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“Nelson Mandela once gave a speech quoting: ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising each time we fall,’ and…” Rani Kapoor broke off as a giggle escaped. No. She couldn’t giggle. Podcasters didn’t giggle, did they? None of the two dozen podcasts she’d immersed herself in for research, since her sister Shanti had announced that they’d been approached with a deal, had even hinted at a giggle.
But Rani laughed, giggled, and even sometimes broke into snippets of songs on her one-hour radio segment on Saturday mornings. Why should a podcast be that different? She’d been offered the slot casually at a party a few months ago by a friend of her father’s, who sponsored the four hours of Charlotte Indian community-focused programming. She’d received so many calls, emails and DMs that he’d added her chatty and what still felt impromptu show to his Chicago, DC and Atlanta programming. And now a big sponsor was dangling a podcast with professional equipment and wide reach.
“Nelson Mandela?” Gemma’s vivid green eyes were like those big googly stick-on eyes found at Michael’s craft shop. “Failure?”
Gemma Reese, friend and now PA and assistant producer in this potential new venture made a dramatic slashing motion across her throat and then a time-out sign. Her dark red curls waved around her pale face like tentacles. Rani didn’t hit the pause button because she totally believed that you could trip over a gold nugget of truth or inspiration at any moment. She often left her voice memo recording in her pocket—something her family found maddening, especially now with her sister Shanti and brother-in-law Rakesh’s new elevated political status.
“This is a podcast about finding love. You’re supposed to record three samples, and we are on the clock.” Gemma tapped the face of her Apple smartwatch like she was a character in a clumsy high school play.
“There’s a lot of failure in finding love,” Rani objected, smiling, she hoped reassuringly, at her new intern Monet, who was filming the podcast to create excerpts for all social media platforms. Monet was a client at the Durga Ladder, a nonprofit helping young women who’d been traumatized by domestic abuse, sexual violence or sex trafficking. It was founded by her brother-in-law, but now had many Kapoor family members on the board.
Monet, who insisted on being called Sparkle for a blindingly obvious reason, rolled her eyes. Rani wondered if the glossy, glittering eye shadow ever made her eyelids stick, but she wisely kept her opinions about Sparkle’s physical appearance to herself for now. Rani was the mental health coordinator for the Durga Ladder program and, through her education and experience, she knew women wore different types of armor, and that progress was often made in small, staggering steps over time.
“You’re supposed to be giving listeners hope and amusement.” Gemma grabbed a handful of her hair just like she had when they were still college freshmen curled up on their long twin beds painting their toenails vivid shades of sparkling pink or red. “You are building up your fan base. Creating a brand. Masala Matchmaker. Romance with Rani,” Gemma slickly started the spiel.
“I’m supposed to be helping people find themselves as they look for love,” Rani said, feeling the prick of defensiveness creep in.
“And you will.” Gemma swept her arm out forcefully as if she were a pretty Moses, the grace from her years of dance lessons and dance minor in college fluid in every line. “As you amuse, intrigue and…”
“I can’t always play the part of the clown. I’m defending my doctorate dissertation in January right after Rohan’s wedding and just before Lohri,” Rani reminded her friend.
Hopefully, by the Punjabi festival—bidding goodbye to the dark of winter and hello to the light and growth of spring—Rani would finally remake her life and no longer be the embarrassing, unaccomplished Kapoor.
“I can’t just speak off the cuff about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right like I’m chatting in a bar.”
“Chatting is what you are supposed to be doing but be entertaining while you’re doing it.”
“Ark, ark, ark.” Sparkle startled them both by barking like a seal, clapping her hands together and spinning in a circle. “Here’s a fish for you.”
Rani was pleased that Sparkle avoided stumbling into any of the equipment.
“A trained seal,” Rani mused. “I wonder if that’s better than being a trained monkey. My family always called me monkey, but I was sadly untrained at everything.”
She had been an embarrassment. An inconvenience. But she had been loved.
“Rani, the radio show reaches…I don’t know…was it ten or fifteen thousand listeners in the expanded programming?” Gemma scrolled through her phone. “The podcast opportunity is a commercial enterprise, and you want to reach a wider audience, not just desis or whatever y’all call yourselves,” Gemma said, her eyes glinting in the light slanting in through the wall of windows in the penthouse condo that Rani’s sister Shanti had purchased and renovated for her use.
Because she was worried about you never having your own home.
“The listeners for your radio show definitely want advice about how to find a partner. You need to grab that wheel in your wheelhouse and steer into a wider lane in open waters.”
Rani could almost imagine Gemma with pom-poms.
“They teach you to say stupid stuff like that in college?” Sparkle demanded.
“These are listeners.” Gemma ignored Sparkle’s interruption. “Your fans. Your ticket to next-level financial enterprise. They are not your clients.”
They could be, Rani silently objected, but she’d hired a producer because Shanti had insisted, and she’d hired Gemma because she trusted her more than someone Shanti would have hired who likely would have worn severely beautiful suits and heels and been focused and intimidating AF, although Gemma was more intense about the podcast than Rani had anticipated. She’d only seen the friend Gemma—the let’s go for dinner, drinks, dancing or movies Gemma, or the sympathetic Gemma who held your hair while you hurled or held you when you ugly-cried over a guy or a bad grade or a job loss.
“I know they aren’t clients,” Rani admitted. “But I still feel responsible for my message. And I’ve worked so hard on my dissertation and I’m so close.” She held up her thumb and forefinger and squeezed them together. “I don’t want my committee to not take my thesis seriously because they think I’m selling out academia for a more pop-psychology approach with the potential book deal and the Rulz of Attraction game.”
“You’re on top, Rani,” Gemma said. “So much has changed for you, girl—almost done with school, finally.” She laughed a little. “Book deal, radio show leading to a podcast. A party game out next holiday season with the book. You got new digs.” Gemma looked around admiringly. “The job as director of mental health services at Durga, health insurance, 401K plan.”
“Dang, Queen,” Sparkle said, slightly adjusting one of the “studio” lights as the late autumn sun slid out from behind a cloud, lighting up the living room of the penthouse condo. “You should be celebrating your bad ass, not worried about failing or falling down and getting back up. Get on with it, I say.”
Rani blinked, feeling like she was still partially caught in a dream. Her life really had changed this year. “I should be happy.” She looked around at the beautiful space that Shanti had bought “as an investment,” yet given to her to live in.
“Definitely,” Gemma encouraged. “You’re on top.”
“But…” Rani pressed her lips together. How did she say this? She was their boss now. And yet she had no idea what she was doing. Shanti, her high-powered IP attorney sister, had worked her professional magic to make these deals for Rani.
All she had was…her.
“I feel like…”
I don’t know what I’m doing.
“I feel like I’m drowning.”
“No.” Gemma lunged forward and enveloped her in a quick, hard hug that had some of Gemma’s bright red hair going into Rani’s mouth. “You are swimming in the cream of the top now in long, graceful strokes—totally freestyling it, girl.”
Rani tried to spit out the mouthful of hair without making a sound.
“You’ve won. Dissertation, check.”
Defending in January.
“First book is killing it on the pre-orders and generating best seller buzz.”
Still drafting and waiting to hear back from my editor about my final chapters.
“And now a hit podcast!”
Still recording samples and finessing the approach.
As fast as Gemma listed her accomplishments like aces in a poker hand, Rani slapped down a deuce of reality.
“Why you fussing?” Sparkle examined her gelled nails painted disco-ball silver. “You’re just talking about love. How hard can that be? You can say anything. No rules.”
Her no-duh tone partially lifted Rani out of her panicked funk. But Gemma took umbrage.
“We are building a brand, Sparkle,” Gemma said sounding calm, kind and maternal and confirming why Rani had wheedled Gemma into leaving her safe but boring economic analyst job to come work as her producer. “We need to be especially thoughtful and diligent as we proceed. The podcast and the book are just the beginning of Rani’s finding-love brand.”
Or the end.
Again anxiety speared her chest, and Rani felt like blood would spurt out and stain Shanti’s arctic-white walls. Or wouldn’t it because the projectile would seal the wound? Her cousin Rohan would know. He was a cardiothoracic surgeon who loved debating hypotheticals.
She was responsible for Gemma now. And Sparkle. This was Sparkle’s chance to learn a profession. To experience respect and success. And Shanti had invested so much of her time into helping Rani navigate these offers. What if she let them down? What if she screwed up, changed her mind, failed…hence the Nelson Mandela quote? She knew all about failure. She’d steeped in it her entire life. The changeling Kapoor. The quirky one. The lost soul. All the whispered labels she’d heard her entire life echoed in her head.
“Love.” Sparkle’s voice oozed disdain. “People should have more important things to focus on.”
“Hopefully not,” Gemma said, “and as the intern you will want to reflect Rani’s brand. Lift it up.”
“Oh. I’m lifting daily,” Sparkle said. “Move the furniture. Set up the recording equipment here or there. Move those sound-muffling wall dividers all around. Break the equipment down again. Shove the walls over. Move furniture back. Pick up the food deliveries from the lobby. I broke a nail when I was filming the last TikTok video but repaired it without complaining.” She held up her right hand and spread her fingers wide.
“All’s fair in love,” Gemma misquoted.
“Not love,” Rani said, inspiration striking. Well not exactly. More like self-analysis. “I have a classic case of imposter syndrome.” Rani jumped up off the yoga ball she’d been sitting on—trying it out to see if it improved her posture and aided her core, or if it would roll away from her and spill her to the floor during her podcast, necessitating another round of editing.
“What, what?” Sparkle finally looked interested.
“I’m not just talking about love,” she sang out, hugging Sparkle, who stiffened a little but then patted her head as if she were a favored pet.
“Love’s your jam,” Gemma objected. “Your theme. Your brand.”
“It isn’t. Not really.” Rani flipped on her phone’s voice memo. “I’m really trying to drill down to our cores—our iron and other hard metals and stones in our heart and psyches.”
Gemma and Sparkle both stared at her as if she were a stray dog or cat on the doorstep—wet, dirty, hungry but still kinda cute.
“‘The Adventures of the Misguided Masala Matchmaker’ podcast. The game Rulz of Attraction. The book Rani’s Romance Rules—all of it is not just about finding the perfect partner. Finding love. It’s about finding yourself. Loving yourself so you can love another. It’s…” She paused and then slapped her chest. “It’s about self-discovery too. Who are you really? Who do you want to be? I want to take listeners and readers on a journey of discovery.”
She clicked off the record button and lifted up onto her toes and took a dramatic bow as much to stretch out her back as for effect. When she rose up, both Gemma and Sparkle seemed to be waiting for more. What? Rani felt she had been clear. She got it now.
“Identity,” she said softly. “We are going on a search for ourselves before we search for love.”
Jasminder Singh stood on the balcony of a Malibu mansion carved into the weathered hills still standing guard above the continuous onslaught of the chilly Pacific. On the deck below him, was a party, a celebration, though it probably didn’t look like that. No one was dressed up. Conversation was muted and mostly work-related. The few plus-ones who’d been invited had congregated somewhere else in the house, another deck or the media room or perhaps the spa—ludicrous he had anything that could remotely be called a spa. Wherever they’d headed, he knew they were well supplied with champagne or cocktails and seafood-themed appetizers from one of the top caterers in Los Angeles.
He hadn’t planned the party or wanted it. His moneyman and business partner Ruben Max had insisted. Time to bond.
And because Ruben oozed all the social aplomb he utterly lacked, he’d allowed his small, fifty-eight-person staff to waste several days bonding up and down the California coast. Wine tasting in Napa, a day at a dude ranch in Paso Robles or an outdoor adventure facility with zip lines, a rope and obstacle course, and a boulder and rock climbing course in the Redwoods. Then they’d had a night of games, puzzles and escape rooms outside of Ojai. Today had been golf, deep sea fishing or whale watching, which culminated with an evening at his “home,” which he’d never once spent a night in. He’d only purchased the house because of the Zen way it blended into the hill and the views. And he needed a place to invest that made him feel, if only for a moment, normal. Owning a sprawling ocean-front mansion seemed like something a high-tech CEO should do or at least want to do.
Ruben loved it, said it could be their “seductive corporate bling-bling to seal more deals.”
So here he was, up hiding in what should be the primary bedroom suite while Ruben played host. No. Not hiding. Taking a break. He’d have to go back to the main floor again at some point. Ruben was a stickler about appearances, but he did give Jas space. They each had their strengths and lanes and respected each other’s not-so-perfect parts, which was why the partnership and friendship had endured since freshman year at Stanford.
Down below there was a cocktail-making class with whiskey. Next would be the sushi-making demonstration. The evening would culminate with a torcedor rolling cigars and a cigar sommelier discussing whatever it was they discussed. Jas would never intentionally put anything like that deliberately in his body. He had no intention of indulging in any part of the evening. If he could have avoided the entire extended weekend of fun without deeply disappointing Ruben, he would have.
He sipped his water, gazed out at the vast, disinterested Pacific. He had—he reluctantly admitted—enjoyed seeing the whales this afternoon, although he’d felt intrusive—spying on the majestic animals in their homes as a few early whales made their way south toward their winter feeding grounds. But the whales had seemed equally curious about those on the boat. Spyhopping, the charter guide had called it, as the three whales had swum under and around the boat, frequently popping up and bobbing like oversized grayish corks. Nothing like an animal that could grow up to forty feet plus and weigh over sixty thousand pounds to put a puny human in perspective.
Not that he wasn’t aware of his own shortcomings.
He just hid them better than most, at least on the outside.
Or so he told himself.
“You coming down?” Ruben Max, his college roommate turned venture capitalist and extraordinary deal broker, poked his head out of the bedroom door. “The torcedor just arrived and is setting up for her demonstration, but I doubt anyone will be looking at her cigars.”
Code for pretty. Sexy. Young. She’d probably be chilly now that the sun had set, and the marine layer was rolling in. Had the event planner thought to have an extra heater on the deck?
God, the fact that that was his first thought made him feel way older than thirty-five years.
“I’ll be down in a few.” He had to say something.
He’d learned that. People expected verbal responses. His maternal grandmother had reminded him over and over. Respond. Eye contact. His maternal grandfather had reminded him with slaps. He didn’t know which method had been the most effective. He heard his grandmother’s voice in his head so maybe gentle, but firm verbal cues. High expectations. Push. Push. Stand tall. Be your best. But blend in. Don’t boast. Thank God for His blessings.
He’d never slap his child—not that he’d ever have one. But if he did, he’d cut off his hand before he ever slap such a tender, vulnerable cheek. The world had been a bewildering place for him as a child—loud, chaotic, too fast-moving. He had rarely spoken, choosing to try to observe and understand, too afraid of saying the wrong thing.
If his parents had lived, would they have understood him?
If his father’s family so far away had indicated an interest, would he have been cherished? Nurtured? He hadn’t had unproductive thoughts like this in decades.
Instead of leaving, Ruben came all the way out onto the balcony. “It’s a damn fine view, but the view’s just as good downstairs, and that’s where all the action is.”
Jasminder continued to look out to sea like he was some lonely sailor longing for shore, even though nothing and no one waited for him anywhere. He loved the ocean—so removed from him. Indifferent. Independent. Offering an escape.
Where would I go?
Absurd. He had the money to travel anywhere. Anytime. But he would still be him, awkward and stuck in his head, obsessed with solving the latest problems to hijack his churning mind.
“Jas, what you’ve built the past five years is incredible. No one thought it could be done, but you did it. Total game changer for the industry. And now you need to decide to go public or sell so you can get on to the next idea.”
“What do you think I should do?”
They’d never had this conversation before. He’d never gone public. He sold. Moved on. Why was he hesitating now?
“You’re a creator not a manager.”
That was damn true. But could he change? Reinvent himself? Words from a radio show he’d stumbled on during a trip to Atlanta—intrigued by the “Masala” word in the title—echoed in his head about rising up from failure, embracing the adventure of next. Not that he’d failed at anything.
Except being human, sort of. Making connections. Although Ruben had stuck. So had his initial team when he’d struck gold early in college. But his development team had likely stuck around for the money and freedom he gave them professionally, trusting their process once given a task. He was under no illusion that they stayed for him. Definitely Ruben inspired loyalty and camaraderie—hence the team-bonding experiences. And the money was a seductive lure. Even though Jas was the idea man, he and Ruben split their shares equally. Ruben was the face of all negotiations. He paved the way, got them in the door face-to-face with intrigued and hungry clients. Then Jas’s ideas, his systems, his products, his innovations sold themselves. Jas’s brain would already be leapfrogging to the next problem to solve.
Could he stick with one idea, play it out, keep his core team, but expand, build and grow? Why was he always so restless? Chasing the next problem or idea? Never building a home or a core company.
Ruben rubbed his hands together. “I know you don’t like the parties and the schmoozing, and that’s why you’ve got your crew and me.” Ruben chuckled self-deprecatingly as if he didn’t think he was the smoothest, most dialed in genius in the room full of geniuses. “But tonight, we celebrate. Relax. Take a deep breath and then on Monday prepare for the next mountain or marathon—whatever metaphor works for you. You want to make inroads into the Indian market. That’s going to take some finesse, and it’s going to take personal commitment from you. Indians are tight. I can’t get us in that door on my own.”
“I don’t think there’s a door that wouldn’t open for you.” Jas meant it.
Ruben laughed. “Real world, Jas. We both live in it.”
As a biracial man—his mom had been of Korean descent, and his dad from Barbados—Ruben was a fascinating blend who loved to turn people’s expectations and confusion inside out and upside down. But Jas preferred remaining in the background. He’d avoided the Indian high-tech business market for a reason—likely one that would seem pathetically cowardly to Ruben. But lately, learning more about his heritage had tempted him. Mysterious. Forbidden in a way he didn’t quite understand. But he’d always struggled with his heritage. His father had been a Sikh from Punjab. His mother an Iowa dairy farm girl, blonde, blue-eyed straight out of American farm girl central casting.
He wasn’t one thing or another. Growing up, he’d been other—exotic. Dark in a sea of white. When he’d gone to Stanford, the Indian students had also found him other—too American. He didn’t speak Hindi or Punjabi. He had no knowledge of the food, the culture, the religion, no nanima pressing more rotis on him after a trip home. No aunties fussing into his business. His grandparents had turned up their noses at his full-ride scholarship. They wanted him to stay home and take over the dairy farm, not build an empire of something they didn’t understand.
He’d been a novelty. People hadn’t been unkind. They’d just been…curious, standoffish. Ruben too had been a curiosity, but Ruben had been driven to be included. He’d grabbed Jas and dragged him through every door he’d busted through. Except the Indian market, where Jas hovered humiliatingly on the threshold.
Damn radio show and the host’s musical voice with a seductive trace of sexy-husky combined with a topic randomness that had felt a bit like whack-a-mole, and intriguingly broad and refreshing—definitely unpolished. She’d lurched from Carl Jung references to quoting hip-hop lyrics and then mixing in some Carl Sagan with Voltaire.
Who did that?
Who funded such a show?
And yesterday a podcast had been teased. He’d preordered.
“Take a moment to celebrate.” Ruben dragged him back to the night, the party he was avoiding. His friend wrapped one brawny arm around him and squeezed hard. “Jas, you can dream up your next big multimillion-dollar idea after Monday.”
Ruben loved the gym. Did a lot of deals there while he sweated it out with his trainer. Jas swam. The quiet, the cold, the lack of any other stimulation helped him get out of the noise in his head for an hour or two each day.
“What if I don’t?” He couldn’t help the question. And if it had been anyone other than Ruben, he wouldn’t have asked. “What if I don’t have another idea or problem I’m sucked into devoting sixteen to eighteen hours a day six or seven days a week developing? What if I’m dry five years before forty.”
Ruben’s laugh rang out in the night, but something in Jas’s expression or body must have given him away.
“Then we’ll still be rich as hell,” Ruben said. “And, Jas, there’s no shame in taking a break.” Ruben turned him around so that they were face-to-face and Jasminder looked into Ruben’s dark eyes. “You couldn’t spend all the money you’ve made in the last sixteen years even if you tried. You could walk away tomorrow, and you’d still be a legend in the Valley.”
Jas hadn’t set out to be a legend.
Ruben was so astute, a master player in the game of life and socializing and achieving the outcome he wanted, that he probably knew that every time he offered Jas an out, showed him the escape hatch, Jas would stay.
Because he didn’t want to be alone. Not really. Ruben was his lifeline. He kept him semi-engaged, normal in the game of life.
“Hell, everyone knows you by your first name.” Ruben grinned, his teeth very white against his dark skin. “You’re a nerd celebrity,” he joked. “But I know you. That brain of yours is going to be percolating something big. Let’s sell off this latest division to the highest bidder. The new team of investors we’ve been eyeing and courting from Delhi expressed a little interest. There are a couple of them at a trade show in Charlotte soon. We could dip our toes in.”
“We were shut down in Austin,” Jas said. The humiliation burned. And what if one of his attempted business deals came up against his biological grandfather? It was a fear always in the back of his mind. But also a lure. His biological grandfather had rejected the baby. Would he reject the multimillionaire Silicon Valley “legend”?
“No is never really no.” Ruben shrugged philosophically. “It just means ask again or differently. It’s a challenge.” He rubbed his big palms together.
Jas cringed inside. He and Ruben had met two key players from a Mumbai-based tech investment group at a trade show last month, and Ruben had done a soft pitch over whiskeys at a downtown Austin bar after stalking them there.
Ruben and he had been shut down politely, but hard. Pretty much a first for Ruben. But Ruben hadn’t been discouraged, and he had pushed Jas later that night in the hotel’s gym while Jas had burned with shame by the cold cut, to strategize a plan to access the burgeoning and wickedly lucrative Indian tech market.
‘Next level. Next level.’ Ruben’s eyes and voice had burned with passion that night. ‘We gotta do it, Jas. We have to jump.’
“You gotta admit you’re curious,” Ruben encouraged him now. “It’s a challenge like any other. We’ve never failed when we team up.” Ruben man-hugged him again. Quick. Hard. Release. It always astonished Jas how easily Ruben touched. How effortlessly he connected with anyone.
“You can bone up on your Indian bona fides, and we’ll fly out to Delhi and drown ourselves in whiskey and gorge ourselves on saag paneer until we explode. Cultural deep dive. Indians are savvy with business. They know how to party and negotiate while they do it.”
Unlike him. One more cultural gift he utterly lacked.
“India’s a huge market we’ve not begun to tap. Unlimited possibilities. Isn’t Mumbai where your father was from or was it Bangalore?”
“Delhi,” Jas said flatly.
He’d spent his whole life trying not to dwell on the father he hadn’t had a chance to know because a speeding while texting teen had blown through a stop sign while heading to the mall for Christmas shopping and killed his unmarried graduate-student parents on impact. Strapped in his rear-facing car seat, he’d been fine.
“Delhi,” Ruben repeated. “Right. That always reminds me of cold cuts and sandwiches. Speaking of food, come join everyone downstairs. It looks weird when you don’t join your own staff at a party.”
As a transition it was awkward and utterly un-Ruben-like.
“Weirder than usual?”
“I agree the mystique has served us well, but there are times you’re going to have to suck it up and tonight as we celebrate the conclusion of this project is one of those times, and when we meet with the Mumbai or the Delhi investors, you are going to have to Indian it up and socialize. You can use tonight as practice.”
“That’s why I have you.” Jas shoved down the sick feeling in his stomach. He was too old for nerves and anxiety. He was a high-tech multimillionaire. And becoming too much of a recluse.
Ruben laughed. “I’ll be there,” he promised. “But the Indian market is going to be more closed to me than to you.”
“I doubt that,” Jas grumped.
Ruben had reveled in his differences. Used it to his advantage. Jas had always felt frozen, not one thing or the other.
“We make our own reality.” Ruben laughed and clapped him on the back, steering him toward the stairs. “You are just going to have to make sure the Indian investors see your Indian part before your white part. I’ll buy you one of those dagger things to wear at your waist.”
“A kirpan,” Jas muttered. As a child, he’d been fascinated by the concept of a kirpan. He’d wondered if his father had had one. He’d guessed his father had been a Sikh because once his grandmother had slipped up and talked about him wearing one of “those godless scarves around his head.” Jas had learned a turban was called a dastar and that the kirpan was a ceremonial weapon only for symbolically fighting oppression.
“Relax, Jas. It will be fine. Just Indian it up a bit, and we’ll be golden. There’s probably a book about it,” Ruben teased. “Or a podcast. How to Indian it up to succeed in life and business.”
Indian it up. Ridiculous. Ruben made it sound so easy. Jas knew nothing was easy, especially trying to fit in. He’d given up trying long ago and lived life on his terms.
He followed Ruben down the winding cement open stairs, knowing he shouldn’t want to run in the opposite direction. It was a party, not an execution. He’d been here before facing the end of one idea with another not yet blooming in his mind—a tantalizing challenge.
He paused three steps from the bottom.
What if the next challenge is myself?
End of Excerpt