Chain Reaction (Perfect Chemistry #3)

Chapter 12

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“Hey, bro,” Alex says, then gestures to my boxers, which have the word Colorado written all over them in random colors. My friends gave them to me before I moved. “Nice pj’s.”

“Thanks.” I put my nephew up on my shoulders, which makes him really happy. “I got Peterson for chemistry. Feel sorry for me?”

Brittany and my brother smile at each other.

“Definitely. She’s brutal,” Alex says. “Brit, didn’t she give us detentions like every other day?”

“I’ve tried to block those days out.” Brittany cringes. “I really hated you back then, Alex.”

He slides the back of his hand slowly across her arm. “Come on, chica. You wanted me, but you were afraid to admit it.”

Brittany bites her bottom lip as she looks into my brother’s eyes. He cups her cheek in his hand and pulls her close, then kisses her.

I slide my nephew off my shoulders and shield his eyes. “Seriously, guys, aren’t you past the honeymoon stage by now? You’re on your second kid already.”

“I don’t want to get past this stage,” my brother says.

“Me neither,” Brittany coos.

Mi'amá wags her finger in my direction. “Don’t you get any ideas, Luis. Keep your head on straight and don’t lose sight of your goal.” She holds out her arms for me to hand Paco over to her, then she takes him in the kitchen.

“I almost didn’t recognize the place,” Alex says, eyeing the furniture and hardwood floors.

“This place looks amazing,” Brittany agrees. “The neighborhood has completely changed, too.”

“Tell me about it,” I say. “We’ve even got a cop livin’ next door.”

Alex shakes his head in confusion. “A cop?”

“Yeah. He also happens to be our landlord.” I leave out the part that I think the guy was making a move on Mamá.

Alex sits up, really interested now. “Your landlord is a cop?”

“I don’t think he’s realized that this side of town is dirt poor. I’ve got the feelin’ he wants the south side of Fairfield to be the next Wrigleyville.” Wrigleyville is the upscale yuppie neighborhood where Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, is located. Wrigleyville is nothing like Fairfield, even if Officer Reyes wants to think it is.

“La policía livin’ in south Fairfield,” Alex murmurs, almost to himself. “Glad he wasn’t here when I was in high school. I definitely didn’t play by the rules like you do, Luis.”

What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. I wonder what rules I’ll be tempted to break tonight with Marco, Mariana, and their friends after I get off work.

“Want to go to Brookfield Zoo with us after breakfast?” Brittany asks. “Paco goes crazy walking through the bat house.”

I laugh. “While I’d love to stroll around the zoo with you guys, I’ve got homework. Then I work from three to ten tonight.”

My brother raises an eyebrow. “You got the job at Brickstone?”

“You’re lookin’ at the club’s newest busboy, Alex.”

“A busboy?” My sister-in-law shakes her head. “I don’t think you should do it. You’re ridiculously smart and athletic, Luis. They should have put you as a lifeguard, or at the front desk or something. Don’t settle.”

“It’s money,” I tell her, shrugging.

“It’s degrading,” she shoots back.

I shrug again. Brittany was brought up rich and white and has no clue what it’s like to be poor. Or Mexican. I know we need the money, and the place pays decent. So what if I’ll be pouring water and handling people’s dirty dishes. It’s not a big deal. Mexicans are notorious for doing jobs white people don’t want to do. I’m cool with it. And I know I’ll do a good enough job to get that promotion to server in a month.

Alex and Brittany leave with Paco after breakfast. I get a few texts from Marco asking me to hang out with him and a bunch of other guys before I go to work, but it’ll have to wait till later. I’ve got to keep my grades up. If I don’t, I can kiss the aeronautics program good-bye.

After studying for next week’s math assessment and US history quiz, I walk to work. It’s still nice out, but I know it won’t last long. Spring in Illinois is just a tease before the scorching summer. Then fall hits with a vengeance. But what really brings you to your knees is the frigid winter cold with winds that’ll slap you in the face and make you wish you lived where they don’t even know what snow is. Chicago snow is totally different from Boulder snow.

Fran Remington meets me by the front desk and has me work with a guy named Richard, a middle-aged dude with feathered hair that doesn’t move across his scalp. It’s either hairsprayed to death or a hairpiece.

In the employee locker room, I’m handed my uniform—white pants and a crisp white shirt with the word Brickstone embroidered in a small crest on the chest. Richard gets to wear black pants and a white shirt complete with a black jacket and tie. He looks like he’s going to a wedding. I, on the other hand, resemble a guy who sells ice cream from a vending cart.

I spend the night shadowing Richard. Guests pile into the dining room as the night goes on. I help Richard serve the food, I clear dishes, refill glasses, and pretty much float through the night without a problem.

Until Nikki Cruz walks in with a group of friends. They’re all white except for her, which shouldn’t annoy the shit out of me, but it does. It’s no wonder she disses her Mexican side … she doesn’t associate with anyone who’s Mexican. I don’t recognize any of them, but one of the guys in the group is wearing a black golf shirt with the words Chicago Academy Golf Team embroidered in gold letters.

Everyone knows that Chicago Academy is the exclusive private high school that kids with a lot of money go to. They’re known for being complete snobs who drive high-priced, gas-guzzling cars. I bet none of these pendejos could tell the difference between a carburetor and an alternator.

Nikki’s got on a low-cut pink sundress that shows off her curves. Damn, she looks hot. I’m not the only one who notices, because the Chicago Academy dudes walking in behind her are not subtle about checking out her ass.

Richard taps me on the shoulder. “You almost spilled water on Mrs. Steinberg,” he says in a not-too-thrilled tone.

“Sorry,” I murmur. Shit. Seeing Nikki here is distracting me.

I watch as the hostess leads Nikki and her friends to a table in a secluded corner by the window. Just my luck it’s in Richard’s station.

“Pour them water,” Richard says, gesturing to Nikki’s table. I hear her quiet laughter from across the room over something one of the girls says to her.

I go over to the table with a pitcher of ice water. I’m in charge of water—all types of water. The assistant waiter is in charge of all other drinks.

“Would you like tap, sparkling, or bottled water?” I ask them.

Nikki looks up at me, wide-eyed. “Luis, what are you doing here?”

“I work here.”

“You know him?” one of the Chicago Academy guys asks Nikki. The guy eyes me, obviously sizing me up, then says to her, “Is he your cousin?”

Because we’re both Mexican he thinks we must be related? Idiot.

“No. We, umm …” Nikki stumbles on the words.

“We go to school together,” I say, finishing her sentence.

“That’s cute,” the guy says. “My dad went to Fairfield before they merged Fairfield South and North together. He said it’s trash now.”

“You’re such an elitist,” Nikki says, more amused at his comment than annoyed. “Fairfield is diverse, unlike that white-bread school you go to.”

“You’re as much of an elitist as I am, sweetheart,” the guy says.

Derek and his girlfriend, Kendall, walk in and join the group. Derek reaches out his hand, and we shake. “What’s up, man? You didn’t tell me you worked here.”

“My brother knew some—”

The elitist guy taps me on the elbow. “Get us some sparkling water,” he orders, interrupting me.

Derek scowls. “Yo, Hunter. Don’t they teach you at that fancy school of yours not to cut someone off when they’re talking?”

The snob rolls his eyes. “I just played eighteen holes, Derek. I’m thirsty. Sue me for asking the kid for something to drink.”

“It’s cool,” I tell the snob, but I’m thinking, Kid? A dude my age, named Hunter no less, just called me kid. Unbelievable.

When I come back from the kitchen with the sparkling water and a small bowl of limes in hand, I pour the guy water.

I pour Nikki water, too. I wish I didn’t get a whiff of her sweet perfume as I leaned down next to her.

After finishing all of their drink orders, I busy myself with the rest of the customers. I don’t linger around Nikki’s table, and only go back to clear dishes or give refills. There’s something about Nikki that makes me want to know what it would be like if we got together. It’s her feisty spirit, and the fact that nothing I’ve done has made her loosen up. She’s a challenge that I definitely want to take on.

I hate the fact that there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed being a busboy in front of Derek, Nikki, and Kendall.

When Nikki’s table gets up to leave, Hunter holds out a fifty-dollar bill. “Here you go,” he says, making a show of handing it to me like I’m a charity case. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Thanks, man,” I say, even though I’d like to shove the money back in his face. Or up his ass—where it looks like he stashes the rest of his cash.

“Hey, Nik,” I call out as she’s about to walk out of the room.

She stops and looks back at me.

I know the rest of the guys are watching, so I step close to her and whisper in her ear, “Ditch these guys when I get off work and hang with me, mi chava.”

She pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Dream on,” then struts out of the room while the guys look dumbly at her, then back at me.

“You shouldn’t flirt with her,” Derek says to me before following the rest of their friends out of the dining room.

“Why not?”

“Because Nikki has claws. Big ones, and they’ll come out when you least expect it.”

“She doesn’t scare me,” I tell him.

He pats me on the shoulder. “She should.”

Twenty minutes later, I recognize Nikki’s parents as they walk into the dining room and are also seated in Richard’s section.

“Luis, you look familiar,” Dr. Cruz says as he looks at my name tag.

“My brother is Alex Fuentes. I met you and your family at his weddin’.”

“Ah, yes. That’s why you look familiar. It’s been a long time.”

Mrs. Cruz smiles in a reserved, almost rehearsed way. “Alex told us you were moving back to Chicago. If you need anything, be sure to call us.”

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