So she knew better than to think even GeneticAlly’s official IPO the next day would keep him away. Still, they had a company dinner tonight, and she expected River to be at the office until well past midnight—and probably gone again before Jess was awake. The starting price for the stock was higher than even the underwriter had dreamed it could be, and everyone was on tenterhooks hoping it wouldn’t drop in the aftermarket. If it held steady, or climbed, the original GeneticAlly team—minus David, Brandon, and Tiffany, who’d breached an important contractual clause—would each be worth tens of millions overnight.
“What time do you need to leave?” she asked.
He shrugged distractedly, and she wasn’t able to pester an answer out of him because then they were at Juno’s table, and both River and Juno were beaming with such pride that for a second Jess wanted to ask whose second-grade art-science assignment it had been. But how could she tease those faces? As parents, teachers, and fellow students came around the room to hear Juno’s presentation—River was obediently quiet but stood proudly nearby—Jess felt the weight of the past few months press down on her chest like a sandbag. Destiny could also be a choice, she’d realized. To believe or not, to be vulnerable or not, to go all in or not. Tears pricked the surface of her eyes and she turned to Fizzy, pretending an eyelash had gotten in one. Fizzy, to her credit, pulled a tissue and a mirror out of her purse, allowing Jess her dignity.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Fizzy agreed in a whisper. She watched River without a trace of tightness or envy in her expression; after moving on from the Rob debacle, Fizzy had realized she was ready for the real deal, updated her DNADuo criteria, and was confident her own Titanium-or-higher wasn’t too far away.
When the judges were finished viewing the projects and tabulating the scores, students were encouraged to find their families and wait in the auditorium for results.
It was a familiar scene: rows of folding chairs and excited chatter. Younger kids darted between the aisles while parents took time to catch up with each other. It wasn’t too far in the rearview mirror when a night like this would have stoked the embers of loneliness and been followed by days of smoldering in her own insistence that Single Was Better. But tonight, she felt like the contented heart of a very sturdy family. Her perfect village took up an entire row: Nana Jo and Pops at the end of the aisle with Nana’s scooter; Fizzy on her left, and River, then Juno on her right. No buffer zone of empty chairs anymore.
“I’m not saying the other projects weren’t great,” River said, leaning in to whisper. “I mean, some were terrible, and some were great, but completely objectively Juno should win this thing.”
“Completely objectively, huh?” Jess bit back a laugh. River’s competitive streak ran deep; second-grade art-science competitions were apparently not immune. “Win or lose, I’m impressed with you both.” She pulled back his sleeve, glancing at his watch. It was already six thirty. “Don’t you have to leave soon?”
He followed her attention to his wrist. A couple of months ago, Jess imagined, River would have bolted up at the sight of the time. But he just exhaled, calculating, and said, “They’re about to do the awards. I’ll leave after that.”
“How’re you feeling about tomorrow?”
The moment of truth. “Nervous,” he admitted, “but mostly relieved that it’s finally here.”
He took her hand in his, and she lifted them, kissing his knuckles. It was as if David’s betrayal had eased some tension in him: Things had gone horribly wrong, but it’d turned out okay in the end. Better, even. The new executive team was invigorated and had a tight, instant connection. River had personally retested hundreds of samples. There was so much media buzz about GeneticAlly lately, Jess was aware that many parents knew who she and River were and not because their children were in school together.
And as much as he insisted it didn’t matter, Jess knew that their new Diamond score had confirmed that once upon a time he had discovered something authentic, and he’d actually managed to do something with it to make the world better.
Beside him, Juno was busy talking to a friend in the row ahead, enthusiastically debating the merits of corn snakes versus California kings. Jess made a mental note to remind River not to give an inch on the snake front.
“Juno is such a curious, creative kid,” River said, following Jess’s attention. “We need to make sure we get a house with enough space for her projects—”
His words came to an abrupt stop, their eyes meeting as they each seemed to register the magnitude of what he’d just said. We need to make sure we get a house. They were together—of course—but they hadn’t really talked about what came next.
River turned his face to the front, giving Jess a sweet view of his cheeks darkening. “I was going to talk to you later, but”—he cleared his throat—“one of the teachers earlier mistook me for Juno’s dad. Juno explained, but she paused for a second first. It made me think that maybe I haven’t been clear enough about what I want.”
Jess’s heart pounded and her palm grew clammy against his. She briefly turned her eyes to the left, to confirm that Fizzy and Pops were still cracking up together over some goat videos on Instagram. “You have an IPO tomorrow,” she reminded him. “This conversation can wait.”
“Why?” he asked, angling his gaze to her and grinning. “Is it going to be hard or stressful in some way?”
She smiled around her bottom lip. “Okay. Point taken. What do you want?”
“You.” He let the syllable hang for a meaningful beat. River wanted her, and he wanted her. His whiskey-brown eyes held the same heat they had in the middle of the night, when he’d woken her with a kiss and turned on the muted bedside lamp before guiding her over him.
But then his intensity broke, and he continued with quiet sincerity, “And Juno. Maybe a dog.” He peeked over her shoulder. “I want Fizzy’s insanity and Jo’s cooking. Fishing on weekends with Ron. I know it’s too early to really decide anything, but when you’re ready to take the next step—whatever it is—I’m in.”
“You’re saying you want to move in together?”
He laughed a little at this. “Of course I do. My place has more room, but it doesn’t feel like a home, and I know how much you guys love the apartment. But we could find something big enough for all of us. With a giant kitchen and bedrooms on the ground floor for your grandparents, or even their own place out back.”
Jess didn’t know what to say. She had so much already, it felt almost greedy to want more. Waking up together every morning or the quiet intimacy of mundane tasks like grocery shopping and budgeting and just … sharing the daily load. She imagined moving around each other at the end of the night—putting the last glass in the dishwasher, sharing a quiet groan that Juno left her socks on the couch again. She imagined not having to say goodbye to him on the doorstep, ever.
Ask for all of it. What do you have to lose?
“This summer,” Jess said, lifting her chin as if daring him to balk. “June or July. If you mean it, let’s find a place.”
His mouth turned up at the corner. “Yeah?”