Juno came to an abrupt stop, seeming to remember something. “Will Nana have her scooter again?”
“I’m not sure,” Pops told her. “We better get my steel-toed boots out of storage just in case.”
The pager went off in Jess’s lap: the disk illuminated with red lights, vibrating across her thigh. Pops stood abruptly, depositing Juno in his seat before he picked up the pager and hustled to the nurses’ station.
“She must be out of surgery,” Jess said, watching him.
“I’m going to let you get to it, then.” River glanced at Juno. “Thank you for spending the afternoon with me, Juno Merriam. It’s been a long time since I went to a ballet class.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “You can come again if you want.”
“Well, maybe I will.” He smiled, turning to Jess. “Call me if you need anything else?”
“I will.” Words she wanted to say tangled up in her chest in an emotional clog. Gratitude and lust and fear and longing. She didn’t want him to leave. She wanted to stand, slide her arms around his waist under his jacket, and whisper her thanks into the warmth of his neck. But instead, she simply said, “Thank you, River.”
NANA CAME THROUGH surgery with flying colors. She was wheeled into recovery, and while Pops was able to have some time with her, Jess and Juno had a little picnic with sandwiches, fruit, and cookies in the family waiting room.
“How was your afternoon with Dr. Peña?”
“I call him River Nicolas, and he calls me Juno Merriam,” she corrected around a mouthful of mandarin orange. “We went to ballet class and he met Ms. Mia, and he was going to wait in the parents’ room, but I asked Ms. Mia if he could watch us practice our recital. He sat on the floor by the mirror and watched us, Mom. He saw how good we were.”
“I bet he was impressed.” Jess’s chest pinched tightly at the image of six-foot-four-inch River sitting cross-legged on the floor of the dance studio.
“Then we got a pretzel and some flowers, but he thought you guys might be hungry, so we got sandwiches, too.” She munched on her orange and then looked up at Jess with wide blue eyes. “Did you know, I told him that you don’t like raw onions and he said he doesn’t like raw onions, either?”
“I didn’t know that, but it was very nice of you guys to bring us dinner.” She ran her hand through Juno’s coppery hair.
“Now is he your boyfriend?” Juno met her eyes and then looked away in a rare display of shyness. “Because today he picked me up at school sort of like a daddy would.”
“Oh.” A sharp ache pressed up from Jess’s stomach to her breastbone. “Well, we’re friends. So, when I needed help picking you up, he offered to help me like friends do.”
Juno looked disappointed. “Oh.”
“But I’m really glad you like him.” Jess leaned forward, kissing her daughter’s forehead. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?”
“I’m not tired,” Juno claimed through a yawn. “But I bet Pigeon is wondering where we are.”
Jess smiled as they cleaned up their food, watching Juno grow droopier with every passing second. She thought she was a big kid, but as soon as eight o’clock came around, exhaustion rolled over her like an offshore drift. With Nana asleep, they said goodbye to Pops. Jess made him promise to get some sleep, too, and promised him that she’d be back in the morning. She lifted Juno, and wiped-out little arms made their way around Jess’s neck, her legs around Jess’s waist.
The elevator doors opened to the ground floor, and Jess stepped out, stopping in her tracks when she saw River perched in a chair near the exit. Approaching him, Jess balanced Juno in her arms. “River, oh my God, you’re still here?”
He looked up from his phone and abruptly stood. “Hey.”
“Hi.” Jess laughed uncomfortably. Guilt oozed through her. “I hope you didn’t feel like you had to stay.”
He looked sheepish and sleepy. Jess wasn’t sure why, but it made her want to cry. “I wanted to see how she was,” he said. “Your grandmother.”
“She’s a champ. Everything went fine.” Jess smiled. “She’s sleeping now, but I’m sure she’ll start hassling them to let her go tomorrow.”
“Good.” He tucked his phone in his pocket and glanced at Juno, asleep like a sack of potatoes over her shoulder. “I also wanted to thank you for trusting me today.” He leaned to the side, confirming that Juno was out. “She mentioned something in the car to me about Krista and Naomi?”
“Those are her two best friends at school.”
He clicked his tongue, wincing a little. “I think maybe she had a rough day. We talked it out a bit, but sounds like they weren’t being super nice to her at lunch. Just wanted to let you know.”
Jess’s heart twisted. Her sunshine girl rarely spoke about school; it must have been rough if she mentioned it. “I’ll ask her about it. Thank you. You’re amazing.”
“She’s amazing, Jess. You’re doing a great job.”
She had to swallow twice before she could get the words out. “Thank you for saying that.” Pride warmed her from the inside out. Juno was an amazing kid, proof that Jess was a good mom—most of the time. It hadn’t been easy, but they were doing it. His compliment loosened something in her, though, and Jess was suddenly exhausted, too.
“Can I walk you to your car?”
She nodded and they turned, passing through the automatic doors and out into the humid, cool night. At her car, Jess fumbled in her purse for the keys.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked, laughing like he felt useless.
“Nah. You should have seen me when she was younger. A car seat, diaper bag, stroller, and groceries. I’d make an excellent octopus.” Remote in hand, she unlocked the car.
“I’m beginning to see that.”
River opened the back door and she bent to carefully deposit a floppy Juno into the seat, buckling her in. When she straightened, closing the door, he was still there. The sky was dark; the parking lot had mostly emptied out. Crickets chirped from a nearby bush. Jess wondered if he was going to kiss her. The ache for him seemed to expand inside her like a star.
“Thank you again,” she said.
The moment stretched and then he was leaning in, diverting slightly to the left at the very last second so that his lips pressed to the corner of her mouth. It would have been so easy for her to turn her head slightly one way or the other, and they both knew it. She could have made it more intimate, or she could have refused him. Instead, she kept them there in this weird limbo, feeling his lips so close to hers, his breath fanning warm across her skin. She was equal parts caution and lust. She needed to protect her little family; she wanted his mouth open, the heat of him. She needed proof that this wasn’t all fake; she wanted his hands shoving her clothes away.
She was being a coward.
He straightened and gave her one last, lingering smile. “Night, Jess.”
Before he could turn away, she caught his fingers with hers. “River. Hey.”
He frowned down at her, waiting, but the longer she stood there looking up at him, the more his expression transitioned from concern to understanding. Finally, he turned his hand over in hers, threading their fingers together. “You okay?”