Two women sitting side by side glanced up from their cocktails as Jess and River approached. The resemblance was undeniable. One had long dark hair, the ends cut blunt, bangs razor-straight and smooth as gloss under the bright lights. The other was a few years younger, with curly hair that’d been highlighted with a coppery red. Both women shared River’s golden-brown eyes, perfect olive skin, and heart-shaped mouth. The Peña family genes were a wonder.
Shouting over each other, they stood, wrapping River in a tight group hug before pulling back to fuss at him simultaneously.
“Your hair is so long!”
“I’m telling Mom, you’re so skinny. Your pants look like trash bags!”
Jess followed their attention to his expensive charcoal trousers, ironed to smooth perfection. They … did not look like trash bags, but Jess appreciated the sisterly ribbing anyway. Clearly the entire family could step into and out of the pages of a fashion magazine comfortably.
River managed to extract himself, reaching up to smooth his ruffled hair. He had lipstick on each cheek—which both women tried to smudge away.
“Jess, these are my obnoxious sisters, Natalia and Pilar. Please don’t believe anything they tell you.”
The older one—Natalia—wrapped Jess in a tight hug. “Holy crap, you are so pretty.” She turned to her sister. “Isn’t she so pretty?”
“Way too pretty for him,” Pilar said, pulling Jess in for a hug of her own.
“It’s nice to meet you. River’s told me so much about you.”
Natalia glanced warily at her brother. “I’m sure he has.”
They sat down, ordered cocktails for Jess and River and a few appetizers to share. Jess learned that their mom was a pharmacist, and their dad sold insurance. Natalia was married and a research analyst in Palo Alto; Pilar had recently gone back to school to be a nurse and lived with her girlfriend in Oakland. It was clear they adored their brother. But as River had promised, they loved giving him shit.
“So.” Natalia rested her chin in her hand. “I hear you two didn’t exactly get along before all this.”
Jess glanced at River, passing this one off to him. But then questions of her own bubbled to the surface. Did they know about the money? How honest was she supposed to be here?
River eyed Natalia across the table. “My not-so-subtle sister is trying to ask if I was the asshole.”
They both grinned, and Jess perked up. “Oh, he definitely was.”
“Hey,” he said. “I wasn’t that bad.”
Jess turned in her seat to face him. “You called me ‘entirely average.’”
Pilar let out a low whistle. “Child, are you blind?”
“Not to her face!” he corrected, and turned back to Jess. “And in my defense, the first time you spoke to me, you—”
“Don’t do it,” Pilar whispered, laughing. “Trust me.”
“—were wearing an old baggy sweatshirt.”
They all stared blankly at him. River finally exhaled. “I was the asshole.”
Pilar lifted her chin. “Jess, can I tell you an important family secret?”
“If I left here without any, I would be devastated.”
She laughed. “I get that my brother looks like this now, but that wasn’t always true. Nitpicking other people’s clothing choices would have been the least of his worries.”
“He said it,” Jess said, “but I find it hard to believe.”
Pilar bent, scrolling through her phone, quickly locating what she wanted … almost as if she’d put it there for easy access. Jess stared when Pilar turned the screen to face her. “Stop it.” She looked at River and then back at the photo. “That isn’t you.”
A scrawny kid with a bowl haircut and headgear looked out from Pilar’s phone. Searching for any resemblance to her boyfriend, she stared at it long enough for River to laughingly shove the phone away.
“Until he was twenty-one, he had no game to speak of,” Pilar said.
River laughed. “It’s true. But I managed.”
“Yeah, you did,” Natalia said. “I remember in high school there was this football player who was constantly bothering him. Anthony something. River tutored half the class to bring up the curve. Anthony failed and was kicked off the team.”
“That’s called problem solving,” River mumbled into his glass.
“He did the same thing when I ran against Nikki Ruthers for student council,” Pilar said. “He offered group tutoring sessions to everyone who voted for me. I won by a landslide.”
River thoughtfully selected a piece of prosciutto-wrapped grilled endive from a plate. “Longest summer of my life.”
“Okay, that’s actually really sweet,” Jess said, taking his hand under the table and giving it a little squeeze.
“I know it’s hard to imagine with his grumbly exterior, but he was the softest little boy.” Natalia put her hand on Pilar’s arm. “Do you remember the way he followed Abuela around?”
Pilar’s face crumpled into a dramatic tender sob. “And watched her stories with her!”
“Oh man, I did not anticipate this one coming up,” River said.
“I’m two years older than River,” Natalia told Jess, “and Pilar is a year older than me, so he was like our baby, too. Our parents both worked full-time, and back then there’s no way they could have afforded summer camp for all three kids, so our summers were spent with Abuela. River was her little helper, and every afternoon they would sit together and watch soap operas.”
River examined the appetizers like they were data sets.
“Closet soap opera fan?” Jess said. “We all have a secret identity, but this? It would be easier to believe you were an assassin.”
“They’re just being dramatic,” he said, and then laughed at her, murmuring, “Assassin? Really?”
“Don’t listen to him, Jess,” Natalia said. “He watched so many of them and got in deep. I thought he’d grow up to be a telenovela star or something, but the whole DNA-love thing makes sense when you think about it.”
Jess turned to look at him and found him watching her with such tender amusement it was almost like he’d just wrapped his arms around her right at the table.
“The DNA-love thing does make sense when you think about it,” she agreed quietly.
THEIR HANDS ENTWINED on the drive to his place, both resting on his thigh, and the Audi’s seat warmers made Jess feel like she was melting into a pile of happy goo.
“That was fun,” she mumbled, full of fantastic food and just past tipsy from all the wine.
“Natalia texted me already that they both adored you and if I mess this up, they’ll neuter me.”
Jess grimaced. “Please don’t mess it up. You have such a big, beautiful—”
River turned and smirked at her.
“Personality,” she finished, grinning back. “And being neutered would be kind of a downer.”
“I’m glad you have such a fondness for my personality,” he said, turning his attention forward again.
“A soft spot, one might even say,” she joked.
He looked at her again, playfully scandalized. “How much wine did you have, woman?”