Chain Reaction (Perfect Chemistry #3)

Chapter 13

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I nod, not sure if she really means it or if she’s just saying it to be polite. “Thanks.”

Being in the presence of Dr. and Mrs. Cruz makes me forget that I’m supposed to be serving other tables. Until I get a nudge from Richard, reminding me that I have a job and I better do it well or risk being fired.

I stand up straight and get back to business. “Would you like sparkling, bottled, or tap water?”

14

Nikki

The guys from Chicago Academy are all the same. They’ve got big egos and think they’re studs. After dinner, my friends and I hang out by the Brickstone volleyball courts. My brother disappeared before dinner to go to the game room because he found out someone beat his high score on a simulated motorcycle game. My parents are at some lecture in the Brickstone auditorium.

Hunter McBride is sitting next to me, along with a bunch of guys and girls from Chicago Academy. They live in my neighborhood so I’ve known them forever, but ever since junior high they’ve gone to private schools while the rest of us went to public schools. My mom wanted me to go to CA, but since all my friends were going to public schools I chose to stay with them.

I look over at Kendall and Derek sitting on the other side of the court deep in discussion. I don’t know which one of them looks more miserable. Ever since they had the whole “where are we going to college” discussion, they haven’t been getting along. I think they finally realize that their relationship won’t last forever.

Hunter nudges me and says, “Nikki, truth or dare?”

I throw my head back. “Not this stupid game again. The last time we played truth or dare, I ended up having to eat three burgers and threw up afterward.”

“I’ll let you start, then.”

All eyes are on me. I sigh, wondering how I get myself into these situations. I need Kendall to get me out of this, but she’s caught up in her own problems with Derek right now.

“Come on, Nikki,” a guy named Mason says. “It’s your turn to get Hunter back for the burger-eating incident.”

I’ll play, but only because I get the upper hand to start with. “Okay … Hunter, truth or dare?”

He doesn’t hesitate. “Dare.”

Now I’ve got to think of something that I know he won’t do. That’ll teach him to start playing this stupid game with me. “I dare you to jump in the pool with your clothes on.”

“Fine.”

“Really?” I didn’t think he’d agree to it, mainly because I think he probably only owns clothes that need to be specially dry-cleaned and hand pressed.

“Yeah,” he says, “but you have to come with me as a witness.”

Fair enough. The rest of the group waits for us at the volleyball courts as Hunter and I walk across the grass to the outdoor pool.

“Are you really gonna jump in?” I ask.

“Absolutely.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “I’d do anything you tell me to do.”

I roll my eyes. Hunter can’t stand the fact that I won’t just go out with him because of who he is. He’s told me it’s his life goal to make me say yes to a date, so he’s made asking me out a game. Most girls are dying to know what it’s like to be with Hunter McBride, son of the biggest real estate mogul in Chicago. He goes out with girls once or twice, then gets sick of them. He knows we’ll never get together for real, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

I shouldn’t play along, but I do. Hunter is a harmless rich guy who needs friends like me in his life to bring him down to earth. It’s not easy … years of being spoiled and getting everything he wants is rotting his brain. Kendall thinks he’s hopeless, but I think of him like one of the dogs at the shelter I volunteer at—he just needs some training.

We open the gate to the outdoor pool at Brickstone, which is officially closed to guests because it’s past ten o’clock.

“So what’s the deal with you and that busboy guy?”

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, right. He was looking at you the entire time. I saw you checking him out more than a few times.”

“I was not. You’re changing the subject,” I say because I can feel my face getting hot just talking about Luis. “You better hurry and jump in before security comes.”

Hunter sits on a lounge chair and pulls off his shoes.

“I said with your clothes on, Hunter.”

He laughs. “These are my custom Edward Green shoes, sweetheart. I’m not about to get them wet.”

I take one of his precious shoes, stand at the edge of the pool, and pretend to toss it in the water.

His eyes go wide. “You better not.”

“What if I did?” I ask, tossing the shoe back to him. He needs to know material things shouldn’t mean so much.

He puts both shoes neatly under the chair. It makes me wonder if the clothes in his closet are neatly folded and color-coded.

“If you tossed my shoe in, I’d do this!” he says, then surprises me by picking me up and jumping into the pool with me securely captured in his arms.

I come up sputtering. “I’m gonna kill you!” I swim toward the edge of the pool, completely drenched and contemplating how I’m going to explain this one to my parents. I hoist myself out of the water and wring out my hair. “I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. In fact, I think you like me a little.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. You owe me a new pair of shoes,” I tell him.”

“No problem. When can I take you shopping?” Hunter gets out of the pool. His shirt is sticking to his chest, his pants are sticking to his legs … and he’s looking right at my chest. I look down and realize that my dress is clinging to my skin.

“Never. I’ll e-mail you my size and a picture of them.”

Hunter stares down at my heels. “What designer are they?”

“I don’t know. I got them at Target.”

He laughs. “Do you know how cute you are?”

“Not when I’m wet and makeup is running down my face. I’m sure I look horrible, thanks to you.”

“You look hot, Nik. Superhot.” He steps closer. “We’re both wet. You know what this means, don’t you?”

“That I’m done playing truth or dare?”

“No. It means that we’ve got something in common. I might not have the Mexican thing goin’ on, but we’re both soaking wet.”

“You’re grasping at straws, Hunter. Being wet does not mean we have something in common.”

“Just shut up and roll with it. You know, I’m always game if you want to fool around. You don’t have a boyfriend, I don’t have a girlfriend …” He leans in to kiss me, but I put my hand on his chest and stop him.

“Seriously, don’t make me laugh.”

“Come on, Nik.” He looks down at my breasts. “Your body is telling you something.”

If he’s referring to me being nippy, it’s because a gust of wind just blew over me and I got a chill for a second. We’re in the suburbs of Chicago—no girl is immune to the Chicago wind.

“The pool is closed for guests,” a guy says from the gate. A bunch of employees are standing behind him, ready to jump in the pool for employee “after-hours” swim time. Luis is there, too, talking to the hostess from the dining room.

“The pool is closed?” Hunter asks as if he wasn’t aware of it. Hunter winks at me to play along. He’s good at playing dumb, I’ll give him that.

“You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” a security guy says. “It’s only open to staff after ten.”

“Sorry.” Hunter grabs his shoes, then takes my hand in his and leads me out of the pool area.

“Hey,” Luis says as Hunter and I pass him.

“Hey,” I say back dumbly.

I take my hand from Hunter’s grasp. “Remind me never to play truth or dare with you again.”

Hunter laughs. “Are you kidding? That was fun. I bet I could have paid that security guard off and we could have stayed. You’ll have to come over to my house next time and go in our hot tub with me.”

“Keep dreaming.”

Over by the volleyball courts, I see my parents talking to my friends.

“What happened to you two?” Dad asks us when he catches a glimpse of our drenched clothes. “You’re both soaking wet.”

I’m not about to admit I was playing truth or dare. It’s better to play the stupid teenager role. “Hunter thought it would be funny if we went swimming with our clothes on,” I tell him.

Hunter opens his mouth wide in mock shock and points to me accusingly. “She made me do it.”

Mom shakes her head. “I think the party’s over, Nikki. Time to go home.”

“I’m coming with you,” Kendall says, joining us. She leaves Derek sulking by himself.

As we walk to the car, I look over at the pool area where the employees are still hanging out. Though it’s not fully lit, I can see Luis on one of the lounge chairs still talking to the hostess.

“We ran into Luis Fuentes,” Dad says when we start driving home. “You remember him, don’t you, Nikki? He’s Alex’s brother. Very smart boy.”

“I know,” I say. “He’s in my chemistry class.”

“I suspect Luis has a wild streak now that he’s moved back to the south side,” Mom says in a warning tone. “Don’t get involved with him.”

“I’ve hardly said two words to him,” I say to my overprotective mother, but really feel like moaning in defeat.

It’s been easy to reject advances from guys like Hunter because I don’t feel a connection with them. When Luis and I are in the same room, I’m so aware of him that I wonder how long I can keep the wall of protection up before he chisels through it. His swagger, his confidence, his advances … they make me weak and I have to continually remind myself that a boy like Luis can make me lose control.

Staying strong has never been so hard.

15

Luis

On Monday morning, Nikki is waiting for me at my locker the second I get to school.

“What are the chances that I can convince you to get another job?” she asks me.

She says it as if I can find another job with a snap of my fingers. “What’s the problem, chica?”

“The problem is that I don’t want my friends questioning how we know each other or guessing that we have some unfinished business between us … because we don’t.”

“Why do you care about what other people think?”

“I just do,” she says. “Everyone knows I don’t have a boyfriend or want a boyfriend.”

I laugh. “So who was that guy you were with in the country club pool Saturday night?”

“Hunter is just a friend.” She crosses her arms on her chest, doing a pretty good imitation of our chemistry teacher. All she needs to complete the image is a glare that can melt steel.

“So you go around bonkin’ guys who aren’t your boyfriend? Nice,” I say.

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