“Michelle is doing the piece and she’s a love,” Brandon assured her. “She’s going to adore you. She and River go way back.”
Jess wanted to ask whether that was code for banging, but would not ask that.
Brandon read through her silence: “She did a piece on him several years ago. That’s all.”
“Mm-hmm. So, tomorrow,” she said, biting her lip. “Tomorrow at noon, Shelter Island.” Jess paused and a clammy chill worked its way up her neck. “Why Shelter Island?”
“Perfect for photos.” He confirmed her fears, and she nearly swallowed her tongue. She’d already turned her closet upside down for the dinner date, and a chambray shirt and jeans was the best she could come up with. This was exactly the sort of thing she’d been dreading.
“I have to go shopping.”
“Jessica, honestly, whatever you’re wearing is fine.”
“Brandon. You wouldn’t say that if you could see me right now.”
He laughed. “I just mean you’ll be fine regardless.”
Would she? She looked down at her threadbare light gray T-shirt and charcoal-gray sweats. She, honestly, could not stand next to River “GQ” Peña in front of the San Diego Bay in anything that was currently in her closet.
On the other hand, at the end of the day, a soulmate loved you for what was on the inside, right?
OF ALL THE beautiful places in San Diego—and there were indeed many—few were as spectacular as Shelter Island. If she took Harbor to Scott, hung a left at Shelter Island Drive and then another left at the circle, a long parking lot overlooked one of the best views in the city: a full vista of the San Diego Bay with the downtown skyline in perfect, crystalline glory. Coronado was visible in the distance. At night, the view was so breathtaking it felt like stepping inside a postcard.
Even during the day—especially after a morning shower that had left the sky bright and clear—it was so beautiful that Jess paused for a second once she climbed out of her car, staring at a side of downtown San Diego she should appreciate more. The buildings looked like sleek, glossy swords in the distance. Big, puffy cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky, and sailboats bobbed on the surface of the bay. Add to that the sight of River, in dark trousers, a long camel coat over a navy sweater, hair blowing in the wind like something out of an Austen movie. Would it be weird if she stood here and just … stared at him? Took a photo or two? Nobody would blame her.
For a second—truly, only a second—Jess regretted not being more insecure about her clothing before leaving the house. She had finally settled on black jeans, a white T-shirt, and black flats. Simple but appropriate.
Though maybe too simple. Beside River was a woman—Michelle, Jess guessed. She was pretty in a journalist sort of way, which was to say she had the luxury of never being the subject of her own story; how she dressed didn’t really matter. Jess was both amused and aggrieved that she and Michelle were essentially wearing the same outfit, with the sole exception that Michelle had been smart enough to wear a cardigan over her white T-shirt. It was noon on a gorgeous early-February day, but Jess had forgotten how exposed Shelter Island was. With the wind whipping past them in chilly gusts, she was going to freeze her ass off.
Noticing her arrival, they brought their conversation to an end. The two made their way over, and behind where they’d been standing, Jess noticed a man diligently setting up what looked like a whole lot of camera equipment. This was a much bigger production than she’d anticipated.
Her stomach wilted.
Michelle was even prettier up close, comfortable in her skin, with a friendly smile. And of course, there was River, ripped from the thick pages of a magazine, looking so far out of Jess’s league that she could only laugh at his approach.
He noticed and gave an unsure smile. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing.” She lifted a hand and let it fall in defeat. “Of course, you just—look so nice.”
He stopped in front of her and dropped his gaze from her head to her feet and back again. His voice was a sandpaper scrape. “So do you.”
He quirked a smile. “Nope.”
It’s all an act, she thought. Even Dracula was notoriously charming.
Then, so quickly she wondered how long he’d been working himself up to it, he bent down and kissed her cheek. Jess was so shocked by this turn of events, he may as well have reached a single finger out and touched her forehead, ET-style. Michelle was probably watching this and writing the headline in her head: Wow, They Are Totally Fake Dating.
Subhead: And They Are Terrible at It.
“Hi,” Jess said, because her brain didn’t remember other words.
River smiled this unfamiliar, private smile and parroted cutely back at her, “Hi.”
Subtitle revision: And She Is Terrible at It.
Michelle reminded them that she was standing there, too. “You two are cute.”
Jess had to literally bite her tongue to not reply, No we aren’t.
River seemed to have also expected her to come back with something contrary and offered a proud flicker of his eyebrow before turning back to Michelle. “Michelle, this is Jess. Jess, Michelle.”
The two women shook hands, and Michelle gestured to an outcropping of rocks near the water. “Should we get started?” As they walked, she pointed to the man with all the cameras. “Jess, this is Blake. He’ll be getting some photos. For now, we’ll just chat while he sets up.” She tilted her head to Blake but kept her eyes on Jess. “If you see him snapping some pictures, he’s just getting candids. I promise we’ll make you look great. Just try to relax as much as possible, be natural.”
Jess took a deep breath and exhaled as completely as she could, clocking that in the process her shoulders dropped from up near her ears back to normal shoulder position.
Comfortably, as though he spent most of his day in front of a film crew rather than at investor meetings, River sat on a rock just below waist height and opened his arm, gesturing for Jess to sit down beside him.
Jess took three steps closer and sat down in a stumble, legs awkwardly pinched together to avoid leaning into his long, solid body. With ease, he shifted her closer to a flatter surface, and now she was in a more comfortable position but they were sitting pressed together like people who were effortlessly intimate.
Which they were not.
“Jess,” Michelle said, and then added, “I hope it’s okay to call you Jess. It’s how River referred to you … ?”
“Jess is great.”
“Great,” she repeated. “I’ve interviewed River before for a piece on the company, so I have some good background there, but this is my first time talking to him as a client. Before we get to him, I’m interested in hearing about how you came into all this. What made you take the test in the first place?”
“Honestly,” Jess said, “I was dragged into it by a friend. She and I—and River—are regulars at this coffee shop, and one of the baristas mentioned River was starting some kind of dating site. Which”—she pointed to him—“I mean, be honest, he looks more like a hot medieval history professor, right?”
Michelle laughed, nodding. “He totally does.” She wrote something down.