Authors: Christina Lauren
David nodded. “You get to know him, Jessica.”
She turned to River. “You're so quiet. This concerns you, too, you know. I realize your default energy level is Cardboard Cutout, but I can't get to know you if you don't speak.”
“I'm thinking,” he admitted in a low growl.
Honestly, her mind was reeling. She'd never conceived of a situation like this. Was she physically attracted to him? Yes. Obviously
. But so much of him felt inaccessible and deeply aggravating.
“Do you feelâ¦?” She didn't know how to ask the question. She started over. “With everything you know, and everything you've seen, do you think this number is right?”
He lifted his water, taking a long sip. With a steady, unhurried hand, he set the glass down and met her gaze. “I don't know.”
In the background, she was aware of Brandon and David digging into their food, trying to be inconspicuous as they listened to
what should probably be a private conversation. Jess hated the way her stomach heated, the way it felt like there were bubbles rising from her bloodstream to the surface of her skin. “Do youâ¦ want it to be right?”
The last thing she wanted to happen was for someone to get hurt, but it was hard to imagine walking away from thirty thousand dollars. How hard would it be to spend a few hours with this man for an amount that'd truly make her and Juno's lives easier?
River closed his eyes and swallowed. When he opened them again, she saw the same conflict on his face that she felt inside. “I don't know,” he said again.
“So why are you willing to do this?”
He lifted one shoulder. “I want to prove that I'm right.”
Jess wasn't sure what woman would think that answer was good enough. While she could appreciate this take from an intellectual standpoint, that was exactly the problem: this was supposed to be about unquantifiable, instinctive chemistry.
Standing, she placed her napkin on the table. “I need to think about it. I'll call you.”
ESS WAVED TO
Nana through the kitchen window and headed toward the back of the apartment. Juno was already tucked into bed with a book. Again. Fail, fail, fail. If Juno talked Pops into letting her have frozen fish sticks for dinner again, it would definitely push Jess over the edge.
Did every mom feel like this? Jess worked too much or didn't work enough. She was spoiling Juno or Juno wasn't getting everything she needed. Jess was a helicopter mom, or she was ignoring her kid. More often than not Jess was convinced that every decision she made was ruining Juno's childhood in some way.
“Hey, Bug,” she said, stepping around a basket of laundry and collapsing onto the bed next to her daughter. Pigeon stood and stretched, making her way up the mattress to curl in the space between them.
Juno turned a page. “Did you know female giraffes go back to where they were born to give birth?”
Jess ran her fingers through Juno's hair; the strands were still damp from her bath. “I did not know that.”
“The baby just plops onto the ground.” Juno threw her arms out in a dramatic
“I guess if your mom is a giraffe that'd be a pretty big fall.”
Juno angled the book for her, displaying a photo of a giraffe and her baby. “But the baby just gets up and runs.” She turned the page. “And their necks have the same number of vertebrae as humans. Do you know how many that is?”
“I think seven?”
“Yep.” Juno nodded once. “Good job.”
Jess listened as her daughter read, but her head was a spin cycle, the conversation from dinner tumbling over and over and over inside. She wasn't sure whether she was more insulted by the suggestion that she'd agree, or mad that she was thinking about agreeing. She'd be crazy to pass something like that up, right? It would make up for the Jennings account; it'd take care of health care for the rest of the year.
“âthat reminds me of when Mr. Lannis had to wear a neck brace because he got a compressed nerve from karaoke. Hey, Mom?”
When Jess refocused, she realized Juno had already closed her book. “What, baby?”
“Why are you making that face?” she asked.
Juno ran a finger across her forehead. “The one Auntie Fizzy can't make anymore because of the Botox.”
“I'm not frowning,” Jess said. “I'm just thinking. Someone asked me to do something and I'm not sure whether I should.”
Now Juno frowned. “Is it bad?”
“No. Not bad.”
Purring, the cat climbed up onto Juno's chest. “Is someone going to get hurt?”
“I hope not,” Jess said. “I don't think so.”
“Do you feel unsafe?”
Jess bit her lips, trying to hold in a charmed laugh. This kid was repeating exactly what she would say if their positions were reversed. “No.” Leaning in, she pressed a kiss to her head. “I don't feel unsafe.”
Once she sat up again, her daughter pinned her with a stern look. “Will you be lying?”
You're an important part of our research study, one-half of a score we need to validateâor invalidateâour binning paradigm prior to launch.
She shook her head. “I won't be lying.”
Juno set her book on the nightstand and scooped up Pigeon before snuggling them both down into her comforter. “Would you learn something?”
Jess felt an intense pulse of pride in her kid, and the knee-jerk negative answer evaporated in her mouth.
Becauseâ¦ maybe she would.
SHE CAUGHT A
glimpse of herself in the mirror at the end of the hall and wondered how the chaos inside her wasn't more visible. If her outside matched her inside, she would look like a Picasso sculpture: head sideways, nose where her eyes should be, eyes on her
chin. Instead she was still just Jess: brown hair, tired blue eyes, and what looked like the beginnings of a stress pimple on her forehead.
Nana and Pops were playing cribbage in the courtyard; Jess grabbed a beer from the fridge and a sweater from the back of the couch and stepped outside to join them.
Mr. Brooks opened his window when he saw her, his white T-shirt striped by a pair of gray suspenders. “Jessica,” he said, leaning outside. “I need to talk to you.”
Jess shared a look with Nana, and walked back toward the building again, looking up to the second floor. “Yes, Mr. Brooks?”
“I'm posting two photographs to the Nextdoor app. There are some kids who keep riding their scooters up and down the sidewalks, and I don't like the look of them. There's an entire sidewalk, but they insist on riding right next to my stoop.” He made a fist and flattened it against the window frame. “I don't want them knocking over my broom.”
“I'll watch for them. I know you use that broom every day.”
“Thank you, Jessica. We can't have kids running up and down the street here. Too many cars, too many people. And they don't make that broom anymore. I've already fixed it once.”
She nodded in solidarity and, satisfied, Mr. Brooks leaned back inside and closed the window.
Jess popped the cap off her beer and took a seat at the table. “To be fair,” Pops said, arranging the cards in his hands, “it is a pretty great broom.”
“I am no broom connoisseur so I shall take your word for it.” Jess wrapped her arms around Nana and rested her head on her
grandmother's shoulder, closing her eyes. “Have I told you how much I love you?”
Nana Jo patted her arm. “Not in the last thirty minutes.”
Jess kissed her cheek. “Okay then. I love you a whole lot.”
“How was dinner?”
Jess laughed dryly. First of all, she'd left before she finished eating. A crime. Secondâ¦ where to begin? “It was enlightening.”
“Oh?” Nana prompted, interest piqued. Nana loved a bit of drama.
Sitting up, Jess drew a line through the condensation on her beer bottle. Nana and Pops resumed their game. “Do you know how much it takes to raise a kid these days?” she finally asked.
“A damn sight more than when we were doing it, I'm sure,” Pops said, then played an ace for thirty-one and pegged forward two.
“Estimated to be at least $233,610. That's housing,” Jess began, counting off on her fingers, “food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, and miscellaneous. And that's only to the age of seventeen.”
Pops whistled and reached for his own beer.
“Tuition to a school like UCSD is fifty-two thousand for a four-year degree,” Jess said. “And that's an in-state public school. Juno could want to go out of state, and it would quadruple the price. I can barely afford ballet lessons.” She took a long drag of her beer and then stood up to get another.
Pops looked at her over his glasses; the fairy lights suspended overhead reflected in the thick lenses. A candle flickered on the table; crickets chirped in a planter nearby. “I think you'd better tell us about this dinner.”
Jess returned to her seat. “You remember the dating service Fizzy joined?”
Nana laid down a card, and then moved her peg forward two. “The one where you spit in the tube?”
“Yep.” Jess turned to Pops. “And you remember the guy outside? The night you picked me up?”
“Tall, good-looking?” He paused, his smile smug. “So your mood that night
“No, but this mood is.” She laughed. “That dating service isn't really a dating service. Orâ¦ it is, but they don't
find you dates. You provide a sample, they create a genetic profile, and then they give you a list of matches based on the criteria you select. Fizzy got five bazillion matches because she set the parameters really wide.”
Pops nodded. “Sounds like Fizzy.”
“And you did this?” Nana asked.
Jess hesitated. “Fizzy bought me a kit for my birthday, and I had a moment of temporary insanity. The night Pops picked me up, the higher-ups had just told me about the person I'd been matched with. Tonight, at dinner, they had a proposition for me.”
Nana's brows disappeared beneath her wavy silver hair.
“I gave them very strict criteria. Apparently, I matched at a statistically unbelievable level with the guy Pops saw me arguing with.” Jess took a deep breath. “His name is River PeÃ±a. He's a PhD, the service's top scientist, and one of the founders of the whole thing.”
“What do you mean, statistically unbelievable?”
“Most good matches score over fifty. Sixty-six to about ninety
would be amazing.” Jess stared into her empty bottle, unable to look at them when she said, “Our score was ninety-eight.”
Nana reached for her wine.
“Yeah,” Jess said, and then blew out a long, slow exhale.
“How often do they get a ninety-eight?” Nana asked.
“Never. This is the highest match they've had to date.”
“And do you like this Dr. PeÃ±a?” she asked.
Jess cursed the traitorous zing that skyrocketed through her blood. “He's attractive but has a brooding vibe.” She put it in Nana Jo context: “Think Mr. Darcy, but without the lovely proclamations. He called me average, didn't hold the elevator, speaks with less emotional fluency than the Alexa in your kitchen, and doesn't know a thing about parking lot etiquette.”
Nana Jo gently let Jess's pettiness settle in the space between them as she and Pops played the rest of their hands.
“Okay, parking lot etiquette aside,
you like him?” she finally asked.
The quiet murmur of Bahn Thai customers drifted over the fence, making Jess wonder whether they could hear her, too. She lowered her voice. “Aside from the score, I really don't know.”
Nana and Pops shared a look across the table. “And the proposition?” Nana asked.
“That we get to know each other.” Nana's eyes widened, and Jess quickly clarified. “Not like
, jeez. Justâsee if the data is right, if we are somehow emotionally compatible.”
Apparently satisfied with this answer, Nana Jo looked down at her cards before counting aloud the points she had in the crib. She moved her peg on the game board, and then turned her attention to
Jess. “You seem more conflicted about it than if you simply didn't like him.”
“Wellâ¦” Jess stared into the dark abyss of her bottle. “They offered to pay me.”
Nana reached for her wine again. “Oh boy.”
Pops fixed Jess with his watery gaze. “How much?”
She laughed. Of course that would be Pops's question. “A lot.” They waited. “Ten grand a month a lot.”
They both blinked. The silence stretched. A car sped by; someone laughed at the restaurant next door.
“Just to get to know each other,” Nana clarified. “No sex.”
“Right.” Jess lifted a single shoulder. “They need to validate the science. And I would definitely like $30,000.”
“But you're hesitating,” Pops said.
“Of course I am.”
Pops pinned her with a serious expression. “He seems harmless?”
“We don't really get along, but as far as I can tell, he's not a sociopath. He's not nearly charming enough to be one.” When neither of them laughed at this, Jess said, “He has a
riding on the company, obviously. I don't think dropping my body in a dumpster would be worth losing the millions he stands to make if they have a successful IPO.”
Pops took off his glasses. “Then I don't know what you have to think about.”
“Ronald Davis,” Nana chastised. “This has to be her decision.”
“What?” he said, hands up in defense. “You would turn down that kind of money?”
“Not now, obviously.” She motioned to herself before giving Jess a conspiratorial wink. “Ask me forty years ago and you'd get a different answer.”
“Nana Jo, I am shocked,” Jess said with a teasing smile.
“If you saw her forty years ago, you wouldn't be.” Pops leaned back, dodging Nana's playful slap to his shoulder. “Nobody's asking me, but I think you should do it. As long as they're not asking you to lie, or cheat, or rob a bank,” he said. “Go to a couple restaurants. Make conversation, hear some stories. At the very least you'll earn a little time to breathe.” He picked up his cards again. “UCSD isn't getting any cheaper.”
“YOUR KID CRACKS
Seated on a park bench, Fizzy and Jess watched Juno try to teach Pigeon to walk on a leash. The kid took one step forward and patiently waited for the cat to follow. Around them, dogs chased balls and licked faces and barked, tails wagging. Hunkered low to the ground in the harness and suspicious of every shadow, sound, and blade of grass, Pigeon looked like she was about to sprint out of her skin, cartoon-style.
“Other than the Great Cat Chase a few weeks ago, she's never really been out of the courtyard,” Jess said. “I'm sure she feels the way we would if we were put in a harness and set down on Mars.”