Fandom: Sweet Valley High
Universe: Pre-canon (sophomore year)
Word Count: 7,471
Summary: "You really know how to treat a girl, you know that, Bruce?" Lila shuddered. "Remind me to never do you a favor again."
Author's note: Written for the 2016 Summer Mini Challenge prompt touch.
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.
This was, without a doubt, the most beautiful sight Bruce Patman had ever seen.
He'd grown up in the lap of luxury, no stranger to the finer things in life. He was a sixth-generation multi-millionaire, and as such, he'd never wanted for anything. He had the best clothes, the best car, the best girlfriends, the best vacations. He'd already seen most of the world by the age of sixteen; Europe was practically his second summer home. He thought he'd seen it all – the lush greenery of Ireland, the magnificent Swiss alps, the dark forests in the heart of Germany.
And yet – this was a sight so beautiful that it took his breath away.
"Dad, look at this," he implored, gazing down over the slate blue water of the Mediterranean Sea. His heart started to beat a little faster as his eyes swept over the sheer expanse of it, the waves breaking gently as they lapped at the white-sand shore. "Isn't it amazing?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes," his father mumbled, not bothering to look up from the leather-bound file of paperwork he held balanced on his lap. He frowned as he flipped through it, as if searching for a missing page.
Bruce rolled his eyes at his father's non-response, but his attention to the scene beyond his window never wavered. It was absolutely enchanting – not even the depressingly grey, cloud-filled sky took away from its absolute majesty. He leaned forward, pressing his head against the glass as his eyes devoured the sights below.
Yachts filled the port, clustered together between weather-beaten buildings rising high over the jagged cliffs. As the helicopter dipped closer to land, he could make out the terra cotta roofs of the residential neighborhoods, standing in stark contrast to the white exteriors of the high-rise buildings in the center of the city. In the midst of it all sat the crown jewel of the principality, the famous Monte Carlo casino, built like a palace, complete with gold-topped turrets.
"Wow," Bruce murmured to himself, his eyes greedily taking in every nook and cranny of the impressive architecture. It was an extraordinary sight, even for him, and he'd been inside more than his fair share of European castles.
"Dad," he mused aloud, "do you think we could stop by the casino on our way back to Genoa?"
"We won't have the time, son," he father replied, gathering his notes and putting them in order. He slammed his attaché closed as the helicopter prepared to land. "I have meetings all day, and you know your mother is expecting us back in time for dinner this evening." He slid a sidelong glance towards Bruce. "Besides, you're not old enough to gamble, not even here."
Like that's ever stopped me, Bruce thought to himself as he unstrapped his seatbelt. He pulled off his helmet and set it aside, brushing his hands through his hair. He'd be able to find a way in, if he really wanted to. It just depended on what else Monte Carlo could offer that would hold his attention for the better part of a day.
"Here," Bruce's father said, digging into the pocket of his Armani suit jacket as the Patmans stepped out of the helicopter. He handed his son his black AmEx. "Buy your mother a souvenir, would you?"
"Anything in particular?" Bruce asked, though he didn't hold out much hope for a hint. One of his father's assistants usually bought the gifts for his mother, precisely because his father didn't want to have to put much thought into it.
"Just find her something pretty," Mr. Patman advised with a dismissive wave. "Listen, I'll see you around six, Bruce. You can find your way back here, yes?" He didn't bother to wait for a response, sliding into the backseat of a limousine that took off almost as soon as he closed the door.
"Sure, Dad," Bruce murmured under his breath. He was well versed in finding his way around by himself in foreign countries; he'd been doing it long enough, at least.
He looked around the heliport and set off in the direction of the taxi stand. He could've taken the train – or hell, even walked – but he tried to avoid mass transportation as much as possible. He liked the VIP treatment, and he could certainly afford it, so why not?
He hired a towncar to take him into Monte Carlo, and spent the short ride trying to come up with an idea for his mother's gift. Jewelry was always a safe choice, but it was rather boring. What else might she like? What would she enjoy receiving as a gift from her husband?
Bruce frowned. He could barely pick out decent gifts as a son, and he'd never been a husband before, so he had no idea what might appeal to a wife. Most of his girlfriends were happy to have a bit of his time, and he'd never given any of them more than a lavish bouquet of flowers. Being with him was a gift in and of itself, so far as he was concerned, so obviously his own experience wasn't going to help him in this case.
He had the driver drop him off in the middle of the shopping district, and after taking a long look around but finding nothing particularly interesting, reluctantly went off in search of a jewelry store. Better to go with the safe choice when otherwise uninspired, he decided. Besides, it might be a lark to see what so impressed the nouveau riche these days.
He cast a doubtful eye towards the sky as he window shopped. The clouds had only increased, darkening in color and menacing with the threat of rain. He shivered, wrapping his arms around himself as he studied a display of summer-themed jewelry. Jade and aquamarine stones sparkled in their platinum settings, but Bruce found himself singularly unmoved by any of it. His mother preferred diamonds – the rarer, the better. Semi-precious stones would seem like an insult.
He sighed, moving on to the next store, hugging himself against the chill of the breeze blowing in off the water. He caught a glimpse of the patrons inside the shop and frowned, shoving his hands into his pockets. Statuesque women were draped around men of all shapes and sizes, alternatively throwing back their heads in feigned peals of laughter and huddling close to the counters, scrutinizing whatever trinkets their paramours had pulled from the cases for their perusal.
Bruce sneered at the sight and swiftly moved on. He didn't have any personal experience in dealing with gold-diggers, but he could already spot them from a mile away. He'd been on the Italian Riviera for all of a week now, and the only women who'd bothered to pay attention to him so far were the desperate ones, who could somehow see past his amazing looks and winning personality to the enormous trust fund he was sitting on.
He had no use for these kinds of women; he didn't want to be with someone who was only impressed by his money. He needed some substance beyond that veneer of style, but the girls who possessed those qualities wouldn't give him a second glance. Instead, they were too busy flitting around the likes of Tisiano de Mondicci – European playboys with nothing but their fortunes on offer.
It was the main reason why he'd decided to tag along with his father today. He had no interest in the business meetings that had brought them to Monaco, but every interest in getting away from the beautiful women who had dismissed him out of hand. His ego could only handle so much rejection, after all – he was very much used to getting his way.
In Monte Carlo, he could be anonymous. He wouldn't stand out among the crowd here; there were plenty of people in the principality who were ten times as rich as he was, and the expert-level fortune hunters would spare no interest in him. Here, he could remove himself from the competition and concentrate on perfecting a strategy targeted at landing those elusive women who actually were worthy of his time and attention.
He had no idea what made him look up at that moment, but when he did, he stopped abruptly in his tracks.
"Well, well, well," he murmured to himself, a sly smile curling the corners of his lips. "What do we have here?"
He'd forgotten that Lila had bragged about her daddy bringing her to Monte Carlo on vacation, but there she was, not fifty feet away from him. She was staring rather intently at a display in a shop window and toying with a lock of her hair, wrapping the end around her index finger and giving it a little tug.
Bruce fisted his hands in his pockets, resisting the sudden urge he had to yank at her hair himself. It wouldn't even begin to satisfy the need for revenge he'd been nursing ever since she'd kneed him in the groin during their last, rather passionate encounter, but it would be a nice start. It irked him immensely that she was the last girl he'd kissed – not only because it was her, the daughter of his father's biggest business rival, but because it had happened nearly a month ago. His main mission during his visit to the Italian coast this summer was to be with as many women as it took to get over that encounter with Lila Fowler. A month should've been plenty of time, but no.
Here he stood, wanting nothing more than to pull her hair until she begged him to stop.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as his eyes slid down the length of her. She was wearing a strategically placed yellow sundress, one that showed off her bronzed shoulders and arms and made her legs looks about five miles long. She wore her hair loose, flowing over her back in soft waves. She tossed the piece she'd been playing with over her shoulder and moved on, walking further down the sidewalk, away from him.
He swallowed hard as he watched the sway of her hips and the way her gauzy skirt moved against her thighs. Lila was one of the few people in Sweet Valley who could truly understand what it was like to come from the sort of money that he did. Her father was a self-made millionaire, having made his fortune in the burgeoning software industry, and he showered his only child with the sort of lavish gifts that made most of their classmates at Sweet Valley High green with envy. Only he knew the truth of what it was like to have a father who gave everything except his time and attention, who figured that money could buy his children happiness – or at least stop them from whining too much.
He'd always appreciated sharing that commonality with Lila, even though he'd never really liked her all that much. Their fathers loathed one another and were constantly taking sides against each other when it came to all the major town issues. The Patmans fought fiercely to protect their cannery interests on the coast, while George Fowler would just as happily ring the town with skyscrapers – and all of the pollution that came with them. Their mutual disinterest had trickled down to the next generation; Bruce thought Lila rather desperate and gauche, while she found him unbearably snobbish and arrogant.
No, it wasn't until a couple of months ago that he'd started thinking of her as something other than an enemy, and his opinion had changed for perhaps the shallowest of reasons. She had always been considered good-looking – rich people often are, whether they are actually photogenic or not – but at some point between her freshman and sophomore year of high school, she had blossomed into a stunning beauty. She was, without a doubt, one of the prettiest girls in Sweet Valley, and as such, she occupied a growing spot on his romantic radar. Which was all well and good, except for one major problem: his usual tactics wouldn't work on her – she was not impressed by his looks, or his athletic ability, or his money and its accompanying social prowess.
Actually, he liked that about her. While it was fun having girls constantly fawning over him, it was also a little boring. Where was the challenge? He enjoyed being spoiled for choice, but he also had a fondness for the pursuit of certain pleasures. He liked it when girls played hard to get, and that was the epitome of Lila's game. She was sexy and clever and confident, and had made it well known – through word and deed – that she would never fall at any man's feet. Her reputation as the queen of flings largely proceeded her; she made a habit of discarding boyfriends long before they even thought of losing interest of her.
Their track record, at least, had that much in common. Bruce laughed at the idea of falling in love, or of tying himself to a single girl – he was much more interested in conquests. From what he knew of Lila, she was much of the same mind. It was what made them perfect for each other. Well, that, and her sharp tongue, and rapier wit, and incredible body…
Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself closing the space between them, relishing the sight of her as he steadied his approach. "We really have to stop meeting like this," he drawled as he came to a stop beside her.
She glanced over at him sharply, surprise flitting across her face as she took in his sudden appearance, but she quickly schooled her features into a distinctly unimpressed expression. "Whatever happened to, 'Oh, no, I wouldn't be caught dead in the playground of the nouveau riche'?" she asked by way of greeting, folding her arms across her chest as she awaited his response.
He grinned wolfishly at her. "My father had to fly in for business meetings, so I decided to tag along," he explained, taking great mirth in the way she rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust.
"Still trying to alleviate that boredom of yours?" she mused, turning her attention back to the window display she'd been contemplating before he'd so rudely interrupted her. "Maybe you should get that checked out by a professional."
"I'd much rather spend my time with you," he responded.
"Oh?" She tilted her head as she gazed at the array of colorful silk scarves in front of her. "What happened to all of those fabulous Italian women you were boasting about?"
Bruce shrugged. "I decided to give them a break," he said. "After all, it takes a strong woman to handle the Patman charm."
"The stench of it, you mean?" Lila mumbled under her breath, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She tried to hide her accompanying smile, but he spotted it anyway, and it pleased him immensely.
It was nice to know that she enjoyed their prickly sparring almost as much as he did.
"So how'd you find me, anyway?" she queried after a long moment as she continued along the sidewalk, having decided that the scarves were not worth further interest.
"I took a wild guess," he teased as he followed her to the next storefront, this one offering handwoven hats and baskets. "I thought to myself, what would Lila Fowler be doing on such a cold and windy day in paradise? And, if not spending the day curled up in misery because I wasn't around to entertain her" – she scoffed at that – "then I figured she'd be doing what she does best: shopping."
She gave him a sidelong look. "Okay, I'll buy that. So tell me, what are you doing here? Surely you didn't come all this way just to 'entertain' me."
"Indeed, not," he replied. "Actually, I'd completely forgotten you were in Monaco, or else I would've stayed far, far away. But since I'm here…" He offered a shrug, as if he'd had no choice in the matter, "I've been tasked with finding a present for my mother."
Lila rolled her eyes again. "And just what do you get for the woman who has everything?" she pondered sarcastically.
"I don't know," Bruce admitted. "Got any tips?"
She sent him a nasty look over her shoulder, her eyes narrowing as her nostrils flared in annoyance. "No," she bit off.
Bruce smirked. "Then obviously I'm doomed."
She huffed away without another word, but he was able to catch up with her easily. Just as he opened his mouth to antagonize her further, she cut him off at the pass. "I am not like your mother, you know," she informed him haughtily. "For one thing, I wouldn't have the patience to deal with my man's wandering eye."
Bruce lifted his brows. She thought his father was having an affair? And when, exactly, was he supposed to have time for that? "Look, just because your father doesn't have any scruples doesn't mean that mine doesn't," he sneered. "My father's business trips are just that: business trips. You really think he'd let me tag along if he was off to meet his mistress?"
"It would be the perfect cover," she remarked, the bitterness of her tone making Bruce realize that maybe she had been used for such a reason, once upon a time. He felt a rush of anger on her behalf, but also pity. Nobody deserved to be treated that way, not even Lila.
"And it would make sense," she continued, "if he sent you off to buy a gift for your mother. That way, he'd get you out of his hair, and assuage his guilt at the same time."
That little statement gave Bruce pause. Lila's mother had abandoned her family ages ago, so he knew she'd never been sent on such a mission herself. So what was she hinting at?
"My father loves my mother," he informed her.
"And your mother loves his money," Lila cut in, turning to face him, and to watch as her nasty accusation sank in.
Bruce opened his mouth to defend his mother's honor, but then promptly closed it. Lila knew better than to insult his mother to his face, and she probably also knew that it was his mother's family's inherited wealth that supplied the majority of his trust fund, because Marie Patman was not exactly modesty personified.
So what was Lila really trying to say?
And then it dawned on him: nothing. She was trying to bait him into an argument so he'd leave her alone.
"Nice try, Lila Fowler," he declared, crossing his arms over his chest, "but you're not going to get rid of me that easily." He had to give her some credit, albeit grudgingly – she'd really had him going there for a minute.
She rolled her eyes. "Perish the thought," she grumbled sarcastically. She turned away from him, but he caught her arm before she could walk away. She glanced back at him questioningly, and his mind whirred into overdrive.
"Listen," he said abruptly, "you enjoy playing pretend, don't you?"
"What?" she sputtered, wrenching out of his grasp. She planted a hand on her hip, her glare defiant and accusatory. "What are you talking about?"
You're not the only one who can bait a hook, he thought as he gazed at her, trying not to notice the way her skirt had hitched up under the ball of her fist. "It's a simple enough question," he went on, a smirk playing at the corner of his lips. "You obviously have quite the imagination – I can't believe that you don't enjoy putting it to good use."
She frowned, her eyes taking on a suspicious cast. "If this is some ploy to get me to help you find a gift for your mother…"
He feigned complete innocence.
She heaved a great sigh. "I would have to pretend pretty hard to find something likable about your mother," she grumbled.
He grinned at her. "I think it's safe to say that feeling's probably mutual," he agreed cheerfully.
"You're such a charmer," she deadpanned. She folded her other hand against her hip, her shopping bags dangling at her wrist.
He was valiant in his attempt to hold her gaze, instead of letting his eyes slide down to her long, tanned legs, and he lifted a brow at her, as if in challenge. Are you going to rise to my bait, Lila Fowler? he taunted silently, and admit to yourself that you want to spend time with me, even if it's ostensibly to help someone you loathe?
"If I help you with this," she hedged, "what's in it for me?"
He swallowed his triumphant grin as he pretended to give her question a great deal of thought. "My undying gratitude?" he suggested.
She snorted. "Oh, please. How about offering a reward that's actually worthy of me?"
It was his turn to narrow his gaze suspiciously at her. "And just what did you have in mind?" he asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
She tilted her head slightly, her silky brown hair gliding invitingly over her shoulder as she contemplated his question for a long, drawn-out moment. "What color is the credit card your daddy gave you?"
He scowled. Of course she'd want something tangible out of this deal. How uncouth. "Black," he conceded.
"Ah, yes – the color of prestige," she mused, her eyes lighting up as the corners of her lips curled into a Cheshire cat-like smile. "And wouldn't you know, it's accepted at all the finest jewelers in this country. Don't worry," she assured him, giving him a patronizing pat on the shoulder, "I'm sure you'll think of some way to properly compensate my time and attention, if I agree to help you."
He fought the urge to roll his eyes at her. Only someone as gauche as Lila Fowler would demand payment in kind for helping a guy out with a simple task. Well, he decided, right then and there, if she's going to profit handsomely from this deal, then I'm going to get something out of it, too.
He hooded his eyes. "If you agree to help me, and if it's going to require us to play pretend, then why don't we just go all the way?"
She lifted a sardonic brow. "And do what?" she scoffed. "Pretend to like each other?"
He granted her a slow, sly smile. "Yes, let's try that," he agreed, reaching out and clasping one of her hands into his own. A delicious, positively electric curl of heat drifted up the length of his arm as he laced his fingers with hers, and judging by her reaction, she'd felt it, too. "After all, it would look pretty strange, wouldn't it, giving a gift to someone I so obviously loathed with every fiber of my being?"
He stepped closer to her, and she swallowed hard, inadvertently squeezing his hand, sending a fiery jolt straight to his groin. "How's your French?" she inquired softly as he loomed over her.
"Hmm?" he mused, his gaze falling to her lips. Her full, pouty lips, the color of ripe strawberries, lush and ripe and ready to be picked…
"Vous êtes un âne pompeux," she murmured, giving his hand another, rather more painful, squeeze.
It took a minute for her words to penetrate the haze of his muddled thinking, but when they did, he had a ready response. "Et voilà pourquoi vous me aimez," he replied with a sultry smile.
She suppressed her own smile. "Touché," she declared wryly, take a large step backwards and restoring the space between them.
They stared at each other for a long moment, still clasping hands, and Bruce's sense of triumph started to fade. The breeze picked up, causing her hair – and her skirt – to flutter, and he felt a sudden longing to pull her close and wrap his arms around her, to feel the warmth of her body next to his own.
Maybe this won't be so bad, he considered silently, cupping his palm with hers.
"Well, let's get this over with," she sighed glumly, looking for all the world as if she was being taken to her execution.
"Geez, Lila, don't get too enthusiastic about this," he joked as they set off. "I wouldn't want you to pull a muscle or anything."
She yanked hard on his hand, giving his arm a cruel little twist, sending a streak of white hot pain blazing past his elbow and straight up to his shoulder.
"Hey, I serve with this arm!" he yelped, more from surprise than actual pain, though he couldn't help but notice that she had gleaned quite a bit of pleasure from his outcry.
"Then I suggest you watch what you say," she returned blithely, not bothering to look at him when she responded – or to hide her self-satisfied smile.
The two walked in silence to the end of the high street. Lila seemed to know where she was going, so Bruce was happy to let her lead the way. As long as she wasn't headed straight for the royal palace, she wouldn't find a place so expensive that his father would balk when he saw the bill.
Rain began to fall just as they reached their destination; they pushed their way rather unceremoniously through a set of heavy glass doors at an impressive façade anchored at the busiest intersection in town.
One glimpse of the stylish clientele suddenly surrounding them – not to mention the discreetly placed security guards who mingled among the crowd – told Bruce all he needed to know about the exclusivity of this highly elite shop.
Lila kept firm hold of his hand as they threaded their way around the room, stopping to look over the simple yet elegantly curated exhibitions of high jewelry. It was all Bruce could do not to openly gawk at the finery on display: everything from diamond-cut bracelets to pearl-drop earrings to necklaces and rings dripping with rubies and sapphires.
It was all absolutely exquisite – and little overwhelming. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
He felt, more than heard, Lila's sharp intake of breath as she tugged him towards one display in particular. "Oh, Pierre, isn't this stunning?" she breathed, lapsing into French as she leaned over a glass case and pointed at a striking diamond and emerald necklace, set in platinum.
"'Pierre'?" Bruce hissed incredulously into her ear, only to feel her hand rise to the crook of his arm in response, followed by her elbow stabbing him sharply in the ribs.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed a salesman making his way over to them; he was caught even more off guard with Lila's next dramatic pronouncement: "This necklace would be the perfect gift for your mother, don't you think?"
The salesman stopped short. "Mère?" he stuttered in surprise, before carefully reassembling his cool, poised countenance.
Lila nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yes," she babbled in French, "we are breaking the news of our engagement to my dear Pierre's mother, and we are hoping that the perfect gift will help soften the blow." She schooled her features into a humbled expression. "You see, he is all that she has left in this world, and she isn't ready to lose him, especially not to me," she added, flushing prettily as she averted her eyes.
Well played, Bruce thought, thoroughly amused as the salesman gave him an indulgent look. My mother would fall over if she heard that a Fowler was marrying into her family.
"It's true," Bruce confirmed, his French a bit more faulty than Lila's. "My mother is very special to me," he continued, turning to Lila with a theatrically loving look, "but I love this woman more than life itself, and I cannot wait to make her my wife."
Was it his imagination, or had she paled at that?
He covered her hand, still lodged in the crook of his arm, and pressed a little kiss to her temple, just for effect.
"Ah, young love," the salesman sighed, clasping his hands together. "Well. Let us see what we can find for your maman, then, monsieur."
"I like this one," Lila reiterated, pointing to the diamond and emerald necklace. She turned to Bruce. "What do you think, darling?"
Bruce studied the piece for a long moment. "It's nice," he contended, "but I'm not sure it's my mother's taste, so much as yours, dearest."
Lila narrowed her eyes, giving him arm a sharp tug. "I have better taste than that," she mumbled in English under breath, before offering a sickly sweet smile to the salesman. "What do you think?" she asked, switching back to French.
"I think it is a beautiful piece," the salesman agreed, reaching down to unlock the display case. "Perhaps if you tried it on, mademoiselle, we could convince your Pierre of its beauty."
He pulled the necklace from the case, the diamonds glittering under the high-set lights of the shop. Lila reached out to touch it with her free hand, and Bruce noticed her diamond tennis bracelet as it pooled on her wrist. The salesman noticed it too, giving him an approving nod over Lila's bowed head.
The salesman lifted the necklace from its velvet perch. "Try it on," he urged Lila, opening the clasp. "May I help you?"
Lila reluctantly let Bruce go, quickly tucking her right hand into a pocket of her dress, and stepped around the glass case, lifting her hair from her neck as the salesman slid the necklace into place and secured it at her nape.
"Ahhh," he sighed as his hands fell away. "Magnifique." He glanced up and caught Bruce's eye. "Do you not agree, monsieur?"
Lila turned to face him, her hair falling back into place like strands of silk around her shoulders, and Bruce momentarily forgot how to breathe. Square-cut diamonds alternated with pairs of teardrop-shaped emeralds, arranged in figure eights between the diamond stations, gleaming in their platinum setting against her golden skin. It lay perfectly on her décolletage, forming a perfect circle around her collarbone, drawing his attention to the soft lines of her throat, making his fingertips tingle with the anticipation of touch.
"It's beautiful," he breathed, finally finding his voice again. He lifted his gaze to meet hers, taking a step closer to her and twining his fingers through her hair, tucking a lock behind her ear. "Just like you, Isabella."
"Ah, your fiancée is aptly named," the salesman mused admiringly.
Bruce scarcely heard him; he was more interested in Lila's response to his compliment, a soft smile as she reverently touched the jewels nestled at her throat. His eyes didn't leave hers as he curled his hand delicately around her neck, drawing his thumb down the line of her jaw. He felt her skin heat beneath his touch, and the slight dip of her chin as he traced her lower lip, and suddenly none of this felt like pretend anymore.
"I don't know if I can give this to my mother," Bruce murmured. "It looks as if it was made just for you."
"She'll love it," Lila insisted as he caressed her cheek again. "Any woman would be honored to receive this, especially as a gift."
"Your lovely Isabella makes a good point," the salesman interjected. "It is a piece fit for a queen, and such a stunning gift that there is no way she could ever object to your engagement."
"You don't know my mother," Bruce said ruefully as his hand drifted away from Lila's face. "She can be very stubborn." He clasped her bronzed shoulder for a long moment before brushing her hair away and lifting the chain from her neck, running his fingers along the edge of the glittering stones. He was surprised by the weight of the piece, the heaviness of the jewels and the platinum, warmed by her skin.
"It might be just enough to convince her," Lila insisted softly, her hand rising to meet his. She curled her fingers around his and gently moved his hand away. "After all, it would be obvious that this was given as a gift of love."
Bruce considered her words, and the way she laced her fingers through his, and acquiesced with a shrug and a knowing smile. "All right, we'll take it."
"Splendid!" the salesman chirped, closing in on the two of them and whisking the necklace away.
It was enough to break the spell; Lila's hand went limp in his, but she wasn't quite able to close off her dreamy expression as she averted her eyes. He saw a trace of sadness in the lines of her features, and felt the echo of it in his chest.
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and pressed another little kiss against her temple. No doubt it appeared to be a loving gesture, even if he intended for it to be comforting instead.
"Monsieur, a moment?" the salesman suggested, bringing Bruce's attention to the fact that he'd boxed up the necklace. He reluctantly let Lila go and followed the salesman to the counter at the far end of the shop.
"Monsieur, this is a lovely purchase," the salesman said as Bruce produced his father's black AmEx for payment. "Incidentally, there is a matching bracelet in this suite – perhaps a gift for your lovely Isabella?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, thank you," he demurred, "although I would like to buy her something – a thank you gift, if you will. She really doesn't get along with my mother," he hastened to add when he caught the salesman's perplexed expression, "and I practically had to beg for her help today."
"Ah," the salesman intoned knowingly. "Say no more. What is her favorite stone?"
Bruce glanced back swiftly, locating Lila in front of a far display, and he took note of what had caught her attention so raptly.
He turned back to the clerk. "What do you have in sapphire solitaires, set in gold?"
The rain was pouring down in sheets when the two finally left from the jewelry shop. They darted down the sidewalk to a small café, where they had a long, leisurely lunch, during which they traded biting commentary about the people who passed by their window, and teased each other about their character-acting in the course of purchasing the necklace. When Lila threatened to buy him a baguette and beret to complete his transformation into her ideal French fiancé, Bruce convinced her to take in an art film at the Cinéma d'Hiver instead, by reminding her that class was permanent, whereas fashion was not.
When they emerged from the theater two and a half hours later, Bruce found himself wondering if being converted into a bad French stereotype would've been a more interesting use of his time. The only film running that afternoon turned out to be a compilation of twenty-three seven minute shorts, with topics ranging from old men dancing around completely naked, save for truly garish masks; to twelve angry men yelling at each other about God and eating graham crackers; to one woman watching all of her lovers die in rapid succession, as she aged seventy years in less than ten minutes.
The only redeeming part of it was a section in the middle, where two young lovers clung to each other in the midst of a raging storm, professing their undying love even as they sank to the bottom of the sea – and the only reason that one was bearable was because Lila had slipped her hand into his and rested her head on his shoulder.
Their moment was lost, however, when the next short started, showing a man in a straitjacket ranting and raving at the top of his lungs as the camera slowly pulled away, ultimately revealing that he was locked in solitary confinement in an isolated wing of a Soviet-era hospital, with no one around to hear his screams.
The rain had stopped by the time their bizarre afternoon experience was over, though the cool breeze continued to whip in off the sea. The two stood huddled together near the building, after Bruce had called for a car to take him to the heliport.
"You really know how to treat a girl, you know that, Bruce?" Lila groused, her teeth chattering. "First you trick me into helping you buy your mother a present, and then, as a reward, you take me to some weird French film that, in spite of its weirdness, still managed to bore me to death." She shuddered. "Remind me to never do you a favor again."
Bruce gave her a curious look. "What makes you think that was your reward?" he asked, jutting his thumb back towards the building. "That was just something to do to stay in out of the rain. If I had known how strange it was going to be, I would've let you buy me a beret instead."
Lila smiled, almost in spite of herself. "There's still time to transform you into the suave and sophisticated Pierre," she teased.
Bruce shook his head as he checked his watch. "Nah, I've got to meet my dad at the heliport," he replied. "His meetings ran until six, and my mother is expecting us back in time for dinner."
The mirth drained from her expression. "Right," she nodded, averting her eyes. She looked up sharply. "What a minute, did you say six?"
He shrugged. "Yeah, what of it?"
Lila's lips twisted into a sardonic sneer. "I wonder if our fathers were at the same meetings today," she mused.
Bruce lifted his brows as he gazed back at the city center. "I don't think so," he concluded after a moment, turning back to face his companion. "I think we would've noticed that mushroom cloud."
"I'm shocked," she remarked dryly. "Sweet Valley is barely big enough for the both of them – how in the world did they manage to conduct business in a country less than half that size without civil war erupting?"
Bruce grinned. "I guess wonders will never cease," he returned. "Maybe they figured out a way to divvy Europe up without stepping on each other's toes."
Lila snorted in response. "If only we could have the same luck back home," she intoned.
Bruce's hired towncar pulled up just then, gliding to a smooth stop in front of them. The driver quickly jumped out, moving around to the passenger's side and proffering the rear door.
Lila and Bruce looked at one another.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye," Lila said, shifting her shopping bags from one arm to the other.
He touched her elbow. "It doesn't have to be," he replied, "especially since we still have that little matter of a reward to settle."
She furrowed her brow as she looked at him. "You mean – the weird French art film wasn't it?"
He flashed his trademark brilliant smile. "C'mon, Lila," he cajoled, "you know me better than that." He gestured to the opened door of the car. "Besides, this isn't just for me – the driver's going to take you home as well."
She cast a curious glance at the driver, who nodded in confirmation. "I'll just need your address, mademoiselle."
Bruce waited as Lila dug into her purse, eventually producing a card with the address of her father's villa on it, which she handled to the driver. While he looked it over, Bruce Lila's hand and pulled her into the car beside him, sliding across the supple leather and giving her room to settle her shopping bags at her feet.
The two shivered with delight to be shielded from the cold, salty sea breeze, and settled comfortably in the back of the spacious car. Within minutes, they were on the road to the heliport, the luxurious beauty of Monte Carlo fading into the distance.
Bruce reached into his bag from the jewelry store, pulled out a small, elegantly wrapped package, and handed it to Lila.
She gave him a dubious look. "What's this?" she questioned, holding the edge of the box as if it was going to spontaneously burst into flames.
"Your reward," he replied simply.
She glanced from him, to the gift, and back at him again. "Is this a trick?"
"Now, now," Bruce said softly, making a great show of tucking a lock of hair behind Lila's ear, "do you really think Pierre would try to trick his darling Isabella, on the eve of their engagement?"
Lila's mouth curved into a half-smile. "Your mother would have a cow if we ever got engaged," she laughed.
He grinned. "I think we decided that Pierre's would, too," he reminded her. "We have that much in common, ol' Pierre and me."
Lila carefully unwrapped the present, sliding the ribbon from the box and unfolding the gilt-edged wrapping paper. She opened the black velvet box inside and took in a sharp breath, her eyes growing wide as she stared at her gift. "That's not the only thing you have in common," she sputtered after a moment of stunned silence, tracing the crest of the heart-shaped sapphire solitaire pendant, set in yellow gold and nestled in the midst of a delicate gold rope chain. "You both have great taste, too."
She turned to him, her eyes meeting his. "Thank you," she said, leaving him without a doubt as to the sincerity of her words.
"You're welcome," he responded, brushing her hair away from her brow. "You should try it on," he added. "Here, let me help you."
He took the pendant from the box, unfurling the chain and opening the clasp, and leaned forward, draping it around her neck as she lifted her hair out of the way. His hands lingered longer than was strictly necessary to secure the clasp, and he relished the brush of her silky hair on his fingers when she released it to fall back over her shoulders.
The pendant lay perfectly on her tanned skin, the point of the heart sliding suggestively towards her cleavage. He swallowed hard, suddenly becoming very aware of the way his heart was beating against his ribs, and, with monumental effort, lifted his eyes to her face. Her expression was unreadable, but the look in her eyes was warm and inviting.
Time seemed to slow to a standstill as their gazes met. Wordlessly, he touched her face, sliding his thumb over the crest of her cheek, his fingers sinking into the lush curtain of her hair. His eyes fell closed when he felt the touch of her lips on his, so warm and soft and sweet.
It was a kiss unlike any other he'd ever shared with her. He felt it not only in the core of his being, but also in the center of his chest, and as a warm rush of satisfaction streaming from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He became hyperaware of everything, from the softness of her skin, to the faint lemon fragrance of her hair, to the warm rush of her breath across his lips as one kiss slowly cascaded into another, and then another.
It was the first time he'd ever kissed anyone without the edge of lust or urgency or desperation, without the driving need to best – or break – his partner. It was a strange, unfamiliar sensation, and perhaps most amazingly of all, it was completely satisfying. He felt like he could kiss her like this for hours.
He was so lost in his exploration of this heretofore unknown feeling that he didn't realize that the car had come to a stop, nor that the driver had opened the door; only when Lila gently pushed him away, breaking the heady spell and bringing him crashing back down to reality, did he remember where he was.
With great reluctance, he managed to disengage himself from her, to find the bag from the jewelry shop amongst the plethora at her feet. He stepped out of the car, but couldn't resist leaning back in, stealing another lingering kiss. "Until we meet again," he promised softly, clasping her hand in one final caress.
He pulled himself together as best he could as he walked across the tarmac to the waiting helicopter, but he couldn't quite hide his dreamy, far away expression. His father chuckled as he climbed into the helicopter and busied himself with fastening the seatbelt. "Did you enjoy your day in Monte Carlo?" he asked indulgently.
Bruce donned his headgear, thankful to have the chance to shield his eyes from his father's curious scrutiny. "Immensely," he replied, handing over the bag containing his mother's gift – and his father's credit card. "And you're welcome."