Here’s a section from chapter one – I hope you enjoy it!
Lake Benson’s midlife crisis lasted exactly twenty-four hours. In that time he quit his career with the army and bought a lingerie shop. All things considered, he was glad the crisis hadn’t lasted longer.
“I told you,” whined his little sister. “I can do this myself. I have a business plan. You’re only interfering because you’re bored and don’t know what to do with yourself.”
“That’s not the point,” Lake told her as he looked up at the sign on the front of the shop. “The point is, you obviously need my help. You’re haemorrhaging money. My money.”
He hadn’t even set foot inside the shop and already he could see a problem.
“That”—he pointed at the sign—”has to go.”
Rainne twisted a strand of her long hair, a dead giveaway that he wasn’t getting the whole story.
“I can’t get rid of the sign,” she said at last. “It’s part of the town’s heritage.”
Lake folded his arms tight across his chest. Heritage his hairy backside.
“You also didn’t tell me how isolated this place is,” he said.
“It’s busy during the tourist season—you know, summer.”
For Scotland that was about two weeks in August.
“And you neglected to mention that we have competition.”
He cocked his head towards the lingerie shop, which sat opposite them on the high street. Unlike the shop that had eaten all of his money, the one over the road actually looked like people would buy lingerie in it.
“Ah, yeah,” his sister said as she toed the pavement with her pink Doc Marten boot. “But Kirsty’s shop has a different clientele than ours.”
“One that buys underwear?”
She missed the sarcasm.
“Uh, no, she sells sexier stuff—you know, for occasions. We sell everyday wear. Think utilitarian.”
He was about to tell his sister that she was talking rubbish when the shop door flew open and a tiny cube of a woman hobbled out. Lake guessed her age to be close to two hundred.
“You,” she said as she pointed at him. “What are you and why are you here?”
Rainne shrank beside him. Her face shot past pink and straight to purple. Here it comes, thought Lake, the catch. Every time he got involved with his family there was a catch.
“I’m Lake Benson,” he told the Hobbit. “I own this business.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed under eyebrows that were hairier than her head.
“Rainne girl,” she said, but she kept her eyes on Lake. “I thought I sold my business to you.”
His sister shuffled on the spot, making all the tiny bells sown into the bottom of her tie-dye skirt jingle.
“Ah, well,” she said. “My brother here, he’s, um, like my silent partner.”
“I’ve been watching,” the woman said. “He’s doing an awful lot of talking for a man who’s supposed to be silent.”
Before Rainne could answer, the woman jabbed her finger in Lake’s belly. She seemed surprised when it bounced back off him.
“What do you know about underwear, boy?” she demanded.
Lake stared at the woman calmly. He’d been face to face with drug lords and terrorists. There was no way a little Scottish woman could intimidate him. Amuse him, maybe—if the bulk of his savings weren’t tied up in the joke.
“I know how to unhook a bra in two seconds flat,” he told her.
“If I was sixty years younger, boy, that might impress me. Right now, I’m just wondering why you’re blocking the customers from getting into my shop.”
Lake took a slow look around him. He saw a cobbled road, a row of crooked old houses that had been whitewashed and turned into shops and a loch at the bottom of the street. He didn’t see any people. Let alone hoards queuing up to buy underwear.
“Yeah, I can see how I’m getting in the way,” he drawled.
Rainne started to inch away from him. He got the distinct impression that she was on the verge of running. Lake reached out, grabbed her vintage velvet jacket and hauled her back to stand beside him.
“Leave me alone,” she grumbled. “I’m not five.”
“What do you mean your shop?” he asked the Hobbit.
The old woman pulled herself up to her full height, which must have been all of four foot six.
“Betty McCloud. I started this shop in 1964.”
“And I bought the business six months ago.”
“It’s still my shop, son.” The woman tried to fold her arms over her ample belly as she glared at him.
If he were prone to dramatic gestures, he’d have rolled his eyes. Instead he kept his face as expressionless as usual.
“Rainne, want to explain this to me?”
His sister looked like she’d rather eat dirt. Lake didn’t care. He’d driven up the length of the England, through Scotland and into the Highlands. He was tired. He was hungry. And he was wondering what insanity had made him think managing a shop would be good for Rainne. Most of all, he’d run out of patience.
“Rainne,” was all he said.
“Okay, okay.” She held up her hands in surrender. “In the contract I signed, there were some unusual clauses.” She cleared her throat as Lake’s heart sank. “The business is ours to do what we want with, but Betty here stays—think of her as an underwear mascot.”
He looked at Betty, who gave him a toothless grin. In her ankle-length tartan tent, cable knit jumper and hairnet, she oozed sex appeal.
His sister took a deep breath.
“And the sign stays too,” she said.
They all looked at the sign. There was silence.
“I hand-painted that sign myself,” Betty said proudly.
“It could be worse,” Rainne mumbled.
Lake almost let his shoulders slump.
“So, let me get this right,” he said at last. “I bought a lingerie shop in a town in the middle of nowhere. I have my very own underwear mascot. The main competition is the shop facing us, which actually appears to have customers. And to top it all off, the first business I’ve ever owned is called Betty’s Knicker Emporium.”
Betty grinned with pride as Rainne tried to appear invisible.
“I need a beer,” Lake told them and headed towards the local pub.
“There’s trouble brewing over the road,” Magenta said by way of hello.
It took Kirsty a minute to focus on her employee. Her brain was still frozen from studying her bank account details.
“Trouble?” she asked.
“Big brother has ridden in to sort things out. Betty looks like she wants to set fire to a village in retaliation and Rainne looks like she’d rather be anywhere else than sunny Invertary.” Magenta studied the sky through the shop front window as she shrugged out of her black leather coat. “Okay, maybe not sunny, but she still looks like she wants to run.”
Kirsty snapped the laptop shut, aware that the same grim set of numbers would be there to greet her when she opened it again.
“Poor Rainne, I should have made more of an effort to help her out.”
“You’ve been up to your eyeballs keeping this place afloat.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Kirsty said on a sigh. “But still, I did tell her we could coordinate window displays and advertise together. We just never seemed to get round to it. I hope her brother didn’t give her a hard time. Did it look like he was mad?”
“I didn’t see him. I saw the aftermath. So I’m guessing he was mad. Wouldn’t you be if your life savings bought Betty’s Knicker Emporium?”
“I’d be happy just to have access to my savings, so I could waste it on whatever I chose to.”
“Sorry, that was insensitive.”
Kirsty waved her words away with a flick of her hand. It was old news. Literally. She had the newspaper headlines to prove it. She went to join Magenta at the window. Sure enough, there was Rainne, looking like she’d been exiled from a hippy commune and didn’t know what to do with herself. Her shoulders drooped, her eyes were dark and her skin almost as pale as Magenta’s—and that was saying a lot considering Magenta’s white goth makeup.
“I’ll go talk to her,” Kirsty said.
“Why bother?” Magenta said. “All she’s going to do is whine and whimper. Look at her. I can’t understand how she stays upright when she doesn’t have a backbone.”
“Magenta!” Kirsty said, giving her young friend a look heavy with meaning. “That’s harsh. She’s struggling. Running a business is hard enough without having to deal with Betty too.”
Kirsty’s heart broke for Rainne; she looked every bit as lost as Kirsty felt. Magenta frowned.
“It’s eat or be eaten out there,” she told Kirsty. “And that girl has ‘tasty snack’ tattooed to her forehead.”
“Remind me to tell the town council never to let you volunteer for the Samaritan help line. I can hear you now: ‘Stop whinging about your life, suck it up and get on with things.'”
Magenta gave Kirsty a rare grin. Kirsty couldn’t help smiling back as she went out to talk to Rainne. She felt the crunch of autumn leaves underfoot as she trotted across the road towards Betty’s place. The old underwear shop had been an Invertary institution as long as she could remember. She’d been dragged there as a child to get her first bra, and later she’d suffered the humiliation of being present while her mother bought a girdle. She smiled at the memory. The only problem with Betty’s Knicker Emporium was that it was about four hundred years out of date. Well, that and Betty. Betty was a big problem.
“You okay?” she asked Rainne.
“Great. Fabulous. Wonderful,” Rainne said flatly.
“Tell the truth, girl,” Betty said as she elbowed Rainne in the side.
Rainne was too polite, or too scared, to tell the old woman off. Kirsty wasn’t—it was one of the perks of being a local.
“Cut it out, Betty,” she told her. “Or I’ll tell the vicar that you’re bullying again.”
Betty scowled but didn’t protest.
“What’s going on?” Kirsty asked Rainne. “Is your brother shutting you down?”
“Ha!” Betty said. “He can try.”
They ignored her. Rainne hung her head and looked dejected.
“Really, he can do whatever he likes—it’s his money. I shouldn’t have borrowed it. I don’t know anything about running a business. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Kirsty couldn’t have agreed more, but didn’t think it was the time to tell her.
“You have some good ideas,” she said to be encouraging.
“Yes,” Rainne sighed sadly, “only I can’t implement them.”
The two women stared at Betty.
“What?” Betty demanded. “I have veto. It’s in the contract.”
“That was some contract you had drawn up,” Kirsty told her.
“You’re not wrong.” Betty grinned. “I never thought anyone would sign it.”
“There’s a neon sign above my head with the word idiot and an arrow pointing at me, isn’t there?”
“No, of course not,” Kirsty said while Betty nodded.
“This is your last warning,” Kirsty told Betty.
“You’re no fun at all,” the old woman said.
“So I’ve been told.”
Betty stalked back into the shop in a huff.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Rainne said as they watched the shop door slam. “I can’t seem to stand up to her at all.”
“Don’t be fooled by the old lady exterior, inside she’s tough as nails and will walk all over you. I’m used to her, she’s got a good heart and she can be really funny, but you need to stay on top of it or else you become her lap dog.”
“Woof,” said Rainne.
Kirsty put an arm around Rainne’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “Look, why don’t you bring your business plan over later and I’ll help you with it? Maybe we can put together some sort of advertising campaign for Christmas? Something that will benefit both our shops—like a lingerie party, or something. Two heads are better than one, don’t you think?”
“I do, actually,” said the deep voice behind her.
Kirsty jumped as the man stepped into view. There were men, and then there was this man. He was the kind of man that made the rest of the male population seem feminine. It was everything about him—his broad shoulders, his square jaw, the tiny dimple in his left cheek, the intense look in his blue eyes. Everything screamed man with a capital M.
“I do think two heads are better than one,” he told her in an English accent that broadcast his south coast roots. “But I think the other head should be mine and not the competition’s.”
She reeled backwards, dropping her arm from Rainne’s shoulders.
He arched one eyebrow. It was the only expression he made. The rest of him—his face, his posture—seemed relaxed. Yet somehow he managed to radiate irritation.
“You do own the shop over the road, right?”
Kirsty nodded dumbly. Without thinking about it, her arms wrapped around her high-necked lambswool sweater and she hugged herself as she spoke.
“I might own the only other lingerie shop in town, but I’m trying to help here. That’s how we do things in Invertary.”
“If that’s the case, then where have you been for the past six months while my sister’s been throwing my money down the drain?”
He folded his arms over his wide chest, making the denim jacket strain across his shoulders. Her heart beat faster. Her mouth opened to defend herself, then snapped shut when she thought better of it.
“The same could be said about you,” she said instead. “At least the help I’m offering is backed by expertise. What exactly do you know about the underwear business?”
He took a step towards her. Kirsty took a tiny step backwards. He noticed, and his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners.
“I know that women buy the stuff for men, and I’m a man. That gives me the advantage. They’ll be queuing up to get my advice.”
Rainne jerked to attention.
“You’re staying?” she squeaked. “You plan to run the business.”
“You got a problem with that, little sister?” he asked, but his eyes never left Kirsty.
“You know what I think?” Kirsty said, saving Rainne from having to answer.
“I’m not sure I care what you think, but go ahead anyway.”
Kirsty hands fell to her side and balled into fists. It had been a long time since she’d felt the urge to thump someone.
“I think you’re in over your head,” she said. “You obviously don’t have a clue about running a shop or selling lingerie, and you’ve just insulted the only expert in town who was willing to help you.”
His lips twitched slightly, giving the impression that he was going to smile, but nothing happened. His face was still impassive.
“Do you know what I think?” he said. “I think you’re scared of a little competition.”
Kirsty barked out a laugh that surprised her more than him.
“You’re not competition. This”—she pointed to Betty’s handmade sign—”is not competition. There’s no way you could be a threat to me, or to my business.”
“We’ll see. Prepare to shut up shop.”
Kirsty pursed her lips as she felt her cheeks burn.
“That is incredibly arrogant of you,” she said.
“Or honest. It’s obvious there’s only room in this town for one lingerie shop. I’d rather it was mine.”
“If you think I’m going to let you run me out of town then you’re deluded. This is my home. You’re the foreigner here.”
He rocked back on his heels as he thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Although there was nothing in his manner to give him away, she got the distinct impression he was enjoying himself.
“Ah, that old chestnut. We hate the English. The English are the root of all our problems. Blah, blah. You guys need to get over yourselves. You lost. We won. We own you now. There’s no point being bitter.”
Kirsty reeled before blustering nonsense.
“That’s right. The English are here to stay.”
“That’s it,” she said at last. “You’ve crossed the line.” She turned to Rainne with a tight smile. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t help you now. You’re stuck with him.” She hooked her thumb towards the brother. “You have no idea how much I feel for you.”
“I get that a lot,” Rainne mumbled.
“As for you,” she told the English imbecile, “bring it on. You don’t stand a chance.”
“So, last shop standing?”
“It’ll be mine.”
“I like a healthy imagination in a woman.”
“You’re going to regret annoying me this much.”
At last he grinned. Kirsty felt her world shift as something unseen pulled her towards him.
“It’s on, then?” he said with delight.
“It’s on.” She stepped back, feeling slightly disorientated.
“Great.” He nodded. “War. This I do know.”
“Ah, but you don’t know lingerie war,” Kirsty said. “Sit back and watch, soldier boy. You’re about to have your backside handed to you.”
With that she turned on the low heels of her tan leather boots and stalked back across the street.
“So,” Magenta said once Kirsty had slammed the door shut. “It didn’t go well, huh?”
Kirsty eyed her sole employee grimly.
“That man is insufferable. He has no idea how to relate to people and he sure as heck doesn’t know how to run a shop.” She let out a breath she hadn’t even been aware she was holding. “He wants to close me down. Can you believe it? He’s rude. He’s ignorant and he’s off his head.”
Magenta blinked hard before she gave a wicked little smile.
“Been a long time since I saw you this wound up,” she said.
Kirsty felt the wind go out of her. It had been years since she’d felt wound up about anything. That sort of passion belonged in her old life. She worried her bottom lip for a moment as she felt the will to fight drain out of her.
“You okay?” Magenta asked.
“Fine,” Kirsty said. “I just have to figure out how I’m going to stop Betty’s Knicker Emporium stealing what little business we do get.”
Magenta’s smile took on a pitying turn. Kirsty looked away from her.
“I’ll be in my office,” she told her. “Working on a marketing plan.”
With that, she fled.