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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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The amazing little girl herself bounded back in and pointed accusingly at her great-grandfather. “Pops! Your glasses are on your face!”

“Would you look at that!” He adjusted them over his nose, pulling his crossword closer to peer down at it. “I bet you know a three-letter word for ‘regret,' don't you, Jess?”

Jess smiled. “Rue.”

“See? What would we do without you?” He grinned at her over the top of his glasses before penciling the word in.

ONCE HER GRANDPARENTS
were gone, Jess leaned against the closed door. Fatigue settled flabbily into her muscles, aching deep into her bones. She felt much older than thirty. Walking through the quiet apartment, she picked up Juno's shoes, the stray socks, the cat toys, more than one cup half-full of milk, pencils, food orders on Post-it notes from Juno and Pops playing Restaurant. She set the coffee timer, packed up Juno's backpack, loaded the dishwasher, and glanced around the space for any other random detritus before flicking off the light and walking down the hall to her daughter's room.

Juno had fallen asleep with
Frog and Toad Are Friends
open on her chest again, her mermaid light still on. Jess deposited Pigeon on her fancy three-tiered cat post near the window, but she imme
diately jumped down and onto the bed, happily curling herself into a ball at Juno's feet.

Jess closed Juno's book and put it on the nightstand, tucked the blankets up to her chin, and sat carefully on the edge of the mattress at her side. In her sleep, Juno frowned. Her hair spilled coppery across the light pink pillowcase. Jess hadn't seen Alec in almost two years, but looking at their daughter was like seeing him every day anyway. She had Jess's eyes but got his strikingly metallic chestnut hair, dimpled smile, and grumpy crease in the middle of her forehead. Jess smoothed her thumb across Juno's warm, kid-sweaty brow and gave herself two deep breaths to wish he were here, before remembering that she hadn't loved him in a long time and didn't need his help. Empty companionship was lonelier than being alone.

Alec wasn't a bad guy; he just didn't want to be a dad. He'd never pressured Jess to terminate the pregnancy, but he'd made it clear where he stood. In the end, Jess chose Juno over him, and they both had to live with that. He got to enjoy his twenties, but every one of their friends thought he was an asshole; Jess got a delightful child but had to learn how to hustle to make ends meet. She never regretted her choice for a single breath, though, and was pretty sure he hadn't, either.

Heavy with exhaustion, Jess switched the lamp off and slipped quietly out of the room, startling in the hallway when the doorbell pierced the silence. Pops left his glasses at Jess's more nights than he didn't, and pulling her sweater tighter around her chest, Jess walked quietly to the living room to peek out the window. But it wasn't Pops.

It was Jamie.

Jess used to feel a potent mix of reactions when she saw her mother—relief, anxiety, excitement—but at this point it was primarily dread, and as a mother herself now, she found that realization so deeply bleak.

Taking a deep, bracing breath, Jess hesitated with her hand on the knob before opening the door. Jamie Davis had worn many labels—cocktail waitress, addict, stadium usher, girlfriend, recovering addict, homeless—but none of them had ever been “devoted mother.” On the rare occasion she had shown up to one of Jess's school events or a softball game she was usually hungover—sometimes still drunk—and reeking of cigarettes or marijuana. She would make a show, cheering for Jess, being proud of her. Sometimes she would bring a group of her rowdy friends calling themselves “Jessie's Cheering Squad.” Inside, Jess would die of embarrassment, and then panic that Jamie would see it all over her face, that she would leave in a fit of anger and not come around again for weeks.

And there she was, still beautiful—she'd always been beautiful—but with a powdery finish to her beauty now, something both artificial and dull. A lifetime of bad habits had finally caught up.

“My girl!” Jamie pushed forward, wrapping her daughter in a quick one-armed hug before stepping back and shoving a set of bath bombs in Jess's hands. They'd started to disintegrate inside the cellophane, and the brightly colored dust leaked out onto Jess's fingers. She knew her mother well enough to guess Jamie had bought them as an afterthought while grabbing a pack of menthol lights at the convenience store down the street.

Jamie stepped around her and into the dark living room.

“Hey,” Jess said, closing the door. “What's the occasion?”

Her mother set her giant purse on the coffee table and looked at her, wounded. Her lipstick slowly bled up into the tiny lines around her mouth. “I can't see my baby on her twenty-eighth birthday?”

Jess didn't point out that Jamie was off by two years, or the many other birthdays she'd missed. Frankly Jess was surprised her mom remembered her birth date at all; her sporadic visits weren't generally timed to life events.

“Of course you can,” Jess said. “Do you want to sit down? Can I get you something?”

“No, no. I'm fine.” Jamie walked into the kitchen, tapping her acrylic nails along the counter, and then glanced down the hall. “Juno, honey? Where's my beautiful grandbaby?”

“She's in bed, Mom.” Jess shushed her. “It's late, and she has school tomorrow.”

Jamie threw her an annoyed look. “Kids should go to sleep when they're tired. All these rules just make them anxious and depressed. That's why we have so many of them on medication these days.” She scanned Juno's spelling test on the refrigerator, the birthday card she'd made for Jess, a grocery list. “People need to listen to their bodies. If you're tired, sleep. If you're hungry, eat something. Parents need to stop scheduling these kids to death.”

Carefully, Jess set the bath bombs on the counter. “I take an antidepressant every day,” she said with careful calm. “Guess that no-schedule theory isn't a sure thing.”

Jamie ignored this to continue her perusal of the apartment, casually glancing at the spines of library books on the table, flipping
through a few pages on one of Juno's about horses. Thanksgiving was the last time Jess had seen her mother. Jess had transferred five hundred dollars into Jamie's checking and hadn't heard a word since. Jamie had been living in Santa Ana then. They'd met at a Denny's—Jess paid—and Jamie lamented how her utilities had been shut off because the bank made an error. They'd taken the automatic withdrawal early, she'd insisted. Those fees had made other payments bounce, and it snowballed from there. But it hadn't been her fault. It was never her fault.

“So, how are you?” Jess asked now, stifling a yawn as she sat on the couch. “How's… John?”

As soon as the name was out, Jess winced. She thought his name was John. Might have been Jim.


Oh
,” Jamie said with a
You are not going to believe this
lean to the single word. “Yeah, he was married.”

Jess's surprise was genuine. “Wait, really? How did you find out?”

“His wife called me.” Jamie tapped out a cigarette before remembering she couldn't smoke in the apartment, and sort of toyed with it like that had been her intent all along. “Honestly I should have known. He had a job, good credit, and a prescription for Viagra. Of course he was married.”

Jess snorted out a laugh. “Are those the criteria these days?”

“Oh, honey. Don't let the age of men with good circulation pass you by. Trust me.” She sat on the edge of the coffee table across from her daughter, resting a hand on Jess's leg, and the whiff of genuine camaraderie made Jess's heart lean forward. “How are you?” Jamie asked. “How's your writer friend? She is so funny.”

“I'm fine. You know, working. And Fizzy,” Jess said with a small laugh. “Fizzy is always fine.”

“Are you dating anyone?”

Uninvited, River's voice rammed into Jess's mind.

And the timing couldn't be better for launch.

“Definitely not dating.”

Jamie's disappointment was palpable. “Are you just going to be single forever? I haven't met a boyfriend of yours since Juno's daddy. It's your birthday. You should be out!”

“It's a school night, and Juno is asleep down the hall.”

Jamie pointed like Jess might be catching on. “So she wouldn't even know you were gone.”

Jess's heart settled back into its familiar cramp, and she said with patient finality: “I don't want to go out, Mom.”

Holding her hands up in defensive surrender, Jamie groaned out, “Fine, fine.”

Jess yawned again. “Listen, it's l—”

“Did I tell you about my new gig?”

Her abruptly bright tone set off warning bells. “Your new what?”

“My new job.” Jamie sat up. “Okay… don't say anything to your grandparents, because you know they're old-fashioned and never understand how exciting these opportunities are, but you are looking at Skin Glow Incorporated's newest team member.”

Jess searched her brain but no recognition flared. “Who are they?”

“You're kidding.” Jamie shook her head in disbelief. “Their commercials are everywhere, Jess. They do in-home facials. God, I want to say it's a good company, but it's more than that, it's a whole
lifestyle
. A way of empowering women. I get a cut of every facial I do and—”

Jess couldn't keep the edge from her voice. “A cut?”

“Well, yeah—I mean, to start. Eventually I'll have girls working for me and I'll make some of everything they make, and the people they bring on board.”

“So, like a pyramid scheme.”

“Like an entrepreneur.” Jamie's words were sharp with offense. “I am capable of more than waiting tables, you know.”

“I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean it like that.”

“Well, this is a really rare opportunity. Maureen said the lady who got her into it is already making six figures! And it's only three hundred dollars to start.”

Of course
. “You need money.”

“Just a loan.” Jamie waved a casual hand. “I'll pay you back with my first paycheck.”

“Mom, no good job requires you to pay to get started.”

Jamie's expression darkened. “Why do you always make me feel like this? Can't I ever dig out of the hole with you?” She stood up and bent to grab her purse. “I've been clean for eighteen months!”

“It's not about you—Wait.” Jess was on the verge of telling Jamie that she had her own money problems to worry about. Jamie sat back down on the couch, and the silence stretched between them. “Did you stop at Nana and Pops's?” she asked instead. “They're probably still up.”

Jamie half rolled her eyes, and Jess found herself wondering, again, when she'd become the parent and Jamie had become the child. “They don't want to see me.”

“You know that's not true. If you've got a new job and you're clean, they'd love to see you. They love you, Mom.”

Jamie kept her eyes on the wall. “Well. They know where to find me.”

It was astonishing that someone like Jamie came from Joanne and Ronald Davis. At only three, Jess had been spending most nights over at Nana and Pops's house. By the time she was six, Jamie had given up all pretense of trying, and Jess was permanently living with her grandparents. Jamie had been around, generally speaking, but she was never steady. Whereas Nana and Pops were involved in every aspect of Jess's life from birth to this very moment, she learned early on that Jamie would pick drugs and men over family, every time.

As much as she tried not to repeat any of her mother's patterns, Jess did take after her in one way: she'd gotten pregnant young. But hopefully that was where the similarities ended. Jess had graduated from college, gotten a job, and tried to save a little every time a check came. She took her kid to the dentist. She tried to put Juno first every day.

Jess tried to think what Jamie would do now if their positions were reversed.
Would Jamie give me the money?

No. Jamie would tell her she needed to grow up, stop expecting handouts, and take responsibility for her own goddamned self.

Standing, Jess walked to the counter. She opened her phone's bank app, wincing as she typed in $300 to transfer the money to Jamie's account.

I am not my mother
, she reminded herself.
I am not my mother.

SEVEN

B
RIGHT AND EARLY
Monday morning, Fizzy walked into Twiggs. She marched to their usual table, set her laptop down, and even though she'd been told what she would see, still did a double take at Jess standing behind the counter.

“This new situation,” Fizzy said, dropping her purse onto her chair, “is going to take some getting used to.”

Jess smiled, swiping a cloth across the counter before pointing to a steaming vanilla latte at the end of the bar. “If it sucks, lie to me.”

Fizzy leaned an elbow on the counter and picked up the cup. “I feel like I should have made you a little boxed lunch or something. How's your first day?”

“The steamer is terrifying, and I didn't have the lid on the blender all the way during the morning rush, but not too bad.”

Fizzy blew across the top of her drink and tasted it. Her brows lifted in surprised approval.

“I guess third time really is a charm,” Jess said.

Fizzy looked around the quiet coffee shop. “Is this where we stand and gossip from now on?”

From where he was wiping tables, Daniel uttered a simple “No,” but Fizzy ignored him, leaning in closer.

“Listen, Jess, I know you want to think this compatibility score thing is bullshit, but Ralph was
good
. What I'm saying is, if I graphed these compatibility scores relative to my sexual satisfaction, like you nerds might, there would be a definite up-slope to the line.”

It took a beat for Jess to connect the dots before she remembered Ralph, the Silver Match. Unease was an index finger jabbing her shoulder, whispering,
Don't ask
. But curiosity overruled discomfort. With a guilty glance at Daniel over Fizzy's shoulder, she stepped farther down the bar to get some privacy. “Oh yeah?”

Fizzy followed on the other side of the counter. “We had dinner at Bali Hai.”

Jess hummed enviously.

“He was super easy to talk to. We each probably had one too many mai tais, but it wasn't a problem because we both took Lyfts there and shared a Lyft home…” Fizzy grinned. “Incidentally, he has a cute place in PB.”

An unexpected kernel of angst pinged Jess's lungs, and she cleared it with a cough and started wiping the bar in front of her. “So, more compatible than with Aiden or Antonio?”

“Without a doubt.”

“Do you think you'll see him again?”

“Unfortunately, I get the sense that he's too busy to really get
serious with anyone.” Fizzy frowned. “Why would he sign up for the DNADuo during their soft launch if he just wanted to mess around?”

Laughing, Jess said, “I think I remember asking you that exact question only a handful of days ago. Look at you, ready to commit after a single night of mai tais and good sex.”

From nowhere, Daniel materialized, tapping Jess's shoulder and pointing to the cash register. “You have a customer.”

“Oops, sorry.” She swatted after him with her cleaning cloth. Jess jogged the few feet to the register before looking up into the gorgeous yet despicable face of none other than Dr. River Peña.

In fairness, Jess shouldn't have been surprised; if she'd looked at the clock, she would have known that it was 8:24 and River was right on time. But somehow her brain had dropped the ball on reminding her that she might actually have to wait on him during her very first shift as a Twiggs barista. And this was the first time she was seeing him after their non-goodbye at the curb four days ago. Although Jess didn't expect to exhale actual fire the next time they came face-to-face, she couldn't account for the transfusion of warmth that hit her bloodstream, either. For a few seconds, she stared dumbly up at him, clocking the same shock in his expression.

He broke his stunned gaze from hers to look down the counter at Daniel, standing behind the La Marzocco. Then, with that trademark unhurried way of his, River looked at Jess again. “What are you doing back there?” His eyes took a leisurely perusal down the length of her body. “In an apron?”

“Oh, right.” She gave an awkward curtsy. “I work here now.”
When he didn't say anything else, she offered an artificially perky “What can I get for you, sir?”

He frowned, and his dark brows came together; glimmering bright eyes regarded her with skepticism. “You work here? Since when? I thought you worked for…” He glanced over to the table where Fizzy now sat alone, watching them hawkishly. Jess raised an eyebrow in amusement as he turned back to her and seemed to be putting the puzzle together in his head. Finally, he managed only, “I thought you worked… somewhere else.”

Inwardly, she groaned. Why wasn't he just ordering, paying, and stepping to the side to stare at his phone? Had he forgotten that he was too busy to converse with plebeians?

“I'm a freelance statistician,” she said, maintaining the polite smile. “But I lost a big account the other day. Given that I have a kid and lots of bills…” She held her arms out to say,
Voilà
.

Jess would gladly take sixteen hours a week at minimum wage
and
the hit to the pride from serving River Peña if it meant Juno could keep taking ballet with Ms. Mia.

Without subtlety, River's eyes darted down to her left hand. Was she imagining the way his brow relaxed? Had he been looking for a wedding band?

“One kid,” she confirmed quietly, “no husband.” For a brief second, she let herself be amused by this potential scenario. “Wow, that would have been an awkward press release for GeneticAlly: ‘Founder's Soulmate Is Already Married.' ”

“Married people tend to not submit DNA samples,” River replied with an amused twinkle in his eye. “And I hear they prefer to cheat using apps with fewer intake forms.”

Self-preservation welled up hot in her throat, and she could see the twin realization pass through him: this exchange felt suspiciously like nerdy flirting.

“What can I get for you?” Jess asked again.

His expression shuttered. “Sorry, I would have—” He held her gaze and the contact felt like a swarm of bees in her chest. “I thought you called me ‘Americano' the other day,” he said.

Holy duh, Jessica.

Scribbling the drink order on a cup, she moved to hand it to Daniel, who gave her a blank look. “I already got it, Jess.”

Of course he had. Daniel smiled apologetically on behalf of his new employee, handing the drink to River. Silence fell as they watched her struggle to find the correct entry for
Americano
on the screen.

“It's under espresso drinks,” Daniel prompted quietly.

River, hulking, leaned over to peer upside down at the screen. “It's over on the—”

His finger landed on the touch screen just as Jess's did, their hands briefly coming together.

“I got it,” she said, humiliated. He pulled away, and she tapped the button, flustered by the contact that she could somehow feel all the way up her arm. No doubt her cheeks looked like she'd been slapped. “That'll be three eighty-five.”

He hesitated, and Jess realized her mistake. She upsized to
large
. “Sorry. Four seventy-four.”

Their shared discomfort shoved between them, a loud, uninvited guest at the awkward party for two. Jess took his money, counted out his change. But what really wrecked her was that, after
the tiniest hesitation, he dropped all of it—including the five-dollar bill—into the tip jar.

FIZZY SIDLED UP
to the counter fifteen minutes later when she seemed to assess Jess was done being mortified.

“Hey.” She offered a little best-friend-simpatico smile and reached across the counter to offer a fist bump.

“Hey.” Jess cleared her throat, meeting Fizzy's knuckles. “I bet an ending like that never made it into a romance novel.”

Fizzy laughed. “Are you kidding? That would be the
start
of an amazing love story.”

“Not my story.”

Jess felt her best friend studying her while she pretended to be very engrossed in rearranging the pastry case. Fizzy had been uncharacteristically mum on the subject of River. After hearing of their DNADuo result, the rundown on the disastrous GeneticAlly meeting, and Jess's theory that the statistics were completely bogus and most likely invalidated their entire business plan, Fizzy had stared at her in silence for a few beats before saying only “I get it.”

“You okay?” she asked now.

Daniel decided this moment was a good one to join the conversation, setting two sealed bags of beans down at the espresso bar. He frowned. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jess mumbled just as Fizzy practically shouted, “Did you not see that awkward run-in with Americano?”

“Why was it awkward?” Daniel took a beat to recollect, then
said, “Oh, about the drink? Eh, don't worry about that. It's your first day.”

“No, Dan,” Fizzy said, exasperated with him for no good reason. “Because they
matched
.”

It felt like the entire coffee shop went silent in response.

Jess groaned. “Fizzy, I swear to God, I will barehand—”

“What level?” Daniel asked.

“What do you mean ‘what level'?” Jess gaped at him.

He ripped open a bag of espresso beans and poured it into the machine. “If we're talking about DNADuo, I was one of the original samples,” he said proudly. “Back in my days at SDSU. When they were still taking…
samples
.”

It took a second for that to sink in, and when it did, all a blushing Jess could manage was a quiet “Gross, Dan.”

“I meant blood.”

“Didn't sound like you meant blood.”

“Anyway, I did it again about a year and a half ago when they put out the call for people to help validate their spit kit.” He pulled his phone from his back pocket and showed them the screen like they might see a thread of matches lined up there. “But I've never gotten anything above a thirty-seven.”

Fizzy's interest was piqued. “Did you go out with her?”

“I did,” he said. “It was good, but I think we both had this weird expectation that it was nice but statistically unlikely to go anywhere?”

“I did wonder about that aspect,” Fizzy said. “I went out with a Silver the other day but, like, if you get anything lower than a Gold, do you just assume it's most likely not going to work?”

“Even though,” Jess cut in quietly, “if you believe their data, the
odds are significantly better of finding a lasting relationship with a Silver than with regular dating…”

Fizzy gaped at her. “Says the woman who won't believe her own score.”

“What was it?” Daniel asked again.

Jess laughed. “It doesn't matter. Fizzy's right. I don't believe it.” She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at Daniel. “What's next, boss? Dishes? Restocking?”

He lifted his chin, undeterred. “Was it a Base Match?”

Fizzy looked at her, one eyebrow pointed sharply skyward. “Yeah, Jess. Was it a Base Match?”

Jess slid a patient look to her friend. “Are you being a pot-stirrer?”

“Guilty.”

Daniel turned to Fizzy, who in turn gave Jess a look that either sought permission or delivered a warning.

Warning, apparently, because a few seconds later, Fizzy said, “It was a Diamond.”

Jess expected him to explode:
How can you ignore that?
and
If I had a Diamond Match, I'd quit my job and get laid all day long!
But just as Fizzy had when Jess told her, Daniel studied Jess very quietly and very intently.

“You're not curious?” he asked, at length.

“No.”

Daniel seemed to be trying to wrap his head around this. “Is River?”

Jess shrugged. “Who knows? We haven't really talked since we found out a few days ago.”

“So, you're going to, what? Do nothing?”

She nodded at Daniel. “That's the plan.”

Fizzy rolled her eyes and repeated with an exasperated edge: “That's the plan. The boring,
safe
plan.”

Jess gave her friend a look of warning. It wasn't that Fizzy was wrong, per se, but Jess had more to think about than just herself. She couldn't throw caution to the wind. That was a luxury childless people had, people with free time and fewer responsibilities. Boring, safe plans hadn't steered her wrong yet.

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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