Despite a late night at a club opening and an even later night in the bedroom, Ayaan Malhotra woke up miraculously energized and lacking the hangover he’d anticipated.
It was a sign, he’d decided. Of what, he wasn’t sure, but it was going to be a good day.
The city hadn’t woken up yet. It was still dark out—the sky was navy blue and the streetlights were on, lazily twinkling in the early hours.
He glanced at his phone absentmindedly, and an email from his manager appeared on his notifications.
The marketing campaign you designed for Divinity’s wellness brand is outstanding. They’ve seen a monster rise in sales since using your social strategy. Great work.
He couldn’t stop the goofy grin that crawled across his face.
Ayaan shifted his weight, burrowing his head into the pillow, and glanced to his left where Neha slept, still spent from last night’s antics.
Neha Dev was a model—she’d recently landed a campaign with an up-and-coming South Asian fashion house. Her star was on the rise, and he liked feeling the warmth of its glow.
And they had shared a bed at her place, around the corner from his best friend Kai’s, for what felt like the millionth time in the last year.
He’d say she was his—they’d been dating for some time, after all—but that felt too committed…as though they’d never get a chance to be anyone else’s. He wasn’t ready for that.
Not to mention they broke up every few weeks for a myriad of reasons: he’d eyed the waitress in front of her, she’d gotten too close to an old flame on the dance floor, he’d forgotten to call her back, and therefore, she “wasn’t a priority,” and a couple of times he barely remembered because they’d both been too drunk.
But as he watched her sleep, her long black hair with chestnut-brown highlights splayed out on the pillow after a passionate night of not resting, the jolt inside his chest told him he certainly felt something. Perhaps even something strong.
He appreciated her confidence, her drive, and her focus. It was sexy as hell being with a woman who had no problem saying she was busy but that she’d make time for him later. Selfishly, it allowed him his freedom, which he’d moved from London for, and it made their reunions that much more fun when they’d been apart for a few days, hustling at their respective endeavors.
Yeah. Neha was a catch. And she gave him something to look forward to. God knows he didn’t have much of that in London…to Ayaan, Neha was synonymous with the hope New York offered him, away from his family, obligation, and the weight that dragged him down when he spent too much time around them.
He rolled over, ready to sleep again, when his phone vibrated loudly on the bedside table.
Scrambling so he wouldn’t wake her, he grabbed it and jumped out of bed, glancing down at the screen as he made his way to the bathroom for a private space where he could speak.
Ayaan wondered if Arun sensed his passing thoughts about the family. His older brother consistently forgot—or, Ayaan knew, likely didn’t care—that there was a five-hour difference between them, and calling at noon in London still meant Ayaan had to answer at the ass crack of dawn in New York.
“Do you ever consider that I could still be sleeping?” he furiously whispered as a form of greeting when he’d shut himself into the white-tiled space.
“I do,” Arun said in an infuriatingly smug way. “But if I depended on your ability to get out of bed and be productive, then I’d be waiting forever, wouldn’t I?”
Ayaan bristled but refused to take the bait. “What’s up? Did I miss a birthday or something?”
“While that wouldn’t be surprising, no, I was calling to see how you’re doing.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to pick me up off the floor. I’ve died of surprise.”
“You’re hilarious,” Arun replied, sounding bored. “We had dinner with Mum and Dad last night. Mum said she missed you. I thought I’d give you a call to see how you’re holding up across the pond.”
“I’m doing well. I’ve been seeing someone.”
He blurted it out before he knew what he was saying, and he had no idea why. Perhaps he was prompted by the way Neha had elicited tenderness out of him just moments before, or perhaps he was ready to settle down after all. Or—even he wasn’t dense enough to deny it—perhaps he wanted a moment to bond with his older brother…a moment where Arun was proud that his wayward younger sibling had landed a steady girl and a beautiful one at that, and he’d give Ayaan a virtual pat on the back for finally doing something right for a change.
Maybe he’d tell Ayaan how he’d pined for Sarika, his wife—and, Ayaan would admit to anyone who would listen, the best thing to ever happen to the Malhotra family—since they were preteens, feigning surprise each time that she was at dinner parties their families attended when in truth, he’d asked his parents for days who would be attending, hoping her name would come up. Maybe he’d say he was happy Ayaan had found anything that bordered on a similar thrill.
“Well, it’s about time,” Arun said instead. There was no warmth, just the tone of an impending lecture ahead.
Ayaan pushed away the stab of disappointment. “I have no idea what that means, but she’s great. She’s smart and funny—”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a model. She graduated from—”
“A model, Ayaan? Seriously?” Arun’s exasperation was impossible to miss.
“What? What’s wrong about that?”
“You know Mum and Dad are worried about you settling down, don’t you? You’re over thirty. At some point, you’re going to have to buckle down, go for a nice girl with some prospects for the family, and quit being such a noncommittal flake.”
“I just told you I was in a relationship.”
“Did you now?” Arun sounded amused. “I thought you said you were ‘seeing someone,’ like how you would describe seeing a therapist…which, by the way, you should probably do.”
“Oh, fuck off, Arun,” Ayaan grumbled.
“Anyway…aside from your dating life, I kind of lied about why I called.”
“Is everyone okay? Is Sarika all right?”
“Everything’s great—for me, especially. Dad is going to name me CEO of Veer.”
The words hung in the air, and Ayaan, who had been running his fingers through his hair, grasped onto it in shock instead.
“Why are you surprised? I’ve been running the show behind the scenes for years.”
“I—I thought they were still deciding—besides, Dad isn’t retiring yet, is he?”
“If you were around more often, you’d know that Dad’s thinking about stepping down early and staying on the board instead.”
“And so you’re getting the job?”
Arun seemed to grow exasperated. “Yes. How many times do I have to repeat myself?”
“I’m just surprised. I thought there was more time—I could—”
“What? You could take over instead?”
“No,” Ayaan said slowly. “I thought I could be be included in the new direction.”
“If you have any CMO candidates, send them our way. Vincent is leaving for non-profit life and I’m leading the search.”
His brother had turned the knife painfully. Had they not considered Ayaan as the rightful fit for the Chief Marketing Officer job?
His silence wasn’t taken well.
“Well, I’ll take that silence as congratulation,” Arun said. “But as a note of advice—”
“You mean as a directive?”
Arun continued as though he hadn’t heard Ayaan. Come to think of it, he probably hadn’t. “You need to grow up, Ayaan. Get it together. That’s probably why Dad didn’t consider you for the advancement of the company.” Then he dug the knife in a little more. “Given your history, I’d think you’d try twice as hard to prove yourself but you keep demonstrating you don’t deserve a second chance.”
Then he hung up.
Ayaan stared at the phone, tempted to hurl it against the wall before deciding that it wasn’t worth paying more money to Apple to compensate for a moment’s frustration.
He set the phone on the counter, leaning against the sink and staring at his face in the mirror.
Traces of dark bags under his eyes were visible, souvenirs from late nights out. A five o’clock shadow gave his face a ragged appearance, though he was nearly always clean-cut and took pride in his good looks.
“You’re not lazy and you’re not worthless,” he whispered to himself.
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