The lanky blonde stormed down the hall.
"Your ad said ?Swedish meatballs'," Andrew called after her. "I thought you meant the edible kind."
She jabbed the elevator button. "Sexist!" she yelled. "What kind of a girl cooks on a first date?"
Mrs. Sharma's door flew open. "What kind of a girl shouts on a first date?" she demanded.
The blonde ignored Mrs. Sharma, but Andrew grinned at his neighbor. Mrs. Sharma's gray hair was tied in a bun so neat that it looked like a perfect round stone. Andrew was always tempted to rap on it with his knuckles. She was wearing the crisply ironed white sari she'd worn every day since her husband died six months ago. That's what a good Indian widow does, she'd told Andrew, turning down his offers to take her shopping for a colorful sari.
The elevator swallowed the frustrated blonde. Andrew followed Mrs. Sharma into her apartment, sniffing the savory smells. He'd inherited his mother's sensitive nose. "Samosas today?" he asked. "Or is it kofta curry?"
She patted her immaculate hair and tried to look stern. "Why are you wasting your time with a girl like that, Andrew? You'll never find a good wife looking so messy."
He tucked in his shirt and straightened his tie. "I want an old-fashioned woman ? the kind that can cook and sew buttons and stuff. A younger version of you, Mrs. Sharma. Is that too much to ask?"
Mrs. Sharma gave him a searching look. "No, no, not at all." She took a deep breath. "Can you come to dinner this Saturday?"
"Sure. I don't have any plans." As you already know, he thought. She asked for his schedule every week so she knew which nights he'd need a home-cooked meal. She kept track of his calendar better than a Palm Pilot.
"Our niece has finally agreed to come for a visit," she told him.
"Rita? She's decided to venture out of India?" Mrs. Sharma nodded proudly. "She arrives on Friday."
Mr. Sharma used to brag about Rita constantly. She'd graduated with honors and won some Indian Woman of the Year Award. Andrew always took the time to study the big photo on their wall, politely agreeing that the girl with the glossy braid and dimples was indeed beautiful. That's an old picture, Andrew, Mr. Sharma always told him. She's grown up since then. Now Andrew checked out the photo with new interest. He'd seen more than one Bollywood flick with his neighbors, feasting his eyes on the babes bounding across the screen. Now he imagined an older version of the Sharma's brown-eyed niece flinging her braid in his direction.
"Come at seven," Mrs. Sharma ordered. "And please, Andrew, get a haircut."
"Auntie! You know how I despise matchmaking!"
"I wish you'd wear a sari, darling. You're such a lovely girl."
Rita was wearing a tie-dyed tank top and jeans. "No way, Auntie." I look too girlish already, she thought. No matter how short she cut it, her hair curled around her high cheekbones. Long lashes made her eyes look big, even without mascara.
"Be kind, Rita," her aunt begged. "Poor fellow! So handsome, good education, such lovely parents. So strange that he never wants his girlfriends to meet them."
Rita sighed. "I'll be good, Auntie."
The older woman bustled off to the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and Rita opened the door. Auntie's guest was just what she'd expected ? a dark-haired guy in a tailored suit clutching a ready-made florist's bouquet. He looked like a younger version of one of her aunt's favorite film idols.
Andrew almost dropped the orchids he'd spent so much time arranging. The delicate flowers would have fit the exotic princess of his dreams, but the girl who flung the door open was no fragile blossom. He glanced at the photo on the wall behind her, just to make sure she was the right person. Yup. This was Rita Sharma all right. She was still beautiful, even though her scowl reminded him more of a warrior than a princess. "Er ? I'm Andrew Fenarone," he said. "Your aunt invited me?"
"I'm Rita. Won't you come in?"
Her accent lilted up and down, making him feel a little dizzy. Silence dropped like a veil as they sat down. He noticed the tiger tattoo on her bicep. What does a guy say to a militant zealot type of Indian woman? None of the usual Bollywood phrases seemed to fit. He couldn't imagine this tie-dyed tiger woman peeking shyly at a suitor around a mango tree, for example.
Rita let the silence simmer. The suit was probably used to women taking care of the conversational work. She studied his hands. Both thumbnails were chewed, just like hers. He had clean, strong fingers, she noticed, but no rings. The thought came out of nowhere: these were nice hands for holding. She frowned. Why was she mooning over the suit's hands, for heaven's sake? "Did you grow up in Flushing?" she asked.
"My parents live on Long Island. Mom still cooks a pot of the world's best spaghetti every Sunday night."
She felt strangely defensive. "Auntie wanted to teach me to cook, but I can't stand being in a kitchen."
"She's settled for me instead," he said. "I made Sharma's channa masala last night."
Rita thawed a bit. "Auntie talks about you a lot."
"She misses you like anything. They both do ? did, I mean."
Rita was an expert at keeping emotions out of her voice. "After Uncle died, we thought she'd jump on the next plane. ?I have to keep a promise first,' she kept saying, begging me to visit."
"I loved that man," the suit said. "He used to sneak cappuccinos at my place. ?Don't want to hurt Dolly's feelings,' he'd say. ?But I'm not an afternoon tea sort of fellow.'" His voice wasn't quite steady, she noticed.
Silence descended again, but this time Rita didn't glare at the suit. Andrew, she corrected herself. A guy who brewed coffee for Uncle deserves a name.
Andrew fingered his sleeve. The hem was coming loose; he'd have to sew it so it didn't show. Tailors never did it right. He took a deep breath, taking in the aromas coming out of the kitchen. A delicate fragrance intermingled with the spices. Was it coming from the orchids he'd brought? Or was it drifting up from Rita's clean, smooth skin?
Like a genie, Mrs. Sharma suddenly appeared. "Dinner's ready."
She hovered over them, re-filling their plates while Rita described her work protecting tigers and their habitats. Hindi music was playing softly in the background. Andrew couldn't take his eyes off Rita. By the time he'd finished his lamb vindaloo, he was imagining the two of them and several tigers cavorting in a steamy jungle.
"I don't usually talk so much," Rita told him over rice pudding and milky Darjeeling tea. "You're a good listener, Andrew Fenarone."
Impulsively, he reached across the table to take her hand. "My parents would like your tigers," he said. "Want to meet them tomorrow?"
She smiled. "I like spaghetti," she answered. Andrew watched Mrs. Sharma wipe her eyes on her white saree. Her mission's accomplished, he realized. Rest in peace, Mr. Sharma. Rest in peace.
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