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Cruel Summer

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~*~

Lila stumbled as she made her way to the phone booth, silently cursing herself for wearing her nicest, highest black heels on this date. All of her careful preparation turned out to be in vain; the final indignity had been making a less than graceful exit when the time came.

She stepped into the booth, digging a quarter out of her purse and slotting it into the phone. She gave the receiver a dubious look before picking it up and putting it resolutely to her ear. She punched in number she’d memorized long ago, and tapped her foot as she listened to the line attempting to connect. Please pick up, she pleaded, trying to send out a telepathic message of her distress.

“Hello?” A cheerful, high-pitched voice answered the phone, and Lila groaned inwardly. She was hoping to catch him personally and bypass having to talk to his mother, but obviously all of her luck had deserted her this evening.

“Hi, Mrs. Matthews, this is Lila,” she replied, schooling her features into a patient look and hoping it carried over in her tone of voice. “Is Ken there?”

“Oh, I’m sorry dear, but he’s not. He’s still at his tutoring session with Ms. Dalton,” Mrs. Matthews informed her. “It’s so nice of her to meet with him on Saturday evenings, don’t you think? He has football practice every day of the week, and then of course the games on Friday, so this is the only time they can get together,” she prattled on.

Lila made a face. Yes, so nice of her, she thought sourly. She tutors Ken in the early evening, and then hits up my father for a late-night date afterwards – a regular Working Girl.

“Mrs. Matthews, when will he be back?” Lila cut in, not caring to hear anyone else sing Nora Dalton’s praises, especially at that particular moment.

“Oh, not for a while, I’m afraid,” she chattered. “The midterm is coming up, and he’s been having a lot of trouble with these irregular verb conjugations.” She paused. “Can I give him a message? Let him know that you want a call back?”

“No, that’s okay,” Lila sighed, digging the heel of her stiletto into the crumbling concrete. “Thanks anyway.”

“Of course, dear. Have a good evening.” Mrs. Matthews hung up, but Lila kept hold of the phone on her end, listening to the beeps of the dial tone for a long moment before replacing the receiver.

This is just great, she groused, crossing her arms over her chest. Now what am I going to do? Daddy’s out of town on a business trip, my car’s in the shop, and the only person I dare to call for a ride home is out “studying” with Nora fucking Dalton.

She stamped her foot in a fit of pique. She should’ve known better than to accept a date with Blair Worthington. The son of one of her father’s business partners, they’d originally met at the racquet club for lunch the week before. She thought him cute enough, with sun-streaked blonde hair, dashing green eyes, and a tan nearly as golden as her own, but he’d spent most of the meal talking about himself, which she found incredibly boring. He was a freshman at Sweet Valley College, planning to major in business, and thought economics was the most interesting subject on the planet.

Still, she couldn’t resist when he invited her to the Sigma fall formal. If nothing else, being his date would get her in the door, and she could meet some far more eligible dating prospects among his fraternity brothers.

Too bad it hadn’t actually turned out that way. They’d arrived at the dance in style, gliding into the parking lot in his father’s Jaguar, but Blair had turned into a stage-five clinger the moment they stepped foot in the Sigma house. She couldn’t shake him off, and he insisted on dragging her around and introducing her to the nerdiest of his frat brothers. When she attempted to escape in order to find the ladies’ room, he’d grabbed her arm, and that had been the end of that.

It turned into a big, dramatic scene, and she’d stormed off in a huff. Surprisingly, nobody rushed to her rescue, so she set off towards campus, determined to find some other way home.

Only – when her father was out of town, he gave the chauffeur time off work. Her lime green Triumph was in the shop for a tune-up. All of her girlfriends had dates that evening, and the only person should thought she could rely on was tied up in a tutoring session with a woman she loathed.

Lila stepped out of the phone booth and peered down the main road that ran through the SVC campus. Despite the moniker, the college was a good hour away from town. She wouldn’t have made it on foot even if she wasn’t wearing her come-and-get-me turned stilettos-of-death heels.

Her shoulders fell, and a tear slipped down her cheek. Now what was she going to do?

“Lila?” called out an incredulous voice. “Is that you?”

She looked up, then quickly turned away, stumbling yet again as she attempted to escape for the second time that evening.

Bruce Patman was truly the last person she wanted to see, especially at that very moment.

Her rotten luck didn’t miraculously change, however, and he easily caught up with her. “Lila?” he tried again, touching her shoulder and drawing her to a halt. “What are you doing here?”

She wrenched out of his hold. “Go away,” she returned coldly, wrapping her arms around herself as she glared at him.

“And leave you stranded in the middle of campus?” he drawled. “I don’t think so.”

Lila glanced around; the center of campus was deserted, save the two of them. A bitter smile twisted the corners of her mouth. “Oh, so I’m only good enough to acknowledge when nobody else is around?”

Bruce furrowed his brow. “What are you talking about?”

Her glare turned murderous. “I haven’t heard from you since Monaco,” she ground out, swiping at the angry tears that continued to fall unabated. She hated herself for crying in front of him, especially now.

He had the sheer temerity to reach out to her, brushing his fingers through her hair in what she assumed was supposed to be a comforting gesture. “That doesn’t explain why you’re crying now,” he said softly.

She batted his hand away. “Leave me alone,” she grumbled, pulling a tissue from her purse and dabbing it at her eyes. Great, now her mascara was running – she was really batting a thousand this evening.

Bruce huffed an annoyed sigh. “Geez, Lila, get a grip, would you? I’m trying to do the right thing here, which isn’t easy, considering – ” He abruptly clamped his mouth shut, his words dying in a curious strangle in the back of his throat.

Lila couldn’t help shooting an inquisitive glance in his direction. “Considering what?” she prompted, amused to see an annoyed flush rising up from the back of his neck. “Are you trying to tell me that the almighty Bruce Patman got ditched?”

No,” he bristled, adding with a sniff, “more like, I ditched the most boring party I’ve ever been to. Theta sisters just aren’t what they used to be.”

“Uh-huh,” Lila intoned, smiling wryly. Considering his bluster, she was willing to wager that he’d taken one girl to the party, and then spent the entire time he was there chatting up another. She thought she’d seen Susan Gullick sniffing around him at the country club one afternoon – plain, plump, and painfully boring, but a legacy Theta with a father richer than Croesus.

“Look, there’s no other action around here,” Brice said, gesturing to the deserted campus, “so I’m heading back to Sweet Valley. Can I give you a lift?”

Lila cast a long look around one last time, fervently wishing for another white knight to suddenly materialize, maybe one whose armor was more shiny than tarnished. Unfortunately, luck still wasn’t on her side.

She sighed. “I guess,” she agreed reluctantly, falling into step with him as they made their way towards the campus parking lot. As they walked, she made herself a silent promise: Next time, I’m stealing my date’s keys.

~*~

The two rode in silence back to Sweet Valley. Lila had kicked off her heels the second she settled in Bruce’s car, and she gathered them in her lap now, toying with the straps as she looked out the window. There wasn’t much in the way of scenery between the town and the college, but she focused her gaze there anyway, content to wallow in the dark thoughts that had consumed her. Having to ditch a boring date, only to be abandoned by the one guy she thought she could trust, she was now stuck in a car with an insufferable companion, and going home to an empty house.

What a perfectly wretched evening.

“You wanna talk about it?”

Lila scowled, still facing the window. “No.”

Perhaps wisely, Bruce didn’t prod, but somehow, his question brought into sharp relief the common denominator at the core of Lila’s brooding. Because – even if Ken had rescued her this evening, he would still be mooning over Ms. Dalton, because his crush was as obvious as it was disgusting. Even if her father had been in town instead of away for business, he would’ve been out with Ms. Dalton, just like he was practically every other night he in Sweet Valley. He was completely infatuated with her, too, even though he was at least twenty years older than her.

“What does Nora Dalton have that I don’t?” she burst out, closing her fists around the straps of her shoes.

Bruce sent her a sidelong glance. “Do you really want me to answer that?” he mused by way of reply.

“She’s a witch,” Lila declared darkly. “There is no other explanation for the way she’s ruined my life.”

“Whoa.” Bruce lifted a surprised brow. “Somehow I don’t think we’re talking about a French grade anymore.”

“She’s cast a spell on my father, and on Ken Matthews, too,” Lila fumed. “Neither one of them is ever around anymore – they’re too busy with her.”

Bruce snorted. “You have the hots for Ken Matthews?!”

“No!” Lila shot back hotly. “But he’s been a more reliable date that you, lately.”

“Touché,” Bruce replied drolly.

Lila didn’t seem to hear him; she was working herself up into a pretty good rage over the injustice of her life. “Not that it would matter anyway, even if I did like him like that,” she spat. “He’s so hung up on her – it’s disgusting, and embarrassing. She’s way too old for him – and way too young for my father. Why can’t she find someone her own age to mess around with?”

“How old is she, anyway?” Bruce asked.

“Twenty-five,” she informed him, sounding scandalized. “There’s no way she’s interested in anything but my father’s money, but she’s hooked him anyway, the gold-digging slut.”

Bruce quirked a smile. “My, my, do I detect a hint of jealousy?” he teased.

Lila glowered at him. “You’re not helping.”

He sighed, brushing a hand through his hair as he eyed the road. “Look, Lila, you have nothing to be jealous of,” he assured her. “Dalton’s hot, but she’s also desperate. There’s something about the way she blew into town and immediately latched onto your father, practically the second she landed…my guess is, she’s hiding something. Something big,” he added for emphasis.

Lila’s glare softened into a curious look. “You really think so?” she mused, a twinge of hope flaring in her heart.

Bruce shrugged. “I know what a gold-digger looks like,” he informed her, “and Dalton’s not it. Nope – I’d bet that what she wants from your father is protection, not money.”

Lila frowned. “Protection from what?” she asked skeptically.

Bruce shrugged again. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Abusive husband? Lunatic relative? Crazy psychopathic stalker? Who knows.”

“Great,” Lila grunted, “that’s exactly what I want my father to get mixed up in – somebody else’s crazy shit.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t seem fair, does it,” Bruce mused, “considering the way he ignores yours.”

Lila turned back to the window.

“Hey.” Bruce touched Lila’s leg, sliding a warm caress over the silk of her dress. “Don’t feel threatened by Dalton – once your father gets tired of playing the knight in shining armor, he’ll drop her.”

“And Ken?”

Bruce scoffed. “Ken Matthews is a moron,” he asserted. “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time on him.”

Lila gently touched the back of Bruce’s hand, still resting on her thigh. “And who else am I supposed to waste my time with?” she murmured.

Bruce didn’t respond, beyond curling his fingers around hers.

“I waited for you, after Monaco,” she admitted. Like a complete idiot, she added silently. Silly me, thinking that kiss in Monte Carlo meant something. No one had ever kissed her like that before – it had made her feel vulnerable, yet powerful; weak-kneed, yet full of fire. It had been the beautiful, dream-like pinnacle of an otherwise dull trip, and perhaps stupidly, she’d thought he’d felt the same way about it. After returning to Sweet Valley, she’d waited for him to call, or drop by, or even acknowledge her existence…all for naught, as it turned out.

She was incredibly angry, but also incredibly hurt by his callousness. She’d seen a different, more romantic side of him during their day in Monte Carlo, but when he returned to Sweet Valley, he had turned back into his usual egotistical, asshole self.

He’d acted as if nothing had happened between them during the summer – no tennis matches, no water fights, no playing pretend. Nothing.

And yet…

Sitting here with him now, their clasped hands resting in her lap, the sexual tension between them was palpable.

She twisted the straps of her shoes in her other hand, a faint flush creeping over her as her heart began to throb against her ribs. “Why did you drop me?” she asked softly, feeling tears welling up behind her eyes for the second time that evening.

Bruce swallowed hard. “I didn’t drop you, Lila,” he replied, brushing his thumb over the backs of her fingers. “I never had you to begin with.”

It was Lila’s turn to be silent. She didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I have a reputation to maintain,” he continued after a long moment. “So do you, for that matter.”

“Gee, Bruce, you’re such a romantic,” she commented sarcastically.

“Oh, come off it, you know what I mean,” he returned irritably. “We aren’t just two nobodies who can hook up without consequence. You said it yourself, back in Monte Carlo – my mother would have a cow if we ever got engaged. I can’t imagine that your father would be too thrilled, either.” He sighed. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not here for some Romeo and Juliet bullshit.”

Lila furrowed her brow as she gazed at him. “Don’t flatter yourself, Bruce Patman. I don’t want to marry you,” she assured him. “For God’s sake, I’m only sixteen!”

He laced his fingers through hers. “So what do you want?”

She looked down at their hands, still resting in her lap. “This,” she said softly. “I want to know that what happened in Monte Carlo mattered.”

He squeezed her hand, a wave of warmth sliding up the length of her arm. “It did. It does,” he acknowledged. “I do care about you, Lila, it’s just…”

“What?” she prompted.

He eased to a stop at the end of their street and flicked on his turn signal. Once the coast was clear, he made the turn towards Fowler Crest. “I’m not a one-woman kinda guy,” he said ruefully. “I enjoy playing the field and racking up conquests.” He grinned. “It’s my second-favorite sport, in fact, after tennis.”

“I hope you don’t consider me a conquest,” Lila sniffed. Especially since you haven’t gotten everything you’ve wanted from me, she added silently.

“Nope,” he confirmed, still smiling. He turned up the drive in front of her house. “Quite frankly, I respect you too much for that.”

“You certainly have a funny way of showing it,” Lila muttered.

“Do I?” Bruce mused, putting his Porsche into park at Lila’s front door. “You’re home, safe and sound, aren’t you? That’s more than I can say for Susan Gullick,” he added with a sneer, grabbing her hand again.

Lila couldn’t help but chuckle at that, feeling at turns amused and gleeful that she had guessed the origins of his evening correctly. “You’re terrible,” she laughed, unbuckling her seatbelt.

“Mmm, so are you,” he teased, pulling her close, pressing a playful kiss to her lips.

They parted for the space of a breath before leaning in again, their mouths meeting in a long, lingering kiss. Lila snaked her arm around Bruce’s shoulders, her shoes still dangling from her fingertips, as they savored the moment, the comfort and familiarity of the caress.

“Friends?” he whispered against her lips, nipping at the corner of her mouth.

She nodded, resting her forehead on his. “Forever,” she agreed, before stealing one last kiss and climbing out of the car.