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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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TWENTY

T
HE DAY HAD
been so chaotic that it didn't occur to Jess to be anxious about dinner with River's sisters until the two of them were literally walking into the restaurant. But just outside the arched glass doors, her feet became glued to the pavement and she took a few steps away, pressing herself to the side of the building.

“Oh, shit.” Leaning back, Jess stared up at the sky, incandescent blue in twilight. Today had been fine—better than fine, it went perfectly—so why was she freaking out?

River kept walking, looking back only when he noticed she was no longer next to him. He returned to her. “Everything okay?”

“I'm meeting your family.”

He smiled patiently and tucked a hand into the pocket of his perfectly tailored pants. Perfect pants, perfect shirt, perfect face. Perfectly at ease waiting for her panic to subside.

People passed on the sidewalk, and cars inched along Fifth, turning down G Street. “I've never done this before,” Jess confessed. A hot flush crawled up her neck. “Like, met someone's
family. Alec and I were together while we were both at school, and his family was from Florida. I never met them.”

River's eyes searched her face, lashes brushing his cheeks with every amused blink. Finally, he crowded into her space, hands on her waist. “I promise this will be much more painful for me than for you.”

“It's easy to say that now, when your awkward years are behind you.” She pointed to her forehead. “Don't you see my stress pimple?”

“Nope, sorry, I only see pretty.” He leaned in, settled his mouth on hers for a sweet kiss. “You three are going to have fun at my expense, and then we'll go back to my place and maybe actually make it to my bed this time.”

“Sir, are you bribing me with mind-bending sex?”

He laughed, his gaze glimmering in the dim light. The longer she stared, the more reassured she was. He communicated so much with those eyes. Reassurance, sure, but also attraction, mirth, and something else—something that looked a lot like adoration.

“I like you a lot, Jessica Marie,” he said quietly.

A fist wrapped around her heart. “I like you, too.”

“And if it makes you feel better,” he said, “I've never introduced a girlfriend to my family, either.” River reached down, threaded their fingers together, and led her inside.

The restaurant was wide open and glaringly loud, pop music pumping out of speakers and the sounds of laughter and conversation throbbing from the walls. With high ceilings and a bar in the center of the room, the decor was eclectic and trendy. Couches and armchairs formed a funky mix of seating configurations, and lights
fashioned from glass globes, vases, and mason jars swung from the ceiling by thick, bristly rope. A waifish hostess led them across planked wooden floors to a table situated beneath a giant metal print emblazoned
EAT
.

Two women sitting side by side glanced up from their cocktails as Jess and River approached. The resemblance was undeniable. One had long dark hair, the ends cut blunt, bangs razor-straight and smooth as gloss under the bright lights. The other was a few years younger, with curly hair that'd been highlighted with a coppery red. Both women shared River's golden-brown eyes, perfect olive skin, and heart-shaped mouth. The Peña family genes were a wonder.

Shouting over each other, they stood, wrapping River in a tight group hug before pulling back to fuss at him simultaneously.

“Your hair is so long!”

“I'm telling Mom, you're so skinny. Your pants look like trash bags!”

Jess followed their attention to his expensive charcoal trousers, ironed to smooth perfection. They… did not look like trash bags, but Jess appreciated the sisterly ribbing anyway. Clearly the entire family could step into and out of the pages of a fashion magazine comfortably.

River managed to extract himself, reaching up to smooth his ruffled hair. He had lipstick on each cheek—which both women tried to smudge away.

“Jess, these are my obnoxious sisters, Natalia and Pilar. Please don't believe anything they tell you.”

The older one—Natalia—wrapped Jess in a tight hug. “Holy
crap, you are so pretty.” She turned to her sister. “Isn't she so pretty?”

“Way too pretty for him,” Pilar said, pulling Jess in for a hug of her own.

“It's nice to meet you. River's told me so much about you.”

Natalia glanced warily at her brother. “I'm sure he has.”

They sat down, ordered cocktails for Jess and River and a few appetizers to share. Jess learned that their mom was a pharmacist, and their dad sold insurance. Natalia was married and a research analyst in Palo Alto; Pilar had recently gone back to school to be a nurse and lived with her girlfriend in Oakland. It was clear they adored their brother. But as River had promised, they loved giving him shit.

“So.” Natalia rested her chin in her hand. “I hear you two didn't exactly get along before all this.”

Jess glanced at River, passing this one off to him. But then questions of her own bubbled to the surface. Did they know about the money? How honest was she supposed to be here?

River eyed Natalia across the table. “My not-so-subtle sister is trying to ask if I was the asshole.”

They both grinned, and Jess perked up. “Oh, he definitely was.”


Hey
,” he said. “I wasn't that bad.”

Jess turned in her seat to face him. “You called me ‘entirely average.' ”

Pilar let out a low whistle. “Child, are you blind?”

“Not to her face!” he corrected, and turned back to Jess. “And in my defense, the first time you spoke to me, you—”

“Don't do it,” Pilar whispered, laughing. “Trust me.”

“—were wearing an old baggy sweatshirt.”

They all stared blankly at him. River finally exhaled. “I was the asshole.”

Pilar lifted her chin. “Jess, can I tell you an important family secret?”

“If I left here without any, I would be devastated.”

She laughed. “I get that my brother looks like this now, but that wasn't always true. Nitpicking other people's clothing choices would have been the least of his worries.”

“He said it,” Jess said, “but I find it hard to believe.”

Pilar bent, scrolling through her phone, quickly locating what she wanted… almost as if she'd put it there for easy access. Jess stared when Pilar turned the screen to face her. “Stop it.” She looked at River and then back at the photo. “That isn't you.”

A scrawny kid with a bowl haircut and headgear looked out from Pilar's phone. Searching for any resemblance to her boyfriend, she stared at it long enough for River to laughingly shove the phone away.

“Until he was twenty-one, he had no game to speak of,” Pilar said.

River laughed. “It's true. But I managed.”

“Yeah, you did,” Natalia said. “I remember in high school there was this football player who was constantly bothering him. Anthony something. River tutored half the class to bring up the curve. Anthony failed and was kicked off the team.”

“That's called problem solving,” River mumbled into his glass.

“He did the same thing when I ran against Nikki Ruthers for student council,” Pilar said. “He offered group tutoring sessions to everyone who voted for me. I won by a landslide.”

River thoughtfully selected a piece of prosciutto-wrapped grilled endive from a plate. “Longest summer of my life.”

“Okay, that's actually really sweet,” Jess said, taking his hand under the table and giving it a little squeeze.

“I know it's hard to imagine with his grumbly exterior, but he was the softest little boy.” Natalia put her hand on Pilar's arm. “Do you remember the way he followed Abuela around?”

Pilar's face crumpled into a dramatic tender sob. “And watched her stories with her!”

“Oh man, I did not anticipate this one coming up,” River said.

“I'm two years older than River,” Natalia told Jess, “and Pilar is a year older than me, so he was like our baby, too. Our parents both worked full-time, and back then there's no way they could have afforded summer camp for all three kids, so our summers were spent with Abuela. River was her little helper, and every afternoon they would sit together and watch soap operas.”

River examined the appetizers like they were data sets.

“Closet soap opera fan?” Jess said. “We all have a secret identity, but this? It would be easier to believe you were an assassin.”

“They're just being dramatic,” he said, and then laughed at her, murmuring, “Assassin? Really?”

“Don't listen to him, Jess,” Natalia said. “He watched so many of them and got in deep. I thought he'd grow up to be a telenovela star or something, but the whole DNA-love thing makes sense when you think about it.”

Jess turned to look at him and found him watching her with such tender amusement it was almost like he'd just wrapped his arms around her right at the table.

“The DNA-love thing does make sense when you think about it,” she agreed quietly.

THEIR HANDS ENTWINED
on the drive to his place, both resting on his thigh, and the Audi's seat warmers made Jess feel like she was melting into a pile of happy goo.

“That was fun,” she mumbled, full of fantastic food and just past tipsy from all the wine.

“Natalia texted me already that they both adored you and if I mess this up, they'll neuter me.”

Jess grimaced. “Please don't mess it up. You have such a big, beautiful—”

River turned and smirked at her.

“Personality,” she finished, grinning back. “And being neutered would be kind of a downer.”

“I'm glad you have such a fondness for my personality,” he said, turning his attention forward again.

“A soft spot, one might even say,” she joked.

He looked at her again, playfully scandalized. “How much wine did you have, woman?”

“The perfect amount.”

They'd stayed at the restaurant too late, eating and drinking, and laughing harder than Jess had in years. She'd been comfortable with his sisters almost the way she was with Fizzy; the way
they spoke over each other and didn't take themselves too seriously had felt like sitting down to dinner with old friends, rather than people she was meeting for the first time. And right now, contentment flowed, warm and honeyed, through her. Nana Jo was going to be okay; Juno was thriving. Fizzy was falling for someone, and for the first time in her life Jess had money and a sense of security, and a person of her own. She turned and stared at the side of River's face.

“I like you.”

“I like you, too.” He squeezed her hand. “Very, very much.”

Was this what joy felt like? Safety?

She nodded toward his house as they neared. “Are we gonna get freaky?”

“Without a doubt.” He laughed, pulling into his driveway and leaning over to kiss her after he put the car in park.

Inside, River turned on a lamp in the spacious living room, turned another light on in the kitchen, and excused himself to get them each a glass of water. Jess texted Naomi's mom to check in on her kid, pleasantly surprised to hear that Juno was having the time of her life.

Setting her phone down, she turned around on the couch to watch River as he futzed in the kitchen. “I don't know what to do with myself,” she said. “Nobody needs me right now.”

River came back with two glasses, set them on the side table, and then crawled over her on the couch. His mouth moved from her neck up to her lips. “I do.”

And then he pulled back and smiled, like maybe he was just
teasing, but Jess saw the sincerity in his expression. Her own fondness rose to the surface, the quiet thrumming of infatuation.

She was starting to need him, too.

Her phone was trapped beneath her back, and she reached for it, tossing it to the floor. Tracking it with his eyes, River asked, “How's Juno doing?”

“Good. Naomi's mom says they're watching a movie out by the pool.”

“Things are good with her friends, then?”

Jess lifted a shoulder. “Some days one of them is mean or mad or tired and it creates a little drama tornado that takes a week to get over. I'm learning it's best if the moms stay out of it. Kids argue. Sometimes it hits our own buttons, and we make it into more than it needs to be.”

He hummed at this, braced over her on his elbows and playing with the ends of her hair. It was still curled from the interview that morning, and he absently looped a strand around his finger. “I bet it's hard to not get overprotective sometimes. I felt that way when she talked about it on the drive to ballet, and I'm only just getting to know her.”

Jess stretched up, kissing him for that. And then she remembered something. “I can't get over the idea of you being obsessed with soap operas. No wonder you and Fizzy get along.”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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ads

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