The Soulmate Equation

Page 28

Juno skipped to Jess’s side and peered down at her laptop. Clearly Jess was grasping at straws; she’d actually typed Second Grade Art Projects into the search bar.

“I already know what I want to do for my project,” Juno said. “I want to do an art tape amusement park with a roller coaster, a carousel, tiny screaming people, and a Tilt-A-Whirl.”

“Honey, while I appreciate your ambition, that is a lot of work.” Jess paused. And giant, and messy, with five thousand sticky tiny pieces that would end up on Juno, Jess, the furniture, and the cat. “Also, I’m worried you’d tell Mrs. Klein how you arrived at roller coasters for art inspiration.”

“I wouldn’t tell her that I know what brothels are.”

“Maybe we could start by not repeating the word brothel.” Jess tucked a strand of hair behind Juno’s ear. “What about a hot air balloon collage? We can cut pictures out of magazines and glue them to a poster board.”

Her daughter was clearly not tempted.

Jess turned back to the screen and clicked on a list of projects. “These pinwheels are pretty. Or a Popsicle stick bridge?”

Juno shook her head, furrowed brow pinned firmly in place. Hello again, Alec. She grabbed a book from a pile on the table and turned it to a page listing the Top Ten Amusement Parks Across the World.

“I want to do something cool and enter it in the North Park Festival of Arts.” Juno pointed a sparkly painted fingernail at an old photo. “This is Switchback Gravity Railroad. It’s the one the guy built so people would go here instead of the”—she leaned in, whispering—“brothels.” Straightening, she returned to normal volume. “But I don’t want to do that one because it only went six miles an hour and that’s only two miles an hour faster than Nana’s Rascal scooter when she broke her knee.”

Pops chuckled from his chair. “I thought she was going to mow someone over in that thing.”

Juno turned the page to a brightly colored coaster, one with a loop so huge Jess’s stomach lurched just imagining it. “I think I want to do Full Throttle at Magic Mountain,” she said. “Since you don’t have to work at Twiggs anymore, maybe we could go there tomorrow for Try Something New Sunday?”

Jess had called Daniel on her way home from GeneticAlly last night. He’d sounded mildly relived when Jess gave notice; she’d shown no promise as a barista. “That’s a long drive,” Jess told her.

“We could take the train,” Juno singsonged.

“I don’t know if the train goes that far north,” Jess sang back.

Her daughter leaned in close, pressing the tip of her nose to Jess’s. “It does. Pops checked.”

Jess glared at Pops again, but guilt still hadn’t induced him to look up from his crossword.

“Are you even tall enough to ride that?” she asked.

“We’ll put lifts in her shoes,” Pops offered, to which Juno responded with an ear-splitting screech as she ran over to tackle him.

Jess rubbed her temples, looking up when her phone vibrated on the table with an unknown number. Who would be calling at 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday?

The foggy window of her mind wiped clean. River.

She should answer. She should. He probably had the test results. But she couldn’t make her thumb swipe over the screen. She just let it vibrate in her hand before it went over to voicemail.

It wasn’t panic over the possibility that the results were confirmed late last night. It was the opposite: She’d lain awake until after two a.m. thinking of what she would do with the money. College savings. A better hearing aid for Pops. A little cushion in the bank. Now that she’d taken the leap and signed the contract, Jess didn’t want it snatched away.

Her phone screen went dark. She waited … and waited. No voicemail. Great. Now she would have to call him.

Jess returned to her laptop, finger hovering absently over the keyboard. She’d resisted doing this so far, but the urge was too tempting. Jess typed Dr. River Peña into the search bar and pressed Enter. The results populated the page: medical articles, UCSD alumni posts, awards. LinkedIn, ResearchGate. She clicked on the image tab, and low-resolution thumbnails filled the screen. The first photo was a faculty shot taken, according to the caption, while he was a postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Medical Genetics at UCSD. There were more recent ones, too: pictures with investors at various fundraising events. In each, he looked easy in his skin. In each, he was smiling. Jess was so unprepared for the sight of his crinkly eyes and uneven, perfect grin that she felt that weird hot flush of defensive anger. She’d caught hints of his smile in passing, but usually only as smug amusement or flashes of embarrassed laughter. Jess had never seen it like this: bright and sincere. And pointed right at her.

“Ooh, who’s that?”

“Nobody.” She slammed her laptop shut and picked up her coffee with all the subtlety of a cartoon criminal. “I was just …” With renewed focus, she flipped open Juno’s book again. “So, roller coasters, then?”

Daughter slyly appraised mother. Suspicion slid across Juno’s features, but was quickly replaced by the realization that she’d just gotten her way. “Yes!”

Closing the book, she scooped it up with the others and raced toward her room. “I’m gonna look at the train schedule on your iPad!”

Jess began to argue, but her phone vibrated on the table. It was a text from the same unknown number.

Would you like to have dinner?


(It’s River.)


Her lungs filled with helium.

Does that mean you reproduced the finding?


David just emailed the graph. I called to share the results.


But it’s a yes on the finding?


98, confirmed.


Jess stared at her phone while her heart decided to absolutely freak the hell out inside her body. Flipping, flopping, punching. It was real.

It was real.

She knew it was her turn to say something, but her hands had gone vaguely numb. Stalling, she clicked on the phone number and entered it under Americano Phlebotomist in her contacts.

Finally, the three dots appeared, indicating that he was typing.

Are you free tonight?


Slowly, one letter carefully tapped at a time, she managed to reply.

Bahn Thai. Park & Adams. 7:30


Park in the alley in the back


“Four letters down,” Pops said across the room. “First letter is L—‘hurdle.’”

Pushing her phone aside, Jess bent to rest her head on her folded arms.

“Leap,” she said.

“HONESTLY, JESSICA, I haven’t seen outfit panic like this since I wrote Nicoline in His Accidental Bride.” Fizzy stepped back to judge what had to be outfit change number 142. “And you’re not even pretending to be a virgin picking out what to wear on your Victorian-era wedding night. Take it down a notch.”

Jess took in her reflection, styled and polished and hilariously unfamiliar in a padded push-up bra and V-neck sweater with a neckline so plunging it nearly reached hell. “Fizzy, I cannot wear this.”

“Why not?”

“For starters?” she said, motioning to the mirror. “I can almost see my belly button.”

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.