Not a Chance (Sweet Nothings)
Author:Carter Ashby

chapter SIX



Arden knew she'd done something wrong. She'd hugged him and told him how great he was, not for any other reason than that she was overwhelmed with appreciation for him. He'd had a terrible upbringing. And sure, he was just a mechanic in a nowhere town with little ambition for anything else. But he was the most optimistic, pleasant person she'd ever met. He flirted wonderfully and he backed off when appropriate. He was open and honest. The conversation was amazing. Arden had gone to sleep wondering why she felt so deliriously happy. So when she found him standing there, a big teddy bear of a man, she'd just let go of all restraint.

That was a mistake. Now he was different. He'd quit flirting for the most part and was just plain nice. The flirtation still oozed out of him once in a while. It was, after all, firmly ingrained into his behavioral patterns. But now he'd stopped focusing on overtly trying to get her into bed and started...wooing her. That's what it felt like. He was courting her. Taking care of her.

Arden's only recourse was to put some emotional distance between them. And she felt terrible doing it. But she couldn't have him thinking he had a chance with her. Earlier in the day she'd been sitting on the couch reading when he sat down next to her with his own book and a cup of coffee. She'd deliberately scooted over, just a bit, and angled herself away from him. All without looking up from her book. She could tell it had hurt his feelings.

As they played chess, she was careful to keep the conversation away from romance novels.

"If you put that there, you'll lose your rook," she said.

Travis glanced up at her and put the piece back where it was. He reached for his knight.

"Mmmm, I don't know if that's a good idea," she said. She couldn't keep the amusement off her face.

He frowned at her and reached for one of his pawns.

She clucked her tongue.

He froze and glared up at her. "Why don't you let me do what I'm gonna do and you can win faster that way," he growled.

"You've never played before. I'm just trying to help."

"It's a stupid game."

"It just requires you thinking ahead a few moves. It's strategy."

"I don't do strategy. I'm a live-for-now kind of guy." He surveyed the board a little while longer.

"Because that's worked out so well for you?" she teased.

"Yes, smart-ass, I think it has." He reached for the other knight. She hissed softly. He threw up his hands. "I give up. Pick another game."

She laughed. "You're being a big baby. If you'd just give it a chance."

"I gave it a chance. Let's play checkers."

"I already told you I couldn't find any checkers."

"Fine. But I'm not playing this. Not with you."

She shook her head, still smiling. He caught her gaze and smiled back. Then his smile transformed to that troublesome grin of his. "We should read out loud hot scenes from romance novels."

"No, thank you," she said, giving him her best stern look.

"Aw, come on, Princess. Live a little."

"No. You can go read hot love scenes out of romance novels by yourself."

He sighed dramatically, clearly disappointed.

"Let's go explore the house," Arden said. Seemed like a safe suggestion.

He shrugged. She stood before he could offer to help her up. She turned and led the way upstairs. They made a left and found the master bedroom. They'd been in here before when they got the mattress and blankets. But Arden wanted to see what was in the closets. It would be nice if they could find some other clothes. They'd been wearing the same things for the past two days.

In the first closet were some dresses and men's shirts and slacks. She tossed a pair of khaki pants to Travis. He held them up and laughed. "Rory's a scrawny fellow. No way I can wear these. Three inches too short and I'd rather not say how many inches too skinny."

"You'd rather not say?" Arden arched a brow at him. "Let's see." She grabbed the pants and looked at the tag. "Thirty-inch waist." She held them up against Travis's waist and shook her head. "Gotta lay off the pie, Travis," she said.

"You trying to hurt my feelings?" he asked. "I've got a great body. Wanna see?" He made like he was going to take off his shirt, but she grabbed his hands to stop him.

"I'll take your word for it," she said.

He grinned at her.

She turned back to the closet. June had been a couple of sizes larger than Arden. So at least she could wear some of her clothes just to be in something more comfortable than this damn skirt and blouse. She grabbed an ugly, floral thing with lace around the collar and held it by the hanger up to her neck.

"Sexy," Travis said.

She shot him a look.

Travis turned to the dresser and started digging through the drawers. Arden flipped through the selection of dresses, none of which she would ever have been caught dead in in any other circumstance.

"Found a t-shirt," Travis muttered.

She turned and watched as he peeled off his flannel shirt and tossed it on the bed frame.

Nice, she thought. He really did have a great body. Well-muscled, but with a slight layer of fat, likely from all the pies. The effect being that he looked both strong and soft at the same time. Hard but gentle. What made her cringe, though, were the long scars criss-crossing his back. She wondered if that had happened when he was a child. The tattoos surprised her, too. She saw the name Tonya on his left shoulder. His ex-wife. A couple of other designs she didn't recognize.

Then he shrugged into the grey t-shirt and she turned back to the closet, not wanting to be caught looking.

Suddenly, he laughed. "Here you go," he said.

She turned in time to catch what he tossed to her. A long, flannel nightgown with ruffles on the cuffs and around the collar. It buttoned up to the neck and hung almost to the floor.

"Well," she said, "It looks warm."

"I bet when June put that on, Rory knew he wasn't getting any."

She grinned. "That's what I'll wear then. To keep you from getting ideas."

"Aw, come on. Don't be mean."

She tried not to stare at him. The t-shirt, which would have fit Rory like a sack, hugged Travis's chest and biceps nicely making him look mouth-watering yummy. Arden walked over to the dresser and found a pair of flannel pajamas that actually did look fairly comfortable. She nodded. "These will do," she said. "No sense being dressed up. Out you go."

"Out? I've seen women naked before, you know."

"Out."

"Please?" he begged as she backed him out of the room and shut the door in his face. She changed and then joined them in the hallway.

He looked her up and down and shook his head. "Even in flannel...," he said.

She blushed because he wasn't flirting. Avoid at all costs, she reminded herself. "Did you see the attic entrance?" she asked.

He looked up to the ceiling. "It'll be cold up there."

"It's an attic. Don't you want to see what's in it?"

He shrugged. "I kind of feel bad poking around in all their stuff. If we weren't so fucking bored, I'd never even consider it."

She stood and waited for him to finish wrestling with his morals. Finally he reached up and grabbed the chain. Arden stepped back to avoid the ladder that came sliding down. They climbed up and were immediately accosted with a foul smell. Travis was up first and put his arm over his mouth and nose. He reached down a hand to help Arden up. She mimicked his gesture, covering her own mouth and nose.

There wasn't much but dust and cobwebs up there. A few boxes of Christmas decorations. The ceiling was so low that they had to stay on their knees. A little light came in from the vent. Travis shuffled over and knocked it open to let in more light. That's when they saw them. June and Rory Raymer. Frozen to death. Clinging to each other. Travis covered his mouth and turned away. Arden did the same. She couldn't look. She thought she might vomit. She hurried down the ladder. A few seconds later, Travis joined her.

He shoved the ladder back up and closed the door. Then he leaned back against the wall and shoved his hands through his hair. Arden took hold of the banister rail at the top of the stairs. Travis rushed to her side and slid his arm around her waist. She would have protested except that the danger of fainting was probably a real one. Either that or she was going to throw up. Travis helped her sit down on the top step. He kept his arm around her.

"Why are they up there?" Arden asked in a breathy voice.

Travis just shook his head.

"Did they get trapped up there?"

Travis inhaled. "I'm pretty sure they could have gotten out. They must have fallen asleep or something and then the temperatures dropped."

Arden hugged her knees. She knew what had happened. They lost their house to the bank and then hid out here since they had no place else to go. They went to the attic when the Sheriff came to evict them. Like Travis said, they must have fallen asleep or not realized how severe the cold was. "Frozen to death because they couldn't pay their bills," Arden said. "Why didn't they ask for help?"

Travis just shook his head again. Finally they got cold and went back downstairs to the fire. There wasn't much of anything they could do until things thawed out. They both stayed fairly quiet for the rest of the evening.