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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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“Jessica!”

She jerked around at the sound of a trilling voice and turned to find a tall, thin blond woman waving her down. Dawn Porter: PTA President, Mother of the Year, Zero Gag Reflex, probably. Jess braced herself to feel like a shitty mom for at least five minutes.

“Dawn! Hey.” Jess winced in preemptive apology. “It's been a long day and—”

“Oh God, totally. I know you're—like, frazzled all the time. Poor thing. If I can just get one second? I wanted to check on the auction site you were going to build? The fundraiser for the new playground equipment?”

Crap
.

The site Jess had been working on when Juno threw up at school and needed to be picked up, then when a client had a last-minute shareholders meeting and needed her to spend twelve hours in LA, then when she'd been interrupted by a phone call from her mom asking for some help making rent.

The site Jess had then forgotten about until this second.
Good job, Jess.

“I'm totally on it, Dawn,” she said. “Just been a little slammed lately.”

“Ugh, I know, we are all so
busy
.” Dawn pressed a button on the key fob in her hand. The lights on the gleaming Porsche winked and the tailgate drifted open with a delicate chime. Hanging from Dawn's back seat were neat little organized totes, each monogrammed with her children's names—Hunter, Parker, Taylor—and words like
Snacks
and
Books
and
Car Fun!

In the trunk of Jess's car was a pair of badly tangled bedazzled cat leashes, a dozen mismatched grocery bags, a chain of tampons Juno had constructed while they waited with a flat tire, and at least thirty-two other items she fully intended to take inside… someday.

Dawn placed the packet of school papers in one pouch, moving some dry cleaning on a hook out of the way, then pressed the key fob again to close the hatch with a whisper.

She turned back to Jess. “I only ask because Kyle—you've met my husband, Kyle?” She gestured to a man chatting with two other dads across the parking lot. “Anyway, he said he could have one of the paralegals down at Porter, Aaron, and Kim whip something up. It wouldn't be a problem—they love helping out, and every time I look at you, I think, ‘Poor Jessica is just running herself ragged!' ”

Her defensiveness rocketed out: “I've got it.”

Dawn tilted her head, surprised by the force of this reaction, and Jess wanted to reel the words back in. It had required some pretty intense blending with her drugstore foundation stick to get the dark circles under her eyes to disappear this morning, and she was sure the parking lot's sodium lights weren't her
best
lighting. Today had been hellacious, and the last thing Jess wanted was to become the subject of Mom Gossip. She thought of the dozens of things she could do with that time because, really, what did she care who built the stupid site?

Because I want to be a good mom
, she thought.
I want to be present for Juno, even if some days I feel like I'm failing.

“Really,” Jess assured her. “It's nearly finished.” Thank God. “I should have something for you soon.”

“Well. That's great then! I'll let the board know so they stop fussing at me!”

“Great,” Jess repeated as Dawn popped into the passenger side of her car. “Great.”

“I'M HIDING IN
the bathroom, crying on the toilet,” she said when Fizzy answered an hour later.

Jess's friend barked out a laugh and an “Aww, I love it when you ignore boundaries. Usually that's my wheelhouse.”

“I had a terrible day.” Jess swiped a hand across her nose. “I'm lonely. And I feel like such an asshole complaining, but you're always going to be a bigger asshole than I am, so I can complain to you.”

“I swear, Jessica, you know just what to say to make my heart melt.” The funny thing was, Fizzy meant it. “Let me have it.”

Jess closed her eyes, leaning back against the water tank. “It all seems like such little stuff. After we got off the phone this morning, my entire day fell apart. Pigeon escaped, my blender blew up all over my shirt, we were running late. I had a meeting at Jennings Grocery, but Americano stole my parking spot—”

“You saw Americano in the wild?”

“I did,” she said. “He continues to be terrible. Then my big meeting went horribly, and I had to jet to the school for this science-art thing, and I sat in the back and just stared at all of these happily married couples who were seeing each other at the end of the day, and I swear to God, Fizz, I've never felt so lonely in my entire life. And then PTA Dawn reminded me to finish the fundraiser website, and I just did but it's probably a holy mess and I cannot find a bone in me that cares.”

Before Fizzy could speak, Jess added, “And don't say anything, because I know how this sounds—like ‘poor me, and I'm all alone.' I
know
I'm lucky. I have the best kid, and I have Nana and Pops here to help me whenever I need them. I have you—”

“Cutting in now,” Fizzy said. “Yes, you have Nana and Pops, you have a great kid, you have me. I am here for you every day, for
forever, but please, Jess. It isn't the same. You're talking about wanting to have someone to come home to, to talk to, and yeah—to get naked with. It isn't selfish to want that. You aren't somehow putting Juno second by occasionally putting your needs first. Juno needs a happy mom.”

“It isn't only that,” Jess said quietly. “Do I worry about introducing Juno to a man someday? Yes, completely. But the idea of putting myself out there is honestly more exhausting than anything. I had to change my shirt twice this morning for the meeting, first for the smoothie explosion, and second when I drooled a glob of toothpaste on my chest.”

“Reason number one why I always brush my teeth naked,” Fizzy joked, and Jess laughed. “And PS? You probably looked straight-up gorgeous, regardless of what you think.”

“Thank you—”

“I'm serious,” Fizzy pressed. “Listen to me. You're so beautiful, it's stupid. Your eyes? Like, I try to describe that blue in books, and it just sounds cliché. You have the cutest little bod, and literally the best lips. And for free! People usually have to pay for mouths like that.”

Jess laughed through a sob.

“If I didn't know you were such a head case, I'd ask you out myself.”

“You see me through that lens because you love me,” Jess said, chin wobbling. “Dating in our thirties is different. It requires us to get our shit together, and most days just being a mom and hustling my ass off to keep my head above water takes everything I've got. Where am I going to find the time and energy to hunt for a good
guy when most of the dudes on Tinder think a quick drink earns them sex?”

Jess could practically hear Fizzy's gape on the other end of the line. “We just went to a presentation at a company that asks you to spit in a vial and they'll hand over a list of potential
soulmates
.” She enunciated the last word so it stretched for three long syllables. “No one is asking you to
hunt
.”

“Even the DNADuo still requires dating!” Jess told her, laughing. “It's not like I get a name and we elope! There's still trial and error.”

“You could specify only high-level matches,” Fizzy argued. “You don't have to do what I'm doing and take whatever comes your way. Hell, tell them you only want matches of seventy or higher. What do you have to lose?” She paused, and then added more gently, “Put yourself first tonight, Jessie. Just for ten minutes. Consider it an early B-day present for the big Three-Oh.”

“Don't remind me.”

Fizzy laughed. “You don't have to answer any of the matches if you change your mind, but for tonight, just imagine a world where you find someone who's perfect for you, and is there for you, and is the head you can lean yours against at the end of the day.”

When they hung up, Jess's eyes landed on the DNADuo box Fizzy had pushed into her hands as they'd left GeneticAlly.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she reached for the box, tore it open, spit into the vial, sealed the whole thing in the enclosed envelope, and walked it out to the mailbox.

FIVE

J
ESS ADJUSTED THE
elastic strap beneath her chin. Was this what thirty felt like? Spending her birthday in a coffee shop with a madwoman who would get the entire room to belt “Happy Birthday” if Jess tried to take off this sparkly birthday hat?

Fizzy looked up abruptly. “You goblin. Leave the hat alone.”

“It's itchy! Tell me about your date with Aiden B.”

Fizzy waved this off, already over it. “He lives with his sister.”

“Is that an automatic disqualification?”

“I mean, they live together as in they share a bedroom.” She shook her head, clearly not wanting Jess to ask more. “It's uncharted territory for me. I'm unwilling to explore what it means.”

Jess laughed. “Fair enough. If I remember, he was only a score of, what? Thirteen? What about…?” She was blanking on the other guy's name.

“Antonio?” Fizzy prompted. “He was hot.”

“He was the twenty-one?”

“Yeah. We had dinner, we had sex.” Fizzy shrugged, summarizing. “We won't be seeing each other again, though.” As if she remembered something, she picked up her notebook and jotted down a couple of words.

“What did you just write down?”

Fizzy's lip curled. “Dick tattoo.”

Jess's curled, too. “What? No.”

“Also,” Fizzy said, “he wanted me to talk dirty, so I did, but apparently I went too dirty.”

Jess burst out laughing again. “You went too dirty for a guy with a dick tattoo? Felicity Chen, my God.” She lifted her coffee to her lips. “But to be fair, you're setting yourself up for this. Why are you casting the net so wide? Just filter the results. I don't get it.”

Fizzy got that look she had when she was about to get real intense. “Listen. Tinder is the biggest dating app in the world for a reason. Sometimes people just want to have fun. The benefit here is that we get to choose what level of investment we want, and right now, for me, that level is hovering somewhere around
sex with people I don't feel obligated to call again
.” She lifted her chin. “I'm testing the waters without all the pressure of forever.”

Holding up her hands in defense, Jess said, “I'm not judging. Write this dissertation and mail it to Americano.”

Fizzy gave her a casual middle finger. “Anyway, I've got a date with a twenty-three named Ted tomorrow—who is himself only twenty-one—and on Saturday I'm having dinner with a thirty-one named Ralph.”

“Thirty-one? Wow, that's a Silver. Moving up in the world.”

Fizzy opened her mouth to reply when, on the table between them, a phone delivered a telltale chime.

Jess assumed it was another mediocre compatibility score hitting Fizzy's inbox, and Fizzy seemed to assume the same, reaching for her phone—

So it took them both a second to register that the sound had actually come from Jess's phone… and it took Jess another to remember she'd sent her “sample” away for analysis.

Betrayal widened every one of Fizzy's features. “
Jessica Davis
. I'm over here telling you about dick tattoos and you don't even tell me you sent your spit!”

Jess barked out an uncomfortable laugh. “I can explain!”

“You'd better!”

She was unable to control her bubbling laughter. Fizzy looked genuinely furious in a mildly cartoonish way. “It was last Thursday, remember? I called you from the toilet. On impulse, I put it in the mail after we hung up, downloaded the app and filled out the basic info, and then totally spaced on it.”

Fizzy picked up Jess's phone, tapping it awake with a punitive jab of her index finger. Entering the passcode, she stared in confusion down at the screen while Jess stared with similar confusion at her. “I don't remember giving you my passcode.”

“Juno's birthday. You should choose a more secure code. Never know what brand of crazy can get into your phone.”

Jess raised a wry eyebrow. “You don't say.”

Fizzy turned the screen to face her. “It's red. What does that mean?”

“What's red?” Jess's amusement at the situation was fading, quickly replaced by the realization that her DNADuo app had just pinged her with an alert.

She'd excluded matches below seventy percent.

She had a Platinum or higher match.

She suddenly understood Fizzy's desire to dip a toe in the soulmate waters rather than dive headfirst. Jess wasn't ready. She wasn't even sure she was curious.

“The thing,” Fizzy said, pointing aggressively. “The little—circle notification thing over the app icon that means you have a result!”

The prospect of making a decision based on a numerical score made Jess immediately tired. She took her phone back, tempted to delete the app along with whatever impulse had told her to spit in that vial in the first place. “Is red bad?”

“All of mine are green,” Fizzy explained. “Whether it's a compatibility score of twelve or thirty-one, the match notifications have been green.”

Okay, if the match notifications were green, at least Jess knew a potential soulmate wasn't just casually hanging out in her inbox. “Might I suggest your intensity about this is now at an eleven?”

Fizzy shot back: “To my romance-loving heart, this app is the most fascinating game ever. Humor me.”

“Most likely it means there was something wrong with my sample,” Jess said, relief expanding in her. “I did it after I brushed my teeth, and it says to wait an hour after eating or drinking anything before spitting.” She put her phone back on the table, screen-side down. “I'll deal with it later.”

She should've known better. “Uh. Nope.” Fizzy immediately handed the phone back to her. “I want to know what red means.”

“It's my birthday, and I can ignore it if I want to.”

Fizzy shook her head. “What's a better birthday gift than a soulmate?”

With a sigh, Jess clicked on the DNADuo icon. No notifications under the tab labeled Compatibility Scores, but she did have a small red bubble indicating a new message. Jess's eyes quickly scanned the words, but her brain was slow to process them. Starting over, Jess read it slowly, word by word, even though there were only eight of them:
Please call our office at your earliest convenience.

“What does it say?”

Jess handed the phone over. “It's from GeneticAlly. I need to call them at my earliest convenience. That's weird. Isn't that weird? Like, why not just tell me another sample kit is required?”

Fizzy read it, frowning. “They sent it in your app inbox, so you can reply, right? Let's just ask what this is about.” Instead of handing the phone back, she did it herself, dictating each word as she typed. “May—I—ask—what—this—is—concerning?” Fizzy stared at the screen, and after only a few seconds, her brows shot up excitedly. “Someone's typing back!”

Meanwhile, Jess's stomach was crawling into her throat. She already hated how intense it all felt; this was way too much investment and expectation for something she'd done on impulse in a crappy mood. “I'm sure it's just a sample thing, just—”

“Shh.”

“Fizz,” Jess said, “just give me my phone. I don't care about any of—”

Fizzy held up a hand. “They're typ—Oh.” Her brows furrowed. “Okay, you're right. This is weird.”

She handed the phone back, and Jess's stomach twisted as she read the note.

Do you mind coming in?
it said.
We'll send a car.

THEY'D SEND A
car
?

Good grief.

Jess managed to find about a thousand important things she needed to do immediately. She made a DMV appointment to renew her license, scheduled her and Juno's annual physical exams and dentist appointments. She went for a run; she took a long shower. She even bought herself a new sweater as a birthday indulgence. She had lunch with Nana and Pops, cleaned her apartment, folded every piece of laundry she could find, picked up Juno from school, and read almost an entire Judy Blume novel with her before Juno urged Jess to leave the apartment so Nana and Pops could come over and get the surprise party ready.

Surprise!

With two hours to kill and the notification like a splinter in her thumb, Jess gave up and called Lisa Addams.

The GeneticAlly building was dark from the outside, but a light in the lobby flickered on as the town car pulled up to the curb. Lisa emerged, walking briskly out and opening the car door.

“Jessica,” she said breathlessly. “Thanks for coming in on such short notice.”

Even in the dusk, Jess spotted the flush on Lisa's cheeks, the
way her hairline seemed just the slightest bit sweaty. She tumbled one more tick down the Uneasy Scale.

“No problem. I only have about an hour, though.”

“Of course. Come on in.”

Lisa turned, leading them into the empty building. None of this seemed like normal protocol, which made Jess feel like she'd swallowed battery acid. “I have to admit I'm really confused about why this is so urgent.”

“I'll explain everything once we're inside.”

Jess followed her through the double doors and down the long hallway she'd walked the last time she was here. Everyone was clearly done for the day; the offices were dark and vacant in that way that made even innocuous spaces seem creepy.

In the conference room, Lisa gestured to six people seated around a large table. River wasn't among them.

“Jessica, I'd like to introduce you to our executive team.”

Their what now?

“This is David Morris, the principal investigator in charge of the original research, and the CEO of GeneticAlly.”

A man to her right stood, stretching out his hand, and Jess recognized him as the person she'd met after overhearing River call her “entirely average.”

“Jessica. It's so great to see you again.”

“You too.” She wiped her palm on her pants before shaking. And then it sank in: Original research. CEO. “Right. I guess I didn't realize who I was meeting in the hall the other day.”

He laughed a big, open-mouthed laugh. “Well, it feels a little douchey to say, ‘I'm CEO David Morris.' ”

“Maybe,” Jess said, “but you've earned the right.”

“I'm friends with Alan Timberland over at Genentech,” he said, still smiling, “and he's mentioned some analytics help he had. After looking at your intake information from the other day, I put two and two together and realized you're the brain behind their new high-throughput screening algorithms.”

Jess was a wine bottle, slowly uncorked.
Oh, this is about data?
Had GeneticAlly brought her here to talk about algorithms?

“Alan's great,” she said carefully. At the prospect that she was here for consulting, not because she had lemur DNA, the nausea slowly cleared.

Lisa gestured to an overly tanned man to David's left. “Brandon Butkis is our head of marketing.”

Another hand closed around Jess's, another face gave her an urgent, vibrating smile. All she could see was blindingly white capped teeth.

After Jess had shaken every hand in the room, Lisa gestured for her to sit down in the direct center seat at the table.

“It's probably unexpected to walk into a full room like this,” Lisa started.

“A little,” Jess agreed, “but I know how important it is to get data organized, and how hard it is to do that when the data set is as big as yours.”

David and Brandon exchanged a quick look. Lisa's smile slipped for only a second, but Jess logged it. “That's definitely true. I'm sure you know that better than anyone.”

A man—Jess thought his name was Sanjeev—on the other side of the table caught Lisa's attention. “Is Peña coming in for this?”

“He'll be here,” Lisa said, and then turned to Jess. “Sorry to make you wait, Jessica.”

“Jess is fine,” she said, adding unnecessarily, “I mean, calling me Jess is fine.” Another awkward pause. “I wasn't referring to myself in the third person.”

After some courtesy laughter, the room fell into a pin-drop silence. It seemed that everyone but Jess knew what this was all about, but no one could tell her until River had arrived. Unfortunately, no one knew where he was (“He said he was on his way up from his office ten minutes ago,” Sanjeev told the throat-clearing, paper-shuffling table).

Nor could anyone think of something to say. So of course, her mouth opened, and words tumbled out. “You all must be very excited for the launch.”

Heads bobbed around the table, and Brandon Butkis delivered an enthusiastic “Very!”

“Have you all given samples as well?” she asked.

There was a strange exchange of looks around the table before David said carefully, “We have, yes.”

Jess was just about to break and ask for some bloody information when the door burst open and River made a grand entrance much like his irritating, sweeping arrivals at Twiggs. “I'm here. What's up?”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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