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He nodded. “It was my major in college. And I figure if I can help them out, then they don’t have to pay someone to do it and can use their funds for good instead of operating expenses.”

I smiled at his thoughtfulness. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with his unending loyalty to Ben and Emmy. He was really one of the most dedicated friends I’d ever met. I didn’t appreciate that side of him enough.

We coordinated our orders to include two very different dishes so we could share them. As we ate pesto ravioli and spicy shrimp with linguine, Braydon asked about my work. I chattered on and he listened attentively. I described the tedious nature of my job and the projects I was currently running. I figured he’d be bored to tears within minutes, but Braydon always surprised me. He asked thoughtful questions and probed deeper a few times, too. It was nice to have an adult conversation that was more than just flirty banter.

Something else was stewing in the back of my mind. He’d told me about his failed past relationship and invited me out to a nice dinner . . . so I should probably feel grateful and not pry, but something told me there was more to the story. Following my gut instinct, I pushed him a little harder.

“I can’t help feeling like something else happened in your past to turn you against relationships so completely. I want you to know, you can open up to me. You can trust me, Bray.” He smiled, but didn’t say anything else. I pressed on. “If the right girl came along, do you think you’d be open for something more?”

He pondered my question, looking down at his plate. Then his blue eyes slid up to mine. “She’d have to be one hell of a girl.” He smiled, his dimple taunting me.

“Why are you like this?” I held up a hand. “And don’t say it’s just because of your past. I hate to think one girl had this power over you. Something else must have happened.” Something prevented me from mentioning Katrina. I knew he’d had at least one successful relationship, but I doubted he’d take too kindly to me digging into his past.

Braydon released a heavy exhale and set down his fork. It wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have, but I could tell he was willing to try. For me. “Let’s just say I was with someone who f**ked with my head. It’s made me wary of starting anything serious again.”

I waited, watching him and silently turning the bracelet on my wrist. I sensed there was something more he wanted to say.

“My mom . . .” He coughed and cleared his throat before starting again. “She developed early-onset dementia. She got so bad, so unstable and untrusting of everyone, she had to be moved into a permanent-care facility. My dad lost himself when that happened. I watched how losing my mom utterly changed my dad. He went from this vibrant, strong man, looking forward to retirement and traveling, to a shell of his former self. He had to go on antianxiety medication, and when he wasn’t at Mom’s side, he just sat in front of the TV and zoned out. Retirement was put on hold to pay for her extremely pricey care. That all happened at the same time that I found out the girl I’d grown close to was batshit crazy.”

I reached out and held his hand. “I’m sorry. Is your mom . . .” Better, I prayed.

“She passed away last year.”

“I’m so sorry.”

He nodded at my acknowledgment. There was nothing more to say. Braydon wasn’t some shallow player, as I’d feared. There were deeper reasons that explained how he had become this person, external forces that had shaped his outlook and willingness to give himself over and fall in love. My heart hurt for him. I knew I needed to be patient and let him heal and find his own way. I just hoped that I was at the end of that path.

After that heavy conversation, we ate in silence until we were both full. We refused dessert, even though the cheesecake and the tiramisu were calling my name. I knew I better not overdo it.

“Thank you for tonight,” I murmured after Braydon had settled the check with our server.

He lifted my hand to his lips and planted a soft kiss on my palm. “You’re welcome, dear.”

It all felt so normal and datelike, yet it was such a new experience being out with him like this. I liked it. A lot. And I especially loved how he’d opened up to me a little more. I couldn’t believe he’d shared all that about his mom and dad’s relationship. I could see why that would make him wary about love. But it only made me want to love him more. He needed it—deserved it—and I wanted to be the one to care for him.

After dinner, we stood on the sidewalk as the traffic and pedestrians buzzed past us. I was full and happy and slightly tipsy from the wine. I was trying to keep my expectations in check, but I wanted nothing more than for him to whisk me back to his place and show me where he lived. Take me to his bed. I hoped his pillows smelled like him. I wondered if he’d be messy or neat. A minimalist or a hoarder. Would his kitchen be barren and seldom used, or would it bear the evidence that he enjoyed cooking at home? I’d gotten another peek inside the heart of Braydon, but there were so many other little things I was curious about.

“Are we going back to your place?” I whispered, nuzzling against the warmth of his neck. I loved the way his stubble lightly grazed my skin.

“Not tonight.”

I paused. “Oh.”

“Can I take you home?”

I thought it over. I didn’t want to ruin the evening. Tonight was progress, I had to keep reminding myself as we waited for a passing cab to stop.

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