The eighth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Knickerbocker Glory by Kate Rhead.
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Over to Kate Rhead…
KNICKERBOCKER GLORY (BLURB)
Iris Matthews firmly believes that there is no other lingerie shop quite as fabulous as Knickerbocker Glory – if only she had a few more customers who felt the same way. Everyone’s feeling the squeeze right now but it’s got nothing to do with her new range of fat-zapping bodyshapers.
When a ruthless new landlord takes over the shopping arcade, the future of Knickerbocker Glory seems doomed. The devilish Jack Denton sets about doubling Iris’ rent, evicting her neighbours and casually suggesting that she might like to move out of her hotspot location. How can he possibly be acting in the arcade’s best interests?
Determined to get to the bottom of Jack’s controversial actions, Iris leads the fight to save the arcade and its occupants. She soon discovers that petitions and posters won’t be enough to win this war; no tactics are off-limits, especially when Jack Denton suddenly suggests that perhaps he and Iris should kiss and make up.
Working out who to trust isn’t made any easier by the fact that Iris herself is hiding a shameful secret. Being in love with your best friend’s boyfriend breaks all the rules when it comes to friendship and right now, she needs her friends more than ever.
Fearing that her shop, her friends and her future are about to disappear, Iris must employ her very best assets to ensure Knickerbocker Glory lives to fight another day…
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF KNICKERBOCKER GLORY OVER THE CUT
Knickerbocker Glory by Kate Rhead
“Iris, come quickly! I need serious backup in here – bring the scissors, a shoehorn and the baby powder!” hisses Nat as she pokes her head out from the dressing room door.
“What’s happened now?” I swing round wildly to look at her.
“Mrs. Pendleby’s stuck in an all-in-one body shaper that’s two sizes too small and I can’t get her out of it! She’s insisting that it fits but she’s wedged in like a lime in the top of a Corona bottle!”
“I’ll be right there!”
“Don’t be long, I give her two minutes before she blacks out!” warns Nat as she disappears back into the dark depths of the dressing room.
I should have taken the hint when my alarm failed to go off this morning. Instead, I woke up in a bleary-eyed panic, staggered to the shop, hoisted up the shutters and discovered that we have no electricity. I am now attempting to regain the attention of a skinny-jeaned, fake-tanned wise-cracking electrician called Wayne who spent the first fifteen minutes eyeing up the shop’s lingerie-clad mannequins and “phwoarring” over the new season La Perla bras.
“Seriously Wayne, you have to get the lights back on,” I beg. “And the heating! It’s freezing in here and I can’t serve my customers when it’s cold. I’ve got two fittings booked in today!”
“Sweetheart, stop stressing,” smirks Wayne as he shakes his head in the delightfully condescending way that only really dodgy tradesmen can manage. “I can work fast and make your ballsed-up wiring worse or I can work slow and get it right. What’ll it be?”
“Get it right,” I admit through gritted teeth. “But do it quickly, please! I’ll be back in five minutes, I need to help my customer.”
“Jeez, rather you than me, love,” shudders Wayne. “Sounds like that old dear is trussed up like a turkey! Do you want to borrow my bolt cutters?”
I tut at him and grab the items that Nat requested before making my way into the boudoir-esque dressing room. A row of rapidly melting candles highlight three huge gilt-framed mirrors that are showcasing every generous angle of Mrs. Pendleby. She’s leaning on the back of the chaise longue as Nat tugs at the thick, elasticated body shaper that resembles an over-stuffed pork sausage.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Pendleby, we’ll have you out of this in a jiffy!” I assure her, avoiding eye contact with Nat.
“It’s because it’s so damn dark in here!” announces Mrs. Pendleby huffily. “I couldn’t see what I was doing! I think I’ve put it on back-to-front! And it’s cold in here! You’re lucky I don’t sue!”
“I know, I do apologise, the lights will be back on at any second.” I examine the impressive muffin top that’s hiding the top of the reinforced back panel. “Now if you can just pop your arms up, perfect… now breathe in and Nat and I will do the rest!”
I nod at Nat and with the practised fluidity of a SWAT team, I spritz baby powder on her fleshy back, Nat squeezes from both sides and I stealthily slide the shoehorn in to give me some leverage.
Just as we manage to unroll her to the waist, Wayne’s head appears bellowing, “Iris, there’s a bloke out here who wants ya! Bloody hell, I thought candlelight was meant to be flattering! Talk about an eyeful!”
Mrs. Pendleby shrieks and lunges for a silk dressing gown, whacking me on the head in the process.
“Wayne! Get out!” I shout. “Don’t panic, Mrs. Pendleby, he can’t see anything!”
Five minutes of profuse apologies later and I emerge from the fitting room, mopping my brow. While I appreciate Mrs. Pendleby’s loyal custom, her refusal to believe she has put on weight is getting harder to deal with.
Wayne is slouched over the shop counter, chatting to a stranger. As my eyes struggle to adjust from the dark depths of the fitting room to the watery stream of sunlight hitting the shop floor, the most unexpected thing happens. I’m shot. One unexpected blow to the chest. I don’t know how else to explain it. I can only see the stranger’s back but it’s enough to send my heart into a pulsating, burning freefall. A romantic would say it was love at first sight. A cynic would say it was lust at first sight. Either way, I’m captivated and I’ve only seen his back.
He’s tall, broad-shouldered and wearing the most beautifully tailored suit. Then, hearing the click of my heels on the wooden floor, he turns to look at me. Suddenly the floor is magnetized and my feet are glued, making me stop and feel the weight of his dark eyes. As if in a trance, I return his steady eye contact and add a tiny flirty, smile… until I realise I may actually be drooling and quickly look away, smoothing down my pencil skirt and pushing myself forward.
“Sorry to keep you waiting!” I clatter across the floor to the counter, still unable to look at him. What the hell has happened to me? Never before have I reacted to someone in such a knee-wobbling, common-sense-defying way. And he hasn’t even spoken to me yet. Wishing I could give myself a short, sharp slap, I do the next best thing and swipe Wayne on the arm and indicate towards the pitch-black kitchen.
“Alright, I’m going,” groans Wayne, yawning and stretching. “Nice to meet ya, Jack, give us a shout if you ever need any work doing – I’m the best in the business!”
“Wayne was just explaining that you’re having issues with the electrics,” he smiles sympathetically. God, that smile – it hits me like a delicious warm shot of caramel liqueur, all smooth and dreamy with a zing of something exciting underneath. He’s handsome but with strong, masculine features rather than the pretty-boy perfection that’s weirdly popular right now. His eyes are deep and dark but they crinkle around the corners with humour. “It sounds like you’re having a bad day!”
“I guess so, but things are definitely looking up!” I purr. Oh shit. Where the hell did that come from? I bite the inside of my cheeks as my brain blurs.
“Really?” he asks, slightly taken aback.
“Yes! Because…” I flail around for something positive about today that isn’t wearing a slate grey suit. “Because of Mrs. Pendleby!”
“Mrs. Pendleby?” now he looks confused.
“Yes! Good old Mrs. P! She’s a valued customer, we’re just fitting her for a new… garment.” I finish lamely, remembering just in time that I never break a customer confidence. I also don’t want to say the words “support body shaper with built-in buttock-lifting pants.”
“Right! Well, thank heavens for Mrs. P!” he grins and I smile back. His jawline is square and angular and when he smiles, his upper lip lifts a fraction more on the right, which is unbelievably cute and makes his gorgeousness imperfectly perfect.
“So what can I do for you?” I drag myself back into professional mode and feel a thud of disappointment. Men only come into my shop for one reason: to buy a present for the woman (or occasionally, women) in their lives. Well, there is a second reason – cross-dressers love frilly knickers – but this guy doesn’t look the type. So I can only assume that this tall, dark, handsome stranger is very much off the market.
“I wanted to introduce myself, I’m Jack Denton and I’m guessing that you’re Iris Matthews, the owner of Knickerbocker Glory?”
“Yes, good to meet you, Jack,” I shake his hand, it’s strong and firm and I don’t want to let it go.
“You should have received a letter from me?” he queries. “Or from the company I work for, Hampton Holdings?”
Stirrings of recognition are slotting together. “Okay, I remember now. Hampton Holdings are the leaseholders for the Ardingly Arcade and you’re the new guy who’s going to be looking after the management of the arcade from now on, right?”
“Yes,” says Jack. “I’m introducing myself to all of the shop owners today. I want to get a feel for the arcade and all the businesses that operate here.”
“Great!” I reply enthusiastically. “Well, it’s a fantastic arcade, the shop owners are a real community and we’ve got an eclectic mix. I really think the Ardingly Arcade offers something a bit different to the usual faceless shopping centre, don’t you?”
Instead of agreeing, Jack’s smile lessens and he gives a non-committal shrug. “That’s one way to describe it. Hampton Holdings are aware that the management of the arcade has been somewhat neglected over the past few years, which is why I’ve been brought on board. I understand that you’ve been renting this premises for three years now?”
“And the rental rate has stayed the same throughout?”
“Yes,” I reply. “Mr. Mayhew, the previous manager, kept the rates low to encourage the businesses to stay and flourish.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” says Jack thoughtfully. The lovely smile has been replaced by an ominous frown. An uneasy prickle zigs down my spine.
“Iris! You’re needed again!” calls Nat as her head pops out from the dressing room door. “Mrs. Pendleby wants to try a suspender belt on and I really don’t think it’s a good idea… Oh! Sorry to interrupt!” Her expression clicks from stress to delight at the sight of Jack and she retreats back into the dressing room, mouthing “OH MY GOD! He is FIT!” at me.
Jack pushes his hands deep into his pockets and looks at me for a moment before replying.
“I’m sorry to say this, Iris, but the truth is that the arcade is pretty much dead on its feet. The whole business structure has been allowed to fester for too long and it’s not doing the arcade – or the shop owners – any favours.”
I gulp. The pain is back in my chest but this time it’s entirely uncomfortable.
“However, I believe we can transform it into a thriving shopping community again,” Jack continues. “It’s going to require drastic change, a lot of investment and fresh thinking from all of us.”
“I see. Well, I guess change can be a good thing?” I try to keep the flutterings of panic out of my voice.
“It’s a necessary thing,” he replies, walking over to the shop window and gazing out over the deserted walkway with disapproval. “There’s potential here but apathy has set in.”
“Apathy?” I repeat in surprise. I feel like he’s kicked me. I love my business and I take huge pride in it. “What do you mean – apathy?”
“It means a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of concern…”
“I know what ‘apathy’ means,” I bristle. “What I mean is, are you suggesting that we – the shop owners – have got lazy?”
“No, not exactly…”
“Good! Because we work hard to make our businesses successful.”
“So you’re telling me that your shop is as busy and profitable as it was two years ago?”
My worry is growing into defensive anger. I’m painfully aware that business has been slow but things will pick up… it’s the economy… it’s tough for everyone… besides, I’ve got some great new summer lines coming in and that should help…
“Listen, Jack, I understand that as the new manager you want to put your stamp on things, but there are some good businesses here…”
“Not from what I’ve seen,” says Jack, casting a deliberate eye around my empty shop. “To be frank, I’m amazed that you’re still open!”
I gasp! How dare he? Who the hell is this guy and what does he know about my business? Knickerbocker Glory is famous in this town – our customers love our vintage style and exceptional customer care. Besides, it’s half past flipping ten on a Monday! Give it an hour and we’ll be buzzing. Well, maybe not buzzing, but bustling at least! Seething, I step out from behind the counter and set him straight.
“How dare you! You know nothing about me or my business and if you think this is the way to introduce yourself and make friends in this arcade then you’ve got it completely wrong!”
“I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make this arcade profitable,” replies Jack sternly.
“Well, this place is about more than just money, you know!”
“No, Iris. It’s not. Each and every business is here to make money and you’re living in a dream world if you think otherwise,” says Jack sharply. “I’ve seen the figures and believe me, this arcade will be closed in six months if you don’t let me sort this mess out.”
“This is my shop and I don’t need your help. We’re doing fine,” I retort.
“That cannot be true,” says Jack, shaking his head. “The question is – is it just me you’re trying to fool or are you pulling the wool over your own eyes too?”
I breathe in sharply. I don’t know how to reply.
“Okay, this isn’t getting us anywhere so let’s agree to disagree,” says Jack quietly. “I came to introduce myself, that’s all. I have to go but in the meantime you can expect a visit from my assistant, Melissa. She will take you through the new terms of your rental agreement.”
“What new terms?”
“This is notification of the new rental rates,” says Jack, pulling a thick creamy envelope out of his leather-bound folder and handing it to me. “Feel free to have a solicitor look over it but you’ll find that it’s all in order.”
My heart is thundering as my shaky fingers struggle with the envelope. My worst fears flip and multiply as my eyes speed over the crisp black text. My rent is doubling. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
A wobble of panic threatens to turn into tears; I stop them by flashing Jack an angry glare.
“So you think this is the way to treat your tenants? You march in here and double the rent with no notice? It’s disgusting!”
“I have plans for this place that you don’t know about yet and the funding…”
“Do you really think I want to hear about your plans for spending my money?”
Jack stares at me for a moment, looking as if he wants to say something else. I wish he would just go; I’m struggling to hold it together here. My hands are gripping the counter, fingernails digging into the wood.
“Iris, please give me a chance to explain,” begins Jack. “You’ll see that what I’m proposing is…”
“I’ve found the problem!” interrupts Wayne, swaggering out of the kitchen with one of my chocolate biscuits in his hand.
“Good. So how come the lights aren’t on?” I snap.
“Not as simple as that, love. Your fuse board’s knackered. I can rig it up for today but it needs replacing,” he nibbles his biscuit and stares at me thoughtfully. “I can’t lie – you’ve got the worst wiring I’ve ever seen!”
“Thanks, Wayne, that’s good to know!”
“Wayne, get it up and running as soon as you can and send me the bill, please,” says Jack calmly. “If you would also like to pitch for the rewiring work then let my assistant know. We’ll be getting quotes this week.”
“Hang on, what are you doing?” I ask defensively.
“Iris, this isn’t your problem,” says Jack in surprise. “The maintenance of the arcade is down to the management. Surely Mr. Mayhew sorted all of this out for you before?”
“Well, not exactly…”
“This just gets worse,” Jack sighs disapprovingly. “I knew that the maintenance had been ignored but this is absurd. This arcade is an absolute disaster!”
I can feel my cheeks burning with frustration. How does he make everything seem like it’s my fault!
“Look, I’m sorry that you’re taking this personally as that’s really not my intention,” says Jack.
I tut and raise an eyebrow, which he ignores.
“However, for the sake of the arcade – and all the businesses that operate here – I have to take drastic action. In the end, you’ll see that I’m right.” With that, he turns and leaves.
As the door closes, my distress comes flooding out; I grab a stapler from the counter and hurl it at a pile of polka dot satin knickers. “Right? You think you’re right? What I want to know is what gives you the right to be such a smug bastard! Argh!”
“Jesus, love, calm down!” mutters Wayne in alarm, dodging back into the safety of the kitchen.
“That’s it, run and hide!” I bellow, getting into my furious flow now and finding it strangely enjoyable. “And Wayne?”
“I know, I know, get the flamin’ lights back on!” he calls.
“Too damn right!”
Suddenly a message pops up on my mobile. Adrenaline buzzing, I grab it and wonder whether to hurl it after the stapler but I stop just in time. My anger evaporates and my grimace relaxes into a delighted smile.
“Working in bar 2nite. Come on down. I’ll make u cocktails. Ur choice: Screaming Orgasm or a Slippery Nipple??”
I giggle and type back. “Mojito! Gr8. C u 2nite xx”
Then I hastily delete the xx and study my message again. It looks kind of bare, so I add a smiley face. That’s better. More fun. No chance of misconstruing a smiley either. Besides, he didn’t put kisses so I definitely shouldn’t. You see, I can do the friendship thing, no problem! Then I chuck my phone half-heartedly at the polka dot pants. Who am I trying to kid?