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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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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 ‘get 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

C
ONSUMED 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 doppelgänger.

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 PEÑA) 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.”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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