The Marriage Game
June 9, 2020
One of Oprah Magazine’s Most Anticipated Romances of 2020
Publishers Weekly Best Summer Romance Reads 2020
PopSugar’s “The 30 Best New Books to Dive Into This Summer”
Frolic’s “The 20 Best Books of Summer 2020”
Teen Vogue’s “13 Books by Asian and Pacific Islanders that should be Required Reading.”
Bookish by NetGalley’s “25 Books by Asian Authors to Read in 2020”
BookBub’s “The Best Romance Books Coming Out This Summer”
Publishers Weekly’s Spring 2020 Top 10 Anticipated Romances
Pop! Goes The Reader’s 45 Most-Anticipated Adult Novels
The Nerd Daily’s Most Anticipated 2020 Romance Book Releases
A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.
After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…
As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he’s forced to share his space with the owner’s beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.
As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.
When Layla walked into The Spice Mill Restaurant after yet another disastrous relationship, she expected hugs and kisses, maybe a murmur of sympathy, or even a cheerful Welcome home.
Instead, she got a plate of samosas and a pitcher of water for table twelve.
“There are fresh poppadums in the kitchen,” her mother said. “Don’t forget to offer them to all the guests.” Not even a glimmer of emotion showed on her mother’s gently lined face. Layla could have been any one of the half-dozen waitresses who worked at her parents’ restaurant instead of the prodigal daughter who had returned to San Francisco, albeit with a broken heart.
She should have known better than to show up during opening hours expecting to pour out her heart. The middle child in a strict, academic, reserved family, her mother wasn’t given to outward displays of affection. But after the emotional devastation of walking in on her social media star boyfriend, Jonas Jameson, as he snorted the last of her savings off the stomachs of two naked models, Layla had hoped for something more than being put to work.
It was her childhood all over again.
“Yes, Mom.” She dutifully carried the plate and pitcher to the table and chatted briefly with the guests about the restaurant’s unique decor. Decorated in exotic tones of saffron, gold, ruby, and cinnamon with accent walls representing the natural movement of wind and fire, and a cascading waterfall layered with beautiful landscaped artificial rocks and tiny plastic animals, the restaurant was the embodiment of her late brother’s dream to re‑create “India” in the heart of San Francisco.
The familiar scents—cinnamon, pungent turmeric, and smoky cumin—brought back memories of evenings spent stirring dal, chopping onions, and rolling roti in the bustling kitchen of her parents’ first restaurant in Sunnyvale under the watchful army of chefs who followed the recipes developed by her parents. What had seemed fun as a child, and an imposition as a teenager, now filled her with a warm sense of nostalgia, although she would have liked just one moment of her mother’s time.
On her way to the kitchen for the poppadums, she spotted her nieces coloring in a booth and went over to greet them. Her parents looked after them in the evenings when their mom, Rhea, was busy at work.
“Layla Auntie!” Five-year-old Anika and six-year-old Zaina, their long dark hair in pigtails, ran to give her a hug.
“Did you bring us anything from New York?” Zaina asked.
Layla dropped to her knees and put her arms around her nieces. “I might have brought a few presents with me, but I left them at the house. I didn’t think I’d see you here.”
“Can we go with you and get them?” They planted sticky kisses on her cheeks, making her laugh.
“I’ll bring them tomorrow. What have you been eating?”
“Jalebis.” Anika held up a bright orange, pretzel-shaped sweet similar to a funnel cake.
“Yesterday we helped Dadi make chocolate peda,” Zaina informed her, using the Urdu term for “paternal grandmother.”
“And the day before that we made burfi, and before that we made—”
“Peanut brittle.” Anika grinned.
Layla bit back a laugh. Her mother had a sweet tooth, so it wasn’t surprising that she’d made treats with her granddaughters in the kitchen.
Zaina’s smile faded. “She said peanut brittle was Pappa’s favorite.”
Layla’s heart squeezed in her chest. Her brother, Dev, had died in a car accident five years ago and the pain of losing him had never faded. He’d been seven years older, and the symbol of the family’s social and economic strength; expectations had weighed heavy on Dev’s shoulders and he didn’t disappoint. With a degree in engineering, a successful arranged marriage, and a real estate portfolio that he managed with a group of friends, he was every Indian parent’s dream.
Layla . . . not so much.
“It’s my favorite, too,” she said. “I hope you left some for me.”
“You can have Anika’s,” Zaina offered. “I’ll get it for you.”
“No! You can’t take mine!” Anika chased Zaina into the kitchen, shouting over the Slumdog Millionaire DJ mix playing in the background.
“They remind me of you and Dev.” Her mother joined her beside the booth and lifted a lock of Layla’s hair, studying the bright streaks. “What is this blue?”
Of course, her mother was surprised. She had given up trying to turn her daughter into a femme fatale years ago. Layla had never been interested in trendy hairstyles, and the only time she painted her nails or wore makeup was when her friends dragged her out. Dressing up was a game reserved for work or evenings out. Jeans, ponytails, and sneakers were more her style.
“This is courtesy of Jonas’s special hair dye. His stylist left it behind for touch-ups. Blue hair is his signature look. Apparently, it shows up well on screen. I didn’t want it to go to waste after we broke up, so I used it all up on my hair. I had to bleach the streaks first to get the true Jonas look.”
Unlike most of her friends, who dated behind their parents’ backs, Layla had always been honest about her desire to find true love. She’d introduced her boyfriends to her parents and told them about her breakups and relationship woes. Of course, there were limits to what she could share. Her parents didn’t know she’d been living with Jonas, and they most certainly would never find out that she’d lost her job, her apartment, and her pride after the “Blue Fury” YouTube video of her tossing Jonas’s stuff over their balcony in a fit of fury had gone viral.
“You are so much like your father—passionate and impulsive.” Her mother smiled. “When we got our first bad review, he tore up the magazine, cooked it in a pot of dal, and delivered it to the reviewer in person. I had to stop him from flying to New York when you called to tell us you and Jonas split up. After he heard the pain in your voice, he wanted to go there and teach that boy a lesson.”
If the sanitized, parent-friendly version of her breakup had distressed her father, she couldn’t imagine how he would react if she told him the full story. “I’m glad you stopped him. Jonas is a big social media star. People would start asking questions if he posted videos with his face covered in bruises.”
“Social media star.” Her mother waved a dismissive hand. “What job is that? Talking shows on the Internet? How could he support a family?”
Aside from the traditional Indian disdain for careers in the arts, it was a good question. Jonas hadn’t even been able to support himself. When the bill collectors came calling, he’d moved into the prewar walk-up Layla shared with three college students in the East Village and lived off their generosity as he pursued fame and fortune as a social media lifestyle influencer.
“That boy was no good,” her mother said firmly. “He wasn’t brought up right. You’re better off without him.”
It was the closest to sympathy Layla was going to get. Sometimes it was easier to discuss painful issues with her mother because Layla had to keep her emotions in check. “I always seem to pick the bad ones. I think I must have some kind of dud dude radar.” Emotion welled up in her throat, and she turned away. Her mother gave the lectures. Her father handled the tears.
“That’s why in our tradition marriage is not about love.” Her mother never passed up an opportunity to extol the benefits of an arranged marriage, especially when Layla had suffered yet another heartbreak. “It’s about devotion to another person; caring, duty, and sacrifice. An arranged marriage is based on permanence. It is a contract between two like-minded people who share the same values and desire for companionship and family. There is no heartache, no betrayal, no boys pretending they care, or using you and throwing you away, no promises unkept—”
Her mother’s face softened. “If you’re lucky, like your dad and me, love shows up along the way.”
“Where is Dad?” She wasn’t interested in hearing about marriage, arranged or otherwise, when it was clear she didn’t have what it took to sustain a relationship. No wonder guys always thought of her as a pal. She was everybody’s wingwoman and nobody’s prize.
She looked around for her father. He was her rock, her shoulder to cry on when everything went wrong. Usually he was at the front door greeting guests or winding his way through the linen-covered tables and plush saffron-colored chairs, chatting with customers about the artwork and statues displayed in the mirrored alcoves along the walls, talking up the menu, or sharing stories with foodies about his latest culinary finds. He was a born entertainer, and there was nothing she loved more than watching him work a room.
“Your father has been locked in his office every free minute since you called about that boy. He doesn’t eat; he hardly sleeps . . . I don’t know if it’s work or something else. He never rests.” Layla’s mother fisted her red apron, her trademark sign of anxiety. Pari Auntie had given the apron to her to celebrate the opening of the first Spice Mill Restaurant, and she still wore it every day although the embroidered elephants around the bottom were now all faded and frayed.
“That’s not unusual.” Layla’s father never rested. From the moment his feet hit the floor in the morning, he was full on, embracing the day with an enthusiasm and joyful energy Layla simply couldn’t muster before nine a.m. and two cups of coffee. Her father accomplished more in a day than most people did in a week. He lived large and loud and was unashamed to let his emotions spill over, whether it was happiness or grief or even sympathy for his only daughter’s many heartbreaks.
“He’ll be so happy that you are home to visit.” Her mother gave her a hug, the warm gesture equally as unexpected as their brief talk. Usually she was full on when the restaurant was open, focused and intense. “We both are.”
Layla swallowed past the lump in her throat. It was moments like these, the love in two sticky kisses from her nieces and a few powerful words from her mom, that assured her she was making the right decision to move home. She had hit rock bottom in New York. If there was any chance of getting her life back on track, it would be with the support of her family.
“Beta!” Her father’s loud voice boomed through the restaurant, turning the heads of the customers.
“Dad!” She turned and flung herself into his arms, heedless of the spectacle. Except for his traditional views about women (he didn’t have the same academic or professional expectations of her as he’d had for Dev), her father was the best man she knew—reliable, solid, dependable, kind, and funny. An engineer before he immigrated to America, he was practical enough to handle most electrical or mechanical issues at the restaurant, and smart enough to know how to run a business, talk politics, and spark a conversation with anyone. His love was limitless. His kindness boundless. When he hired a member of staff, he never let them go.
All the emotion Layla had been holding in since witnessing Jonas’s betrayal came pouring out in her father’s arms as he murmured all the things he wanted to do to Jonas if he ever met him.
“I just bought a set of Senshi knives. They go through meat like butter. The bastard hippie wouldn’t even know he’d been stabbed until he was dead. Or even better, I’d invite him for a meal and seat him at table seventeen near the back entrance where no one could see him. I’d serve him a mushroom masala made with death cap mushrooms. He would suffer first. Nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then liver failure and death.”
Laughter bubbled up in her chest. No one could cheer her up like her father. “Mom has made you watch too many crime shows. How about just shaking your fist or saying a few angry words?”
He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “If I have to defend your honor, I want to do it in a way that will be talked about for years, something worthy of the criminal version of a Michelin star. Do you think there is such a thing?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Nasir.” Layla’s mother sighed. “There will be no murdering of itinerant Internet celebrities when we have a restaurant to run. Things are hard enough with the downturn in the market. I can’t do this on my own.”
Frowning, Layla pulled away from her father. “Is that why the restaurant is almost empty? Is everything okay?”
Her father’s gaze flicked to her mother and then back to her. “Everything is fine, beta.”
Layla’s heart squeezed at the term of endearment. She would always be his sweetheart, even when she was fifty years old.
“Not that fine.” Her mother gestured to the brigade of aunties filing through the door, some wearing saris, a few in business attire, and others in salwar kameez, their brightly colored tunics and long pants elegantly embroidered. Uncles and cousins took up the rear. “It seems you bumped into Lakshmi Auntie’s nephew at Newark Airport and told him you’d broken up with your boyfriend.”
Within moments, Layla was enveloped in warm arms, soft bosoms, and the thick scent of jasmine perfume. News spread faster than wildfire in the auntie underground or, in this case, faster than a Boeing 767.
“Look who is home!”
While Layla was being smothered with hugs and kisses, her father ushered everyone to the bar and quickly relocated the nearest customers before roping off the area with a private party sign. The only thing her family loved better than a homecoming was a wedding.
“Who was that boy? No respect in his bones. No shame in his body. Who does he think he is?” Pari Auntie squeezed Layla so hard she couldn’t breathe.
“Let her go, Pari. She’s turning blue.” Charu Auntie edged her big sister out of the way and gave Layla a hug. Her mother’s socially awkward younger sister had a Ph.D. in neuroscience and always tried to contribute to conversations by dispensing unsolicited psychological advice.
“How did you come here? Where are you staying? Are you going back to school? Do you have a job?” Deepa Auntie, her mother’s cousin and a failed interior designer, tossed the end of her dupatta over her shoulder, the long, sheer, hot pink scarf embellished with small crystal beads inadvertently slapping her father’s youngest sister, Lakshmi, on the cheek.
“Something bad is going to happen,” superstitious Lakshmi Auntie moaned. “I can feel it in my face.”
Mehar Auntie snorted as she adjusted her sari, the long folds of bright green material draping over her generous hips. “You thought something bad was going to happen when the milk boiled over last week.”
“Don’t make fun, Mehar,” Lakshmi Auntie scowled. “I told you Layla’s relationship wasn’t going to work out when I found out she left on a full-moon night.”
“No one thought it would work out,” Mehar Auntie scoffed. “The boy didn’t even go to university. Layla needs a professional, someone easy on the eyes like Salman Khan. Remember the scene in Dabangg? I went wild in the theater when he ripped off his shirt.”
Layla’s aunties groaned. Mehar Auntie knew the moves to every Bollywood dance and the words to every song. She was Layla’s favorite aunt, not just because she wasn’t shy to bust out her moves at every wedding, but also because she shared Layla’s love of movies from Hollywood to Bollywood to indie.
“Mehar Auntie!” Layla mocked a gasp. “What about Hrithik Roshan? He’s the number one actor in Bollywood. No one can dance like him. He’s so perfect he hardly seems human.”
“Too skinny.” Mehar Auntie waved a dismissive hand. “He looks like he was shrink-wrapped. I like a man with meat on his bones.”
“Mehar. Really.” Nira Auntie shook a finger in disapproval, the glass bindi bracelets on her arm jingling softly. She owned a successful clothing store in Sunnyvale and her exquisitely embroidered mustard yellow and olive green salwar kameez had a fashion-forward open back. “My children are here.”
“Your children are men in their twenties. They’re hardly going to be shocked by my appreciation of a well-muscled man.”
“If you spent less time dreaming and dancing, you could have had one for yourself.”
Layla winced at the burn. Mehar Auntie was well past what was considered marriageable age, but seemed content with her single life and her work as a dance teacher in Cupertino.
“Layla needs stability in her life, not some singing, dancing actor with no brains in his head.” Salena Auntie pinched Layla’s cheeks. She’d been trying to get Layla married off since her third birthday. “What will you do now? What are your intentions?”
“I’m done with men, Auntie-ji,” she said affectionately.
“Don’t call me Auntie.” She tucked her gray hair under her embroidered headscarf. “I am not so old.”
“You are old.” Taara Auntie pushed her aside and handed Layla a Tupperware container. “And you’re too thin. Eat. I made it just for you.”
Taara Auntie smiled and patted Layla’s hand. “I’ve been taking cooking classes at the YMCA. I’m learning to make Western food, but I’ve added an Indian twist. This is Indian American fusion lasagna. I used roti instead of pasta, added a little halloumi cheese, and flavored the tomato sauce with mango chutney and a bit of cayenne. Try it.” She watched eagerly as Layla lifted the lid.
“It looks . . . delicious.” Her stomach lurched as she stared the congealed mass of soggy bread, melted cheese, and bright orange chutney.
“You’re going to put me out of business.” Layla’s father snatched the container out of her hand and studied the contents. “What an interesting combination of flavors. We’ll enjoy it together this evening when we have time to appreciate the nuance of your creation.”
Layla shot him a look of gratitude, and he put an arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t eat it,” he whispered. “Your sister-in-law tried her chicken nugget vindaloo surprise last week and she was sick for two days. If you’re planning to travel in the next week—”
“I’m not. I’m staying here. I’m moving back home. My stuff is arriving in the next few days.”
“Jana, did you hear that?” His face lit up with delight. “She’s not going back to New York.”
“What about your job?” her mother asked, her dark eyes narrowing.
“I thought it was time for a change, and I wanted to be here so I could help you . . .” Her voice trailed off when her mother frowned.
“She wants to be with us, Jana,” her father said. “Why are you looking at her like that?”
“We aren’t old. We don’t need help. She had a good job. Every week I time her on the Face and she doesn’t say anything is bad at work.”
“It’s called FaceTime, Mom, and it’s not as good as being with the people you love.”
“She loves her family. Such a good girl.” Layla’s father wrapped her in a hug even as her mother waggled a warning finger in her direction. Emotional manipulation didn’t work on her mother. Neither did lies.
“Tell me the truth,” her mother warned. “When I die, you will feel the guilt and realize . . .”
“Mom . . .”
“No. I will die.”
“Fine.” Layla pulled away from the warmth of her father’s arms. It was almost impossible to lie to her mother when she started talking about her own death. “I was fired.”
Layla braced herself for the storm. Even though her mother was emotionally reserved, there were times when she let loose, and from the set of her jaw, it was clear this was going to be one of those times.
“Because of the boy?”
“Oh, beta.” Her father held out his arms, his voice warm with sympathy, but when Layla moved toward him, her mother blocked her with a hand.
“No hugs for her.” She glared at Layla. “I told you so. I told you not to leave. New York is a bad place. Too big. Too many people. No sense of family. No values. You had boyfriend after boyfriend and all of them were bad, all of them hurt you. And this one makes you lose your job . . .” She continued her rant, mercifully keeping her voice low so the aunties wouldn’t hear.
All her life, Layla had wanted to make her parents as proud as they had been of Dev, but the traditional roads of success weren’t open to her. With only average marks and no interest in the “acceptable” careers—doctor, engineer, accountant, and lawyer is okay—she’d forged her own path. Yes, they’d supported her through business school, although they hadn’t really understood her decision to specialize in human resource management. Her father had even wept with pride at her graduation. But underneath it all she could feel their disappointment. And now she’d disgraced herself and the family. No wonder her mother was so upset.
“Go back to New York.” Her mother waved her toward the door. “Say you’re sorry. Tell them it was a mistake.”
“I can’t.” Her mother couldn’t grasp Facebook. There was no way she would be able to explain YouTube or the concept of something going viral. And the temper tantrum that had started it all—the utter disappointment at having another relationship fail again? Her mother would never forgive her for being so rash. “I’ve really messed up this time.”
Wasn’t that the understatement of the year. Although the police had let her go with just a warning, she had spent a few humiliating hours in the police station in handcuffs and her landlord had kicked her out of her apartment. But those were things her parents didn’t need to know.
Her father shook his head. “Beta, what did you do that was so bad?”
Layla shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t happy at my job and they knew it. I didn’t like how they treated the people looking for work like they were inventory. They didn’t care about their needs or their wants. It was all about keeping the corporate clients happy. I even told my boss I thought we could be just as successful if we paid as much attention to the people we placed as the companies that hired us, but she didn’t agree. Things started going downhill after that. I have a feeling I was on my way out anyway, and what happened just gave them an excuse.”
“So you have no job, no marriage prospects, no place to live . . .” Her mother shook her head. “What did we do wrong?”
“Don’t worry, beta. I will fix everything.” Her father smiled. “Your old dad is on the case. As long as I am alive, you never have to worry.”
“She’s a grown woman, Nasir. She isn’t a little girl who broke a toy. She needs to fix this herself.” Layla’s mother crossed her arms. “So? What is your plan?”
Layla grimaced. “Well, I thought I’d live at home and help out at the restaurant for a bit, and I can look after the girls when Rhea is busy . . .”
“You need a job,” her mother stated. “Or will you go back to school and get a different degree? Maybe doctor or engineer or even dentist? Your father has a sore tooth.”
“This one.” Her father pointed to one of his molars. “It hurts when I chew.”
Scrambling to come up with a plan to appease her mother, she mentally ran through the last twenty-four hours searching for inspiration, until she remembered toying with an idea on the way home. “I saw one of my favorite movies, Jerry Maguire, on the plane. The hero is a sports agent who gets fired for having a conscience. He starts his own company and he only has Dorothy to help him.”
“Who is this Dorothy?” her mother asked.
“She’s his romantic love interest, but that’s not the point. I’m Jerry.” She gestured to herself, her enthusiasm growing as the idea formed in her mind. “I could start my own recruitment agency, but it would be different from other agencies because the focus would be on the people looking for work and not the employers. You’ve always told me how in the history of our family, the Patels have always been their own boss. Well, I want to be my own boss, too. I have a business degree. I have four years of recruitment experience. How hard can it be?”
“Very hard.” Her mother sighed. “Do you think you can just show up one day and have a successful business? Your father and I started from nothing. We cooked meals on a two-burner hot plate in a tiny apartment. We sold them to friends in plastic containers. It took years to save the money to buy our first restaurant and more years and many hardships before it was a success.”
“But we can help her, Jana,” her father said. “What’s the use of learning all the tricks of running your own business if you can’t share them with your own daughter? We even have the empty office suite upstairs. She can work from there so I can be around—”
“Nasir, you sublet the office to a young man a few weeks ago. He’s moving in next week.”
Layla’s heart sank, and she swallowed her disappointment. Of course. It had been too perfect. How had she even thought for a minute that it would be this easy to turn her life around?
“It’s okay, Dad.” She forced a smile. “Mom’s right. You always fix my problems. I should do this myself.”
“No.” Her father’s voice was uncharacteristically firm. “It’s not okay. I’ll call the tenant and tell him circumstances have changed. He hasn’t even moved in so I am sure it won’t be a problem.” He smiled. “Everything is settled. You’re home. You’ll have a new business and work upstairs. Now, you just need a husband and I can die in peace.”
“Don’t you start talking about dying, too.”
But he wasn’t listening. Instead, he was clapping his hands to quiet the chatter. “I have an announcement. Our Layla is moving back home. She’ll be running her own recruitment business from our office suite upstairs so if you know of employers looking for workers or people needing a job, send them to her.”
Everyone cheered. Aunties pushed forward, shouting out the names of cousins, friends, and family they knew were looking for work. Layla’s heart warmed. This is what she’d missed most in New York. Family. They were all the support she needed.
Her father thudded his fist against his chest. “Our family is together again. My heart is full—” He choked and doubled over, his arm sliding off Layla’s shoulder.
“Dad? Are you okay?” She put out a hand to steady him, and he swayed.
“My heart . . .”
She grabbed his arm. “Dad? What’s wrong?”
With a groan, he crumpled to the floor.
“I knew it,” Lakshmi Auntie cried out as Layla dropped to her knees beside her father. “I felt it in my face.”
Also Available in Audio
Penguin Random House
June 9, 2020
Narrated by: Soneela Nankani
Length: 8 hrs
Praise for The Marriage Game
“The Marriage Game is the most delicious read! From the humor, to the heartwarming family bonds, to the off the charts chemistry, it’s impossible for me to love this book anymore. I can’t wait for more from Sara Desai!” —Alexa Martin, author of Intercepted
“I fell hard for The Marriage Game from the moment I read Layla and Sam’s dynamite meet-cute. It’s a hilarious, heartfelt, and steamy enemies-to-lovers romance.” —Sarah Smith, author of Faker
“Desai’s delightful debut is a playful take on enemies-to-lovers and arranged marriage tropes starring two headstrong Desi-American protagonists. Rom-com fans should take note of this fresh, fun offering.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This witty and delightful story about family, forgiveness, and letting go is utterly satisfying. Desai’s first book will be a hit with fans of Sonya Lalli’s, The Matchmaker’s List.” —Library Journal
“…Desai creates a believable and irresistible enemies-to-lovers story filled with flirty banter firmly rooted in her characters’ backstories, inspiring readers to root for them to find not only love, but also peace and acceptance within their families. Keep an eye on this promising romance writer.” —Booklist
“[An] enticing debut.” —SheReads