After a devastating break-up, celebrity-obsessed lawyer Zara Patel is determined never to open her heart again. She puts her energy into building her career and helping her friends find their happily-ever-afters. She's never faced a guest at the singles table she couldn’t match, until she crosses paths with the sinfully sexy Jay Dayal.
Former military security specialist Jay has no time for love. His life is about working hard, staying focused, and winning at all costs. When charismatic Zara crashes into his life, he's thrown into close contact with exactly the kind of chaos he wants to avoid. Worse, they're stuck together for the entire wedding season.
So they make a deal. She'll find his special someone if he introduces her to his celebrity clients. But when their arrangement brings them together in ways they never expected, they realize that the perfect match might just be their own.
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When Zara Patel, hopeful girlfriend of an A-list movie star, entered Peter Patterson's Extreme Paintball Adventure for her cousin's bachelor-bachelorette party, there was a spring in her step, a song on her lips, a cake in her hands, and a celebrity autograph on her arm. Nothing could spoil her good mood, not even the high-pitched shriek of Parvati Chopra, her roommate and long-suffering best friend.
"What happened to your dress? Stacy is going to kill you!"
On a scale of disasters, a stained dress was hardly cause for alarm even if Stacy Jones, the bride's Maid of Horror, did tend to overreact. In the last six months alone, Zara had lost two jobs, three boyfriends, and four tires-stolen off her Caribbean Blue Chevy Spark when she'd been arguing a case in court. She'd also been rejected five times from the Hamilton app, which meant it would be at least another year before she could even try to get discount tickets to see her favorite Broadway musical of all time.
"Chad Wandsworth signed my arm!" Zara turned to the side to better display the bold strokes of the movie star's name etched in black Sharpie on her biceps. "I'm never going to wash again."
"I'm more interested in that stain." An ER doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, Parvati liked to drill down to the facts as quickly as possible. "I didn't think the dress could get any worse." Her gaze fixed on the bodice of Zara's hot pink '80s-style explosion of a dress adorned with taffeta, tulle, bows, sequins, ruffles, and sleeves puffed so high they obscured Zara's peripheral vision. "It'll be awesome," Stacy had said when she'd informed the bride's friends that they would be wearing secondhand bridesmaid's dresses for the paintball game. Zara wasn't convinced that a cleavage-baring minidress was the best attire for playing paintball in the middle of a forest, but she adored her cousin Tarun and his bride-to-be, Maria Gonzales, so she'd said "yes" to the dress and handed over her five dollars for the thrift store special.
"I was in an ice cream shop. You know I have no self-control when it comes to anything ice cream." She gave a resigned shrug. "I had a milkshake in one hand and the cake in the other when Chad-we're on a first-name basis now-walked in. He's in entertainment. I want to get into the business. I figured I should give him my card in case he ever finds himself in need of an attorney. I put the milkshake on the cake box, reached into my purse, and . . ."
"I can see what happened." Parvati sighed so loudly she startled a couple walking past. "I should have known the temptation would be too much. You couldn't just go in and buy the cake."
"Thank goodness for that," Zara retorted. "And for the fact my dress is standout hideous. Chad would have walked right past me. Instead, being a gentleman, he stopped to help me." She shot an envious gaze at Parvati's sky blue gown. With seven tiers of ruffles, puffed sleeves, and a hoop skirt, she was missing only a pair of glass slippers and cartoon birds fluttering around her sleek dark hair. It wasn't fair. Parvati didn't care for musicals. If anyone should have had the Enchanted-style princess dress, it was Zara. Instead, Stacy had punished her with the worst '80s fashion had to offer simply because Zara had accidentally spilled a glass of wine on her at the engagement party when she thought she'd seen Lin-Manuel Miranda at the bar.
"We'd better get the cake to Stacy," Parvati said. "She's already upset that we have to have mixed teams. When she sees your dress she's going to lose it."
Zara followed Parvati through the log building that was the beating heart of the paintball experience. Men in full camo and tactical gear stalked past them, ammo belts strapped across chests, weapons slung over backs, faces masked or painted like they were about to go full commando in the bush. "I thought this was supposed to be a fun, family-friendly activity," Zara muttered. "They look like they're about to go to war."
"Some people are very serious about paintball," Parvati said. "They buy their own custom gear and get an annual park pass so they can come here every weekend. You don't want to be on the field with those guys. They play to win. No mercy."
Zara shuddered as a monster of a man lumbered past, combat boots thudding on the plank floor, his body so heavy with gear he could barely walk. "I'm really rethinking the dress idea. I have a feeling we're going to wind up with a lot of bruises. Maybe even dead."
Parvati looked over her shoulder as the dude walked away. "Or we might find a Prince Charming in need of rescuing. If you see a hot guy with a broken arm or leg, a branch through his eye, a perforated gut, or even just a twisted ankle, text me."
"You're such a romantic." Zara couldn't keep the sarcasm from her tone.
"Romance is overrated," Parvati said. "I work eighty or ninety hours a week. I don't have time for flirting and long dinners. I don't want to waste valuable hours gnawing on an overcooked, overpriced steak in a dimly lit restaurant when all I really want is to get down and dirty."
"Even if he's injured? His performance might be impaired if he's in pain."
"I'll save him, heal him, and then I'll take him to bed." Parvati opened the door to the party room. "The grateful ones are the best. So eager, compliant, and willing to please."
"Cake is here." Zara smiled at the twenty women seated around a long table covered with a white plastic Be My Bachelorette tablecloth.
"I thought you'd never get here." Stacy gave a dramatic sigh and took the box from Zara. By some incredible twist of fate, Stacy had managed to "find" a brand-new perfectly sized pomegranate chiffon dress at the thrift store. With a waist-cinching bodice and elegant plunging neckline, the "secondhand" dress accentuated her slim figure and set off her beautiful auburn hair.
Zara gave Maria a quick hug before joining Stacy at the refreshments table where oblivion was waiting in the form of a five-gallon Box-o-Chardoneigh garishly decorated with pictures of galloping horses. She filled two glasses and gave one to Parvati before drinking hers in one gulp, shuddering at the bitter, acrid taste. Maybe the pictures of horses on the box were a hint that the liquid inside wasn't actually wine.
"Oh. My. God. Your dress!" Stacy slapped a hand over her chest like the shock of a stained dress that was imminently going to be splattered with paint pellets might actually stop her heart. "You're all wet."
"I hear that a lot," Zara said dryly. "And never as a complaint."
Parvati choked on her Chardoneigh. Maria laughed out loud. Half-Portuguese and half-Spanish, Maria had gone from street kid to award-winning food-truck chef and was one of the most hardworking people Zara knew. After meeting Maria at her food truck one sunny afternoon, Zara had hooked her up with Tarun. Six months later they were engaged and Zara added another win to her matchmaking scorecard.
Not to be outdone, Stacy grimaced. "What's on your arm?"
"I met Chad Wandsworth at the ice cream shop when I was picking up the cake . . ." She paused, waiting for the information to sink in. Timing was everything both onstage and in court. "He autographed me."
"Well." Stacy huffed. "It's a good thing you're not a bridesmaid. You'd have to wash it off."
Zara mentally marked Stacy as her first target once she got the paintball gun in her hand. "This autograph is forever. I'll be going strapless at the wedding reception so everyone can see it."
"Say good-bye to your chance of meeting someone." A woman in a formfitting strapless green dress with a delicate chiffon skirt and nary a frill or puffed sleeve in sight gave her a tight smile. With big blue eyes, her blond hair pulled up in a perfect bun, she looked like a fairy, all ready to flutter her way into somebody's heart. "No guy will want to compete with Chad Wandsworth."
"Maybe not, but our aunties will be there." Parvati sipped her wine, smiling as if the vile liquid hadn't just scorched its way down her throat. "Nothing can put them off pairing up all the young South Asian singles at a wedding. They have a competition every wedding season to see who can make the most matches. The only way to escape is to secure a quick hookup at the singles table or show up with a plus-one."
"You make it sound like it's easy to find someone." Stacy expertly sliced the slightly melted cake into even pieces. "I mean, really . . ."
"When you've got five hundred or a thousand guests it's easy to find someone-or even a dozen someones-you've never met before." Zara finished her wine and followed it with a spring roll chaser. "Multiply that by at least five or six weddings during the summer season plus the same number of prewedding parties. Add the lovey-dovey atmosphere of single people all dressed up and eager to get out there and have some hot sex, and the hookup possibilities are endless."
Zara instantly regretted her outburst, but Stacy had a way of getting under her skin. She reminded Zara of her mother.
"Well . . ." Stacy cleared her throat. "I would think most brides and grooms would be upset at the thought of people trolling their wedding for a hookup."
"I'm not talking about me," Zara protested. "I enjoy weddings for the opportunity to match people up. It's just a hobby. I don't get involved in the auntie competition."
"Zara is an excellent matchmaker." Maria beamed. "She set up Tarun and me."
"If you're so good, why are you still single?" Stacy shared a snide look with the woman in green.
Zara opened the spigot to pour herself another glass of wine. "I'm not interested in getting involved in a relationship." Her parents' devastating divorce had taken care of that. One minute she was part of a happy family; the next her world was ripped apart.
Stacy handed her a slice of cake. "That's what people say when they can't find a man."
"I can find men," Zara said. "I just don't need one forever."
Jay Dayal checked his paintball gun and slid it safely into the holster on his tactical vest. Although heÕd left his career as a combat search-and-rescue pilot flying helicopters for the air force almost ten years ago, old habits died hard. A holstered weapon was a safe weapon. But once the game began, the blue team would be going down in flames. Whether he was in a boardroom pitching for funding to expand his security company, shooting hoops with his friends, or taking down enemy combatants in a bachelor-bachelorette paintball game, Jay played to win.
"I've split Maria's friends between our two teams." Tarun joined him at the weapons shed where Paintball Pete was explaining gun safety to three women in frilly dresses and heels. Along with Avi Kapoor and Rishi Dev, Tarun had been one of Jay's closest high school friends, as dedicated to his goal of becoming a doctor as Jay had been to pulling himself out of poverty and making a success of his life. They had lost touch after high school when they went their separate ways, but a fellowship opportunity and a new fiancŽe had brought Tarun back to San Francisco, and they had reconnected, as tight now as they had been fifteen years ago.
"Why not just put them all on one team and we can be on the other?" Jay suggested. "They're just going to slow us down in those clothes." He gave a disdainful sniff when a woman in a barely-there green dress tiptoed across the field, struggling to keep her heels from sinking into the grass. A season pass holder, he visited the park at least twice a month with his business partner, Elias, and had little time for people who didn't take the game seriously.
"It wouldn't be fair," Tarun said. "We'd destroy the other team in five minutes."
Jay suspected that first-time paintballer Tarun would have little part in crushing their opponents, but it was Tarun's day so he just nodded in agreement.
"I know that look," Tarun said with a grin. "Just for that I'm putting Avi and Rishi on my team. You can have a few extra newbs to even things out."
"Tell them not to get in my way. I'm here to win." Jay patted his holster. This season, he'd splurged for the Planet Eclipse CS2 Pro paintball marker, a Ninja compressed-air tank, a Spire III hopper, and a strapless harness pod pack. His mask had a reflecting DYEtanium lens that shielded him from UV rays and completely hid his face. He preferred anonymity on the field. Better the other team didn't know who hit them.
"I'm here to make sure Maria has a good time," Tarun said. "Go easy on her if you see her in the field. She's here for the game, not your Mission: Impossible level of intensity. If you had a girl of your own you'd understand."
"Not interested in getting tied down right now." Jay tightened his harness. "Work takes up all my time, and then you, Rishi, and Avi all decided to get married this summer. You couldn't have given a dude a break? Maybe spaced things out?"
"It should have been four weddings," Tarun teased. "We always did things together."
"Are you kidding?" Jay had always put work over relationships, and his eight years of service in the air force had been the perfect excuse to avoid getting involved. When he'd transitioned to civilian life and opened his security company with Elias, he'd put his drive and focus into making J-Tech Security a success. Achievement was his top priority. Everything else was a distraction.
Tarun grabbed a rental helmet and tugged it over his head. "Your perspective changes when you meet the one."
Jay's mother had thought she'd met her "one" at the age of sixteen and look how that had turned out. His dad-an exchange student-had returned to England a few months after Jay was born, and his mom's strict Indian parents had disowned her, leaving her penniless and alone with a newborn baby. If he did marry-which was doubtful given the all-consuming nature of his work-it would be after he had taken his company to the top. His future wife-classy, sophisticated, and elegant-would be a reflection of that success.