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The Soulmate Equation / (by Christina Lauren, 2021) -

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The Soulmate Equation /    (by Christina Lauren, 2021) -

The Soulmate Equation / (by Christina Lauren, 2021) -

New York Times , , , , ... , , , , . , , . , . , GeneticAlly, , . , , . ? . , . 98- GeneticAlly, . , 100 . ? ?

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: 181
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The Soulmate Equation / (by Christina Lauren, 2021) -
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2021
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Christina Lauren
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Patti Murin
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upper-intermediate
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09:39:33
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Soulmate Equation / :

.doc (Word) christina_lauren_-_the_soulmate_equation.doc [879.5 Kb] (c: 5) .
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audiobook (MP3) .


: The Soulmate Equation

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To Holly Root, our Diamond Match ONE JESSICA DAVIS USED to think it was an honest-to-God tragedy that only twenty-six percent of women believed in true love. Of course, that was nearly a decade ago, when she couldn_t imagine what it felt like to be anything but deeply and passionately obsessed with the man who would one day be her ex. Tonight, though, on her third first date in seven years, she was astounded the number was even that high. _Twenty-six percent,_ she mumbled, leaning toward the restroom mirror to apply more lipstick. _Twenty-six women out of one hundred believe true love is real._ Popping the cap back on, Jess laughed, and her exhausted reflection laughed back. Sadly, her night was far from over. She still had to make it through the entr?e course; appetizers had lasted four years. Of course, some of that was probably due to Travis_s tendency to talk with his mouth full, oversharing highly specific stories about finding his wife in bed with his business partner and the ensuing messy divorce. But as far as first dates went, Jess reasoned, it could have been worse. This date was better, for sure, than the guy last week who_d been so drunk when he showed up at the restaurant that he_d nodded off before they_d even ordered. _Come on, Jess._ She dropped the tube back into her bag. _You don_t have to make, serve, or clean up after this meal. The dishes alone are worth at least one more bitter ex-wife story._ A stall door clicked open, startling her, and a willowy blonde emerged. She glanced at Jess with bald pity. _God, I know,_ Jess agreed with a groan. _I_m talking to myself in a bathroom. Tells you exactly how my night is going._ Not a laugh. Not even a smile of politeness, let alone camaraderie. Instead the woman moved as far away as possible to the end of the empty row of sinks and began washing her hands. Well. Jess went back to rummaging through her purse but couldn_t help glancing toward the end of the counter. She knew it wasn_t polite to stare, but the other woman_s makeup was flawless, her nails perfectly manicured. How on earth did some women manage it? Jess considered leaving the house with her zipper up a victory. Once, she_d presented an entire fiscal year_s worth of data to a client with four of Juno_s sparkly butterfly barrettes still clipped to the front of her blazer. This gorgeous stranger probably hadn_t been forced to change outfits after cleaning glitter off both a cat and a seven-year-old. She probably never had to apologize for being late. She probably didn_t even have to shave_she was just naturally smooth everywhere. _Are you okay?_ Jess blinked back to awareness, realizing the woman was speaking to her. There was really no way to pretend she hadn_t been staring directly at this stranger_s cleavage. Resisting the urge to cover her own less-than-impressive assets, Jess offered a small, embarrassed wave. _Sorry. I was just thinking that your kitten probably isn_t covered in glitter, too._ _My what?_ She turned back to the mirror. Jessica Marie Davis, get your shit together. Ignoring the fact that she still had an audience, Jess channeled Nana Jo into the mirror: _You have plenty of time. Go out there, eat some guacamole, go home,_ she said aloud. _There_s no ticking clock on any of this._ _I_M JUST SAYING, the clock is ticking._ Fizzy waved vaguely toward Jess_s butt. _That booty won_t be high and tight forever, you know._ _Maybe not,_ Jess said, _but Tinder isn_t going to help me find a quality guy to hold it up, either._ Fizzy lifted her chin defensively. _I_ve had some of the best sex of my life from Tinder. I swear you give up too quickly. We are in the era of women taking pleasure and not apologizing for getting theirs first, second, and one more time for the road. Travis might be ex-wife obsessed, but I saw his photo and he was fine as hell. Maybe he would have rocked your world for an hour or two after churros, but you_ll never know, because you left before dessert._ Jess paused. Maybe _ _Goddammit, Fizzy._ Her best friend leaned back, smug. If Felicity Chen decided to start selling Amway, Jess would simply hand over her wallet. Fizzy was made of charisma, witchcraft, and bad judgment. Those qualities made her a great writer, but were also partly the reason Jess had a misspelled song lyric tattooed on the inside of her right wrist, had had disastrous not-even-close-to_Audrey Hepburn bangs for six depressing months in 2014, and had attended a costume party in LA that turned out to be a BDSM scene in a dungeon basement. Fizzy_s response to Jess_s _You brought me to a sex party in a dungeon?_ was, _Yeah, everyone in LA has dungeons!_ Fizzy tucked a strand of glossy black hair behind her ear. _Okay, let_s make plans for your next date._ _No._ Opening her laptop, Jess logged into her email. But even with her attention fixed elsewhere, it was hard to miss Fizzy_s scowl. _Fizz, it_s hard with a kid._ _That_s always your excuse._ _Because I always have a kid._ _You also have grandparents who live next door and are more than happy to watch her while you_re on a date, and a best friend who thinks your kid is cooler than you are. We all just want you to be happy._ Jess knew they did. That was why she_d agreed to test the Tinder waters in the first place. _Okay, let me humor you,_ she said. _Let_s say I meet someone amazing. Where am I going to hook up with him? It was different when Juno was two. Now I have a light sleeper seven-year-old with perfect hearing, and the last time I went to a guy_s place it was so messy, a pair of his boxers stuck to my back when I got up to use the bathroom._ _Gross._ _Agreed._ _Still._ Fizzy rubbed a thoughtful finger beneath her lip. _Single parents make it work all the time, Jess. Look at the Brady Bunch._ _Your best example is a fifty-year-old sitcom?_ The harder Fizzy tried to convince her, the less Jess actually wanted to get back out there. _In 1969 only thirteen percent of parents were single. Carol Brady was ahead of her time. I am not._ _Vanilla latte!_ the barista, Daniel, shouted over the din of the coffee shop. Fizzy motioned that she wasn_t done being a pain in Jess_s ass before standing and making her way to the counter. Jess had been coming to Twiggs coffee shop every weekday for almost as long as she_d been freelancing. Her life, which essentially existed in a four-block radius, was exceedingly manageable as it was. She walked Juno to school just down the street from their apartment complex while Fizzy grabbed the best table_in the back, away from the glare of the window but near the outlet that hadn_t yet gone wobbly. Jess crunched numbers while Fizzy wrote novels, and in an effort to not be leeches, they ordered something at least every ninety minutes, which had the added benefit of incentivizing them to work more, gossip less. Except today. She could already tell Fizzy was going to be unrelenting. _Okay._ Her friend returned with her drink and a huge blueberry muffin, and took a moment to get situated. _Where was I?_ Jess kept her eyes on the email in front of her, pretending to read. _I think you were about to say that it_s my life and that I should do what I think is best._ _We both know that_s not something I would say._ _Why am I your friend?_ _Because I immortalized you as the villain in Crimson Lace, and you became a fan favorite, so I can_t kill you off._ _Sometimes I wonder if you_re answering my questions,_ Jess grumbled, _or continuing an ongoing conversation in your head._ Fizzy began peeling the paper off her muffin. _What I was going to say is that you can_t throw in the towel because of one bad date._ _It_s not just the one bad date,_ Jess said. _It_s the exhausting and alien process of trying to be appealing to men. I_m a freelance statitician and consider my sexiest outfit to be my old Buffy shirt and a pair of cutoffs. My favorite pajamas are one of Pops_s old undershirts and some maternity yoga pants._ Fizzy whimpered out a plaintive _No._ _Yes,_ Jess said emphatically. _On top of that, I had a kid when most people our age were still lying about enjoying J?germeister. It_s hard to make myself seem polished in a dating profile._ Fizzy laughed. _I hate taking time away from Juno for some guy I_m probably never going to see again._ Fizzy let that sink in for a beat, dark eyes fixed in disbelief. _So, you_re _ done? Jessica, you went on three dates with three hot, if dull, men._ _I_m done until Juno is older, yeah._ She regarded Jess with suspicion. _How much older?_ _I don_t know._ Jess picked up her coffee, but her attention was snagged when the man they referred to as _Americano_ stepped into Twiggs, striding to the front precisely on cue_8:24 in the morning_all long legs and dark hair and surly, glowering vibes, not making eye contact with a single person. _Maybe when she_s in college?_ When Jess_s eyes left Americano, horror was rippling across Fizzy_s expression. _College? When she_s eighteen?_ She lowered her voice when every head in the coffee shop swiveled. _You_re telling me that if I sat down to write the novel of your future love life, I_d be writing a heroine who is happily showing her body to a dude for the first time in eighteen years? Honey, no. Not even your perfectly preserved vagina can pull that off._ _Felicity._ _Like an Egyptian tomb in there. Practically mummified,_ Fizzy mumbled into a sip. Up front, Americano paid for his drink and then stepped to the side, absorbed in typing something on his phone. _What is his deal?_ Jess asked quietly. _You have such a crush on Americano,_ Fizzy said. _Do you realize you watch him whenever he comes in here?_ _Maybe I find his demeanor fascinating._ Fizzy let her eyes drop to his ass, currently hidden by a navy coat. _We_re calling it his _demeanor_ now?_ She bent, writing something in the Idea Notebook she kept near her laptop. _He comes in here and emits the vibe that if anyone tried to talk to him, he would do a murder,_ Jess quipped. _Maybe he_s a professional hit man._ Jess, too, inspected him top to bottom. _More like a socially constipated medieval art professor._ She tried to remember when he_d started coming in here. Maybe two years ago? Almost every day, same time every morning, same drink, same sullen silence. This was a quirky neighborhood, and Twiggs was its heart. People came in to linger, to sip, to chat; Americano stood out not for being different or eccentric but for being almost entirely silent in a space full of boisterous, lovable weirdos. _Nice clothes, but inside them he_s all grouchy,_ Jess mumbled. _Well, maybe he needs to get laid, kind of like someone else I know._ _Fizz. I_ve had sex since birthing Juno,_ Jess said in exasperation. _I_m just saying I don_t have a lot left over for commitment, and I_m not willing to endure boring or outright terrible dates just for orgasms. They make battery-operated appliances for that._ _I_m not talking just about sex,_ Fizzy said. _I_m talking about not always putting yourself last._ Fizzy paused to wave to Daniel, who was wiping down a table nearby. _Daniel, did you catch all of that?_ He straightened and gave her the smile that had made Fizzy write the hero of Destiny_s Devil with Daniel in mind, and do all manner of dirty things to him in the book that she hadn_t dared do in real life. And would never do: Daniel and Fizzy went out once last year but quickly ended things when they ran into each other at a family reunion. Their family reunion. _When can_t we hear you?_ he asked. _Good, then please tell Jess that I_m right._ _You want me to have an opinion about whether Jess should be on Tinder just to get laid?_ he asked. _Okay, yup._ Jess groaned. _This is what rock bottom feels like._ _Or whichever dating site she likes!_ Fizzy cried, ignoring her. _This woman is sexy and young. She shouldn_t waste her remaining hot years in mom jeans and old sweatshirts._ Jess looked down at her outfit, ready to protest, but the words shriveled in her throat. _Maybe not,_ Daniel said, _but if she_s happy, does it matter whether or not she_s frumpy?_ She beamed at Fizzy in triumph. _See? Daniel is sort of on Team Jess._ _You know,_ Daniel said to her now, balling the washrag in his hands, smug with insider knowledge, _Americano is a romantic, too._ _Let me guess,_ Jess said, grinning. _He_s the host of a Dothraki-themed sex dungeon?_ Only Fizzy laughed. Daniel gave a coy shrug. _He_s about to launch a cutting-edge matchmaking company._ Both women went silent. A what now? _Matchmaking?_ Jess asked. _The same Americano who is a regular here in this coffee shop and yet never smiles at anyone?_ She pointed behind her to the door he_d exited through only a minute ago. _That guy? With his intense hotness marred by the moody, antisocial filter?_ _That_s the one,_ Daniel said, nodding. _You could be right that he needs to get laid, but I_m guessing he does just fine for himself._ AT LEAST THIS particular Fizzy tangent happened on a Monday_Pops picked up Juno from school on Mondays and took her to the library. Jess was able to get a proposal together for Genentech, set up a meeting with Whole Foods for next week, and bash through a few spreadsheets before she had to walk home and start attacking dinner. Her car, ten years old with barely thirty thousand miles logged on it, was so rarely used that Jess couldn_t remember the last time she_d had to fill the tank. Everything in her world, she thought contentedly on her walk home, was within arm_s reach. University Heights was the perfect blend of apartments and mismatched houses nestled between tiny restaurants and independent businesses. Frankly, the sole benefit of last night_s date was that Travis had agreed to meet at El Zarape just two doors down; the only thing worse than having the world_s most boring dinner conversation would have been driving to the Gaslamp to do it. With about an hour until sunset, the sky had gone a heavily bruised gray-blue, threatening rain that_d send any Southern Californian driver into a confused turmoil. A sparse crowd was getting Monday levels of rowdy on the deck of the new Kiwi-run brewery down the street, and the ubiquitous line at Bahn Thai was quickly turning into a tangle of hungry bodies; three butts were attached to humans currently ignoring the sign for customers not to sit on the private stoop next door to the restaurant. Nana and Pops_s tenant, Mr. Brooks, had installed a doorbell camera for the front units, and almost every morning he gave Jess a detailed accounting of how many college kids vaped on his front step while waiting for a table. Home came into view. Juno had named their apartment complex _Harley Hall_ when she was four, and although it didn_t have nearly the pretentious vibe required to be a capital-H Hall, the name stuck. Harley Hall was bright green and stood out like an emerald against the earth-tone stucco of the adjacent buildings. The street-facing side was decorated with a horizontal strip of pink and purple tiles forming a harlequin pattern; electric-pink window boxes spilled brightly colored mandevilla most of the year. Jess_s grandparents Ronald and Joanne Davis had bought the property the year Pops retired from the navy. Coincidentally this was the same year Jess_s long-term boyfriend decided he wasn_t father material and wanted to retain the option to put his penis in other ladies. Jess finished school and then packed up two-month-old Juno, moving into the ground floor two-bedroom unit that faced Nana and Pops_s bungalow at the back end of the property. Given that they_d raised Jess down the road in Mission Hills until she_d gone to college at UCLA, the transition was basically zero. And now, her small and perfect village helped her raise her child. The side gate opened with a tiny squeak, then latched closed behind her. Down a narrow path, Jess stepped into the courtyard that separated her apartment from Nana Jo and Pops_s bungalow. The space looked like a lush garden somewhere in Bali or Indonesia. A handful of stone fountains gurgled quietly, and the primary sensation was bright: magenta, coral, and brassy-purple bougainvillea dominated the walls and fences. Immediately, a small, neatly French-braided child tackled Jess. _Mom, I got a book about snakes from the library, did you know that snakes don_t have eyelids?_ _I__ _Also, they eat their food whole, and their ears are only inside their heads. Guess where you can_t find snakes?_ Juno stared up at her, blue eyes unblinking. _Guess._ _Canada!_ _No! Antarctica!_ Jess led them inside, calling _No way!_ over her shoulder. _Way. And remember that cobra in The Black Stallion? Well, cobras are the only kind of snakes that build nests, and they can live to be twenty._ That one actually shocked Jessica. _Wait, seriously?_ She dropped her bag on the couch just inside the door and moved to the pantry to dig around for dinner options. _That_s insane._ _Yes. Seriously._ Juno went quiet behind her, and understanding dropped like a weight in Jess_s chest. She turned to find her kid wearing the enormous-eyed expression of preemptive begging. _Juno, baby, no._ _Please, Mom?_ _No._ _Pops said maybe a corn snake. The book says they_re _very docile._ Or a ball python?_ _A python?_ Jess set a pot of water on the stove to boil. _Are you out of your mind, child?_ She pointed to the cat, Pigeon, asleep in the dying stretch of daylight streaming through the window. _A python would eat that creature._ _A ball python, and I wouldn_t let it._ _If Pops is encouraging you to get a snake,_ Jess said, _Pops can keep it over at his house._ _Nana Jo already said no._ _I bet she did._ Juno growled, collapsing onto the couch. Jess walked over and sat down, drawing her in for a cuddle. She was seven but small; she still had baby hands with dimples on the knuckles and smelled like baby shampoo and the woody fiber of books. When Juno wrapped her small arms around Jess_s neck, she breathed the little girl in. Juno had her own room now, but she_d slept with her mom until she was four, and sometimes Jess would still wake up in the middle of the night and experience a sharp stab of longing for the warm weight of her baby in her arms. Jess_s own mother used to say she needed to break Juno of the habit, but parenting advice was the last thing Jamie Davis should be giving to anyone. Besides, it wasn_t like anyone else ever occupied that side of the mattress. And Juno was a master cuddler, a gold-medal Olympian in the snuggle. She pressed her face to Jess_s neck and breathed in, wiggling closer. _Mama. You went on a date last night,_ she whispered. _Mm-hmm._ Juno had been excited for the date, not only because she adored her great-grandparents and got Nana Jo_s cooking when Jess was out, but also because they_d recently watched Adventures in Babysitting, and Fizzy_d told her it was a pretty accurate depiction of what dating was like. In Juno_s mind, Jess might end up dating Thor. _Did you go downtown? Did he bring you flowers?_ She pulled back. _Did you kiss him?_ Jess laughed. _No, I did not. We had dinner, and I walked home._ Juno studied her, eyes narrowed. She seemed pretty sure that more was supposed to happen on a date. Popping up like she_d remembered something, she jogged to her roller backpack near the door. _I got you a book, too._ _You did?_ Juno walked back over and crawled into her lap, handing it over. Middle Aged and Kickin_ It!: A Woman_s Definitive Guide to Dating Over 40, 50 and Beyond. Jess let out a surprised laugh. _Did your Auntie Fizz put you up to this?_ Juno_s giggle rolled out of her, delighted. _She texted Pops._ Over the top of her head, Jess caught a glimpse of the dry-erase board next to the fridge, and a tingling spread from her fingertips up to her arms. The words NEW YEARS GOALS were written in Juno_s bubbly handwriting. NANA and POPS Get a personal trayner Take a wock evry day JUNO Lern to like brocooli Make my bed evry mornning Try Something New Sunday! MOM Try Something New Sunday! Nana ses be more selfish! Do more things that skare me Okay, Universe, Jessica thought. I get it. If Mrs. Brady could be a trailblazer, maybe it was time for Jess to try, too. TWO THE PROBLEM WITH epiphanies: they never arrived at a convenient time. Jess had a mildly hyperactive seven-year-old and a flourishing freelancing career juggling all flavors of mathematical conundrums. Neither of these things left a lot of time for creating a bucket list of adventures. Besides, her daughter and her career were enough for her; she had four good freelancing contracts, and although they didn_t leave her with much extra, she was able to cover the bills_including their astronomical insurance premiums_and help her grandparents out, too. Juno was a happy kid. They lived in a nice area. Frankly, Jess liked her life as it was. But the words Do more things that scare me seemed to flash neon on her lids whenever she closed her eyes between data sets. Truthfully, her lack of dating was probably more about laziness than fear. It_s not like I jumped giddily into stagnation, Jess thought. I slid into it slowly, and realize it only now that I_m no longer even questioning whether the jeans I pulled off the floor should_ve been washed before being worn again. Jess would never complain about having become a mom when she was twenty-two_Juno was the best thing Alec could have given her, frankly_but it was probably fair to admit that she put more effort into making Juno_s lunch than she did into considering, say, what she might look for in a future partner. Maybe Fizzy, Nana, and the cover of Marie Claire weren_t wrong when they hinted that Jess needed to step out of her comfort zone and dream bigger. _What_s that face you_re making?_ Fizzy drew an imaginary circle around Jess_s expression. _I_m blanking on the word._ _This?_ Jess pointed to her own head. _Defeat?_ Fizzy nodded, mumbling aloud as she typed: __She glanced away from his penetrating gaze, defeat coloring her features a milky gray.__ _Wow. Thank you._ _I am not writing about you. Your expression was just timely._ She typed a few more words, and then picked up her latte. _As we covered in Ye Olden Days of our friendship, you do not consider yourself a heroine of one of my romance novels, therefore I will never make you anything but a side character or villain._ Fizzy winced at what was unlikely to be a very fresh sip_it was clearly time for her to reorder_as her words hit Jess like a Three Stooges slap. Jess sat quietly, reeling in a tunneling awareness that her life was going to pass her by before she knew it. It would break her heart if Juno ever stopped living life to its fullest. She only vaguely registered that it must be 8:24 when Americano strolled into the coffee shop, looking like a hot man with places to be and no time for any of the hoi polloi at Twiggs. Without a word, he plucked a ten from his wallet, taking the change from Daniel and dropping only the coins into the tip jar. Jess stared, overblown irritation rising hot in her throat. He_s a shitty tipper! It threw another log on her Petty Reasons Why Americano Is Awful mental fire. Fizzy snapped in front of her face, pulling her attention back to their table. _There. You_re doing it again._ Jess frowned. _Doing what?_ _Ogling him. Americano._ Fizzy_s face split into a knowing grin. _You do think he_s sexy._ _I do not. I was just spacing out._ Jess pulled back, insulted. _Gross, Felicity._ _Sure, okay._ Fizzy angled her pointed finger to the man in question, wearing slim dark jeans and a lightweight royal-blue sweater. Dark hair curled at the nape of his neck, Jess noticed, the perfect length of barely overgrown, almost-needs-a-haircut hair. Olive skin, a mouth full enough to bite. So tall that, when viewed from a chair, his head seemed to scrape the ceiling. But his eyes_now, those were the main event: expressive and soulful, darkly lashed. _That_s gross. Whatever you say._ Jess shrugged, rattled. _He_s not my type._ _That man is everyone_s type._ Fizzy laughed incredulously. _Well, you can have him._ Frowning, Jess watched him do his customary wipe of the condiment bar with a napkin. _I was just thinking how I can_t fathom the idea that he_s starting a matchmaking company. That isn_t something an asshole like that does._ _Personally, I think Daniel has no idea what he_s talking about. Rich men who look like that are too married to their jobs during the day and their investment portfolios at night to think about anyone_s love life._ Americano turned from the condiment bar to leave. In a flash, Jess_s curiosity bubbled over, and she impulsively caught him with a hand around his forearm as he passed. They both froze. His eyes were a rare, surprising color, lighter than she would have expected up close. Amber, she could see now, not brown. The weight of his full attention felt like a physical pressure on her chest, pushing the air out of her lungs. _Hey._ Jess charged forward through vibrating nerves and lifted her chin. _Hang on a second. Can we ask you something?_ When she released him, he pulled his arm away slowly, glancing to Fizzy, then back to her. He nodded once. _Rumor has it you_re a matchmaker,_ Jess said. Americano narrowed his eyes. __Rumor_?_ _Yeah._ _In what context did this rumor come up?_ With an incredulous laugh, Jess gestured around them. _Ground zero of University Heights gossip. The rumor mill of Park Avenue._ She waited, but he continued to gaze down at her, perplexed. _Is it true?_ she asked. _Are you a matchmaker?_ _Technically, I_m a geneticist._ _So __ Her brows climbed her forehead. Americano was apparently very comfortable with pointed silence. _Is that a _no_ to matchmaking?_ He relented with an amused flick of one eyebrow. _My company has developed a service that connects people based on proprietary genetic profiling technology._ Fizzy Oooohed. _Big words. Sounds scandalous._ She bent, scribbling in her notebook. __Genetic profiling technology_?_ Jess winced at him. _Gives me vague eugenics vibes, sorry._ Fizzy was quick to redirect Americano_s attention away from Jess_s dumpster-fire mouth. _I write romance. This sounds like my kryptonite._ She held up her pen, shaking it flirtatiously. _My readers would flip for this stuff._ _What_s your pen name?_ he asked. _I write under my real name,_ she said. _Felicity Chen._ Felicity offered a dainty hand as if for him to kiss and, after a beat of confused hesitation, Americano gripped her fingertips for a brief handshake. _She_s translated in over a dozen languages,_ Jess bragged, hoping to wipe the odd expression off his face. It did the trick; Americano looked impressed. _Really._ _Will there be an app?_ Fizzy was relentless. _Is it like Tinder?_ _Yes._ He frowned. _But no. It_s not for hookups._ _Can anyone do it?_ _Eventually,_ he said. _It_s a__ His phone buzzed from his pocket, and he pulled it out, frown deepening. _Sorry,_ he said, pocketing it again. _I need to go, but I appreciate your interest. I_m sure you_ll hear more about it soon._ Fizzy leaned in, smiling her confident smile. _I have over a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. I_d love to share the information if it_s something my predominantly eighteen-to-fifty-five-year-old female readers might want to hear._ Americano_s forehead smoothed, permafrown vanishing. Bingo. _We_re going public in May,_ he said, _but if you_d like, you_re welcome to come to the office, hear the spiel, give a sample__ _A sample?_ Jess blurted. She could see the small hot flash of annoyance in his eyes when they flickered back over to her. If Fizzy was flirty cop, Jess was definitely skeptical cop, and Americano seemed to be barely tolerating even Fizzy_s genuine fascination. He looked Jess in the eye. _Spit._ Barking out a laugh, Jess asked, _I beg your pardon?_ _The sample,_ he said slowly, _is spit._ His eyes did a casual sweep of her from face to lap and back up. Inside her chest, her heart did a strange flip. Then he glanced down at his watch. Well. Fizzy laughed tightly as she looked back and forth between the two of them. _I_m sure we could both manage to spit._ She grinned. _For you._ With a wan smile, he dropped a business card on the table; it made an audible thunk. _No eugenics,_ he added quietly, _I promise._ JESS WATCHED HIM leave. The bell over the door gave a single disappointed chime at his departure. _Okay,_ she said, turning back to her friend. _What_s the over/under that he_s a vampire?_ Fizzy ignored her, rapping the business card against the edge of the table. _Look at this._ Narrowing her eyes, Jess looked back out the window as Americano got into a sleek black Audi at the curb. _He was trying to compel me._ _This card is legit._ Fizzy squinted at it, turning it in her hand. _He didn_t get this shit made at Kinko_s._ __Spit,__ Jess mimicked in a deep, clipped voice. _God, he is definitely not in marketing because that man has zero charisma. Put a pin in this prediction and let_s circle back to it when I_m ninety: he_s the most arrogant person I_ll meet in this lifetime._ _Will you stop obsessing about him?_ Jess took the business card from Fizzy. _Will you stop obsessing about this car__ She stopped, weighing its impressive heft in her hand. _Wow. It is really thick._ _I told you so._ Jess flipped it over to examine the logo: two interconnected circles with a double helix as their point of contact. On the front, Americano_s real name in small, raised silver letters at the bottom. _That_s not what I would have guessed. He looks like a Richard. Or maybe an Adam._ _He looks like a Keanu._ _Brace yourself._ She looked up at Fizzy and smirked. _Americano_s name is Dr. River Pe?a._ _Oh no,_ Fizzy said, exhaling. _That_s a hot name, Jess._ Jess laughed; Felicity Chen was wonderfully predictable. _Eh, the man makes the name, not the other way around._ _Incorrect. No matter how hot the man, the name Gregg with two Gs will never be sexy._ Fizzy sank deeper into her chair, flushed. _How weird would it be if I named my next hero _River_?_ _Very._ Fizzy wrote it down anyway as Jess read the company name aloud. _GeneticAlly? Genetic Ally?_ She rolled the word around in her mouth before it clicked. _Oh, I get it. Said like _genetically_ but with the capital A for _ally._ Listen to this tagline: _Your future is already inside you._ Wow._ She set the card down and leaned back, grinning. __Inside you_? Did anyone read that out loud first?_ _We_re going,_ Fizzy said, ignoring Jess_s snark and packing up her bag. Jess stared at her, eyes wide. _Are you serious? Right now?_ _You have more than five hours before you have to get Juno. La Jolla is a half-hour drive._ _Fizzy, he didn_t seem exactly thrilled to talk to us about it. He couldn_t wait to get out of here._ _So what? Consider it research: I have got to see this place._ THERE WERE ONLY four cars in the expansive parking lot, and with a chuckle, Fizzy parked her new but sensible blue Camry alongside River_s gleaming Audi. She grinned at Jess across the leather console. _Ready to find your soulmate?_ _I am not._ But Fizzy was already out of the car. Jess climbed out, looking up at the two-story building ahead of them. She had to admit: it was impressive. The polished wood-slat fa?ade bore the company name, GeneticAlly, in giant brushed-aluminum letters; the second floor boasted modern, unfinished concrete and bright, wide windows. The two-ring DNA logo was printed on the broad front doors, which swept outward when Fizzy gave a gentle tug. Jess and Fizzy stepped into an upscale and deserted lobby. _Whoa,_ Fizzy whispered. _This is weird._ Their footsteps echoed across the floor as they made their way to a giant marble-slab desk practically a football field away from the entrance. Everything screamed expensive; they were absolutely being filmed by at least five security cameras. _Hi._ A woman looked up at them, smiling. She also looked expensive. _Can I help you?_ Fizzy, never out of her depth, leaned her forearms against the desk. _We_re here to see River Pe?a._ The receptionist blinked, checking the calendar with a wild, panicked gaze. _Is he expecting you?_ Jess grew painfully aware that she and Fizzy may have just strolled in and asked to see the person who literally ran the place. _No,_ Jess admitted just as Fizzy gave an entitled _He is._ Fizz waved Jess off. _You can tell him Felicity Chen and her associate are here._ Jess coughed out a laugh, and the wary receptionist gestured to a guest log. _Okay, well, please go ahead and sign in. And I_ll need to see your IDs. Are you here for a presentation?_ She jotted down the info from their identification. Jess frowned. _A what?_ _I mean_has he recruited you for DNADuo?_ she asked. _DNADuo. That_s the one._ Fizzy grinned down as she wrote their names in the log. _He saw two beautiful single ladies in the coffee shop and just begged us to come spit into vials._ _Fizz._ For the thousandth time, Jess wondered whether she_d always follow Fizzy around like a broom and dustpan sweeping up chaos. Being around Fizzy made Jess feel simultaneously more alive and duller. The receptionist returned a polite smile along with their IDs, and indicated they should take a seat. _I_ll let Dr. Pe?a know you_re here._ Over on the red leather couches, Jess swore it felt like theirs were the first butts to ever sit down. There was literally no dust anywhere, no hint that another body had ever touched this furniture. _This is weird,_ she whispered. _Are we sure this isn_t a front for some organ-harvesting cult?_ She carefully fingered a tidy stack of science journals. _They always use the pretty ones as bait._ _Dr. Pe?a._ Fizzy pulled out her notebook and coyly licked the tip of her pen. _I_m definitely naming a hero after him now._ _If I leave with only one kidney,_ Jess said, _I_m coming for one of yours._ Fizzy tapped her pen against the paper. _I wonder if a River Pe?a would have a brother. Luis. Antonio __ _And all of this costs money._ Jess ran a hand over the supple leather. _How many kidneys do you think a couch like this is worth?_ She pulled out her phone and typed into the search bar, her mouth agape at the results. _According to Google, the going rate for a single kidney is $262,000. Why am I working? I could survive with only one, right?_ _Jessica Davis, you sound like you_ve never left your house before._ _You_re the one building his fictional family tree! What are we even doing here?_ _Finding The One?_ Fizzy said, and then smiled slyly at her. _Or getting some freaky intel for a book._ _You have to admit you don_t look at Dr. River Pe?a and think, _Now, there_s a romantic soul.__ _No,_ Fizz conceded, _but I do look at him and think, _I bet he_s got a fantastic penis._ Did you see the size of his hands? He could carry me by the head, like a basketball._ A throat cleared, and they looked up to find River Pe?a standing not two feet away. _Well, you two sure didn_t waste any time._ Jess_s stomach fell through the floor, and the words creaked out of her: _Oh shit._ _Did you hear what I just said?_ Fizzy asked. He let out a slow, controlled exhale. He_d totally heard. _Hear what?_ he managed, finally. Fizzy stood, pulling Jess up with her. _Excellent._ She gave River a dainty curtsy. _Take us away._ THREE THEY FOLLOWED HIM through a set of sterile double doors and down a long hall, with offices coming off the right side every few yards. Each door had a hammered stainless steel placard and a name: Lisa Addams. Sanjeev Jariwala. David Morris. River Pe?a. Tiffany Fujita. Brandon Butkis. Jess glanced over to Fizzy, who, predictably, was already on it: _Butt kiss,_ she whispered, delighted. Through one open office door, Jess saw a broad window displaying a view of the La Jolla shoreline. Less than a mile away, gulls swooped down over white-capped water, and waves crashed violently against rocky cliffs. It was spectacular. The annual lease on this property had to be at least a kidney and a half. The trio tromped along in silence, reaching a set of elevators. River pushed the Up button with a long index finger, and then stared wordlessly ahead. The silence grew heavy. _How long have you worked here?_ Jess asked. _Since it was founded._ Helpful. She tried again. _How many employees are there?_ _About a dozen._ _It_s a shame you_re not in marketing,_ Jess said with a smile. _Such charm._ River turned to look at her, and his expression sent a cold wash of sensation down her arms. _Yes, well. Luckily my talents lie elsewhere._ His gaze lingered on hers for just a beat too long, and the sensation turned into warm static just as the elevator doors opened. Fizzy elbowed her sharply in the ribs. Sexy things, she was clearly thinking. Assassin things, Jess mentally replied. For all of the promises of exploiting this great research opportunity, Fizzy was uncharacteristically quiet; maybe she was also cowed by River_s rigid presence. It meant the rest of the slow elevator ride was as wordless as the bleak center of Siberia. When they stepped out, Jess watched her best friend begin scribbling note after note about_she presumed_the building; the handful of buttoned-up scientists they passed in the second hallway; River_s composed pace, perfect posture, and visibly muscular thighs. Meanwhile, Jess grew increasingly self-conscious about the obnoxious squeak of her sneakers on the linoleum and the relative dumpiness of her outfit. Fizzy was dressed like she usually was_an adorable polka dot silk blouse and pencil trousers_and River was dressed as he usually was_a glossy magazine version of business casual. It hadn_t occurred to Jess that morning as she_d hurriedly pulled on a threadbare UCLA sweatshirt, some old Levi_s, and a pair of scuffed Vans that she would later be strolling down a hallway in the most well-heeled part of biotech La Jolla. At the end of the hall was an open door leading into a conference room. River paused and gestured for them to walk in ahead of him. _Have a seat in here,_ he said. _Lisa will join you momentarily._ Fizzy glanced to Jess and then back to River. _Who_s Lisa?_ _She_s the head of customer relations and the lead on our app development. She_ll explain the technology and the matching process._ Frankly this whole thing had become a boatload of confusing secrecy. _You_re not staying?_ Jess asked. He looked affronted, like she_d suggested he was the company water boy. _No._ With a vague smile, he turned and continued down the hallway. Ass. Only a couple of minutes later, a brunette walked in. She had the sun-kissed, faux-no-makeup, beachy-waved look of perpetually active Southern Californians who could throw on a shapeless muumuu and look stylish. _Hey!_ She strode forward, reaching to shake their hands. _I_m Lisa Addams. Head of customer relations for GeneticAlly. I_m so glad you came in! I haven_t given this presentation to such a small group yet, this_ll be a blast. Are you two ready?_ Fizzy nodded enthusiastically, but Jess was starting to feel a bit like she_d been dropped into a world where she was the only one not in on an important secret. _Would you mind showing me to the restroom before we start?_ she asked, wincing lightly. _Coffee._ With another smile, Lisa gave Jess directions that seemed simple enough. Jess passed a stretch of large doorways with a distinct laboratory vibe. One was labeled SAMPLE PREP. The next was DNA SEQUENCERS, followed by ANALYSIS 1, ANALYSIS 2, and SERVERS. Finally: an alcove with restrooms. Even the toilets were futuristic. Jess was honestly not sure how to feel about a public bidet, but there were so many buttons on the thing_and hey, warm water_she decided to roll with it. A check of her reflection while she washed her hands informed her that she hadn_t put makeup on that morning and looked haggard and frazzled, even in the dim yet flattering light. Great. On the way back, her attention was snagged by an open door. It had been forever since she_d been in a real scientific setting, and nostalgia pulsed in the back of her mind. Peeking into the room labeled SAMPLE PREP, Jess saw a long stretch of lab benches and an assortment of machines with keypads and flashing full-color digital displays like something out of a movie. And then she heard River_s quiet, deep voice: _Isn_t there another 10X bottle of extraction buffer?_ _We have some on order,_ another man replied. _I think I have enough to finish this set._ _Good._ _Did I hear you had two people come in for a demo?_ _Yes,_ River said. _Two women. One of them is apparently an author with a large online presence._ There was a pause that Jess assumed held some wordless communication. _I don_t know, man,_ River said. _I was just trying to get my coffee, so I suggested they come in so Lisa could handle it._ Well. _Got it,_ the other voice said. _If they send in kits, I_ll run them in quadruplicate with some reference sequences._ _There may be times soon after the rollout that we only have a handful of samples at a time, so this_ll be a good trial for that._ _True._ She was just about to turn and walk back to the conference room when she heard River say with a laugh, __an opportunity to prove that there_s someone out there for everyone._ The other man asked, _Ugly?_ _No, not ugly._ Jess immediately decided to receive this as River_s version of a compliment, until he added: _Entirely average._ She reared back, palm to chest in genuine offense, and startled when a voice came from behind her. _Did you want a lab tour after your meeting with Lisa?_ The man behind her held his hands up as Jess wheeled on him like she might throw a punch. He was tall and thin and looked like every actor in every movie playing a scientist: Caucasian, glasses, needed a haircut. He was Jeff Goldblum, if Jeff Goldblum were also Benedict Cumberbatch. She wasn_t sure whether he was genuinely offering her a tour or subtly chastising her for eavesdropping. _Oh. No,_ she said, _it_s okay. Sorry. I was just on my way back from the restrooms and took a peek._ Smiling, he held out his hand. _David Morris._ Jess shook it tentatively. _Jessica._ _We haven_t had clients in the offices for a while. It_s nice to see a fresh face._ As he said this, his eyes did a quick sweep down her body and back up. _You_re doing the DNADuo?_ She resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest to hide the fact that she_d come to this high-end dating service looking like a hungover college kid. _I haven_t decided yet. I_m here with my best friend. She_s a romance author and completely lost her mind when Americano_Dr. Pe?a, sorry_mentioned the business to us this morning._ David gestured for her to lead them both back to the conference room. _Well, I hope you find the technology compelling._ Jess forced a polite smile. _I_m sure we will._ David stopped at the threshold to the conference room. _It was nice to meet you, Jessica. If you need anything else, please feel free to reach out._ With another tight smile, Jess pushed down her bubbling uneasiness. _I absolutely will._ SHE RETURNED TO the conference room feeling roughly ten percent frumpier than she had before. Which was to say, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Fizzy and Lisa were chatting about the benefits and drawbacks of various dating apps, but they straightened like they_d been busted when Jess walked back in. Without either of them having to say it, Jess knew she absolutely looked the part of the friend who had been dragged along to this and would much rather be watching Netflix on her couch. _Ready to get started?_ Lisa asked, swiping through a menu on an iPad. The room dimmed and a massive screen descended from the ceiling with a soft hum. Fizzy played her role, _Hell yes!_ so Jess played hers, too: _Sure, why not._ Lisa strode to the front of the large room with confidence, like she was speaking to a crowd of fifty instead of two. _What are your goals,_ she began, _as far as romantic relationships go?_ Jess turned expectantly to Fizzy, who had turned expectantly to Jess. _Okay, well, I guess I_ll take the first shot,_ Fizzy said, scoffing at Jess_s blank expression. _I_m thirty-four, and I enjoy dating. A lot. But I suppose I_ll eventually settle down, have some kids. It all depends on the person._ Lisa nodded, smiling like this was a perfect answer, and then turned to Jess. _I __ she began, flailing a little. _I assume there_s someone out there for me, but I_m not really in a rush to find him. I_m about to turn thirty. I have a daughter; I don_t have a lot of time._ Shrugging vaguely, she mumbled, _I don_t really know._ Clearly Lisa was used to people with a bit more drive, but she rolled out her spiel anyway. _Have you ever wondered what a soulmate truly is?_ she asked. _Is love a quality you can quantify?_ _Oooh, good question._ Fizzy leaned in. Hook, line, and sinker. _Here, we believe it is,_ Lisa said. _Matchmaking through DNA technology is exactly what we offer here at GeneticAlly, through the DNADuo. GeneticAlly was officially founded six years ago, but the concept of the DNADuo was first conceived in the lab of Dr. David Morris at the Salk Institute back in 2003._ Lisa swiped from the first image_the DNADuo logo_to an aerial view of the Salk, a stark collection of futuristic buildings just up the road. _The idea of genetic matchmaking is not new, but few companies have been able to create anything even a fraction as extensive as what Dr. Morris and his graduate student, River Pe?a, designed._ Jess glanced at Fizzy, who looked back at her. If River and his mentor invented all of this, Jess figured she couldn_t give him too much shit for being a terrible pitch man. Even if she could give him shit for being a bit of an asshole. Lisa continued: _The reason the DNADuo has been so successful at identifying genuine love matches is that the idea didn_t start with DNA._ She paused dramatically. _It started with people._ Jess stifled an eye roll as the slide became animated, zooming away from the Salk research buildings and along a street to a collection of computer-generated coeds standing on the patio of a bar, laughing and talking. _Dr. Pe?a first asked whether he could find a complementary pattern in the DNA of two people who are attracted to each other._ Lisa_s slide zoomed in on a couple speaking closely, flirtatiously. _That is, are we programmed to find certain people attractive, and can we predict which two people will be attracted to each other before they ever meet?_ She grinned. _In a study of over one thousand students from UC San Diego, a series of nearly forty genes were found to be tightly correlated with attraction. Dr. Pe?a then pointed the lab in the opposite direction to look into lasting happiness. Could he find a genetic profile of people who had been happily married for longer than a decade?_ Lisa swiped the animation forward to show an older computer-generated couple sitting on a couch, cuddling. The view zoomed back to show a neighborhood, and then a city, and then farther until the city map looked like a double-helix strand of DNA. _From a study of over three hundred couples,_ Lisa continued, _Dr. Pe?a found nearly two hundred genes that were linked to emotional compatibility long-term, including the same forty genes associated with attraction, as well as many other previously uncorrelated ones._ She paused, looking at them. _This was only the first generation of the DNADuo._ Beside Jess, Fizzy was sitting up at full attention, completely plugged in. But Jess was skeptical. What Lisa was describing was essentially a slot machine with two hundred reels. Statistically speaking, landing on the right combination was an absurdly low-probability event. Even if GeneticAlly was just looking for pattern compatibility, with the number of variants of every gene in the human genome, this type of algorithm was so complex as to be nearly impossible to calculate manually. She couldn_t see how they would begin to process the amount of data they were facing. Lisa seemed to read her mind. _Two hundred is a lot of genes, and the human genome is made up of at least twenty thousand. Of course, not all of these_maybe not even most_are involved in our emotional satisfaction. But Drs. Pe?a and Morris wanted to find every last one. They didn_t just want to identify compatibility, they wanted to help you find your soulmate. Which is exactly why Dr. Pe?a collaborated with Caltech to develop a novel deep neural network._ She let these words sink in as the slide became animated again, diving into the double helix, highlighting base fragments as it whizzed along the length of the DNA strand. _This project has encompassed personality tests, brain scans, longitudinal studies of relationship success, and_yes_well over one hundred thousand samples run through DNA sequencing and analysis._ She looked each of them dead in the eye. _The investors have put over thirty million dollars into the technology alone. The app developers have invested almost five million. Do I think we have a truly groundbreaking system?_ She nodded. _Between us? In all honesty? I do._ Swiping forward, she lifted her chin to the screen, where a woman stood alone against a stark white backdrop. _Here_s how it works. We_ve developed a kit like many genetic profiling companies, which, very soon, customers will be able to order by mail. We have kits here for purchase, if you_re interested._ Jess could sense Fizzy itching to pull out her credit card. Lisa picked up a small box on the table; it was white, the simple DNADuo logo printed in rainbow colors. _Once we fully launch, clients will send in their sample for analysis by our DNADuo algorithm, which now combines findings from over thirty-five hundred genes. Once received, analysis takes only about three days for the results to load into your DNADuo app. While you wait, you can enter information about yourself in your profile_the same way that you would on other dating sites. Information about your age, location, profession_whatever you want people to know about you. Once your results are in, we_ll share with you the compatibility scores based on the criteria you_ve chosen._ Jess swallowed audibly. All of this sounded so _ thorough. The slide now showed two people standing side by side before the same empty backdrop. _Through rigorous analysis, we_ve created scoring bins. That is, we group the scores based on how tightly they correlate to relationship success. If you pull two random people off the street to see whether they_re compatible, you_re looking at a score on average between seven and twenty-four on our DNADuo algorithm. These scores are out of one hundred, so twenty-four isn_t ideal, but it_s not zero, either. We call these scores Base Matches._ _Are there a lot of those?_ Fizzy asked. _Oh, yes,_ Lisa said. _A large majority of random pairings tested against each other are Base Matches. Now__she swiped forward, and the two people turned toward each other, smiling__attraction is frequently reported between couples with scores of twenty-five to fifty, but when we follow them long-term, these individuals rarely find lasting emotional compatibility. We call these Silver Matches, and some of the individuals in our beta testing have chosen to explore these relationships._ Lisa shrugged, grinning, clearly breaking from script. _Good sex is good sex, right?_ Fizzy nodded enthusiastically, but Jess only gave a vague shrug. _What_s your threshold for _rarely,_ when you say they rarely find lasting compatibility?_ Lisa smiled. _Based on our initial studies, only one Silver Match in every three hundred lasts beyond the two-year threshold we consider long-term. But here_s where it gets fun,_ she said, straightening. A new couple appeared on the screen, holding hands as they walked forward together. _Gold Matches are couples with a score of fifty to sixty-five. A third of Gold Matches will find a lasting relationship together. That number shoots up to two-thirds with a score of sixty-six to eighty_what we call a Platinum Match._ _Wow,_ Fizzy whispered, staring at the new couple laughing together over an intimate candlelit dinner. _That_s a huge jump._ Lisa nodded. _But three out of four couples find long-term love with scores of eighty to ninety,_ she said. _And those are the matches we hope to eventually find for everyone in our database._ She swiped ahead to a couple getting married under a broad arch of flowers. _We call them Titanium._ Admittedly, Jess had to hide her shock over that statistic. It was impressive. She still had about a million questions, though, and gestured to the couple in the wedding scenario; the woman was Asian, the man of Middle Eastern descent. _It seems from your marketing tools that DNADuo doesn_t have an ethnicity bias._ _Correct. It_s about finding a soulmate based on a set of biological markers. While there are some genetic variants found across different ethnicities, this technology is about DNA-level compatibility, not symmetry. Not to put too technical a point on it, but in many cases, compatibility is stronger when the two individuals have different genetic markers, rather than the same. And keep in mind, the DNADuo can_t take cultural influences into account, so the importance of all of this information has to be weighed by the client personally. Clients can indicate any and all desired criteria in their intake form_cultural background, religion, et cetera. The algorithm discounts any compatibility findings that don_t fall within their prescribed criteria._ _So if I_m gay?_ _Sure._ Lisa didn_t hesitate. _On your intake form, you can select to see female matches, male matches, nonbinary matches, or all of the above. As a company, we don_t discriminate based on race, cultural identity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and the DNADuo doesn_t, either. Only a handful of the compatibility sequence signatures are located on the X or Y chromosomes; certainly not enough to nullify the data set if a particular sexual genotype is excluded._ Jess leaned back in her chair, admittedly_and unexpectedly_impressed. _Sorry, one more question,_ Fizzy said. _You said to consider the compatibility scores as one to one hundred _ Have you ever seen a score higher than ninety?_ Lisa smiled genuinely. _Only three times._ _And?_ Jess_s heart started slamming against her breastbone. Her brain imagined a different slot machine now, one with 3,500 rows, and a single pull that lined up nearly every single cherry. For the first time since she walked into the room, Lisa let the hypercompetent surfer-executive fa?ade drop. She looked young, and hopeful, and awestruck: _That_s what gives me the most confidence in this company. Yes, three is a low number, but the couples who_ve tested above ninety are the three couples who_ve scored the highest on emotional stability, communication and collaboration, and sexual satisfaction. They_re Diamond Matches. Do we want more of those? Of course. I mean, the DNADuo has been tested on one hundred and forty thousand people and fully validated in nearly twenty thousand couples. That is an enormous study for a start-up of this size, but there are at least five million people on Hinge and an estimated fifty million people on Tinder. Until we can get the whole world of data in our server, we won_t know how many Diamond Matches are really out there._ FOUR FIZZY WAS CALLING. Fizzy never called. So even though it was 8:13, and Jess was supposed to have Juno at school in two minutes, and had yet to feed her child or have a single sip of coffee, and had a meeting downtown at 9:30, and was barely dressed, she answered. _You never call,_ Jess said. _This app is insane,_ Fizzy said. Juno ran out, still in her pajamas. _I_m ready for breakfast!_ Tilting her phone away from her mouth, Jess whispered, _You need to wear actual clothing, my love._ Her daughter groaned as she stomped back to her bedroom. _I_m__ Fizzy said, and then paused. _Okay, good point. This shirt is pretty transparent._ Another pause. _Wait, how did you know what I_m wearing?_ _I was talking to my kid,_ Jess said, laughing. _What is this about the app being insane? What app?_ _I_ve gotten twenty-three matches since my DNADuo results came in this morning._ Jess did the quick mental math_it_d only been two days since their visit to the site. Either GeneticAlly was insanely efficient, or it wasn_t running many samples these days. She had to admit, begrudgingly, that any company that invested in a unique neural network was taking its data seriously. _Twenty-three?_ She poured a cup of coffee, and Pigeon wound her way between Jess_s legs, purring. Jess made the mistake of briefly looking down at the cat, and her cup overfilled, pooling coffee on the countertop. Cursing, she leaned over to open the front door, letting Pigeon out, then dug in a drawer for a dish towel. _That_s a lot of soulmates._ _I cast a pretty wide net,_ Fizzy agreed. _I said anything above a score of thirteen._ _Thirteen?_ _It_s fun to just see what happens when you date guys with no expectations._ Coffee dripped from the counter onto the floor, soaking through Jess_s lucky socks. _Goddammit._ _It_s just a potentially terrible date, not plastic surgery._ _I wasn_t goddammitting you, I spilled coffee._ _Think of it as a character study,_ Fizzy waxed on. _What happens when you put two completely incompatible people together? Will they beat the odds? Or come out fighting _ each other?_ She paused, and Jess imagined her friend reaching for her notebook. A weird alert sounded in the background. _Twenty-four!_ Juno wandered into the kitchen dressed for school, but her hair remained a bird_s nest. _Mama, can I have a smoothie?_ _Baby, go brush your hair._ _I assume you were talking to Juno again,_ Fizzy said distractedly. _Can I, Mama?_ _I was,_ Jess said to Fizzy, and then, _and yes, Junebug, I_ll make one, but go brush your hair and your teeth, too, please._ Back in the kitchen, Jess glanced at the clock and groaned. She pulled a basket of strawberries from the fridge. _Okay,_ Fizzy said, _I have a lunch date today with Aiden B., a Base Match with a score of thirteen, and a dinner date tomorrow with Antonio R., also a Base Match, twenty-one._ _Don_t ever let anyone tell you you_re not adventurous._ _Mom,_ Juno called from the bathroom. _Remember, don_t let Pigeon out because the gardener is here today!_ Jess whirled around and stared out the front window, across the cat-less courtyard, and down the path to the open gate. _Fizz, I_ve gotta jet._ ONE EXPLODED BLENDER, one four-block cat chase, two changes of clothes (Jess_s), one impossibly double-knotted sneaker (Juno_s), and one tardy drop-off later, Juno was at school and Jess was finally hustling her ass downtown. A huge meeting with Jennings Grocery that morning, two potential new clients in the afternoon, and then a school meeting at six. Marathon, but doable. But why was it the nature of the universe that on the day Jess was already running behind, there was an accident on the 5, a detour at her exit, and not a single parking space to be found? She passed row after row of luxury sedans and was beginning to wonder whether every rich person in San Diego was in the Gaslamp at the same time, but then, huzzah: her prayers were answered by a flash of reverse lights to her right. She rolled forward, flipping on her blinker. Relief pumped adrenaline through her bloodstream like there was an actual prize for parking, rather than an intense meeting with some clients she was fairly sure wanted to cherry-pick their data to match their annual projections. But just as Jess moved her foot to the accelerator to pull in, a black sedan swerved around the bend from the next row over, gliding into the spot with an impressive Fast and Furious screech. Smacking the steering wheel, Jess yelled an aggravated _Oh, come on!_ She threw her hands up passive-aggressively, hoping the driver saw and felt like an asshole for taking the spot from a woman who_d never done anything more selfish than eat the last Ding Dong and blame it on her grandfather. Exaggerations aside, Jess_always able to keep her cool behind the wheel_was on the verge of laying a heavy hand on her horn. But then the car door opened, and one impossibly long leg stretched out, wrapped in pressed charcoal trousers and capped by a shiny leather shoe. There was something about the shoulders that emerged, the poise _ and then it hit her. Jess didn_t need to see his face to know, because this wasn_t just any black sedan, it was a black Audi. His black Audi. River Pe?a stole her parking spot. She leaned out her window, shouting, _Hey!_ But he was already walking briskly down the sidewalk and didn_t bother to turn around. Jess spotted another car backing out a few rows away, and winced at the audible squeal of her tires as she bolted around the turn. Ready to lay on her horn lest anyone dare take this spot, she pulled in, shoved her car into park, grabbed everything she needed, and shuffle-jogged in heels and her fitted skirt toward the entrance. Nearly ten minutes late now, but last time Jennings had been running fifteen minutes behind, and she could already see the elevators on the other side of the glass doors. She just might make it _ And who was standing at the elevator but River Pe?a? Jess watched him reach forward, pressing the button. The light above it blinked on, the doors slid open. He took a step forward, and Jess clutched her laptop to her chest, breaking into a sprint. _Hold it, please!_ Turning, he glanced over his shoulder and then disappeared into the elevator. _Motherfucker!_ Jess mumbled. Jennings Grocery headquarters was only three floors up, so instead of waiting, she took the stairs. Two at a time. Visibly out of breath when she jogged from the stairwell into the hallway, Jess immediately collided with a brick wall of a man. For the record, he smelled amazing. It was infuriating. _Careful,_ he murmured, eyes on his phone as he stepped around her, continuing down the hall. But Jess had reached the boiling point: _Americano!_ Hesitating only briefly, he turned. His dark hair fell over one eye and he brushed it aside. _I_m sorry?_ _Apology not accepted. You took my parking spot._ _I took your_?_ _And you didn_t hold the elevator,_ she said. _I_m running late, you saw me, and you didn_t bother to hold the door._ _I didn_t see you._ He let out a short, incredulous laugh. _Maybe you should leave a little earlier next time._ _Wow. You really are an asshole._ He frowned, studying her. _Do we know each other?_ _Are you kidding?_ She pointed to her chest. _Twiggs? Spit in a vial? Entirely average? Any of that ring a bell?_ Comprehension was a weather front that moved across his face. Surprise, recognition, embarrassment. _I __ His eyes flickered over her and then down the hall as if there might be reinforcements coming at any moment. _You were _ completely unrecognizable. I didn_t know it was you._ For the life of her, Jess couldn_t figure out if that was a sick burn or a backhanded compliment. _I_m sorry, I don_t recall your name, Ms. _ ?_ he asked evenly. _You_ve never known it._ And there was the look that delighted her_the one that said he was barely tolerating the conversation. Breaking eye contact, he finally glanced down at his watch. _You said something about running late?_ Shit! Jess pushed past him, jogging ten feet down the hall to Suite 303, the offices of Jennings Grocery. THIRTY-ONE PERCENT OF California households are run by single parents, but Jess would never have guessed that from the people streaming into the Alice Birney Elementary Science-Art Fair meeting. Being a solo parent at a school event was like being a single person at a couples_ party. Minus the wine. If Nana or Pops wasn_t with her, Jess was made intensely aware that the other parents had no idea how to interact with a single mom. The longest conversation she_d had with someone there had been at the first-grade holiday recital when a mom had asked if Jess_s husband was going to be sitting in the empty seat next to her. When she_d said, _No husband, free chair,_ the other woman smiled awkwardly for a few beats before rolling on breathlessly for five minutes about how sorry she was that she didn_t know any nice single men. But for the first time at one of these events, she realized as she walked into the hall, Jess was relieved to be alone; she wouldn_t have to small-talk. She wasn_t sure she_d be able to do that tonight; every meeting she_d had today had been a dead end. Well, except the Jennings Grocery meeting. That was a complete disaster. One of the biggest sins in statistics is cherry-picking_choosing which data sets to include in analysis after the study is finished. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to drop outliers: the data isn_t collected correctly, etc. But if a data point affects both results and assumptions, it must be included. And just as Jess suspected, Jennings Grocery didn_t just want to exclude a few data points in the set they sent her; they wanted to eliminate enormous territories entirely in their report to shareholders, because the numbers didn_t fit their projected sales targets. She refused_even though she_d spent four months meticulously designing the analysis, writing the code, building the program. During the meeting, the executives had exchanged extended periods of silent eye contact, and eventually shooed Jess out of the room, saying they_d be in touch. Was it stupid to be so inflexible with her biggest account? She couldn_t shake a sense of panic. If she lost Jennings, she would lose a third of her income for the year. Juno might need braces, and she_d be driving in eight years. What if she wanted to start doing dance competitions? What if she got sick? Nana and Pops weren_t getting any younger, either. Movement in her peripheral vision pulled her attention, and Jess watched Juno_s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, and the principal, Mr. Walker, come to the front of the room. Mrs. Klein was dressed as some hybrid of a scientist and artist: lab coat, goggles, beret, paint palette. Mr. Walker was dressed as, Jess supposed, a kid: baggy shorts, knee-high socks, and a Padres baseball cap. They sat in chairs facing the assembled parents. The principal-child crossed his arms and pouted dramatically, and the room fell to a hush. _I don_t even get what a science-art fair is. Do I have to do it?_ _You don_t have to do the science-art fair,_ Mrs. Klein said, hamming it up for the crowd, _you GET to do the science-art fair!_ The room rippled with polite laughter, and the rest of the second-grade team passed out handouts with information as the little play went on. Jess scanned the stapled pages, skimming instructions for helping the children find an art project that was based in some area of science: plant life, animal life, engineering, chemistry. A papier-m?ch? plant with various structures labeled. A painting of a dog skeleton. A house made out of Popsicle sticks. It was one of the things that Jess loved about this little school_the creative curriculum, the emphasis on integrated learning_but with the murmuring voices rising from the crowd, she was pulled out of her little bubble. In the seats all around her, heads came together in excited conversation. Husband-and-wife teams brainstormed fun projects for their kids, and the dread in Jess_s stomach curdled with loneliness. She was flanked by an empty seat on each side, a little buffer zone to protect the other parents from the infection of singlehood. Mood still low despite_she had to admit_some pretty solid jokes from Mr. Walker and Mrs. Klein, Jess practically crawled across the parking lot. Her car was parked next to a pearl-white Porsche that made her red 2008 Corolla look like an old roller skate missing its mate. Jess couldn_t feel ashamed of the clunker, though; this car had driven her home from the maternity ward and then to her college graduation only a month later. It took them on various outings for Try Something New Sundays and road trips to Disneyland and_ _Jessica!_ She jerked around at the sound of a trilling voice and turned to find a tall, thin blond woman waving her down. Dawn Porter: PTA President, Mother of the Year, Zero Gag Reflex, probably. Jess braced herself to feel like a shitty mom for at least five minutes. _Dawn! Hey._ Jess winced in preemptive apology. _It_s been a long day and__ _Oh God, totally. I know you_re_like, frazzled all the time. Poor thing. If I can just get one second? I wanted to check on the auction site you were going to build? The fundraiser for the new playground equipment?_ Crap. The site Jess had been working on when Juno threw up at school and needed to be picked up, then when a client had a last-minute shareholders meeting and needed her to spend twelve hours in LA, then when she_d been interrupted by a phone call from her mom asking for some help making rent. The site Jess had then forgotten about until this second. Good job, Jess. _I_m totally on it, Dawn,_ she said. _Just been a little slammed lately._ _Ugh, I know, we are all so busy._ Dawn pressed a button on the key fob in her hand. The lights on the gleaming Porsche winked and the tailgate drifted open with a delicate chime. Hanging from Dawn_s back seat were neat little organized totes, each monogrammed with her children_s names_Hunter, Parker, Taylor_and words like Snacks and Books and Car Fun! In the trunk of Jess_s car was a pair of badly tangled bedazzled cat leashes, a dozen mismatched grocery bags, a chain of tampons Juno had constructed while they waited with a flat tire, and at least thirty-two other items she fully intended to take inside _ someday. Dawn placed the packet of school papers in one pouch, moving some dry cleaning on a hook out of the way, then pressed the key fob again to close the hatch with a whisper. She turned back to Jess. _I only ask because Kyle_you_ve met my husband, Kyle?_ She gestured to a man chatting with two other dads across the parking lot. _Anyway, he said he could have one of the paralegals down at Porter, Aaron, and Kim whip something up. It wouldn_t be a problem_they love helping out, and every time I look at you, I think, _Poor Jessica is just running herself ragged!__ Her defensiveness rocketed out: _I_ve got it._ Dawn tilted her head, surprised by the force of this reaction, and Jess wanted to reel the words back in. It had required some pretty intense blending with her drugstore foundation stick to get the dark circles under her eyes to disappear this morning, and she was sure the parking lot_s sodium lights weren_t her best lighting. Today had been hellacious, and the last thing Jess wanted was to become the subject of Mom Gossip. She thought of the dozens of things she could do with that time because, really, what did she care who built the stupid site? Because I want to be a good mom, she thought. I want to be present for Juno, even if some days I feel like I_m failing. _Really,_ Jess assured her. _It_s nearly finished._ Thank God. _I should have something for you soon._ _Well. That_s great then! I_ll let the board know so they stop fussing at me!_ _Great,_ Jess repeated as Dawn popped into the passenger side of her car. _Great._ _I_M HIDING IN the bathroom, crying on the toilet,_ she said when Fizzy answered an hour later. Jess_s friend barked out a laugh and an _Aww, I love it when you ignore boundaries. Usually that_s my wheelhouse._ _I had a terrible day._ Jess swiped a hand across her nose. _I_m lonely. And I feel like such an asshole complaining, but you_re always going to be a bigger asshole than I am, so I can complain to you._ _I swear, Jessica, you know just what to say to make my heart melt._ The funny thing was, Fizzy meant it. _Let me have it._ Jess closed her eyes, leaning back against the water tank. _It all seems like such little stuff. After we got off the phone this morning, my entire day fell apart. Pigeon escaped, my blender blew up all over my shirt, we were running late. I had a meeting at Jennings Grocery, but Americano stole my parking spot__ _You saw Americano in the wild?_ _I did,_ she said. _He continues to be terrible. Then my big meeting went horribly, and I had to jet to the school for this science-art thing, and I sat in the back and just stared at all of these happily married couples who were seeing each other at the end of the day, and I swear to God, Fizz, I_ve never felt so lonely in my entire life. And then PTA Dawn reminded me to finish the fundraiser website, and I just did but it_s probably a holy mess and I cannot find a bone in me that cares._ Before Fizzy could speak, Jess added, _And don_t say anything, because I know how this sounds_like _poor me, and I_m all alone._ I know I_m lucky. I have the best kid, and I have Nana and Pops here to help me whenever I need them. I have you__ _Cutting in now,_ Fizzy said. _Yes, you have Nana and Pops, you have a great kid, you have me. I am here for you every day, for forever, but please, Jess. It isn_t the same. You_re talking about wanting to have someone to come home to, to talk to, and yeah_to get naked with. It isn_t selfish to want that. You aren_t somehow putting Juno second by occasionally putting your needs first. Juno needs a happy mom._ _It isn_t only that,_ Jess said quietly. _Do I worry about introducing Juno to a man someday? Yes, completely. But the idea of putting myself out there is honestly more exhausting than anything. I had to change my shirt twice this morning for the meeting, first for the smoothie explosion, and second when I drooled a glob of toothpaste on my chest._ _Reason number one why I always brush my teeth naked,_ Fizzy joked, and Jess laughed. _And PS? You probably looked straight-up gorgeous, regardless of what you think._ _Thank you__ _I_m serious,_ Fizzy pressed. _Listen to me. You_re so beautiful, it_s stupid. Your eyes? Like, I try to describe that blue in books, and it just sounds clich?. You have the cutest little bod, and literally the best lips. And for free! People usually have to pay for mouths like that._ Jess laughed through a sob. _If I didn_t know you were such a head case, I_d ask you out myself._ _You see me through that lens because you love me,_ Jess said, chin wobbling. _Dating in our thirties is different. It requires us to get our shit together, and most days just being a mom and hustling my ass off to keep my head above water takes everything I_ve got. Where am I going to find the time and energy to hunt for a good guy when most of the dudes on Tinder think a quick drink earns them sex?_ Jess could practically hear Fizzy_s gape on the other end of the line. _We just went to a presentation at a company that asks you to spit in a vial and they_ll hand over a list of potential soulmates._ She enunciated the last word so it stretched for three long syllables. _No one is asking you to hunt._ _Even the DNADuo still requires dating!_ Jess told her, laughing. _It_s not like I get a name and we elope! There_s still trial and error._ _You could specify only high-level matches,_ Fizzy argued. _You don_t have to do what I_m doing and take whatever comes your way. Hell, tell them you only want matches of seventy or higher. What do you have to lose?_ She paused, and then added more gently, _Put yourself first tonight, Jessie. Just for ten minutes. Consider it an early B-day present for the big Three-Oh._ _Don_t remind me._ Fizzy laughed. _You don_t have to answer any of the matches if you change your mind, but for tonight, just imagine a world where you find someone who_s perfect for you, and is there for you, and is the head you can lean yours against at the end of the day._ When they hung up, Jess_s eyes landed on the DNADuo box Fizzy had pushed into her hands as they_d left GeneticAlly. Before she could talk herself out of it, she reached for the box, tore it open, spit into the vial, sealed the whole thing in the enclosed envelope, and walked it out to the mailbox. FIVE JESS ADJUSTED THE elastic strap beneath her chin. Was this what thirty felt like? Spending her birthday in a coffee shop with a madwoman who would get the entire room to belt _Happy Birthday_ if Jess tried to take off this sparkly birthday hat? Fizzy looked up abruptly. _You goblin. Leave the hat alone._ _It_s itchy! Tell me about your date with Aiden B._ Fizzy waved this off, already over it. _He lives with his sister._ _Is that an automatic disqualification?_ _I mean, they live together as in they share a bedroom._ She shook her head, clearly not wanting Jess to ask more. _It_s uncharted territory for me. I_m unwilling to explore what it means._ Jess laughed. _Fair enough. If I remember, he was only a score of, what? Thirteen? What about _ ?_ She was blanking on the other guy_s name. _Antonio?_ Fizzy prompted. _He was hot._ _He was the twenty-one?_ _Yeah. We had dinner, we had sex._ Fizzy shrugged, summarizing. _We won_t be seeing each other again, though._ As if she remembered something, she picked up her notebook and jotted down a couple of words. _What did you just write down?_ Fizzy_s lip curled. _Dick tattoo._ Jess_s curled, too. _What? No._ _Also,_ Fizzy said, _he wanted me to talk dirty, so I did, but apparently I went too dirty._ Jess burst out laughing again. _You went too dirty for a guy with a dick tattoo? Felicity Chen, my God._ She lifted her coffee to her lips. _But to be fair, you_re setting yourself up for this. Why are you casting the net so wide? Just filter the results. I don_t get it._ Fizzy got that look she had when she was about to get real intense. _Listen. Tinder is the biggest dating app in the world for a reason. Sometimes people just want to have fun. The benefit here is that we get to choose what level of investment we want, and right now, for me, that level is hovering somewhere around sex with people I don_t feel obligated to call again._ She lifted her chin. _I_m testing the waters without all the pressure of forever._ Holding up her hands in defense, Jess said, _I_m not judging. Write this dissertation and mail it to Americano._ Fizzy gave her a casual middle finger. _Anyway, I_ve got a date with a twenty-three named Ted tomorrow_who is himself only twenty-one_and on Saturday I_m having dinner with a thirty-one named Ralph._ _Thirty-one? Wow, that_s a Silver. Moving up in the world._ Fizzy opened her mouth to reply when, on the table between them, a phone delivered a telltale chime. Jess assumed it was another mediocre compatibility score hitting Fizzy_s inbox, and Fizzy seemed to assume the same, reaching for her phone_ So it took them both a second to register that the sound had actually come from Jess_s phone _ and it took Jess another to remember she_d sent her _sample_ away for analysis. Betrayal widened every one of Fizzy_s features. _Jessica Davis. I_m over here telling you about dick tattoos and you don_t even tell me you sent your spit!_ Jess barked out an uncomfortable laugh. _I can explain!_ _You_d better!_ She was unable to control her bubbling laughter. Fizzy looked genuinely furious in a mildly cartoonish way. _It was last Thursday, remember? I called you from the toilet. On impulse, I put it in the mail after we hung up, downloaded the app and filled out the basic info, and then totally spaced on it._ Fizzy picked up Jess_s phone, tapping it awake with a punitive jab of her index finger. Entering the passcode, she stared in confusion down at the screen while Jess stared with similar confusion at her. _I don_t remember giving you my passcode._ _Juno_s birthday. You should choose a more secure code. Never know what brand of crazy can get into your phone._ Jess raised a wry eyebrow. _You don_t say._ Fizzy turned the screen to face her. _It_s red. What does that mean?_ _What_s red?_ Jess_s amusement at the situation was fading, quickly replaced by the realization that her DNADuo app had just pinged her with an alert. She_d excluded matches below seventy percent. She had a Platinum or higher match. She suddenly understood Fizzy_s desire to dip a toe in the soulmate waters rather than dive headfirst. Jess wasn_t ready. She wasn_t even sure she was curious. _The thing,_ Fizzy said, pointing aggressively. _The little_circle notification thing over the app icon that means you have a result!_ The prospect of making a decision based on a numerical score made Jess immediately tired. She took her phone back, tempted to delete the app along with whatever impulse had told her to spit in that vial in the first place. _Is red bad?_ _All of mine are green,_ Fizzy explained. _Whether it_s a compatibility score of twelve or thirty-one, the match notifications have been green._ Okay, if the match notifications were green, at least Jess knew a potential soulmate wasn_t just casually hanging out in her inbox. _Might I suggest your intensity about this is now at an eleven?_ Fizzy shot back: _To my romance-loving heart, this app is the most fascinating game ever. Humor me._ _Most likely it means there was something wrong with my sample,_ Jess said, relief expanding in her. _I did it after I brushed my teeth, and it says to wait an hour after eating or drinking anything before spitting._ She put her phone back on the table, screen-side down. _I_ll deal with it later._ She should_ve known better. _Uh. Nope._ Fizzy immediately handed the phone back to her. _I want to know what red means._ _It_s my birthday, and I can ignore it if I want to._ Fizzy shook her head. _What_s a better birthday gift than a soulmate?_ With a sigh, Jess clicked on the DNADuo icon. No notifications under the tab labeled Compatibility Scores, but she did have a small red bubble indicating a new message. Jess_s eyes quickly scanned the words, but her brain was slow to process them. Starting over, Jess read it slowly, word by word, even though there were only eight of them: Please call our office at your earliest convenience. _What does it say?_ Jess handed the phone over. _It_s from GeneticAlly. I need to call them at my earliest convenience. That_s weird. Isn_t that weird? Like, why not just tell me another sample kit is required?_ Fizzy read it, frowning. _They sent it in your app inbox, so you can reply, right? Let_s just ask what this is about._ Instead of handing the phone back, she did it herself, dictating each word as she typed. _May_I_ask_what_this_is_concerning?_ Fizzy stared at the screen, and after only a few seconds, her brows shot up excitedly. _Someone_s typing back!_ Meanwhile, Jess_s stomach was crawling into her throat. She already hated how intense it all felt; this was way too much investment and expectation for something she_d done on impulse in a crappy mood. _I_m sure it_s just a sample thing, just__ _Shh._ _Fizz,_ Jess said, _just give me my phone. I don_t care about any of__ Fizzy held up a hand. _They_re typ_ Oh._ Her brows furrowed. _Okay, you_re right. This is weird._ She handed the phone back, and Jess_s stomach twisted as she read the note. Do you mind coming in? it said. We_ll send a car. THEY_D SEND A car? Good grief. Jess managed to find about a thousand important things she needed to do immediately. She made a DMV appointment to renew her license, scheduled her and Juno_s annual physical exams and dentist appointments. She went for a run; she took a long shower. She even bought herself a new sweater as a birthday indulgence. She had lunch with Nana and Pops, cleaned her apartment, folded every piece of laundry she could find, picked up Juno from school, and read almost an entire Judy Blume novel with her before Juno urged Jess to leave the apartment so Nana and Pops could come over and get the surprise party ready. Surprise! With two hours to kill and the notification like a splinter in her thumb, Jess gave up and called Lisa Addams. The GeneticAlly building was dark from the outside, but a light in the lobby flickered on as the town car pulled up to the curb. Lisa emerged, walking briskly out and opening the car door. _Jessica,_ she said breathlessly. _Thanks for coming in on such short notice._ Even in the dusk, Jess spotted the flush on Lisa_s cheeks, the way her hairline seemed just the slightest bit sweaty. She tumbled one more tick down the Uneasy Scale. _No problem. I only have about an hour, though._ _Of course. Come on in._ Lisa turned, leading them into the empty building. None of this seemed like normal protocol, which made Jess feel like she_d swallowed battery acid. _I have to admit I_m really confused about why this is so urgent._ _I_ll explain everything once we_re inside._ Jess followed her through the double doors and down the long hallway she_d walked the last time she was here. Everyone was clearly done for the day; the offices were dark and vacant in that way that made even innocuous spaces seem creepy. In the conference room, Lisa gestured to six people seated around a large table. River wasn_t among them. _Jessica, I_d like to introduce you to our executive team._ Their what now? _This is David Morris, the principal investigator in charge of the original research, and the CEO of GeneticAlly._ A man to her right stood, stretching out his hand, and Jess recognized him as the person she_d met after overhearing River call her _entirely average._ _Jessica. It_s so great to see you again._ _You too._ She wiped her palm on her pants before shaking. And then it sank in: Original research. CEO. _Right. I guess I didn_t realize who I was meeting in the hall the other day._ He laughed a big, open-mouthed laugh. _Well, it feels a little douchey to say, _I_m CEO David Morris.__ _Maybe,_ Jess said, _but you_ve earned the right._ _I_m friends with Alan Timberland over at Genentech,_ he said, still smiling, _and he_s mentioned some analytics help he had. After looking at your intake information from the other day, I put two and two together and realized you_re the brain behind their new high-throughput screening algorithms._ Jess was a wine bottle, slowly uncorked. Oh, this is about data? Had GeneticAlly brought her here to talk about algorithms? _Alan_s great,_ she said carefully. At the prospect that she was here for consulting, not because she had lemur DNA, the nausea slowly cleared. Lisa gestured to an overly tanned man to David_s left. _Brandon Butkis is our head of marketing._ Another hand closed around Jess_s, another face gave her an urgent, vibrating smile. All she could see was blindingly white capped teeth. After Jess had shaken every hand in the room, Lisa gestured for her to sit down in the direct center seat at the table. _It_s probably unexpected to walk into a full room like this,_ Lisa started. _A little,_ Jess agreed, _but I know how important it is to get data organized, and how hard it is to do that when the data set is as big as yours._ David and Brandon exchanged a quick look. Lisa_s smile slipped for only a second, but Jess logged it. _That_s definitely true. I_m sure you know that better than anyone._ A man_Jess thought his name was Sanjeev_on the other side of the table caught Lisa_s attention. _Is Pe?a coming in for this?_ _He_ll be here,_ Lisa said, and then turned to Jess. _Sorry to make you wait, Jessica._ _Jess is fine,_ she said, adding unnecessarily, _I mean, calling me Jess is fine._ Another awkward pause. _I wasn_t referring to myself in the third person._ After some courtesy laughter, the room fell into a pin-drop silence. It seemed that everyone but Jess knew what this was all about, but no one could tell her until River had arrived. Unfortunately, no one knew where he was (_He said he was on his way up from his office ten minutes ago,_ Sanjeev told the throat-clearing, paper-shuffling table). Nor could anyone think of something to say. So of course, her mouth opened, and words tumbled out. _You all must be very excited for the launch._ Heads bobbed around the table, and Brandon Butkis delivered an enthusiastic _Very!_ _Have you all given samples as well?_ she asked. There was a strange exchange of looks around the table before David said carefully, _We have, yes._ Jess was just about to break and ask for some bloody information when the door burst open and River made a grand entrance much like his irritating, sweeping arrivals at Twiggs. _I_m here. What_s up?_ A tangible energy filled the room. Everyone sat up straighter. Every eye followed him as he moved to his seat. Yes, he was great to look at, but there seemed to be more to the weight of their attention, like the low, humming vibration of hero worship. River_s gaze passed over the group, sweeping past Jess before pausing and jerking back to her face. _Why_s she here?_ _Have a seat, Riv,_ Lisa said, then turned to a petite Asian woman to her right. _Tiff? Do you want to hand out the data?_ Data. Yes. Great. Jess_s shoulders eased, and she took a sheet when the stack came around. The handout contained much less information than Jess would need to give useful feedback on a commercial undertaking of this scale. Two client IDs were listed at the top left and a red circle around a number in the upper right corner. Ninety-eight. Beneath was a table with a simple summary of a data set: variable names, means, deviations, and P values with many, many zeroes after the decimal. There was a highly significant finding in this data; the urgency of this meeting was becoming clear. River released a breath that sounded like it_d been punched out of him. _Wow,_ Jess said. _Ninety-eight. Is that a compatibility score? I realize I_m new to this, but that_s huge, right?_ She flipped back to her memory of Lisa_s presentation. _Diamond?_ The nervous energy at the table doubled; all but one head nodded. River was still staring at the piece of paper. _Yes,_ Lisa said, and her smile was so intense the skin had grown tight around her eyes. _The highest we_ve seen in the DNADuo is ninety-three._ _Okay, so are we asking about a way to confirm this interaction?_ Jess leaned in, looking at the variables. _Without the raw data, I can only guess, but it looks like you_ve customized your stats using an N-type analysis_which is exactly what I would have used. But I_m sure you know the biggest problem with this is that the bounds we would normally use for a typical algorithm become less effective. Though__she chuckled__looking at this P value, I_m guessing with this pair the interactions are everywhere, even with stricter bounds. I could create a non-Euclidean metric, something like a multidimensional data structure_like a k-d tree or cover tree __ She trailed off, looking up. No one was nodding excitedly; no one was jumping in to brainstorm. Maybe there wasn_t another statistician in the room. _I_m more than happy to dig into your post hoc analyses, though with the number of genes in your array, I might need a couple weeks._ Self-conscious now, she put the packet down on the table, smoothing it with her left hand. The room had grown so quiet, the sound of her palm over paper seemed to echo around them. But no one else was actually looking at their handout, or even seemed to be listening. They were all looking at River. And when Jess looked at him, at the raw shock in his expression, a current of electricity ran through her, almost like she_d just touched a live wire. He cleared his throat and turned to Tiffany. _Tiff, did you look through the raw data?_ She nodded, but she was staring at David, who was exchanging another heavy look with Brandon. The room felt deeply, meaningfully silent, and Jess realized she was missing an important context for the gravity here. Awareness sank as quickly as a weight in water. Jess glanced down again at the client information. Client 144326. Client 000001. Oh, God. _Um _ who is client number one?_ River cleared his throat; he_d gone sheet white and gripped the paper in two hands. _Me._ Oh. Well, Jesus Christ, no wonder he wanted to confirm the analysis. A Diamond Match for the original scientist on the project was huge news, especially this close to launch. _Okay, I get it._ Jess took a deep breath, leaning back, ready to get to work. _How can I help?_ River looked at Lisa then, his eyes heavy with the obvious question. Literally everyone else in the room was staring at him, waiting for him to say it: Have we confirmed the assay? Have we replicated the finding with a backup sample? But that wasn_t what he asked. In a low, shaky voice, River murmured, _Who is 1-4-4-3-2-6?_ Every head swung Jess_s way and_ When she realized what was going on, why they were all there, why they had sent a car, why they hadn_t made her sign an NDA for data purposes, why River hadn_t known she would be there, and why everyone else was looking at Jess with that fevered, vibrating force in their expressions, it felt a little like falling off a curb, except she was sitting. It was genuinely so absurd she started laughing. Ninety-eight! _Oh._ Jess was still laughing as she stood on shaky legs. Her heartbeat was a pulsating cacophony in her ears. _I_m not here to advise on your statistics._ Ninety-eight. P values with at least ten zeroes after the decimal. Her brain scratched around, looking for a way out of this. _Jess__ Lisa began. _This isn_t right,_ Jess cut her off, fumbling for her purse. _We ran the data through all of our standard analysis programs,_ Tiffany added quietly. _No, I mean I_m sure your stats are__ Jess started, but realized she couldn_t finish the sentence because it would be a lie. Clearly their statistics were garbage and they were all delusional. And unfortunately, Jess hadn_t driven herself here. _I can call someone to come pick me up._ Jess glanced at River_who was already watching her with wild, dark eyes_and then at surfer-chic Lisa, and Toothy Brandon, and Jeff Goldblum_s Benedict Cumberbatch, and every other person in the room who_d also never dealt with this particular situation. _It was so nice meeting everyone. Thanks so much for having me. Sorry for the ramble about N-type analyses._ She turned, opening the door with a hand she wasn_t all that sure was going to cooperate, and practically sprinted back the way she came. SIX JESS_S HANDS WERE shaking so uncontrollably that, as she walked, she could barely type out a text plea to Pops to come pick her up with the address of the building. Somehow the hall had stretched; it took her a century to get to the elevator, and when she pushed the button, she heard its slow grind up from the bottom floor. Feet jogged down the hall. They didn_t sound like Lisa_s heels, and yeah_when Jess looked up, she saw River making his way toward her. _Jessica,_ he said, holding up a hand. _Hold on a second._ Was he serious? Jess turned and continued toward the door labeled EXIT, pushing into the stairwell. Ten hurried steps down before the door clanged shut behind her; the sound was so jarring it actually made her duck. Half a flight above, the door flew open again. Footsteps tap-tap-tapped down toward her, and Jess accelerated, jogging down to the first level and emerging into the lobby. River managed to get out only a patient, echoing _Jessica, wait_ before the lobby stairwell door sealed shut. It didn_t matter; he would invariably catch her outside. Because although Pops had replied that he was out getting the cake and could get there quickly, it wasn_t like he could drive to La Jolla in three minutes. At least outside she could breathe a precious handful of seconds of fresh air, could think without the pressure of everyone_s stunned attention on her. What were they thinking, dropping something so personal in a room full of strangers? Wrapping her arms around her midsection, Jess paced the sidewalk in front of the building, waiting. When she heard River emerge, she expected him to start talking right away, but he didn_t. He approached her slowly, cautiously, and came to a stop about ten feet away. For maybe three seconds, Jess liked him for giving her space. But then she remembered that he wasn_t usually so considerate _ and he was supposedly her soulmate. The absurdity of that meeting finally hit her like a slap, and she coughed out an overwhelmed laugh. _Oh my God. What just happened?_ He spoke through the chilly quiet. _It was a surprise to me, too._ His words felt like an echo between them. They surprised him? _How? You_you know everyone in that room. Why would they tell you like that?_ she asked. _Why would they have everyone there, like some kind of a reality show?_ _I can only assume they wanted us all to have a conversation about how to handle it._ __Handle it_?_ she repeated. _You really are dead inside, aren_t you?_ _I meant handle for the company. I_m sure it_s occurred to you that the optics of one of the founders having the highest recorded compatibility score is both fantastic and fraught, from a marketing perspective._ _Any woman would be lucky to hear these words from her__Jess used finger quotes___biological soulmate.__ He exhaled slowly. _I also assume they were worried that if they told you remotely, you wouldn_t come in._ River shrugged, sliding one hand into his trouser pocket. _Sanjeev_the head of assay development_is a close friend. I_d mentioned our run-in downtown to him, and your blowing up at me__ _My _blowing up_ at you?_ __and word probably spread when the result came in and your name was associated._ __Associated_?_ Unproductive, but the only thing she could focus on was the way he spoke like he was reading aloud from a textbook. God, Siri carried on a more familiar conversation. _I_m sorry that we have to consider the business implications of all of this,_ River said, _but I assume you understand this is a really big deal, on several levels._ Jess stared at him, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was allowing for at least one of these levels being human emotion. _Uh, yeah, I get that. But we don_t have to consider anything. I mean_there_s no way, River. We both know it_s an error, right? Or if not an error, that the compatibility paradigm doesn_t apply to us._ _Why is it your first assumption that the technology is wrong?_ _Why isn_t it yours?_ He laughed dryly, looking past her. _The DNADuo has been validated thousands of times. If we got scores of ninety-eight all the time, I_d be more skeptical._ _I can_t imagine being less skeptical. Every thought in here__Jess pointed to her head__is either _LOL no_ or _Surely you jest.__ She paused, taking him in. _How can you look at me with a straight face right now?_ He reached up, running a hand through his hair. _Biological compatibility is independent of whether or not we like each other._ A horrified laugh ripped out of her. _Is that the company slogan or your best pickup line?_ _Listen, I_m not__ River broke off, exhaling a long, slow breath. _How do we proceed?_ _I_m not even sure what that means, _proceed.__ Jess hooked a thumb over her shoulder. _I_m going to head home._ _It means we see if the science has made an accurate prediction._ _You_re client number one,_ she reminded him. _If we_re having this conversation, I_m guessing you_re single and none of your other matches worked out, either. Let_s assume this one will follow that trajectory._ _You_re my first,_ he said matter-of-factly, adding, in response to her baffled expression, _I haven_t had any other matches. I set stringent criteria._ _How_what does that even mean?_ River took a cautious step closer. _I selected to see only Diamond Matches._ Jess maintained eye contact with him for five _ ten _ fifteen seconds. His gaze was steady, unblinking, and rational, and an abrupt thought crashed into her mind: I bet he_s good at everything he sets his mind to. What if, just for one minute, I let myself imagine that this is real? What then? His eyes dipped briefly to her mouth, and Jess had the feeling he was asking himself the same question. Her thoughts were unexpectedly hijacked by a flashing image of him staring down at her, shirtless, watching her reaction to the pressure of his hand between her legs. Jess had to blink_hard_to clear the image away. _Why would you set your criteria that strict?_ She knew her reasons, but what about his? A romantic soul would say that they were only interested in true love, but River_s beat of hesitation told her his answer was grounded in something much more logical. _Initially because the goal wasn_t to find myself a partner,_ he said. _It_s been a protracted longitudinal study, and we_ve all been focused on getting to this point. I stopped thinking about my own client information a long time ago._ It wasn_t the worst answer; Jess could understand how much focus it took to keep a business afloat, let alone one with employees. This all just seemed completely impossible to her. She heard Pops_s old clunker turning into the parking lot, and River_s angular face was briefly illuminated by the headlights. His guarded scowl made his profile aggravatingly more handsome. Something in her expression must have softened, because he took a few steps closer. _Let_s talk about it some more,_ he said. _It doesn_t have to be tonight._ _I_ll think about it._ _It_s exciting,_ he said quietly. _Isn_t it?_ If she could only make herself believe this result, learning to tolerate his face for the sake of science wouldn_t be the worst thing in the world, would it? _I guess._ River gave her a shy smile that hit her like a thunderbolt. _And the timing couldn_t be better for launch._ HALFWAY THROUGH HER birthday dinner, Jess_s phone chimed. It wasn_t the DNADuo app_she_d deleted that thing as soon as they pulled away from the curb outside GeneticAlly_it was her work email. Normally she wouldn_t check until morning, but she_d been stewing all day and there_d been crickets from Jennings Grocery. So while Juno regaled Nana and Pops with a dramatic reenactment of Cole Mason getting his penis stuck in his zipper at school, Jess covertly reached for her phone. Ms. Jessica Davis, This is a formal notification that we are terminating your contract as detailed in Appendix IV. The remaining balance owed of $725.25 for STATISTICAL FORMULA MARKETING ALGORITHM will be direct-deposited as agreed to account XXXXXXXXX-652. We would like to thank you for the work you have provided us during the last three years and wish you only the best. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. Regards, Todd Jennings Jennings Grocery Jess felt like she_d just pulled the pin from a grenade and swallowed it down. Seven hundred dollars deposited into her account, but the remaining eighteen thousand wouldn_t be coming in this year, or ever. Thirty percent of her income was gone. Anxiety tore through her_hot, feverish_and she closed her eyes, taking ten deep breaths. One _ Two _ She still had three active contracts. After taxes she could still bring in thirty thousand dollars this year. It would be tight, and unless she got some new clients, there wouldn_t be much left over for extras, but she would be able to cover rent and health insurance. Three _ Four _ Five _ Maybe she could get on a payment plan for Juno_s ballet class. Six _ Seven _ They wouldn_t starve. Eight _ Nine _ They had a roof over their heads. Ten _ Slowly, her pulse returned to normal, but the alarm had left her feeling worn out and dented. Turning her phone facedown on the table, Jess reached for the bottle of wine and poured, stopping only when the liquid formed a glossy meniscus at the lip of the glass. _Wow._ Pops whistled. _Everything okay over there?_ _Yup._ Jess bent down, sucking the first sip so that she could lift the glass without spilling. It_s my birthday, she thought. I_m getting smashed. Pops shared a look with Nana before he turned to Juno. _Miss Junebug?_ he said. She slurped a spaghetti noodle into her mouth. _Hmm?_ _Think you could go back to my place and find my glasses? There were a few crossword clues I needed your mama_s help with._ Juno_s chair screeched away from the table, and she squinted suspiciously, pointing a marinara-tipped finger at him. _Don_t have cake without me._ _Wouldn_t dare._ They watched as she raced out the back door and through the courtyard to the bungalow, Pigeon trailing behind her. _Well, that bought us about thirty seconds,_ Nana said with a laugh. _I_ll give her sixty._ Pops reached into the pocket of his sweater and pulled his glasses from the case. He gave Jess a teasing wink before slipping them on. _Now, it_s your birthday, Jessica._ He leaned in, pretending to study her. His eyes were pale, watery, full of love. _What_s this face? Does it have to do with me picking you up earlier? The man outside?_ _No._ _He sure did seem upset when we drove off._ _He_s a jerk, but this isn_t about him._ If it were just about River and his stupid test, this would be easy. Jess had deleted the app and could ignore him at Twiggs. Done. But it wasn_t nearly that simple. _What is it, then?_ Nana Jo asked. Jess leaned her elbows on the table and propped her head in her hands. It weighed about eighty pounds. _Oh _ just life._ She picked up her phone again, opening it before handing it over to let them read the Jennings email. _This was one of my bigger accounts. We disagreed on how to move forward, and they_re letting me go._ Nana_s face fell and she placed her hand on Jess_s. _I_m so sorry, sugar._ _Money can be fixed,_ Pops said. _We_ll always help you._ Jess squeezed his hand in wordless thanks. They had raised Jamie and Jess, and now helped with Juno. She was supposed to be taking care of them at this point in her life, not the other way around. _It_s not just money._ Jess took a breath, trying to arrange her thoughts in some sort of order. _I mean it is, but it_s also me. I feel like I_m in this holding pattern, raising Juno, making ends meet, trying to keep things moving until my life actually begins. I was just starting to think how silly that is and how I need to get out more. But now this,_ she said, waving her phone for emphasis. _I worked my butt off for this account, and they_re going to replace me tomorrow because there are a hundred other people with looser morals who can do what I do._ Jess pressed her fingers to her temples. _I need to look for a second job. I don_t want you taking care of me._ _Are you kidding?_ Pops argued. _Who takes us to our appointments? Who helps us when we don_t know how to use a damned iPhone? Who found our trainer and helps Nana Jo with the garden? You work hard, Jessica, and you_re raising that amazing little girl._ The amazing little girl herself bounded back in and pointed accusingly at her great-grandfather. _Pops! Your glasses are on your face!_ _Would you look at that!_ He adjusted them over his nose, pulling his crossword closer to peer down at it. _I bet you know a three-letter word for _regret,_ don_t you, Jess?_ Jess smiled. _Rue._ _See? What would we do without you?_ He grinned at her over the top of his glasses before penciling the word in. ONCE HER GRANDPARENTS were gone, Jess leaned against the closed door. Fatigue settled flabbily into her muscles, aching deep into her bones. She felt much older than thirty. Walking through the quiet apartment, she picked up Juno_s shoes, the stray socks, the cat toys, more than one cup half-full of milk, pencils, food orders on Post-it notes from Juno and Pops playing Restaurant. She set the coffee timer, packed up Juno_s backpack, loaded the dishwasher, and glanced around the space for any other random detritus before flicking off the light and walking down the hall to her daughter_s room. Juno had fallen asleep with Frog and Toad Are Friends open on her chest again, her mermaid light still on. Jess deposited Pigeon on her fancy three-tiered cat post near the window, but she immediately jumped down and onto the bed, happily curling herself into a ball at Juno_s feet. Jess closed Juno_s book and put it on the nightstand, tucked the blankets up to her chin, and sat carefully on the edge of the mattress at her side. In her sleep, Juno frowned. Her hair spilled coppery across the light pink pillowcase. Jess hadn_t seen Alec in almost two years, but looking at their daughter was like seeing him every day anyway. She had Jess_s eyes but got his strikingly metallic chestnut hair, dimpled smile, and grumpy crease in the middle of her forehead. Jess smoothed her thumb across Juno_s warm, kid-sweaty brow and gave herself two deep breaths to wish he were here, before remembering that she hadn_t loved him in a long time and didn_t need his help. Empty companionship was lonelier than being alone. Alec wasn_t a bad guy; he just didn_t want to be a dad. He_d never pressured Jess to terminate the pregnancy, but he_d made it clear where he stood. In the end, Jess chose Juno over him, and they both had to live with that. He got to enjoy his twenties, but every one of their friends thought he was an asshole; Jess got a delightful child but had to learn how to hustle to make ends meet. She never regretted her choice for a single breath, though, and was pretty sure he hadn_t, either. Heavy with exhaustion, Jess switched the lamp off and slipped quietly out of the room, startling in the hallway when the doorbell pierced the silence. Pops left his glasses at Jess_s more nights than he didn_t, and pulling her sweater tighter around her chest, Jess walked quietly to the living room to peek out the window. But it wasn_t Pops. It was Jamie. Jess used to feel a potent mix of reactions when she saw her mother_relief, anxiety, excitement_but at this point it was primarily dread, and as a mother herself now, she found that realization so deeply bleak. Taking a deep, bracing breath, Jess hesitated with her hand on the knob before opening the door. Jamie Davis had worn many labels_cocktail waitress, addict, stadium usher, girlfriend, recovering addict, homeless_but none of them had ever been _devoted mother._ On the rare occasion she had shown up to one of Jess_s school events or a softball game she was usually hungover_sometimes still drunk_and reeking of cigarettes or marijuana. She would make a show, cheering for Jess, being proud of her. Sometimes she would bring a group of her rowdy friends calling themselves _Jessie_s Cheering Squad._ Inside, Jess would die of embarrassment, and then panic that Jamie would see it all over her face, that she would leave in a fit of anger and not come around again for weeks. And there she was, still beautiful_she_d always been beautiful_but with a powdery finish to her beauty now, something both artificial and dull. A lifetime of bad habits had finally caught up. _My girl!_ Jamie pushed forward, wrapping her daughter in a quick one-armed hug before stepping back and shoving a set of bath bombs in Jess_s hands. They_d started to disintegrate inside the cellophane, and the brightly colored dust leaked out onto Jess_s fingers. She knew her mother well enough to guess Jamie had bought them as an afterthought while grabbing a pack of menthol lights at the convenience store down the street. Jamie stepped around her and into the dark living room. _Hey,_ Jess said, closing the door. _What_s the occasion?_ Her mother set her giant purse on the coffee table and looked at her, wounded. Her lipstick slowly bled up into the tiny lines around her mouth. _I can_t see my baby on her twenty-eighth birthday?_ Jess didn_t point out that Jamie was off by two years, or the many other birthdays she_d missed. Frankly Jess was surprised her mom remembered her birth date at all; her sporadic visits weren_t generally timed to life events. _Of course you can,_ Jess said. _Do you want to sit down? Can I get you something?_ _No, no. I_m fine._ Jamie walked into the kitchen, tapping her acrylic nails along the counter, and then glanced down the hall. _Juno, honey? Where_s my beautiful grandbaby?_ _She_s in bed, Mom._ Jess shushed her. _It_s late, and she has school tomorrow._ Jamie threw her an annoyed look. _Kids should go to sleep when they_re tired. All these rules just make them anxious and depressed. That_s why we have so many of them on medication these days._ She scanned Juno_s spelling test on the refrigerator, the birthday card she_d made for Jess, a grocery list. _People need to listen to their bodies. If you_re tired, sleep. If you_re hungry, eat something. Parents need to stop scheduling these kids to death._ Carefully, Jess set the bath bombs on the counter. _I take an antidepressant every day,_ she said with careful calm. _Guess that no-schedule theory isn_t a sure thing._ Jamie ignored this to continue her perusal of the apartment, casually glancing at the spines of library books on the table, flipping through a few pages on one of Juno_s about horses. Thanksgiving was the last time Jess had seen her mother. Jess had transferred five hundred dollars into Jamie_s checking and hadn_t heard a word since. Jamie had been living in Santa Ana then. They_d met at a Denny_s_Jess paid_and Jamie lamented how her utilities had been shut off because the bank made an error. They_d taken the automatic withdrawal early, she_d insisted. Those fees had made other payments bounce, and it snowballed from there. But it hadn_t been her fault. It was never her fault. _So, how are you?_ Jess asked now, stifling a yawn as she sat on the couch. _How_s _ John?_ As soon as the name was out, Jess winced. She thought his name was John. Might have been Jim. _Oh,_ Jamie said with a You are not going to believe this lean to the single word. _Yeah, he was married._ Jess_s surprise was genuine. _Wait, really? How did you find out?_ _His wife called me._ Jamie tapped out a cigarette before remembering she couldn_t smoke in the apartment, and sort of toyed with it like that had been her intent all along. _Honestly I should have known. He had a job, good credit, and a prescription for Viagra. Of course he was married._ Jess snorted out a laugh. _Are those the criteria these days?_ _Oh, honey. Don_t let the age of men with good circulation pass you by. Trust me._ She sat on the edge of the coffee table across from her daughter, resting a hand on Jess_s leg, and the whiff of genuine camaraderie made Jess_s heart lean forward. _How are you?_ Jamie asked. _How_s your writer friend? She is so funny._ _I_m fine. You know, working. And Fizzy,_ Jess said with a small laugh. _Fizzy is always fine._ _Are you dating anyone?_ Uninvited, River_s voice rammed into Jess_s mind. And the timing couldn_t be better for launch. _Definitely not dating._ Jamie_s disappointment was palpable. _Are you just going to be single forever? I haven_t met a boyfriend of yours since Juno_s daddy. It_s your birthday. You should be out!_ _It_s a school night, and Juno is asleep down the hall._ Jamie pointed like Jess might be catching on. _So she wouldn_t even know you were gone._ Jess_s heart settled back into its familiar cramp, and she said with patient finality: _I don_t want to go out, Mom._ Holding her hands up in defensive surrender, Jamie groaned out, _Fine, fine._ Jess yawned again. _Listen, it_s l__ _Did I tell you about my new gig?_ Her abruptly bright tone set off warning bells. _Your new what?_ _My new job._ Jamie sat up. _Okay _ don_t say anything to your grandparents, because you know they_re old-fashioned and never understand how exciting these opportunities are, but you are looking at Skin Glow Incorporated_s newest team member._ Jess searched her brain but no recognition flared. _Who are they?_ _You_re kidding._ Jamie shook her head in disbelief. _Their commercials are everywhere, Jess. They do in-home facials. God, I want to say it_s a good company, but it_s more than that, it_s a whole lifestyle. A way of empowering women. I get a cut of every facial I do and__ Jess couldn_t keep the edge from her voice. _A cut?_ _Well, yeah_I mean, to start. Eventually I_ll have girls working for me and I_ll make some of everything they make, and the people they bring on board._ _So, like a pyramid scheme._ _Like an entrepreneur._ Jamie_s words were sharp with offense. _I am capable of more than waiting tables, you know._ _I_m sorry, Mom. I didn_t mean it like that._ _Well, this is a really rare opportunity. Maureen said the lady who got her into it is already making six figures! And it_s only three hundred dollars to start._ Of course. _You need money._ _Just a loan._ Jamie waved a casual hand. _I_ll pay you back with my first paycheck._ _Mom, no good job requires you to pay to get started._ Jamie_s expression darkened. _Why do you always make me feel like this? Can_t I ever dig out of the hole with you?_ She stood up and bent to grab her purse. _I_ve been clean for eighteen months!_ _It_s not about you_ Wait._ Jess was on the verge of telling Jamie that she had her own money problems to worry about. Jamie sat back down on the couch, and the silence stretched between them. _Did you stop at Nana and Pops_s?_ she asked instead. _They_re probably still up._ Jamie half rolled her eyes, and Jess found herself wondering, again, when she_d become the parent and Jamie had become the child. _They don_t want to see me._ _You know that_s not true. If you_ve got a new job and you_re clean, they_d love to see you. They love you, Mom._ Jamie kept her eyes on the wall. _Well. They know where to find me._ It was astonishing that someone like Jamie came from Joanne and Ronald Davis. At only three, Jess had been spending most nights over at Nana and Pops_s house. By the time she was six, Jamie had given up all pretense of trying, and Jess was permanently living with her grandparents. Jamie had been around, generally speaking, but she was never steady. Whereas Nana and Pops were involved in every aspect of Jess_s life from birth to this very moment, she learned early on that Jamie would pick drugs and men over family, every time. As much as she tried not to repeat any of her mother_s patterns, Jess did take after her in one way: she_d gotten pregnant young. But hopefully that was where the similarities ended. Jess had graduated from college, gotten a job, and tried to save a little every time a check came. She took her kid to the dentist. She tried to put Juno first every day. Jess tried to think what Jamie would do now if their positions were reversed. Would Jamie give me the money? No. Jamie would tell her she needed to grow up, stop expecting handouts, and take responsibility for her own goddamned self. Standing, Jess walked to the counter. She opened her phone_s bank app, wincing as she typed in $300 to transfer the money to Jamie_s account. I am not my mother, she reminded herself. I am not my mother. SEVEN BRIGHT AND EARLY Monday morning, Fizzy walked into Twiggs. She marched to their usual table, set her laptop down, and even though she_d been told what she would see, still did a double take at Jess standing behind the counter. _This new situation,_ Fizzy said, dropping her purse onto her chair, _is going to take some getting used to._ Jess smiled, swiping a cloth across the counter before pointing to a steaming vanilla latte at the end of the bar. _If it sucks, lie to me._ Fizzy leaned an elbow on the counter and picked up the cup. _I feel like I should have made you a little boxed lunch or something. How_s your first day?_ _The steamer is terrifying, and I didn_t have the lid on the blender all the way during the morning rush, but not too bad._ Fizzy blew across the top of her drink and tasted it. Her brows lifted in surprised approval. _I guess third time really is a charm,_ Jess said. Fizzy looked around the quiet coffee shop. _Is this where we stand and gossip from now on?_ From where he was wiping tables, Daniel uttered a simple _No,_ but Fizzy ignored him, leaning in closer. _Listen, Jess, I know you want to think this compatibility score thing is bullshit, but Ralph was good. What I_m saying is, if I graphed these compatibility scores relative to my sexual satisfaction, like you nerds might, there would be a definite up-slope to the line._ It took a beat for Jess to connect the dots before she remembered Ralph, the Silver Match. Unease was an index finger jabbing her shoulder, whispering, Don_t ask. But curiosity overruled discomfort. With a guilty glance at Daniel over Fizzy_s shoulder, she stepped farther down the bar to get some privacy. _Oh yeah?_ Fizzy followed on the other side of the counter. _We had dinner at Bali Hai._ Jess hummed enviously. _He was super easy to talk to. We each probably had one too many mai tais, but it wasn_t a problem because we both took Lyfts there and shared a Lyft home __ Fizzy grinned. _Incidentally, he has a cute place in PB._ An unexpected kernel of angst pinged Jess_s lungs, and she cleared it with a cough and started wiping the bar in front of her. _So, more compatible than with Aiden or Antonio?_ _Without a doubt._ _Do you think you_ll see him again?_ _Unfortunately, I get the sense that he_s too busy to really get serious with anyone._ Fizzy frowned. _Why would he sign up for the DNADuo during their soft launch if he just wanted to mess around?_ Laughing, Jess said, _I think I remember asking you that exact question only a handful of days ago. Look at you, ready to commit after a single night of mai tais and good sex._ From nowhere, Daniel materialized, tapping Jess_s shoulder and pointing to the cash register. _You have a customer._ _Oops, sorry._ She swatted after him with her cleaning cloth. Jess jogged the few feet to the register before looking up into the gorgeous yet despicable face of none other than Dr. River Pe?a. In fairness, Jess shouldn_t have been surprised; if she_d looked at the clock, she would have known that it was 8:24 and River was right on time. But somehow her brain had dropped the ball on reminding her that she might actually have to wait on him during her very first shift as a Twiggs barista. And this was the first time she was seeing him after their non-goodbye at the curb four days ago. Although Jess didn_t expect to exhale actual fire the next time they came face-to-face, she couldn_t account for the transfusion of warmth that hit her bloodstream, either. For a few seconds, she stared dumbly up at him, clocking the same shock in his expression. He broke his stunned gaze from hers to look down the counter at Daniel, standing behind the La Marzocco. Then, with that trademark unhurried way of his, River looked at Jess again. _What are you doing back there?_ His eyes took a leisurely perusal down the length of her body. _In an apron?_ _Oh, right._ She gave an awkward curtsy. _I work here now._ When he didn_t say anything else, she offered an artificially perky _What can I get for you, sir?_ He frowned, and his dark brows came together; glimmering bright eyes regarded her with skepticism. _You work here? Since when? I thought you worked for __ He glanced over to the table where Fizzy now sat alone, watching them hawkishly. Jess raised an eyebrow in amusement as he turned back to her and seemed to be putting the puzzle together in his head. Finally, he managed only, _I thought you worked _ somewhere else._ Inwardly, she groaned. Why wasn_t he just ordering, paying, and stepping to the side to stare at his phone? Had he forgotten that he was too busy to converse with plebeians? _I_m a freelance statistician,_ she said, maintaining the polite smile. _But I lost a big account the other day. Given that I have a kid and lots of bills __ She held her arms out to say, Voil?. Jess would gladly take sixteen hours a week at minimum wage and the hit to the pride from serving River Pe?a if it meant Juno could keep taking ballet with Ms. Mia. Without subtlety, River_s eyes darted down to her left hand. Was she imagining the way his brow relaxed? Had he been looking for a wedding band? _One kid,_ she confirmed quietly, _no husband._ For a brief second, she let herself be amused by this potential scenario. _Wow, that would have been an awkward press release for GeneticAlly: _Founder_s Soulmate Is Already Married.__ _Married people tend to not submit DNA samples,_ River replied with an amused twinkle in his eye. _And I hear they prefer to cheat using apps with fewer intake forms._ Self-preservation welled up hot in her throat, and she could see the twin realization pass through him: this exchange felt suspiciously like nerdy flirting. _What can I get for you?_ Jess asked again. His expression shuttered. _Sorry, I would have__ He held her gaze and the contact felt like a swarm of bees in her chest. _I thought you called me _Americano_ the other day,_ he said. Holy duh, Jessica. Scribbling the drink order on a cup, she moved to hand it to Daniel, who gave her a blank look. _I already got it, Jess._ Of course he had. Daniel smiled apologetically on behalf of his new employee, handing the drink to River. Silence fell as they watched her struggle to find the correct entry for Americano on the screen. _It_s under espresso drinks,_ Daniel prompted quietly. River, hulking, leaned over to peer upside down at the screen. _It_s over on the__ His finger landed on the touch screen just as Jess_s did, their hands briefly coming together. _I got it,_ she said, humiliated. He pulled away, and she tapped the button, flustered by the contact that she could somehow feel all the way up her arm. No doubt her cheeks looked like she_d been slapped. _That_ll be three eighty-five._ He hesitated, and Jess realized her mistake. She upsized to large. _Sorry. Four seventy-four._ Their shared discomfort shoved between them, a loud, uninvited guest at the awkward party for two. Jess took his money, counted out his change. But what really wrecked her was that, after the tiniest hesitation, he dropped all of it_including the five-dollar bill_into the tip jar. FIZZY SIDLED UP to the counter fifteen minutes later when she seemed to assess Jess was done being mortified. _Hey._ She offered a little best-friend-simpatico smile and reached across the counter to offer a fist bump. _Hey._ Jess cleared her throat, meeting Fizzy_s knuckles. _I bet an ending like that never made it into a romance novel._ Fizzy laughed. _Are you kidding? That would be the start of an amazing love story._ _Not my story._ Jess felt her best friend studying her while she pretended to be very engrossed in rearranging the pastry case. Fizzy had been uncharacteristically mum on the subject of River. After hearing of their DNADuo result, the rundown on the disastrous GeneticAlly meeting, and Jess_s theory that the statistics were completely bogus and most likely invalidated their entire business plan, Fizzy had stared at her in silence for a few beats before saying only _I get it._ _You okay?_ she asked now. Daniel decided this moment was a good one to join the conversation, setting two sealed bags of beans down at the espresso bar. He frowned. _What_s wrong?_ _Nothing,_ Jess mumbled just as Fizzy practically shouted, _Did you not see that awkward run-in with Americano?_ _Why was it awkward?_ Daniel took a beat to recollect, then said, _Oh, about the drink? Eh, don_t worry about that. It_s your first day._ _No, Dan,_ Fizzy said, exasperated with him for no good reason. _Because they matched._ It felt like the entire coffee shop went silent in response. Jess groaned. _Fizzy, I swear to God, I will barehand__ _What level?_ Daniel asked. _What do you mean _what level_?_ Jess gaped at him. He ripped open a bag of espresso beans and poured it into the machine. _If we_re talking about DNADuo, I was one of the original samples,_ he said proudly. _Back in my days at SDSU. When they were still taking _ samples._ It took a second for that to sink in, and when it did, all a blushing Jess could manage was a quiet _Gross, Dan._ _I meant blood._ _Didn_t sound like you meant blood._ _Anyway, I did it again about a year and a half ago when they put out the call for people to help validate their spit kit._ He pulled his phone from his back pocket and showed them the screen like they might see a thread of matches lined up there. _But I_ve never gotten anything above a thirty-seven._ Fizzy_s interest was piqued. _Did you go out with her?_ _I did,_ he said. _It was good, but I think we both had this weird expectation that it was nice but statistically unlikely to go anywhere?_ _I did wonder about that aspect,_ Fizzy said. _I went out with a Silver the other day but, like, if you get anything lower than a Gold, do you just assume it_s most likely not going to work?_ _Even though,_ Jess cut in quietly, _if you believe their data, the odds are significantly better of finding a lasting relationship with a Silver than with regular dating __ Fizzy gaped at her. _Says the woman who won_t believe her own score._ _What was it?_ Daniel asked again. Jess laughed. _It doesn_t matter. Fizzy_s right. I don_t believe it._ She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at Daniel. _What_s next, boss? Dishes? Restocking?_ He lifted his chin, undeterred. _Was it a Base Match?_ Fizzy looked at her, one eyebrow pointed sharply skyward. _Yeah, Jess. Was it a Base Match?_ Jess slid a patient look to her friend. _Are you being a pot-stirrer?_ _Guilty._ Daniel turned to Fizzy, who in turn gave Jess a look that either sought permission or delivered a warning. Warning, apparently, because a few seconds later, Fizzy said, _It was a Diamond._ Jess expected him to explode: How can you ignore that? and If I had a Diamond Match, I_d quit my job and get laid all day long! But just as Fizzy had when Jess told her, Daniel studied Jess very quietly and very intently. _You_re not curious?_ he asked, at length. _No._ Daniel seemed to be trying to wrap his head around this. _Is River?_ Jess shrugged. _Who knows? We haven_t really talked since we found out a few days ago._ _So, you_re going to, what? Do nothing?_ She nodded at Daniel. _That_s the plan._ Fizzy rolled her eyes and repeated with an exasperated edge: _That_s the plan. The boring, safe plan._ Jess gave her friend a look of warning. It wasn_t that Fizzy was wrong, per se, but Jess had more to think about than just herself. She couldn_t throw caution to the wind. That was a luxury childless people had, people with free time and fewer responsibilities. Boring, safe plans hadn_t steered her wrong yet. EIGHT BUT THE PLAN, as it were, went up in smoke three days later at about 5:17 in the evening, when a silver Tesla pulled up beside Jess on her walk home and rolled down a heavily tinted passenger-side window. It was in her nature to ignore all cars rolling up at a curb, but this one wasn_t catcalling. This driver knew her name. _Jessica._ She turned to find Brandon _the Teeth_ Butkis in the driver_s seat. His left arm was wrapped around the steering wheel as he leaned toward her, smiling like he had an entire pack of Chiclets he wanted to show off. He was dressed casually in a blue button-down shirt open at the collar. _Do you have a second?_ _Not really._ She pointed down two blocks, toward her apartment building. _I need to get dinner started._ _Actually, I was wondering if there was someone who could watch your daughter tonight,_ he said, and his smile turned tentative. Despite the intimidating size of his teeth, his eyes were warm and brown, with crinkles at the edges. He did not look like a man who wanted to pull Jess off the street, plug wires into her skin, and turn her into a human battery. Jess registered vaguely that she needed to take it down a notch, imagination-wise. Approaching the car, she leaned down, resting her forearms on the windowsill. _I_m sure this is frustrating for you, but I_m really not interested in pursuing this._ _And we won_t force you to,_ he said quickly. _Our intention isn_t to be intrusive. I know this has been an _ odd situation. David and I just wanted to make sure to follow up._ Jess had to admit they_d been surprisingly silent given the urgency of the first meeting, the enormity of the finding, and the rushed manner in which she_d fled their headquarters. So far it had been crickets. _You aren_t suggesting another meeting, are you?_ She must have looked like she_d relish another meeting as much as she would a root canal because Brandon laughed. _No. That meeting was a mistake. Our mistake. And probably the worst way to tell you both. We got overly excited, as scientists_we wanted you to experience that moment of discovery with us, but we should have exhibited more EQ._ He shifted in his seat. _We were hoping to take you to dinner._ _Tonight?_ He nodded. _Can you get free?_ She turned and looked down the street again, considering it. Jess wasn_t blind_River was objectively gorgeous_but she couldn_t even say she liked him as a person. Plus, she still couldn_t wrap her logical mind around the number. Her priorities, in order, were her kid, her grandparents, and her bills. She wasn_t going to pursue this no matter what they said tonight. _I have a lot on my plate,_ Jess told him. _I_ve taken on another job; I have a young daughter at home, as you know. I really don_t think I have__ _I promise, Jessica,_ Brandon cut in gently, and when her attention flew back to his face, he gave another tentative smile. _We won_t waste your time._ JESS KNEW AS soon as Brandon pulled up at the valet in front of Addison at the Grand Del Mar that this wasn_t going to be a laid-back kind of dinner. They wouldn_t be eating tacos with their hands or sharing pitchers of beer. A meal at the Addison would cost more than her rent. She glanced down at her lap, brushing nonexistent lint from the skirt of her dress. Brandon would forever be in the Like column for giving her fifteen minutes to change out of her yoga pants and the you-can-barely-see-the-stain Lululemon top Juno had picked out for her at Goodwill. The blue dress she_d tugged on was stretchy, which was why it still fit. Brandon grabbed his neatly pressed sports coat from where it hung on a hook in the back seat, beamed a reassuring smile, and gestured for Jess to walk ahead of him. _Right this way, Mr. Butkis._ The ma?tre d_ nodded, leading them through a stunning circular room lined with arch-capped French doors. Silverware tapped gently against porcelain, ice clinked in highball glasses; all around them, conversation hummed at a low, pleasant murmur. Tables were dotted spaciously throughout the room, framed by low plush chairs upholstered in scarlet and gold. _Is David meeting us?_ Brandon looked over his shoulder at her. _They should be here already._ They. Jess_s stomach swiftly fell to her knees: they. David and River stood at their arrival at a table on the far end of the room. Frozen as Brandon held the chair out for her, she felt River watching, carefully taking in her reaction. His mouth drooped in apology. _I thought_well, I assumed you_d realize we_d all be here._ _It_s okay,_ she said quietly, taking her seat and struggling to regain her composure. River was seated immediately to her right, and his discomfort over her discomfort was palpable. _I misunderstood._ She took a risk, meeting his gaze, and his expression remained largely unreadable except for a small crease in his forehead, the hint of concern in his eyes. If he were a more intuitive person, she might have interpreted his look as a question: Is this okay? Jess blinked away, setting her napkin on her lap. As they settled, the table fell into a hush. Jess looked up to find the three men watching as she tried to anticipate why they_d invited her to this dinner. _It_s okay,_ she said again. _Let_s do this._ _Let_s take a moment to study the menu first,_ David suggested, _and then maybe River can tell you a little more about the company and our technology._ They perused in heavy silence before agreeing on the five-course tasting menu. They ordered cocktails, ordered food, and then the four of them just _ sat. It was unbearable. _River?_ David finally prompted in a fatherly tone. River cleared his throat, adjusted his napkin. He reached forward to fidget with his water glass. How awkward for him, being put in the position of trying to convince Jess that this was all real when it seemed he didn_t want to believe it, either. _I think I understand the science,_ she said, before he could launch into whatever pitch he was formulating in that big brain of his. _At least, I understand that you_ve identified a wide variety of genes you believe are involved in emotional and, uh_sexual fulfillment in a relationship. I understand how the algorithm could work, in theory. I guess what I question is whether this particular finding is real. If you_ve never had a score of ninety-eight before, how do we know what it means?_ _If we were given a score of twenty-two,_ River asked, _would you have believed that?_ It was exactly the question she_d asked herself only a handful of days ago. _Yes,_ she admitted, _because that would align with my feelings about you in general. A ninety-eight, to me, implies that we would be drawn to each other. That we would have instantaneous chemistry._ There was a lull that was mercifully interrupted by the waiter bringing bread and cocktails. When they were alone again, David carefully asked, _And you don_t?_ _I generally want to commit a felony when I see him,_ Jess said, a butter knife held in front of her. _I_m not sure that_s a sign of romantic compatibility._ River exhaled, settling back in his chair. _This is a waste of our time._ Leaning forward, Brandon engaged her with his grin. _It can be easier to believe bad news than good news._ _I_m not a pessimist,_ she said. _I_d believe good news if it was someone telling me I won the lottery. But I_m looking at him_and he_s looking at me_and I_m sure we are both thinking, _There is no way.__ Brandon turned to River. _Do you find her attractive?_ _This test isn_t a measure of attraction,_ River said blandly. _It_s a measure of compatibility._ Jess set down her bread. _You really just said that._ _Jessica,_ David said, redirecting her attention. _Do you?_ She laughed. _River is attractive. We can all see that._ She made the mistake of instinctively glancing his way when she said this and noticed a tiny muscle twitching upward at the corner of his lips. It made her feel softer, bending toward him, and self-preservation swelled up in her throat. She hated it. _But speaking to him is like having a conversation with a grouchy calculator._ David hid a surprised laugh with a cough, gamely tapping his own chest and reaching for his water. To Jess_s right, River exhaled long and slow. _Let me try a different tack,_ Brandon said as the waiter brought the first course. _We believe in this science._ He gestured to the men on either side of him. _I don_t just mean that we hope it works because we stand to make a lot of money. That is true, of course, but that isn_t everything. Yes, the story of the two of you could be very compelling for our launch, but it_s also a scientific curiosity for us. So far, every couple who received scores greater than eighty is still together and scores off the charts on many measures of relationship satisfaction. We have to wonder: How satisfied would a couple be at ninety-eight?_ _Every match over eighty has been successful?_ she asked, wondering at his wording. _I thought Lisa said three out of four._ _Legally we can_t say one hundred percent, because not every Titanium Match has actually connected in person yet._ _That must be annoying for you,_ she joked. This time, David_s laugh was booming. _You have no idea._ _You_re both young, attractive, and single,_ Brandon said, rolling with this momentary levity. _We aren_t asking you to marry him,_ David added. _I_m sorry,_ River cut in. _Can I join this conversation?_ _Yes,_ Jess agreed, _where are you with all of this?_ The food sat neglected on the table in front of them as they all waited for his answer. _Of course I believe in it,_ River said. _I invented it._ Do you actually believe our result could be real? That we could be soulmates? she wanted to ask, but the words felt too enormous to push past her lips. She dug into her scallops instead. _We_re asking the two of you to spend some time together,_ Brandon urged. _Exactly,_ David said, nodding. _To get to know each other. Give it a little time._ _Unfortunately,_ she said, lifting a bite to her mouth. If nothing else, at least she was getting dinner out of it. _Time is what I don_t have to give. I_m not sure River_s mute five minutes in Twiggs every morning will let us dive too deep._ _What if we compensated you?_ Brandon asked. Her hand froze, dinner suddenly forgotten. A hush fell over the table. River looked sharply at Brandon, but David was watching only her. They_d planned for this. I promise, Jessica. We won_t waste your time. _I_m sorry,_ she said hoarsely, _what?_ _What if we compensated you,_ Brandon calmly repeated. _Allowing you to make time in your schedule to get to know River?_ She carefully placed the knife on the edge of her plate. _You want to pay me to date him?_ River exhaled sharply, reaching for his whiskey. _Consider it a stipend for participating in an aspect of a larger experiment,_ David said. _You could quit the coffee shop, have more free time. You_re an important part of our research study, one-half of a score we need to validate_or invalidate_our binning paradigm prior to launch._ Jess leaned back in her chair, heart thundering. _So, you need us to _ explore this until after launch?_ Brandon laughed a little at this. _Well, you can explore it until__ _Assuming we don_t fall for each other,_ she clarified, _what is the duration of the study?_ _The IPO is May sixth,_ David said matter-of-factly. _Today is January twenty-eighth. So, just over three months._ And there was the truth, baldly laid out. _How much compensation are we talking?_ David and Brandon exchanged a look. Jess lifted her water glass to her lips with a shaking hand, ice tinkling gently against the glass. _Ten thousand a month._ A watery cough burst from her throat, sharp and urgent. River reached over and laid a hand on her back, rubbing gently. The touch was steady but electric, jerking a breath from her chest, making her cough again. His palm was huge and warm, a vibrating hum on her skin. _I_m okay,_ she finally managed, and set the glass on the table. He pulled away, curling his hand into a fist on his lap. _And what does that amount buy you?_ Jess asked once she trusted her voice to come out steady. _You go out for coffee. You date._ Brandon held his hands out, shrugging, before picking up his fork. _Maybe you have a public appearance or two. Basically, you give it a chance._ David nodded. _You get to know him, Jessica._ She turned to River. _You_re so quiet. This concerns you, too, you know. I realize your default energy level is Cardboard Cutout, but I can_t get to know you if you don_t speak._ _I_m thinking,_ he admitted in a low growl. Honestly, her mind was reeling. She_d never conceived of a situation like this. Was she physically attracted to him? Yes. Obviously yes. But so much of him felt inaccessible and deeply aggravating. _Do you feel _ ?_ She didn_t know how to ask the question. She started over. _With everything you know, and everything you_ve seen, do you think this number is right?_ He lifted his water, taking a long sip. With a steady, unhurried hand, he set the glass down and met her gaze. _I don_t know._ In the background, she was aware of Brandon and David digging into their food, trying to be inconspicuous as they listened to what should probably be a private conversation. Jess hated the way her stomach heated, the way it felt like there were bubbles rising from her bloodstream to the surface of her skin. _Do you _ want it to be right?_ The last thing she wanted to happen was for someone to get hurt, but it was hard to imagine walking away from thirty thousand dollars. How hard would it be to spend a few hours with this man for an amount that_d truly make her and Juno_s lives easier? River closed his eyes and swallowed. When he opened them again, she saw the same conflict on his face that she felt inside. _I don_t know,_ he said again. _So why are you willing to do this?_ He lifted one shoulder. _I want to prove that I_m right._ Jess wasn_t sure what woman would think that answer was good enough. While she could appreciate this take from an intellectual standpoint, that was exactly the problem: this was supposed to be about unquantifiable, instinctive chemistry. Wasn_t it? Standing, she placed her napkin on the table. _I need to think about it. I_ll call you._ NINE JESS WAVED TO Nana through the kitchen window and headed toward the back of the apartment. Juno was already tucked into bed with a book. Again. Fail, fail, fail. If Juno talked Pops into letting her have frozen fish sticks for dinner again, it would definitely push Jess over the edge. Did every mom feel like this? Jess worked too much or didn_t work enough. She was spoiling Juno or Juno wasn_t getting everything she needed. Jess was a helicopter mom, or she was ignoring her kid. More often than not Jess was convinced that every decision she made was ruining Juno_s childhood in some way. _Hey, Bug,_ she said, stepping around a basket of laundry and collapsing onto the bed next to her daughter. Pigeon stood and stretched, making her way up the mattress to curl in the space between them. Juno turned a page. _Did you know female giraffes go back to where they were born to give birth?_ Jess ran her fingers through Juno_s hair; the strands were still damp from her bath. _I did not know that._ _The baby just plops onto the ground._ Juno threw her arms out in a dramatic splat. _I guess if your mom is a giraffe that_d be a pretty big fall._ Juno angled the book for her, displaying a photo of a giraffe and her baby. _But the baby just gets up and runs._ She turned the page. _And their necks have the same number of vertebrae as humans. Do you know how many that is?_ _I think seven?_ _Yep._ Juno nodded once. _Good job._ Jess listened as her daughter read, but her head was a spin cycle, the conversation from dinner tumbling over and over and over inside. She wasn_t sure whether she was more insulted by the suggestion that she_d agree, or mad that she was thinking about agreeing. She_d be crazy to pass something like that up, right? It would make up for the Jennings account; it_d take care of health care for the rest of the year. __that reminds me of when Mr. Lannis had to wear a neck brace because he got a compressed nerve from karaoke. Hey, Mom?_ When Jess refocused, she realized Juno had already closed her book. _What, baby?_ _Why are you making that face?_ she asked. _What face?_ Juno ran a finger across her forehead. _The one Auntie Fizzy can_t make anymore because of the Botox._ _I_m not frowning,_ Jess said. _I_m just thinking. Someone asked me to do something and I_m not sure whether I should._ Now Juno frowned. _Is it bad?_ _No. Not bad._ Purring, the cat climbed up onto Juno_s chest. _Is someone going to get hurt?_ _I hope not,_ Jess said. _I don_t think so._ _Do you feel unsafe?_ Jess bit her lips, trying to hold in a charmed laugh. This kid was repeating exactly what she would say if their positions were reversed. _No._ Leaning in, she pressed a kiss to her head. _I don_t feel unsafe._ Once she sat up again, her daughter pinned her with a stern look. _Will you be lying?_ You_re an important part of our research study, one-half of a score we need to validate_or invalidate_our binning paradigm prior to launch. She shook her head. _I won_t be lying._ Juno set her book on the nightstand and scooped up Pigeon before snuggling them both down into her comforter. _Would you learn something?_ Jess felt an intense pulse of pride in her kid, and the knee-jerk negative answer evaporated in her mouth. Because _ maybe she would. SHE CAUGHT A glimpse of herself in the mirror at the end of the hall and wondered how the chaos inside her wasn_t more visible. If her outside matched her inside, she would look like a Picasso sculpture: head sideways, nose where her eyes should be, eyes on her chin. Instead she was still just Jess: brown hair, tired blue eyes, and what looked like the beginnings of a stress pimple on her forehead. Awesome. Nana and Pops were playing cribbage in the courtyard; Jess grabbed a beer from the fridge and a sweater from the back of the couch and stepped outside to join them. Mr. Brooks opened his window when he saw her, his white T-shirt striped by a pair of gray suspenders. _Jessica,_ he said, leaning outside. _I need to talk to you._ Jess shared a look with Nana, and walked back toward the building again, looking up to the second floor. _Yes, Mr. Brooks?_ _I_m posting two photographs to the Nextdoor app. There are some kids who keep riding their scooters up and down the sidewalks, and I don_t like the look of them. There_s an entire sidewalk, but they insist on riding right next to my stoop._ He made a fist and flattened it against the window frame. _I don_t want them knocking over my broom._ _I_ll watch for them. I know you use that broom every day._ _Thank you, Jessica. We can_t have kids running up and down the street here. Too many cars, too many people. And they don_t make that broom anymore. I_ve already fixed it once._ She nodded in solidarity and, satisfied, Mr. Brooks leaned back inside and closed the window. Jess popped the cap off her beer and took a seat at the table. _To be fair,_ Pops said, arranging the cards in his hands, _it is a pretty great broom._ _I am no broom connoisseur so I shall take your word for it._ Jess wrapped her arms around Nana and rested her head on her grandmother_s shoulder, closing her eyes. _Have I told you how much I love you?_ Nana Jo patted her arm. _Not in the last thirty minutes._ Jess kissed her cheek. _Okay then. I love you a whole lot._ _How was dinner?_ Jess laughed dryly. First of all, she_d left before she finished eating. A crime. Second _ where to begin? _It was enlightening._ _Oh?_ Nana prompted, interest piqued. Nana loved a bit of drama. Sitting up, Jess drew a line through the condensation on her beer bottle. Nana and Pops resumed their game. _Do you know how much it takes to raise a kid these days?_ she finally asked. _A damn sight more than when we were doing it, I_m sure,_ Pops said, then played an ace for thirty-one and pegged forward two. _Estimated to be at least $233,610. That_s housing,_ Jess began, counting off on her fingers, _food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, and miscellaneous. And that_s only to the age of seventeen._ Pops whistled and reached for his own beer. _Tuition to a school like UCSD is fifty-two thousand for a four-year degree,_ Jess said. _And that_s an in-state public school. Juno could want to go out of state, and it would quadruple the price. I can barely afford ballet lessons._ She took a long drag of her beer and then stood up to get another. Pops looked at her over his glasses; the fairy lights suspended overhead reflected in the thick lenses. A candle flickered on the table; crickets chirped in a planter nearby. _I think you_d better tell us about this dinner._ Jess returned to her seat. _You remember the dating service Fizzy joined?_ Nana laid down a card, and then moved her peg forward two. _The one where you spit in the tube?_ _Yep._ Jess turned to Pops. _And you remember the guy outside? The night you picked me up?_ _Tall, good-looking?_ He paused, his smile smug. _So your mood that night was about him._ _No, but this mood is._ She laughed. _That dating service isn_t really a dating service. Or _ it is, but they don_t just find you dates. You provide a sample, they create a genetic profile, and then they give you a list of matches based on the criteria you select. Fizzy got five bazillion matches because she set the parameters really wide._ Pops nodded. _Sounds like Fizzy._ _And you did this?_ Nana asked. Jess hesitated. _Fizzy bought me a kit for my birthday, and I had a moment of temporary insanity. The night Pops picked me up, the higher-ups had just told me about the person I_d been matched with. Tonight, at dinner, they had a proposition for me._ Nana_s brows disappeared beneath her wavy silver hair. _I gave them very strict criteria. Apparently, I matched at a statistically unbelievable level with the guy Pops saw me arguing with._ Jess took a deep breath. _His name is River Pe?a. He_s a PhD, the service_s top scientist, and one of the founders of the whole thing._ Pops whistled. _What do you mean, statistically unbelievable?_ _Most good matches score over fifty. Sixty-six to about ninety would be amazing._ Jess stared into her empty bottle, unable to look at them when she said, _Our score was ninety-eight._ Nana reached for her wine. _Yeah,_ Jess said, and then blew out a long, slow exhale. _How often do they get a ninety-eight?_ Nana asked. _Never. This is the highest match they_ve had to date._ _And do you like this Dr. Pe?a?_ she asked. Jess cursed the traitorous zing that skyrocketed through her blood. _He_s attractive but has a brooding vibe._ She put it in Nana Jo context: _Think Mr. Darcy, but without the lovely proclamations. He called me average, didn_t hold the elevator, speaks with less emotional fluency than the Alexa in your kitchen, and doesn_t know a thing about parking lot etiquette._ Nana Jo gently let Jess_s pettiness settle in the space between them as she and Pops played the rest of their hands. _Okay, parking lot etiquette aside, could you like him?_ she finally asked. The quiet murmur of Bahn Thai customers drifted over the fence, making Jess wonder whether they could hear her, too. She lowered her voice. _Aside from the score, I really don_t know._ Nana and Pops shared a look across the table. _And the proposition?_ Nana asked. _That we get to know each other._ Nana_s eyes widened, and Jess quickly clarified. _Not like that, jeez. Just_see if the data is right, if we are somehow emotionally compatible._ Apparently satisfied with this answer, Nana Jo looked down at her cards before counting aloud the points she had in the crib. She moved her peg on the game board, and then turned her attention to Jess. _You seem more conflicted about it than if you simply didn_t like him._ _Well __ Jess stared into the dark abyss of her bottle. _They offered to pay me._ Nana reached for her wine again. _Oh boy._ Pops fixed Jess with his watery gaze. _How much?_ She laughed. Of course that would be Pops_s question. _A lot._ They waited. _Ten grand a month a lot._ They both blinked. The silence stretched. A car sped by; someone laughed at the restaurant next door. _Just to get to know each other,_ Nana clarified. _No sex._ _Right._ Jess lifted a single shoulder. _They need to validate the science. And I would definitely like $30,000._ _But you_re hesitating,_ Pops said. _Of course I am._ Pops pinned her with a serious expression. _He seems harmless?_ _We don_t really get along, but as far as I can tell, he_s not a sociopath. He_s not nearly charming enough to be one._ When neither of them laughed at this, Jess said, _He has a lot riding on the company, obviously. I don_t think dropping my body in a dumpster would be worth losing the millions he stands to make if they have a successful IPO._ Pops took off his glasses. _Then I don_t know what you have to think about._ _Ronald Davis,_ Nana chastised. _This has to be her decision._ _What?_ he said, hands up in defense. _You would turn down that kind of money?_ _Not now, obviously._ She motioned to herself before giving Jess a conspiratorial wink. _Ask me forty years ago and you_d get a different answer._ _Nana Jo, I am shocked,_ Jess said with a teasing smile. _If you saw her forty years ago, you wouldn_t be._ Pops leaned back, dodging Nana_s playful slap to his shoulder. _Nobody_s asking me, but I think you should do it. As long as they_re not asking you to lie, or cheat, or rob a bank,_ he said. _Go to a couple restaurants. Make conversation, hear some stories. At the very least you_ll earn a little time to breathe._ He picked up his cards again. _UCSD isn_t getting any cheaper._ _YOUR KID CRACKS me up._ Seated on a park bench, Fizzy and Jess watched Juno try to teach Pigeon to walk on a leash. The kid took one step forward and patiently waited for the cat to follow. Around them, dogs chased balls and licked faces and barked, tails wagging. Hunkered low to the ground in the harness and suspicious of every shadow, sound, and blade of grass, Pigeon looked like she was about to sprint out of her skin, cartoon-style. _Other than the Great Cat Chase a few weeks ago, she_s never really been out of the courtyard,_ Jess said. _I_m sure she feels the way we would if we were put in a harness and set down on Mars._ For native San Diegans, any forced indoor time was borderline intolerable, and by three o_clock on Friday afternoon, the first sunny day in over a week, Trolley Barn Park was crawling with people seeking sunshine. The air had that bright, cold smell after all the pollution was washed from the clouds and the dirt was cleared from tree branches. The sky was an unreal royal blue. And Juno_s chestnut braids were a streak of playful red against the blue-green backdrop. _Don_t tug her,_ Jess reminded her gently. _I_m not._ Out of the corner of her eye, Jess saw Pigeon_s tail twitch just moments before she dove forward, catching something triumphantly in her paws. All that time she_d been hunkering down, she_d been on the hunt. Juno squealed, delighted. _Mom!_ She waved Jess over, and Jess halted just as Juno said, _Pigeon caught a praying mantis._ That was a Hell No from Jess, but Fizzy jumped up, getting an eyeful of the six-inch-long insect Pigeon clearly had no idea what to do with. She trapped it, batted it with a paw, and simultaneously looked semi-disgusted by the entire thing. _Juno,_ Jess said, laughing, _baby, just get Pigeon to let it go._ Juno bent, prying the cat_s paws apart and releasing the praying mantis, which calmly prowled away. Fizzy settled back on the bench and, somehow, Jess knew what was coming. _We could all learn a lot from that cat._ _Here we go,_ she said. _Jumping on an opportunity when we see it._ _Mm-hmm,_ Jess answered, distracted. _Like, sure,_ Fizzy continued, ignoring her, _I get being careful, but when the opportunity arises, take it._ _Like Pigeon did?_ Jess said, laughing. _She caught that poor thing and had zero clue what to do next._ She felt Fizzy turn to look at her. _You think you wouldn_t know how to use thirty thousand dollars?_ _Actually, that_s the part that I_m stuck on_the greatest incentive and the biggest drawback. I need money, but in some ways, I think it_d be easier to do this purely for the sake of science or whatever._ She shrugged, tilting her face to the sky. _Being paid to Filtered to know River_ feels vaguely _ illegal._ Fizzy laughed. _And see, I put that in the _pro_ column._ _You_re the adventurous one._ _All I_m saying is you_d be insane to not do this._ Jess let out a long, slow breath. _Trust me, I_m seriously considering it._ _Good._ After a long stretch of quiet, Fizzy added, _Incidentally, I met someone I really like last night._ They_d been together since almost seven thirty that morning, and she was only mentioning this now? _Really? Is he a match?_ _He is what_s known in science as an _organic match,__ Fizzy joked. _Daniel had a few people over, and this guy Rob was there. He_s Daniel_s brother_s friend from college and is now a banker, which I realize sounds so generic it has to be fake, but I made him show me his business card and it_s legit. It actually says _Banker._ He_s funny and good-looking, and I was in peak Fizzy mode last night and he seemed charmed by it._ _Peak Fizzy mode as in oral manifesto about the positive impact of romance novels on society? Or peak Fizzy mode as in spontaneously wallpapering your bedroom at midnight with pages from your favorite books?_ _Peak Fizzy mode as in three shots of tequila and recruiting Rob to help me hide Daniel_s shoes all over the house._ _Ah._ Jess turned her attention back to Juno, who had given up on walking Pigeon and was letting other children pet the cat instead. _You should have Banker Rob tested to see how he compares to the other dates._ _I_m not actually sure I want to,_ Fizzy said. _I had the scores for those other guys, and we had fun, but going in knowing that they probably wouldn_t work long-term made it easy to not take it seriously. I didn_t expect my dates to be life-altering, and they weren_t. Was it because the test is right, or because I didn_t expect them to be soulmates?_ _I mean, statistically you_re more likely to get a soulmate with a Silver Match than you are to ever get a Titanium Match._ _You_re statisticsizing me._ Jess laughed. What could she really say to Fizzy when she was, herself, grappling with the opposite concern: Did people given a score of ninety-eight just assume that person would be their happily ever after? _And I keep thinking you_re crazy to not get to know River,_ Fizzy continued, _but if I got a Diamond Match, would I feel overwhelmed with the pressure and bail, too?_ Jess laughed at their mental symmetry. _Mm-hmm._ _Then again, I think if I got even a Gold Match, I_d be pretty stoked._ Fizzy pulled a leg beneath her, turning to face Jess. _There_s something about knowing you align according to all of these biological factors that makes it easier to imagine compromising on some of the ways I_m set in my routine._ She paused. _But still._ She exhaled, puffing out her cheeks. _I like Rob. I don_t want to know yet that he and I aren_t supposed to end up together._ _So you do believe it?_ Jess asked, gently poking Fizzy_s knee with her index finger. _All of this DNADuo stuff?_ Fizzy caught her hand and interlaced their fingers. _I think the more important question is: Do you?_ TEN CONSUMED BY A strange disorientation, Jess climbed from her car outside the GeneticAlly building. It was after seven, and the parking lot was empty, but the stillness was somehow more unsettling. Her hands seemed to float ten feet away from her body; it felt like she was gliding more than walking. This physical dissociation wasn_t new to her. She_d felt it on and off her entire childhood, and therapy had revealed that it happened when she was avoiding thinking about what it all meant. But every time she thought about the prospect that the DNADuo really was right and that she and River might actually be good together, a wall went up inside her and the entire mental monologue just went dark. And now that she was here, Jess had no idea whether she_d made the right decision by telling David that she would come to the office to meet with them. Their lawyer would be present. They would sign a contract _ after that, Jess had no clue. She expected to be met by the receptionist or maybe Lisa. But this time, waiting for her near the untouched couches was River. Her breath caught in her throat. Hidden in the shadows, he looked skyscraper tall and angular. The thought of relishing touching him _ it made her feel light-headed. He pulled his hand from a pocket and lifted it in a careful wave. _Hey._ His hand hesitated, unsure, rising up to scratch the back of his neck. _I didn_t know whether you_d actually show up._ _That makes two of us._ What_s in it for you? she wanted to ask. Is this about glory, or money, or something else? He certainly wasn_t here for the pursuit of love. With a little sideward tilt of his head, he led her back through the double doors, down the hall, to the elevator, where he depressed the Up button with that long index finger. _How was your day?_ Jess bit her bottom lip, swallowing an incredulous smile. He was trying. _Um, it was fine, how was yours?_ _Pretty good._ _Do you always work this late?_ _Pretty much._ The doors opened; they stepped in and were swallowed into the tiny vessel together. _Do you have any questions for me?_ he asked. She wasn_t fast enough this time, and the surprised laugh escaped. _Yes. Thousands. How nice of you to ask._ _Okay,_ he said, smiling down at his shoes, _I guess I deserve that._ _The only one I think I really need to know before we go into the conference room is: Is it true you_re not currently in a relationship with anyone?_ River shook his head. _I would never do this if I were._ _Okay, good,_ she said, and quickly added when his brows slowly rose: _Me either._ _I do have one question,_ he said as they reached the second floor. The doors opened, and they stepped out into the hall, but then stopped and faced each other still out of hearing range of the conference room. _Why did you take the test in the first place? You don_t seem to be all that excited about the prospect of any match, let alone a Diamond._ _That,_ Jess said, grinning and pointing at him, _is the question of the day._ Her smile faded, hand dropped, and she realized she wasn_t going to get out of this with deflection or humor. His was a good question. She_d genuinely felt a desire to start making her own life bigger in the moment, so why was she here now, feeling resistant to the entire process? Immediately Jess knew: the idea of finding The One_it was just too much. _I_d had a really bad day,_ she said quietly. _That day I ran into you downtown. You took my parking spot. You didn_t hold the elevator. I lost a big account, had to sit in a room full of smug married couples, went home, and just felt pathetic. I spit into the vial and sent it, but I shouldn_t have._ She watched the reaction to this pass across his features. _We all feel worst at night,_ she said. _I should have waited until the morning._ He nodded once. _Okay._ And then he turned and continued down the hallway. That was it? Seriously? He asked the Hard Question and she answered honestly and he nodded and moved on? What was he even thinking? This man was a vault. River waited at the threshold to the room for her, and gestured for her to step in ahead of him. She_d expected a roomful of people to witness the ceremonial contract signing between two Diamond Matches who, at best, tolerated each other. But instead, there were only two people inside: David and a man Jess didn_t know, but who looked so much like Don Cheadle that she felt an excited smile burst across her face before she realized he was just a very close doppelg?nger. David clocked her reaction, and laughed. _I know. It_s uncanny._ _I_m Omar Gamble,_ Don Cheadle said. _I_m the head legal counsel for GeneticAlly. It_s nice to meet you, Jessica._ _Just Jess._ She reached out, shaking his hand. What were they thinking of her right now? Desperate? Stupid? Opportunistic? Honestly, though, for that much money, did she even care what they thought? There wasn_t much more to be said, so they all shuffled to their chairs. Omar opened a folder and pulled out a small stack of papers. _We know you haven_t brought legal counsel, but wanted to give you some time to look this over._ _Would you like River and me to leave the room?_ David asked. River began to stand, which irked her. At least let her decide. Obstinately, she said, _No. Stay, if you don_t mind._ Slowly, River settled back into his seat. Honestly, this situation was a first. She and River sat beside each other on one side, facing David and Omar, and she_d just asked them to stay and essentially watch her read five dense pages of legalese. As carefully as she could under the press of their conspicuous attention, she read through the contract. WHEREAS Individual A (JESSICA DAVIS) has indicated to GENETICALLY LLC and Individual B (RIVER PE?A) a willingness to engage _ _ Individual A further agrees to limit disclosure of Confidential Information _ _ at least three (3) interactions per calendar week including but not limited to outings, phone calls _ _ publicity appearances and/or interviews not to exceed two (2) per calendar week _ _ explicitly state that no physical contact is contractually obligated on the part of Individual A or Individual B throughout the _ _ will be compensated in the amount of ten thousand dollars ($10,000 USD) per month for the duration of the contract, beginning on the 10th day of February _ _ IN WITNESS WHEREOF, Individual A and Individual B have executed this agreement himself or herself or have caused this Agreement to be executed by his or her appointed representative as of the signature date below. Jess leaned back, exhaling slowly. This was _ a lot to take in. _Take your time,_ Omar said with a smile that filled his eyes. _It_s a strange situation, we get it._ She looked at River. _Have you read it?_ He nodded. _Did you have any objections?_ He stared at her, blinked. Finally, _My concerns were addressed before you arrived._ _And they were?_ _I requested item fifteen._ Jess looked down, flipping to the second page. _ no physical contact is obligated on the part of Individual A or Individual B throughout the duration of the Agreement, and any such contact is at the sole discretion of the parties listed herein. GeneticAlly LLC, and its agents, assigns, officers, and Board of Directors, are hereby indemnified against any claim of action or resulting damages arising from any such contact. Her feminist brain was giving River a standing ovation for ensuring that she didn_t feel pressured into anything physical. But the insecure beast inside was louder. River wanted it in black and white that they didn_t have to touch each other? Ladies and gentlemen: her soulmate. Humor came to her defense. _Got it: I_m not being paid to pet the beast._ Omar nodded, stifling a smile. _Correct._ _Additionally, if I find myself unable to keep my libido in check,_ she said, _and River surprises us all and realizes that blood and not silt runs through those veins, and I get knocked up, it_s not on you guys._ River coughed sharply, and Omar smothered this smile with a fist. _Correct._ She saccharine-smiled at River. _Not to worry. Great addition, Americano._ _It felt like a necessary clarification,_ he said stiffly. Looking back to Omar, Jess said, _One thing I don_t see here_and it_s good, I guess_but I_d like it explicitly stated that I don_t want my daughter involved contractually in any way. I don_t want her to be photographed or included in any of these outings or interviews._ _I agree,_ River said immediately. _No kids._ It was the tone, like nails on a chalkboard, that got her back up. _Are you just not a fan of humans of any size, or _ ?_ He gave her a bemused smile. _Do you want me to back you up here or not?_ She turned back to Omar. _Can you add it?_ He made a note on his copy of the printout. _I can make that change on our part,_ he said with careful precision, _but we_ll have no control over what the press writes if a reporter finds out that you have a daughter. All we can assure is that GeneticAlly will not discuss her existence with the press or any of our investors or affiliates._ _I_ll handle my side, keeping her out of the spotlight, I just don_t want you to assume that you can use her as a prop, too._ Omar looked briefly across the table at the man seated beside her. Jess saw Omar_s expression falter for just a moment as the two men shared some silent communication. It was long enough for Jess to register that she_d said something sort of shitty. They were close to the finish line of something they_d believed in for years. Jess wanted to rephrase what she_d said, but the moment moved on; Omar rolled forward. _I_ll get this change made and the contract couriered over to you ASAP._ _Great, thanks for__ _Actually,_ River cut in, and then hesitated, waiting for her to look at him. When their eyes met, her rib cage constricted, her blood felt too thick in her veins. _I_d like to confirm,_ he said haltingly, adding after a long beat of her confusion: _The test results._ Was he serious? He wanted to confirm now? When they had a contract in front of them and Jess was about to sign on to be his fake girlfriend for the next three months? _Are we_I mean, I assumed you would have done that already._ _We did confirm with your saliva sample,_ he rushed to clarify. _But I_d like to take a quick blood sample and run the lysate through the screen. Alongside mine._ Her cheeks decided to go all warm at the suggestion that their blood rest in side-by-side tubes in a centrifuge. _Sure. Whatever._ His eyes refocused on hers, and Jess realized River had just clocked her blush. _Sure,_ he said with a small smile. _Whatever. Follow me._ HE_D ALREADY GATHERED everything they_d need on a tray near two chairs. A rack with sterile vials. A tourniquet, needle, alcohol pads, cotton gauze, and tape. While they waited for the phlebotomist to arrive, River washed his hands extensively at the sink, dried them on a stack of fresh lab towels _ and then pulled on a pair of blue nitrile gloves. _You_re going to do it?_ Jess asked, awareness dropping like a hammer. He froze just after the second glove snapped into place. _There_s no one left in the building tonight who can take blood. Is that okay?_ _Um _ what?_ He let out a short laugh. _Sorry, I didn_t say that right. I_m certified to do it. I_m not just filling in because no one else is here._ Jess wanted to keep emotional distance, wanted to keep this professional. But she couldn_t help her playful tone: _You_re telling me you_re a geneticist, a CSO, and a phlebotomist?_ A small smile appeared and disappeared. _In the early days,_ he said, _when we were testing whole blood lysate, we recruited a huge cohort of subjects from local universities. It was all hands on deck._ He blinked up to her face, then back down to her arm. _I got certified._ _Handy. Can you garden and cook, too?_ Was that a blush? He ignored her question, probably assuming it was rhetorical, and safely returned them to science. _I_m not in the lab much anymore. I used to go through every data file that would come out of there,_ he said, pointing to one of two boxy pieces of high-tech equipment on the far side of the lab. _Now everything is so streamlined, I_m never needed here._ _Let me guess,_ Jess said, _you_re the meetings guy._ He smiled, nodding. _Endless investor meetings._ _Send the hot scientist in, right?_ she said, and immediately wanted to swallow her fist. He laughed down at his tray of supplies, motioned for her to sit, and holy crap, it was suddenly seven hundred degrees in the lab. _Could you_?_ River gestured for her to roll up her left sleeve. _Right. Sorry._ Awkwardly, she pushed it up and over her biceps. Very gently, but with absolute calm, River cupped a hand beneath her elbow, shifting her arm forward, and ran his thumb over the crease, looking clinically at the landscape of her veins. Much less clinically, Jess_covered in goose bumps from his hand on her inner elbow_stared at his eyes. They were, frankly, absurd. She found herself leaning forward, slightly fascinated, and wishing he would look up again. _You have really pretty eyes,_ she said, and sucked in a breath. She hadn_t meant to say that out loud. She cleared her throat. _Sorry. I bet you get that a lot._ He hummed. _And why do guys always get the thick lashes?_ she asked. _They literally don_t care about them._ The corner of his mouth pinched in with the suggestion of another smile. _A painful truth._ Satisfied with the vein situation, he reached for the tourniquet, tying the band around her upper arm. _I_m going to let you in on a secret, though,_ he said conspiratorially, flicking his eyes up to hers and then back down. _I_d honestly rather be punched in the jaw than get one of those fuckers in my eye._ An unexpected laugh burst free of her throat. River_s gaze returned to hers, lingering now, and her insides rolled over. He was so good-looking it made her mad. Some of this must have shown in her expression, because his answering smile faded and he returned his attention to her arm, tearing open two alcohol prep pads and carefully swabbing. His voice was a gentle rumble: _Make a fist._ Is this a horrible idea? He reached for the needle, uncapping it with a practiced tug of thumb and forefinger. Yes, this was a horrible idea. Jess needed a distraction. _What_s the story?_ she asked. _The story?_ Focused, River leaned closer, and inserted the needle so deftly that she barely felt the pinch. _Your story._ She cleared her throat, looking away from the needle in her arm. _The origin story._ He straightened as the first vial filled. _About this?_ _Yeah._ _Lisa didn_t go over the early studies in the presentation?_ His frown down at her arm felt like professional concern, the beginning of a chastisement he_d deliver to Lisa later. _She did. About your study on attraction,_ Jess said quickly, and definitely didn_t watch his throat move as he swallowed. _And, um, long-term marital happiness. But I_m more curious about how you got there, what gave you the idea in the first place._ He detached the first vial and screwed on the cap with a practiced press of a thumb, simultaneously securing the new vial in place with his left hand. These displays of dexterity were very sexually distracting. _You mean, how an asshole like me started studying love in the first place?_ _I_m not sure if you_re trying to make me feel bad, but let me remind you: This is the room where you told your friend that I was _average.__ He rolled his eyes playfully. _I didn_t expect you to hear that._ _Oh. In that case, it_s not insulting at all._ _You __ He drew his eyes up, over her chest, her neck, briefly to her face, and back down to her arm. _You_re a perfect test subject. From a scientific standpoint, average isn_t an insult. You_re exactly what we look for._ She wasn_t sure, but in the dim light, the tips of his ears seemed to redden. He switched out the second vial and easily fastened a third, releasing the tourniquet. _Anyway, that morning was busy._ He smiled to himself before adding, _And I was probably turned off by your attitude._ _Oh my God._ River laughed quietly. _Come on. I_m teasing. It_s obvious neither of us liked the other at first._ _You didn_t like when I stopped you at Twiggs._ _It startled me,_ he said, not meeting her eyes. He cleared his throat. _I get deep in my head sometimes. You may have noticed that I can be a bit __ He unleashed the smile again, but only briefly. There and then gone. _Intense._ _I_ve spotted the trait once or twice._ Deftly, he unscrewed the last vial. _So: origin story. While I was in graduate school, there was a woman in David_s lab named Rhea._ A woman, Jess thought. Of course. _We were rivals, in a way._ The way he added the last three words to the sentence clearly communicated Rivals who also fucked. River pulled the needle out and immediately covered the puncture site with a square of gauze. He held it there firmly with his thumb, the rest of his hand lightly curled around her arm. _One night, at a party at someone_s house,_ he said, _we started talking about the Human Genome Project from the nineties._ _As you do at a party._ He laughed, and the full, genuine sound delivered an erotic shock like a spanking. _Yes. As you do. We were talking about the implications of knowing every gene, the way that information could be manipulated. Could you, for example, screen people for certain jobs based on their genetic profile?_ _How very Brave New World._ _Right?_ He checked beneath the gauze to see if she was bleeding and, satisfied, reached for a fresh square, fastening it to her arm with some medical tape. _Anyway, I guess the drinks flowed and eventually I brought up whether it was possible to identify sexual attraction through DNA. Rhea laughed and said it was the stupidest thing she_d ever heard._ Jess stared at him, waiting for the rest of it, and the heated effect of his laugh slowly faded. _That_s it?_ _I mean, that_s not it it,_ he said, grinning shyly. _It turned into a real scientific undertaking, but if you_re wondering whether the project was sparked in a moment when a woman mocked me, you wouldn_t be entirely wrong. But it isn_t supervillain levels of insecurity or vanity; it was a genuine curiosity at first. Like a bet. Why did she think it would be possible to profile someone for an engineering job versus a graphic design position, but not for relationships? Aren_t both ultimately about suitedness and gratification?_ He had a point. His face tipped down, he laughed quietly as he checked the labels. _Anyway, Rhea wasn_t the last person to mock the idea._ _What does that mean?_ _Imagine being a fairly well-respected young geneticist and word gets out that you_re planning to use your expertise to find who_ll fall in love with whom._ _People were dicks about it?_ He tilted his head side to side, a yes-no. _Scientists are often pretty critical of other scientists and what we choose to do with our time and knowledge._ _Sounds like the literary world and Fizzy._ His brows went up. _Oh yeah? How so?_ _You wouldn_t believe the things people say to her about writing romance. Calling her books _trashy_ and _guilty,_ like they_re something to be ashamed of. Even in interviews. She_s been asked what her father thinks of her writing sex scenes._ _Yeah, I get that. Early on nearly everyone who knew me asked, _Are you that desperate to find a girlfriend?_ They obviously didn_t know that in 2018, fifteen percent of Americans were using dating sites, and that same fifteen percent spent almost three billion dollars a year on them. Imagine that number going from fifteen percent to forty-two point five percent__ _The current percentage of unmarried people over the age of eighteen._ Their eyes met and held as they shared this deeply_and surprisingly sensual_data-wonk moment. _Well._ She blinked away and back again. _I_m sure you_re getting the last laugh, and I think it_s cool._ He stared at her in disbelief. _I really do. I just __ Jess winced and the obvious question hung between them, a swinging sign in the wind. _Does it annoy you that I don_t believe our score?_ _Not really. I admire your natural skepticism._ He gave her a little self-indulgent grin. _And we have enough data that I feel fairly confident we know what we_re doing here. You_ll just have to decide what to think if this test comes back with the same score._ _What are you expecting?_ _I_ll believe the test if it says we are biologically compatible, but I_m not a scientific zealot, Jess. I recognize the element of choice._ He pulled his gloves off and dropped them on the tray. _No one is going to force you to fall in love with me._ With his face tilted down, Jess was able to stare at him outright. Smooth olive skin, the shadow of stubble, full lips. Jess wasn_t sure, but she_d guess midthirties. She put the mental filter of time over his face, imagining him with salt and pepper at his temples, the small lines of laughter in the corners of his eyes. She shifted a little on the stool, hit with an unfamiliar ache. _When you saw the first compatibility score over ninety, what was your immediate reaction?_ He stood and pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. _Dread._ This was _ not the answer she was expecting. Jess followed him with her eyes as he moved with the rack of vials over to the hood. _Dread? Seriously?_ _Over ninety is where we enter the range of scores that could completely throw off our curve._ He set the rack inside and then peeled off his gloves, turning to face her. _We_d already seen great compatibility with scores up to ninety. The scores coming off the behavioral and mood assessments tracked. It was all linear. We didn_t know what to expect. Could it stay linear? How would that look emotionally? A sigmoidal curve made the most sense_the emotional satisfaction scores might flatten out at some point over eighty and reach an asymptote. But to imagine that at higher biological compatibility we might see lower emotional compatibility_that_s what scared me. We really don_t want to be bell-shaped, but we just don_t have a lot of data either way._ He seemed to hear his own rambling and stopped abruptly, blushing. Self-conscious River was too much to handle. Jess shoved fondness away. _You are deeply nerdy._ _I_m just saying,_ he said, laughing self-deprecatingly, _if actual emotional compatibility tanked at higher DNADuo numbers, it would narrow our range of possible matches, and make it harder to argue that we_d been binning them the right way._ _But that isn_t what happened,_ Jess said. _Right? They_re all together and happy._ _The ones we know of, yeah. But like I said, there_s only a handful at the top of the scale._ He sat down at the fume hood, pulling on a fresh pair of gloves, spraying them with alcohol, and pulling on a second pair over the first. He wasn_t leaving anything to chance. Even Jess knew enough to know he could do this sample prep out on the lab bench, but she wasn_t surprised he was using sterile technique. Still, the anxiety building in her stomach had reached a boiling point: she would need to find a way to explain it if the results came back ninety-eight again. Even if it was starting to feel like River Pe?a might not be the worst man alive. Jess lifted her chin to the two identical hulking machines on the other side of the room. _Are those the DNADuos?_ He followed her attention briefly and nodded. _Creatively named DNADuo One and DNADuo Two._ She could hear his smile. _DNADuo Two is down right now. Getting serviced next week. It_ll be up and running by May, I hope. You_re welcome to stay and hang out,_ he added, _but the assay takes eight hours, so the data won_t be analyzed until tomorrow morning._ _A wild Friday night for you?_ she joked. But with his back to her, she couldn_t tell if he even cracked a smile. His posture took the shape of renewed focus. _I_m usually here anyway._ _Spoken like a true dream boyfriend._ He scoffed_appreciating her joke just about as much as she expected him to. Jess realized she was being politely dismissed. Standing, she pushed her sleeve back down. _Think I_ll head home to Juno._ _I_ll call you tomorrow,_ he said without turning around. _I_ll call either way._ ELEVEN MOM, DID YOU know the first roller coaster was built to keep people away from brothels?_ Jess dragged her eyes away from Google to focus on her pajama-clad seven-year-old, hanging upside down over the back of the couch. Her hair was nearly to her waist, and Pigeon had made herself a nice little nest where it pooled on the cushion. _Hello, small human. How do you know what a brothel is?_ Juno peeked at her from behind her book. _I heard it._ She lifted her chin to what Juno was reading. _Your library book about lizards mentions brothels?_ _No, it was in a movie I watched with Pops._ Jess leaned an elbow on the dining table next to her abandoned bowl of oatmeal and slid her gaze over to Pops sitting innocently in the lounger. He scanned his crossword puzzle, saying casually, _It was on some history channel._ He flipped a page. _Practically a documentary._ _A documentary about brothels, Pops? It can_t wait until she_s, I don_t know, ten?_ Upside-down Juno grinned at her victoriously. _I looked it up in the dictionary you got me._ Dammit. Pigeon darted off the couch barely a second before Juno slid the rest of the way to the floor, landing in a giggling, crumpled pile. Sitting right-side-up again, she flipped her head back, leaving her hair a tangled mess around her head. _It was a movie about Billy the Kid._ Jess looked at Pops again. _Young Guns?_ she said incredulously. _My seven-year-old watched Young Guns._ _In my defense,_ he said, still not bothering to glance up, _we were watching Frozen again and I fell asleep. When I woke up, she_d changed the channel and got invested. You want me to keep her from learning history?_ Juno skipped to Jess_s side and peered down at her laptop. Clearly Jess was grasping at straws; she_d actually typed Second Grade Art Projects into the search bar. _I already know what I want to do for my project,_ Juno said. _I want to do an art tape amusement park with a roller coaster, a carousel, tiny screaming people, and a Tilt-A-Whirl._ _Honey, while I appreciate your ambition, that is a lot of work._ Jess paused. And giant, and messy, with five thousand sticky tiny pieces that would end up on Juno, Jess, the furniture, and the cat. _Also, I_m worried you_d tell Mrs. Klein how you arrived at roller coasters for art inspiration._ _I wouldn_t tell her that I know what brothels are._ _Maybe we could start by not repeating the word brothel._ Jess tucked a strand of hair behind Juno_s ear. _What about a hot air balloon collage? We can cut pictures out of magazines and glue them to a poster board._ Her daughter was clearly not tempted. Jess turned back to the screen and clicked on a list of projects. _These pinwheels are pretty. Or a Popsicle stick bridge?_ Juno shook her head, furrowed brow pinned firmly in place. Hello again, Alec. She grabbed a book from a pile on the table and turned it to a page listing the Top Ten Amusement Parks Across the World. _I want to do something cool and enter it in the North Park Festival of Arts._ Juno pointed a sparkly painted fingernail at an old photo. _This is Switchback Gravity Railroad. It_s the one the guy built so people would go here instead of the__she leaned in, whispering__brothels._ Straightening, she returned to normal volume. _But I don_t want to do that one because it only went six miles an hour and that_s only two miles an hour faster than Nana_s Rascal scooter when she broke her knee._ Pops chuckled from his chair. _I thought she was going to mow someone over in that thing._ Juno turned the page to a brightly colored coaster, one with a loop so huge Jess_s stomach lurched just imagining it. _I think I want to do Full Throttle at Magic Mountain,_ she said. _Since you don_t have to work at Twiggs anymore, maybe we could go there tomorrow for Try Something New Sunday?_ Jess had called Daniel on her way home from GeneticAlly last night. He_d sounded mildly relived when Jess gave notice; she_d shown no promise as a barista. _That_s a long drive,_ Jess told her. _We could take the train,_ Juno singsonged. _I don_t know if the train goes that far north,_ Jess sang back. Her daughter leaned in close, pressing the tip of her nose to Jess_s. _It does. Pops checked._ Jess glared at Pops again, but guilt still hadn_t induced him to look up from his crossword. _Are you even tall enough to ride that?_ she asked. _We_ll put lifts in her shoes,_ Pops offered, to which Juno responded with an ear-splitting screech as she ran over to tackle him. Jess rubbed her temples, looking up when her phone vibrated on the table with an unknown number. Who would be calling at 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday? The foggy window of her mind wiped clean. River. She should answer. She should. He probably had the test results. But she couldn_t make her thumb swipe over the screen. She just let it vibrate in her hand before it went over to voicemail. It wasn_t panic over the possibility that the results were confirmed late last night. It was the opposite: She_d lain awake until after two a.m. thinking of what she would do with the money. College savings. A better hearing aid for Pops. A little cushion in the bank. Now that she_d taken the leap and signed the contract, Jess didn_t want it snatched away. Her phone screen went dark. She waited _ and waited. No voicemail. Great. Now she would have to call him. Jess returned to her laptop, finger hovering absently over the keyboard. She_d resisted doing this so far, but the urge was too tempting. Jess typed Dr. River Pe?a into the search bar and pressed Enter. The results populated the page: medical articles, UCSD alumni posts, awards. LinkedIn, ResearchGate. She clicked on the image tab, and low-resolution thumbnails filled the screen. The first photo was a faculty shot taken, according to the caption, while he was a postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Medical Genetics at UCSD. There were more recent ones, too: pictures with investors at various fundraising events. In each, he looked easy in his skin. In each, he was smiling. Jess was so unprepared for the sight of his crinkly eyes and uneven, perfect grin that she felt that weird hot flush of defensive anger. She_d caught hints of his smile in passing, but usually only as smug amusement or flashes of embarrassed laughter. Jess had never seen it like this: bright and sincere. And pointed right at her. _Ooh, who_s that?_ _Nobody._ She slammed her laptop shut and picked up her coffee with all the subtlety of a cartoon criminal. _I was just __ With renewed focus, she flipped open Juno_s book again. _So, roller coasters, then?_ Daughter slyly appraised mother. Suspicion slid across Juno_s features, but was quickly replaced by the realization that she_d just gotten her way. _Yes!_ Closing the book, she scooped it up with the others and raced toward her room. _I_m gonna look at the train schedule on your iPad!_ Jess began to argue, but her phone vibrated on the table. It was a text from the same unknown number. Would you like to have dinner? (It_s River.) Her lungs filled with helium. Does that mean you reproduced the finding? David just emailed the graph. I called to share the results. But it_s a yes on the finding? 98, confirmed. Jess stared at her phone while her heart decided to absolutely freak the hell out inside her body. Flipping, flopping, punching. It was real. It was real. She knew it was her turn to say something, but her hands had gone vaguely numb. Stalling, she clicked on the phone number and entered it under Americano Phlebotomist in her contacts. Finally, the three dots appeared, indicating that he was typing. Are you free tonight? Slowly, one letter carefully tapped at a time, she managed to reply. Bahn Thai. Park and Adams. 7:30 Park in the alley in the back _Four letters down,_ Pops said across the room. _First letter is L__hurdle.__ Pushing her phone aside, Jess bent to rest her head on her folded arms. _Leap,_ she said. _HONESTLY, JESSICA, I haven_t seen outfit panic like this since I wrote Nicoline in His Accidental Bride._ Fizzy stepped back to judge what had to be outfit change number 142. _And you_re not even pretending to be a virgin picking out what to wear on your Victorian-era wedding night. Take it down a notch._ Jess took in her reflection, styled and polished and hilariously unfamiliar in a padded push-up bra and V-neck sweater with a neckline so plunging it nearly reached hell. _Fizzy, I cannot wear this._ _Why not?_ _For starters?_ she said, motioning to the mirror. _I can almost see my belly button._ Fizzy blinked. _And?_ Jess yanked the sweater over her head, tossed it onto the bed, and reached for a distressed chambray shirt she_d picked up at a boutique in LA last summer. It didn_t fit quite the same with the benefit of Fizzy_s padded bra, but even Jess had to admit she (they) looked pretty good. She added a layered necklace, tucked the shirt into the front of dark jeans, and turned to face Fizzy. _Well?_ Fizzy looked her up and down, a smile parting her cherry-red lips. _You look hot. How_re you feeling?_ _Like I might throw up._ She laughed. _It_s dinner,_ Fizzy said. _Next door. You_ll have some tom ka, some duck green curry, and if at any point you think you_ve made a mistake, leave him with the check and come home. Listen to your gut. We_ll be right here._ NO EXAGGERATION: THEY were right there. The restaurant Jess had chosen was on the other side of their fence, which meant she was already seated at a table outside when River showed up. He was five minutes early, but going by his expression of surprise, Jess could only assume she_d derailed his plan to get there first, get comfortable, and be seated with ease by the time she arrived. He stopped when he saw her, midstep, uncharacteristically caught off guard. _Oh._ He looked around the sidewalk. _I_ Sorry, I thought you said seven thirty._ Jess indulged in a quick scan. Even though it was Saturday, she assumed he_d just come from work_he was wearing dark navy trousers, a white button-down shirt with the collar open_but his clothes looked crisp, and his hair was freshly washed and finger-raked. _I did. I live right there._ She pointed to her left and his eyes tracked to the apartment building. _Oh._ Pulling out the chair, he sat across the small table from her and did his own inspection_his eyes skirting the length of her body and quickly back up. A trail of heat followed the path. He cleared his throat. _That_s handy._ Rama, a muscular twentysomething waiter who was Jess_s hero because he frequently booted people from Mr. Brooks_s stoop, stopped at their table. He grinned down at her, and then meaningfully slid his gaze to River. _Hey, Jess, who_s your friend?_ Way to make it abundantly clear that she_d never brought a date here before. _Knock it off, Rama. His name_s River._ The two men shook hands, and River sized up Rama while he was pouring water into their glasses. _Need a minute?_ _Sure, that_d be great._ When Rama left them to peruse, Jess lifted her chin. _Did you come from work?_ He brought his water to his lips, and Jess definitely did not watch them part and make contact with the glass. She also did not watch his Adam_s apple bob as he swallowed. _I stopped at home to change._ He answered her smirk with one of his own. _I don_t have a partner, kids, or pets. Work is pretty much all I have._ _Is that by design?_ His brows pulled in, and Jess could tell he was giving the question real consideration. _Maybe? I mean, once we got some early results in the attraction study, my curiosity sort of _ took over. It_s been hard to think about anything else._ _Which is funny,_ she pointed out, _since you_re thinking about dating and relationships all day long, but not ever for yourself._ _I see it from a bit of a distance,_ he said. _I was so far down in the weeds, looking at specific alleles and genetic variants, that until maybe the last year or two, the larger picture was easy to ignore._ Jess wasn_t sure if there was a better way to phrase her next question, so she just came out with it: _Is there a part of you that feels sort of inconvenienced by this result?_ River laughed and lifted his glass again. Just then, Rama returned. _You guys ready?_ _Saved by Rama,_ she said. River_s eyes held hers. _Saved._ He lifted his hand, palm up, gesturing for her to order. Jess sighed and turned her face up. _You know what I_m getting._ _Yup._ Rama turned to River. _And you?_ _Wait, what is she getting?_ _Tom ka soup,_ Rama recited. _And the duck green curry._ River frowned. _Oh._ He opened his menu again. _What _ um, else would you recommend?_ Jess gaped at him. _Do not tell me you were going to get the same thing._ River nodded down at his menu. _Drunken noodles?_ _They_re great,_ she confirmed. _Let_s do soup for two and the two entr?es._ She looked at River. _Want a beer or anything?_ He seemed genuinely tickled by the way she took charge. _Water_s good._ They handed their menus to Rama, and Jess stared at her date across the table. _But really: you were not going to get the duck._ _I was._ She didn_t know where the urge to laugh-scream came from, but she swallowed it down with a cold gulp of ice water. _Did you work today?_ he asked stiffly, clearly hoping she_d forgotten what she_d asked before they were interrupted. Frankly, if he didn_t want to answer, Jess probably didn_t want to hear the truth anyway. _Nana_s always been a stickler that if I don_t have to work, Saturday is a family day._ _You live with your grandmother?_ he asked. _Yes and no. Nana Jo and Pops own the apartment complex. They live in the bungalow, and I live in the apartment across the courtyard._ _With your daughter?_ he confirmed, and she nodded. _What_s her name?_ After a second_s pause, Jess shook her head. Unease twisted through her. _I know she_s off-limits as far as the experiment,_ he said. _That was just me asking about family. Sharing._ He paused, smiling playfully. _For example, I have two meddling sisters._ _Oh, you_re lucky then. Meddling women keep the world running._ _They_d love that._ He laughed, warm and clear. _Both older: Natalia and Pilar. Both overbearing._ _The youngest. Huh._ Jess sipped her water. _I would have lost that bet._ Amusement lifted the corner of his mouth. _Why_s that?_ Rama materialized again with a large steaming bowl of soup. He placed it between them and they shared a few moments of easy silence as they dished up their portions, passing the chili sauce and condiments across the table. Jess bent to smell the contents of her bowl_the tangy, pungent broth was one of her favorite comfort foods_and registered that River had just mirrored her movement precisely. He noticed at almost the same time and straightened in his chair. _Why are you surprised I_m the youngest?_ he asked, moving on. _Youngest children are usually less _intense,__ she said with a smile, using his own description against him. _You uptight perfectionists tend to be oldest children._ _I see._ His laugh rolled through her, and he bent, taking a bite of soup. The deeply sexual groan he let escape when he tasted was destined to haunt Jess_s best and worst dreams. _What about you?_ he asked. _Any siblings?_ She shook her head. _Only child._ He took another bite. _I guess we_d have both lost a bet, then. I would have said oldest, with at least one sibling._ _Why?_ _You seem responsible, smart, conscientious. Bossy. I imagine you emulating your parents and__ Jess snort-laughed and reached up to cover her mouth with her napkin. The very idea of emulating Jamie was absurd. _Sorry, that was just__ She smoothed her napkin over her lap again. _No, I_m an only child._ He nodded in understanding and, to his credit, changed the subject. _So, we_ve talked about how I got here,_ he said. _But how_d you end up a statistician? I_ll admit it suits you._ She lifted a brow. _You seem very competent,_ he added. _It_s reassuring. Attractive._ Jess watched him pointedly avoid her eyes. He had no way of knowing, but calling her _competent_ was easily the best compliment he could have paid her. He set the glass down again. _But to my question __ Jess hummed, thinking. _I find it soothing that numbers don_t lie._ _But they can be misleading._ _Only if you don_t know what to look for._ She took a sip of soup. _I_ve always been a numbers geek. When I was a kid, I_d count my steps everywhere I went. I would count how many floors were in a building, how many windows per floor. I_d try to estimate how tall a building was, and then look it up when I got home. And when I took my first stats class, I was done for. I love working with numbers that are meaningful more broadly. Predicting earthquakes or natural disasters, political campaigns, customer service survey results or__ _Genetics,_ he said quietly. Ahh. The elephant in the room. She felt the tops of her cheeks warm and looked down, surprised again that her boobs were so much closer to her face in this bra than they usually were. Freaking Fizzy. Jess cleared her throat. _Exactly. As long as you have enough data, you can figure out anything._ _I get it,_ he said in that same quiet voice. _There_s something satisfying about solving little puzzles every day._ They ate in silence for a moment, and Jess wondered if she was imagining the way his gaze seemed to linger on her neck, and lower, down her arms _ _Are those __ he asked, narrowing his eyes and motioning to her right forearm, where she_d pushed her sleeve up a bit, _Fleetwood Mac lyrics?_ _Oh._ Her left hand moved to cover the ink. _Yes._ She turned her arm over, but he leaned in, wrapping his thumb and forefinger around her wrist, turning it so he could see the soft skin of her inner arm. __Thunner only happens,__ he read, eyes moving away from the misspelled word and up to her face. __Thunner_?_ Jess rolled her eyes. _Felicity._ Hopefully he_d gathered that simply saying her name should explain everything. He must_ve, because he laughed and lightly swept his thumb across the letters. Nothing like the clinical way he_d touched her last night, this was leisurely, exploring. And she was melting. _And another piece of the puzzle falls into place._ _She_Fizzy_has the other half of the line. _When it_s raining_ except there_s no h in when._ With him looking at her and touching her like that, it took great concentration to form thoughts and make those thoughts into words. _On my twenty-fifth birthday, she took me out to celebrate. It was a really perfect night and I emailed her when I got home to say thank you. I was absolutely hammered, and Pops thought it was so funny he wouldn_t let me use the backspace key to correct my typos._ She shrugged. _Apparently I emailed her the full lyrics to the song we_d sung at karaoke to prove how sober I was._ His eyes shone when he glanced up at her face. With a look that might be regret, he released her arm. _That_s a good story._ Jess laughed down at the last couple bites of her soup. _Pops is basically a monster._ _A monster with a sense of humor._ _I_m surrounded by jokers,_ she admitted. _You_re lucky._ There was something in his tone that caught her, hooked her eyes back up to his. It wasn_t that he sounded lonely, exactly, but there was a vulnerability there that threw her a little off balance. _I feel lucky._ She scratched around inside her head for something to say. _Tell me about everyone at GeneticAlly. Have you known all of them very long?_ _Most of them since we started. David, of course. And Brandon was Dave_s friend from college._ He stirred his soup and moved out of the way when Rama returned with their main courses. _It_s a really tight-knit team._ _Have any of them been matched?_ Jess asked, digging into the platters. _Brandon, yeah,_ he said. _He met his wife in the __ River looked up, thinking, and Jess marveled over his dark-lashed whiskey eyes all over again. _I guess it would be the third phase of beta testing. Maybe four years ago now. They were a Gold Match._ _Wow._ He nodded, dishing some food onto his own plate. _I know. He was the first, and it was a really big deal._ Nothing like this, though hung unsaid between them. _Then Tiffany_you met her at the Results Reveal Disaster,_ he said with a wink, and Jess burst out laughing. _She_s our head data analyst_she met her wife, Yuna, when they matched. I believe they were an eighty-four, and Yuna moved here from Singapore to be with Tiff._ _How many countries have you pulled samples from?_ He didn_t even have to think. _Fifty-seven._ _Wow._ _Yeah._ Wiping his mouth with his napkin, River was a portrait of manners and class across the table from her. Did it make her a terrible person that she was surprised this date wasn_t awful? The conversation flowed, the silences were easy. She hadn_t spilled anything down her shirt, and he_d called her competent. It was the best date she_d had in seven years. _And everyone else has dated pretty broadly, if they_re single and interested._ _Do you think it_s a bummer for any of them who haven_t had a Gold or higher match? Like, do you worry within the company it will become a competitive or_I guess, like, a status thing?_ He stared at her, and then blinked. _You ask really probing questions._ Immediately, Jess was mortified. _I_m sorry. I_m just__ Ugh. _Sorry._ _No, no, it_s okay, it_s very _ thoughtful._ Warmth spread in a prickly rush along her skin. _I want to know about it,_ she admitted. _I want to know about you, and this, and what you think about all of it. I mean, we_re here right now. I said I would enter into this agreement genuinely._ _I know,_ he said, and seemed to be quietly appraising her with new eyes. _I appreciate it._ _Will you?_ she asked, feeling her heart hit her from the inside like a gloved fist. _I don_t really know any other way to be._ He reached for his water and took a sip. _You asked me before whether this result was an inconvenience. It isn_t. It isn_t an inconvenience, but I admit I_m not sure what to think about it. If I take it seriously, it rearranges my entire life. If I don_t take it seriously, I_m discarding everything I_ve worked for._ _Which, incidentally, also rearranges your life,_ Jess said, laughing. He laughed, too. _Exactly._ _Well, in that case,_ she said, _I can be on board for Project Be Genuine but Cautious._ He wiped his hand on his napkin and reached across the table for a handshake. With her heartbeat in her ears, she took his hand, and hers felt weirdly small in his grasp. _What happens now?_ she asked. _I guess we get together when we_re free,_ he said, and her brain took off spinning about how that would work, where this could even go. And where she wanted it to go. _Okay._ _Otherwise, we wait for marching orders from Brandon about any public appearances._ _Brandon Butkis,_ Jess whispered, partly to break the tension of imagining forging a personal relationship with River after tonight and partly because_how could she not say it? _Come on, you have to admit it_s a great name._ Rama dropped the bill off at their table and River thanked him before sliding the small leather folder into his lap. Never missing a beat, River delivered the next bit of information with an admirably straight face: _His wife_s last name is Seaman._ Jess gasped. _No._ Finally, a smile broke across his face. _Yes._ _Did they hyphenate?_ She leaned in. _Please tell me they hyphenated._ River laughed. _They did not._ Small footsteps stomped along the sidewalk, and the weight and rhythm registered in Jess_s brain only a split second before a pair of small arms were thrown around her neck. _Did you save me some duck?_ Jess peeked over her daughter_s head to deliver an apologetic-mortified glance at River. Holding her kid at arm_s length, Jess gave the most convincing Mom Face she could manage. _What are you still doing up, honey? You_re not supposed to be out here._ _I could hear your laugh in the courtyard._ _But what were you doing in the courtyard?_ _Beating Pops at checkers._ _Pops?_ Jess called out. _She_s too fast,_ Pops replied from behind the fence. Juno giggled. _I_ve got her,_ Jess said back. She relented and kissed Juno_s forehead before turning her around to face River. Apparently this was happening. _Sorry for the interruption._ He shook his head and smiled warmly at Juno. _Not at all._ _Juno, this is Dr. Pe?a._ Juno reached out, and he wrapped her tiny hand in his large one. _River,_ he said, shaking gently. _You can call me River._ Settling on her mom_s lap, Juno tilted her head, considering him. _You have a unique name, too._ River nodded. _I do._ _Do you like it?_ she asked. _Absolutely._ _My middle name is M-E-R-R-I-A-M. I_m named after mountains. What_s yours?_ _Nicolas, after my grandpa._ She pursed her lips, less impressed. _Hmm. That_s kind of normal, I guess. Did anyone ever tease you for being named River Nicolas?_ _A few times,_ he admitted. _But I_d rather be teased for having a name nobody else has than one that a ton of people have. I_m willing to bet no one else is named Juno Merriam Davis. Only you._ Jess leaned back, taking this all in, confused by the warm wiggly feeling in her stomach. Juno shifted on her lap, and Jess heard the tiny bell of the cat on the other side of the fence separating the restaurant patio from the apartment_s side yard. _My mom is Jessica Marie Davis,_ Juno said with exaggerated sympathy. _We looked it up once, and there were four hundred of them._ She paused, and with surprisingly good comedic timing added, _In California._ _Yeah._ He caught Jess_s eye and then smiled back at Juno. _But I bet there_s really only one person like your mom anywhere in the world._ W h a t. _That_s true,_ Juno agreed with unbridled innocence. He immediately looked away, clearing his throat, and Jess_s heart scrabbled up a vine, swinging wildly behind her ribs. River pulled out his wallet, smoothly sliding four twenties into the bill folder. _I should probably head out._ Jess smiled. _Thanks for dinner._ _Anytime._ He smiled at Juno again, and then quickly at Jess. _I mean it._ They stood, and Jess let her pajama-clad kid climb onto her back to be carried to bed. At the alley, River stopped and looked over Jess_s shoulder at the apartment complex behind them. The tender tips of vines could be seen bobbing along the top of the fence. _Thanks for letting me park back here._ _We have a guest spot. Street parking is a total drag._ _People sit on cars out front,_ Juno added. _Mr. Brooks gets so mad._ River frowned, taking this information adorably seriously. _Does he?_ _Our neighbor,_ Jess explained. _It_s a cast of characters here._ River glanced at his watch as he reached for his car door and unlocked it. _I_m seeing that._ Jess searched for it, she really did, but there was nothing in his tone to make her think he was complaining at all. _Good night, Jessica Marie and Juno Merriam._ Juno squeezed Jess_s neck. _Good night, River Nicolas._ TWELVE BURNED PANCAKES, ONE missing orange sneaker, cat vomit on the backpack, coffee brewing without water in the tank, and one mother yelling at her daughter that if she didn_t want to cut her hair then she needed to let Mom braid it before bed. In other words, a classic meltdown before eight a.m. Jess didn_t have a chance to look in the mirror, let alone check her email, until she_d safely dropped Juno off at school, and she was glad for it, because the notification that she and River had been asked for an interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune would have had her barfing right beside the cat. _I got your email,_ she said as soon as Brandon answered. _Oh, great!_ Teeth, teeth, teeth. It was all Jess could imagine. _Sounds like the date went well?_ She chewed on her lip. It had gone well. Better than expected. River wasn_t supposed to be funny, and he definitely wasn_t supposed to charm her kid. And yet. _Yeah, it was fine._ _Does the timing for the interview work? I know tomorrow_s short notice._ _It_s less a timing issue,_ Jess admitted, _than a bravery one._ _You?_ He laughed generously. _You_re adorable. Stop it._ _I am very much not used to press._ Quickly Jess added, _I know it_s what I signed up for, but I was sort of hoping to start small with dinners, then maybe a couple tweets no one notices, a small blog interview about online dating, and eventually working our way up to the Trib._ _Michelle is doing the piece and she_s a love,_ Brandon assured her. _She_s going to adore you. She and River go way back._ Jess wanted to ask whether that was code for banging, but would not ask that. Brandon read through her silence: _She did a piece on him several years ago. That_s all._ _Mm-hmm. So, tomorrow,_ she said, biting her lip. _Tomorrow at noon, Shelter Island._ Jess paused and a clammy chill worked its way up her neck. _Why Shelter Island?_ _Perfect for photos._ He confirmed her fears, and she nearly swallowed her tongue. She_d already turned her closet upside down for the dinner date, and a chambray shirt and jeans was the best she could come up with. This was exactly the sort of thing she_d been dreading. _I have to go shopping._ _Jessica, honestly, whatever you_re wearing is fine._ _Brandon. You wouldn_t say that if you could see me right now._ He laughed. _I just mean you_ll be fine regardless._ Would she? She looked down at her threadbare light gray T-shirt and charcoal-gray sweats. She, honestly, could not stand next to River _GQ_ Pe?a in front of the San Diego Bay in anything that was currently in her closet. On the other hand, at the end of the day, a soulmate loved you for what was on the inside, right? OF ALL THE beautiful places in San Diego_and there were indeed many_few were as spectacular as Shelter Island. If she took Harbor to Scott, hung a left at Shelter Island Drive and then another left at the circle, a long parking lot overlooked one of the best views in the city: a full vista of the San Diego Bay with the downtown skyline in perfect, crystalline glory. Coronado was visible in the distance. At night, the view was so breathtaking it felt like stepping inside a postcard. Even during the day_especially after a morning shower that had left the sky bright and clear_it was so beautiful that Jess paused for a second once she climbed out of her car, staring at a side of downtown San Diego she should appreciate more. The buildings looked like sleek, glossy swords in the distance. Big, puffy cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky, and sailboats bobbed on the surface of the bay. Add to that the sight of River, in dark trousers, a long camel coat over a navy sweater, hair blowing in the wind like something out of an Austen movie. Would it be weird if she stood here and just _ stared at him? Took a photo or two? Nobody would blame her. For a second_truly, only a second_Jess regretted not being more insecure about her clothing before leaving the house. She had finally settled on black jeans, a white T-shirt, and black flats. Simple but appropriate. Though maybe too simple. Beside River was a woman_Michelle, Jess guessed. She was pretty in a journalist sort of way, which was to say she had the luxury of never being the subject of her own story; how she dressed didn_t really matter. Jess was both amused and aggrieved that she and Michelle were essentially wearing the same outfit, with the sole exception that Michelle had been smart enough to wear a cardigan over her white T-shirt. It was noon on a gorgeous early-February day, but Jess had forgotten how exposed Shelter Island was. With the wind whipping past them in chilly gusts, she was going to freeze her ass off. Noticing her arrival, they brought their conversation to an end. The two made their way over, and behind where they_d been standing, Jess noticed a man diligently setting up what looked like a whole lot of camera equipment. This was a much bigger production than she_d anticipated. Her stomach wilted. Michelle was even prettier up close, comfortable in her skin, with a friendly smile. And of course, there was River, ripped from the thick pages of a magazine, looking so far out of Jess_s league that she could only laugh at his approach. He noticed and gave an unsure smile. _What_s funny?_ _Nothing._ She lifted a hand and let it fall in defeat. _Of course, you just_look so nice._ He stopped in front of her and dropped his gaze from her head to her feet and back again. His voice was a sandpaper scrape. _So do you._ _Liar._ He quirked a smile. _Nope._ It_s all an act, she thought. Even Dracula was notoriously charming. Then, so quickly she wondered how long he_d been working himself up to it, he bent down and kissed her cheek. Jess was so shocked by this turn of events, he may as well have reached a single finger out and touched her forehead, ET-style. Michelle was probably watching this and writing the headline in her head: Wow, They Are Totally Fake Dating. Subhead: And They Are Terrible at It. _Hi,_ Jess said, because her brain didn_t remember other words. River smiled this unfamiliar, private smile and parroted cutely back at her, _Hi._ Subtitle revision: And She Is Terrible at It. Michelle reminded them that she was standing there, too. _You two are cute._ Jess had to literally bite her tongue to not reply, No we aren_t. River seemed to have also expected her to come back with something contrary and offered a proud flicker of his eyebrow before turning back to Michelle. _Michelle, this is Jess. Jess, Michelle._ The two women shook hands, and Michelle gestured to an outcropping of rocks near the water. _Should we get started?_ As they walked, she pointed to the man with all the cameras. _Jess, this is Blake. He_ll be getting some photos. For now, we_ll just chat while he sets up._ She tilted her head to Blake but kept her eyes on Jess. _If you see him snapping some pictures, he_s just getting candids. I promise we_ll make you look great. Just try to relax as much as possible, be natural._ Jess took a deep breath and exhaled as completely as she could, clocking that in the process her shoulders dropped from up near her ears back to normal shoulder position. Comfortably, as though he spent most of his day in front of a film crew rather than at investor meetings, River sat on a rock just below waist height and opened his arm, gesturing for Jess to sit down beside him. Jess took three steps closer and sat down in a stumble, legs awkwardly pinched together to avoid leaning into his long, solid body. With ease, he shifted her closer to a flatter surface, and now she was in a more comfortable position but they were sitting pressed together like people who were effortlessly intimate. Which they were not. _Jess,_ Michelle said, and then added, _I hope it_s okay to call you Jess. It_s how River referred to you _ ?_ _Jess is great._ _Great,_ she repeated. _I_ve interviewed River before for a piece on the company, so I have some good background there, but this is my first time talking to him as a client. Before we get to him, I_m interested in hearing about how you came into all this. What made you take the test in the first place?_ _Honestly,_ Jess said, _I was dragged into it by a friend. She and I_and River_are regulars at this coffee shop, and one of the baristas mentioned River was starting some kind of dating site. Which__she pointed to him__I mean, be honest, he looks more like a hot medieval history professor, right?_ Michelle laughed, nodding. _He totally does._ She wrote something down. _But he invited us to come out to the offices,_ Jess said, and looked up at River to find him smiling at her fondly. It was rattling and threw her off her easy, unselfconscious rhythm. _So, we did._ _And what was it like for you, meeting Jess?_ she asked River. _We hadn_t officially met until that day,_ he said, and reached up to run his hand through his hair like a gorgeous stereotype. _I_d noticed her,_ he said, looking at her again and letting his gaze move thoroughly over her features. _I_ve seen her there for a couple years now, but had no idea what her name was._ _Did you want to know?_ He looked at Michelle with a small smirk. _Of course I did. Look at her._ He gestured to Jess. _Above average?_ Jess snarked, unable to help herself. He gave her a playful but cautious smile. _Far above average. Only an idiot would suggest otherwise._ Michelle watched this exchange with interest. _I_m sensing there_s a backstory there, but I_ll move on. Jess, can you tell me a little about yourself?_ While Jess gave a skeletal rundown of her life_her undergraduate work at UCLA, her first job at Google, and her later work as a freelancer_River_s attention on the side of her face was like the press of a hot iron. She could feel him smiling, nodding at these various bites of information. She could even hear the tiny hums of affirmation he offered every now and then. Like a proud boyfriend. He was good at this. _And what did you think when you got the DNADuo score of ninety-eight?_ Michelle asked. At least she could answer plainly here. _I didn_t believe it._ River laughed. _I didn_t, either._ _I can imagine,_ Michelle said. _Think about it,_ he said. Jess swallowed about a cubic liter of air when River threaded the fingers of his left hand with her right. He was very good at this. _I_ve seen hundreds of thousands of these scores over the past decade. I_d never seen a ninety-eight. What are the odds it would be me?_ _I_d say they were very slim._ _Slim to none. In fact,_ River told her, _Jess could probably calculate those odds._ _I could, for sure,_ she said, grinning. _That score is, as we mathematicians like to say, _deeply fucking unexpected.__ They both laughed, and River squeezed her hand in a tiny Good job gesture. At least, she assumed that_s what he meant. It could easily have been more like Don_t say the F-word in front of the reporter. _So you get the score, you both take a beat to digest it. Then what?_ _Then,_ River said with honeyed calm, _we went out for dinner._ _How did it go?_ He looked down at Jess, eyes smiling. _I_d say it went well._ _So,_ Michelle singsonged gently, _you_d say you_re officially together?_ Instantly, Jess_s hand went slick and sweaty in River_s grasp. As covertly as she could without Michelle noticing, she unthreaded it, wiping it on her thigh. _Uh,_ she said, squinting at the horizon like the question required deep calculation. _River?_ Just as she said his name, River gave a definitive _We are._ Michelle laughed. _Yeah, we are, I_m just kidding,_ Jess said, as he added, _At least, we_re open to what the future holds._ Smiling, Michelle bent to write something down again. Jess threw River a murder look. He threw one right back. They probably should have anticipated this sort of question. They turned away and fastened smiles on their faces just before Michelle looked back up. _So I guess we can agree it_s new,_ she said. _Very new,_ they replied in unison, and laughed stiffly. River took her hand again, and squeezed it emphatically. Meanwhile, Blake the Photographer hovered in the background, arcing around them, planning his attack_or candid shots. Jess_s palms went clammy again. _Sorry,_ she mumbled. River bent to pretend to cough into his free hand. _It_s fine._ _So, seriously,_ Michelle said, _I think most people will want to know if this feels different. The first time you saw each other, I mean really looked, was there some sort of internal reaction? A score of ninety-eight_you must_ve known on some cellular level._ There. Right there. She_d found River_s vulnerability. The biology of it, the assumption that his body would somehow just know. Jess couldn_t get past the unlikelihood of the number. He couldn_t get past the way he knew he should feel it in every cell of his body. _Attraction, yes,_ he said without hesitation. _But we_re only programmed to think about first encounters on a very primitive level. Sex. Coupling. We are animals, ultimately._ Heat crawled up her neck, and she was treated to a mental image of River behind her, his front curled over her back, teeth pressed into the bare skin of her shoulder. _But we aren_t really programmed to wonder on first sight whether someone is our soulmate. At least, I_m not._ Beside her, he shrugged. _It may be ironic given that I want to find it for other people, but I somehow hadn_t self-inserted into any of DNADuo_s findings. Truly. Given that we_re a couple months away from my first IPO, and having set my own criteria so high, the last thing I was expecting was a notification on my own app. So, if you_re asking whether I was surprised by the result, the answer is yes _ and no._ Her brain felt like it was chewing, digesting each one of his words. He sounded so sincere, but what was real and what was just for show? Michelle_s voice jolted her out of her thoughts. _Jess?_ Jess cleared her throat. _Like I said, I took the test on a whim. I wasn_t looking for a relationship. Had just sworn off dating, actually._ Michelle laughed in easy comprehension. _So yes, I was surprised._ She looked up at River_s open face and, maybe because her defenses were down, a low hum began in her bones. The deep vibration coursed through her, synchronizing with the high-frequency-static feeling along the surface of her skin. He was so gorgeous it made her woozy. _And no,_ she added quietly. _In another way, I wasn_t surprised at all._ _River,_ Michelle asked, _I have to ask: Is sharing this finding publicly a conflict of interest?_ _I expected you to be more suspicious that it was a media stunt._ She grinned. _Is it?_ _No._ She gestured around them. _But you_re leveraging it, surely._ _It_s serendipitous. Doesn_t mean it_s false._ _Jess,_ Michelle said, leaning in, _does the pressure to fall in love with him feel _ intense?_ _Yes,_ she admitted. _I don_t know what it_s supposed to feel like to find your soulmate. I_ve never found mine before, obviously. And in this case, I second-guess every feeling, even when they seem genuine._ _River, hearing that_does it make you uneasy?_ _Not at all._ His voice rang true. _We_re both scientists. It wouldn_t be our natures to dive headlong into anything._ _Maybe that_s why you matched,_ Michelle mused. Jess looked up at him. He looked down at her. She couldn_t help mirroring his new, private smile. _Maybe,_ he agreed, and dropped his voice, leaning in to whisper in her ear. _Project Be Genuine but Cautious._ Jess nearly shivered at the sensation. Michelle cut a knife through the tension, clapping her hands. _Let_s grab some photos over by the benches there._ She stood, and if she was aware of the dense emotional fog that clouded Jess and River, she didn_t show it. She and Blake conferred, then waved them over. _We_d like to get the water as the backdrop, so if you could stand__she put her hands on Jess_s shoulders, turning her to face the parking lot__here. River just beside and a little behind her, yes, good, however is comfortable for you. I_m going to be over here, we aren_t listening. Just_talk to each other. As naturally as you can. Forget we_re here!_ Jess wanted to stare at her with deep, unmasked incredulity. She and River were on what was essentially their second date, and Michelle wanted them to stand together and be knowingly photographed just_conversing intimately? Naturally? For a newspaper with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands? They weren_t even good at being natural when they were alone. _No pressure,_ Jess mumbled. _Just,_ he said, searching, _tell me something about your_car._ _My _ car?_ He laughed, and stepped closer beside her. _It_s the first thing that came to mind. Don_t assume I_m any better than you are at this._ _I absolutely assume that,_ she said, cheesing a grin as Blake lifted his camera to his face. _Look at you._ _What does that mean?_ River asked. _What does what mean?_ __Look at you,__ he repeated. Jess laughed. Blake clicked the shutter. _It means,_ Jess said, _that this is what you do. Of course I expect you to be smoother at all things dating and public-appearance related. I mean, I_m__ _If you say _average,_ I_m going to toss you into the bay._ _I wasn_t going to,_ she said, laughing. Click. River exhaled a long, slow breath behind her, warm on her neck. A shiver ran through her, rattling her spine. He noticed: _Are you cold?_ _Freezing,_ she admitted. Jess felt him shift so he stood fully behind her. Just as she was going to ask him what he was doing, he stretched his arms out and she found herself being wrapped up in soft warmth, pressed against a wall of hard heat. River had tucked her into his coat, enclosing her inside it with him. Click. He wasn_t shaking or unsteady. He held her firmly, his front pressed all along her back like it was no big deal. Jess_s senses went haywire. Michelle laughed. _Jess, you_re blushing._ She couldn_t even pretend this was normal. _I_m sure I am._ _So, I take it the physical side of__ _No comment,_ River cut in, voice sharp. But now the image was well and truly sparking inside her mind: Sex with River. Him over her. Sweaty beneath her. Growling and commanding behind her. Jess_s body betrayed her, arching back a bit, and his tiny muffled groan told her the movement had registered. Michelle turned and conferred with Blake over something on his camera screen, and Jess leaned minutely forward for some physical cooldown, but River pulled her back against him again, wrapping his arms around her waist. Pressed to her. _You_re cold,_ he reminded her, murmuring into her hair. _Less so now,_ she said under her breath, and he laughed warmly. Click. Jess bit her bottom lip, restraining a hysterical laugh that bubbled up her throat. _Are you turned on?_ His voice was a blend of embarrassed and matter-of-fact close to her ear. _I might be._ _Oh my God._ _You just_pressed yourself against me._ Jess bent, stifling a laugh_ Click. Click. _but this just pushed her ass back into him further and he let out a quiet hiss, pulling her closer. _Jessica._ She unleashed the laugh. For just a tiny beat, she wielded the power of the entire universe. Jess had turned on the formidable River Pe?a. Click. _You_re enjoying this,_ he growled. _Of course I am. So are you, apparently._ _I_d enjoy it more if we didn_t have an audience._ Click. _Are you hitting on me?_ _It sounds like I am._ He seemed as surprised as she was. _Do we even like each other?_ He adjusted his arms around her, heavy and secure. _Still under review._ Click. He sighed. _I think _ well, I don_t know about you, but I_m starting to like you._ Easier to be brave facing the parking lot instead of his handsome face, his arms grounding her from floating away. _I don_t know about soulmate, but I_d admit to lust._ She turned her face to the side. His mouth was so close to hers. River stilled, glanced down at her lips. _Is that right?_ His tone snagged Jess, who finally felt brave enough to meet his eyes. Heat melted through her. Click. THIRTEEN IT PROBABLY SHOULD have occurred to Jess that her wrapped up in River_s coat would be the perfect candid, but it absolutely did not occur to her that they would end up on the front page. Of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Fizzy dropped a copy onto the table before unloading her bag from her shoulder. _Holy shit, Jessica Davis._ Jess brought her mug to her lips, hiding a grimace behind it. _I know. I saw it on my iPad this morning._ _How fucking adorable are you two?_ She set the mug back down. _Stop it._ Fizzy cleared her throat, reading aloud. __The pair have the sparkling gleam and nervous tremble of new love. Seemingly without realizing it, Jess leans into him when she speaks. River looks at Jess like he_s waited his entire life for her. But despite the outward impression that love is in the air, neither believed the result when it first came in. _We_re both scientists,_ Pe?a said plainly. _It wouldn_t be our natures to dive headlong into anything._ Even so, it_s hard to not believe it when you see them together.__ Jess groaned. _Seriously. Stop, please._ _No, no,_ Fizzy said, holding up a hand and flipping to the second page. _The next part is my favorite. _When the wind picked up and Jess was visibly cold, River wrapped her up in his coat. My photographer and I went quiet, witnesses to the love story unfolding in front of us. GeneticAlly may be entering a crowded sea of seasoned dating services, but it_s clear they_re getting the important things right.__ By now, Jess was leaning her head on the table, wishing for the building to collapse. _Can we stop now?_ _If we must._ She heard Fizzy fold up the paper and set it down on the table. _Was it fun?_ _No,_ Jess said immediately, reflexively. She sat up, and the lie hung filmy between them. _Yes?_ She took a too-hot sip of coffee and coughed. _I mean, no. It wasn_t fun in the sense you mean. It was weird and awkward _ but good?_ She squeezed her eyes closed. _Stop it, Fizzy._ _Stop what?_ _Stop looking at me like that._ Fizzy laughed at her. _Your mainframe is actually melting._ _He_s a good-looking man, okay?_ Jess conceded. _So, yes, there_s a proximity effect there._ Pointing to Jess_s giggling smile in the picture, Fizzy said, _You look like you want him to eat you for dinner._ _Okay, nope._ Jess sat up straighter, dragging her hair into a bun. _I don_t want to talk about it anymore._ _Melting._ Fizzy stared at her in wonder before shaking herself into action and unpacking her laptop. They got to work; Fizzy wrote, Jess crunched data. But she could feel Fizzy look up at her every once in a while, studying her like a sample in a dish. And she felt the weight of her scrutiny so physically that Fizzy might as well have been standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, pressing down. Lucky for Fizzy_s head and the external hard drive on the table between them, she looked away just before Jess reached for something to throw at her. Jess knew Fizzy probably had a thousand questions about all of this. She did, too. What in the fresh hell were she and River actually doing? How did she feel about being so physically attracted to someone she wasn_t sure she actually liked? What should she do with all of this interest in her loins? And in all this silent questioning, it never occurred to Jess that 8:24 was coming soon. The door opened with a jubilant ding, and her heart skipped away, double tempo. Stride, stride, stride. River passed through the room with the sweeping confidence of a king through a court, and Jess felt the air shift all around them, an honest-to-God change in atmospheric pressure. Fizzy leaned to the side, spotting River, her eyes going wide. _Holy shit._ Jess didn_t have to turn to know that everyone was watching him. And then, even with her back to the room, Jess felt them all turn to look at her. Ignoring the feeling, she turned around. River was smiling _ at people? A healthy flush to his cheeks, a tiny yet unmistakable upturn to his mouth. Fizzy_s voice glimmered with wonder: _What did you do to him?_ _We did not__ _He_s smil__ _I know,_ Jess snapped. _It_s weird. Shut up._ She did not shut up: _When you two actually__ Leaning in, Jess hissed: _Shhh!_ She pretended to be very, very engrossed in her work, but it was useless. And she knew without having to watch him that once he_d picked up his drink, he was headed their way. He set down two cups on their table. _Hey._ Jess and Fizzy stared dumbly up at him. He was so gorgeous and commanding that all Jess could manage in response was a flat _What._ He nodded to the drinks he set down. A flat white. A vanilla latte. _I thought you might want a fresh one soon,_ he said. _Thank you,_ Fizzy and Jess said in monotonal sexbot unison. The left corner of his mouth tucked in. _You_re welcome._ He held Jess_s gaze, and the dark weight of it lit the fuse leading to the bomb in her libido. _Did you see the Trib?_ Her neck and cheeks flushed as she remembered how it felt to have him behind her. _Uh, I did, yeah._ River smiled knowingly, waiting for more, but she was unable to mentally undress him and make words at the same time. Finally, he offered, _I thought Michelle did a good piece._ Why was she out of breath? _It was really good. She was _ nice. Even though she mentioned my clammy hands._ He laughed, shaking his head. _You were great._ _Thanks._ Imaginary River was naked and beneath her on the floor, which explained why it took her a few seconds to add, _So were you._ He looked to his watch. _All right, well _ catch you later._ With a final amused pursed-lips smile, he turned to leave Twiggs with his Americano in hand. Stride, stride, stride. The bell over the door cried when he left. Fizzy stared after him. _What just happened?_ _He bought us coffee._ Jess was extremely casual. Not at all unsettled. _Calm down, Fizz._ Meanwhile, her brain was shouting in all caps. _My vagina just unfurled like a flower,_ Fizzy said, still staring at the door. _No._ _A fucking flower, Jess._ Jess cupped her forehead in her hands. It was going to be a long day. HOURS LATER, FIZZY_S attention was back on the newspaper. _Look at this goddamn chemistry._ They_d left for lunch but, both being on deadline, had returned to crank out a bit more work before calling it a day. _It drips from these goddamn pages. Tell me you don_t believe this shit._ _Stop._ _You_re going to set the town on fire. Everyone_s humping tonight._ _Oh my God, would you__ Jess stopped abruptly, realization falling like an anvil. _Oh shit._ _Can you just bang him and then describe__ _Fizz. Seriously, wait._ Jess looked up at her. The effect of River_s thoughtfulness this morning had worn off, and the chill of dread washed over her, head to toe. _Today is Monday._ _So?_ _Juno and Pops go to the library on Monday._ _So?_ Jess jabbed her index finger down at her copy of the paper. _Fizzy, there are about seventy copies of this picture in the library! My kid is going to see me on the cover of the U-T wrapped like a horny cat in River_s coat! Do you know how many questions she has about giraffe vertebrae? Do you know how many she_ll have about this?_ Fizzy bolted upright, turning left, turning right, before hastily shoving her laptop into her bag. Jess followed suit, packing up like Twiggs was on fire. IT WAS NORMALLY a ten-minute walk from Twiggs to the University Heights library. They made it in six. Fizzy stopped on the sidewalk just outside, hands on her knees. _Holy shit. Why did I pick such a sedentary job? When the zombies come, I am screwed._ Jess leaned against the bus stop and panted, _Same._ _If the point was to get here fast, we could have, I don_t know, taken a car?_ Jess straightened, glaring at her. _I panicked, okay? It feels a lot easier when I walk it._ She took a deep breath, marveling over how deeply winded she was. Add to the to-do list: More cardio. She checked her watch. _Juno_s school got out four minutes ago. They_ll be here in about ten. We need to bust ass._ Fizzy brushed the blunt ends of her dark hair behind her shoulder. _What could possibly go wrong?_ They headed up the ramp that led to the main entrance, smiling nonchalantly at an older woman as they passed. Nothing to see here. Just your average trip to the library to hide every copy of your daily newspaper. Emily, Juno_s favorite librarian, was on the computer at the main desk, and Jess slowed to a stop. _What are we waiting for?_ Fizzy said over Jess_s shoulder as she collided with her back. _Emily is up there,_ she whispered. Emily was Juno_s favorite partly because she was a sweetheart and knew where everything was, and partly because her hair was pink and she rode a sparkly blue Vespa to work every day. _If she sees me come in, she_ll want to say hi. Juno will see us, and we_re toast._ _A friendly librarian,_ Fizzy said sarcastically, narrowing her eyes. _The worst kind._ Jess glared at Fizzy over her shoulder. _Hush._ _You hush. I feel like I_m committing a crime even being in here,_ Fizzy whispered behind her. _I_m late renewing my library card!_ _It_s not like an alarm_s gonna go off,_ Jess said. _They don_t scan them as you walk through the door._ A patron stepped up to the counter, and she watched as Emily listened, smiled, and then nodded, motioning for the person to follow her. Jess reached for Fizzy_s hand. _Come on._ They slipped through the door and headed straight for the back near Adult Services, darting behind a bookcase when they saw an older man standing right in front of the giant rack of newspapers. Fizzy looked around nervously. _Would you stop it?_ Jess whisper-hissed. _You wrote an entire romantic suspense series about a female assassin. We_re hiding newspapers. Why does this look harder for you than the time you realized halfway through a game of pool that you_d bet a bunch of Hells Angels that we could kick their asses?_ _I_m not good with peer pressure, okay? Usually I_m the one talking you into doing something stupid. This is all backwards._ Jess looked around the corner, groaning when she saw the man still standing there. _I can see six copies of the front page right there. We just need to grab them all._ An older woman walked down the aisle, and they both tried to look casual. Fizzy leaned against the bookcase; Jess picked up an escargot cookbook off the shelf and attempted to appear engrossed. The woman eyed them warily as she passed. Fizzy took the book from her and shoved it back into place. _Do we really have to do this?_ She looked around. _This feels oddly naughty._ Jess honestly never expected Fizzy to have a pearl-clutching side. _Do you remember when you were writing My Alter Ego and you asked me to hoist my leg behind my head to__Jess made air quotes___see if a normal person could do it_?_ Fizzy frowned, thinking. _Vaguely._ _I pulled my hamstring and could barely walk for a week. For you and your book. But you still told Daniel I_d pulled a vaginal muscle in a sex accident. You owe me._ _I_m going to kill you off in the next Crimson Lace book._ It wasn_t the first time she_d threatened it, definitely wouldn_t be the last. _Sure._ They both peered around the bookcase again, relieved when they saw that the coast was finally clear. Jess could already see herself seated across from the bad cop down at the police station, given sludgy coffee in a Styrofoam cup and shown surveillance footage of her skulking over to the Adult Media section, unspooling an armful of Union-Tribunes from the rack, and jogging away. She made a silent promise to Juno and San Diego County that she would volunteer and read at story time until her kid was eighteen if she could just keep Juno from seeing these papers _ or her. They walked through the library as if they had every right to be carrying two armloads of newspapers, and then arranged them carefully behind a long row of Mary Higgins Clark paperbacks. _Is that all of them?_ Fizzy asked, face flushed as she checked over her shoulder. _Yeah. Let_s get out of here._ They walked down the aisle and stopped short just as the entrance came into view. Jess pulled Fizzy back, ducking her head out just long enough to see Juno and Pops walk through the door. _Oh my God,_ Fizzy said. _That was close._ _Yeah._ Jess looked again, heart racing as she watched them walk straight to the newspapers. _Let_s go. She_ll leave Pops at the papers and head straight for kids_ nonfiction. We have about thirty seconds._ Fizzy nodded, and with Juno_s and Pops_s backs turned, they ran straight for the doors. FIZZY STAYED LONG enough to finish a glass of Nana_s iced tea and jot down the details of their adventure before heading home to do some social media stuff and get ready for a night out with Rob. Jess had a few texts from River mentioning the possibility of a party, and that Brandon would be emailing them both _ definitely nothing to warrant the flash of heat that moved up her neck. She was tempted to launch into a brilliant retelling of her and Fizzy_s little crime spree but stopped herself for fear of beginning a conversation she didn_t really want to have. Jess wasn_t upset that River had met Juno, but she wasn_t sure she wanted it to happen again, either. Future Jess would definitely have to deal with it, but after the day she_d had, this Jess just wanted to have a glass of wine and make spaghetti. As she straightened the apartment and began dinner, she fell back on a new and still unfamiliar comfort: reminding herself that she didn_t have to worry about money, at least for a few months. She_d never had the luxury of a cushion before, and it was almost indulgent to imagine paying a year of insurance premiums in advance or splurging on real Tylenol instead of the generic. Wild times. Pigeon wound around her feet and Jess was just adding pasta to the boiling water when the door burst open and Juno rushed inside. _Mom! How to Build the World_s Best Roller Coaster in Ten Easy Steps! I got it!_ She kicked off her shoes and opened her bag in the middle of the living room, spilling the contents across Jess_s freshly vacuumed floor. Setting the wooden spoon on the trivet, Jess turned away from the stove and leaned against the island. Did she look guilty? _I was number two on the waitlist, but somebody didn_t pick it up, and so when I was there, Emily said I could check it out._ Juno slapped the book on the counter and finally came up for air. _I gotta start my project._ _Hello to you, too._ Jess stopped the whirling dervish with an arm around her shoulders and reeled her daughter in to press a kiss to the top of her head. _Where_s Pops?_ She looked out into the courtyard but didn_t see him. Juno disappeared into the living room, returning with a blue folder, at least a dozen pieces of paper trying to escape it. _He_s taking Nana for Ethiopian food._ She toppled a neat stack of mail as she spread the papers out on the counter in front of her. Jess picked them up again. _The instructions say to use a nine-by-twelve piece of cardboard but I can also use a thirty-six-by-forty-eight._ She paused. _Do we have that?_ _You_re asking if I have a four-foot piece of cardboard lying around? Sorry. Fresh out._ Jess stirred the pasta and turned off the stove. _Baby, let_s try and keep it manageable? Where would we even put something that big?_ Juno looked around the apartment and motioned to the dining room table. _And where would we eat?_ _At Nana and Pops_s._ Jess looked at her daughter over her shoulder as she drained the noodles. _What else do you need to start this project?_ _Art tape, the big kind. Lots of it. Did you know that in Philadelphia somebody made a one-hundred-twenty-eight-foot cocoon out of translucent tape? Twenty-one miles of it! You can climb in it and everything._ _Wow._ Jess pulled down plates and brought them to the counter. _I also need glue and regular tape and construction paper to make the people._ She pointed to Jess_s iPad on the table. _Can I look it up?_ _May I,_ Jess said reflexively, and dished noodles onto the plate, topping them with sauce. Juno picked up Pigeon from the chair, lifted the iPad to wake it up. _How was school today?_ Jess asked, turning just as an image loaded on the screen. A picture of her and River. The cover of the Union-Tribune she_d been looking at this morning. Fuuuu_ _Mom!_ Juno yelled. _That_s you and River Nicolas!_ Was it possible to lose all the blood in one_s body without actually bleeding? _Is he your boyfriend?_ How was Jess supposed to answer that? That she was only pretending with River because they were paying her? That they were friends who just happened to be photographed wrapped up in each other_s clothes? How was it that she tried so hard to protect Juno, but consistently screwed everything up? She set down their dinner with shaking hands. _That_s __ Jess searched for words, panicked, sweating, spiraling. _We were__ I am not my mom. I am not putting Juno last. I can explain. Before Jess could speak, though, Juno tilted her head. _You look pretty with your hair like that._ And then, just as quickly, her attention was drawn to her plate. _Ooh, spaghetti!_ She took a humongous bite, eyes closed as she chewed. Stunned, Jess could only stare as Juno tilted her glass to her face and set it down, leaving a bright moon of milk over her top lip. She grinned winningly at her mother. _Can I order tape after dinner?_ _Yes, as much tape as you want,_ Jess said. _Okay!_ Juno swirled more noodles onto her fork. _Can I get different colors? Like blue and orange and green and red?_ She took another giant bite, and Jess moved back to the kitchen. She opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. _Sure,_ she told her, and poured herself a drink. Pink? Purple? Polka dot? Knock yourself out, kid. Jess had never had the luxury of being frivolous before; it felt strange but also wonderful. She watched Juno finish her dinner and pull out the iPad again, humming as she added art supplies to her cart. Whoever said money couldn_t buy happiness had never seen this. FOURTEEN BY BRANDON_S RAVING account, Trevor and Caroline Gruber were completely lovely people. Yes, they were GeneticAlly investors, and yes, after that Union-Tribune profile they wanted to host a cocktail hour to meet Jess along with some of the other major donors, but They_re unpretentious, Jess, Brandon had insisted. You_ll love them. Trevor was some sort of tech genius from Detroit, and Caroline was a pediatric orthopedist from Rhode Island. Worlds colliding, true love, all of that. That they_d chosen to give a cool few million to a company whose goal was to match people up with their soulmates gave Jess hope they and their guests wouldn_t all look like the Monopoly man. There were a thousand good investments in this booming biotech area, but as someone who manipulated data and helped companies evaluate risk, even Jess couldn_t say for sure that, under different circumstances, she_d choose to give money to GeneticAlly. That said, one look at River when he picked her up out in front of her building, and she would happily throw her wallet and banking passwords at whoever was asking. He was in a tailored navy suit. Polished shoes. Perfect almost-too-long hair, bright eyes. The Adam_s apple she_d thought of licking more than once since the Shelter Island interview a week ago. Brandon had talked her off a ledge earlier, insisting GeneticAlly would spring for her dress and send someone to do her hair and makeup. A thoughtful and generous gesture, it had mainly served to highlight that the event was Very Fucking Important, which sent Jess deep-breathing into a paper bag. And just when she_d convinced herself she was both socially adept and attractive enough to handle being on Dr. River Pe?a_s arm all night, he stepped out of his car looking like solid muscle and sexual energy poured by a fancy German-engineered machine into that suit. Jess took a flying leap off a mental bridge. She was so completely screwed. She_d lowered the drawbridge to sex thoughts and now they were stampeding across. Frankly, if she and River ever managed to get it on, he was going to have a lot to live up to. Fictional River was a wonder in bed. He bent and kissed her cheek again_this time she was at least prepared for it, but she was not prepared for the assault of sensation. He smelled _ different. He did a similar deep inhale near her ear. They spoke in unison: _Are you wearing perfume?_ _Are you wearing cologne?_ Her question echoed last, and louder. Is he blushing? _A little. My sisters__ He cleared his throat. _They told me to go to Neiman Marcus, get some recommendations._ Jess pulled out a mental bag of arrows and took aim at the imagined saleswoman who_d dabbed his skin with various colognes and gotten close enough to smell him. _Your sisters told you to get _ cologne?_ _They_re invested. In this._ He sighed, but she knew he was only pretending to be exasperated. His sisters were invested in them? Was that adorable or terrifying? _That_s very sweet,_ Jess managed. River laughed dryly. _That_s one word for it._ _Well, the cologne is nice._ Understatement of the ages. Jess wanted to eat him up and wash him down with the rest of the bottle. He leaned in again. _What is it I_m smelling?_ Jess was thrown for a moment when she registered that they were smelling each other. And recognizing a difference. Was this normal? Was this weird? She decided to roll with it. _It_s_okay, it sounds weird, but it_s grapefruit. It_s a grapefruit roll thing__ She didn_t know how to say it. _It_s not perfume, exactly. Like an oil? It_s a little roller__ Jess shut up and just mimed rolling something on her wrist. _Perfume gives me a headache, but this__she felt the tops of her cheeks flame__this I can do._ _I like it._ He seemed to struggle for words. _A lot._ What was she hearing in his voice? Weird tight restraint. It sounded like he was telling a platter of buttery beef Wellington, I could stand to take a bite, when really he meant, Get in my face. Did River Pe?a _ want her in his face? Jess had to take it down a notch. She might have been consistently obsessing since their Shelter Island snuggle, but she could make no assumptions about where he was with all of this. Also, as they climbed into his car, Jess reminded herself that they would soon be standing inside an investor_s penthouse for a cocktail party. That is, River_and everyone there tonight_had a financial interest in her looking at him with horny eyes. Jess knew already that River chose his words carefully; for all she knew, his sisters might be actually invested, not just sentimental and meddling. Her obvious attraction to him helped boost confidence in his company, which helped his pocketbook, and also helped confirm everything he_d been saying from a scientific standpoint all this time. Jess knew how important it was to River that the world saw the impact of his data. And frankly, look what Jess was willing to do for thirty thousand dollars. No, it wasn_t a hardship to buy dresses with GeneticAlly expense accounts and walk hand in hand with dressed-up science-brained sex on legs into a fancy party, but her thirty thousand was a drop in the bucket compared to what River stood to make. Millions. _What are you thinking about over there?_ he asked, cutting into her pondering silence. It couldn_t hurt to be honest. _Oh, just questioning every choice I_ve made._ This made him laugh. _Same._ Doubtful. _Give me one example._ He glanced at her and then back to the road as they took the 163 on-ramp. _Really?_ _Really._ After a long pause, during which Jess assumed he_d decided to ignore her request, River finally spoke. _Okay: Did you think of me when you put on that dress?_ From chest to forehead, her skin flushed hot. Jess looked down at her gown. It was deep blue, with black spaghetti straps. Delicate metallic stardust embroidery was scattered in small, artful clusters across the entire gown, giving it the feel of a gently starred sky. The subtle black lace trim crisscrossed above and beneath her breasts and purred evening wear meets evening wear, but Juno and Fizzy_her two jabbermouths_had literally gone speechless when she came out of the dressing room wearing it, so Jess trusted their reactions over her hesitation that she might be showing way too much skin. _I know you_re getting paid to be here,_ he added quietly. _So, there_s my question. Did you?_ _Same question, but with the cologne,_ Jess said through a cork of emotion in her throat. _And you_re getting paid a lot more._ _Potentially._ He laughed. _But that_s exactly it. If we do a good job tonight, you stand to make a lot more than thirty thousand. Your sisters told you to get some cologne_that would be smart seduction advice, especially if they_re shareholders._ _They are,_ he acknowledged. They fell back into a thick silence; Jess was unwilling to answer until he did. She bet her entire thirty thousand that he felt the same. _So, smart seduction advice, then?_ he pressed, grinning slyly at her before turning back to the road. _It smells really good on you,_ she admitted quietly, and was instantly mortified about the growling bass in her voice. She cleared her throat. Jessica Davis, get your shit together. Beside her, River shifted in the driver_s seat. _Well, for what it_s worth, that dress is __ His voice also came out hoarse, and he coughed into his fist. _It is also really good on you._ TWO GOOD-LOOKING GUYS in their early twenties jogged over as River pulled the car up to the curb. _Every bit of fanciness just makes me more nervous,_ Jess admitted quietly after River tipped the valets_nephews of the hosts, they_d learned_and met her on the sidewalk. He stepped closer, looking down at her with concern. _Everyone who_ll be here is incredibly nice._ _I_m sure,_ Jess said. _It_s just that as of yesterday, my fanciest outfit was the only other dress you_ve seen me wear. This dress cost more than two months of Juno_s ballet lessons._ _It_s worth every cent, if that makes you feel better._ _It does,_ she said, smoothing her hands over the front of the dress. _Just keep telling me I_m pretty and it_ll be fine. Oh, and wine. Wine will help._ Laughing quietly, he let her lead them inside the building. The marble-floored lobby was empty except for a security desk, a beautiful leather settee, and two elevators at the end. The security guard looked up as they approached. _Here for the Gruber event?_ River_s warm palm came over the small of her back, and every thought in her brain was incinerated. _River Pe?a and Jessica Davis,_ River confirmed, and the man checked their names on a list before programming the elevator from where he sat. _Head on over to the car on the right,_ he said. _It_ll take you straight up._ As the doors closed, Jess was reminded of the other times she_d been in an elevator with River_the strained silence, the unspoken disdain between them. Going back to that felt like it_d be simpler than this unmeasurable, unmanageable attraction. River cut into the quiet. _I think I need to clear something up._ Jess looked up at him in question, his eyes fixed on the wall ahead. _About my sisters._ _Oh?_ She had no idea where this was headed, but the pace of the world_s second-slowest elevator suggested there_d be plenty of time to find out. _They are investors,_ he said. _They both put in money at the very beginning of the project. But that isn_t what I meant by _invested.__ Finally, he looked down at her. _About the cologne._ Jess bit back a laugh. He was so serious. _Okay._ _They think this__he gestured between them__is very __ He paused, and then gave her a sardonic smile. _Very exciting. But,_ he quickly added, _please don_t feel pressured by their enthusiasm._ Nodding, Jess gave him another quiet _Okay._ _And I_m telling you this now because up there is waiting a roomful of people who, you already know, are deeply financially invested in how you and I interact, and I don_t want you to go in there thinking that everything is for show._ River reached into the inside pocket of his suit and pulled out his phone. He swiped it awake, opened it to his photos, and began scrolling. Finally, he found what he was looking for and turned the screen to face her. For a second, Jess had no idea what she was seeing. River_s doofus doppelg?nger was her best guess. He was in his early twenties, but his posture read even younger, way less confident. _Do you recognize him?_ he asked. She was afraid to guess. This scrawny, hunched, mismatched child could not be_ _It_s me._ He swiped through a few more, showing her several photos of the same dorky alternate-reality version of himself. _Plaid shorts and striped shirt was a real style choice,_ Jess said, laughing. _I moved away from home when I was sixteen,_ he said, and the elevator doors opened. Her stomach vaulted into her throat because for the past ten seconds, she_d forgotten where they were. They stepped out, but River paused in the marble foyer leading to a single front door. _I graduated high school early and started at Stanford when I was about four months shy of turning seventeen._ _Holy shit._ _I was probably twenty in this picture_although you_d never guess it_and you can see that once my sisters could no longer exert daily influence, I had no idea how to dress myself._ Jess burst out laughing, sparking a return smile. _If it weren_t for them, I_d probably still be wearing those plaid shorts._ _Please, no. Your sisters are doing a much better job._ He laughed now. _It_s just how they are. They left for school on the East Coast when I was in high school and _ it wasn_t always _ They feel responsible for me._ River licked his lips and glanced up at the door before back to her. _All of this is to say: I wasn_t thinking of this roomful of people when I put the cologne on earlier. I was thinking of you._ She didn_t know what else to say besides _Thank you for telling me._ Jess was split in half_turned on by his confession and terrified by it. Luckily, he didn_t seem to need a bigger response. Straightening, River turned to face the Grubers_ double front door and took a deep breath. She expected him to ring the bell, but he didn_t. After a few long, increasingly awkward moments of silence, Jess asked, _You okay?_ _I hate these things,_ he admitted. It was a little like being hit in the face with the obvious stick. Of course: River wasn_t a callous, gruff asshole. He was shy. Having to do this part of the job was probably miserable for him. Jess felt this as clearly as if she_d just read it on a pamphlet entitled Instructions to Your Soulmate. Framing every one of their past interactions through this lens only solidified for her that River was nothing like Brandon_all smiles and easy charm. He was most comfortable when facing the fume hood with his back to the room, just him and some tubes and billions and billions of paired-up nucleotides. She was going to have to be the brave one here. Reaching down, Jess laced her fingers with his. Warmth spiraled up from her fingertips, crackling along every inch to her shoulder and across her chest. _We_ve got this,_ she said. He squeezed her hand. _We don_t have much choice._ _Let_s just stay together, okay?_ _Yes,_ he whispered. _Good plan._ In unison, they took a deep, bracing breath. Reaching forward, River pressed the doorbell.

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