Halftime Husband by Erin McCarthy

“Sure, okay, I’m sorry, Elijah.” Dakota turned to me. “I’m sorry, I need to go.”

That sucked. “Sure, of course. But can I have your number?” I reached to pull my phone out. I wasn’t letting her walk away this time.

“You don’t have to leave,” her friend said. He turned to me. “I’m Elijah, by the way. Dakota’s friend who has the absolute worst taste in men and who is far too nice.”

I noticed Dakota rolled her eyes a little at the last bit.

“I’m Brandon.” I held my hand out. “Sorry you’re having a rough night.”

Elijah shook my hand. “Have you ever looked at a person and wondered how someone you once loved is now so irritating on every single level?”

That hit too close to home. My ex-wife made me feel that way. But I wasn’t about to reveal that, or slam Bridget that way. We’d both been responsible for ruining our marriage, though she’d made divorce and custody arrangements way harder than they had needed to be. All that was too personal though, so I made a joke out of it. “I think you’ve nailed my ex-wife’s feelings about me perfectly,” I said lightly.

Elijah laughed. “So how do you and Dakota know each other and can you please stop her from doing insane things like riding a banister at a classy charity event?”

“Hey!” Dakota said. “I don’t need an animal tamer.”

The thought of trying to control her with a whip got me instantly hard. I cleared my throat. “We met on the elevator a couple of months ago.”

“This is carriage rescue guy,” Dakota said to Elijah.

Carriage rescue guy? Hell, I’d take it. It meant she’d talked to her friends about me.

Elijah’s expression changed. “Ooooh, I see. You’re the big strong hero who kept our fair Dakota from the clutches of the evil Dante.”

That seemed a little dramatic. A lot dramatic. “I’m one hundred percent certain she could have saved herself, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

He turned to Dakota and spoke as if I wasn’t standing right there. “Humble too. That’s hot.”

I took a sip of my martini, welcoming the burn of the vodka.

Dakota made a sound that seemed to indicate agreement, but then she sipped her champagne. I didn’t know what to say since suggesting she ditch her friend and hang out with me wasn’t really a polite option.

Elijah had no such problem finding words. “I insist you stay with Brandon and have some fun,” he said. “Or I’ll never speak to you again.”

That seemed harsh but I appreciated his efforts.

Dakota didn’t look concerned. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay and have some fun yourself?”

“Oh, yeah, this would be a great time for me. Third-wheeling to you and carriage rescue man while my ex canoodles with his hot Latin lover. That would be amazing for me.” Elijah put his hand up. “Bye. Call me tomorrow. Love you.” He turned to me. “Nice to meet you. Make sure she gets home okay and wear a condom.”

I hoped his confidence had some truth behind it. “Nice to meet you too. And yes, I will make sure she gets home safely.”

“And wear a condom. I need to hear you say it.”

“Elijah,” Dakota scolded. “Leave him alone. He’s a decent guy, even if he doesn’t like parties, and you’re embarrassing him.”

What she said was mostly accurate. I tried to be a decent guy. But I wasn’t embarrassed. I was just totally unsure how to respond. If I said yes, I would look like a douche. If I said no, I would look like a douche. Yep. I was rusty as fuck when it came to situations like this. I did want to have sex with her. Without question.

“It takes a lot more than that for me to be embarrassed,” I said. “But I also know when to keep my fucking mouth shut. I was married.”

Elijah laughed. “I like this one, D. You might be breaking your pattern.” He reached out, took her champagne glass, and drained it. He handed it back to her and squared his shoulders. “Only six steps to the door. I can do this.”

With a dramatic arm lift, he walked up the stairs.

“Sorry about that,” Dakota said. “He’s a dancer. We like to perform.”

“No problem. Do you want another glass of champagne? A seat?” I used my big frame to shift toward the bar, claiming the space next to an open stool.