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.”
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 yes. But so much of him felt inaccessible and deeply aggravating.
“Do you feel … ?” 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 you … 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.”
JESS 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 splat.
“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.
“—that 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?”