Chapter One ONE
JESSICA DAVIS USED to think it was an honest-to-God tragedy that only twenty-six percent of women believed in true love. Of course, that was nearly a decade ago, when she couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be anything but deeply and passionately obsessed with the man who would one day be her ex. Tonight, though, on her third first date in seven years, she was astounded the number was even that high.
“Twenty-six percent,” she mumbled, leaning toward the restroom mirror to apply more lipstick. “Twenty-six women out of one hundred believe true love is real.” Popping the cap back on, Jess laughed, and her exhausted reflection laughed back. Sadly, her night was far from over. She still had to make it through the entrée course; appetizers had lasted four years. Of course, some of that was probably due to Travis’s tendency to talk with his mouth full, oversharing highly specific stories about finding his wife in bed with his business partner and the ensuing messy divorce. But as far as first dates went, Jess reasoned, it could have been worse. This date was better, for sure, than the guy last week who’d been so drunk when he showed up at the restaurant that he’d nodded off before they’d even ordered.
“Come on, Jess.” She dropped the tube back into her bag. “You don’t have to make, serve, or clean up after this meal. The dishes alone are worth at least one more bitter ex-wife story.”
A stall door clicked open, startling her, and a willowy blonde emerged. She glanced at Jess with bald pity.
“God, I know,” Jess agreed with a groan. “I’m talking to myself in a bathroom. Tells you exactly how my night is going.”
Not a laugh. Not even a smile of politeness, let alone camaraderie. Instead the woman moved as far away as possible to the end of the empty row of sinks and began washing her hands.
Jess went back to rummaging through her purse but couldn’t help glancing toward the end of the counter. She knew it wasn’t polite to stare, but the other woman’s makeup was flawless, her nails perfectly manicured. How on earth did some women manage it? Jess considered leaving the house with her zipper up a victory. Once, she’d presented an entire fiscal year’s worth of data to a client with four of Juno’s sparkly butterfly barrettes still clipped to the front of her blazer. This gorgeous stranger probably hadn’t been forced to change outfits after cleaning glitter off both a cat and a seven-year-old. She probably never had to apologize for being late. She probably didn’t even have to shave—she was just naturally smooth everywhere.
“Are you okay?”
Jess blinked back to awareness, realizing the woman was speaking to her. There was really no way to pretend she hadn’t been staring directly at this stranger’s cleavage.
Resisting the urge to cover her own less-than-impressive assets, Jess offered a small, embarrassed wave. “Sorry. I was just thinking that your kitten probably isn’t covered in glitter, too.”
She turned back to the mirror. Jessica Marie Davis, get your shit together. Ignoring the fact that she still had an audience, Jess channeled Nana Jo into the mirror: “You have plenty of time. Go out there, eat some guacamole, go home,” she said aloud. “There’s no ticking clock on any of this.”
“I’M JUST SAYING, the clock is ticking.” Fizzy waved vaguely toward Jess’s butt. “That booty won’t be high and tight forever, you know.”
“Maybe not,” Jess said, “but Tinder isn’t going to help me find a quality guy to hold it up, either.”
Fizzy lifted her chin defensively. “I’ve had some of the best sex of my life from Tinder. I swear you give up too quickly. We are in the era of women taking pleasure and not apologizing for getting theirs first, second, and one more time for the road. Travis might be ex-wife obsessed, but I saw his photo and he was fine as hell. Maybe he would have rocked your world for an hour or two after churros, but you’ll never know, because you left before dessert.”
Jess paused. Maybe… “Goddammit, Fizzy.”
Her best friend leaned back, smug. If Felicity Chen decided to start selling Amway, Jess would simply hand over her wallet. Fizzy was made of charisma, witchcraft, and bad judgment. Those qualities made her a great writer, but were also partly the reason Jess had a misspelled song lyric tattooed on the inside of her right wrist, had had disastrous not-even-close-to–Audrey Hepburn bangs for six depressing months in 2014, and had attended a costume party in LA that turned out to be a BDSM scene in a dungeon basement. Fizzy’s response to Jess’s “You brought me to a sex party in a dungeon?” was, “Yeah, everyone in LA has dungeons!”
Fizzy tucked a strand of glossy black hair behind her ear. “Okay, let’s make plans for your next date.”
“No.” Opening her laptop, Jess logged into her email. But even with her attention fixed elsewhere, it was hard to miss Fizzy’s scowl. “Fizz, it’s hard with a kid.”
“That’s always your excuse.”
“Because I always have a kid.”
“You also have grandparents who live next door and are more than happy to watch her while you’re on a date, and a best friend who thinks your kid is cooler than you are. We all just want you to be happy.”
Jess knew they did. That was why she’d agreed to test the Tinder waters in the first place. “Okay, let me humor you,” she said. “Let’s say I meet someone amazing. Where am I going to hook up with him? It was different when Juno was two. Now I have a light sleeper seven-year-old with perfect hearing, and the last time I went to a guy’s place it was so messy, a pair of his boxers stuck to my back when I got up to use the bathroom.”
“Still.” Fizzy rubbed a thoughtful finger beneath her lip. “Single parents make it work all the time, Jess. Look at the Brady Bunch.”
“Your best example is a fifty-year-old sitcom?” The harder Fizzy tried to convince her, the less Jess actually wanted to get back out there. “In 1969 only thirteen percent of parents were single. Carol Brady was ahead of her time. I am not.”
“Vanilla latte!” the barista, Daniel, shouted over the din of the coffee shop.
Fizzy motioned that she wasn’t done being a pain in Jess’s ass before standing and making her way to the counter.
Jess had been coming to Twiggs coffee shop every weekday for almost as long as she’d been freelancing. Her life, which essentially existed in a four-block radius, was exceedingly manageable as it was. She walked Juno to school just down the street from their apartment complex while Fizzy grabbed the best table—in the back, away from the glare of the window but near the outlet that hadn’t yet gone wobbly. Jess crunched numbers while Fizzy wrote novels, and in an effort to not be leeches, they ordered something at least every ninety minutes, which had the added benefit of incentivizing them to work more, gossip less.
Except today. She could already tell Fizzy was going to be unrelenting.
“Okay.” Her friend returned with her drink and a huge blueberry muffin, and took a moment to get situated. “Where was I?”
Jess kept her eyes on the email in front of her, pretending to read. “I think you were about to say that it’s my life and that I should do what I think is best.”
“We both know that’s not something I would say.”
“Why am I your friend?”
“Because I immortalized you as the villain in Crimson Lace, and you became a fan favorite, so I can’t kill you off.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you’re answering my questions,” Jess grumbled, “or continuing an ongoing conversation in your head.”
Fizzy began peeling the paper off her muffin. “What I was going to say is that you can’t throw in the towel because of one bad date.”
“It’s not just the one bad date,” Jess said. “It’s the exhausting and alien process of trying to be appealing to men. I’m a freelance statitician and consider my sexiest outfit to be my old Buffy shirt and a pair of cutoffs. My favorite pajamas are one of Pops’s old undershirts and some maternity yoga pants.”
Fizzy whimpered out a plaintive “No.”
“Yes,” Jess said emphatically. “On top of that, I had a kid when most people our age were still lying about enjoying Jägermeister. It’s hard to make myself seem polished in a dating profile.”
“I hate taking time away from Juno for some guy I’m probably never going to see again.”
Fizzy let that sink in for a beat, dark eyes fixed in disbelief. “So, you’re… done? Jessica, you went on three dates with three hot, if dull, men.”
“I’m done until Juno is older, yeah.”
She regarded Jess with suspicion. “How much older?”
“I don’t know.” Jess picked up her coffee, but her attention was snagged when the man they referred to as “Americano” stepped into Twiggs, striding to the front precisely on cue—8:24 in the morning—all long legs and dark hair and surly, glowering vibes, not making eye contact with a single person. “Maybe when she’s in college?”
When Jess’s eyes left Americano, horror was rippling across Fizzy’s expression. “College? When she’s eighteen?” She lowered her voice when every head in the coffee shop swiveled. “You’re telling me that if I sat down to write the novel of your future love life, I’d be writing a heroine who is happily showing her body to a dude for the first time in eighteen years? Honey, no. Not even your perfectly preserved vagina can pull that off.”
“Like an Egyptian tomb in there. Practically mummified,” Fizzy mumbled into a sip.
Up front, Americano paid for his drink and then stepped to the side, absorbed in typing something on his phone. “What is his deal?” Jess asked quietly.
“You have such a crush on Americano,” Fizzy said. “Do you realize you watch him whenever he comes in here?”
“Maybe I find his demeanor fascinating.”
Fizzy let her eyes drop to his ass, currently hidden by a navy coat. “We’re calling it his ‘demeanor’ now?” She bent, writing something in the Idea Notebook she kept near her laptop.
“He comes in here and emits the vibe that if anyone tried to talk to him, he would do a murder,” Jess quipped.
“Maybe he’s a professional hit man.”
Jess, too, inspected him top to bottom. “More like a socially constipated medieval art professor.” She tried to remember when he’d started coming in here. Maybe two years ago? Almost every day, same time every morning, same drink, same sullen silence. This was a quirky neighborhood, and Twiggs was its heart. People came in to linger, to sip, to chat; Americano stood out not for being different or eccentric but for being almost entirely silent in a space full of boisterous, lovable weirdos. “Nice clothes, but inside them he’s all grouchy,” Jess mumbled.
“Well, maybe he needs to get laid, kind of like someone else I know.”
“Fizz. I’ve had sex since birthing Juno,” Jess said in exasperation. “I’m just saying I don’t have a lot left over for commitment, and I’m not willing to endure boring or outright terrible dates just for orgasms. They make battery-operated appliances for that.”
“I’m not talking just about sex,” Fizzy said. “I’m talking about not always putting yourself last.” Fizzy paused to wave to Daniel, who was wiping down a table nearby. “Daniel, did you catch all of that?”
He straightened and gave her the smile that had made Fizzy write the hero of Destiny’s Devil with Daniel in mind, and do all manner of dirty things to him in the book that she hadn’t dared do in real life.
And would never do: Daniel and Fizzy went out once last year but quickly ended things when they ran into each other at a family reunion. Their family reunion. “When can’t we hear you?” he asked.
“Good, then please tell Jess that I’m right.”
“You want me to have an opinion about whether Jess should be on Tinder just to get laid?” he asked.
“Okay, yup.” Jess groaned. “This is what rock bottom feels like.”
“Or whichever dating site she likes!” Fizzy cried, ignoring her. “This woman is sexy and young. She shouldn’t waste her remaining hot years in mom jeans and old sweatshirts.”
Jess looked down at her outfit, ready to protest, but the words shriveled in her throat.
“Maybe not,” Daniel said, “but if she’s happy, does it matter whether or not she’s frumpy?”
She beamed at Fizzy in triumph. “See? Daniel is sort of on Team Jess.”
“You know,” Daniel said to her now, balling the washrag in his hands, smug with insider knowledge, “Americano is a romantic, too.”
“Let me guess,” Jess said, grinning. “He’s the host of a Dothraki-themed sex dungeon?”
Only Fizzy laughed. Daniel gave a coy shrug. “He’s about to launch a cutting-edge matchmaking company.”
Both women went silent. A what now?
“Matchmaking?” Jess asked. “The same Americano who is a regular here in this coffee shop and yet never smiles at anyone?” She pointed behind her to the door he’d exited through only a minute ago. “That guy? With his intense hotness marred by the moody, antisocial filter?”
“That’s the one,” Daniel said, nodding. “You could be right that he needs to get laid, but I’m guessing he does just fine for himself.”
AT LEAST THIS particular Fizzy tangent happened on a Monday—Pops picked up Juno from school on Mondays and took her to the library. Jess was able to get a proposal together for Genentech, set up a meeting with Whole Foods for next week, and bash through a few spreadsheets before she had to walk home and start attacking dinner.
Her car, ten years old with barely thirty thousand miles logged on it, was so rarely used that Jess couldn’t remember the last time she’d had to fill the tank. Everything in her world, she thought contentedly on her walk home, was within arm’s reach. University Heights was the perfect blend of apartments and mismatched houses nestled between tiny restaurants and independent businesses. Frankly, the sole benefit of last night’s date was that Travis had agreed to meet at El Zarape just two doors down; the only thing worse than having the world’s most boring dinner conversation would have been driving to the Gaslamp to do it.
With about an hour until sunset, the sky had gone a heavily bruised gray-blue, threatening rain that’d send any Southern Californian driver into a confused turmoil. A sparse crowd was getting Monday levels of rowdy on the deck of the new Kiwi-run brewery down the street, and the ubiquitous line at Bahn Thai was quickly turning into a tangle of hungry bodies; three butts were attached to humans currently ignoring the sign for customers not to sit on the private stoop next door to the restaurant. Nana and Pops’s tenant, Mr. Brooks, had installed a doorbell camera for the front units, and almost every morning he gave Jess a detailed accounting of how many college kids vaped on his front step while waiting for a table.
Home came into view. Juno had named their apartment complex “Harley Hall” when she was four, and although it didn’t have nearly the pretentious vibe required to be a capital-H Hall, the name stuck. Harley Hall was bright green and stood out like an emerald against the earth-tone stucco of the adjacent buildings. The street-facing side was decorated with a horizontal strip of pink and purple tiles forming a harlequin pattern; electric-pink window boxes spilled brightly colored mandevilla most of the year. Jess’s grandparents Ronald and Joanne Davis had bought the property the year Pops retired from the navy. Coincidentally this was the same year Jess’s long-term boyfriend decided he wasn’t father material and wanted to retain the option to put his penis in other ladies. Jess finished school and then packed up two-month-old Juno, moving into the ground floor two-bedroom unit that faced Nana and Pops’s bungalow at the back end of the property. Given that they’d raised Jess down the road in Mission Hills until she’d gone to college at UCLA, the transition was basically zero. And now, her small and perfect village helped her raise her child.
The side gate opened with a tiny squeak, then latched closed behind her. Down a narrow path, Jess stepped into the courtyard that separated her apartment from Nana Jo and Pops’s bungalow. The space looked like a lush garden somewhere in Bali or Indonesia. A handful of stone fountains gurgled quietly, and the primary sensation was bright: magenta, coral, and brassy-purple bougainvillea dominated the walls and fences.
Immediately, a small, neatly French-braided child tackled Jess. “Mom, I got a book about snakes from the library, did you know that snakes don’t have eyelids?”
“Also, they eat their food whole, and their ears are only inside their heads. Guess where you can’t find snakes?” Juno stared up at her, blue eyes unblinking. “Guess.”
Jess led them inside, calling “No way!” over her shoulder.
“Way. And remember that cobra in The Black Stallion? Well, cobras are the only kind of snakes that build nests, and they can live to be twenty.”
That one actually shocked Jessica. “Wait, seriously?” She dropped her bag on the couch just inside the door and moved to the pantry to dig around for dinner options. “That’s insane.”
Juno went quiet behind her, and understanding dropped like a weight in Jess’s chest. She turned to find her kid wearing the enormous-eyed expression of preemptive begging. “Juno, baby, no.”
“Pops said maybe a corn snake. The book says they’re ‘very docile.’ Or a ball python?”
“A python?” Jess set a pot of water on the stove to boil. “Are you out of your mind, child?” She pointed to the cat, Pigeon, asleep in the dying stretch of daylight streaming through the window. “A python would eat that creature.”
“A ball python, and I wouldn’t let it.”
“If Pops is encouraging you to get a snake,” Jess said, “Pops can keep it over at his house.”
“Nana Jo already said no.”
“I bet she did.”
Juno growled, collapsing onto the couch. Jess walked over and sat down, drawing her in for a cuddle. She was seven but small; she still had baby hands with dimples on the knuckles and smelled like baby shampoo and the woody fiber of books. When Juno wrapped her small arms around Jess’s neck, she breathed the little girl in. Juno had her own room now, but she’d slept with her mom until she was four, and sometimes Jess would still wake up in the middle of the night and experience a sharp stab of longing for the warm weight of her baby in her arms. Jess’s own mother used to say she needed to break Juno of the habit, but parenting advice was the last thing Jamie Davis should be giving to anyone. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone else ever occupied that side of the mattress.
And Juno was a master cuddler, a gold-medal Olympian in the snuggle. She pressed her face to Jess’s neck and breathed in, wiggling closer. “Mama. You went on a date last night,” she whispered.
Juno had been excited for the date, not only because she adored her great-grandparents and got Nana Jo’s cooking when Jess was out, but also because they’d recently watched Adventures in Babysitting, and Fizzy’d told her it was a pretty accurate depiction of what dating was like. In Juno’s mind, Jess might end up dating Thor.
“Did you go downtown? Did he bring you flowers?” She pulled back. “Did you kiss him?”
Jess laughed. “No, I did not. We had dinner, and I walked home.”
Juno studied her, eyes narrowed. She seemed pretty sure that more was supposed to happen on a date. Popping up like she’d remembered something, she jogged to her roller backpack near the door. “I got you a book, too.”
Juno walked back over and crawled into her lap, handing it over.
Middle Aged and Kickin’ It!: A Woman’s Definitive Guide to Dating Over 40, 50 and Beyond.
Jess let out a surprised laugh. “Did your Auntie Fizz put you up to this?”
Juno’s giggle rolled out of her, delighted. “She texted Pops.”
Over the top of her head, Jess caught a glimpse of the dry-erase board next to the fridge, and a tingling spread from her fingertips up to her arms. The words NEW YEARS GOALS were written in Juno’s bubbly handwriting.
NANA & POPS
Get a personal trayner
Take a wock evry day
Lern to like brocooli
Make my bed evry mornning
Try Something New Sunday!
Try Something New Sunday!
Nana ses be more selfish!
Do more things that skare me
Okay, Universe, Jessica thought. I get it. If Mrs. Brady could be a trailblazer, maybe it was time for Jess to try, too.