What happens if you match like this with someone else?
Jess and River had stumbled through their answers together, hands clasped desperately, tight smiles in place, but that last question pulled Jess up short, and she made an excuse about needing the restroom, following River’s directions down the hall to the second door on the left. The condo was enormous, and Jess itched to escape, to explore, to see how many rooms were actually furnished.
But it was enough just to step out of the melee and into a quiet space for a few minutes. Her heart was on a rampage, tearing everything up in her chest. If she hadn’t been wearing such artfully applied makeup, Jess would’ve splashed water on her face, but as it was, she just leaned forward, taking a few deep breaths. Every time she thought she had a handle on what all of this meant, another question came at her around the corner, like a curveball. First, she hadn’t believed the result, and then she hadn’t needed to because—money. And then she’d suspected the DNADuo score might be true, but it didn’t matter because she wasn’t looking for love, dammit. And now, being by River’s side all night and feeling like they were in this as a team from the very first step made the charade feel so real. When someone had asked about another soulmate out there somewhere, she’d wanted to vomit.
Too much, too fast.
Jess washed her hands, reapplied her lipstick, and gave herself a hard but encouraging stare in the mirror. This party had to have cost thousands of dollars. She was wearing a dress someone else had paid for. Who was she pretending to be? Just get through it and get home.
But when she stepped out into the hall, River was there waiting, one ankle crossed over the other, leaning casually against the opposite wall. His posture was so unconsciously confident, so sensual that Jess felt her legs clench together hard in response.
He straightened. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just—” She pointed over her shoulder. “Needed a second.”
A relieved smile played at his lips. “I did, too.”
She blew out a slow breath. “This isn’t my world at all.” The effect of his proximity simmered just beneath her skin and she felt the words slip out: “I hope I’m not messing it up for you.”
A flash of emotion moved over his face, and he burst forward a step. “You’re— No. You’re amazing.” He looked back down the hall. “And I’m sorry Brandon isn’t here. This is his scene. Not mine.”
“I get it,” Jess said quietly. “They want to see their investment in action.”
She could immediately tell he didn’t love this phrasing … but also couldn’t disagree.
“It must be especially surreal to you,” she said, “to already know these people and have them see you tonight not as the lead scientist, but as one of the big findings.”
“Yeah. Maybe three people in that room knew anything about my personal life. Now all these strangers feel comfortable making comments about our sex life and asking me when I’m going to propose.”
Jess barked out a nervous laugh. “Right.”
“It occurred to me,” he began, and then turned his face up to the ceiling. “When Esther Lin asked us about, you know, matching with someone else …”
Jess waited for him to finish, her heart beating like a racer’s at the starting line.
“Were you married to Juno’s dad?” he finally asked.
She exhaled. “No.” There was a long pause where it felt like he wanted more, but they were standing in a hallway at a party, and she just honestly didn’t know how much more there was to say about her and Alec. In hindsight, their footing had never been solid. The pregnancy hadn’t ended things; it had just sped the demise along. “He’s not in the picture,” she finished, eventually. “He never really has been. We broke up before Juno was born.”
She could see his curiosity visibly sated. They turned and started walking leisurely back down the hall toward the party.
“You mentioned you’ve always lived near your grandparents. Did your parents pass, or—?”
“My mom struggled with addiction—still does—and relinquished custody of me when I was six. I never knew my father.”
“Oh.” He stopped walking and turned to her, eyes wide. “Wow.”
The pain in his expression seemed genuine. Jess nodded slowly, unsure where to look. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry, Jess.”
“No, really, Nana Jo and Pops are the best people I’ve ever known. I knew from a really young age that I was better off.”
“They sound amazing.”
She suddenly felt naked. Here she was, her ex-boyfriend didn’t even want to raise a kid with her, mother chose drugs over her, raised by grandparents and still living with them. River had two sisters who adored him so much they helped him figure out how to dress to reach his full hotness potential.
“What is that expression?” he asked, leaning in. “What did I say?”
Jess was made uneasy by how quickly he read her. A panic she didn’t completely understand rose in her throat, making her want to look for an exit. This party was the kind of thing that happened to the heroine of the story, not the best friend. What was she doing here?
Humor, as usual, was her best defense. “Just imagining how from your perspective your Diamond Match has a truckload of baggage.”
He didn’t laugh. “Don’t we all?”
Her smile faded. “Do we?”
“We do. But come on. I know you well enough to know that you’re not carrying baggage.” He was holding her gaze, and she felt physically unable to look away. “You’ve chosen your circumstances, Jess. I like that about you. You take what you want and leave the rest behind. You decide.”
He was right. She felt herself stand up straighter, lean toward him.
“There you are!” a voice called out. “River, come on down here, and bring that young lady of yours.”
Still holding her eyes, he fought a smile. “Is this young lady of mine ready for some more mingling?”
Jess laughed. “I’ve sufficiently recharged my battery, yes.”
Taking her hand, he led her back down the hall to the party, toward the tiny old man who’d called out his name. He had to be in his eighties, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a well-worn black suit. Beside him was a woman with a thick braid of white hair around the crown of her head and makeup-free crepe-lined features. She was wearing a simple black dress with a lace collar and pearls. Somehow she was even smaller than her husband.
“How’d they convince you to come out?” River asked, grinning.
“Caroline leaned on Dorothy,” the man said in a thick German accent.
“And by ‘leaned on,’” Dorothy chimed in, “he means that Caroline promised me I’d get to see you.”
River bent to kiss her powder-soft cheek. “Johan, Dotty, this is my Jessica.”
Her heart fell in a swoon, from her chest to her feet.
“Jess, Johan and Dotty Fuchs.”
She didn’t even have time to recover; both tiny octogenarians were coming toward her, each wanting an embrace.
She bent, hugging them in turn. “Hi. Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs.”