“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.”