitely say he’s heard of him, or someone related to him.”

Imran laughs.

He’s very good-looking – fair skin, wide jaw, thick fluffy hair – and the same height as me.

Doesn’t mean he’s short for a guy.

I’m just very tall for a girl.

I’d never be able to wear heels when I’m with him. I mentally shake my head – where did that errant thought come from?

“So are you going to the station?” he asks, jerking his head in the direction of Great Portland Street Underground Station.

“No, I’m meeting a friend,” I answer; the disappointment in my voice mirrors the look on his face. “She works near Euston. I’m going to take a bus there…”

No longer looking forward to meeting up with Hailey – even though it’s been ages since we met up – I’m regretting that I won’t get to commute with Imran.

I’d be getting off at Forest Gate Station, a few stops before he gets off at Chadwell Heath – if he goes straight home – but we would’ve been able to take the underground tube to Liverpool Street together and then the TFL Rail service from there, too.

“Oh. Well, enjoy it then.”

“Thanks. It was nice meeting you, Imran.”

“It was nice meeting you, Shell.”

He doesn’t say “I’ll call you” and he doesn’t.

He doesn’t call.

Not the next day, or the next.

Or the next.

I hate the fact that I wait for him to call – every time my network provider sends me a text, I wonder if it’s Imran – but more than that, I hate admitting that he took my number as a mere formality.

Nothing more.

Yes, we’d gotten along really well, connected over a lot of things we ended up discussing during the training course, but it hadn’t meant anything to him.

Not what it had meant to me.

The friendly, good-natured and easygoing guy that he is, he probably makes friends everywhere.

And never calls them afterwards.




Chapter 2: Shell


“At least you didn’t sleep with him.”

“Hailey!”

Hailey giggles at my offended and scolding tone.

“It’s true,” she insists. “You’d have felt worse if you’d slept with him and he didn’t call you afterwards.”

Hailey and I have been best friends since Uni – we were really close back then – but after we graduated and entered full-time employment, we haven’t been very good at keeping in touch.

Too busy being boring workaholics.

It’s not cool.

Bad Shell.

Bad Hailey.

Yes, we check up on each other via Facebook, but we hardly call or see each other.

Unless one of us has a leadership training course near the other’s workplace.

That’s when we make an effort to catch up over a coffee.

It was that coffee date near Euston Station that’s led to Hailey calling me today on our lunch breaks.

In fact, she’s been calling every day since I told her about Imran.

I really wish I hadn’t.

Not because I’m embarrassed that it’s been five days and he still hasn’t called – and probably never will – but because I’m embarrassed over something else.

My stupidity.

I’d told Hailey that I’d really liked Imran.

As much as one can after spending a day together.

I’d made it out to be a Thing – or a Thing in Progress – and I feel humiliated.

“I’d have died if I slept with him and he didn’t call afterwards,” I hiss.

I’m sitting in the stairwell of our office block and luckily no one’s passing by right now.

Our company being on the fifth floor means that most people take the lifts.

“In fact, my family would’ve killed me before I killed myself.”

They wouldn’t have – they’re not monsters – but I would’ve been metaphorically disowned.

In our religion, Dating is prohibited.

Why? Two main reasons:

One: It involves touching, kissing etc. and could lead to Pre-Marital Sex, all strictly forbidden.

Sins.

Two: If the girl got pregnant and the guy rejected her paternity claims to avoid marrying her, the child might not have a father’s name next to his and get victimised because he’s illegitimate.

My parents instilled this reasoning into me from a very young age and I’d never sought to question or challenge it.

It made sense to me.

Still does.

“They won’t kill you,” Hailey states seriously. “Your folks are cool. They’re not even bothered that their 24-year-old daughter has no intentions of even considering marriage now.”

Though this attitude is changing, there are many in my community that think girls my age should be married by now.

My family, thankfully, are among the forward-thinking variety.

They want me to have a career, a job, live a little and get married when I’m ready.

“And when you do consider it,” Hailey continues, “you’re so lucky that your family will find a nice groom for you.” There’s a moan in her tone.

I chuckle.

Whenever we’ve discussed Arranged Marriages, Hailey’s always been positive about it.

But not for the reasons you’d think.

Her next few words pertain to her reasons:

“Do you know how hard it is to find a good guy these days?”

Hailey was a late-starter in the Dating Game.

Or the Dating Race, as she sometimes refers to it, because “it feels like a race. A race to the nearest half-decent single guy before someone else gets to him!”

At Uni, she’d been just as shy and quiet as I was, and hadn’t put herself in situations where she’d meet lots of guys.

All the guys she did meet, she didn’t like or they her.

Nowadays, she’s always between relationships.

It’s not that she’s switched personalities dramatically, but she’s less picky about the guys she agrees to go on dates with.

But because she doesn’t like them all that much in the first place – and only agrees to start seeing them in the dim hopes that they’ll grow on her – she quickly realises there’s no fun in being with someone when there’s no spark, or a chance of a spark, and ends the relationship swiftly.

“Yes, I’m lucky that my family will find me a good husband.” I sigh. “In time. When I’m ready.”


* * *


“I told them you weren’t ready,” insists my 17-year-old sister Shayla – “rhymes with TYLER not TAYLOR” she’ll tell you if you’re struggling to pronounce her name. “But they think he’s too good a guy to not… investigate.”

“But they’ve already done their research!” I argue, my temper rising.

According to Shayla, photographs and CVs have been exchanged with a nice family that would like to make me their daughter-in-law.

My parents have even asked around about the guy, garnering as much information as possible about this would-be-groom and his family.

“Now, they want me to meet him.”

It’s Saturday afternoon – 8 whole days since my leadership training on the summery Friday before last – and Shayla’s sitting on my bed, one leg folded under her, the other planted on my dark blue carpet.

I’m sitting exactly the same way, but on the other side of the bed, facing her.

Our eyes are on the same level because we’re both roughly the same height.

That’s where the similarity ends.

My little sister’s hair, unlike my sleek, straight tresses, is naturally wavy and is tied in a high pony-tail, stretching her milky-white skin tight across her oval face and high cheekbones.

She’s starting to look more and more like Amma – that’s what we call our mothers – as she approaches adulthood.

Although my skin is also considered fair, mine has a yellowy undertone to it.

I don’t have her killer cheekbones and my face is narrower than hers, my frame slimmer.

Whereas Shayla has inherited a lot of Amma’s facial features, I’m more reminiscent of my dad – Abba.

Personality-wise, Shayla and I are like chalk and cheese.

I’m the calmer, more mature and quiet one, a deep-thinker, whereas Shayla wears her heart on her sleeve, her brain on her lips.

She always speaks her mind and doesn’t mince words.

She’s brave and funny and I love her to bits.

“I don’t want to meet anyone; I’m not ready,” I spit through clenched teeth.

Really, I’m not angry at my parents.

I’m not even angry.

I just can’t deal with meeting a potential husband.

It’s too soon after meeting a potential boyfriend that never was.

Although Hailey’s stopped asking about Imran, to me, the wounds of his rejection are still very fresh.

It wasn’t even a rejection!

It was a nothing.

A non-Thing.

“Final answer?” Shayla asks, tone serious.

My eyes narrow as she gets to her feet.

“Final answer.”

“Shall I take these, too?” She holds up the A4-sized white envelope she’d brought with her. It contains the groom’s CV and photographs.

I haven’t looked inside.

If I did, it’d suggest that a small part of me is willing to consider this alliance.

“Tell them I saw the photos and didn’t… you know.”

She nods and leaves my room.

Only for Amma to come in a few minutes later!

My cheeks heat up.

She’s come to convince me to meet this stranger who’s seen my CV and photos and has agreed to meet with me in person.

I respect my parents too much – and know they wouldn’t push this hard if they didn’t truly believe that they’d found a good husband for me – so I reluctantly promise to think about it.

I’m going to say no in the end.

So what if he is a really good catch? I’m not ready to get married to a stranger.

Am I ready to get married to someone I do know, someone like Imran?

No.

But I’m definitely not ready to marry someone who isn’t.




Chapter 3: Shell


Would I be so dead set against meeting a potential groom if I hadn’t met Imran?

Are my embryonic feelings for him making me this stubborn?

It’s Saturday night and I’ve told Shayla to tell my parents that my answer is still no.

This time, it’s Abba that pokes his head through my door.

I groan.

If it had been awkward earlier when Amma was explaining why I should just meet this guy, it’ll be 10 times as uncomfortable with Abba trying to do the convincing.

And it is.

My face feels hot as he begins to reason with me.

I feel so embarrassed that I mumble that I’ll think over it some more.

He seems just as relieved as I am when he leaves me to my thoughts.

My thoughts keep returning to Imran.

When Shayla told me about the marriage proposal this afternoon, I’d immediately thought of Imran.

It wasn’t so much wishing that the proposal was from him, it was more a case of me thinking, “What about Imran?” as though he was already Something.

Like in the films where the heroine’s getting married to a guy that she doesn’t love – he could be nice, or a complete jerk – and days before the big day, she falls in love with someone else.

Like Imran could be the man I fall in love with while preparing to marry another.

If he hadn’t taken my number, I would’ve crushed on him for a few days – or weeks, who knows? – and then decided to forget about him.

I don’t know if I would’ve succeeded.

But when we swapped numbers, something inside me changed.

He wasn’t going to be some nice face with a nice personality that I’d never see or hear from again.

He’d be Something.

Turns out, that the first time I’d considered breaking the rules with a guy, he had no intentions of breaking them with me.


*


Hi Imran! It’s Shell–we met at the leadership training. How are you, how’s the new role? These are the words I end up sending him that night after drafting and redrafting the text several times.

I don’t know what’s come over me.

I guess I just want to know for sure where I stand.

Regardless of what he says, I’ll still tell my family no – contacting Imran has nothing to do with the marriage situation.

It takes him thirty minutes to reply:

Hello! Nice to hear from you. All good on my end. How are you?

I get back to him instantly:

Need an outsider’s take on something, and you’d been so easy to talk to…

Ten minutes later, he writes:

Can’t talk right now.

My heart sinks.

He’s fobbing me off.

And quite insolently, too!

I know I only spent a day with him, but I think myself a good judge of character and I didn’t have him down as the type to be so blatantly rude.

Two minutes pass before he follows up with:

Text me and I’ll try my best to help.

His attempt to redeem himself.

I’m not placated, though.

I’m liking him less and less now.

In my head, I plan to say this:

Leave it, it’s alright. Take care and goodnight.

What I actually send is:

My family’s seriously considering a marriage proposal for me. I’m not ready to marry someone I don’t know. But if this guy really is as good a catch as my parents’ research suggests, am I mad to let him slip away?

When there’s no reply for a whole minute – which passed really slowly for me – I quickly type:

Who knows if I’ll be able to marry someone I do know?

That’s very impulsive of me, out-of-character, but it’s easy to become bold when I’m writing e-mails and texts.

Unfortunately, Imran isn’t the same.

He doesn’t text back at all.


*


The next morning, I wake to find his name on my phone screen.

I need to know one thing before I can give my opinion.

This SMS came late last night – early morning in fact – after I’d fallen asleep.

Such as? I prompt, biting my lip.

I don’t know if my message will disturb him, seen as he was up so late…

Or maybe he woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back to sleep and thought he might as well give my dilemma some thought?

In actual fact, his reply comes instantly – like he’d written it in the night and saved it as a draft.

Or not.

Is there someone you do know that you want to marry? he asks.

No. I know Imran, but I don’t want to marry him.

I’m not ready.

His verdict arrives a few seconds later:

I think you should meet this groom. Then you’d know him.

To that, I say, You know that’s not the same thing.

I know is Imran’s prompt response.

My eyes sting with tears that won’t fall.

I won’t let them.

Not for a guy who probably didn’t give me a second thought in the last 9 days.

I need to forget him.

Then, a few seconds later:

Meet him, Shell. You have nothing to lose…

And for that final nail on the rejection coffin, I ask, You really think I should meet him?

He hammers it down for me with, I really think you should.

Heartbroken and quite certain that I like Imran a lot more than I thought, I go to wake up Shayla in the box-room next door.

“What?” she moans sleepily.

“Tell them… tell them I’m happy to meet this… would-be-groom.”




Chapter 4: Shell


Westfield, Stratford City is one of my favourite places in London. I snoop around my favourite shops in the mall on the way home from work at least once every fortnight.

My office is near Liverpool Street Station and I take the train from there to Stratford, shop to my heart’s content, before using the same TFL Rail service to go further east to Forest Gate.

This evening, I left the office half an hour early – I took a shorter lunch break to make up for it– to meet my sister-in-law at the shopping centre.

I call her Bhabi – what we call the wives of our older brothers and older male cousins.

It’s the first time Bhabi and I are at Westfield together and it feels a bit awkward.

Though she and my one and only brother have been living with us since they got married three-and-a-half years ago, I wouldn’t say I’ve become friends with Bhabi.

It’s not that she’s not cool or anything, but her lively, chatty personality doesn’t mesh well with my quieter one.

It doesn’t quite mesh with Shayla’s either; they end up clashing a lot because they’re both so open and strong-willed.

I stumble over my words when I try to keep up with Bhabi’s chatter, and my shyness makes her feel loud.

Over the years, we’ve just settled into only talking to each other when we need to.

We’re not here tonight to right that wrong, to bond over a shopping trip.

No, we’re here to meet the guy who’s considering making me his wife.

Based only on my photograph, CV and what his family have told him about me and mine.

Clever groom. Not.

I, on the other hand, am armed neither with his CV nor his photograph – I didn’t look through the contents of the white envelope.

I felt slightly sick just thinking about doing it.

All I know is that this is a guy that my parents really want to form an alliance with.

The meeting place is a coffee shop inside the shopping centre, and Bhabi and I have arrived just in time.

Mr. Would-Be-Groom isn’t here yet.

Good. I don’t like making an entrance.

“What’ll it be?” I ask Bhabi as we settle around a small table with four chairs. “Cappuccino, mocha, hot chocolate?”

“It’s the guys that should buy the drinks.”

The guys are:

Mr. Would-Be-Groom and his brother-in-law – his older sister’s husband.

“I’m not going to sit around, waiting for them, drink-less,” I mumble as I cue up at the counter.

“Fine. I’ll have a latte,” she calls out.

Make-up immaculate, she’s wearing an elegant black maxi dress, black cardigan and is rocking a very elaborate hijab-style, all folds and volume.

In simple terms, hijab is the name assigned to the covering of one’s hair with a scarf.

Her black and white viscose scarf – in an inverse zebra-print – is wrapped around her head just the once, but due to the fluffy scrunchie on her bun and the folds she’s created with the fabric up top, she appears to have a huge Afro underneath.

A very stylish Afro.

It’s Wednesday, which is when my work attire is usually in transition-mode – shifting from smart and professional to casual but respectable.

Mondays and Tuesdays, I wear my smartest dresses with matching cardigan and black leggings.

Boring, I know.

Wednesdays and Thursdays, I add a splash of bold colour via my cardigans and shoes.

Fridays are dress-down, so I bust out my floral and print-dresses and my skinny jeans.

Today, because of the after-work coffee ‘date’, I’ve mixed things up a little:

A royal-blue dress made from soft, flowing material, black cardigan and leggings.

My parents wanted me to take a change of clothes with me to work today, so I could turn up at the coffee shop in a salwar-kameez – a knee-length dress with matching trousers – but I’d refused.

“They should see me how I normally dress for work or when I go shopping,” I’d insisted.

And my usual look is knee-length – or longer – dresses with leggings and flat shoes.

I don’t wear make-up.

A nude lipstick or tinted lip-gloss, yes, but I don’t count that as ‘make-up’.

Luckily, my light skin behaves most of the time, so concealer and foundation aren’t necessary additions to it.

Mascara just makes my eyes tear.

And I don’t wear a hijab.

So, I’ve turned up as me, just the way I am.

Once I return with our hot drinks, Bhabi suggests I pull my pashmina over my head, reminding me of what my parents had requested.

I normally cover my head at family gatherings – not fully, just over my bun – but today I say, “They should see me as I am on a typical Wednesday evening. I don’t want to mislead them or mis-sell myself.”

Secretly, I’m hoping that the lack of hijab might put off the groom and his companion.

If they reject me, it’ll save me from more embarrassing conversations with my mum and dad about how “we don’t really know if we’re ready for something until we do it”. How “nice grooms from good families are so hard to come by these days”.

When Bhabi doesn’t push the issue, I wonder if she knows of my secret agenda.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on sabotage-mode.

I’ll be myself and that should be enough to put anyone off:

I’m not exactly a catch.

Imran’s the only guy that’s ever asked for my phone number, remember?

If I’d been desirable in any way, he’d have been one in a long line of many admirers.

Well, there was one

I shake my head; I don’t want to think about that.

It’s when I shake my head to rid it of the thoughts that had entered my mind unbidden that my eyes catch something through the glass partitions of the café.

I swear it was

No, it can’t be.

I scan the area but there’s nothing of note.

I imagined it

Ever since that training course, I’ve been looking for Imran in the crowds.

Seeing him in the faces of strangers.

Even though I know he works in West London and has little reason to be around my office, I repeatedly think I see glimpses of him everywhere.

“The groom’s already losing brownie points,” Bhabi murmurs as she stirs brown sugar into her latte. “You have a thing for punctuality and he’s running–”

She’s come to a halt because I’ve jumped at the vibration of my phone trembling on the chunky wooden table.

I have to stop thinking that every time I get a text, it might be Imran.

That he’s following-up to see what I’ve decided to do about The Proposal.

My eyes widen at the screen.

Heart stops.

Think of the devil

Gulping, I unlock my phone.

My thumb hesitates over the ‘Message’ icon, my heart bouncing on a trampoline.

Imran texting me this instant feels ominous.

I feel like he’s going to wish me luck with whatever I’ve chosen to do and that’ll propel me to impress the hats off the guy I’m here to meet.

Just to get back at Imran.

My being here this evening is a direct result of my retaliation to Imran’s last text, isn’t it?

Will this new message seal my fate?

Pretend you don’t know me. PLEASE.

My head snaps up in confusion, my eyes fix on Bhabi like she can translate or interpret Imran’s words for me.

“What?” she queries, sipping her coffee. “Whose text was that?”

“Wrong number,” I mumble.

Surely, this message was meant for someone else.

Not for me.

Bhabi looks at me suspiciously and I turn to look out the glass to avoid her investigative stare.

That’s when I see him.

Imran.

He’s here.

He’s walking into the café, a taller man beside him.

My heart starts to thump-thump in my ears, my throat tightening.

“What was the name of the groom, Bhabi?” I whisper, leaning across the small table towards her.

“Imran Khan.”

Heart pounding, I ask, “Is that him?” I jerk my head at the two men approaching our table.

She turns in her seat and when she sees them, gets to her feet to welcome them.

Mr. Would-Be-Groom and his brother-in-law.




Part Two



Chapter 5: Shell


“They’re here, Shell!” says Shayla as she pops her head around my bedroom door.

The ‘they’ she’s referring to are the very people I’ve been thinking about all day and now it’s early evening – Imran and his family.

They’ve come to see me.

See me and decide if they’d like me to be their daughter-in-law.

Marry their youngest son.

Marry Imran

The thought makes me giddy.

Shayla mistakes the shiver that ripples through my frame as nervousness and dread, and says, “If they like you, they like you. If they don’t, it’s their loss. Don’t sweat it.”

And she heads downstairs to help with the refreshments for our guests, closing my door behind her.

The Bridal Viewing – which is the name I’ve come up with for the event that’s taking place tonight – is a tradition in Bangladeshi culture (and Indian and Pakistani culture), whether the marriage be an Arranged one or a Love Marriage.

It’s one of the necessary hurdles us girls have to leap over when our parents decide that our time has come.

The height of this hurdle depends on various factors:

If you’re really gorgeous, well-educated – though the education criteria has become a serious requirement only in the last couple of decades – and come from a Good Family, the hurdle might be just an inch-high.

The hurdle might be lying on the ground if you’re having a Love Marriage.

With Love Marriages, the Bridal Viewing is just a formality, with the two families meeting and saying, “What can you do?” with a shrug. “The kids have chosen each other!”

Meaning: They’ve been dating for a while and want to get married now.

If you don’t tick a lot of the boxes when it comes to what people are looking for in a wife, a daughter-in-law, then the hurdle will be higher.

A mountain to climb.

Either way, the Bridal Viewing is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences a girl has to go through.

Anxiety and fear are the emotions that would’ve made me nauseous all day if I didn’t already know Imran – well, sort of – and if I didn’t know that he’d already decided to marry me.

However, if his family are dead against it – in other words, if they hate me tonight – he won’t push the issue.

He won’t go against his parents.

And so, my heart speeds up each time I think about what they’ll think of me.

Imran’s parents, his older brother and his wife, his older sister and her husband, his younger sister, they’re all walking through the front door right now.

With a Mystery Guest.

I’ll be bringing a mystery guest Imran’s text informed me this morning, his first message since the one that begged me to pretend I don’t know him. Hope you don’t mind.

The more the merrier.

Yes, I’d actually replied with those four words!

Lame Shell. Lame.

Then I deleted the message thread and they joined our other messages in that unnameable place where deleted text messages go.

You might be wondering why it matters now, if we’re caught texting each other, when we’re so close to getting engaged. After all, Imran and I have already met in a supervised meeting at Westfield a couple of weeks ago.

Imran jokily blamed their lateness to his Dulabhai. In our culture, we call the husbands of our older sisters and older female cousins Dulabhai instead of calling them by their names, as a sign of respect.

The same way we call our older brothers Bhai, Bhaisaab or Bhaiya (which is what I call Shuhel, my one and only brother) and our older sisters and cousins Apa.

Whereas Bhai actually means brother, Apa isn’t the literal translation for sister.

So why does Shayla get away with calling me Shell and not Apa, despite my mum and dad’s repeated scolding?

Her argument is that she technically isn’t calling me by my name.

“Her name is Shelly, not Shell,” my cheeky sister retorts. “Shell is something you find at the seaside.”

It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if my sister doesn’t call me Apa.

I like being called Shell – I tell everyone to call me that – because shell is indeed something you find at the seaside.

Where there’s sand, see and refreshing sea-breeze.

Anyway, back to tonight.

These days, parents are placing more importance on finding a bride or a groom that will be a good fit for their son or daughter.

As a result, chaperoned meetings prior to the Bridal Viewing are becoming more and more common in Arranged Marriages.

It’s just so that the guy and the girl can meet and chat – albeit awkwardly, and by chat I mean asking and being asked random questions and lots of nervous silences in between – in an informal setting with no family pressure.

If the boy and the girl approve of each other, and the chaperones give a thumbs-up, they move to the next phase of the process:

The Bridal Viewing.

It’s at – or directly after – the Bridal Viewing that the groom and his family decide if they want the girl to become a part of their life and family.

And it then becomes a Thing.

Official almost.

Imran and his family, mystery guest in tow, are being seated in the living room downstairs.

It’ll be the third time Imran and I see each other.

One extra time than everyone thinks.

And that’s linked to why Imran and I delete our messages to each other.

Ours will not be a Love Marriage by any means, and we don’t want anyone to assume otherwise.

But that’s exactly what they’ll think if they find out that we have each other’s phone numbers – have had them for a few weeks now – and that we’d met before the Wedding Talks began…




Chapter 6: Imran


I’m surprised at how nervous I am. I feel a mixture of dread and buzzing excitement. Dread because there’s a chance that someone will say something and everything could go up in smoke.

Excited because, well, I get to see Shell.

She’s probably a lot tenser than I am, but I’m more anxious than I’ve ever been in my life.

And that’s saying a lot about what Shell’s going through right now.

I feel for her.

As I sit down in her living room, my fingers itch to send her a quick text to see how she’s holding up.

My hand even reaches into my trousers.

No. Best not.

Replacing my hand on my lap, I send her positive thoughts through the air.

If Apa’s testimony is anything to go by, tonight’s probably going to be the most intimidating night of Shell’s life.

Apa even threw up her lunch on the day her boyfriend – now my beloved Dulabhai – and his family came to see her.

I’d laughed.

“You know, we’re doing this just for the sake of it,” I’d told her. “No one from the groom’s side is going to refuse this alliance.”

The two of them had been going out for three years before they told their families about each other.

And they revealed their secret because they wanted to get married.

“You’d understand if you were a girl,” she’d retorted.

But I knew it wasn’t the usual butterflies you get when you’re about to be judged by strangers.

She wasn’t even worried that the inevitable – her marriage to her boyfriend – might not happen.

Apa was scared to death about what would happen after she got married.

And based on what did happen, she had every reason to feel sick at the thought of living with her boyfriend-turned-husband’s family.

You see, although love marriages are deemed by the West as progress for our culture, with a lot of Asian people of my age seeing it as they way to go – some even frowning upon arranged marriages altogether – in a lot of peoples’ eyes, love marriages still have a stigma attached to them.

A shame.

Loads of people of my parents’ generation view love marriages as the least preferable way for a person to find their life-partner, for a family to find a son- or a daughter-in-law.

In such families, it’s worse for the daughters-in-law that have a love marriage.

Like Apa found out.

They’re never treated the same as the daughters-in-law that are hand-picked by the parents.

They’re seen as having a sordid past – after all, they were in a relationship with a man for all that time! –and despite their qualities, they’re always thought of as second-choice by their in-laws.

Even if she’s prettier, more educated and comes from a family that has a better social standing than the daughter-in-law that came via an arranged marriage, the woman that had a relationship with her husband before her nuptials is never good enough for her in-laws.

Time never seems to iron out the kinks that come with having a love marriage.

People find it hard to see you for who you are, once they’ve seen you in a certain light based on something in your past.

And seen as Shell and I met each other before my family contacted hers to begin talks of an alliance, our marriage will be incorrectly labelled as a love marriage if it gets out that we weren’t complete strangers when we met for coffee in Stratford a fortnight ago, accompanied by her Bhabi and my Dulabhai.

Regardless of how many times we tell everyone that we’d met just once at a leadership training course, people will still say, “Oh, but Imran and Shell new each other from before!” Or, “They chose each other; their parents just sorted out the formalities.”

Despite us insisting that we never had a relationship, that we only texted each other a few times, some nosy sceptic won’t resist saying, “They say they weren’t dating, but can you really know for sure, in this day and age…”

Marriage in our culture is not just between a man and a woman, it’s between two families.

More importantly, Shell will become a part of my family, our household.

She shouldn’t be judged by my parents and relatives based on something she didn’t partake in.

Even if she and I had been seeing each other, it still shouldn’t be something that determines how my family treat her.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents are wonderful people. I love them immensely.

A part of me thinks that if they knew the truth, they won’t read any more into it and treat Shell just as well as they treat my Bhabi.

But there’s a small part of me that asks, “Can you really know for sure how they’ll react? After all, they haven’t been in a situation like this before…”

My elder brother had an arranged marriage – we found Bhabi’s details through an internet marriage site – and everyone had approved of her.

The decision unanimous.

In the end, I had to accept that there’s a chance my family will see Shell differently to how they see Bhabi, and so I decided it’s best to keep the truth under wraps.

As my family and I are handed cold drinks by Shell’s Bhabi – an attractive woman in her late twenties, the only female of Shell’s family that I’ve met so far – I appraise the minimalist-look living room with the dining table at the other end. Magnolia walls. Light-brown laminate flooring. Chocolate-brown leather sofas – the non-chunky variety. Mahogany-effect shelving unit scattered with a handful of vases and candles.

I like it.

It has Shell written all over it.

Uncluttered.

Elegant, sophisticated.

Simple.

But very, very special, nonetheless.

She’s exactly the kind of daughter-in-law my parents want.

The kind of wife I thought I’d never be lucky enough to find.

That’s why I’d acted so out of character the day we met at the training course and asked for her number at the end of the day.

It was the first time in my adult-life that I’d asked for a girl’s phone number.

Her reaction – surprised yet flattered, reluctance mixed with longing, hesitation and nervousness – made clear that it was the first time she was considering giving a guy her number.

I got the feeling that she wanted to say, “No. Best not. My parents will be disappointed.”

Then something crossed her face – sheepishness and worry. She didn’t want to seem un-cool or backwards by turning me down.

So she acquiesced.

As luck would have it, we both work in sales – me in Business to Business sales (B2B) and she sells the online databases that her company produces – and we were promoted to Team Leader roles around the same time.

As a result, we ended up in the same leadership for managers training course.

We’d ended up sitting at the same table at the fancy hotel where the course was being taught – a standard Dale Carnegie course tweaked slightly for those in sales-based roles – and hit it off straightaway.

The two of us always ensured that we’d be in the same team for group activities and picked each other when we had to work in pairs.

It was during the motivation Q&A right at the end of the day – we had to pretend that the other was a subordinate we were trying to get to know better, to understand their needs, strengths and what motivated them – that I became 100 percent certain that Shell was the girl I wanted to marry.

Everything she said about family, friends, work, religion, her beliefs and aspirations, they were all in-line with mine.

In-line with what I want in a life-partner.

She could’ve been reading from the list I made years ago about my ideal wife.

I’d forgotten about that list because I didn’t think any girl would be able to match my hopes and expectations.

But Shell… well, she exceeds them.




Chapter 7: Seb


When are we going to get to the finale? I wonder as little glass dishes containing dessert – mishti; milk and nut-based Indian sweets – are distributed around the room alongside strong cups of golden-brown tea. It’s almost 11pm and no sign of the bride

We’ve had the introductions – yours truly didn’t need any; the hosts were told beforehand that the groom’s English (meaning: white) best-friend Sebastian would be coming along – and we’ve had the small-talk, the fried snacks – somosas, spring rolls, puris; all of which, if you ask me, needed a much hotter chilli sauce to accompany them than the one in the tiny bowls alongside the ketchup and mayonnaise – and the dozen-course dinner.

Well, Bengalis don’t do courses – and thank god for that! – they bring out the numerous dishes all at the same time and let the table overflow with serving bowls steaming with tandoori chicken, pilao-rice, white rice, curries – fish, chicken, lamb – stir-fries – mixed vegetables, potato, cabbage – and daal.

Thankfully, there’s only just the one daal.

The aromas of the various spices and herbs that went into the lip-licking food still hang heavy in the air. It doesn’t bother me; I love the smell of Bengali food.

Oily, earthy, exotic and in-your-face.

It takes me back to my childhood just as fast as my mum’s moussaka reminds me of going over to Yaya’s – Greek for grandmother; my mum’s ma was Greek – and stuffing myself with Greek treats.

Cheesy tiropites, spinach pie, syrupy-sweet baklava.

The food tonight was almost as good as Khala’s, albeit a bit too mild for my palate. I said as much. Imran’s future in-laws laughed, thinking I was joking.

I don’t joke about food.

I call Imran’s mum Khala, the word Bengalis use to call their aunts on their mum’s side (the word for your dad’s sister is Fufu) but she treats me like a son rather than a nephew.

I think she likes me more than she likes her actual nephews.

Khala’s spent more time cooking and cleaning up after me – Imran in tow, of course – than she has her real nephews and nieces, seen as her brothers and sisters hardly visit.

So, it’s no surprise she prefers me to the family she only sees at family weddings.

We’ve been neighbours since Imran and I were five-years-old.

From the first day of Year 1 in primary school – which was a couple of weeks after the Khans moved into my street, two doors down – Imran and I were inseparable.

We’ve remained like that since.

I added the cool factor to his geeky personality and he taught me all about Bangladeshi culture and tradition. So much so that I find myself saying things like, “Oh, it’s a Bengali thing”, “you know how Bengalis are…” or “that’s the Bengali way.”

Not everyone knows this, but it was Imran’s sister that first drew me to the Khans. The older one, Reshma, not his little sister Reha – she wasn’t more than a baby at that time.

I’d had a huge crush on Reshma from the moment I saw her hurrying into her new house, a cardboard box labelled, ‘Reshma’s stuff. Keep Out!’

When I saw Imran trailing in after her, I’d hoped he’d be enrolling in my school, prayed that if he was the same age as me – and it looked like he was – that he’d be in my class.

So I could know his sister’s name.

She’d be going to the same school but there’s no way I’d be able to go up to her, ask her name.

A goddess like that would just wave me off like a mosquito buzzing in front of her.

Back then, I wasn’t as cool and confident as I am now.

When I quickly became a part of their family, I’d thought my prayers had been answered.

I got to hang out with Reshma all the time.

Well, I hung out with Imran and she’d be there.

Upstairs in her room.

It was almost the same thing.

Of course my feelings for her faded with time, but my friendship with her little brother grew stronger.

We were like brothers.

The fact that I’m an only child and Imran’s only brother is six years older than him and slightly aloof, made it inevitable that we should look for someone to fill the brother-sized hole in our lives.

Sceptics wagered that the two of us would grow apart, especially when they saw that I was developing into a loud, brash and brazen young man, and Imran was still the shy, quiet and thoughtful-type.

Our interests changed.

Common hobbies were discarded.

Lives pointed in opposite directions.

Yet, our friendship endured.

Survived going to different Universities.

Working in different parts of London and my moving out of my mum’s home in Chadwell Heath and going to live in East London.

Whether our friendship will survive tonight’s outcome is another matter altogether.

You see, I’m on a mission.

A mission to save my best friend from making the biggest mistake of his life.

Marrying this Shell.

From what he’s told me about her, she’s all wrong for him.

She’s too much like him.

Similar personality.

Same job.

Essentially the same person in a different body.

What Imran needs is someone who’s the opposite of him.

Like me.

I’m loud and shameless, he’s reserved and gentle.

We bounce off each other.

He takes me down a notch and I bring him out of his shell.

This Shell will only tuck him back inside his cocoon.

They’ll do that to each other.

That’s not the recipe for a successful marriage.

In marriage, laughter might be the crucial ingredient, but contrast is just as important.

It keeps things fun, interesting.

My theory is that we’re attracted to, and have better relationships with, people who are nothing like us.

Why? Well, aren’t we constantly longing to be a different person?

We’re never satisfied with the way we are.

Being with someone that’s our polar opposite gives us a taste of that other life we could’ve led, the alternate persona we could’ve adopted.

We glory in their successes – “she made it because she’s this, that and the other!” – and in their failures, we find self-justification – “it’s a good thing I’m nothing like him, or it could’ve been me that’s going through a, b or c.”

No doubt about it.

Opposites attract.

I’ve never been married but I’ve had relationships, assessed many from afar. The longest lasting of them all have been the ones where the duo are worlds apart.

Chalk and cheese.

My parents’ marriage lasted only 2-and-a-half-years. Both were passionate and impulsive, outgoing and fun.

The few good times they shared were really, really good, but the bad times outnumbered and outweighed everything else by quite a lot.

They just clashed too often.

Fought for hours.

Drove each other nuts.

The best thing they did for each other – after conceiving yours truly – was set each other free.

Their second marriages lasted much longer, thanks mostly to the fact that they’d sought out people that were calmer, quieter, more rational.

People that were the opposites of their exes.

Opposite of them.

For that decade or so, my parents were the happiest I’ve ever seen them.

I was glad that they were apart.

What went wrong with the second marriages, you ask?

Well, the thing about passionate people is that they get very passionate very quickly, especially in the presence of others like them.

Though mum and dad were in successful partnerships, they cheated on their spouses – they couldn’t help themselves; they’re incredibly impulsive! – and that was their downfall.

The moral of the story here is: Don’t Cheat On Your Partners.

Don’t Be So Impulsive.

Like my parents were.

Like Imran was when he decided on a whim that he wanted to marry a girl he’d known for just one summer day.

There’s no flaw in my Theory of Love: Opposites Attract.

And I’m going to prove it.




Chapter 8: Shell


There’s no hush at my entrance. They don’t stop talking as I walk in and sit on the chair by the living room door, placed specifically for me, for this moment.

I’m not sure what they’re talking about – the only sound that’s clear to me is the drumming of my heart in my ears – or who’s doing the talking – my head is bowed, eyes on my lap.

The preferable posture for the girl on view.

When Bhabi came up to my room to bring me downstairs, for the Bridal Viewing, my stomach had lurched.

My heart leapt into my throat, my ears.

Climbing down the stairs beside Bhabi, I was vaguely aware that she was whispering words of calm, encouragement, but I didn’t hear any of it.

My heart was beating in my ears – thud-thud, thud-thud – and it drowned out the quiet chatter in the living room, the noises in the kitchen where my mum and Shayla were washing up after dinner.

Finally, the room quietens.

My heart becomes so loud that I think everyone’s shut up to listen to it pounding away.

And when the first question comes, it has to be repeated by Bhabi, for I don’t catch it.

“Imran’s mum is asking you about your studies,” Bhabi says in my ear, bending down.

Well, I think that’s what she says.

Needing confirmation, I lift my head up to face her.

That’s when I see him.

The corner of my right eye catches a glimpse of him, sitting in the sofa opposite me.

The sofa facing the door.

This means he had a very good view of me descending the stairs, walking into the room.

He looks nothing like he did the first day we met – he’d been in a snappy grey suit, all professional and dapper – and nothing like he did two weeks ago at Stratford Westfield – blue jeans, dark blue sweater.

Tonight, in smart black trousers and a smart light blue shirt – tucked in – Imran looks small and nervous.

Awkward energy bubbles around him.

I wonder why my presence isn’t having the same effect he’s having on me…

That one peek at his handsome face and I felt a wave of calm pour over me, settle my swirling insides.

Peace.

I feel at peace.

It’s the only reason I don’t stumble on my words as I answer the question I think his mum has asked.

“I studied History at UCL. After I graduated, I–”

“She got a First,” Bhabi chips in when I don’t mention my grade.

When the impressed oohs and aahs die down, I continue:

“After graduating, I got a job as a researcher in a company that tracks the stock markets.”

“Don’t you work in sales?” The suspicion in this questioner’s voice makes my head snap up automatically.

If the tone had been friendly, I still would’ve sought out the speaker.

Why? He’s not Asian.

I can tell from his voice.

Ah, the Mystery Guest.

A white friend of Imran’s, perhaps?

Yes.

And he’s sitting next to Imran.

They must be really close for Imran and his family to let him tag along tonight.

He’s fair-skinned, fairer than Imran, and has raven-black hair, more stylish and pretentious than Imran’s.

He’s smirking derisively at me.

His light blue eyes, in what would’ve been a pleasant-looking face if it wasn’t holding a mocking expression, narrow in my direction.

Challenging.

“Dulabhai said you work in sales…” He trails off, waiting for me to speak.

Bhabi doesn’t chip in this time.

I think she’s just as shocked as I am at how good his Bengali accent is.

When he said Dulabhai, it sounded like how I’d say it.

“I changed departments,” I say eventually. Politely.

I am in the presence of Imran’s family. Though I haven’t let my eyes wander around the room to see any of them.

“I moved to the Client Services side,” I continue, “account management to be precise. So, I look after the clients that subscribe to our products and services.”

“Shelly was recently promoted to a Team Leader,” Bhabi adds informatively.

Mumbled “Congratulations” are sent my way.

I mentally shoo them way.

I hadn’t been too elated by the promotion – there are a number of small teams in the sales department and I’ve succeeded a guy that left last month.

So it never felt like I’d earned it.

But the subsequent training course brought Imran into my life, and for that, I’m grateful.

The next few questions are a repeat of some of the things Imran’s Dulabhai asked over coffee the other day:

“Can you cook?” (Imran’s mum)

“Do you pray?” (His dad)

“How do you feel about living with your in-laws?” (His Bhabi)

“Do you intend to work after you’re married?” (His brother)

They’re asking these questions just for something to say; I’m sure they know what answers I gave at the coffee date.

The last question before Imran’s dad says I can go upstairs again is from Imran’s little sister, Reha.

She’s the same age as Shayla and asks, “What’s your favourite colour?”

Everyone laughs. I’m not sure why.

This is the first question that’s solely to know a bit about me personally, not about how I’ll fit into their family.

“Black and white,” I tell her.

“The most boring colours in the world,” says Mr. Mystery Guest. But he says it in a jovial voice and the group laughs as though he’s joking.

The quick glance I throw in his direction tells me he didn’t say that to get laughs.

He said that to wind me up.

Hmm.

Is he jealous that his friend’s getting married?


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