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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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“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 & 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

T
HE 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
Ooooh
ed. “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 Peña.”

“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 façade 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 Peña.”

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.

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