The Man Ban - Nicola Marsh
Harper didn’t believe in karma.
Unlike her best friend Nishi, the most beautiful bride she’d ever seen, who waxed lyrical about how meeting Arun at a Diwali celebration in southeast Melbourne had been fate, how they’d taken one look at each other and fallen madly in love, how a psychic had predicted this when doing her chart at the time of her birth.
Nishi had been her best friend since high school, so Harper didn’t disillusion the loved-up bride. Her cynicism could easily explain Nishi’s version of “fate”: meeting Arun was random, it was lust at first sight considering they ended up shagging the night they met, and the tall, handsome, rich doctor the psychic predicted was a generic promise given to thousands of hopeful Indian parents after the birth of a daughter.
But Harper had to admit, being maid of honor and witnessing Nishi and Arun exchange vows earlier today, there’d been something almost magical about the couple so sure of their love they’d committed to each other in front of five hundred guests.
Five hundred guests who would hopefully take one look at the food she’d styled and gush on every social media app.
Harper needed work. Food styling may be her passion, but it didn’t pay the bills half as much as her previous career in catering. She needed a big break, and Nishi had assured her that among the throng of five hundred were many online influencers. All it would take was one photo, one perfect pictorial image of her beautiful bondas, precise pakoras, or vivid vadas, and she’d be on her way.
As the guests mingled in the outer foyer of the Springvale Town Hall, she cast a final critical eye over the buffet tables. Two trestles lay end to end along an entire wall of the hall, laden with enough food to feed a thousand. The crimson tablecloths were barely visible beneath gold platters piled high with delicious Indian finger food, with squat ivory candles casting an alluring glow over everything.
She’d never styled a job this big and had balked when Nishi first asked. But her bestie had insisted, and it had been her gift to the happy couple. Everything looked perfect, and she blew out a breath, rolling her shoulders to release some of the tension. The edge of her sari slipped, but before she could pull it up, a hand tugged it back into place.
She turned and locked gazes with one of the groomsmen. She couldn’t remember his name after being introduced earlier in the day, what felt like a lifetime ago, but she remembered his eyes, a mesmerizing, unique gray and currently lit with amusement.
“Can’t have you unraveling and distracting the guests,” he said. “Though personally, I wouldn’t mind a little entertainment along with my entrée.”
Harper bit back her first retort, that his flirting was wasted on her. She had a firm man ban in place, ensuring the last twelve months had been angst-free, leaving her to focus on her career and not a never-ending parade of dating disasters.
“Sorry to disappoint, but the only entertainment you’ll be getting tonight is from the ten-piece band playing later.”
If he heard the bite in her words, he didn’t show it. Instead, he grinned, and something unfamiliar fluttered deep. That was the only downside to her ban; she missed the sex.
His glance flicked over her, a practiced perusal from a guy who probably flirted with anything in a skirt. At six-two, with thick, wavy black hair, sharp cheekbones, broad shoulders that hinted at gym workouts, a killer smile, and those stunning eyes, this guy would be used to women preening under his attention.
When she frowned and didn’t respond, an eyebrow quirked and he thrust out his hand. “We met earlier. Manish Gomes, but my friends call me Manny.”
“Harper Ryland.” She shook his hand and released it quickly. “Don’t you have to go help the groom, Manish?”
He laughed at her sarcastic emphasis. “Arun’s got everything under control. Besides, we’re not exactly best buds. I think the only reason he asked me to be a groomsman was because we pulled two all-nighters in a row around the time he proposed to Nishi and I had biryani leftovers I shared.”
Figured. Manish’s confidence came from saving lives alongside Arun in the ER.
“Nishi’s my best friend.”
Her response sounded judgmental, like she couldn’t figure out why Arun would ask some fellow doctor to be part of his wedding party when they obviously weren’t close.
“You work together?”
She shook her head. “Best friends since high school.”
They lapsed into a