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Authors: Christina Lauren

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BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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EIGHT

B
UT THE PLAN,
as it were, went up in smoke three days later at about 5:17 in the evening, when a silver Tesla pulled up beside Jess on her walk home and rolled down a heavily tinted passenger-side window. It was in her nature to ignore all cars rolling up at a curb, but this one wasn't catcalling. This driver knew her name.

“Jessica.”

She turned to find Brandon “the Teeth” Butkis in the driver's seat. His left arm was wrapped around the steering wheel as he leaned toward her, smiling like he had an entire pack of Chiclets he wanted to show off. He was dressed casually in a blue button-down shirt open at the collar. “Do you have a second?”

“Not really.” She pointed down two blocks, toward her apartment building. “I need to get dinner started.”

“Actually, I was wondering if there was someone who could watch your daughter tonight,” he said, and his smile turned tentative. Despite the intimidating size of his teeth, his eyes were warm and brown, with crinkles at the edges. He did not look like a man
who wanted to pull Jess off the street, plug wires into her skin, and turn her into a human battery. Jess registered vaguely that she needed to take it down a notch, imagination-wise.

Approaching the car, she leaned down, resting her forearms on the windowsill. “I'm sure this is frustrating for you, but I'm really not interested in pursuing this.”

“And we won't force you to,” he said quickly. “Our intention isn't to be intrusive. I know this has been an… odd situation. David and I just wanted to make sure to follow up.”

Jess had to admit they'd been surprisingly silent given the urgency of the first meeting, the enormity of the finding, and the rushed manner in which she'd fled their headquarters. So far it had been crickets. “You aren't suggesting another meeting, are you?”

She must have looked like she'd relish another meeting as much as she would a root canal because Brandon laughed. “No. That meeting was a mistake.
Our
mistake. And probably the worst way to tell you both. We got overly excited, as scientists—we wanted you to experience that moment of discovery with us, but we should have exhibited more EQ.” He shifted in his seat. “We were hoping to take you to dinner.”

“Tonight?”

He nodded. “Can you get free?”

She turned and looked down the street again, considering it. Jess wasn't blind—River was objectively gorgeous—but she couldn't even say she liked him as a person. Plus, she still couldn't wrap her logical mind around the number. Her priorities, in order, were her kid, her grandparents, and her bills. She wasn't going to pursue this no matter what they said tonight.

“I have a lot on my plate,” Jess told him. “I've taken on another job; I have a young daughter at home, as you know. I really don't think I have—”

“I promise, Jessica,” Brandon cut in gently, and when her attention flew back to his face, he gave another tentative smile. “We won't waste your time.”

JESS KNEW AS
soon as Brandon pulled up at the valet in front of Addison at the Grand Del Mar that this wasn't going to be a laid-back kind of dinner. They wouldn't be eating tacos with their hands or sharing pitchers of beer. A meal at the Addison would cost more than her rent.

She glanced down at her lap, brushing nonexistent lint from the skirt of her dress. Brandon would forever be in the
Like
column for giving her fifteen minutes to change out of her yoga pants and the you-can-barely-see-the-stain Lululemon top Juno had picked out for her at Goodwill. The blue dress she'd tugged on was stretchy, which was why it still fit.

Brandon grabbed his neatly pressed sports coat from where it hung on a hook in the back seat, beamed a reassuring smile, and gestured for Jess to walk ahead of him.

“Right this way, Mr. Butkis.” The maître d' nodded, leading them through a stunning circular room lined with arch-capped French doors. Silverware tapped gently against porcelain, ice clinked in highball glasses; all around them, conversation hummed at a low, pleasant murmur. Tables were dotted spaciously throughout the room, framed by low plush chairs upholstered in scarlet and gold.

“Is David meeting us?”

Brandon looked over his shoulder at her. “They should be here already.”

They.
Jess's stomach swiftly fell to her knees:
they
. David and River stood at their arrival at a table on the far end of the room.

Frozen as Brandon held the chair out for her, she felt River watching, carefully taking in her reaction. His mouth drooped in apology. “I thought—well, I assumed you'd realize we'd all be here.”

“It's okay,” she said quietly, taking her seat and struggling to regain her composure. River was seated immediately to her right, and his discomfort over
her
discomfort was palpable. “I misunderstood.”

She took a risk, meeting his gaze, and his expression remained largely unreadable except for a small crease in his forehead, the hint of concern in his eyes. If he were a more intuitive person, she might have interpreted his look as a question:
Is this okay?

Jess blinked away, setting her napkin on her lap. As they settled, the table fell into a hush. Jess looked up to find the three men watching as she tried to anticipate why they'd invited her to this dinner.

“It's okay,” she said again. “Let's do this.”

“Let's take a moment to study the menu first,” David suggested, “and then maybe River can tell you a little more about the company and our technology.”

They perused in heavy silence before agreeing on the five-course tasting menu. They ordered cocktails, ordered food, and then the four of them just… sat. It was unbearable.

“River?” David finally prompted in a fatherly tone.

River cleared his throat, adjusted his napkin. He reached forward to fidget with his water glass. How awkward for him, being put in the position of trying to convince Jess that this was all real when it seemed he didn't want to believe it, either.

“I think I understand the science,” she said, before he could launch into whatever pitch he was formulating in that big brain of his. “At least, I understand that you've identified a wide variety of genes you believe are involved in emotional and, uh—sexual fulfillment in a relationship. I understand how the algorithm could work, in theory. I guess what I question is whether this particular finding is real. If you've never had a score of ninety-eight before, how do we know what it means?”

“If we were given a score of twenty-two,” River asked, “would you have believed that?”

It was exactly the question she'd asked herself only a handful of days ago. “Yes,” she admitted, “because that would align with my feelings about you in general. A ninety-eight, to me, implies that we would be drawn to each other. That we would have instantaneous chemistry.”

There was a lull that was mercifully interrupted by the waiter bringing bread and cocktails. When they were alone again, David carefully asked, “And you don't?”

“I generally want to commit a felony when I see him,” Jess said, a butter knife held in front of her. “I'm not sure that's a sign of romantic compatibility.”

River exhaled, settling back in his chair. “This is a waste of our time.”

Leaning forward, Brandon engaged her with his grin. “It can be easier to believe bad news than good news.”

“I'm not a pessimist,” she said. “I'd believe good news if it was someone telling me I won the lottery. But I'm looking at him—and he's looking at me—and I'm sure we are both thinking, ‘There is no way.' ”

Brandon turned to River. “Do you find her attractive?”

“This test isn't a measure of attraction,” River said blandly. “It's a measure of compatibility.”

Jess set down her bread. “You really just said that.”

“Jessica,” David said, redirecting her attention. “Do you?”

She laughed. “River is attractive. We can all see that.” She made the mistake of instinctively glancing his way when she said this and noticed a tiny muscle twitching upward at the corner of his lips. It made her feel softer, bending toward him, and self-preservation swelled up in her throat. She hated it. “But speaking to him is like having a conversation with a grouchy calculator.”

David hid a surprised laugh with a cough, gamely tapping his own chest and reaching for his water. To Jess's right, River exhaled long and slow.

“Let me try a different tack,” Brandon said as the waiter brought the first course. “We believe in this science.” He gestured to the men on either side of him. “I don't just mean that we hope it works because we stand to make a lot of money. That is true, of course, but that isn't everything. Yes, the story of the two of you could be very compelling for our launch, but it's also a scientific curiosity for us. So far, every couple who received scores greater than eighty is still together and scores off the charts on many measures of
relationship satisfaction. We have to wonder: How satisfied would a couple be at ninety-eight?”


Every
match over eighty has been successful?” she asked, wondering at his wording. “I thought Lisa said three out of four.”

“Legally we can't say one hundred percent, because not every Titanium Match has actually connected in person yet.”

“That must be annoying for you,” she joked.

This time, David's laugh was booming. “You have no idea.”

“You're both young, attractive, and single,” Brandon said, rolling with this momentary levity.

“We aren't asking you to marry him,” David added.

“I'm sorry,” River cut in. “Can I join this conversation?”

“Yes,” Jess agreed, “where
are
you with all of this?”

The food sat neglected on the table in front of them as they all waited for his answer. “Of course I believe in it,” River said. “I invented it.”

Do you actually believe our result could be real? That we could be soulmates?
she wanted to ask, but the words felt too enormous to push past her lips. She dug into her scallops instead.

“We're asking the two of you to spend some time together,” Brandon urged.

“Exactly,” David said, nodding. “To get to know each other. Give it a little time.”

“Unfortunately,” she said, lifting a bite to her mouth. If nothing else, at least she was getting dinner out of it. “Time is what I don't have to give. I'm not sure River's mute five minutes in Twiggs every morning will let us dive too deep.”

“What if we compensated you?” Brandon asked.

Her hand froze, dinner suddenly forgotten. A hush fell over the table. River looked sharply at Brandon, but David was watching only her. They'd planned for this.

I promise, Jessica. We won't waste your time.

“I'm sorry,” she said hoarsely, “what?”

“What if we compensated you,” Brandon calmly repeated. “Allowing you to make time in your schedule to get to know River?”

She carefully placed the knife on the edge of her plate. “You want to pay me to date him?”

River exhaled sharply, reaching for his whiskey.

“Consider it a stipend for participating in an aspect of a larger experiment,” David said. “You could quit the coffee shop, have more free time. You're an important part of our research study, one-half of a score we need to validate—or invalidate—our binning paradigm prior to launch.”

Jess leaned back in her chair, heart thundering. “So, you need us to…
explore this
until after launch?”

Brandon laughed a little at this. “Well, you can explore it until—”

“Assuming we
don't
fall for each other,” she clarified, “what is the duration of the study?”

“The IPO is May sixth,” David said matter-of-factly. “Today is January twenty-eighth. So, just over three months.”

And there was the truth, baldly laid out.

“How much compensation are we talking?”

David and Brandon exchanged a look. Jess lifted her water glass to her lips with a shaking hand, ice tinkling gently against the glass.

“Ten thousand a month.”

A watery cough burst from her throat, sharp and urgent. River reached over and laid a hand on her back, rubbing gently.

The touch was steady but electric, jerking a breath from her chest, making her cough again. His palm was huge and warm, a vibrating hum on her skin.

“I'm okay,” she finally managed, and set the glass on the table.

He pulled away, curling his hand into a fist on his lap.

“And what does that amount buy you?” Jess asked once she trusted her voice to come out steady.

“You go out for coffee. You date.” Brandon held his hands out, shrugging, before picking up his fork. “Maybe you have a public appearance or two. Basically, you give it a chance.”

BOOK: The Soulmate Equation
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