The Soulmate Equation

Page 22

“Why are you making that face?” she asked.

“What face?”

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 validate—or invalidate—our 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.

Because … 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. Awesome.

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. Second … 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 was about him.”

“No, but this mood is.” She laughed. “That dating service isn’t really a dating service. Or … it is, but they don’t just 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 Peña. He’s a PhD, the service’s top scientist, and one of the founders of the whole thing.”

Pops whistled.

“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. Peña?” 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.”

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