“Maybe that’s why you matched,” Michelle mused.
Jess looked up at him. He looked down at her. She couldn’t help mirroring his new, private smile. “Maybe,” he agreed, and dropped his voice, leaning in to whisper in her ear. “Project Be Genuine but Cautious.” Jess nearly shivered at the sensation.
Michelle cut a knife through the tension, clapping her hands. “Let’s grab some photos over by the benches there.” She stood, and if she was aware of the dense emotional fog that clouded Jess and River, she didn’t show it. She and Blake conferred, then waved them over. “We’d like to get the water as the backdrop, so if you could stand”—she put her hands on Jess’s shoulders, turning her to face the parking lot—“here. River just beside and a little behind her, yes, good, however is comfortable for you. I’m going to be over here, we aren’t listening. Just—talk to each other. As naturally as you can. Forget we’re here!”
Jess wanted to stare at her with deep, unmasked incredulity. She and River were on what was essentially their second date, and Michelle wanted them to stand together and be knowingly photographed just—conversing intimately? Naturally? For a newspaper with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands? They weren’t even good at being natural when they were alone.
“No pressure,” Jess mumbled.
“Just,” he said, searching, “tell me something about your—car.”
“My … car?”
He laughed, and stepped closer beside her. “It’s the first thing that came to mind. Don’t assume I’m any better than you are at this.”
“I absolutely assume that,” she said, cheesing a grin as Blake lifted his camera to his face. “Look at you.”
“What does that mean?” River asked.
“What does what mean?”
“‘Look at you,’” he repeated.
Blake clicked the shutter.
“It means,” Jess said, “that this is what you do. Of course I expect you to be smoother at all things dating and public-appearance related. I mean, I’m—”
“If you say ‘average,’ I’m going to toss you into the bay.”
“I wasn’t going to,” she said, laughing. Click.
River exhaled a long, slow breath behind her, warm on her neck. A shiver ran through her, rattling her spine.
He noticed: “Are you cold?”
“Freezing,” she admitted.
Jess felt him shift so he stood fully behind her. Just as she was going to ask him what he was doing, he stretched his arms out and she found herself being wrapped up in soft warmth, pressed against a wall of hard heat. River had tucked her into his coat, enclosing her inside it with him.
He wasn’t shaking or unsteady. He held her firmly, his front pressed all along her back like it was no big deal. Jess’s senses went haywire.
Michelle laughed. “Jess, you’re blushing.”
She couldn’t even pretend this was normal. “I’m sure I am.”
“So, I take it the physical side of—”
“No comment,” River cut in, voice sharp.
But now the image was well and truly sparking inside her mind: Sex with River. Him over her. Sweaty beneath her. Growling and commanding behind her. Jess’s body betrayed her, arching back a bit, and his tiny muffled groan told her the movement had registered.
Michelle turned and conferred with Blake over something on his camera screen, and Jess leaned minutely forward for some physical cooldown, but River pulled her back against him again, wrapping his arms around her waist. Pressed to her.
“You’re cold,” he reminded her, murmuring into her hair.
“Less so now,” she said under her breath, and he laughed warmly.
Jess bit her bottom lip, restraining a hysterical laugh that bubbled up her throat. “Are you turned on?”
His voice was a blend of embarrassed and matter-of-fact close to her ear. “I might be.”
“Oh my God.”
“You just—pressed yourself against me.”
Jess bent, stifling a laugh—
—but this just pushed her ass back into him further and he let out a quiet hiss, pulling her closer. “Jessica.”
She unleashed the laugh. For just a tiny beat, she wielded the power of the entire universe. Jess had turned on the formidable River Peña.
“You’re enjoying this,” he growled.
“Of course I am. So are you, apparently.”
“I’d enjoy it more if we didn’t have an audience.”
“Are you hitting on me?”
“It sounds like I am.” He seemed as surprised as she was.
“Do we even like each other?”
He adjusted his arms around her, heavy and secure. “Still under review.”
He sighed. “I think … well, I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to like you.”
Easier to be brave facing the parking lot instead of his handsome face, his arms grounding her from floating away. “I don’t know about soulmate, but I’d admit to lust.” She turned her face to the side. His mouth was so close to hers.
River stilled, glanced down at her lips. “Is that right?”
His tone snagged Jess, who finally felt brave enough to meet his eyes. Heat melted through her.
IT PROBABLY SHOULD have occurred to Jess that her wrapped up in River’s coat would be the perfect candid, but it absolutely did not occur to her that they would end up on the front page.
Of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Fizzy dropped a copy onto the table before unloading her bag from her shoulder.
“Holy shit, Jessica Davis.”
Jess brought her mug to her lips, hiding a grimace behind it. “I know. I saw it on my iPad this morning.”
“How fucking adorable are you two?”
She set the mug back down. “Stop it.”
Fizzy cleared her throat, reading aloud. “‘The pair have the sparkling gleam and nervous tremble of new love. Seemingly without realizing it, Jess leans into him when she speaks. River looks at Jess like he’s waited his entire life for her. But despite the outward impression that love is in the air, neither believed the result when it first came in. “We’re both scientists,” Peña said plainly. “It wouldn’t be our natures to dive headlong into anything.” Even so, it’s hard to not believe it when you see them together.’”
Jess groaned. “Seriously. Stop, please.”
“No, no,” Fizzy said, holding up a hand and flipping to the second page. “The next part is my favorite. ‘When the wind picked up and Jess was visibly cold, River wrapped her up in his coat. My photographer and I went quiet, witnesses to the love story unfolding in front of us. GeneticAlly may be entering a crowded sea of seasoned dating services, but it’s clear they’re getting the important things right.’”
By now, Jess was leaning her head on the table, wishing for the building to collapse. “Can we stop now?”