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.