“I don’t really know any other way to be.” He reached for his water and took a sip. “You asked me before whether this result was an inconvenience. It isn’t. It isn’t an inconvenience, but I admit I’m not sure what to think about it. If I take it seriously, it rearranges my entire life. If I don’t take it seriously, I’m discarding everything I’ve worked for.”
“Which, incidentally, also rearranges your life,” Jess said, laughing.
He laughed, too. “Exactly.”
“Well, in that case,” she said, “I can be on board for Project Be Genuine but Cautious.”
He wiped his hand on his napkin and reached across the table for a handshake. With her heartbeat in her ears, she took his hand, and hers felt weirdly small in his grasp.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“I guess we get together when we’re free,” he said, and her brain took off spinning about how that would work, where this could even go.
And where she wanted it to go.
“Otherwise, we wait for marching orders from Brandon about any public appearances.”
“Brandon Butkis,” Jess whispered, partly to break the tension of imagining forging a personal relationship with River after tonight and partly because—how could she not say it? “Come on, you have to admit it’s a great name.”
Rama dropped the bill off at their table and River thanked him before sliding the small leather folder into his lap. Never missing a beat, River delivered the next bit of information with an admirably straight face: “His wife’s last name is Seaman.”
Jess gasped. “No.”
Finally, a smile broke across his face. “Yes.”
“Did they hyphenate?” She leaned in. “Please tell me they hyphenated.”
River laughed. “They did not.”
Small footsteps stomped along the sidewalk, and the weight and rhythm registered in Jess’s brain only a split second before a pair of small arms were thrown around her neck. “Did you save me some duck?”
Jess peeked over her daughter’s head to deliver an apologetic-mortified glance at River. Holding her kid at arm’s length, Jess gave the most convincing Mom Face she could manage. “What are you still doing up, honey? You’re not supposed to be out here.”
“I could hear your laugh in the courtyard.”
“But what were you doing in the courtyard?”
“Beating Pops at checkers.”
“Pops?” Jess called out.
“She’s too fast,” Pops replied from behind the fence.
“I’ve got her,” Jess said back. She relented and kissed Juno’s forehead before turning her around to face River. Apparently this was happening. “Sorry for the interruption.”
He shook his head and smiled warmly at Juno. “Not at all.”
“Juno, this is Dr. Peña.”
Juno reached out, and he wrapped her tiny hand in his large one. “River,” he said, shaking gently. “You can call me River.”
Settling on her mom’s lap, Juno tilted her head, considering him. “You have a unique name, too.”
River nodded. “I do.”
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“My middle name is M-E-R-R-I-A-M. I’m named after mountains. What’s yours?”
“Nicolas, after my grandpa.”
She pursed her lips, less impressed. “Hmm. That’s kind of normal, I guess. Did anyone ever tease you for being named River Nicolas?”
“A few times,” he admitted. “But I’d rather be teased for having a name nobody else has than one that a ton of people have. I’m willing to bet no one else is named Juno Merriam Davis. Only you.”
Jess leaned back, taking this all in, confused by the warm wiggly feeling in her stomach.
Juno shifted on her lap, and Jess heard the tiny bell of the cat on the other side of the fence separating the restaurant patio from the apartment’s side yard. “My mom is Jessica Marie Davis,” Juno said with exaggerated sympathy. “We looked it up once, and there were four hundred of them.” She paused, and with surprisingly good comedic timing added, “In California.”
“Yeah.” He caught Jess’s eye and then smiled back at Juno. “But I bet there’s really only one person like your mom anywhere in the world.”
W h a t.
“That’s true,” Juno agreed with unbridled innocence.
He immediately looked away, clearing his throat, and Jess’s heart scrabbled up a vine, swinging wildly behind her ribs.
River pulled out his wallet, smoothly sliding four twenties into the bill folder. “I should probably head out.”
Jess smiled. “Thanks for dinner.”
“Anytime.” He smiled at Juno again, and then quickly at Jess. “I mean it.”
They stood, and Jess let her pajama-clad kid climb onto her back to be carried to bed.
At the alley, River stopped and looked over Jess’s shoulder at the apartment complex behind them. The tender tips of vines could be seen bobbing along the top of the fence. “Thanks for letting me park back here.”
“We have a guest spot. Street parking is a total drag.”
“People sit on cars out front,” Juno added. “Mr. Brooks gets so mad.”
River frowned, taking this information adorably seriously. “Does he?”
“Our neighbor,” Jess explained. “It’s a cast of characters here.”
River glanced at his watch as he reached for his car door and unlocked it. “I’m seeing that.”
Jess searched for it, she really did, but there was nothing in his tone to make her think he was complaining at all.
“Good night, Jessica Marie and Juno Merriam.”
Juno squeezed Jess’s neck. “Good night, River Nicolas.”
BURNED PANCAKES, ONE missing orange sneaker, cat vomit on the backpack, coffee brewing without water in the tank, and one mother yelling at her daughter that if she didn’t want to cut her hair then she needed to let Mom braid it before bed. In other words, a classic meltdown before eight a.m. Jess didn’t have a chance to look in the mirror, let alone check her email, until she’d safely dropped Juno off at school, and she was glad for it, because the notification that she and River had been asked for an interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune would have had her barfing right beside the cat.
“I got your email,” she said as soon as Brandon answered.
“Oh, great!” Teeth, teeth, teeth. It was all Jess could imagine. “Sounds like the date went well?”
She chewed on her lip. It had gone well. Better than expected. River wasn’t supposed to be funny, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to charm her kid. And yet. “Yeah, it was fine.”
“Does the timing for the interview work? I know tomorrow’s short notice.”
“It’s less a timing issue,” Jess admitted, “than a bravery one.”
“You?” He laughed generously. “You’re adorable. Stop it.”
“I am very much not used to press.” Quickly Jess added, “I know it’s what I signed up for, but I was sort of hoping to start small with dinners, then maybe a couple tweets no one notices, a small blog interview about online dating, and eventually working our way up to the Trib.”