Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chapter 1 - Tall, Dark and Handy by Nan Arnold (work in progress)


Never date a guy named Nero.

From personal experience, Melody Guilcrest could tell you there was some mystic connection between “your” Nero and that ancient Roman imperial flame starter. Okay, so Nero was rumored to be out of town when Rome burned down and the fiddle had yet to be invented. We get the connection? Right?

Anyway, Mel would tell you that the first thing “your” Nero would flambĂ© would be your cool reserve. Oh, first he’d warm the dark places in your heart with a controlled burn. But later? Suffice it to say your heart would be nothing but ash in that crematorium where past love dwells.

Nero Nouri resided in another state, the last Mel heard,

So why was he currently seated across the diner from Melody? There he was in a corner banquette, looking as dashing as ever, snuggled next to a pretty young thing in a wrong-for-the-season strapless sun dress.

Then again, with Nero’s gym-taunt arm draped around a girl’s shoulders, she had little need for sleeves or straps. They’d be removed altogether at some point anyway.

Isn’t’ this special? Mel thought watching Nero who sat over there like an altar boy to Eros while she tried, as inconspicuously as possible given her chronic post nasal drip, to hover over a steaming bowl of chicken soup at a neighborhood diner.

The diner, decked out in a feel-good-fifty’s motif, all chrome and cheer, failed to lift her soggy spirits and Mel wondered what had happened to her erstwhile waiter.

Her head cold rendered Melody less patient than usual. She’d requested crackers, twice. Slow delivery was par for St. Sams, the barrier Island off Georgia’s southeast coast. The waiter was on “island time”, a pervasive languid attitude instilled in residents and service people alike around this resort town where Melody now lived and worked.

She took a breath for the courage and, defensively, raked her eyes over him one more time.
Yes, her bosom was heaving but the cause wasn’t lust or even unrequited rage; it was congestion. From a final glance in her hallway mirror before venturing out, Mel knew her baby blues were red and runny, like her nose. Nor had she washed her dark brown hair in days.
“Somebody, please shoot me now.” Mel grumbled no longer feverish, just miserable. And now, anxious. If only she were in the pink of health and sitting here, well groomed, with some great looking guy.

As if.

The only man on Mel’s horizon was some home inspector coming tomorrow since her landlord advised he wouldn’t entertain a lease extension on his condo. Lucky for Melody, the real estate market on St. Sams was presently deader than a gay guy’s future in Tehran.

Dead-pretty much what she’d be if Nero—

Darn. He saw her. His expression trumpeted disbelief at seeing her again

Ditto, buddy. Of all the diners in all the resort towns in all the world, why’d he pick Alfie’s today of all days?

“Check!” She called out and raised her arm.

Right. Like Gen-Y guy who took a half hour to bring her a bowl of soup would hop too before Melody’s complete and total humiliation unfolded for all to see.

Too late. Nero pried his arm from Honey Babe and strode toward Melody’s table. Strutted, actually. Nice hip action as usual.

Melody’s cell phone rang. Saved by the bell? She answered with a nasally, “Yeah?”

“Ms. Guilcrest?”


“My name is Andy Ricardo. I’m filling in for my brother-in-law, a home inspector, who was to look over Mr. Wordworth’s condo tomorrow. Will you be home around nine, or can you leave a key with a neighbor, so I can get in?”

“I’ll be there.” Hoping to forestall his appointment, she upped the cold to a public health threat. “I’m sick and it’s not spring fever. I’m recovering from the flu; just warning you I might be contagious.”

“Too bad, but that’s okay, I never get sick.”

She recalled the small print in her lease wherein she promised to allow such inconveniences and surrendered. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Ricardo. Bye.”

“Wait. The realty agent might come, too.”

“Fantastic. The more the merrier. Goodbye.”

Nero leaned over. “Melody Guilcrest?”

How irritating. Two words from his lips and her body responded. She reprimanded that tingle between her thighs while his cologne fought valiantly, easily penetrating Mel’s phlegmy respiratory passages. A rascally black lock fell provocatively over his forehead as if trained.
She saw he wore his sideburns longer this year and there was a new addition, a goatee. Combined with his velvety black eyes, he looked like a Spanish Conquistador. Not to worry, she’d already made Nero’s List Of Conquests.

“Yes, Nero, only today, it’s less Melody and more like—Malady.” She sniffed and snorted for good measure. Mel’s nose, red and sore, probably turned wooden and grew several inches when she said, “That was my boyfriend on the phone. He’s coming over with fixings for a hot toddy.”
Had any other woman ever tried to look provocative while honking into a tissue? Pride made her lie to begin with and then gild the lily. “Says he has a new technique with Vick’s vapor rub.”

Nero grinned. “Maybe we can get together—he looked over at glaring Honey Babe— for a foursome while I’m here.”

“Don’t think so. I haven’t played golf in a l-o-n-g time.”

At the sound of his laughter, every woman in the place from six to sixty went on red-hot alert.
“Never met a woman with your wit.”

“Check!” Her arm shot skyward again.

“Are you in the phone book?”

“Enjoy your stay and spend lots of money like a good tourist.”

He chuckled. “Spoken like a tax payer. That tells me you live here, huh? I’ll call. Wouldn’t be right, not chatting over old times.”

Mel jerked her head to the right. “Don’t bother. You’d better chat up Miss New Times.”

“Let me buy your lunch.”

“How gracious.” What? Five or six bucks for a bowl of soup, including tip. “You were always too, too generous. But. Thanks.”

“It’s the least I could do.”

Got that right. Mel rose, braced herself on the chair back, and stood, careful not to leave before she saw Nero put down the cash for the idiot waiter.

“I’ll call.”


“It’s serious then, this current relationship?” Acclimated to southern drawl, she’d forgotten the brusque cadence of a Northeast accent. “I love a challenge.” She’d also forgotten the swagger that went with his.

“Goodbye.” Head high, Mel weaved out of the diner on the residual effects of Nighttime Nyquil-influenced feet. Gasoline had jumped almost a quarter in the past week and her earlier fuzzy thinking had convinced her she was within “easy” walking distance of the diner.
Normally true, but taking ten steps today was tough going, ambling a couple of blocks was a real test. She breathed deep, or as deeply as her lungs, in their diminished capacity, permitted.

Pine pollen dusted the world with a pale frost of yellow. Live oak boughs blew in the March breeze under the spell of the season’s last cool snap. Mild by most of the country’s standards, Melody’s wool blend sweater set and twill pants provided adequate warmth.

The partly cloudy day turned dark and the wind rose.


As if fan dancing, the trees shed a teasing spray of elongated tear-shaped leaves. In the distance, lightning sparked. Thunder rumbled over St. Sam’s Village area, where tee shirt merchants, art galleries, and tourist-favored restaurants plied their trade.

One or two rain drops fell on the bike trail, congested with weekend bikers and joggers alike, all trying to beat the storm. More drops baptized Mel’s head. She hadn’t brought an umbrella and hastened her pace.

“Good goin’, Mel.”

With luck, she’d be down with pneumonia when Handy Andy showed up tomorrow. Mel smiled; envisioning him fleeing, tool belt flying, after one glance at her prone, bed-ridden body. Nah, he was probably the conscientious type. Fussy Mr. Wordsworth wouldn’t hire any other kind.

An annoying drizzle ensued. Seconds later, a car shadowed her. The wiper blades scraped reluctantly across a mildly wet plane of glass and a power window slid down with a whirring sound.

Nero said, “Melody, get in.”

She wanted to blow off the invitation but precipitation suddenly escalated from damp to wet. Pride’s one thing, practicality was something else. Relax, Mel. There was a chaperon, of sorts.

“Obliged.” Mel scooted into the back seat of a sleek, black, foreign sedan. No introductions were made which was fine with her. “Drive about a block. It’s a terra cotta painted stucco building on the left side of the street.”

The leather seat held her like a warm, gloved hand. Only minutes later, they’d arrived at a small, neat building where she lived in one of four condos nestled among live oaks and a water oak or two. Melody didn’t want to leave the comfy seat but said, “Stop here.”

Nero gave the place a once over before his focus changed to Mel. “Feel better.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

For the first time, the perky brunette talked, “Yeah, better get right under the covers.” She shot Nero a look that implied hers was sound advice all around.

Melody hurled her fanny out of the car and ran for it, afraid to look back. Afraid she’d turn to salt, the kind you find in tears. Curiosity won out though.

Nero watched her, too. He waited until she unlocked her apartment door before he drove off. It occurred to her that, in the deepest sense, the man still knew where she lived.

Exactly what Melody deserved for ever having dated a guy named Nero.



  1. Totally enjoyed this excerpt... Adore the smooth flow of words, the grab you right from the start conflict. This promises to be a must-read book.

  2. I love your writing style, Nan - perfect for a contemporary romance. This sounds like a really good book that is already on my to-buy list.

    Is she going to get back together with Nero, is Handy Andy going to be her next love interest? Can't wait to find out!

  3. Nice excerpt! Love the title!

  4. I was just thinking how much I liked the title and Jan beat me to it. I thing we've all been in Melody's shoes. Feeling and looking our worst and encountering someone we know--or worse, once knew when we looked better!

    I like the wit and the clever use of allusions, like Nero and Melody/Malady.

    Good job! You're on your way.