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 hemorrhaging 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 sewn into the bottom of her tie-dye skirt jingle. “Ah, well, 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 said.
“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 hordes 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 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. 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.