Not a Chance (Sweet Nothings)
Author:Carter Ashby

CHAPTER ONE



Travis was only a windshield's width away from snow and slush and freezing cold...it looked downright inviting compared to the frost emanating off the woman seated next to him. He reached down to the dash panel and kicked the heat up another notch. They were traveling at the lightning speed of fifteen miles per hour. The wipers squeaked on high speed back and forth, snow packing down beneath them. In the meantime, her highness Arden Butler, former prom queen, homecoming queen and Miss Merry Christmas, sat chirping away on her cell phone as though the snow storm was utterly beneath her interest.

Arden sat plastered to the door, clearly requiring as much distance as possible between herself and Travis. He glanced at her and then leaned forward on the steering wheel, squinting to see through the snow. His big shoulders strained against the fabric of his flannel shirt. The road blended with the ditch, now, and there were no tire tracks to follow.

"We ain't going to make it," Travis said. His Missouri twang made him sound every inch the uneducated hick she no doubt thought he was.

She covered her cell phone with her hand and turned to him. "It's only twenty miles. We can make it." The twang was conspicuously absent from her voice, likely swept from her tongue at birth by the silver spoon that replaced it. God forbid she talk like all the rest of the four thousand river rats and rednecks that dwelled in the hill town of Splitlog.

Travis gritted his teeth. He'd been making an effort not to let this break into an argument. He didn't know Arden well. She had become a school teacher right out of college which had surprised everyone considering that, with the size of her trust fund, she probably wouldn't have to work at all for many, many years. She went to the same church as Travis, but had never said so much as a casual greeting to him. He assumed she was a typical rich bitch and so far she had proven him right. She talked down at him and smugly assumed he would do as he was told.

Travis sensed her examining her perfectly manicured nails as she edged closer to the door. Not a problem for Travis. Let her keep as much distance as she wanted. He considered himself a connoisseur of women. He liked a variety of sizes, shapes and personalities. He could handle them sweet or bitchy, kind or selfish, sane or crazy. But cold and condescending--that he had no patience for.

Arden chattered away sounding falsely warm and perky. Travis tried not to listen. She giggled at something and Travis squirmed in discomfort.

"No," she said to the person on the other end of the phone. "It will probably be a half an hour or more. We're going really slow." Arden said this last part extra loud.

Travis cleared his throat. "There's a hotel two miles up." His deep voice sounded gruff, even to him.

She put her hand over the phone. "We can make it, I said." She removed her hand. "Yeah. It's the tow truck guy."

Travis marveled at how swiftly her voice could switch from ice to sunshine.

"Okay, Nick," she said. She giggled again. "Alright. I'll call you when I get home. I love you too." She flipped her phone closed and slipped it into her vibrantly colored couture purse.

"We're going to have to stop, Miss Butler," he said, struggling to remain cordial.

"That hotel you mentioned shut down six weeks ago. It won't do us any good to stop. Just keep going." She flipped her medium length blond hair over her shoulders and rearranged herself to the improvement of her posture.

"I'm trying to tell you, I can't see the road. It's six inches of wet, packed snow that’s quickly turning to ice. We're lucky we aren't in a ditch yet. We have to take shelter and there is nothing between here and Splitlog but that hotel."

Arden straightened, pulling her black jacket closed over her low-cut pink blouse and shivering slightly. As the heater in the truck was working perfectly well, Travis could only assume she was shuddering at the thought of spending the night with him. As though he would touch her. His distaste for her was growing steadily.

"If you are suggesting," she said, "that I spend the night with you in an abandoned hotel building, you're out of your freaking mind," she said, each word perfectly enunciated and just the right amount of passionate indignation in her tone.

Travis's knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. "Then offer another solution," he growled through this teeth. "Because that's what we're doing if you can't think up something else in the next five minutes."

"Here's an idea. Since you're being such a little girl about all of this, why don't you let me drive?"

Travis laughed, startled by her insult. "I'm going to spare you the humiliation and just pull off at the hotel."

"I'll walk before I spend the night anywhere near you."

"Fine," Travis said, getting irritated again. "If you want to drive, then you give it your best shot." He pulled to a stop and climbed out of the truck. She scooted over behind the wheel and he climbed into the passenger's seat.

This should be fun, he thought. He slouched down and waited for her to pull back onto the highway. She was fumbling for something down the side of the seat.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I can't reach the pedals."

He rolled his eyes. She found the handle to release the seat but since it was a bench, he had to help her scoot it forward. She was surprisingly strong and wound up slamming his knees into the dash. He cursed and she lifted her chin, a satisfied smirk on her prim, pointy face. It was the first moment Travis noticed that she might be human after all.

He twisted to the side to give his knees a different position. While Arden drove he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. It had been buzzing with another text message from his brother, Dustin.

It had been lucky for Arden that he was out searching for his youngest brother, Duane. Otherwise she would have been stranded. She had called the shop for help. Dustin had been there, also looking for Duane. He relayed Arden's whereabouts to Travis.

Now Travis sat next to this completely ungrateful young woman who had been stupid enough to go out of town during a blizzard warning, causing him to spend his valuable time rescuing her rather than finding his runaway brother.

Duane used to be a quiet, fairly upstanding boy. But after he graduated high school, he slowly drank himself into delinquency. It broke Travis's heart because it was the path he himself had taken at that age. Travis had wanted more than anything to help his younger brothers overcome their less-than-ideal upbringing. Dustin and Neil were only slightly younger than Travis. He had been able to shield them from their abusive father, for the most part. But Duane had come along much later. Travis was already thirteen when he was born. After Travis found work and a place of his own at seventeen, there was no one to protect Duane for the better part of his youth.

Travis looked at the text message on his phone.

<Found Duane. Sheriff Hartley locked him up.>

Travis typed with his thumbs:

<What did he do?>

<Got drunk. Beat up his girlfriend pretty bad.>

Travis swallowed. He cursed himself mentally. If he had kept his temper, Duane wouldn't have run off and none of this would have happened. That boy just knew how to push his buttons. They'd been arguing again and Duane's defensive posture was to blame everything bad in his life on Travis. Travis generally responded by throwing a punch and they would both end up on the ground fighting.

<Can you get down to the courthouse?> Dustin asked.

<Not tonight.>

<Call me when you can.>

Travis shoved the phone back into his pocket. He caught Arden looking at him. She quickly turned her eyes back to the road.

"My little brother," Travis said, by way of explanation. "He disappeared earlier and..."

"I'm not really interested, Mr. Lanier," Arden said.

Travis slammed his mouth shut. He felt ninety percent angry and ten percent hurt. Bitch, he thought.

Arden's initially smug expression gradually faded as she furthered down the highway. She ended up leaning forward and squinting, just as he had done. She managed to make it past the abandoned hotel, but that had taken nearly five minutes. Travis watched her with increasing interest. She didn't look at him. Her proud expression had slowly devolved into disappointment followed by resignation, a flash of shame and then irritation.

She slowed the truck and glanced at him. "Fine," she said. "We can't make it."

Travis allowed himself the enjoyment of the warmth that came from proving an arrogant person wrong. "Told you," he said.

She snarled, "I know. But I'm not going back to that hotel. So what do we do?"

He grinned at her. "We could cozy up together right here in the truck. You wouldn't be the first girl I've kept warm in here."

She slowly turned her head and glared at him. "You're disgusting."

He shrugged. "Not according to Kristen Miller."

"Stop. Please."

Travis chuckled and fondly remembered Kristen Miller. He'd been with her before and since, but that night in his truck had been heaven.

Arden chewed the inside of her lip for a few moments. Suddenly her face lit up. She sat up and stepped on the accelerator a bit more.

"Where are we going?" Travis asked.

"The Raymer's. Down V Highway."

"Yeah, they don't live there anymore. The place is abandoned, and you already told me you didn't want to spend the night alone with me."

"It is not abandoned. Rory and June live there. I'm sure they'll be more than happy to put us up."

"I'm telling you that they aren't there. They defaulted on their mortgage payment and the bank seized the property. No one knows where they are."

Arden tossed her hair over her shoulder. "You don't know what you're talking about, Travis. I saw them at The Store just last week. Or sometime not too long ago."

"Keep arguing, Princess. It will just make my victory that much sweeter."

"You know what, you can just go to hell. You've been obnoxious and uncivil to me this whole time and I'm sick of it."

Travis laughed out of frustration. If anyone had been "obnoxious and uncivil" it was her. He was just about to tell her so when the truck lurched to the side. They were headed down a steep hill on V Highway and lost traction on a patch of ice. They weren't going very fast and, surprisingly, the princess handled the thing fairly well. So when they wound up in the ditch it wasn't a hard crash.

Their heads jerked forward and back and they sat there breathing heavy for a moment. Travis had been in worse wrecks, so he didn't feel shaken. He looked at Arden and she turned to face him, her jaw set and her eyes narrowed. "Some rescuer you are," she said. Then she hopped out of the truck and started walking, leaving Travis gawking after her.

He gathered his wits and stepped out of the truck. He recoiled at the first onslaught of ice cold wind. He grabbed his coat off the bench and shoved into it. Then he grabbed hers and chased after her. When he caught up with her he put the coat over her shoulders. She shoved her arms through and didn't so much as thank him. Travis couldn't stand the girl, but, after looking down at her thin, three-inch heels, he felt a pang of compassion. They were at least a mile from the Raymer's. The thought of her poor feet made him cringe.

The two of them trudged forward, head on with the wind and snow. Once she stumbled. He caught her before she could fall and then she shoved him away. After what felt like an hour, they finally came upon a mailbox that marked the driveway to the Raymer's. It wound about a quarter of a mile into the woods. Arden stumbled again and reached out for Travis's arm. He reached around her waist and draped her arm over his shoulders so that he could support her the rest of the way. Thankfully she didn't pull away.

At last they arrived at the house. It was dark and had that neglected look that houses get when they haven't been lived in for a while. A yellow piece of paper stuck to the door. Travis turned the knob. Locked. He took a step back and placed a swift kick with the bottom of his boot right next to the door knob breaking it open with a shower of splinters.

Travis and Arden stumbled into the house, pushing the door closed behind them and falling to the floor on hands and knees. They sat with their backs to opposite walls, facing each other.

"Told you," Travis said.

Arden flipped him off.