Her hands flew over sautéing garlic for the dal makhani. The act of preparing Baba's recipe loosened the panic in her chest, along with the congealed grief lodged deep inside. It had been twelve years since Baba put a bullet through his head. Ashna had heard the shot seconds before she found him facedown on his desk, a month before her eighteenth birthday. After his death, Ashna had left Curried Dreams in the care of his two most trusted employees and gone to Paris to fulfill Baba's dream of attending culinary school there, and to lick her wounds. It had been an indulgence she'd been paying for ever since she returned to find her father's legacy destroyed and buried in debt. The two men had siphoned five million dollars from Curried Dreams and made off with the money.
Baba's life had ended in a single deafening blast, but his restaurant had continued to bleed out for the past ten years. And Ashna was responsible for both.
With Curried Dreams she was determined to stem the bleed. So, thirty tables was definitely a victory, foreclosure notices notwithstanding.
After the last customers left, including one very grateful pregnant couple, Ashna thanked her staff, saving the announcement of the budget cuts for another day.
Mandy, who had stayed on after missing the baby shower she'd been headed to, pursed her lips as Ashna waved goodbye to Khalid and Wilfrieda. Her line chefs grabbed each other's hands as soon as they were out the kitchen door, making Ashna smile. Ah, fresh young love! It was like the smell of cumin roasting in butter: you couldn't hide it for anything.
"Which one of them are you going to fire, then?" The sharpness in Mandy's eyes nipped Ashna's sigh in the bud.
"I have a plan," Ashna lied cheerily.
"Of course you do." Recently Mandy's cynical gruffness had morphed more and more into bitterness, something Ashna refused to allow into her own heart.
Filling the copper kettle with water, she put it on the stove. What Mandy needed was a good tulsi oolong tea to relax her. Mandy ignored the overture, hung up her smock, and for the second time that evening grabbed her jacket from the closet. Mandy was always the last of the staff to leave. There was something comforting about their nightly routine of taking stock of the day and planning tomorrow together.
Except tonight, Mandy didn't throw Ashna her usual: "Get some rest, how will you catch a man if you look this exhausted?" Instead, she placed a hand on her hip and paused as though she didn't quite know what to do.
Ashna dropped the tea leaves from her jars into a tea ball, and waited.
"You've been promising me a raise all year," Mandy said finally.
Ashna forced herself not to squeeze the tea ball too tight. Fidgeting made her look helpless, and she was anything but helpless. She dropped her arms loosely at her sides and acted as though this didn't feel like being kicked in the gut.
"We had thirty tables today, and we've had twenty-five a few times this week. It's an upward trend." More than anything, she wanted to give Mandy a raise, give her entire staff raises.
"You know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, right?" Her assistant's hand on her hip was a familiar pose, but Mandy had never taken that tone with her.
Ashna had hired her five years ago, after Mandy's teenage daughter left her month-old baby sleeping in Mandy's house one night and disappeared. When Mandy came in for the interview, her desperation wrapped tight in the cloak of cheery optimism had felt only too familiar to Ashna. She'd let Mandy set up a cradle and playpen for the baby in the room behind the kitchen. As someone whose mother had walked away from her without a backward glance, anyone who did not abandon a child had Ashna's full support.
Then two years ago Mandy's daughter returned for her baby, setting the harried grandma free, but Mandy had stuck with Ashna. The look on her face said that the statute of limitations on that obligation had come to an end.
"You wouldn't be the first person to call me insane for holding on to Curried Dreams," Ashna said gently.
"If you hadn't reverted to the old menu, our thirty-table dinner rush might be a hundred-person rush by now." Mandy was never going to let that go.