“Jess,” River said quietly, reverently, “Johan and Dotty were our very first Diamond Match. Their granddaughter brought them to us back in 2014, and she was right: they came through with a score of ninety-three. Our first score in the nineties.”
Dotty nodded, squeezing Johan’s arm. “We’ve been married since 1958. Sixty-three years.”
Jess wasn’t an emotional person by nature; she adored her daughter and grandparents to the stars and back, but she wasn’t one to cry at commercials and was the only person in her life who could listen to Adele’s “Someone Like You” without weeping. But the moment caught her like a hook, and she felt a swell of emotion rise, salty, in her throat.
Through this deep, sweeping emotional moment—as she struggled to balance reverence and enthusiasm—Jess noticed Johan’s outfit. He was wearing a blazer and dress pants, but beneath the coat was a T-shirt, not a dress shirt. On it was a benzene ring with iron atoms replacing the carbon, and beneath it the words FERROUS WHEEL.
“I realize this is a fancy affair, but I wore it for River,” Johan said, noticing her amusement. “He loves terrible science puns.”
“Does he?” Jess asked, looking at the man in question.
Mr. Fuchs cleared his throat, raising a finger. “What did Gregor Mendel say when he discovered genetics?” He waited a beat and then sang, “Whoopea!”
It was corny, but his delivery was fantastic. Besides, he might have been the smallest, sweetest old man Jess had ever seen. She would laugh at any joke he told for the rest of time.
“Very clever,” River agreed, eyes twinkling. “What is the fastest way to determine the sex of a chromosome?” he asked. “Pull down its genes.”
“Potassium and oxygen went on a date,” Johan said, grinning as their game started rolling. “It went OK.”
Dotty groaned just as Jess said, “Okay, that one is cute.”
“I wish I was adenine,” River said, and winked down at her. “Then I could get paired up with U.”
Everyone Awww-ed audibly, and then three pairs of eyes turned to Jess with anticipation. After a beat, it sank in: she was up to bat. “Um,” she said, digging around the dusty reaches of her brain for a science joke. “Okay, anyone know any good jokes about sodium?” She scanned their faces, grinning. “Or Na?”
Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs looked at each other. “I don’t think I do,” Dotty said, frowning. “Do you know any, darling?”
“No, it’s—” Jess stammered.
“I don’t,” Johan said. “Well, let’s see now. That is a rather specific request. Sodium. Sodium jokes …”
“No,” she said, “the joke is—” She gave up as they continued to confer, mumbling to each other.
“Sorry, dear,” Dotty said. “No sodium jokes, but I am so delighted to meet you.” She smiled up at River. “It’s good to see you, darling. You take care of her, okay?”
“I will.” He bent, kissing her cheek again. Jess and River watched them walk off together, holding hands.
Silence settled over the two of them, and Jess laughed out a quiet “Wow.”
“Only the best jokes require explanation immediately afterward,” he said, eyes dancing at her.
“They do call me the Party Cooler.”
“Do they?” he asked.
“If they don’t, they should.” She grinned up at him. “They were freaking adorable.”
“Aren’t they? They are the nicest people, too.”
“Lucky for them they were already married when they found out they were a Diamond Match.”
He nodded, eyes softening. “Takes some pressure off, I’d imagine.”
Jess would look away, but she couldn’t. Her feelings weren’t growing in a measured, linear way. In the past hour they’d expanded exponentially, like a wave inside her. It was the way she imagined a tsunami might approach San Diego: calm ocean surface until a wall was suddenly crashing over the shore. She stared at him, and all she could think about was how much she wanted him to touch her.
A clinking rose in the room; it was quiet and unobtrusive at first but built into a clattering of silver on crystal all around them. Jess looked around, confused. Awareness sank in, but River was still wearing an expression of frank confusion.
“Oh shit,” she whispered.
“What?” he asked frantically as everyone began to chant, “Kiss, kiss, kiss.”
River’s eyes widened, and Jess witnessed the moment comprehension landed. “Oh, God.”
“It’s okay.” She put a warm smile on her face and turned to face him. They had an audience. River was shy and Jess was deeply private, and this was a nightmare! But no big deal! Soulmates! As presented to this room full of investors, Jess and River kissed, like, all the time.
He mirrored her grin, but Jess hoped hers was way more convincing. “We should have anticipated this,” he gritted out.
“Well, we didn’t,” she whispered, running a coy hand down his chest. The feeling was a bit like being submerged in warm champagne. “We don’t have to if you don’t want.”
“No, we can,” he said immediately, leaning in and toying intimately with a strand of her hair. “I mean, unless you don’t want to?”
His breath smelled like mint and whiskey. Frankly, Jess wanted to.
River looked at her in question as the clattering intensified. But then his eyes flickered away nervously.
“Hey. It’s just me.”
His brow relaxed, and he nodded, breath trembling. “Okay.”
River’s eyes dipped to her mouth.
Are we doing this?
He stepped to her—
I guess we’re doing this.
—bending, sliding one hand up her neck to cup her jaw and leaving a trail of carbonated heat on her skin. He leaned in—she stopped breathing—and his mouth came over hers.
Together, they exhaled in relief, and everything fell away: sound, light, other people. She felt the sag in him, too, the confirmation that they were right to think it would feel this good. One short kiss, and then a longer one, just his mouth covering hers and then coming back to taste again. Just to see.
A valiant collection of neurons in her brain screamed a reminder that fifty pairs of eyes were on them right that second, but even that awareness didn’t keep her from reaching for the lapels of his coat, pulling him flush up against her.
Jess swallowed a moan when his other arm came around her waist, his fingers spreading wide below her ribs. It felt so good it sent a fevered ache straight from her mouth to her navel, corkscrewing through her. River veered slightly away, and Jess expected the kiss to close off, it probably should, but she realized he was only shifting his footing, coming at her from a new angle, sending his fingers into her hair.
She let out the smallest sound, a helpless moan she thought only he could hear, but it seemed to shove him into awareness, and he pulled away, remaining only an inch or two from her face.
Breathless, they stared at each other with wild, shocked eyes. It was probably only a few seconds, but the kiss shifted the trajectory of them, immediately. She wanted more, and she could see in his eyes that he did, too. Jess didn’t question for a single second that the physical attraction was mutual.