Fizzy blinked. “And?”
Jess yanked the sweater over her head, tossed it onto the bed, and reached for a distressed chambray shirt she’d picked up at a boutique in LA last summer. It didn’t fit quite the same with the benefit of Fizzy’s padded bra, but even Jess had to admit she (they) looked pretty good.
She added a layered necklace, tucked the shirt into the front of dark jeans, and turned to face Fizzy. “Well?”
Fizzy looked her up and down, a smile parting her cherry-red lips. “You look hot. How’re you feeling?”
“Like I might throw up.”
She laughed. “It’s dinner,” Fizzy said. “Next door. You’ll have some tom ka, some duck green curry, and if at any point you think you’ve made a mistake, leave him with the check and come home. Listen to your gut. We’ll be right here.”
NO EXAGGERATION: THEY were right there. The restaurant Jess had chosen was on the other side of their fence, which meant she was already seated at a table outside when River showed up. He was five minutes early, but going by his expression of surprise, Jess could only assume she’d derailed his plan to get there first, get comfortable, and be seated with ease by the time she arrived.
He stopped when he saw her, midstep, uncharacteristically caught off guard. “Oh.” He looked around the sidewalk. “I— Sorry, I thought you said seven thirty.”
Jess indulged in a quick scan. Even though it was Saturday, she assumed he’d just come from work—he was wearing dark navy trousers, a white button-down shirt with the collar open—but his clothes looked crisp, and his hair was freshly washed and finger-raked.
“I did. I live right there.” She pointed to her left and his eyes tracked to the apartment building.
“Oh.” Pulling out the chair, he sat across the small table from her and did his own inspection—his eyes skirting the length of her body and quickly back up. A trail of heat followed the path. He cleared his throat. “That’s handy.”
Rama, a muscular twentysomething waiter who was Jess’s hero because he frequently booted people from Mr. Brooks’s stoop, stopped at their table. He grinned down at her, and then meaningfully slid his gaze to River. “Hey, Jess, who’s your friend?”
Way to make it abundantly clear that she’d never brought a date here before. “Knock it off, Rama. His name’s River.”
The two men shook hands, and River sized up Rama while he was pouring water into their glasses. “Need a minute?”
“Sure, that’d be great.”
When Rama left them to peruse, Jess lifted her chin. “Did you come from work?”
He brought his water to his lips, and Jess definitely did not watch them part and make contact with the glass. She also did not watch his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “I stopped at home to change.” He answered her smirk with one of his own. “I don’t have a partner, kids, or pets. Work is pretty much all I have.”
“Is that by design?”
His brows pulled in, and Jess could tell he was giving the question real consideration. “Maybe? I mean, once we got some early results in the attraction study, my curiosity sort of … took over. It’s been hard to think about anything else.”
“Which is funny,” she pointed out, “since you’re thinking about dating and relationships all day long, but not ever for yourself.”
“I see it from a bit of a distance,” he said. “I was so far down in the weeds, looking at specific alleles and genetic variants, that until maybe the last year or two, the larger picture was easy to ignore.”
Jess wasn’t sure if there was a better way to phrase her next question, so she just came out with it: “Is there a part of you that feels sort of inconvenienced by this result?”
River laughed and lifted his glass again. Just then, Rama returned. “You guys ready?”
“Saved by Rama,” she said.
River’s eyes held hers. “Saved.” He lifted his hand, palm up, gesturing for her to order.
Jess sighed and turned her face up. “You know what I’m getting.”
“Yup.” Rama turned to River. “And you?”
“Wait, what is she getting?”
“Tom ka soup,” Rama recited. “And the duck green curry.”
River frowned. “Oh.” He opened his menu again. “What … um, else would you recommend?”
Jess gaped at him. “Do not tell me you were going to get the same thing.”
River nodded down at his menu. “Drunken noodles?”
“They’re great,” she confirmed. “Let’s do soup for two and the two entrées.” She looked at River. “Want a beer or anything?”
He seemed genuinely tickled by the way she took charge. “Water’s good.”
They handed their menus to Rama, and Jess stared at her date across the table. “But really: you were not going to get the duck.”
She didn’t know where the urge to laugh-scream came from, but she swallowed it down with a cold gulp of ice water.
“Did you work today?” he asked stiffly, clearly hoping she’d forgotten what she’d asked before they were interrupted. Frankly, if he didn’t want to answer, Jess probably didn’t want to hear the truth anyway.
“Nana’s always been a stickler that if I don’t have to work, Saturday is a family day.”
“You live with your grandmother?” he asked.
“Yes and no. Nana Jo and Pops own the apartment complex. They live in the bungalow, and I live in the apartment across the courtyard.”
“With your daughter?” he confirmed, and she nodded. “What’s her name?”
After a second’s pause, Jess shook her head. Unease twisted through her.
“I know she’s off-limits as far as the experiment,” he said. “That was just me asking about family. Sharing.” He paused, smiling playfully. “For example, I have two meddling sisters.”
“Oh, you’re lucky then. Meddling women keep the world running.”
“They’d love that.” He laughed, warm and clear. “Both older: Natalia and Pilar. Both overbearing.”
“The youngest. Huh.” Jess sipped her water. “I would have lost that bet.”
Amusement lifted the corner of his mouth. “Why’s that?”
Rama materialized again with a large steaming bowl of soup. He placed it between them and they shared a few moments of easy silence as they dished up their portions, passing the chili sauce and condiments across the table.
Jess bent to smell the contents of her bowl—the tangy, pungent broth was one of her favorite comfort foods—and registered that River had just mirrored her movement precisely.
He noticed at almost the same time and straightened in his chair. “Why are you surprised I’m the youngest?” he asked, moving on.
“Youngest children are usually less ‘intense,’” she said with a smile, using his own description against him. “You uptight perfectionists tend to be oldest children.”
“I see.” His laugh rolled through her, and he bent, taking a bite of soup. The deeply sexual groan he let escape when he tasted was destined to haunt Jess’s best and worst dreams.