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Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles (1)

TWENTY-SIX YEARS LATER

Luis and Nikki hadn’t been prepared when the fertility doctor broke the news that Nikki was pregnant with triplets. They were even more shocked when they found out they were having three boys. Life has been eventful for them over the last eighteen years, with triplets who are distinctly different from one another.

Their son Enrique is so wrapped up in playing the violin and wanting to be the youngest member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that he doesn’t have time to get in trouble. Then there’s Juan, who is just like his uncle Ben. Juan is a gamer and an avid reader, preferring to live out his adventures in fantasy worlds created by game designers.

Luis and Nikki’s biggest challenge right now is Luis, Jr.—or Junior, as everyone calls him. He is competitive and hot-tempered, which reminds Luis of Carlos. Junior is a charismatic and good-looking kid. When he walks into a room, heads turn—reminding Luis of Alex. Unfortunately, Junior is also too smart and cocky for his own good, which reminds Luis of himself at eighteen.

Junior is also an incredible athlete. At the age of five he begged his parents for hockey skates after watching the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. At the age of ten, he was playing goalie for the AAA travel hockey team. Now, in his senior year of high school, Junior’s team has made it all the way to the state championships.

On the day of the championship game, Junior is nervous, more nervous than he’d been when his dad spent four months on the international space station two years ago. Junior wants to win this game badly. He knows college scouts will be attending, and he desperately hopes to play college hockey and eventually get drafted into the NHL.

Junior came to the rink early today so he can run drills before the other players take the ice. He sits on the locker room bench after stripping off his street clothes. This is going to be the biggest game of his hockey career. He knows it, and his family knows it. All of his uncles and cousins are coming to the game … even Uncle Carlos and Aunt Kiara have flown in with his cousins from Colorado to attend the game. It will be one hell of a night, ending with him either celebrating his ass off with a win or depressed as hell with a loss.

Junior reaches into his hockey bag to pull out his equipment just as a girl barges into the locker room—without knocking. If Junior were self-conscious or insecure, he’d probably have pulled out his jersey and held it over his briefs.

But he isn’t.

The hot mamacita standing in the doorway has long, straight hair that falls in her face and thick, pouty lips that belong on a movie star. He bets she’s a groupie of the Giants’ first-string goalie, Dale Jacoby, who bragged about the number of girls he dated and screwed in the locker rooms of various rinks around the country. Junior had played on the same team with Jacoby when they were kids. Now they were opponents from rival high schools who were about to play against each other in the state championships.

Jacoby was in the news recently because he was handpicked by the Olympic hockey coach to try out for the US Olympic team. Junior wasn’t jealous. At least that’s what he told himself when he’d heard the news.

Obviously the bimbo standing in the doorway is thinking this is either the girls’ bathroom or a place to meet Jacoby for a quickie before the game.

“Locker rooms are for players only,” Junior tells the bimbo, annoyed.

“Duh,” she says with attitude, walking farther into the room. Junior glances up and notices that she’s carrying a hockey bag and has goalie pads slung across her shoulder.

“Can’t Jacoby carry his own equipment?” Junior asks her.

The girl sets down the bag and pads in the middle of the room, right in front of his. “I’m sure he could, if he hadn’t broken his leg at a party last night.”

What? Jacoby broke his leg? Junior hadn’t heard a word about it. He knew less than nothing about the Giants’ new second-string goalie, who he’d never played against. “So who’s playin’ in his place?”

The girl unzips the bag and pulls out a neck guard and chest protector. “You’re looking at her.”

Junior can’t help the laugh that escapes from his mouth. “You’re a girl.”

She quickly glances at the bulge in his briefs. “And you’re a boy. Now that we’ve got that straight, I’ll just let you know that I would use a girls’ locker room, but they don’t have one at this rink. And the other locker room is being cleaned for the next half hour … I guess there was a peeing contest in there when the Pee Wee league played this morning. They told me to dress in here. Just keep your eyes to yourself.”

Junior looks at her, stunned. “Don’t the Giants have a second-string goalie named Frankie Yates?”

“Ever hear of female hockey players?” she asks him, clearly annoyed. “Or have you lived in a cave your entire life? My name is Franchesca Yates … Frankie for short.”

“I haven’t lived in a cave, chica,” Junior tells her. “I’m all for girl hockey players, especially ones as hot as you.”

Her face scrunches up, like she’s smelling something really bad. “Are you … hitting on me?”

She walks up to him then, standing toe to toe. She isn’t as tall or muscular as he is, but she definitely stands straight and confident. He likes confidence in a girl, but this one needs to be brought down a peg. Part of playing hockey is psyching out your opponents before the game and talking trash during the game. It’s tradition. Just because Frankie Yates is a girl doesn’t mean she’s exempt from the same treatment he’d give to Jacoby.

He’d just psych her out in a different way, because she’s a girl.

“What do you say we get together after the game?” Junior tells her as he reaches out and fingers a strand of her hair. He knows he’s affecting her just like he affects a lot of girls … he can tell by the way her breath hitches as his fingers accidentally brush against her cheek. “I can, you know, console you when you lose.”

Before he has time to blink, the girl clocks him. Her fist lands solidly on his lip. She obviously has brothers who taught her how to fight.

“What the hell …,” he says, swiping his now busted lip with the back of his hand and seeing blood.

She backs away and shrugs. “Don’t mess with me, Fuentes. And if you think you’ve got an easy win ahead of you, think again. I’ve seen you play before, and I wasn’t that impressed.”

“Well, I’ve never seen you play, so you’re obviously not used to playin’ with the big boys.”

She laughs in a mocking tone. “I’m a transfer student from Minnesota, Fuentes. Minnesota. You know, that little state that breeds NHL players. Hockey is in our blood. I’ve played with girls who can skate circles around you, so it’s you who’ll need consoling tonight. I’m just guessing that getting beaten by a girl will crush that overblown ego of yours.”

“Bring it,” Junior says, then puts on his gear and walks out. Who the hell was she, anyway? He’d never even seen her play, so how good could she be?

Junior’s dad and his uncles are standing outside the locker room, waiting for him.

“What happened to your lip?” his uncle Alex asks him. “It’s bleedin’.”

Uncle Carlos laughs. “I thought hockey players fought on the ice, not off of it.”

Before Junior can answer, Yates walks out of the locker room in full gear. “Good luck, Junior. You’ll need it,” she says, then taps him on his equipment-padded butt with her goalie stick as she passes him.

Junior points to her. “Can you believe I have to play against that bitch?”

“What did you do to her?” his father asks him, eyeing his bloody lip.

“Nothin’.” When his father obviously doesn’t believe him, Junior adds, “Okay, I guess I was talkin’ trash … and maybe I touched her hair.”

“Guess she taught you a lesson, huh?” his father says.

A lesson. The last thing Junior wants is to be taught a lesson by the goalie of his rival team. Junior watches her long, blond ponytail sway back and forth against the name YATES on the back of her jersey as she struts down the corridor to the ice. He’d never thought it was possible to strut with hockey gear and skates on, but Yates sure as hell does it … and does it well.

After Luis and his brothers exchange knowing looks, they laugh.

Luis met Nikki when he was fifteen, fell in love with her when he was eighteen, and married her when he was twenty-three. The first time they’d met, she’d kneed him in the nuts. Eyeing his son’s swollen lip and the intense reaction Junior had to the girl is a clue that there is something brewing beneath the surface that his son isn’t even aware of yet.

Passionate, intense relationships are common in their family, and the older Fuenteses know it.

As soon as Junior takes the ice, Alex pats Luis on the shoulder. “You know what’s about to happen, don’t you?”

Luis nods.

“Look on the bright side,” Carlos says. “She’s got one hell of a right hook. With her on your team, your family is bound to win the annual Panty Discus tournament.”

The three Fuentes brothers walk into the stands, proud fathers and husbands who dedicated their lives to their families.

They have no clue their mother, sitting next to their stepfather, Cesar, tears up every time her boys and their families get together. A long time ago she’d given up hope that her sons would live happily ever after. Their troubled, painful past has been behind them for a while now …

… and the future of the Fuentes family looks brighter than ever.