The Soulmate Equation

Page 38

And frankly, look what Jess was willing to do for thirty thousand dollars. No, it wasn’t a hardship to buy dresses with GeneticAlly expense accounts and walk hand in hand with dressed-up science-brained sex on legs into a fancy party, but her thirty thousand was a drop in the bucket compared to what River stood to make. Millions.

“What are you thinking about over there?” he asked, cutting into her pondering silence.

It couldn’t hurt to be honest. “Oh, just questioning every choice I’ve made.”

This made him laugh. “Same.”

Doubtful. “Give me one example.”

He glanced at her and then back to the road as they took the 163 on-ramp. “Really?”


After a long pause, during which Jess assumed he’d decided to ignore her request, River finally spoke. “Okay: Did you think of me when you put on that dress?”

From chest to forehead, her skin flushed hot. Jess looked down at her gown. It was deep blue, with black spaghetti straps. Delicate metallic stardust embroidery was scattered in small, artful clusters across the entire gown, giving it the feel of a gently starred sky. The subtle black lace trim crisscrossed above and beneath her breasts and purred evening wear meets evening wear, but Juno and Fizzy—her two jabbermouths—had literally gone speechless when she came out of the dressing room wearing it, so Jess trusted their reactions over her hesitation that she might be showing way too much skin.

“I know you’re getting paid to be here,” he added quietly. “So, there’s my question. Did you?”

“Same question, but with the cologne,” Jess said through a cork of emotion in her throat. “And you’re getting paid a lot more.”

“Potentially.” He laughed.

“But that’s exactly it. If we do a good job tonight, you stand to make a lot more than thirty thousand. Your sisters told you to get some cologne—that would be smart seduction advice, especially if they’re shareholders.”

“They are,” he acknowledged.

They fell back into a thick silence; Jess was unwilling to answer until he did. She bet her entire thirty thousand that he felt the same.

“So, smart seduction advice, then?” he pressed, grinning slyly at her before turning back to the road.

“It smells really good on you,” she admitted quietly, and was instantly mortified about the growling bass in her voice. She cleared her throat.

Jessica Davis, get your shit together.

Beside her, River shifted in the driver’s seat. “Well, for what it’s worth, that dress is …” His voice also came out hoarse, and he coughed into his fist. “It is also really good on you.”

TWO GOOD-LOOKING GUYS in their early twenties jogged over as River pulled the car up to the curb.

“Every bit of fanciness just makes me more nervous,” Jess admitted quietly after River tipped the valets—nephews of the hosts, they’d learned—and met her on the sidewalk.

He stepped closer, looking down at her with concern. “Everyone who’ll be here is incredibly nice.”

“I’m sure,” Jess said. “It’s just that as of yesterday, my fanciest outfit was the only other dress you’ve seen me wear. This dress cost more than two months of Juno’s ballet lessons.”

“It’s worth every cent, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does,” she said, smoothing her hands over the front of the dress. “Just keep telling me I’m pretty and it’ll be fine. Oh, and wine. Wine will help.”

Laughing quietly, he let her lead them inside the building. The marble-floored lobby was empty except for a security desk, a beautiful leather settee, and two elevators at the end.

The security guard looked up as they approached. “Here for the Gruber event?”

River’s warm palm came over the small of her back, and every thought in her brain was incinerated. “River Peña and Jessica Davis,” River confirmed, and the man checked their names on a list before programming the elevator from where he sat.

“Head on over to the car on the right,” he said. “It’ll take you straight up.”

As the doors closed, Jess was reminded of the other times she’d been in an elevator with River—the strained silence, the unspoken disdain between them. Going back to that felt like it’d be simpler than this unmeasurable, unmanageable attraction.

River cut into the quiet. “I think I need to clear something up.” Jess looked up at him in question, his eyes fixed on the wall ahead. “About my sisters.”

“Oh?” She had no idea where this was headed, but the pace of the world’s second-slowest elevator suggested there’d be plenty of time to find out.

“They are investors,” he said. “They both put in money at the very beginning of the project. But that isn’t what I meant by ‘invested.’” Finally, he looked down at her. “About the cologne.”

Jess bit back a laugh. He was so serious. “Okay.”

“They think this”—he gestured between them—“is very …” He paused, and then gave her a sardonic smile. “Very exciting. But,” he quickly added, “please don’t feel pressured by their enthusiasm.”

Nodding, Jess gave him another quiet “Okay.”

“And I’m telling you this now because up there is waiting a roomful of people who, you already know, are deeply financially invested in how you and I interact, and I don’t want you to go in there thinking that everything is for show.” River reached into the inside pocket of his suit and pulled out his phone. He swiped it awake, opened it to his photos, and began scrolling. Finally, he found what he was looking for and turned the screen to face her.

For a second, Jess had no idea what she was seeing. River’s doofus doppelgänger was her best guess. He was in his early twenties, but his posture read even younger, way less confident.

“Do you recognize him?” he asked.

She was afraid to guess. This scrawny, hunched, mismatched child could not be—

“It’s me.” He swiped through a few more, showing her several photos of the same dorky alternate-reality version of himself.

“Plaid shorts and striped shirt was a real style choice,” Jess said, laughing.

“I moved away from home when I was sixteen,” he said, and the elevator doors opened.

Her stomach vaulted into her throat because for the past ten seconds, she’d forgotten where they were. They stepped out, but River paused in the marble foyer leading to a single front door.

“I graduated high school early and started at Stanford when I was about four months shy of turning seventeen.”

“Holy shit.”

“I was probably twenty in this picture—although you’d never guess it—and you can see that once my sisters could no longer exert daily influence, I had no idea how to dress myself.”

Jess burst out laughing, sparking a return smile.

“If it weren’t for them, I’d probably still be wearing those plaid shorts.”

“Please, no. Your sisters are doing a much better job.”

He laughed now. “It’s just how they are. They left for school on the East Coast when I was in high school and … it wasn’t always … They feel responsible for me.” River licked his lips and glanced up at the door before back to her. “All of this is to say: I wasn’t thinking of this roomful of people when I put the cologne on earlier. I was thinking of you.”

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