Swallowing a bitter sip of coffee, she texted Fizzy:
My inbox is terrifying, and I think I’ll need to stay here today so Pops can get some rest.
Fizzy replied immediately, anticipating what Jess was going to ask even as she was typing out the question:
Does that mean I get
Juno today? Yesssssss!
Jess closed her eyes, tilting her face to the ceiling. Gratitude and guilt prickled hot and cold through her.
Thanks. I won’t be late.
I have nothing else going on. Rob is on a work trip, and I missed your kid.
Thank you. I’m sorry—I swear I’ll get home as early as I can.
Shut up. I mean it.
Unexpected tears erupted across the surface of her eyes, and the sting pulled her into awareness. Pops was probably starving; Nana might wake up soon. Pull it together, Jess.
Back up on the orthopedic floor, voices filtered down the hall from Nana’s room. Jess heard the low rumble of Pops, Nana’s sluggish, soft words … and then the deep, quiet voice that had left her tossing and turning all night.
She turned the corner to see River standing with his back to the door, right next to Pops at the side of Nana’s bed. Nana Jo was awake, blurry-eyed but smiling. From behind, Pops’s posture looked perkier than it had in twenty-four hours, and he held a to-go cup in his left hand.
“It’s good to see you awake,” River was saying. “I met Mr. Davis but didn’t get to meet you yesterday.”
Nana still hadn’t seen Jess in the doorway—she was mostly hidden by River’s body—but Jess caught a glimpse of her beaming up at him. Jess couldn’t blame her grandmother; Dr. Peña was undoubtedly better-looking than she had let on. “Well, you’re sweet to come by, hon. Jess has told us all about you.”
This made him laugh. “Has she? Uh-oh.”
“Well,” Nana hedged, laughing lightly, “not as much as I’d like, I admit. That girl is a steel trap.”
“That sounds about right.” This time, they laughed knowingly together, and Jess scowled from behind them. “I’m glad you seem to be feeling better today.”
Nana Jo pushed to sit up, wincing. “They’ll probably get me out of bed and walking here soon.”
Pops nodded. “That’s right. You up for it, Jellybean?”
“I’m gonna give it my best,” Nana said quietly. Uneasily.
Frozen in the doorway, Jess didn’t know what to do or say. River wasn’t throwing Nana and Pops into We Have Company mode in the slightest.
“Sounds like you’ve got a pretty fancy operation over there in La Jolla,” Pops said.
River nodded, tucking a hand into his pocket. “We’re hoping. If you two ever want to get tested, you’d be a nice addition to our Diamond Match data.”
Nana laughed, waving him off. “Oh, you’re sweet.”
“But he’s right,” Pops said, bending to kiss her forehead. “What do you think? Should we see if we’re meant for each other?”
Nana smacked his chest, laughing, and Jess felt another mysterious urge to cry.
But when she took a step backward to ease out of view, her shoe squeaked on the linoleum, and all heads turned in her direction. River pivoted fully, breaking into a smile.
“Hey, Nana,” Jess said, walking to her bedside and bending to kiss her soft cheek. “How’re you feeling, superstar?”
“Much better with two handsome men and my favorite granddaughter in my room.”
River laughed and extended a coffee from Twiggs to Jess. “I don’t think you got your flat white this morning,” he said. “Fizzy said you hadn’t been in.”
Their eyes met briefly, and Jess was the first to look away. She flushed at the memory of his mouth on hers.
“Came straight here after school drop-off.” She set the crappy hospital coffee on the windowsill (in case of emergency) and Pops’s food on the little table by Nana’s bedside. “Thanks,” Jess said, taking the cup from River. Their fingers brushed and it felt like clothes-ripping foreplay.
River curled his hand into a fist, shoving it into the front pocket of his pants. “Just wanted to stop in on the way to work.”
“That’s really nice of you.”
Nana Jo gave Jess a Is that all you have to say to him? frown, and when River glanced to the side at the sound of a monitor beeping, Jess returned a helpless What else do you want me to say? shrug.
Nana Jo rolled her eyes and Jess looked back to River, who unfortunately had caught the tail end of this nonverbal conversation. He cleared his throat and pulled his sleeve back to look at his watch. “I should probably head out.”
“Thank you for stopping by,” Jess managed.
“Yeah,” River said haltingly. “Of course.”
Jess tried again. “Can I walk you out?”
He nodded, and she followed him into the hallway.
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” he said immediately.
“No.” She lifted her coffee to him. “This will save me today.”
Frowning, he murmured, “Well, I’m glad.”
What would really be helpful would be to step into his arms and let him worry about everything for a few hours. River seemed willing to be that person.
Last night had felt like falling into a deep well filled with stars. Jess could have stayed in his arms for hours without coming up for air. But right now was not the time to be distracted by constant thoughts of getting into River’s pants.
He straightened. “I brought something for Juno.” Digging into his messenger bag, he pulled out a few sheets of paper. “Some roller coaster stuff I printed off last night.”
Jess took the papers without looking at them, unable to shift her gaze from his face. Her heart was ramping up to a crescendo, but her mind had gone unexpectedly mute.
These small, easy ways of caring: sandwiches, coffee, school pickups, roller coaster research.
Juno’s heart was built to expand. He picked me up at school sort of like a daddy would. She was going to get attached, but if his relationship with Jess didn’t pan out after their experiment, he would be gone. Juno would know abandonment—after every tiny and enormous effort Jess had made to build a lasting, secure world for her.
And Jess couldn’t deny: she would feel the loss, too. She didn’t want him to become indispensable and precious to her. She’d never needed anyone except her tiny circle. She didn’t know if she was even capable of trust-falling backward into anyone else’s arms.
It was unfair after everything he’d done for her in the past twenty-four hours, but fear crawled up inside her like a creeping, strangling vine anyway. “Thank you for doing that,” she managed robotically, lifting the papers.
River frowned, at a loss against her blank tone. “Okay—well, that’s all I’ve got.” He adjusted the strap on his shoulder, brow furrowed in confusion. This morning’s Jess was not the same woman he’d kissed outside of the car last night. “I’ll catch you later.”
He turned, stiffly, and began walking toward the elevator.
Stride, stride, stride.
Something thawed in her. “River.” She heard the way her voice rang down the hall, its odd, desperate pitch. “Wait.”