He stared at her in confusion for a few long moments before bending and putting his head in his hands. “I know it doesn’t change anything,” he said quietly, “but I felt shattered.” He didn’t move for several long moments. “I was totally humiliated, Jess. Yes, it’s just data, but it was the cruelest thing they could have done. People I’ve known and trusted for nearly fifteen years took advantage of my genuine belief in this technology. They manipulated me personally and the project I’ve spent my entire adult life on—because they knew that if I got that score, I would do everything in my power to explore the personal implication of it.” River looked up at her, and Jess saw that his eyes were red-rimmed. “I got crushed as a scientist and duped as a man. I felt like the entire world was”—he coughed—“laughing at me.”
“I wasn’t laughing at you,” Jess reminded him. “We were already so much more than a number on a piece of paper. And if you’d come to me, you would have had someone in your corner, ready to fight anyone who hurt you. Ready to fight for you.”
“I didn’t even know how to understand it in my own mind. I—I—” He struggled to find the words, sitting up and looking at her in earnest. “I didn’t leave my office for days. I pored through every line of data from every Gold or higher pairing we’ve had. Sanjeev and I reran samples twenty-four hours a day to make sure the company wasn’t going to have to fold.”
“You still could have called.”
He opened his mouth to defend himself and then exhaled, tilting his face to the ceiling before meeting her eyes. “I could have. I should have. I’m sorry, Jess. Time just flies for me when I’m like this. But I’ve only been home to shower and change.”
She couldn’t help but let her gaze rise, studying his new haircut.
He shook his head, understanding immediately. “I got a haircut just before coming to see you.”
“So you could look handsome for our breakup?”
Abruptly, River stood. “Is that what you think this is?”
Jess let out a sharp breath. “I’m sorry, what?”
“We’re breaking up?” he asked, voice tight.
“What are the other options?” She pretended to check her watch. “I mean, it’s a little late for our standing sex date, and it’s been a weird week, but why not, for old times’—”
“Jess,” he rasped, “stop it.”
She crossed the room and got right up in his face. “You stop it. Why are you even here? I get that you needed space. But I fell in love with you. Juno fell in love with you.” He reacted like he’d taken a shove to the stomach, and Jess pushed on. “Do you know what that means?” She pressed her fingertips to her chest, mortified when her throat started to burn. “I opened my life to you. I gave you the power to gut me if you disappeared, and you knew that, and you did it anyway. I understand that you were struggling, too. But just a word—a text—and I would have waited.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. “I wish I’d handled it differently. I fucked up.”
“I’m sorry.” He bowed his head. “I didn’t know how you’d feel once you weren’t obligated to be with me.”
That pulled her up short. “River, I never felt obligated to be with you. Not the way that we were together by the end.”
He took a step closer, growling, “Stop calling it the end.”
“I don’t understand what you think is happening here! You don’t get to drop off the face of the earth for a week and then act confused.”
“Do you remember what you said to me the last time we saw each other?” he asked, closing the distance between them. “You said, ‘Statistics can’t tell us what will happen, they can only tell us what might happen.’ And you were right. A Diamond Match is so rare that two random people are ten thousand times more likely to find their soulmate with a Base Match than they are to ever score above a ninety with someone else.”
“I could have told you that,” Jess said quietly, adding with a reluctant smile, “And I bet you didn’t even use the right analysis to calculate it.”
He laughed dryly. “I guess I needed to see it for myself.”
Jess couldn’t help but give him an exasperated look.
Tentatively, he smiled. But it ebbed away in the face of her stony silence. “Do you really want to break up?”
Jess had no idea what to say to that. She hadn’t expected to be given the option. She’d thought it was a done deal. “I didn’t, but, I mean—”
“It’s a yes or no,” he said, but gently, reaching forward to take her hand. “And for me the answer is a no. I love you. I love Juno. I needed to get my head on straight, but once I did, the first person I wanted to talk to was you.”
“About a week ago,” Jess said, “my mom called. She was drunk at a friend’s house in Vista. I had to drive up to get her on a school night, walk into a house full of fucked-up people with my seven-year-old, and give my mother ten thousand dollars so she could avoid being arrested for stealing a huge amount of merchandise.”
River paled. “What?”
“I told her that if I gave her the money, she was never to contact me or Juno again. When I came home to get my head on straight, the first person I wanted to talk to was you. But I didn’t have that option.”
To his credit, River didn’t wince or frown or tense his jaw defensively. He just swallowed, nodded once, and absorbed it. “I should have been here. I hate that I wasn’t.”
“How do I know you’ll be here the next time?” she asked. “I get that this was terrible for you. I can absolutely imagine how you don’t even look up when you’re in a work panic. But I really, truly wanted to be the person you turned to during all of this. And you said it yourself to me once: Bad things happen all the time. That’s life. So, if something huge happens at work, and you don’t know how to process it, do I have to worry that you’re going to retreat into yourself and not speak to me for eight days?”
“No. I’m going to work on that. I promise.”
Jess stared up at him. Dark eyes, thick lashes, full mouth. That smooth neck she fantasized about licking and biting her way down to the world’s most perfectly muscled collarbones. Inside that cranium was a genius-level brain, and—when he let himself out of the lab for a breath—River Peña had the emotional depth of a man who’d already lived an entire lifetime. He talked stats with her, and the little heart that watched stories with his abuela still beat in his chest. He loves me, and he loves my kid.
“I don’t want to break up, either,” Jess admitted.
He bowed his head, exhaling slowly. “Oh my God. I really wasn’t sure which way that was going to go.” Reaching forward, he cupped the back of her neck and gently guided her forward, into his arms. “Holy shit, about your mom. I … this is a bigger conversation, I know.”
“Later,” Jess said, pulling back and resting her hand on his chest. “Is the company going under?”
He shook his head. “In the end, they only fabricated our score. Everything else reproduced within the standard margin of error.”