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Authors: Christina Lauren

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He let out a whispered “Oh, God” as she worked his pants and boxers down; River turned her into Medusa with his fingers in her hair, and with a voice that had grown hoarse, he quietly
begged for more than the heat of her breath. She looked up, and when their eyes met, hunger speared painfully through her. Jess hadn't ever felt this desired or this powerful. Having never craved anything in excess like this before, she wanted to pull him into every bit of her body at once, wanted to break off pieces too big to consume.

River's voice went from whispered pleas into broken, growling warnings, and with a cry, he pulled his hips away, wrapping a hand around her arm and guiding her to her feet. Jerking her close, he tucked her head beneath his chin while he caught his breath. With the pause in the frenzy, Jess grew aware of how fast her own breaths were coming, how it felt like their hearts were hammering on opposite sides of the same door.

I want to never get used to this
, she thought, holding him.
If tonight is about being selfish, then here's my selfish wish: I hope we never get used to this.

He pulled away, sending his hands over her body—hungrily touching chest, and ribs, and the curved small of her back—and Jess closed her eyes, tilting her head as his mouth slid up her throat. Teasing, his fingers toyed with the button on her jeans.

“Can I take these off?”

At her nod, River worked the button loose, smiling and kicking his own clothing free as he peeled hers down her legs. Leaning away, he grabbed and threw something to the floor, and when he carefully lowered her down, Jess realized he'd pulled a plush blanket from the couch.

Her back met the blanket, and his hips slid between her thighs. She got one gentle kiss before the heat of his mouth moved down
her neck, sucking and kissing at her breasts, fingers digging into hips and navel and then gently feeling, stroking, before his kiss was there, too. The relief of it was like being uncapped and poured across his floor, and her fingers made fists in his hair as Jess closed her eyes against the overload of sensation.

She felt blindly for the purse she must have dropped as soon as her back hit the door, and fumbled through the fog of lust, pulling the square of foil free.

River heard the tear, lifting his head and dragging his mouth up her body. He tasted like her, but sounded like a man on the verge of breaking when she gripped him, rolling on the condom.

But he went still over her, and she paused, too, moving her hands to rest them on his hips. “Too fast?”

He shook his head and smiled down at her. “Just making sure.”

Jess reached up to push the hair out of his eyes and nodded, unable to get the words out.

“Say it,” he said, bending to kiss her. “I'm sure. Are you?”

She couldn't spread her hands out wide enough; even with his body aligned all along hers, she needed to get closer. “I want to,” she said. “Please.”

River dropped his forehead to her temple, letting her be the one to take him in. They both went still for a breathless pause, and in that time Jess existed only on the razor-sharp edge of bliss and discomfort. Carefully, holding still, he kissed her—so sweet and searching—and she could finally exhale.

“You okay?” River kissed her mouth again, and Jess felt him pull back and take in her expression. “We can stop.”

Was he serious? They absolutely could not. Her drama-queen body was certain they'd die if they tried.

“No. Don't go.”

“Okay.” His lips dragged across her jaw and she could feel his smile. “I won't.”

He kissed her again, pulling away with a gentle bite. When he whispered through a laugh, “I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm shaking,” and she felt the truth of it under her hands, she could exhale some more because it made her think maybe she wasn't alone in this feeling—so desperate for him that she might cry.

River moved over her—slow, then building in tempo, pressing into her again and again, releasing a quiet grunt with every forward pitch and—

—and suddenly she felt the weight rolling down her spine like a steel boulder in a trap ready to spring.

Jess got only one word out—“I'm”—before it hit her like an explosion, the inside-out splitting of heat and relief spreading through her entire body. She was still too tangled up to appreciate River's abandon, but it imprinted in the back of her mind how he groaned her name against her neck, going tightly still over her.

After a pause filled only with the sounds of their short, stuttering breaths, River pushed up on his arms and stared down at her. His hair was a mess of dark curls falling into his eyes, but Jess had the weird sense of looking into a mirror anyway; his gaze was brimming with the same shock and amazement she felt vibrating in her blood. It hit her in a sharp, startling truth: her whole life she had been put together wrong in one tiny, invisible, and critical way. And
having that piece altered just enough for it to slide into place suddenly changed everything.

“Can you stay?” he asked, catching his breath. “Stay here tonight?”

Her heart pinched painfully and Jess ran a hand down his sweaty chest, over his stomach. “I don't think so.”

Nodding, he pulled back with a wince, and she immediately ached for him. River sat back on his heels and ran a warm palm along her leg, from hip to knee.

She marveled at this man who, a month ago, she'd known only as “Americano,” as surly and quiet and selfish. This shy, brilliant man kneeling in front of her who showed up without having to be asked, who put the ball in her court, who asked her if she was sure and told her they could stop. She felt her control slipping out of her grip, and the two syllables of his name tattooed a permanent echo inside her.

River's shoulders rose and fell with his still-labored breathing, and he closed his eyes, sliding his hands up over her hips again, across her navel. “I don't have to say it, do I?”

“Maybe not,” Jess said, gazing up at him. “I still want you to.”

Somehow she'd known exactly what he would look like without a stitch of clothing on, but she took a leisurely visual perusal anyway.

“That was unreal, wasn't it?” he finally said. “I don't feel like the same person I was an hour ago.”

“I was just thinking the exact same thing.”

He laughed quietly. “I can't believe we did it on the floor. In all the times I imagined it, I did not imagine the floor.”

“I probably wouldn't have let you get much farther than the entryway.”

“I like a woman on a mission.”

With hungry, curious eyes, Jess watched him stand and stride unselfconsciously naked across the foyer to his sleek, austere kitchen. She hadn't even taken a moment to look around his place, but it was exactly what she expected: open floor plan, clean lines, simple furniture, understated wall decor. There were, for example, no crayon drawings of hippos taped to his refrigerator or unpaired socks strewn on the floor.

He returned a moment later, coming over her like a shadowed, predatory animal. “I'm going to think about this constantly now.”

Jess laughed, admitting, “I already do.”

“Like when?” he whispered.

She rolled her eyes away, thinking. “Um. Shelter Island—”

“Same.”

Her eyes met his again. “And the kiss at the party—”

“Of course.”

“The parking lot at the hospital.”

“I almost asked to follow you home.”

She reached up, sliding her thumb over his bottom lip. “I'm glad you didn't. I would have said yes, but I wasn't ready yesterday.”

He opened his mouth, gently biting the tip of her finger. “I know. I hope you were tonight.”

She nodded, mesmerized by the sight of his teeth around her finger. “I was. It lived up to the mental hype. It exceeded the mental hype.”

“I wanted you before Shelter Island,” he said quietly.

Jess pulled back a little, surprised. “When?”

“The night we found out about the match, when we were outside. I wondered what it would feel like to kiss you.” He bent, giving her a tiny peck. “And at dinner, with Dave and Brandon.” He kissed her again. “In the lab when I took your blood. Our first date. Pretty much every time I thought about you.”

“Do you think it's because the number told you to want me?”

He shook his head. “I believe in the algorithm, but not that much. I fought it. Just like you did.”

Jess stared up at him, running her palm up his chest. A faint echo of discomfort registered in her back, and he must have felt her wince because he pushed up, reaching for and helping her stand.

River bent, pulling on his boxers before draping the throw blanket around her shoulders. Taking her hand, he led them to the couch, gesturing for her to sit first, but Jess stepped forward, gently pushing him until he sat, and then placed a knee on either side of his hips, straddling him. Bringing the blanket around her shoulders, she sealed them in together below their necks.

Beneath the blanket, River ran his hands up her bare thighs and let out a long, slow breath. “You're going to kill me.”

Suddenly it all felt very surreal. “I honestly can't believe that I'm here and we just had sex on your floor.”

River went in for a kiss and laughed against her mouth. “Does Juno know you're here?”

“No.”

He lifted a brow. “Does she know we're…?”

“She's asked me a couple times if you were my boyfriend,
but…” Jess shook her head. “I'm not really talking about it with her yet.”

He gave a little
That's fair
frown and pushed the blanket off her shoulders, drawing lazy spirals over her collarbones. “But I assume Fizzy knows.”

“She practically shoved me out the door with your address in my hand.”

He looked up at her face, realization dawning. “Shit. I forgot to tell you about the cat drawings and giving her my address. I didn't mean to overstep, but that kid is persuasive.”

With a laugh, Jess waved this off. “Trust me, I know how she operates. It's why we joke that she's half Fizzy's.”

“Still. I'm sorry I didn't mention it.”

“Are you kidding?” She kissed him again. “
I'm
sorry because no doubt she made you feel incredibly guilty, questioning everything about yourself, before you finally relented.”

He laughed, tilting his head back and giving her a delightful view of his throat. “I guess I shouldn't be surprised you know exactly how it went down.”

“She definitely does not get the evil-genius persuasiveness from me.”

River's smile stuttered; Alec was there with them now. River reached up to twist a long strand of her hair around his finger.

Jess cleared her throat. “Or her father, for that matter. Like I said: she's half Fizzy's.”

“Her father's not in the picture at all?” River asked quietly.

“Alec, and no.”

“So he won't ever—”

“Try to share custody?” Jess anticipated the end to the question, shaking her head. “No. He signed away his rights before Juno was born.”

River blew out a surprised breath. “What a dick.”

She loved that this was his reaction, but she didn't need it. “I'm glad he did.”

He smiled up at her, unsure, and she got a tiny glimpse of River from before, the cautious, shy man who hadn't yet pulled her proverbial pin and made her come undone.

“What?” she asked, reaching up and drawing a line over the crease in his forehead.

“Has Juno ever met one of your boyfriends?”

Jess laughed and he shifted her forward, closer. She deflected. “Is that what this is? Boyfriend?”

“As soon as I said that word, it seemed both a presumption and an underrepresentation.”

“Because ninety-eight,” she said, grinning.

He leaned in, kissing her neck. “Because ninety-eight.”

“The more accurate question,” she said as he kissed his way around the curve of her jaw, “is whether I've had a boyfriend since Juno.”

River stilled, and then pulled back, looking at her. “Isn't she seven?”

“She is. I've seen a few people here and there, but no one I would consider a boyfriend.”

He drew another gently looping shape across her collarbone, humming. “Wow.”

“Is that weird?” Jess asked.

“I don't know. I'm not sure how I would handle it, either, if I had a kid.”

“Do you date a lot?”

He brought both hands below the blanket again and laid them on her hips. It made it hard to focus on his words even when he said, “Not a lot. Some. A couple times a month, maybe? I work a hundred hours a week.”

“Not this week.”

River grinned. “No, not this week. This week I've been unable to stop checking in on my Diamond Match.”

She kissed him again, deeper. “I'm glad you're persistent.”

“One of us has to be.”

NINETEEN

O
KAY, ONE ON
each hand.” She waited until Juno tugged the lobster claw oven mitts all the way on. “It'll be hot, so be careful.”

Juno opened the oven door and they both winced from the hot wash of air as it passed over their faces. Jess helped her carefully pull the cookie sheet from the top rack and set it on the stove to cool. The entire apartment smelled like cinnamon and warm oatmeal, Nana's favorite.

Juno growled like a hungry little creature and inhaled deeply over the pan. “Nana is gonna be so happy. What day does she come home?”

Using a spatula, they moved each cookie to the cooling rack. “Three days,” Jess said. “Normally people only stay a few days, but she's older so they want to make sure she's up and moving okay before they let her go.”

Juno pursed her lips in concentration. “So, Sunday?”

“That's right.”

“Maybe Try Something New Sunday can be bringing Nana home from the hospital. We've never done that before.”

“Excellent plan.”

“We could just have cuddles and movie day here. Nana will probably be tired.”

“I bet you're right. I think she'd love that.”

“So, we can take her cookies tonight; Friday is my sleepover at Naomi's house.” She gasped as if just remembering something. “Did I tell you she got a dog? He's part poodle so he's very sweet and doesn't shed.” She batted her eyelashes up at her mom. “A dog wouldn't eat our cat.”

“Child, we are bursting at the seams. Maybe when we have a yard where a dog can run.” Gently redirecting, she continued, “So Friday is the sleepover…”

Juno huffed out a little sound, but relented. “Yeah, then Saturday maybe I can stay at Naomi's for a little while? And Nana will be back Sunday.” A twinge of unease worked up Jess's spine at the mention of Naomi's name. When she'd asked, Juno said that they'd had a fight, but it seemed to have been forgotten. She knew kids needed to learn how to resolve conflict on their own, but the mama bear in her never hibernated too deep below the surface.

“You sure you want to do a sleepover?” Jess asked. “We could go to the movies together. Maybe the zoo?”

“No, it's Naomi's birthday, and I already got her a present. They're doing a hula night.”

“You got her a present?”

“I used my good citizen tickets and got her two slap bracelets and some glitter stickers.”

Offering a high five, Jess told her, “I have some gift bags in the closet; maybe we can use one of them and put a gift certificate in there, too?”

With the plan in place, they slid the rest of the cookie dough toward them to load up another sheet just as the doorbell rang. “Let's get these finished so we can go before visiting hours end,” Jess said. “Use the spoon to scoop the rest on the pan, and I'll be right back. Don't touch the oven.”

Out in the living room, her heart tripped over itself when she peeked out the window and saw River standing on the other side.

Jess glanced down, groaning. Would it kill her to wear something other than sweats?

He looked up at the sound of the door swinging open and her breath went thin. His smile was somehow both shy and naughty; the muscular curves of his shoulders and chest were visible beneath the fabric of his shirt, and Jess wanted to rip it open like a bag of chips.

“Hey.” She tried to keep it together.

His voice was a low, secretive burr: “I hope it's okay that I stopped by.”

“It's fine.” Jess swallowed. “Do you—um, do you want to come in?”

He stepped inside, hesitating for only a second before bending and carefully putting his mouth on hers. Heat erupted in her veins, and even though it was only a touch and he pulled away before they were busted, Jess knew she looked like she was about to catch fire anyway.

“Hi,” he said quietly.

“Hi.”

“You good?”

She nodded. “Definitely good now.”

Beaming, he looked past her, and she found herself following every point of his attention, trying to see the apartment through his eyes. It wasn't tiny, but it wasn't big, either. She'd splurged on the yellow couch and bright blue chairs, but repainting the kitchen cabinets wasn't the same as getting new ones, and instead of art covering the walls, she had framed photos and elementary school art projects.

“Your place is great,” he said, turning in a circle. “It's so cozy.”

Jess closed the door with a laugh. “
Cozy
means
small
. I think this whole place could fit in your living room.”

“Yeah, but my house feels like a showroom you walk through to pick out cabinet fixtures.” He smiled up at a photo of Jess and Juno at the beach. “It's not a home.”

“Who's here?” Juno shouted from the kitchen, followed by the sound of the step stool scraping over the tiles and her feet padding across the floor. “River Nicolas, are you here to make cookies with us?”

“Are you kidding, Juno Merriam?” They executed some complicated knuckle-bump, hand-slap, dance greeting. “I am always here to make cookies.”

“Wow, what was that?” Jess asked.

They both ignored her—obviously it was a secret handshake—and Juno beamed up at him. “We're making them to take to Nana Jo. Do you want to see my room?”

River grinned. “I would love to see your room. But do you think I could talk to your mom for a second first?”

“Okay! I'm gonna go get it ready. Also, Mom said we can get a dog!” She raced out of the living room and down the hall. “I'll be waiting!”

“I said when we have a yard,” Jess shouted after her. She turned back to River, who was biting back a smile. “A warning, her room is a disaster,” Jess told him confidentially, “so that buys us a few minutes at least.”

When she looked back at him, he was already staring at her, eyes fixed on her mouth. Tension tightened his shoulders, and he ran a hand through his hair. “Maybe we can talk outside?”

“Sure.” Unease sent a cool film over her mood. “Juno,” she called, “we'll be in the courtyard. Give us ten minutes.”

Just outside the apartment, hidden from view, River reached for Jess's arm and pulled her toward him. His mouth came over hers, and he pressed her against the door, kissing her with a hunger that matched her own. But again he pulled away, clearly conscious of the risk. His bright eyes, when he looked down at her, simmered with that familiar, heated intensity.

And then they fell closed and he bent, releasing a long, frustrated growl against her neck.

Jess laughed out a sympathetic “Yeah, me, too.”

She pushed her fingers into the back of his hair, relishing the quiet moment. His arms came around her waist, banding all around her until he was pressed so close it was like having another heartbeat. They couldn't stay this way for long, but Jess
closed her eyes and breathed him in. The weird hollow ache in her chest settled.

She was relieved he was so clearly as wrapped up in it as she was. She was anxious to get her hands back on his skin, to feel that connection reverberating along her bones. She felt guilty that she couldn't just invite him to stay over, but also worried how they would keep the relationship from Juno, or whether that was even the right thing to do. And she was sure these feelings showed plainly on her face when she pulled back and looked at him.

But then she remembered.

River straightened at her gasp, alarmed. “What?”

“Guess whose kid has a sleepover at Naomi's tomorrow?”

“If the answer isn't you,” he said, frowning, “then I'm going to admit that I don't like this game very much.”

Jess laughed. “You're right! It's me!”

“Does that mean that Juno's mom also gets a sleepover?”

“She sure does.”

He leaned in again, kissing her jaw, her cheek, her—

River's phone vibrated against her hip.

“Save the vibrations for tomorrow,” Jess joke-whispered as he pulled it out.

He swallowed a laugh, answering with an easy “Hey, Brandon.” River paused, listening and shaking his head at her in mock exasperation as she gave him a dorky, Brandon-toothy smile. But then his expression smoothed in shock. “What? Hang on, wait, wait, we're both here.” River put it on speaker and held it between them.

“Oh, good!” Brandon said. “How are you, Jess?”

She leaned forward. “I'm good. How are you?”

“I'm fantastic. And as I was just telling River, you two are about to be fantastic, too, because the
Today
show wants you.”

Her gaze bolted to River's, and she mouthed,
What?

He shrugged, eyes wide.

“They already filmed footage for a segment on GeneticAlly,” Brandon continued, “but after hearing about our Diamond Match they changed things up and want you in New York City tomorrow for an interview. Can we make it happen?”

“Tomorrow?” Her mind raced. They'd have to take a red-eye and go straight to the studio. She should say yes, because this was literally what they were paying her for, but Nana would come home from the hospital on Sunday, then start at the rehabilitation clinic on Monday. Someone needed to take care of Pops. And Juno would never forgive her mother if she had to miss a sleepover because of schedule complications. “Um—”

River smoothly cut in. “That's not going to work,” he said. “If they want it in the next couple days, let's see if they can shoot our portion of the interview locally.”

She opened her mouth to tell him it wasn't necessary, they could figure something out, it was the
Today
show, for crying out loud—but he firmly shook his head.

“It's better for us to do it there,” Brandon insisted.

“No, I get that,” River said with finality, playfully cupping a hand over Jess's mouth to keep her from committing to something she shouldn't out of guilt, “but Jess's grandmother just had surgery, and she needs to be here. You're in marketing, Brandon. Sell them
on this.” She stared at him from behind his hand, wanting to kiss him until they both had to come up for air. How did he know exactly what she needed?

There was a pause before Brandon spoke again. “You got it. We'll figure it out and get back to you.”

“Thanks,” River said. “Let us know.” He ended the call.

The silence stretched between them. “Well, hello, Mr. Decisive Executive.”

He tilted his head, giving her a flirty eyebrow. “You liked that?”

“It was so vintage Americano.” Jess stretched, kissing him.

“Well,” he said, kissing her one more time before straightening, “I admit that I'd like to stick around town for a selfish reason, too.”

“Sleepovers and vibrations, am I right?”

“Yeah.” He frowned. “But… also because of my sisters.”

“Oh?”

“They're in town from San Francisco.” He winced. “I may have mentioned that you and I would love to join them for dinner tomorrow night. You can always say no.”

Elated, Jess looked up at him. “Embarrassing stories?”

“They have them all.”

“Dirt on your pre-hot days?”

He laughed. “You have no idea. I'm sure they'll bring photos of the time they gave me a haircut before a school dance. It did not look awesome. It was also during the phase where my orthodontist's word was law, and I wore my headgear around the clock. I'm absolutely certain I'm going to regret this.”

TODAY SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Natalie Morales [voiceover]:
What if someone told you that dating was a thing of the past? That finding your soulmate was just a simple mouth swab away? It might sound too good to be true, but in San Diego, California, a burgeoning biotech company claims it can do just that.

Through a series of personality tests, brain scans, and yes, DNA analysis, GeneticAlly can identify your biological soulmate.

Using a patented algorithm called DNADuo, your DNA will be compared to hundreds of thousands of other individuals in GeneticAlly's database. Their proprietary software then places your compatibility scores, from zero to one hundred, in a range of categories: Base Match. Silver. Gold. Platinum. Titanium. Three out of four Titanium Matches end up in committed relationships. So, what about the couples who score over that coveted ninety? Only four Diamond Matches have been found to date, and in a startling twist, one of them is a member of the GeneticAlly team. Specifically, the DNADuo inventor and lead scientist, Dr. River Peña. Peña, a thirty-five-year-old geneticist, started his research in the labs of the Salk Institute.

River Peña:
I wanted to see if I could find a common genetic factor in couples who described themselves as being in loving, long-term relationships for over two decades.

Natalie:
How many couples did you study in that first test?

River:
Three hundred.

Natalie:
And what did you find?

River:
In all of the couples who reported long-term relationship satisfaction, I found a compatibility pattern across two hundred genes.

Natalie voiceover:
But Dr. Peña and his team didn't stop there. A study of one thousand test subjects grew to over one hundred thousand, and the initial pattern of two hundred genes is now a patented assay of over thirty-five hundred.

Natalie:
So, humans have twenty thousand genes.

River:
Between twenty and twenty-five thousand, yes.

Natalie:
And your company has now found correlations between thirty-five hundred of those that lead to compatibility? That seems like a lot.

River:
It is. But think about it: Everything we become is encoded by our genes. The way we react to stimulus, the way we learn and grow. Thirty-five hundred is likely just the start.

Natalie voiceover:
GeneticAlly has plans to go public in May and hopes to have their DNADuo kits in retail and online stores by summer. With online dating revenue this year topping nine hundred million dollars in the U.S. alone, investors are lining up.

River:
Compatibility isn't limited to just romantic relationships. Imagine finding the caretaker who's most compatible with your children, or a doctor for your parents, the right management team to lead your business.

Natalie voiceover:
The sky's the limit. But back to that Diamond DNADuo score. In January, Jessica Davis, a thirty-year-old statistician, took the DNADuo test kit on a whim.

Jessica:
I'd completely forgotten about it until I got the message from GeneticAlly asking me to come in.

Natalie voiceover:
Jessica was Client 144326. Her match? Client 000001, Dr. River Peña.

Natalie:
What was the highest match you'd found up to that point?

River:
Ninety-three.

Natalie:
And what was your and Jessica's score?

River:
Ninety-eight.

Natalie voiceover:
A ninety-eight. That means that of the thirty-five hundred gene pairs that score compatibility, ninety-eight percent of them were found to be ideally compatible.

Natalie:
River, as the lead scientist, what was your initial reaction?

River:
Disbelief. We did a blood test to confirm.

Natalie:
And?

River:
Ninety-eight.

Natalie:
So, biologically, the two of you are compatible in almost every way? What's that like?

Jessica:
It's… hard to describe.

Natalie:
Is there attraction?

River:
[laughs] There's definitely attraction.

Natalie voiceover:
Attraction may be putting it mildly. Off-camera, crew members commented that it felt like there was something palpable between the pair.

Natalie:
So, what comes next for you two? Are you dating?

Jessica:
Let's just say… we're enjoying getting to know each other.

River:
[laughs] What she said.

/Cut to hosts/

Savannah Guthrie:
Is it hot in here or is it just me?

Natalie:
I was just going to say! I'm sweating.

Savannah:
GeneticAlly is set to launch widely in May. I have to admit, I think this could change the entire face of the e-dating industry.

Natalie:
Without a doubt.

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