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The Sun Always Shines in Sweet Valley

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"You're so beautiful," he whispered into her ear as his hands tightened around her waist. This was Chad Wilson, a tall, blonde surfer that she'd met at the beach a week ago. And he was possibly the best kisser that Lila Fowler had dated in months, maybe even all year. "You're gorgeous, hot, and so am I. We are so good together." He nuzzled her neck again, making her knees buckle as his words penetrated the haze.

She pulled back and gave him a half smile. He was moving a little fast for her liking. Even if she really, really liked him.

"Chad, I-"

He covered her mouth with another kiss, not giving her a chance to finish the thought that was only half-formed in her mind. "Mmm, baby, you taste so good."

She threw caution to the wind and kissed him back. He was right, they were good together. Sure, she didn't really know him yet but there was plenty of time for that. The entire summer stretched before her and right now, it was looking pretty perfect.

"You're the most perfect girl I've ever met," he continued, as if he'd read her mind. "So beautiful." His hands wandered above her waist and she wondered if she should swat them away, but it was summer vacation. She was eighteen. Free. It was time to stop being such a child.

"So pretty, so special," he continued, his words distracting her as his lips travelled down her neck to her chest. She froze, just for an instant. Sometimes, the memory of John Pfeifer cropped up when she least expected it. A specter over her relationships and even though she'd dealt with it - she really had - there were some things she knew she would never forget.

She ran her hands through his hair, gently directing his lips back to hers. That was better. Safer. Simpler.

It was best when she was the one in control.

Sometimes, she remembered all the fun she, Jess and Cara had when they were sixteen. Lusting after the senior boys - although Lila would never admit that she'd had a crush on Bruce Patman just like everyone else - and plotting their domination of the school. Cara. That was someone she didn't think of these days. It was like once she'd moved to London, Cara had ceased to exist.

But she, Jessica and Cara had laughed and giggled and flirted and discovered they could get almost any boy they wanted. It wasn't difficult. And right here, being in Chad's arms, it was the same thing all over again.

He'd stopped kissing her. Guiltily, Lila looked down, realizing that she'd been so distracted by her own thoughts that she hadn't really paid attention to Chad. "What's going on in that pretty little head of yours?" The smile didn't quite hide the condescension and for a moment, she thought about slapping him. No one talked down to Lila Fowler!

The thing that saved him was the fact that he was cute and she desperately wanted her summer romance. She needed the perfect summer.

"Just thinking about that date you promised to take me on," she lied, hoping the distraction would work. "I think it's time for us to stop seeing each other at the beach or we're going to get into trouble for public indecency." She thought about adding a Jessica-style giggle to her words, to add to the effect, but that really wasn't her style.

For a moment he looked confused - and Lila again realized she didn't know too much about him. He seemed to be a classic surfer; nothing but the ocean seemed to stick in his mind. "Dinner, dancing, remember?"

"Oh right, we're doing that Wednesday," he said.

"Where are we going?" A girl had to know these things far in advance, so that she'd have adequate time to purchase the perfect outfit.

Again, he looked vaguely puzzled, which confused her. It was Sweet Valley, it wasn't like there were many options. "I'm still working on the details... I'll have to let you know." Chad smiled at her. "It doesn't really matter; the main thing is that I get to spend more time with you." He kissed her softly again and she couldn't help but smile. There was no reply needed.

After he drove her home, Lila watched him pull away in his truck - the latest model, of course, and started humming to herself. It was summer, she was beautiful, he was gorgeous, and they had a date in three days' time. Life was shaping up exactly as she'd planned.

---

It was the summer before college, supposed to be the greatest summer of her life. She and Jessica had ruled Sweet Valley High in their final year, been dual-prom queens after an epic competition where they were almost upstaged by Winston Egbert at the last moment. Even now, Lila shuddered at the memory.

Yet there was some small part of her that missed even him.

It was all changing so fast. Jessica was off in Europe somewhere with her twin sister. Lila had been invited, but could she really picture herself sharing tiny dorm rooms for weeks on end with Saint Elizabeth? Puh-lease.

So she'd opted to stay in Sweet Valley for most of the summer. She told everyone it was to spend more time with her family. After all, she'd only just got her mother back (or so it seemed) and in many ways they were still strangers to each other.

Truthfully, she was trying to hold on to high school for just a bit longer. Lila couldn't understand why no one else wanted to do the same thing.

Even with Jessica gone, she'd still envisioned a summer of fabulous shopping, lazy days at the beach, endless parties and dances. And sure, there had been one or two weeks of that until Amy Sutton had run off with a boy she'd met at the Beach Disco, leaving Lila without her backup partner in crime. The last Lila had heard from here was a shrieking phone call. "We're going to Vegas, baby! I think he's the one!"

The memory caused Lila to roll her eyes. How completely unclassy of Amy. (Come to think of it, how completely Amy.) As if you'd find true love at eighteen. How crazy did someone have to be to get married right away? How desperate, how...common!

She made a mental note to discuss this with Jessica during their next phone call. They needed to support each other in this. Vow that neither of them would end up an impulsive bride. Make a pact that they'd both wait until 25, preferably 30.

That was, if they actually managed to talk this time. She remembered the last phone call from Jessica that hadn't actually happened. Instead, there'd been a message left on the answering machine at 3am (Lila was so very glad she'd managed to sleep through that).

"Li! I can't call at the normal time because we are in MILAN and there is so much incredible fashion here and I really, really wish you were here with me because Lizzie doesn't appreciate that I found a Chanel sweater for 50% off, she still thinks it’s a waste of money but it's CHANEL and I know you would understand! And this message is probably getting too long for the machine now, so I better hang up, but I'll talk to you soon I hope!"

Sighing, Lila glanced at the clock and calculated the time difference. Jessica was either fast asleep or, more likely, out partying while Elizabeth slept. That said, there was no guarantee that Jess was even still with Elizabeth; she'd seen the twins fight before and taking off in different directions was so very common for them.

Despite this, and not that she would admit it to anyone, Lila sometimes wished she had a twin. Or at least a sister. Because as much as she loved Jessica - and she knew that Jessica loved her - Lila could only, ever, be at best number two.

She wasn't Daddy’s little girl anymore, either. Not that she ever had been - there'd always been a distance that she couldn't overcome - but they were Fowlers. They looked out for each other. They maintained their carefully cultivated image of impeccable decorum and knew that to the outside world, they appeared perfect.

That was Lila all over. She had to be perfect. If she wasn't, what chance did she ever have to be noticed?

Chad had noticed her. She wished she could be more excited about their upcoming date. He was taking her to the new French restaurant in town because, as he'd jokingly told her, it seemed the kind of place she belonged. She certainly wasn't going to argue with that!

Glancing down at her perfectly manicured nails, she resisted the urge to drum them on the counter top. He was late.

She'd moved from the delightful anticipation of knowing she'd soon be speaking to a cute boy to that vague unease because things weren't happening as planned. Lila was sure there'd be a good explanation, after all, hadn't he assured her just how much he was looking forward to tonight?

And still the clock ticked forward.

Sighing, Lila realized she could've taken her time getting ready after all. She'd raced home from her late-afternoon manicure, taken great pains in preparing the perfect outfit (an import acquired via Lisette's, of course). And now this. Waiting by the phone like a pathetic little girl.

She considered calling him, but calling a boy was something Lila Fowler did not do.

Now that she thought about it, there was something a little off about the whole scenario. Promising to take her out but not actually confirming a time? Then hearing nothing from him that gave any indication they were even supposed to go out that night?

She heard the key in the front door and for a moment - just a moment - her heart leapt in anticipation. Was it Chad? But no, he didn't have a key. It would be her parents returning from work, or perhaps one of the staff members had forgotten something. At any rate, she didn't want to be caught here like a pathetic little girl.

A pathetic little girl who almost had tears in her eyes, who'd been stood up.

She couldn't let anyone see that. Especially not her parents - her father would just frown in a disapproving manner and her mother would be even worse. All sympathy and caring and Lila didn't want to deal with that.

Lila bolted up the stairs.

She turned on the TV. Wondered if he was in trouble of some sort. (But it was just a passing thought, the town was so quiet lately that she was starting to wonder just why they had a police department.)

She refused to cry, after all, she never cried over boys these days. Not since what happened with John (that was something she didn't like to think about either). Instead, she resolutely ignored the phone, watched a movie, and if a tear trickled down her cheek, it was because the plot was exceptionally heartbreaking, nothing else.

---

"Omigod, Lila, Venice is incredible! They have all of these tiny little boats - I think they're called gondolas or something - and they have gorgeous Italian men who paddle them and sing to you! Can you believe it?"

Lila could believe it but the enthusiasm in Jessica's voice was infectious. She played along. "No, that sounds amazing. And very romantic—"

"Sooo romantic," Jessica interrupted with a dramatic sigh. "I want to stay here forever. There's Gianni and Roberto and Massimo and they all can't wait to show me around. They call me the Americano, how cute is that?"

"That's very cute—"

"And Liz is even into it too! She met some random Italian poet in a café; apparently they ordered the same latte at the same time and now she's off to a dramatic reading or something like that." There was a quick laugh, suggesting that Jessica couldn't imagine anything more boring in her life but she was happy for her sister. "I swear, Lila, this is the city of love."

That was the last thing she needed to hear today. Glancing at herself in the mirror, Lila could see dark circles under her eyes. It wasn't just being stood up - the boy didn't mean anything to her. It was, well, everything.

Jessica babbled happily for a few more minutes. "Pigeon poop over everything, it was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen, and she was dancing and screaming which just attracted even more attention...."

It didn't sound hilarious to Lila, but then again, Lila had been the unfortunate one when a seagull flew overhead at the beach a few weeks ago.

"...and I told him a hundred and thirty-seven times that he didn’t need to hold the door for me, but he was just that much of a gentleman...."

Venice in the summer. She bet it smelled bad, she thought cynically.

"...and there were the cutest little pasta shapes you had ever seen, I mean, pasta, Lila, isn't that just the most hilarious thing you could have imagined..."

For a moment, Lila could see the great Senior Year food fight, where pasta had flown everywhere and Jessica had declared she'd never go near it again. Of course, when it came to Jessica, meeting a cute boy pretty much overrode every smart (or not so smart) decision she made. Thankfully, Lila would never be so foolish.

"...oh, and I haven't even told you about the time I dropped my scarf off the edge of one of the boats and Alfonso jumped overboard to rescue it...."

Glancing at her own reflection in the mirror, Lila lifted one perfectly manicured eyebrow, imagining that Jessica could see her disbelief half a world away. If only for video phones.

"So sorry, Lila, Lizzie's here and she's grabbing my arm away from the phone. I have to go. Love you, speak soon, bye!"

And with that, she was gone, and Lila hadn't had a chance to even tell her Chad's name.

She sighed. It was a new day. Things had to get better today. She'd get a phone call soon, with a good explanation and a groveling apology and if he was lucky, she might deign to actually see him again. Oh, who was she kidding. It wasn't like she had anything else to do.

That morning, before Jessica's call, she'd actually called Caroline Pearce, of all people. The phone call hadn't gone any better than the one with Jessica, although Caroline had been surprisingly quiet. Lila had realized that if they did end up going shopping together, it would be nothing but a running commentary on what all of their classmates were up to over the summer and did Lila have any scandalous gossip of her own?

No.

Not now, anyway.

And besides, they'd already covered what everyone else was doing in a ten minute phone call. Left Sweet Valley for the most part. Even Sandra and Jeannie had suddenly signed up for a biking trip along the coast of California, despite the fact that it was summer and that just meant days of sweaty grossness. What was even the point?

It was midday when Lila finally made it down to the mall. Ken Matthews was working this summer as an assistant store manager at the sporting goods place (she could never remember the name, nor did she care to). Maybe he could join her for lunch. They'd always had some kind of subtle friendship; they'd dated a few times, and then he'd dated her best friend a few times, but this was Sweet Valley, where sharing was second nature.

She picked her way through the crowded aisles, wrinkling her nose at the stench of the 'sporting types' who were overrunning the store. Apparently there was a sale on. She could see Ken in the distance, surrounded by a group of customers at least six people deep, and lifted her hand to wave. It took a good two minutes of progressively frantic waving before he even noticed her, and even then, the best he could muster was a harried looking smile and a half-wave in return.

So that was a no on lunch, then. She considered leaving a message at the front desk for him to call her later, but getting the junior staff member's attention proved to be even more of a challenge. Which was slightly insulting, given that he was a pimply kid and she was the hottest thing who'd walked into the store that day, but whatever.

Sweet Valley. Home to endless parties and adventures and beach trips and just what did tourists do when they came here anyway? Did they even get tourists? It was crazy how empty the town could feel when all of her friends were away.

There really was little else to do other than to head back to the beach.

She considered stopping at Fowler Crest on the way, to see if there was a phone message from the missing boy. The more time passed, the more outraged she felt. How dare he stand her up. No one stood her up! And with that thought, she decided she wouldn't waste another moment thinking of him.

The problem was, with all of her friends out of town or working, he really was the only distraction she had. And, well, she was lonely.

The beach was deserted. Stepping gracefully out of her car, Lila looked around in surprise. There were maybe three cars in the parking lot. Two or three lone surfers (one might have been a seal, it was hard to tell). And miles of empty beachfront that would usually be dotted with umbrellas.

Instead, a tumbleweed drifted past.

Resolutely, Lila shouldered her purse and wandered down to the sand. Set up her umbrella and towel, pulled the latest magazine from her bag. She didn't need company to soak up the ambiance (if not the actual sun, because that would be bad for her pale complexion). She was perfectly fine on her own.

It didn't matter that her father had no time for her. It didn't matter that her best friend had abandoned her for the summer. It didn't matter that the only boy who'd shown an interest in her recently had completely and utterly vanished.

She angrily wiped away a tear. Was it too much to ask for some to love her? Someone to put her first, and only first?

"Lila."

She looked up, desperately hoping her mascara wasn't running. It was Bruce Patman, of all people. How did she get so lucky, she wondered darkly. In a town devoid of friends, the one person she did run into was someone she was supposed to hate.

Of course, she never really hated Bruce just because of the family he came from. It was something her father had passed on to her - that while the Patmans may have been their rivals in Sweet Valley's society, they would never reduce themselves to common insults. It was better to keep her distance and make sure their families never crossed paths.

"I haven't seen you in a while," Bruce said as he surveyed the beach. That was true; he'd graduated a couple of years ahead of her and while he still came to the parties while he was in town (at least he wasn't as bad as Steven Wakefield, who pretty much gate-crashed every event his sisters went to), they hadn't really had any inclination to talk.

Strange how being the only two people on the beach could give her a whole new incentive. "Are you in town for the summer?" she asked politely. "I was sure you'd have some kind of internship," - or manager's position, her cynical inner voice interjected- "at your father's company."

Bruce shrugged. "Didn't work out." He gave her a mischievous grin and Lila reflected that it looked good on him. "Let's just say that keeping me indoors when the weather's great is a bit of a challenge."

There was more to it than that; Lila could hear it in his voice. But she refused to be drawn into asking more questions. She remembered exactly what he was like from the times her friends had dated him and sometimes, it was best to not even start. "So you came to the beach to ... surf?"

He laughed. "That sounds like too much hard work." And with that, he flopped himself onto the sand beside Lila and pulled off his shirt. Ordinarily, she would have looked away, but hey, there was no one else around to see her checking out Bruce's muscles. "I'm going to join you," he announced, completely unnecessarily, "because even your company is better than nothing."

The words were snarky but again, Lila could hear the tease in his voice.

"How did it come to this?" Bruce continued. "The two best, and by best I mean wealthiest, of course, good looking people that Sweet Valley has ever produced, and somehow we're on a beach alone."

She gave him a pointed look. "Is this where you pretend to yawn and put your arm around me?"

Laughing, he said, "You didn't even let me finish what I was going to say!"

"Let me guess. I'm here, you're here, we're both hot and we're both bored?" (Hadn't she just lived this script with someone else?)

"I do like how you think, Ms. Fowler."

With that, he did put his arm around her but it was such a blatant move that she let him get away with it. Only until he suddenly dripped cold water from his hidden water bottle down her back. She squealed and pushed him away.

But he was laughing and suddenly, she found herself laughing too. And yeah, she and Bruce had never been friends, but she knew him. She could relax around him. And he somehow knew how to make her laugh.

It felt like she hadn't laughed in weeks.

She stretched out on the sand, and for the first time in a long time (maybe ever?) she asked Bruce about his life.

Sometime later, after a swim (again, there was no one around to see her looking less-than-her-best even if her hair did get wet, and Bruce didn't count), they found themselves sipping champagne that Bruce had retrieved from the trunk of his black Porsche. (Nice to see that he was no longer carrying bottles of warm wine; it seemed that university had taught him that chilled champagne was far classier. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten to pack any glassware and so they'd improvised.)

"Why is it," she began carefully, "that whenever the Wakefield twins leave town, it feels like all the fun leaves with them?" She didn't want to say it but it was true.

"Are you saying I'm not fun?" Bruce replied in mock-hurt.

"No!" And it was true. He'd dunked her while swimming and she'd come up laughing. "I'm just saying...well, look at this beach. Look at the town. Everyone's gone!"

"I'm not gone."

"No, but that's because no matter how hard I try, I can't get rid of you." Now she found herself actually teasing back. "The bane of my existence, a reminder from the universe that money doesn't necessarily by class."

He glanced down at the paper cup he was holding. "Touché," he laughed. And then his expression turned a little serious. "Why do you think I haven't been around as much this year?"

"Because you dated Jessica again and she threatened to take a tire iron to 1BRUCE1 if you came near her again even once in the next hundred and thirty-seven years?"

He stared at her in awe. "You even know how to do her voice. That's kinda scary."

"What's kinda scary is that you keep messing with my best friend and I haven't killed you myself." (She didn't mean it, if she got herself involved in Jessica's relationships, it would be more of a full-time job than being her friend already was.)

"That's because you like me too much."

"Like you?"

"Put it this way, Lila, I am the best thing that happened to you this summer."

She stared at him from over her sunglasses, less cool, more curious. "And why would you say that?"

"Because my father's sending me in his private plane to pick up a business associate...from Europe...and you're going to keep me company."

He gave her a lazy grin. And she knew that no one turned Bruce Patman down. No matter how strong-willed they were, or how many resolutions they'd made to stay far away from him, or how much their families hated each other...wait a moment.

"You honestly think your father would allow me to get on his private plane?"

"Who said he'd know it was you?"

It was ridiculous, what he was proposing. She wasn't going to just run off to Europe with Bruce. No matter how bored she was. "Don't you have a girlfriend at college, Bruce?" (Or two or three?)

He shrugged. "They're not here right now, are they?"

"You really think..." but he didn't give her a chance to finish her sentence.

"Lila, we're stuck in Sweet Valley with nothing to do. You said it yourself, it's like the world revolves around the twins. How about we prove that it doesn't?"

"By running off to Europe? Where the twins are right now?" she stressed.

"I'm not saying we're gonna go anywhere near them," he replied. "It's a big continent. And we'll be travelling in style." A pause. "I'll even let you share my bed."

"I'm not sharing it; you'll be taking the floor!" Lila quickly replied.

He shrugged, and Lila realized she'd have to insist on two rooms the entire time. If she was going. Which she hadn't actually agreed to do.

"Come with me, Lila," he cajoled. "Let's do Europe in style. I'm tired of girls who just like me for my money." It was a rare moment of truthfulness from Bruce. "Now, if they like me for my looks, that's a whole other story...." And the real Bruce was back just like that. "We'll have fun. We'll make our own parties. We'll meet people who are more like us."

And yeah, she could see the appeal in that. Europeans were so sophisticated. A world away from California. Every time she went, regardless of the country, Lila felt right at home. It was her place in the world (even though she knew she'd never really leave Sweet Valley. No one ever did.)

He made his final entreaty. "No strings attached, no expectations. Just prove to me that you're the girl I know you are."

"And who is that?" she had to ask.

"Someone who is so much more than Jessica's best friend."

She looked at him. She knew she was fabulous. She knew she was special. But he was right, she'd been in Jessica's shadow far too long.

"Let's do this."

He laughed and she found herself uncharacteristically joining his laughter. This decision, it felt liberating. It was freedom. It was her chance to go out and find her own destiny instead of letting life just...happen.

After all, she was Lila Fowler. So much more than a footnote in someone else's story.

Hours later, when she looked at the sight of Sweet Valley receding behind the plane, she noticed the rain clouds starting to close in. Soon it couldn't be seen at all.