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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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“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 Peña 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

M
OM, 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 Peña
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 & 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?”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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