He laughed, tilting his head back and giving her a delightful view of his throat. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you know exactly how it went down.”
“She definitely does not get the evil-genius persuasiveness from me.”
River’s smile stuttered; Alec was there with them now. River reached up to twist a long strand of her hair around his finger.
Jess cleared her throat. “Or her father, for that matter. Like I said: she’s half Fizzy’s.”
“Her father’s not in the picture at all?” River asked quietly.
“Alec, and no.”
“So he won’t ever—”
“Try to share custody?” Jess anticipated the end to the question, shaking her head. “No. He signed away his rights before Juno was born.”
River blew out a surprised breath. “What a dick.”
She loved that this was his reaction, but she didn’t need it. “I’m glad he did.”
He smiled up at her, unsure, and she got a tiny glimpse of River from before, the cautious, shy man who hadn’t yet pulled her proverbial pin and made her come undone.
“What?” she asked, reaching up and drawing a line over the crease in his forehead.
“Has Juno ever met one of your boyfriends?”
Jess laughed and he shifted her forward, closer. She deflected. “Is that what this is? Boyfriend?”
“As soon as I said that word, it seemed both a presumption and an underrepresentation.”
“Because ninety-eight,” she said, grinning.
He leaned in, kissing her neck. “Because ninety-eight.”
“The more accurate question,” she said as he kissed his way around the curve of her jaw, “is whether I’ve had a boyfriend since Juno.”
River stilled, and then pulled back, looking at her. “Isn’t she seven?”
“She is. I’ve seen a few people here and there, but no one I would consider a boyfriend.”
He drew another gently looping shape across her collarbone, humming. “Wow.”
“Is that weird?” Jess asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would handle it, either, if I had a kid.”
“Do you date a lot?”
He brought both hands below the blanket again and laid them on her hips. It made it hard to focus on his words even when he said, “Not a lot. Some. A couple times a month, maybe? I work a hundred hours a week.”
“Not this week.”
River grinned. “No, not this week. This week I’ve been unable to stop checking in on my Diamond Match.”
She kissed him again, deeper. “I’m glad you’re persistent.”
“One of us has to be.”
OKAY, ONE ON each hand.” She waited until Juno tugged the lobster claw oven mitts all the way on. “It’ll be hot, so be careful.”
Juno opened the oven door and they both winced from the hot wash of air as it passed over their faces. Jess helped her carefully pull the cookie sheet from the top rack and set it on the stove to cool. The entire apartment smelled like cinnamon and warm oatmeal, Nana’s favorite.
Juno growled like a hungry little creature and inhaled deeply over the pan. “Nana is gonna be so happy. What day does she come home?”
Using a spatula, they moved each cookie to the cooling rack. “Three days,” Jess said. “Normally people only stay a few days, but she’s older so they want to make sure she’s up and moving okay before they let her go.”
Juno pursed her lips in concentration. “So, Sunday?”
“Maybe Try Something New Sunday can be bringing Nana home from the hospital. We’ve never done that before.”
“We could just have cuddles and movie day here. Nana will probably be tired.”
“I bet you’re right. I think she’d love that.”
“So, we can take her cookies tonight; Friday is my sleepover at Naomi’s house.” She gasped as if just remembering something. “Did I tell you she got a dog? He’s part poodle so he’s very sweet and doesn’t shed.” She batted her eyelashes up at her mom. “A dog wouldn’t eat our cat.”
“Child, we are bursting at the seams. Maybe when we have a yard where a dog can run.” Gently redirecting, she continued, “So Friday is the sleepover …”
Juno huffed out a little sound, but relented. “Yeah, then Saturday maybe I can stay at Naomi’s for a little while? And Nana will be back Sunday.” A twinge of unease worked up Jess’s spine at the mention of Naomi’s name. When she’d asked, Juno said that they’d had a fight, but it seemed to have been forgotten. She knew kids needed to learn how to resolve conflict on their own, but the mama bear in her never hibernated too deep below the surface.
“You sure you want to do a sleepover?” Jess asked. “We could go to the movies together. Maybe the zoo?”
“No, it’s Naomi’s birthday, and I already got her a present. They’re doing a hula night.”
“You got her a present?”
“I used my good citizen tickets and got her two slap bracelets and some glitter stickers.”
Offering a high five, Jess told her, “I have some gift bags in the closet; maybe we can use one of them and put a gift certificate in there, too?”
With the plan in place, they slid the rest of the cookie dough toward them to load up another sheet just as the doorbell rang. “Let’s get these finished so we can go before visiting hours end,” Jess said. “Use the spoon to scoop the rest on the pan, and I’ll be right back. Don’t touch the oven.”
Out in the living room, her heart tripped over itself when she peeked out the window and saw River standing on the other side.
Jess glanced down, groaning. Would it kill her to wear something other than sweats?
He looked up at the sound of the door swinging open and her breath went thin. His smile was somehow both shy and naughty; the muscular curves of his shoulders and chest were visible beneath the fabric of his shirt, and Jess wanted to rip it open like a bag of chips.
“Hey.” She tried to keep it together.
His voice was a low, secretive burr: “I hope it’s okay that I stopped by.”
“It’s fine.” Jess swallowed. “Do you—um, do you want to come in?”
He stepped inside, hesitating for only a second before bending and carefully putting his mouth on hers. Heat erupted in her veins, and even though it was only a touch and he pulled away before they were busted, Jess knew she looked like she was about to catch fire anyway.
“Hi,” he said quietly.
She nodded. “Definitely good now.”
Beaming, he looked past her, and she found herself following every point of his attention, trying to see the apartment through his eyes. It wasn’t tiny, but it wasn’t big, either. She’d splurged on the yellow couch and bright blue chairs, but repainting the kitchen cabinets wasn’t the same as getting new ones, and instead of art covering the walls, she had framed photos and elementary school art projects.