Title: Under My Umbrella
Fandom: Sweet Valley High
Word Count: 2,598
Summary: That's the way the whole thing started – silly, but it's true…Thinking of a sweet romance, beginning in a queue…
DISCLAIMER: The Sweet Valley High concept, storyline, and characters are © 1983 – 2003 Francine Pascal/Bantam Books/Random House. No money is being made from the creation of this material. No copyright infringement is intended.
Lila narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the parking lot of Valley Mall. Jessica Wakefield, she swore silently, if you left without telling me, I swear I'll scream bloody murder!
She pursed her lips, brushing her silky brown hair over her shoulder as she searched the lot for her best friend's red Fiat Spider. They had driven to the mall earlier that morning, both in desperate need of new summer swimwear – and curious to get a look at the allegedly good-looking construction workers who were transforming one of the anchor stores of the mall into a chic French boutique. The girls in their sophomore class at Sweet Valley High had been gushing about them for weeks now, especially as summer approached and the workers went shirtless.
Manual laborer wasn't really Lila's type, but even she had to admit there were some very nice physiques on display underneath those bright orange safety vests and neon yellow hard hats. She and Jessica had only just settled in for the show, diet sodas in hand, when her best friend had suddenly spotted Bruce Patman wandering into the nearby Boston Shop. Jessica had been in love with the arrogant junior for years and never missed the opportunity to stalk him – but Lila declined, having zero interest in pursuing her rival, and even less inclination to step foot inside the elitist, preppy, New Englandesque store. She prided herself on having better fashion sense than A-line skirts and sweater vests.
Watching construction workers proved to be little more interesting than watching paint dry, and soon enough, Lila was ready to leave. She could've sworn she and Jessica had made an agreement to meet at the front of the mall before the lovesick puppy ran off in pursuit of her toy, but apparently not.
Either that, or her so-called best friend had abandoned her without a single thought, probably only too eager to escort her egotistical crush wherever he'd deign let her take him. Knowing Bruce, he probably requested that Jessica drive him to his car, lest he pull some all-important tennis-playing muscle.
Lila frowned, moving a few steps down the curb. There was no sign of the little red Spider, not even in the back, shaded lot that Bruce always preferred.
Stupid bitch, Lila groused silently, her annoyance at her erstwhile friend melting into irritation – and a little bit of panic – as thunder rumbled in the distance. How am I supposed to get home now?
The sky quickly clouded over, matching Lila's mood to perfection. Because she was (technically) grounded, and thus (technically) not supposed to be anywhere other than school or Fowler Crest, she couldn't do what she normally did when one of her flaky friends flaked out on her – call for a ride. Her father's driver was many things, but above all else, he was loyal to a fault – and he couldn't keep a secret worth a damn. Her own car, a beautifully restored Triumph TR6, was in the shop, receiving a new, customized paint job…not that she was allowed to drive it right now, considering her (technical) grounding.
She sighed. Her car was going to be magnificent when it was finally finished – painstakingly restored and refinished by hand, with a new camel-leather interior to perfectly complement the deep, glossy peridot exterior. ("Lime green!" Jessica had shrieked when Lila had shown her a swatch of the final color – which only went to prove just how bad Jessica's taste was, in cars as well as men.) It would be a one-of-a-kind, like nothing else Sweet Valley had ever seen.
Much like Lila herself, she thought with a smirk.
Her thoughts were drawn sharply back to the present when she felt a raindrop fall directly on her head – followed by another, and another. She clutched her bags close and made a break for it, scurrying for the only shelter available in the wide open expanse of the parking lot – the weather guard at the bus stop opposite the mall.
She ducked into the tiny nook of space, standing stiffly, her lips curling into a sneer as she surveyed her surroundings. Three reinforced walls of dingy Plexiglas were the only things separating her from the rainstorm; a worn-away bus map was tacked to one side, just above a small metal bench that looked like it hadn't been cleaned, possibly ever.
Good God, Lila thought with a shudder. How can people sit there? Or even let their things touch it?
Thunder rolled ominously in the distance and the sky darkened overhead, causing her to shudder again. "Now what am I going to do?" she murmured, casting a doubtful eye to the map of bus routes. It more closely resembled a hodgepodge of multicolored lines than anything she recognized as Sweet Valley.
She bit her lip uncertainly. Even if she could figure out which color would get her to the vicinity of her home, the mechanics of actually taking public transportation totally escaped her. She'd never ridden a bus before, not even to school. Didn't one have to pay for such things?
Somehow, she doubted the bus driver (or bus cashier?) would accept her credit card.
Not that she'd even want him to know who she was, because if word got around that Lila Fowler had been seen on a public bus, she'd never live it down.
Lila's eyes widened. Oh, no, she suddenly thought, covering her face with her hands, what if somebody sees me here?!
"Um…Lila?" came an uncertain voice from behind.
Lila's spine stiffened, and she felt all of her blood rush to her head, flooding her face with the heat of embarrassment. Don't move, she told herself frantically. Don't do anything, and maybe whoever it is will go away!
A tentative finger tapped her shoulder, nearly startling her out of her skin and almost causing her to topple over. "What?" she snarled, jutting out her elbow as she whirled around, her shopping bags flying.
A very surprised-looking Kenny Matthews neatly sidestepped her swinging bags. He was standing just beyond the weather guard, one hand holding aloft a burgundy-colored golf umbrella while the other gripped a khaki-colored backpack. "Sorry," he apologized with a sheepish smile. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Lila drew herself very tall and still, willing her heart to slow as she took a good look at her classmate. He was an inch or two shorter than she, with a thatch of wild blond hair hanging over his light blue eyes, and an easy smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Ken Matthews had never been much to look at, but somehow, Lila had never been happier to see him before in her life.
Not that she could let him know that, of course. "You didn't," she said crisply. "Scare me, that is." She regarded him suspiciously. "What do you want?"
He shrugged. "I was going to ask if you wanted to share my umbrella," he replied, pointing to the one he held above his head, "but now…" A slight flush tinged his cheeks, and he swallowed hard. "Well, I'm kinda wondering…what are you doing out here?"
Lila bristled. "What do you mean, what am I doing here? Where else do you expect me to buy my clothes – Montana?" she bit off sharply, knowing full well what he meant.
Kenny's smile withered away, a deeper flush crawling up the sides of his neck. "No, I mean – " He stopped himself, apparently thinking better of stating the obvious. He blinked rapidly, dropping his gaze from hers. "Listen, can I drop you someplace? I, um…I don't think the next bus is due for another hour, and its kinda cold out here in the rain…"
Lila silently debated with herself. What would be worse – someone seeing her waiting at a bus stop by the mall, or someone seeing her riding in Kenny Matthews's beat-up old white Toyota? On the one hand, she'd always taken a bit of pride in never having to rely on the same transportation as the common masses – but on the other, Ken Matthews was an A-1, first-class, all-around nerd. Sure, he was on the football team (albeit only second string), but he was also good friends with Winston Egbert, the class clown!
"Are you alone?" she blurted out, which only caused his blush to deepen even more. "I mean – "
He recovered first. "Gee, Lila, I'm flattered," he said with a grin, before taking a step closer and hooding his eyes slightly. "Yes, I'm alone," he added softly, if dramatically.
Lila wrinkled her nose, taking a step back. Gee, I wonder why, she thought sourly, finding the scent of sweat and Gatorade anything but enticing. "Good," she declared. "Then I trust word of this little meeting won't go any further than the two of us?"
Kenny's shoulders slumped, his expression turning slightly hurt. "Sure, I won't tell anybody that I found you abandoned at the mall," he returned archly. He stepped back out into the rain, as if he couldn't put space between them fast enough.
When she hesitated, he rolled his eyes. "And I promise I don't bite," he added witheringly. "Are you coming, or not?"
She scowled, but joined him under his umbrella, quickly falling into step beside him as he led her out to his car. He walked her to the passenger's side, holding the umbrella steady between them as he unlocked and opened the door for her, careful to keep her shielded from the rain until she was safely seated inside.
She watched him as he walked around to the other side, pitching his backpack into the backseat before climbing into the driver's side, stowing the umbrella between his door and his feet. He buckled himself in and put the key into the ignition, all the while studiously avoiding her gaze.
"Thank you," she said softly as the engine roared to life. "I – I appreciate this, Kenny, I really do."
He shrugged. "Don't mention it," he replied, glancing into the rearview mirror before turning to look behind them so he could safely back out of his parking space.
They maneuvered out of the parking lot of Valley Mall and rode in silence as they crested the hills overlooking Sweet Valley. Lila kept her gaze steady on the view from the passenger's side window, watching as the rain slowly picked up in intensity as they moved towards Fowler Crest.
Soon enough, Kenny was turning into the driveway of her house. As the car climbed the slight incline, Lila felt her gut clench – wondering if her father had somehow beaten her home. Would she get into trouble if he caught her sneaking inside? Or would he even remember punishing her in the first place?
The car came to a smooth stop just beyond the detached garage. "Looks like it's just us," Kenny observed, sounding a bit awestruck as he looked around the silent, rain-soaked grounds.
Lila breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Thank God," she muttered under her breath, gathering up her bags and her purse and reaching for the door handle.
"Wait!" Kenny yelped, quickly unstrapping his seatbelt and practically jumping out of the car. He jogged around to her side, opening the door for her and offering the protection of the umbrella once again.
Lila blinked, looking at him as she climbed out of the car in one fluid, graceful motion. He was smiling at her, that same little grin playing at the corners of his mouth just like before, when he'd discovered her under the weather guard. It was cheeky and sly, making him look like he was keeping a particularly juicy secret.
She hesitated, standing just inside the car door. "Kenny," she began, fumbling with the clasp on her purse, "I'd really appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone about this…"
His eyes widened with genuine surprise when she held out a handful of bills to him. "Geez, Lila, you want to pay me?" he sputtered incredulously. "How about simply acknowledging my existence the next time we cross paths at school?"
She shifted her weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. "But, Kenny – " she tried again.
He shook his head. "Keep your money, seriously." He leaned close, his smile turning mischievous. "It was my pleasure to rescue a damsel in distress. My pleasure," he added, "and my secret."
She couldn't help but smile back. "Thanks, Kenny," she murmured.
"And please," he adjoined, sweeping his free arm out and pivoting in the direction of her front walk, "call me Ken."
Jessica Wakefield's eyes flashed with unmitigated anger as she stalked down the halls of Sweet Valley High. "Well, thank you very much, Lila Fowler," she bit off, coming to a halt beside her erstwhile best friend. "Because of you, I had to run practically a hundred and thirty-seven blocks to catch up with Lizzie in order to get a ride to school this morning! I thought you were going to pick me up? How could you forget?!"
Lila very calmly placed the last of her books in her book bag and closed the door of her locker, pointedly ignoring Jessica's histrionics. That's what you get for abandoning me at the mall in favor of that insufferable Bruce Patman, she mused to herself, turning to look down the hall in the opposite direction from Jessica. It would've served you right to be late for school and get detention for having so many tardies.
She narrowed her eyes as she considered her train of thought. If only Elizabeth wasn't completely insufferable as well, and had allowed you to actually get detention…. But no, Elizabeth Wakefield was practically a saint, especially when it came to her beloved twin sister.
"Lila, are you listening to me?" Jessica whined from behind her. "Lila!"
Lila hooked the strap of her bag over her shoulder, brushing aside her silky brown hair as she glanced up at the hall clock. She had just enough time to check her outfit in the full-length girls' room mirror before homeroom, if she hurried.
"Hey, Lila," came a quiet voice, snapping her back to the present. She looked up, spotting Kenny Matthews just as he was about to pass her in the hall. He pushed a hand through his hair as their gazes met; he was smiling at her, that same sly, cheeky smile from the week before, the one that made his eyes dance with mirth.
She graced him with a small smile, her lips curving up beyond the point of mere politeness. "Hi, Ken," she responded warmly, holding his gaze for a beat longer than necessary. She could feel Jessica's incredulous stare boring holes into her back – since when you do talk to nerdy Kenny Matthews?! she could practically hear her shriek – but Lila didn't care. Ken Matthews might've been a nerd, but he was also a nice guy.
With a great smile.
Who knew when to keep his mouth shut.
And how had she never noticed how gorgeous his eyes were before now?
Her gaze lingered after they crossed paths, her heart gaining traction in her chest when she noticed the telltale flush that colored his cheeks and the back of his neck. She always liked having an effect on boys, but for some reason, his reaction was effecting her – in an interesting, if surprising, way.
"Lila Fowler, are you insane?!" Jessica hissed, grabbing her arm and giving her a vigorous shake. "Did you seriously just acknowledge Kenny Matthews's existence?!"
Lila rolled her eyes. "Oh, please, Jessica," she sighed, shrugged out of her friend's hold. "His name is Ken."