He turned slowly, expression guarded.
“I’m sorry I’m so—” She approached him, stopping a few feet away as she struggled for the right words. “I’m sorry I’m oddly nonverbal today. I’m really grateful for your help with Juno last night, and I love that you brought me a coffee.”
He stared at her, waiting for the rest.
“It’s just—none of this is part of our contract. I hope you know I know that. I would never want to take advantage.”
If she thought his expression was flat before, she was wrong. Because at this, his mouth straightened, brow went completely smooth. “You’re right,” he said. He stared at his shoes for a clarifying beat, and then smiled stiffly at her. “I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable last night, or today. Let me know if you need anything else.”
He started to turn again, and a clawing desperation rose in her at the sight of him walking away. She wanted him here, she wanted him right fucking here, but that exact feeling was making her want to reach forward and shove him away.
“It’s just that I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling,” Jess admitted in a burst.
Slowly, River turned back to her and let out a gently bewildered laugh. “Neither of us does.”
“You stand to make so much money,” she said. “How can that not be constantly on my mind? What would I have done if you hadn’t helped with Juno yesterday? But it’s always right here,” she said, urgently tapping her temple with an index finger, “to question whether it’s genuine. It’s one thing if you’re fooling me, it’s another when it’s my kid.”
His brow relaxed. “I’m not here for the stock price, Jess. I’ve said it before. It isn’t about the money.”
“That’s something only people who aren’t worried about money say.”
River sighed, blinking away and then back to her. “Did last night feel like an act to you?” When she didn’t answer, he took a step closer, tone softening. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you? The DNADuo can bring us together, but it can’t make us fall for each other. It can’t know your past or mine, or predict what would scare us off, or entice us to be together. All of that is up to us, not the algorithm.”
Jess closed her eyes and reached up, rubbing her hand over her face. Everything he said sounded so logical. But still. She was scared.
She resented her infatuation’s persistent stab into every waking moment. She was attracted to River beyond anything she’d felt before, but it was emotional, too. It was the kind of attraction that sent down roots below the surface.
This new, tender kind of torture made her want him in all aspects of her life. On the pillow next to hers. Across the table at dinner. Holding her hand at the hospital. River was kind, and thoughtful, and vulnerable. He was brilliant and quietly funny. He was everything she ever wanted in a partner, even if she didn’t realize it until he was standing right here, telling her that it was all up to them to try, or not.
Jess released a tiny stream of anxiety: “I’m scared, okay? I don’t want to get hurt, and I really don’t want Juno to get hurt. She’s never—” She stopped short, rephrasing. “Juno’s never had someone she loved disappear on her.”
River’s unwavering gaze softened, and he took another step closer to her. “I don’t want that, either. But I’m not a soldier or a robot. I’m not here on GeneticAlly business. I’m following what I’m feeling.” He looked back and forth between her eyes for a bit before something in his expression cleared, relaxing. “You’d have no way of knowing this, but I’m terrible at faking emotions.” Jess laughed through a quiet sob. “And I get that it’s more complicated because of Juno, but what else am I supposed to do but ask? I want to spend time with you.”
“We are spending time together,” Jess said lamely.
“Official events and conversations in hospital hallways?” he asked, frowning. “Is this enough for you?”
Could he see the no in her eyes? “I don’t know what else is possible right now.”
“What does that mean?” River closed the last bit of distance between them, reaching for her free hand. It felt cold against the heat of his fingers. He looked around the hallway surrounding them. “This is part of life, Jess. Emergencies and responsibility and managing small fires all the time—but it’s only part of it. There are quiet moments, too. Good moments. Moments when we can ask for more.”
“It’s not the part I’m very good at.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” He unleashed a wry smile.
This made her laugh. “What are you saying?”
“I thought it was obvious.” His grin turned shy. “Really?”
“I want to be here to bring you coffee. I want to take you out to dinner and order the same food and hear you recite the odds that we would have met. I want to hate-attend fancy social events together.” Jess laughed, a surprised burst of sound, and his tone softened. “I want you to call me for help—without an apology already on the tip of your tongue. I want to feel like I can kiss you again by your car at the end of the night.” He swallowed. “I want you in my bed.”
Jess was a little afraid that her feet would melt into the floor. That flames would travel up her legs and burn a hole straight through her. She wanted that. But if she let herself fall for River, there would be no easy way out.
“I can tell you’re not sure what to say,” he said, bending to kiss her cheek. “That’s okay. You know where to find me when you’re ready.”
POPS, WOULD YOU get out of here for just a little while?”
He ignored her. “What’s a thirteen-letter word for ‘old’?”
“I’d say Ronald Davis,” Jess said, “but that’s only eleven.”
Nana chuckled from the bed, where she was drowsily half watching TV on mute.
“Well?” he prompted, tired and irritable.
Jess shook her head. “Nope.”
“What do you mean, ‘nope’?” he gruffed.
“I’m not helping you,” she told him. “You stink and you’re falling asleep in your chair.”
“She’s right,” Nana murmured.
He stared at Nana Jo, then at Jess, and then blinked down, forlorn, at the puzzle. “Octogenarian?” He counted on his fingers, and grunted in annoyance. “Septuagenarian?” Victorious, he moved to write it in.
“That’s fourteen letters,” Jess said. “You’re forgetting the U in there, aren’t you?”
Irked, Pops dropped the crossword onto the table in defeat.
“Go home for a bit,” Nana said sleepily. “I don’t need you watching me all day.”
“Well, it’s not my fault I can’t take my eyes off you. You’re just too pretty.”
Nana Jo rolled her eyes, but his words made her glow like a Christmas tree.
“Fine, I’ll go home and shower and sleep.” He stood, stretching. Something cracked in his back and he let out a tight moan before kissing Nana on the forehead. He looked over his shoulder at Jess. “You won’t leave her?” Jess forgave him the accusatory tone; he was exhausted.