By Farah Heron
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Kamila's life might not be perfect, but, whew, it’s close. She lives a life of comfort, filled with her elaborate Bollywood movie parties, a dog with more Instagram followers than most reality stars, a job she loves, and an endless array of friends who clearly need her help finding love. In fact, Kamila is so busy with her friends’ love lives, she’s hardly given any thought to her own . . .
Fortunately, Kamila has Rohan. A longtime friend of the family, he’s hugely successful, with the deliciously lean, firm body of a rock climber. Only lately, Kamila’s “harmless flirting” with Rohan is making her insides do a little bhangra dance.
But between planning the local shelter’s puppy prom, throwing a huge work event, and proving to everyone that she’s got it all figured out, Kamila isn’t letting herself get distracted—until her secret nemesis returns to town with an eye for Rohan. Suddenly, it seems like the more Kamila tries to plan, the more things are starting to unravel—and her perfectly ordered life is about to be turned upside down.
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I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certain silly things cease to be silly if done by sensible people in an imprudent way.
—Jane Austen, Emma
Kamila Hussain didn’t have a lot to complain about in her life. She realized self-loathing was all the rage among her millennial peers, but in her opinion, she didn’t have much to loathe. She was blessed with a steady income as an accountant at Emerald, her father’s accounting firm. She loved her job and had recently redesigned the office with soothing pastels and stress-relieving greenery, so it was a joy to be there. She had no shortage of friends, and if she wanted a little something more, she had no problem finding dates or hookups. She adored her living situation—a quaint brownstone in Toronto’s east side that had also been recently redone. And of course, she had Darcy, her adorable bichon frise. Darcy was arguably the cutest dog east of Yonge Street, with more Instagram followers than many reality stars, and who had gone full-on viral on TikTok five times.
But in her own eyes, the most significant of Kamila’s blessings was her father. Dad was easily the sweetest, kindest, most supportive parent in existence. Being a daddy’s girl was such a cliché, but Kamila had no shame in telling anyone that she happily lived and worked with her father. He wouldn’t do well alone, and Dad deserved to be healthy and happy more than anyone in the world.
In fact, it was for him that she was awake at eight on a Saturday morning, even after she was muddling fruit for virgin caipirinhas pretty late last night. Dad’s annual physical was in a few days, and she intended to do whatever she could to make sure his blood pressure and cholesterol were in line. She couldn’t leave the men to fend for themselves for breakfast this time. Nope. No eggs fried in ghee and boiled chai on her watch.
She smoothed her robin’s-egg blue apron over her red floral full-skirted dress and admired her kitchen prep. The toast toppings she’d mashed, diced, and sliced were in colorful handmade Portuguese bowls that glowed against her white marble countertops. She snapped a pic and uploaded it. #dreamkitchen. #blessed. #homecooking.
“Kamila is cooking,” Rohan said from the stairs. “Isn’t this the third sign of the apocalypse?”
She glared at him. “Shush, you, or you don’t get any.”
He was still in his pajamas—a matched buttoned-up set. Did he dress like this even alone at home? His hair needed to be combed, and his chin needed a shave, but somehow Rohan still managed to exude the air of the powerful corporate executive he was. Hearing his voice, Darcy’s ears perked up and she rushed to him. Because of course she did—the only human Darcy loved as much as Kamila and Dad was Rohan, despite Rohan’s usual indifference to her. Kamila really needed to have a girl-to-girl with her dog about when to ease off if your affections weren’t returned.
Rohan chuckled at the dog while rubbing his fingers over the scruff on his own chin.
Kamila put her hands on her hips. “No snark from you today, mister. Dad needs to eat better. Every weekend he fries eggs in ghee.”
“I’m looking forward to trying something new,” Dad said from behind Rohan on the stairs. “Kamila takes such good care of me. Can I help you, beti?”
Kamila looked carefully at her father’s eyes as he reached the bottom step. They looked a little tired, which was expected for early on a Saturday. But there was a hint of amusement and contentedness there. Good. Kamila spent a great deal of time studying her father’s eyes. It helped that they were so expressive. Some people wore their heart on their sleeve, but Kassim Hussain showed it in his eyes.
“I got it, Dad. Go ahead and sit. I’ll pour your tea.”
He smiled and planted himself at the dining table, then opened his iPad to read the news. “You always take such good care of everyone, Kamila. Rohan, did she tell you she’s in charge of the puppy prom for the animal shelter this year? That’s the last event at Dogapalooza, right, beti?”
“That’s right, Dad.”
The Dogapalooza was an annual fundraiser for the animal shelter where Kamila had volunteered for years. This year, she and her friend Tim were in charge of planning the festival’s final event—the Sunday-night puppy prom.
Rohan looked sideways at Kamila. “Can’t say I’m surprised Kam would volunteer for a party. She’s a consummate host.”
“Did you just compliment me?” she asked playfully as Rohan joined her in the kitchen.
“That’s up for interpretation.” He looked at the spread of dishes Kamila had already prepared. “You know, when I said yesterday that your Uber Eats account might see more action than your Tinder account, I wasn’t hinting for you to cook. Chai and toast are fine.” He swiped a cherry tomato from the colander and ate it. “Are those sweet potatoes? For breakfast?”
“They’re high in potassium to lower Dad’s blood pressure. I got hibiscus tea, too. It’s good for both blood pressure and blood sugar. He’s going to nail his physical.”
He leaned back against the marble counter. “Food to manage his blood pressure? Wow, Kam, I’m impressed.”
“Why are you impressed? I can google.”
“Clearly.” He looked again at the spread laid out on the counter, then at the new canvas print she’d hung on the kitchen wall. It was Darcy’s head photoshopped onto a French chef’s body, standing outside a Paris bistro. Rohan shook his head, laughing at the print. “At least you’re cooking and not Darcy. Actually, you have more cooking ability than I realized. Or at least”—he looked into the bowls again—“mashing-black-stuff ability. What is that sludge, anyway?”
“Crushed black beans.”
He raised a brow, skeptical, then looked at the clear glass teapot where vibrant red hibiscus flowers were steeping in hot water. “Can I have regular chai instead?”
“You know where it is.”
He filled a pot for his chai. Normally, Kamila would never expect a guest to make their own tea, but Rohan was hardly a stranger in this house. He spent most Friday nights in her spare room after her Bollywood-and-biryani party instead of driving back to his downtown condo, so he and Dad could talk business after breakfast. “I don’t get why you go through all this trouble, Kam. After last night’s spectacle—”
“Last night’s party was not a spectacle. It was low-key. I didn’t even serve a signature mocktail.”
“Then what were those Brazilian things you all were drinking?”
“Virgin caipirinhas! Ernesto brought them. Wasn’t that sweet of him? He brought the makings for alcoholic ones, too.”
Kamila did drink, but not very often. And she never drank at her own parties—she preferred to be alert and sober when hosting her friends. She went back to quartering bright cherry tomatoes for the pico de gallo. Kamila accepted that low-key by her standards was a pretty swank party to most, but since she hosted her friends for dinner and a movie every week, the party wasn’t that much exertion for her anymore. She may have sourced a special Kashmiri biryani last night to match the old Kashmiri movie Rohan had picked, but the charcuterie board didn’t have any single-origin dark chocolate on it this time. She hadn’t even put out her special party throw cushions and candles.
“Besides,” she said, dropping the tomatoes in a bowl, “considering you’ve never missed one of my movie parties, I’m surprised you’re complaining.”
“I’m not complaining. But I’d be here even if you served potato chips from a bag.”
Probably true. Rohan loved old Hindi movies more than the average tax lawyer. “Maybe next week we can get you to join in the postmovie sing-along.”
Rohan snorted. “Who taught you to play Bollywood hits on the ukulele anyway?”
“I’m taking lessons over video conference.” She adjusted the tomatoes in the bowl a bit, then clapped her hands together. The tomatoes looked like glimmering rubies with the bright pot lights reflecting on them. “Look at all this color.” She snapped a picture with her phone.
“Ah. Your true motivation. Your precious Instagram.”
“We eat with our eyes first.” She took a short video clip of the spread of food.
“You eat with your camera even before that.” He hopped out of the sight line of the camera. “Hey, leave me out of this. I don’t want to turn up on your tick-tack-toe thing.”
“It’s TikTok. You don’t have to participate in social media, but unless you want to further solidify this boomer rep of yours, at least learn what the platforms are called.”
“Eh. What’s the point if I don’t use them? And unlike everyone else in the world, I don’t need the clicks to know my worth.”
Kamila laughed. “I don’t use social media to tell me my worth. I already know I’m fabulous. That’s why I have a duty to share all this with the world.” She swept her hands over her dress with flourish. “Now, go wait with Dad, old man,” she said, throwing in the nickname to annoy him. “You’re making me nervous. Nerves combined with newly sharpened knives are a disaster in the making.”
Kamila knew Rohan’s snarky comments were just teasing, and she usually liked to volley right back. She’d known him literally her whole life, and they both knew exactly which buttons to press without going too far. Still, she wasn’t exactly an experienced cook, and she’d prefer to finish the job without a running commentary.
He snorted. “Fine. If only to spare your flawless skin.” He smirked as he took the tray with his masala chai and Dad’s hibiscus tea to the dining room. Kamila picked up the next vegetable to cut.
As if on cue, disaster chose that moment to strike. The honed steel knife slipped in her hand and sliced her finger instead of the organic sweet potato. No problem. Barely a scrape. As she rustled in the drawer looking for a bandage, several crimson drops of blood spilled onto a bag of rubber bands. She took a breath as she reflexively wrapped her hand in her apron, and cringed as a red stain grew on the pale-blue fabric.
Her beautiful new apron. “Siri, what gets out blood stains?”
“Oh dear, beti, what happened?” Dad rushed to her side while Siri was detailing the wonders of hydrogen peroxide and enzyme soap. He unwrapped the apron from her finger, his gentle touch and concerned expression grounding her. “Oh no. I’ll get the first-aid kit.” He smiled and lovingly patted Kamila’s arm. “Everything is okay, Kamila. Do your breathing. I’ll be right back.”
Dad rewrapped the finger in her now probably ruined apron and disappeared up the stairs. She pressed on the cut to stop the blood as she leaned against the fridge, feeling light-headed. Even after all these years, she couldn’t cope with the sight of her own blood.
She closed her eyes and heard her therapist’s voice in her ears. Breathe. The apron—maybe it could be saved? Count to ten. She had plenty of peroxide from a misguided attempt to go blond a few years back. Actually, this was a much better use for that peroxide. She opened her eyes and focused on a point on the wall. One, two…
Rohan stepped back into the kitchen.
“Don’t say it,” she warned.
“Don’t say what?”
“Any comment at all about my ineptitude in the kitchen.”
Shockingly, his smirk was nowhere to be found. He took her apron-wrapped finger in his hand and applied firm pressure as he looked into her eyes. “You’re shaking, Kam.”
Was she shaking? Three, four…“I don’t like blood.” She shivered, looking down. The room was spinning a bit. Not much, really. She was fine.
“Kamila, breathe deeply. Talk to me. Tell me what you’re doing for the rest of the day.”
Five, six…“I have a meeting with a prospective client, and then I’m taking Darcy to the dog park for a photo shoot.” Her voice was shaky.
“A client meeting in that dress?”
She tried to smile and even tease him back, but her voice was too brittle and her words weren’t working.
“Look at me, Kam.”
She did. His eyes were so familiar. Deep and dark. And here.
Seven, eight, nine…Whenever disaster struck—and she reluctantly agreed it struck this family often—Rohan was here.
Still holding her hand, Rohan spoke with a soothing voice. “Look at all this you’ve done here. It’s exquisite. You’ve even got the June Cleaver dress on. With matching shoes.”
Ten. She let out a breath, grounding herself in his face. Focusing on it. Studying it, mostly so she wouldn’t pass out. But also, she noticed something.
“That’s more than a day’s worth of stubble on your face,” she said weakly.
He chuckled, still holding her hand. “I’m considering growing a beard. What do you think?”
She narrowed her eyes. “It will suit you.”
This Rohan, the one in pajamas in her house every Saturday morning, wasn’t the Rohan the rest of the world saw. He was usually in suits and ties so high-end and perfectly tailored that any facial-hair situation would complement them, so long as it was neat and tidy. He’d probably look even more dignified with a beard. She nodded, letting a smile sneak onto her face.
The room had stopped spinning. She pulled her hand back from his and wrapped the apron tighter around it. She felt weird about Rohan seeing her freak out there, but it was fine. They were friends.
The landline phone rang, and she heard Dad answering it upstairs.
Kamila turned back to the food so she wouldn’t break down again. She lined up the uncut sweet potatoes on the board. “You’re ordering the biryani for next week’s movie night, right?”
“Yep.” He plunked another cherry tomato into his mouth. “I scoped out a new place. We will be feasting on Burmese biryani.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Burmese? Trying to one-up me for the Kashmiri?”
“It looked interesting. The biryani is served with a dried shrimp topping.”
Kamila was skeptical. “At least it’s my turn to choose the movie. Enough of your epic oldies. I have the perfect film picked out for next week. Jab We Met. It’s about a buttoned-up businessman and the free-spirited woman who makes him want to live again.” Kamila wrinkled her nose. “Now that I think about it, that’s really sexist. Like, the only purpose for the quirky woman is to be an object that teaches the uptight man to enjoy life? But anyway, the scenery in it is supposed to be amazing. And I checked—the lead actress dances soaking wet in the rain. I know you’re not happy unless you see at least one dancing-in-the-rain scene in an Indian movie.”
He blinked, blank faced.
“You know it’s true, Rohan. I swear, if I ever find a man who looks at me the way you look at a woman in a wet sari, I’ll be set for life.”
He laughed, turning to look at the food on the counter. “Is there an issue with how that child you’re dating looks at you?”
“Ernesto is twenty-three. And we were hooking up, not dating. It was an FWB situation.”
“Friends with benefits. But the benefit period has now ended. His internship is done and he’s heading back to Brazil today. That’s why he left before the movie last night.”
Rohan’s head tilted in what looked like genuine concern. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. You okay?”
Kamila shrugged. “We had fun, but like I said, casual.” She frowned when she remembered Ernesto’s goodbye last night. “It’s probably for the best he’s leaving now—the guy was growing a little too…enamored. I would have had to have broken it off anyway.”
“Honestly, Kam, I don’t get how you can only want casual. You don’t want people feeling things for you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I want people feeling things for me. Just not, like, permanent commitment-type feelings. Casual is the new exclusive.” She exaggeratedly looked around the empty room before lowering her voice and stepping closer to him. “It’s pretty great to only have shiny new-relationship sex and never boring routine sex. Nothing like that new man smell.” She licked her lips, watching a cute shade of pink rise up Rohan’s cheeks.
This was fun. “Although…” she continued. “I am going to miss Ernesto. We had a private final date on Thursday, and let me tell you, that man is talented. He could do this thing with his fingers and his tongue in sync—”
Rohan slapped her hip with a tea towel to stop her. Probably best. She loved knowing she could unravel Mr. Buttoned-Up like that, but she knew he wasn’t getting much action. It was cruel to rub it in.
“Anyway,” she said. “You know why I only do casual. I have no intention of abandoning Dad, and that’s what a serious relationship would do. All a girl needs are friends, companionship, and sex. I have plenty of the first two, and I always know exactly where to find the third.”
Her father wasn’t over Kamila’s best friend, Asha, who’d lived just around the corner, moving four kilometers away into her new wife’s McMansion. Bad enough that Kamila’s sister, Shelina, and her husband, Zayan, who happened to be Rohan’s brother, moved two hours away to London, Ontario, with their sons a few years ago.
Rohan was still a touch pink, so she decided to see how frazzled a CEO could get. “You should think about having casual sex sometime, old man. You’ve been divorced for what—a year now? I saw an ad for a seniors mixer at the community center. Want me to get the deets for you?”
He looked comically affronted and almost said something before shaking his head, smiling. “Kamila Hussain, you are trouble. Capital T. I have no idea why I put up with you.”
She smiled her sweetest smile and ran her finger over that scruff on his cheek. “Because I make you feel young again.”
At thirty-two, Rohan was only five years older than her twenty-seven, so hardly an old man. With his rock-climber’s body, chiseled jaw, and seriously intimidating demeanor, he was the perfect example of a high-powered King Street executive. Except, of course, on Saturday mornings when he was in his pajamas and swatting Kamila with tea towels. Rohan would have a lineup of women happy to be casual, committed, or anything in between if he wanted it. But he didn’t seem to be interested after his wife left him.
Dad reappeared then, a small box of bandages in his hand. “Sorry, beti, I had a phone call.”
Kamila took the box from him. “Go, sit, drink your tea.” She could handle this. Her blood thing was usually only a problem at the first sight of her own blood. Rohan looked back at her, concerned. “I got this. Go sit,” she told him.
“Okay, but I’ll be right here if you need me to put out any fires.”
After bandaging her own hand, she finished slicing the sweet potatoes and put two slices in the toaster.
“That was Rashida on the phone,” Dad said to Rohan. “Jana Suleiman is returning from Tajikistan soon.”
What? No. Kamila must have misheard. Jana Suleiman’s fancy contract at an international aid agency was supposed to go on for a few more months.
“Her contract is over already?” Rohan asked.
“Apparently she’s left her post early,” Dad said.
They continued talking about Jana the Great, while Kamila’s mind was reeling. Fudge. Kamila did not like Jana Suleiman.
She took a breath. This wasn’t a big deal. Her focus should only be on Dad’s health and growing her client list at Emerald. So what if her secret nemesis was moving back to town? She felt a throbbing in her finger, a reminder that she’d already had one mishap here and didn’t need another. But it was fine. One cut finger was hardly a fire to be put out.
Dad suddenly stood, knocking his chair to the floor. “Kamila! The toaster’s on fire! You need to put it out!”
Kamila put that little kitchen inferno out of her mind because her client meeting today was beyond important. It had to go well—this was a dream client. It was exactly the type of large, complicated account Kamila needed to prove to Dad that she could manage things fine if he went down to part-time at Emerald. But if there was one thing Kamila prided herself on, it was her ability to brush off setbacks and forge ahead, usually with impeccable style. And style was something she’d need to wow this client—Nirvana Lotus Day Spa was a buzz-worthy establishment whose soothing bamboo and vibrant lotus flower decor was so Insta-worthy the place had risen to the top of Toronto spots to be photographed in. That was why Kamila hadn’t changed out of the full-skirted floral dress and matching heels.
After arriving at the posh building, she gave her name to the receptionist and waited for one of the spa owners to meet her.
Five minutes later, a woman appeared in the waiting room. “Ah! Kamila! Fabulous! Thank you so much for meeting me on a Saturday! I’m sorry I had to cancel yesterday. Can I offer you a manicure to make up for it? I was just about to get my weekly polish change.”
This was Kacey McKinley, one of the owners of the spa. Kamila wasn’t about to say no to the manicure, as she’d discovered that business owners were easier to please when immersed in the services they provided. She’d signed a hairstylist client while getting her color done, and she’d secured Ink Girls, a chain of tattoo shops, while a watercolor-style peony was tattooed to the side of her right rib cage just last week.
“So, tell me more about your company itself,” Kacey asked as the technician soaked off Kamila’s polish. “I’m always looking to support women-owned businesses.”
“Well, we’re not woman-owned per se. My father owns Emerald. Dad is all about gender equality, though!” Kamila cringed, well aware that she sounded amateurish. She sat up straighter as a woman wearing a dust mask clipped her cuticles. “We each keep our own clients. He works mainly in the health-care sector, while I’m moving toward providing freelance CPA and financial-analyst services for small- to medium-sized service-industry businesses.”
“You don’t look anything like any of the other accountants I’ve met with.”
Kamila grinned. She knew she didn’t look or dress like most accountants. For some, that might be a negative, but for a client like Kacey McKinley, it was a strike in Kamila’s favor.
“I’ll be honest with you, Kamila. I’m meeting with other accountants this week,” Kacey continued. “Bigger firms that have experience working with businesses at our level. We are planning to expand significantly in the near future, and the finance piece of it will get complicated. Plus, a conscientious accountant is important to us. We value sustainability and ethical commerce above all else. Did you know we work with a women’s collective in the Congo to make the herbal soaks in our vitality ponds?”
The nail tech held out a tray of gel polishes, and Kamila picked a nude similar to the one Kacey was having applied. Not Kamila’s usual vibrant hues, but maybe she needed to play the part here. “I’ve done a lot of research on your business.” Kamila would normally have brought out a file folder with a full proposal for the client at this point, but her hands were, of course, occupied. Good thing she had a stellar memory. “On the phone you mentioned looking for new capital. Well, I found several grants for women-owned businesses in Ontario you can apply for. You can also leverage your work with the local college to get funding from the Ministry of Education. And there are opportunities if you register as a sustainable business. Another of my clients was able to get—”
“There's nothing better than a book that warms your heart and your belly. This Bollywood-inspired retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma is a fun, lighthearted binge from page one.”
- "An endearing cast led by a Bollywood-loving hero and a fashionista heroine set Heron’s retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma apart from the pack. Both Austenites and movie fans who fondly remember Clueless will be delighted."—Publishers Weekly
- "A sweet, slow-burn story about a woman who finds herself before finding love."—Kirkus
- “Heron’s sensitive insights infuse this romance with both immense charm and emotional depth.”—Booklist
- A “delightful comedy inspired by Jane Austen's Emma.”—Shelf Awareness
- On Sale
- Mar 8, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages