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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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A tangible energy filled the room. Everyone sat up straighter. Every eye followed him as he moved to his seat. Yes, he was great to look at, but there seemed to be more to the weight of their attention, like the low, humming vibration of hero worship.

River's gaze passed over the group, sweeping past Jess before pausing and jerking back to her face. “Why's she here?”

“Have a seat, Riv,” Lisa said, then turned to a petite Asian woman to her right. “Tiff? Do you want to hand out the data?”

Data. Yes. Great. Jess's shoulders eased, and she took a sheet when the stack came around.

The handout contained much less information than Jess would need to give useful feedback on a commercial undertaking of this scale. Two client IDs were listed at the top left and a red circle around a number in the upper right corner. Ninety-eight. Beneath was a table with a simple summary of a data set: variable names, means, deviations, and P values with many, many zeroes after the decimal.

There was a highly significant finding in this data; the urgency of this meeting was becoming clear.

River released a breath that sounded like it'd been punched out of him.

“Wow,” Jess said. “Ninety-eight. Is that a compatibility score? I realize I'm new to this, but that's huge, right?” She flipped back to her memory of Lisa's presentation. “Diamond?”

The nervous energy at the table doubled; all but one head nodded. River was still staring at the piece of paper.

“Yes,” Lisa said, and her smile was so intense the skin had grown tight around her eyes. “The highest we've seen in the DNADuo is ninety-three.”

“Okay, so are we asking about a way to confirm this interaction?” Jess leaned in, looking at the variables. “Without the raw
data, I can only guess, but it looks like you've customized your stats using an N-type analysis—which is exactly what I would have used. But I'm sure you know the biggest problem with this is that the bounds we would normally use for a typical algorithm become less effective. Though”—she chuckled—“looking at this P value, I'm guessing with this pair the interactions are everywhere, even with stricter bounds. I could create a non-Euclidean metric, something like a multidimensional data structure—like a k-d tree or cover tree…” She trailed off, looking up. No one was nodding excitedly; no one was jumping in to brainstorm. Maybe there wasn't another statistician in the room. “I'm more than happy to dig into your post hoc analyses, though with the number of genes in your array, I might need a couple weeks.”

Self-conscious now, she put the packet down on the table, smoothing it with her left hand. The room had grown so quiet, the sound of her palm over paper seemed to echo around them. But no one else was actually looking at their handout, or even seemed to be listening. They were all looking at River.

And when Jess looked at him, at the raw shock in his expression, a current of electricity ran through her, almost like she'd just touched a live wire.

He cleared his throat and turned to Tiffany. “Tiff, did you look through the raw data?”

She nodded, but she was staring at David, who was exchanging another heavy look with Brandon. The room felt deeply, meaningfully silent, and Jess realized she was missing an important context for the gravity here.

Awareness sank as quickly as a weight in water. Jess glanced down again at the client information.

Client 144326.

Client 000001.

Oh, God.

“Um… who is client number one?”

River cleared his throat; he'd gone sheet white and gripped the paper in two hands. “Me.”

Oh
. Well, Jesus Christ, no wonder he wanted to confirm the analysis. A Diamond Match for the original scientist on the project was huge news, especially this close to launch.

“Okay, I get it.” Jess took a deep breath, leaning back, ready to get to work. “How can I help?”

River looked at Lisa then, his eyes heavy with the obvious question. Literally everyone else in the room was staring at him, waiting for him to say it:
Have we confirmed the assay? Have we replicated the finding with a backup sample?

But that wasn't what he asked. In a low, shaky voice, River murmured, “Who is 1-4-4-3-2-6?”

Every head swung Jess's way and—

When she realized what was going on, why they were all there, why they had sent a car, why they hadn't made her sign an NDA for data purposes, why River hadn't known she would be there, and why everyone else was looking at Jess with that fevered, vibrating force in their expressions, it felt a little like falling off a curb, except she was sitting.

It was genuinely so absurd she started laughing.

Ninety-eight!

“Oh.” Jess was still laughing as she stood on shaky legs. Her heartbeat was a pulsating cacophony in her ears. “I'm not here to advise on your statistics.”

Ninety-eight. P values with at least ten zeroes after the decimal.
Her brain scratched around, looking for a way out of this.

“Jess—” Lisa began.

“This isn't right,” Jess cut her off, fumbling for her purse.

“We ran the data through all of our standard analysis programs,” Tiffany added quietly.

“No, I mean I'm sure your stats are—” Jess started, but realized she couldn't finish the sentence because it would be a lie. Clearly their statistics were garbage and they were all delusional. And unfortunately, Jess hadn't driven herself here. “I can call someone to come pick me up.”

Jess glanced at River—who was already watching her with wild, dark eyes—and then at surfer-chic Lisa, and Toothy Brandon, and Jeff Goldblum's Benedict Cumberbatch, and every other person in the room who'd also never dealt with this particular situation. “It was so nice meeting everyone. Thanks so much for having me. Sorry for the ramble about N-type analyses.”

She turned, opening the door with a hand she wasn't all that sure was going to cooperate, and practically sprinted back the way she came.

SIX

J
ESS'S HANDS WERE
shaking so uncontrollably that, as she walked, she could barely type out a text plea to Pops to come pick her up with the address of the building. Somehow the hall had stretched; it took her a century to get to the elevator, and when she pushed the button, she heard its slow grind up from the bottom floor.

Feet jogged down the hall. They didn't sound like Lisa's heels, and yeah—when Jess looked up, she saw River making his way toward her.

“Jessica,” he said, holding up a hand. “Hold on a second.”

Was he serious? Jess turned and continued toward the door labeled
EXIT
, pushing into the stairwell. Ten hurried steps down before the door clanged shut behind her; the sound was so jarring it actually made her duck. Half a flight above, the door flew open again. Footsteps tap-tap-tapped down toward her, and Jess accelerated, jogging down to the first level and emerging into the lobby.

River managed to get out only a patient, echoing “Jessica, wait” before the lobby stairwell door sealed shut.

It didn't matter; he would invariably catch her outside. Because although Pops had replied that he was out getting the cake and could get there quickly, it wasn't like he could drive to La Jolla in three minutes. At least outside she could breathe a precious handful of seconds of fresh air, could think without the pressure of everyone's stunned attention on her. What were they thinking, dropping something so personal in a room full of strangers?

Wrapping her arms around her midsection, Jess paced the sidewalk in front of the building, waiting. When she heard River emerge, she expected him to start talking right away, but he didn't. He approached her slowly, cautiously, and came to a stop about ten feet away.

For maybe three seconds, Jess liked him for giving her space. But then she remembered that he wasn't usually so considerate… and he was supposedly her
soulmate
.

The absurdity of that meeting finally hit her like a slap, and she coughed out an overwhelmed laugh. “Oh my God. What just happened?”

He spoke through the chilly quiet. “It was a surprise to me, too.”

His words felt like an echo between them. They surprised
him
? “How? You—you know everyone in that room. Why would they tell you like that?” she asked. “Why would they have everyone there, like some kind of a reality show?”

“I can only assume they wanted us all to have a conversation about how to handle it.”

“ ‘Handle it'?” she repeated. “You really are dead inside, aren't you?”

“I meant handle for the company. I'm sure it's occurred to you that the optics of one of the founders having the highest recorded compatibility score is both fantastic and fraught, from a marketing perspective.”

“Any woman would be lucky to hear these words from her”—Jess used finger quotes—“ ‘biological soulmate.' ”

He exhaled slowly. “I also assume they were worried that if they told you remotely, you wouldn't come in.” River shrugged, sliding one hand into his trouser pocket. “Sanjeev—the head of assay development—is a close friend. I'd mentioned our run-in downtown to him, and your blowing up at me—”

“My ‘
blowing up'
at you?”

“—and word probably spread when the result came in and your name was associated.”

“ ‘Associated'?” Unproductive, but the only thing she could focus on was the way he spoke like he was reading aloud from a textbook. God, Siri carried on a more familiar conversation.

“I'm sorry that we have to consider the business implications of all of this,” River said, “but I assume you understand this is a really big deal, on several levels.”

Jess stared at him, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was allowing for at least one of these levels being human emotion. “Uh, yeah, I get that. But
we
don't have to consider anything. I mean—there's no way, River. We both know it's an error, right? Or if not an error, that the compatibility paradigm doesn't apply to us.”

“Why is it your first assumption that the technology is wrong?”

“Why isn't it yours?”

He laughed dryly, looking past her. “The DNADuo has been validated thousands of times. If we got scores of ninety-eight all the time, I'd be more skeptical.”

“I can't imagine being
less
skeptical. Every thought in here”—Jess pointed to her head—“is either ‘LOL no' or ‘Surely you jest.' ” She paused, taking him in. “How can you look at me with a straight face right now?”

He reached up, running a hand through his hair. “Biological compatibility is independent of whether or not we like each other.”

A horrified laugh ripped out of her. “Is that the company slogan or your best pickup line?”

“Listen, I'm not—” River broke off, exhaling a long, slow breath. “How do we proceed?”

“I'm not even sure what that means, ‘proceed.' ” Jess hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “I'm going to head home.”

“It means we see if the science has made an accurate prediction.”

“You're client number
one
,” she reminded him. “If we're having this conversation, I'm guessing you're single and none of your other matches worked out, either. Let's assume this one will follow that trajectory.”

“You're my first,” he said matter-of-factly, adding, in response to her baffled expression, “I haven't had any other matches. I set stringent criteria.”

“How—what does that even mean?”

River took a cautious step closer. “I selected to see only Diamond Matches.”

Jess maintained eye contact with him for five… ten… fifteen seconds. His gaze was steady, unblinking, and rational, and an abrupt thought crashed into her mind:
I bet he's good at everything he sets his mind to. What if, just for one minute, I let myself imagine that this is real? What then?

His eyes dipped briefly to her mouth, and Jess had the feeling he was asking himself the same question. Her thoughts were unexpectedly hijacked by a flashing image of him staring down at her, shirtless, watching her reaction to the pressure of his hand between her legs.

Jess had to blink—hard—to clear the image away. “Why would you set your criteria that strict?”

She knew her reasons, but what about his? A romantic soul would say that they were only interested in true love, but River's beat of hesitation told her his answer was grounded in something much more logical. “Initially because the goal wasn't to find myself a partner,” he said. “It's been a protracted longitudinal study, and we've all been focused on getting to this point. I stopped thinking about my own client information a long time ago.”

It wasn't the worst answer; Jess could understand how much focus it took to keep a business afloat, let alone one with employees. This all just seemed completely impossible to her.

She heard Pops's old clunker turning into the parking lot, and River's angular face was briefly illuminated by the headlights. His guarded scowl made his profile aggravatingly more handsome.

Something in her expression must have softened, because he took a few steps closer. “Let's talk about it some more,” he said. “It doesn't have to be tonight.”

“I'll think about it.”

“It's exciting,” he said quietly. “Isn't it?”

If she could only make herself believe this result, learning to tolerate his face for the sake of science wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, would it?

“I guess.”

River gave her a shy smile that hit her like a thunderbolt. “And the timing couldn't be better for launch.”

HALFWAY THROUGH HER
birthday dinner, Jess's phone chimed. It wasn't the DNADuo app—she'd deleted that thing as soon as they pulled away from the curb outside GeneticAlly—it was her work email. Normally she wouldn't check until morning, but she'd been stewing all day and there'd been crickets from Jennings Grocery. So while Juno regaled Nana and Pops with a dramatic reenactment of Cole Mason getting his penis stuck in his zipper at school, Jess covertly reached for her phone.

Ms. Jessica Davis,

This is a formal notification that we are terminating your contract as detailed in Appendix IV. The remaining balance owed of $725.25 for STATISTICAL FORMULA + MARKETING ALGORITHM will be direct-deposited as agreed to account XXXXXXXXX-652. We would like to thank you for the work
you have provided us during the last three years and wish you only the best.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

Regards,

Todd Jennings

Jennings Grocery

Jess felt like she'd just pulled the pin from a grenade and swallowed it down. Seven hundred dollars deposited into her account, but the remaining eighteen thousand wouldn't be coming in this year, or ever. Thirty percent of her income was gone. Anxiety tore through her—hot, feverish—and she closed her eyes, taking ten deep breaths.

One… Two…

She still had three active contracts. After taxes she could still bring in thirty thousand dollars this year. It would be tight, and unless she got some new clients, there wouldn't be much left over for extras, but she would be able to cover rent and health insurance.

Three… Four… Five…

Maybe she could get on a payment plan for Juno's ballet class.

Six… Seven…

They wouldn't starve.

Eight… Nine…

They had a roof over their heads.

Ten…

Slowly, her pulse returned to normal, but the alarm had left her feeling worn out and dented. Turning her phone facedown on the table, Jess reached for the bottle of wine and poured, stopping
only when the liquid formed a glossy meniscus at the lip of the glass.

“Wow.” Pops whistled. “Everything okay over there?”

“Yup.” Jess bent down, sucking the first sip so that she could lift the glass without spilling.
It's my birthday
, she thought.
I'm getting smashed.

Pops shared a look with Nana before he turned to Juno. “Miss Junebug?” he said.

She slurped a spaghetti noodle into her mouth. “Hmm?”

“Think you could go back to my place and find my glasses? There were a few crossword clues I needed your mama's help with.”

Juno's chair screeched away from the table, and she squinted suspiciously, pointing a marinara-tipped finger at him. “Don't have cake without me.”

“Wouldn't dare.”

They watched as she raced out the back door and through the courtyard to the bungalow, Pigeon trailing behind her.

“Well, that bought us about thirty seconds,” Nana said with a laugh.

“I'll give her sixty.” Pops reached into the pocket of his sweater and pulled his glasses from the case. He gave Jess a teasing wink before slipping them on. “Now, it's your birthday, Jessica.” He leaned in, pretending to study her. His eyes were pale, watery, full of love. “What's this face? Does it have to do with me picking you up earlier? The man outside?”

“No.”

“He sure did seem upset when we drove off.”

“He's a jerk, but this isn't about him.” If it were just about
River and his stupid test, this would be easy. Jess had deleted the app and could ignore him at Twiggs. Done.

But it wasn't nearly that simple.

“What is it, then?” Nana Jo asked.

Jess leaned her elbows on the table and propped her head in her hands. It weighed about eighty pounds. “Oh… just life.” She picked up her phone again, opening it before handing it over to let them read the Jennings email. “This was one of my bigger accounts. We disagreed on how to move forward, and they're letting me go.”

Nana's face fell and she placed her hand on Jess's. “I'm so sorry, sugar.”

“Money can be fixed,” Pops said. “We'll always help you.”

Jess squeezed his hand in wordless thanks. They had raised Jamie and Jess, and now helped with Juno. She was supposed to be taking care of them at this point in her life, not the other way around.

“It's not just money.” Jess took a breath, trying to arrange her thoughts in some sort of order. “I mean it
is
, but it's also me. I feel like I'm in this holding pattern, raising Juno, making ends meet, trying to keep things moving until my life actually begins. I was just starting to think how silly that is and how I need to get out more. But now this,” she said, waving her phone for emphasis. “I worked my butt off for this account, and they're going to replace me tomorrow because there are a hundred other people with looser morals who can do what I do.” Jess pressed her fingers to her temples. “I need to look for a second job. I don't want you taking care of me.”

“Are you kidding?” Pops argued. “Who takes us to our appointments? Who helps us when we don't know how to use a damned iPhone? Who found our trainer and helps Nana Jo with the garden? You work hard, Jessica, and you're raising that amazing little girl.”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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