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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.