She didn’t know what else to say besides “Thank you for telling me.”
Jess was split in half—turned on by his confession and terrified by it.
Luckily, he didn’t seem to need a bigger response. Straightening, River turned to face the Grubers’ double front door and took a deep breath. She expected him to ring the bell, but he didn’t.
After a few long, increasingly awkward moments of silence, Jess asked, “You okay?”
“I hate these things,” he admitted.
It was a little like being hit in the face with the obvious stick.
Of course: River wasn’t a callous, gruff asshole. He was shy. Having to do this part of the job was probably miserable for him. Jess felt this as clearly as if she’d just read it on a pamphlet entitled Instructions to Your Soulmate. Framing every one of their past interactions through this lens only solidified for her that River was nothing like Brandon—all smiles and easy charm. He was most comfortable when facing the fume hood with his back to the room, just him and some tubes and billions and billions of paired-up nucleotides.
She was going to have to be the brave one here. Reaching down, Jess laced her fingers with his. Warmth spiraled up from her fingertips, crackling along every inch to her shoulder and across her chest.
“We’ve got this,” she said.
He squeezed her hand. “We don’t have much choice.”
“Let’s just stay together, okay?”
“Yes,” he whispered. “Good plan.”
In unison, they took a deep, bracing breath. Reaching forward, River pressed the doorbell.
THE MOMENT THE door swung open, they could hear the commotion inside come to a brief halt before it broke out into glass-clinking, jewelry-rustling, jacket-straightening mayhem. A chorus of voices whispered their names and They’re here!, followed by a smattering of applause.
A valet stepped unobtrusively to the side as a tall, angular Black man approached, casually gorgeous in a stylish suit, and gave Jess a smile that somehow communicated a warm You can trust me vibe. His hand was outstretched, and only a few paces behind him was a woman, playfully shuffle-jogging in sky-high heels to catch up.
“Trevor Gruber,” he said to Jess, shaking her hand.
“Great to meet you, Jess.” He pulled River in for a hug. “Good to see you, man. And this,” he said to Jess as the petite Asian woman arrived at his side, “is my wife, Caroline. Thank you so much for coming tonight.”
“Hi, you two!” Caroline embraced Jess first, and then stepped forward to hug River. Her dress clung to and flowed over her body in such a graceful balance that Jess wanted to high-five her. When Caroline moved back, Jess noticed a caterer practically materialize out of thin air.
Caroline offered River a mischievous little smile and reached back to grab a highball glass from the tray held aloft by the waiter. She pressed the drink into River’s hand. “See? One step in the door, just like I promised.” He laughed, and she stretched, kissing his cheek, stage-whispering, “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Jess immediately loved her.
River looked over their shoulders, deeper into the room. “This isn’t bad?”
Jess followed his gaze and did a quick estimation that there were upward of fifty people in the expansive living room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking San Diego Bay and the Coronado Bridge. Every one of them in formal attire, every one of them staring at the Diamond couple.
Turning to their hosts to compliment the view, Jess stopped at the sight of River’s expression, swallowing her words. He’d gone vaguely pale and clammy. He lifted the drink to his lips, and then hummed appreciatively, murmuring with recognition some obscure alcohol name Jess didn’t catch, and thanking Caroline under his breath.
With a smile aimed at Jess, Caroline turned and grabbed the other item off the caterer’s tray—a glass of white wine. “River said you like semidry whites.” She glanced sweetly at him for confirmation. “This is a viognier-marsanne.”
“Gesundheit,” Jess joked dorkily, and to her relief, Caroline laughed. River had paid attention to what she’d ordered at dinner with David and Brandon and remembered all this time?
He wore cologne for her.
He wanted to eat her like beef Wellington in this dress.
Caroline turned to face the party. “Everyone is dying to meet you, Jess.” She angled back to them. “But let’s let them sweat it out for a few. It’s my party.” Threading her arm through Trevor’s, she leaned in conspiratorially. “We loved the profile in the Trib—River is my favorite guy ever, other than the one I married, and those pictures? Oh my God. The one of you in his coat?” She lightly smacked Jess’s arm. “Forget it. I dropped dead on the spot. But I’m afraid this party got away from me as soon as I mentioned the idea to my friend Tilly.” She pointed vaguely across the room to where this Tilly must have been. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be so fun to have Jess and River over?’ She talked to Brandon and it turned into a whole thing.” Caroline rolled her eyes in apology. “I meant like dinner. Of course, the two of them had the entire GeneticAlly board and all the investors invited before I’d even told Trevor.”
Trevor laughed, nodding. “So, see? You aren’t the only one who was dreading it.”
“I wasn’t dreading it!” Jess insisted, smiling her best liar smile.
“I meant River,” Trevor joked.
“Come on,” Caroline said, and took Jess’s arm. Jess grabbed blindly for River’s free hand before they could be separated, feeling oddly panicked. “Let me introduce you to some people.”
Of course, River already knew everyone here; she was the novelty.
First up were the Watson-Duggars, a fiftysomething couple who, within thirty seconds, suggested—without subtlety—that it would be great if Jess and River could get married before the IPO. And then there were the Lius, who owned the building they were standing in. Mrs. Liu admitted to Jess in a breathless whisper that they’d been married for twenty-seven years but she hadn’t been at all surprised to find out they were a Base Match. Awkward!
The Romas seemed to want to punch holes in Jess and River’s possible connection, and Jess reminded herself—as they quizzed her about River’s history, most of which she got wrong—that they were just trying to protect their investment, not attack her.
Albert Mendoza couldn’t stop staring at Jess’s chest. Worse, she was worried his wife might actually reach forward and stroke River’s biceps, the way she kept eyeing him with such blatant sex eyes. Dr. Farley McIntosh and his husband were prominent San Diego architects and mostly wanted to know whether Jess had heard of any of their buildings.
Through all of it, River’s hand grew sweatier and sweatier in her grip.
They moved from group to group, like a bride and groom at their reception. They were specimens to be poked at, prodded, questioned, and quizzed.
Is it a connection you can just feel when you look at him?
Is the sex, you know … unreal?
How long before wedding bells?
Have you met River’s sisters yet?
Your children are going to be stunning!