(Click here to go to Episode 1)
I was confused.
Confused by Esme’s odd behavior
Confused by my football player’s sudden good fortunes.
Confused by my fucking life.
Marie and I spent the entirety of the day trying to piece details together. There was what we knew: five of our athletes had recently made big purchases despite no new contracts or endorsements. None of them had any reasonable explanation for the money. Then there was what we suspected: Edmund Brown was behind the pocket padding.
We didn’t know.
But I did know someone who might.
I practically ran into the dimly lit reception at the university. The fundraiser was already in full swing. Tables covered in white linens and votive candles dotted the room. Buffets filled with steaming food lined the walls. From here I could spot four bars, all with lines. At the opposite end of the room there was a screen showing all the latest genetics research being done by Jeffry’s department. In front of it stood an empty podium. Later there would be speeches, but for now there was food and celebration.
I scanned the room looking for my friends as I slipped into the nearest line for a drink. They were sitting at one of the reserved tables near the podium. Everyone was there and I was prepared for the usual teasing about being late.
I didn’t need to turn to know who the sultry voice belonged to.
“Good evening, Esme. You look lovely.” Fuck me, she was gorgeous. A strapless black gauzy number, sky-high heels, hair styled off to one side so her elegant shoulder was on display—mocking me. Begging me to caress and suckle it—and of course, those damned red lips.
I’d hoped she’d be here tonight. There was a good chance since she worked with Jeffry but I wasn’t sure and I’d been too busy to ask. My hope was one part selfish (any time I got to see her was a good time) but also one part business. If anyone I had a connection to knew whether Edmund Brown might be involved in illegal activity, it would be Esme.
I swallowed down the desire to put my hands on her. “Are we allowed to know each other here?” I very intentionally scanned the crowd.
Yes, I was giving her a hard time, but, truth be told, my ego was bruised. I didn’t understand her brush off at the party or the look of fear in her eyes. She hadn’t reached out afterward to explain either.
She glanced down at her toes. “We should be safe here.”
“What does that mean, Esme?”
She looked up and into my eyes. “It means there are eyes everywhere but at work I’m typically safe, but not always. It’s best if you don’t act like you know me intimately, for our both our sakes.”
My bruised ego took a hike, replaced completely by a fierce protectiveness. “Esme?”
“Not here,” she whispered, then looked up at me with a brilliant smile. “Tonight we’re friends.”
I nodded, emotions I’d rather not name taking hold.
“You look a little rumpled,” she murmured.
I fixed my tie and ran my fingers through my hair. “Yes, well, work was something today.”
“A client giving you a hard time?” she teased, her eyes dancing in the candlelight.
“More like five of them.”
All the teasing evaporated. Her mouth puckered, brow furrowing. “Football players?”
My skin pricked. “Indeed.”
She nodded once and stepped forward with me as the line moved. We were only one away from the promise of alcoholic relief. “You’ll get to see some of my research tonight.”
Now my scalp tingled. Esme was smart and if she was changing the subject, it was for a reason.
“I look forward to being utterly confused by the presentation.”
She kept her eyes on the bar. “Somehow I believe that you’re exaggerating. Genetics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but you’re smart and if you hang around a bunch of geneticists all the time I bet you’ve picked up a few things.”
“I’ve picked up a few things,” I agreed, “however I’ve been to these events before. They go well above and beyond my comprehension. I’ll follow along for approximately one minute, and then be totally lost.”
“Then why do you come?”
It was a valid question. What was someone like me doing at a party like this? Someone who barely even understood what the night was about. “I support my friends. And this is a fundraiser, is it not?” I pulled out my wallet and waved it through the air. “I understand money.”
The couple in front of us cleared out of the way and the bartender looked at us expectantly. “After you.” I held out my hand, indicating that Esme should order first.
“Basil Hayden’s on the rocks.”
“Make it two,” I said. I leaned closer. “I thought you didn’t drink bourbon?”
She flushed, took the glass, stepped away. “Maybe being friends is too much. Strangers would be better.”
My blood ran cold. “No.”
“No. I will play at whatever you want to play at, but I refuse to pretend we’re strangers.” Or that she didn’t mean something to me.
Fuck, the idea of rarely seeing her caused this constant ache in my chest, but the idea I would never see her? I’d rather be stabbed with a knife.
Surprise changed to anger. I saw it flash in her eyes as she grabbed her glass and stalked into a dark corner. “Listen to me Leo. Listen carefully. You. Don’t. Know. Me. If you did you’d learn things you wished you hadn’t. If you knew me you’d learn being near me is dangerous. Save us both a lot of trouble and heartache, and walk away right now.”
I heard her words, knew there was a coded meaning laced inside them, but I couldn’t hear or comprehend any of that because of the fire coursing through my veins.
“Stupid man,” she muttered. “Go sit down. Don’t talk to me again tonight.” Then she spun and stormed back to her table on the opposite side of the stage from Jeffry’s table.
Learn things you wish you hadn’t.
Trouble and heartache.
It was damn hard to think straight but I forced my brain to work anyway. How could Esme possibly be dangerous? She was a tiny thing. Sweet and quiet . . . unless she was in my bed. But dangerous? Never.
Then the rest of her words filtered through. Was she protecting me?
Like a robot I finally succumbed to Esme’s commands. I returned to the table and never looked back. I engaged in conversation, smiled, wrote a nice fat check, but inside I’d gone numb.
Until Jeffry poked me in the ribs. “Watch this part.”
The presentation had been going for a good ten minutes, not that I’d seen any of it. When I looked up, the screen flashed to a picture of Jeffry and his team in the lab. The narrator detailed their work on the genetic code, their groundbreaking work creating programs to extrapolate missing DNA.
And then there was Esme. In the field. An excavation. She was so different in shorts and a t-shirt, her hair swept back in a simple ponytail, no makeup. Several more pictures of her with some very high tech equipment, another with a trowel pointing at bones in the dirt, and then finally in her lab with the skeleton laid out like a primetime forensics show.
“Dr. Brown teamed up with the Gloria Elba Genetics Research Team to sequence the DNA from multiple ancient skeletons to create the worlds’ first interactive genetic map of human migration.”
A map of the world came to life in three dimensions. It showed the moving and mixing of different groups from thousands of years back, and all the way up to the twentieth century.
“Her work is just beginning, but as you can see there is already incredible new information coming from her research.”
I couldn’t help it. My gaze drifted across the room to her. She was sitting very still, looking up at the screen with her hands folded in her lap. I couldn’t tell if she was nervous or excited. Her expression gave nothing away. The only sign she was tense came in the way she held her shoulders.
The presentation ended and everyone clapped. That’s when she turned and looked right over at me. There wasn’t much to her expression. It was so carefully blank. But I wanted her to need something from me so I raised my hands and clapped just for her. She didn’t move but I saw the change, the fire that ignited, the loneliness that burned inside her.
I watched and waited after that, knowing she’d eventually go to the restroom. When she finally excused herself I followed. Except she didn’t turn into the women’s restroom as I expected. Instead she continued ahead to the stairs. The only sign she knew I was following her was the way she hesitated at the door, the way she glanced back without actually looking over her shoulder.
It was an invitation I was not about to refuse.
I made sure the hallway was empty before I followed her up one, two flights of stairs, down a dark linoleum hallway with display cases, and into a door marked: Department of Anthropology.
“Turn off the lights,” she called as she disappeared inside the third door on the right.
I flicked the overhead lights off and turned the key she’d left in the door. I hesitated outside her office just long enough to read her nameplate and smile.
“Close the door.” She was already standing at her office window, looking down at the parking lot. “I had a feeling you’d follow me.”
“Who’s watching you, Esme?” I sat in the chair opposite her desk to ward off any sexual advances she might make. I wanted inside her. I wanted inside her desperately, but not before I had some answers.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I care about you.” I glanced around her office. It was filled with books and photographs, diplomas and awards, but her desk was shockingly tidy.
She followed my gaze. “I like to have plenty of space to spread out when I work. I clear it every night before I leave.”
“Who’s watching you?” I repeated.
“I’m not who you think I am,” she whispered.
“I don’t think you’re anything.” Lies. She was my Esme. Needy, pliant, reactive, Esme. She was mine and whatever secrets she held were mine as well.
“You think I’m sweet. Naïve even. You think I’m innocent.”
“You’re wrong about that.” I stood in front of her, whispered my knuckles over the curve of her waist. “Sweet, yes. And maybe I had illusions about your naiveté, but you erased those when you begged me to fuck you in your father’s house. I’ve known from the moment you smiled at me with your red lips that you were anything but innocent.” I ran my thumb over her lower lip, tugged it just a bit, enough to send my overactive fantasies into motion yet again.
Her breasts rose over the top of her black strapless dress as she panted. “And will you fuck me here? On my desk?”
Oh how I wanted to do many dark things to her here. I wanted her spread out on that desk but I also wanted her on her knees, giving me that red ring I wanted so desperately.
“No,” I lied. “I want more than your body, Esme. I want all of you.” Truth.
Her eyes flared. “I can make you change your mind,” she whispered, so sad it broke me.
“I—” she licked her lips, looked away from.
“Do you know what’s happening? Is your father paying off football players?” Her gaze strayed back to me, but she remained silent. I took it as confirmation. “Why is he doing it? To force trades? To keep good players?”
She broke away from me, moved around her desk, her index finger trailing along the edge. “You’re walking into dangerous territory, Leo. Knowledge is a powerful and dangerous thing. You can’t un-know things.” Her voice changed, her shoulders straightened.
“Then don’t tell me facts. Give me a,” I waved my hand through the air, “hypothetical scenario.”
She completed the circuit around her desk and came to stop in front of me. “Hypothetically, athletes can be convinced to do certain things at certain times for certain reasons.” She swallowed. “Just as, hypothetically speaking, teenage girls can go to extraordinary lengths to piss off their asshole fathers.”
I knew, I knew she was telling me something important, yet I couldn’t quite concentrate with her so close. “A-athletes can be bought, you’re saying?”
She leaned closer, whispered against my ear. “Possibly. You should go Leo.”
I closed my eyes, drunk on the way she made me feel insane. “Why? Why should I go, Esme? I already told you I want you.”
“Because.” She pulled back, looked into my eyes. “I want you too. I need you. And if you don’t go I won’t be strong enough to leave you.”
If you haven’t read:
Episode Ten, or
Episode Eleven, you can click here to go back!
Thank you for reading episode 12 of Reckless Kiss! New episodes will release in my newsletter every Tuesday. If you enjoy this story please check out my free book Tease. It has a very similar style, level of heat, and types of characters and I think you’ll really enjoy it.
Some characters from my previous books will be appearing in this serial. If you haven’t already, check out When Lighting Strikes, to read Marie Bancroft Hamilton’s story, Summer Heat, Night Games, and Last Fall to meet more of the Bancroft Sports gang. (But you absolutely do not need to in order to enjoy Reckless Kiss. This book is 100% it’s own story!)