A throat cleared, and they looked up to find River Peña standing not two feet away. “Well, you two sure didn’t waste any time.”
Jess’s stomach fell through the floor, and the words creaked out of her: “Oh shit.”
“Did you hear what I just said?” Fizzy asked.
He let out a slow, controlled exhale. He’d totally heard. “Hear what?” he managed, finally.
Fizzy stood, pulling Jess up with her. “Excellent.” She gave River a dainty curtsy. “Take us away.”
THEY FOLLOWED HIM through a set of sterile double doors and down a long hall, with offices coming off the right side every few yards. Each door had a hammered stainless steel placard and a name: Lisa Addams. Sanjeev Jariwala. David Morris. River Peña. Tiffany Fujita. Brandon Butkis.
Jess glanced over to Fizzy, who, predictably, was already on it: “Butt kiss,” she whispered, delighted.
Through one open office door, Jess saw a broad window displaying a view of the La Jolla shoreline. Less than a mile away, gulls swooped down over white-capped water, and waves crashed violently against rocky cliffs. It was spectacular.
The annual lease on this property had to be at least a kidney and a half.
The trio tromped along in silence, reaching a set of elevators. River pushed the Up button with a long index finger, and then stared wordlessly ahead.
The silence grew heavy. “How long have you worked here?” Jess asked.
“Since it was founded.”
Helpful. She tried again. “How many employees are there?”
“About a dozen.”
“It’s a shame you’re not in marketing,” Jess said with a smile. “Such charm.”
River turned to look at her, and his expression sent a cold wash of sensation down her arms. “Yes, well. Luckily my talents lie elsewhere.” His gaze lingered on hers for just a beat too long, and the sensation turned into warm static just as the elevator doors opened.
Fizzy elbowed her sharply in the ribs. Sexy things, she was clearly thinking.
Assassin things, Jess mentally replied.
For all of the promises of exploiting this great research opportunity, Fizzy was uncharacteristically quiet; maybe she was also cowed by River’s rigid presence. It meant the rest of the slow elevator ride was as wordless as the bleak center of Siberia. When they stepped out, Jess watched her best friend begin scribbling note after note about—she presumed—the building; the handful of buttoned-up scientists they passed in the second hallway; River’s composed pace, perfect posture, and visibly muscular thighs. Meanwhile, Jess grew increasingly self-conscious about the obnoxious squeak of her sneakers on the linoleum and the relative dumpiness of her outfit. Fizzy was dressed like she usually was—an adorable polka dot silk blouse and pencil trousers—and River was dressed as he usually was—a glossy magazine version of business casual. It hadn’t occurred to Jess that morning as she’d hurriedly pulled on a threadbare UCLA sweatshirt, some old Levi’s, and a pair of scuffed Vans that she would later be strolling down a hallway in the most well-heeled part of biotech La Jolla.
At the end of the hall was an open door leading into a conference room. River paused and gestured for them to walk in ahead of him.
“Have a seat in here,” he said. “Lisa will join you momentarily.”
Fizzy glanced to Jess and then back to River. “Who’s Lisa?”
“She’s the head of customer relations and the lead on our app development. She’ll explain the technology and the matching process.”
Frankly this whole thing had become a boatload of confusing secrecy. “You’re not staying?” Jess asked.
He looked affronted, like she’d suggested he was the company water boy. “No.” With a vague smile, he turned and continued down the hallway. Ass.
Only a couple of minutes later, a brunette walked in. She had the sun-kissed, faux-no-makeup, beachy-waved look of perpetually active Southern Californians who could throw on a shapeless muumuu and look stylish.
“Hey!” She strode forward, reaching to shake their hands. “I’m Lisa Addams. Head of customer relations for GeneticAlly. I’m so glad you came in! I haven’t given this presentation to such a small group yet, this’ll be a blast. Are you two ready?”
Fizzy nodded enthusiastically, but Jess was starting to feel a bit like she’d been dropped into a world where she was the only one not in on an important secret. “Would you mind showing me to the restroom before we start?” she asked, wincing lightly. “Coffee.”
With another smile, Lisa gave Jess directions that seemed simple enough. Jess passed a stretch of large doorways with a distinct laboratory vibe. One was labeled SAMPLE PREP. The next was DNA SEQUENCERS, followed by ANALYSIS 1, ANALYSIS 2, and SERVERS. Finally: an alcove with restrooms.
Even the toilets were futuristic. Jess was honestly not sure how to feel about a public bidet, but there were so many buttons on the thing—and hey, warm water—she decided to roll with it. A check of her reflection while she washed her hands informed her that she hadn’t put makeup on that morning and looked haggard and frazzled, even in the dim yet flattering light. Great.
On the way back, her attention was snagged by an open door. It had been forever since she’d been in a real scientific setting, and nostalgia pulsed in the back of her mind. Peeking into the room labeled SAMPLE PREP, Jess saw a long stretch of lab benches and an assortment of machines with keypads and flashing full-color digital displays like something out of a movie.
And then she heard River’s quiet, deep voice: “Isn’t there another 10X bottle of extraction buffer?”
“We have some on order,” another man replied. “I think I have enough to finish this set.”
“Did I hear you had two people come in for a demo?”
“Yes,” River said. “Two women. One of them is apparently an author with a large online presence.”
There was a pause that Jess assumed held some wordless communication.
“I don’t know, man,” River said. “I was just trying to get my coffee, so I suggested they come in so Lisa could handle it.”
“Got it,” the other voice said. “If they send in kits, I’ll run them in quadruplicate with some reference sequences.”
“There may be times soon after the rollout that we only have a handful of samples at a time, so this’ll be a good trial for that.”
She was just about to turn and walk back to the conference room when she heard River say with a laugh, “—an opportunity to prove that there’s someone out there for everyone.”
The other man asked, “Ugly?”
“No, not ugly.” Jess immediately decided to receive this as River’s version of a compliment, until he added: “Entirely average.”
She reared back, palm to chest in genuine offense, and startled when a voice came from behind her. “Did you want a lab tour after your meeting with Lisa?”
The man behind her held his hands up as Jess wheeled on him like she might throw a punch. He was tall and thin and looked like every actor in every movie playing a scientist: Caucasian, glasses, needed a haircut. He was Jeff Goldblum, if Jeff Goldblum were also Benedict Cumberbatch.