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“Nonsense, put your best cocktail dress on and throw your hair up into one of those pretty up-dos you’re so good at. You’ll come with me and Ben. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

I was so not okay with accepting a pity invite. And I certainly didn’t want to play third wheel all night. Hell no. If Braydon had wanted to see me tonight, he would have invited me. I had standards. Shit, I wasn’t going to show up and beg for his attention. Though the idea of wearing a sexy cle**age-baring dress to tease him was intriguing, I would never go where I wasn’t welcome. “Emmy, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. Go to the gala, have fun, and don’t give it another thought. I just ordered a pizza, and I’m in yoga pants cruising Netflix. I’m cool with a night in by myself.” Especially since I was planning to have a good cry once I hung up the phone.

“This is awkward, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I just assumed you’d be joining Braydon as his plus one.”

“No, he never mentioned it. It’s totally cool, sweetie.” Lies. All lies. I was crushed. It hurt like hell, but no one needed to know my inner turmoil. “I told you we’re not dating.” And he seemed reluctant to be seen with me in public. His comment about walking red carpets alone came rushing back to taunt me. “Listen, have a great time, take lots of pictures, and I hope Ben wins.” I forced a smile onto my face to try to sound cheery.

“Thanks, I hope either Ben or Braydon wins. That’d be fantastic!”

I chuckled, realizing a win for Ben would really stick it to their nemesis, Fiona. It would show that he no longer needed the backing of a big modeling agency. “Have fun tonight.”

“You too,” Emmy said, a hint of sadness in her voice.

I hated myself for it, but after talking to her I sulked for the remainder of the night. After overdoing it on ice cream, I felt sick and anxious. I finally decided to just call it a night and go to bed, knowing I’d never be able to live with myself if I purposely waited up for his call.

When I was finally drifting off to sleep, my phone chimed with a new text. I reached frantically for my phone, hoping it was him. My heart kicked up in my chest, beating in a steady rhythm.

Braydon: You asleep?

So it was a less-than-inspiring text, but still, it proved he was thinking of me. A quick check of the clock informed me it was already two in the morning. I considered not responding—letting him wonder if maybe I was out on the town. I clutched my phone in the darkness, debating what to do. I realized by not responding I’d only be punishing myself. I wanted to talk to him. Besides, Emmy probably mentioned my night in with Netflix.

Me: Not yet. What’s up?

There. I kept it casual and breezy. Not overly needy.

Braydon: I was thinking about you.

A sleepy smile curled my lips upward. Okay, so he was being sweet. Rather than chastise him for not inviting me along, or this apparent late-night booty call, I decided to play nice.

Me: How was tonight?

Braydon: Fine. I didn’t win. Neither did Ben. I went to the afterparty and got trashed, though. And I’m pretty sure Ben and Emmy f**ked in the coat closet.

I rolled my eyes. That sounded like them. I wanted to ask why he didn’t tell me about the event, but didn’t want him to know I was hurt by the lack of invite. Things between us were supposed to be easy and light.

Braydon: I want you.

I stared at his words, deciding what I wanted. Earlier, I probably would’ve jumped at the attention. Now I was feeling stronger and more in control.

Me: I’m in bed.

Braydon: I’ll join you.

Me: Not tonight.

I waited for him to write something back, to try and coax me into it in a cute, sexy way, but no reply ever came.

I was thankful our conversation had been through text, rather than face-to-face. I knew my hurt and contempt would’ve risen to the surface. He would have read me like a book. He had a knack for that. I just didn’t understand why he didn’t invite me along tonight as a friend. I knew we weren’t an item. He’d made that abundantly clear. Something nagged in the back of my head and I vowed to get to the bottom of Braydon’s strange, secretive behavior—first about his apartment and also about being seen in public with a woman.

I rolled over, hugging a pillow to my chest, and went to sleep. I’d figure out my next move in the morning.

• • •

I took myself out to Sunday brunch the next day, putting on an air of confidence and reminding myself I didn’t need a man. I dined at a pricey neighborhood restaurant in a dress and a strand of pearls. While I happily sipped a mimosa and nibbled on chocolate chip pancakes, I celebrated myself. I was a strong, confident woman. A scientist, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t need a man like Braydon Kincaid to make me feel worthy.

Stuffing a bite of sausage into my mouth, I vowed then and there I would make him communicate better with me. I deserved that much, at least. I needed to know where I stood with him, what this was between us, and why I couldn’t go to his apartment. I swallowed the bite and washed it down with the rest of the delicious orange juice–and-champagne combination, feeling so much better and in control for the first time in days.

On my walk back home, Emmy called and I picked up my phone.

“Hey, you busy today?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Wanna come to a shoot with me? Ben and Bray are being photographed together for a small local magazine. I thought it might be fun to see.”

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