Whoop. Big, fantastic news to kick off 2014. We’ve dropped some hints over the past few months, but we can now finally announce that our very own Kat French
has been signed up by HarperCollins imprint Avon for three books.
Though we’ll be sad to have Kat leaving our list, we’re delighted she’s found at home at Avon. She’ll join a terrific catalogue of authors, including Mhairi McFarlane, Trisha Ashley, and of course, former authonomy author Miranda Dickinson.
Avon will kick off their publication of Kat’s novels in May, with a new print and ebook edition of Undertaking Love, complete with extra material and a brand new scene. Our edition of Undertaking Love will only be available until February 16th, so grab yourself some romance reading this Valentine’s Day before we wave Kat onto pastures new.
If you’ve STILL not read Kat’s book, here’s a sneak peak to whet your whistle:
Chapter One, from the new edition.
‘Holy crap, Emily … Emily, quick!’
‘Where’s the fire?’ Emily appeared around the doorway, puffed-out from sprinting the length of the aisle and up the steep, rickety chapel staircase.
‘Oh, it’s worse than that. Come and see this.’
Emily joined Marla, and the two women stood shoulder to shoulder at the window, gazing out in silent, duplicate horror. Before them were two nervous-looking workmen balancing on stepladders, inching brand new shop signs above their heads as a huge, bald guy yelled instructions at them from across the street. He was flinging his arms around him like a possessed windmill, and his hairy beer belly was sliding in and out from underneath the hem of a tea-stained T-shirt that had clearly not seen an iron in the last decade.
Marla slid her glasses up her nose and cracked the window open a little, all the better to eavesdrop. Not that they needed much extra help, because the bald guy was bellowing at the top of his Irish lungs.
‘Up a bit. Not that much!’ He hopped from foot to foot and clutched his bowling ball of a head in exasperation. ‘Down a bit! Feck it, man, it’s practically vertical!’
Marla squinted to read the freshly painted signs and then turned away and pressed her hands against her flushed cheeks in panic. This had to be a joke. Had someone called that TV show where they turn your worst nightmare into reality, and then expect you to laugh when they reveal it was all a big set-up?
‘Umm … that doesn’t look much like a cupcake bakery …’ Emily ventured.
‘You don’t say.’
‘It’s … err, it’s a funeral directors, I think, isn’t it?’
Marla closed her eyes as Emily voiced her worst fears. Her heart banged around behind her ribs like a panicked bird trying to escape, and she laid a hand over it as she tried to steady her breathing.
‘Cupcakes. It was supposed to be cupcakes, Emily. Not dead bodies.’
Emily grimaced. ‘Maybe there’s some mistake?’
Marla’s head spun with the implications of going from the sublime to the ridiculous in terms of her new neighbours. None of them were good. Wedding limos fighting for space in the street outside with hearses. Brides bumping into widows. Wreaths instead of bouquets. And how many happy couples would run the risk of ending up with a party of sobbing relatives huddled in the back of their wedding photos for all eternity?
‘It better be a mistake, or we’re ruined.’
Marla had shed blood, sweat and tears over the last three years to turn Buckleberry Little White Wedding Chapel into a national smash hit, and the idea of it suddenly being under threat made her shiver with fear. And anger.
‘I’m going over there.’
‘Excuse me! Err … Hello ...’
Marla marched up to Guinness Guts, who had finally allowed the workmen to hang their signs and shambled his bulk back across the road.
‘Are you in charge here?’
He screwed up his chubby nose and shrugged a non-committal shoulder before reaching for the mug of tea that he’d balanced on the narrow window ledge.
‘Some might say that, darlin’. Depends entirely upon whose doin’ the askin’.’
‘I’m Marla Jacobs – from the wedding chapel? You know, that wedding chapel.’ She jabbed a finger towards her beloved premises. ‘The one right there.’
‘Aaah. The new neighbours.’ He glanced down at her empty hands. ‘No cup of sugar, then?’
Marla narrowed her eyes. Was he joking?
‘Where is the cupcake bakery?’ she asked, enunciating each word with care.
His bushy eyebrows twitched as he looked at her. Then he shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me for directions, darlin’. I’ve only been here five minutes.’
The man was either winding her up, or he was an idiot. Possibly both.
‘No, no, no … Mr?’
Marla glared and waited for him to supply his name. The smirk on his face told her he knew so too, yet he wasn’t complying. She clenched her teeth and ignored his rudeness with considerable difficulty.
‘Look. There must be some mistake.’ She smiled, despite the fact that she actually wanted to knock the grin right off his face. ‘These premises,’ she waved her arm towards the shop currently bearing his ruler-straight new signs. ‘These premises have been sold to a cupcake bakery. You know … for cupcakes? Cakes? For birthdays. And weddings. And all sorts of other happy events.’ She emphasised the happy in the hope that he would finally cotton onto the thumping great problem. The blank expression on his face told her otherwise. Maybe diplomacy was overrated, after all.
‘Happy events. Not sad. And certainly not events for dead people,’ she hissed, her fists clenched into tight balls on her hips.
A look of understanding dawned across Guinness Guts’ face. Or, damn the revolting toad to hell, was it amusement? His piggy eyes travelled slowly from her purple skyscraper Louboutins all the way up to her auburn waves.
‘Look, Red. I’ve no clue about any of this stuff. You’ll be wanting Gabriel when he gets here tomorrow. He’s the organ grinder. I’m just the monkey.’
He made a frankly alarming attempt at something Marla could only guess was supposed to be a monkey impression, then slurped his tea and reached for a half-eaten packet of chocolate digestives.
Marla fought down the urge to grab the biscuits, hurl them to the ground and grind them into the pavement beneath her shoe as she cast her eyes to the skies and drew in a measured breath. Guinness Guts. Monkey Man. Revolting Toad. Whoever this man was, talking to him any more today was obviously a pointless exercise.
‘Right. Fine.’ She huffed, throwing her shoulders back. ‘Well, you can tell Gabriel to expect me bright and early tomorrow morning. And FYI, we don’t need any organ grinders around here. We already have a perfectly good organist in the village, thank you very much.’
Guinness Guts nodded and tugged on an imaginary forelock. ‘Gotcha. Not required. But hey, listen …’ He jerked his head towards the shop window with a grin that revealed biscuit crumbs stuck between his teeth. ‘We make good neighbours, you know. Very quiet.’
Marla shot him a withering look and stormed back to the chapel. Emily, who had been watching from the brick porch, flattened herself against the wall to let her friend steam by. Inside, Marla sank onto the nearest spindle-backed chair and scrubbed hard at her temples.
‘This cannot be happening, Em. If they open up there, we could be ruined. No. Scratch that. We will be ruined.’
Emily sat down across the aisle from Marla. Pin tucks of anxiety folded across her forehead as she twisted her rings around on her slender wedding finger. She couldn’t think of a single useful counter argument – as new neighbours went, a funeral parlour was just about as bad as it got for a wedding chapel. She clutched at the only available straw. ‘Maybe this Gabriel guy will be a bit more approachable tomorrow.’
Marla snorted. ‘You reckon? If he’s anything like his henchman, then I seriously doubt it.’ Her heart was hurting, as if someone had grabbed hold of it and given it a Chinese burn. The chapel wasn’t just her business. It was her everything. She might not believe in marriage for herself, but she sure as heck believed in it for other people, especially those who chose her quirky American-style wedding chapel as the venue for their big day. She'd poured her heart and soul into the business from the first moment she'd laid eyes on the vacant little chapel. The 'for sale' sign had stopped her in her tracks, and she'd known without doubt that Buckleberry was the perfect village for her business and her big fresh start. And she'd been right, up to now at least. It had proved the perfect distraction from her own shambolic love-life, and she was far too business savvy to allow her personal feelings towards marriage to stop her from turning the empty, unloved little building into one of the most in-demand wedding venues in the UK. She glanced up at the clock. 12.30 p.m. Past the yardarm. Thank God.
‘I need a stiff drink. Does Dora still stash brandy in the kitchen drawer?’
Emily nodded, then stood up and held out her hand. ‘Come on. I’ll make us some coffee with a nip of the hard stuff and we can make ourselves a plan.’
They both jumped as the back door of the chapel banged open.
‘Did someone mention a plan? Faaaabulous! For what? When? Tell me everything.’
Jonny’s made-for-the-West-End voice rang out around the chapel as he unclipped the lead from around the neck of Bluey, Marla’s impractically huge and lovable Great Dane.
Decked out in a black shirt that clung lovingly to each perfectly sculpted ab, Jonny looked every inch the gay icon he was – in their sedate corner of Shropshire, anyway. He also happened to be the best wedding celebrant and creative director Marla could ever have dared wish for. She'd known the moment that he arrived for his job interview in full Elvis garb that he was the ideal man for the job, but she hadn't realised at the time that he'd also come to be one of her closest friends too. They were each other’s perfect foil; she loved him for his exuberance and joie de vivre, whilst he adored her understated sense of humour and determination. He'd moved his life lock, stock and barrel from Brighton to sleepy Buckleberry on the strength of Marla's job offer, leaving behind a string of broken hearts and empty karaoke spots in his wake. In truth he'd been ready for the move, because he'd reached a stage in his life when the footloose-and-fancy-free lifestyle had run its course and left him wanting a little substance with his sex.
Emily decided to go for shock tactics and shepherded him to the window to judge the scale of their problem for himself.
‘A plan to get rid of this bunch of jokers,’ she whispered, gripping his muscled arm so hard that her knuckles popped out white against her skin.
Jonny gasped in horror as he took in their new neighbours’ sombre signs, while Bluey loped over to sit beside his beloved mistress. Marla leaned her head against his and counted backwards from ten while she waited for the inevitable explosion. Jonny was nothing if not predictable, and liked nothing better than a good strop. He was the only person she knew who was desperate for a slot on Jeremy Kyle.
‘A fucking Funeral Directors?? Next door to us? Errr, helloooo?’ Jonny snapped his fingers in the air, diva style. ‘I don’t fucking think so!’
Marla sighed as he strutted off towards the front doors. Much as she’d like to unleash Jonny on Guinness Guts, he would probably only make the situation worse.
‘Hang on, hang on. I’ve already tried that. There’s nobody in charge over there until tomorrow.’ ‘Hmmph.’ Jonny’s broad shoulders slumped. ‘Well, when they do get here, they’ll wish they hadn’t bothered, because I’m going to kill them with my bare hands.’ He made a throttling gesture with his hands, his eyebrows lost somewhere in his hairline.
Marla threw her shoulders back and painted on a determined smile. She was the boss, and her troops needed rallying. ‘Come on, guys. Let’s go and put the kettle on and get cracking on that plan.’
When the going gets tough, the tough put the kettle on. Marla might have spent her formative years in America, but after almost a decade in England, tea was a tradition she had well and truly taken to heart. Weddings permitting, the small staff of the chapel took a well-earned break most afternoons to drink tea and swap gossip. They'd been rather looking forward to adding cupcakes to that ritual, too.
Somehow, tea with a side order of formaldehyde didn’t hold quite the same appeal.
Gabriel Ryan stilled the growling engine of his Kawasaki Z1300, restoring the sleepy early morning peace to Beckleberry High Street. The pavements still glittered with the dawn frost of early spring, and his breath hung on the icy air as he slid his helmet off. He sat stock still for a couple of seconds and drank in the sight of his perfectly hung shop signs for the first time.
Gabriel Ryan, Funeral Director. One thought consumed all of the others in his head. Mine. It’s my name over the door.
Time to grow up, Gabe.
His father’s last words had become his mantra over the last few months. If he’d ever needed to feel the warmth of his beloved Da’s approval, it was now. He kicked the bike stand down and fished around in the pocket of his battered leather jacket for the front door key. To his own front door. This was it. Elated and scared witless all at the same time, he felt for his mobile as it buzzed against his chest. He didn’t need to glance at the screen to know who would be on the other end of the line.
‘Hey, Rory.’ He slipped the key into the lock and turned it.
‘You there yet, little brother?’
At forty-five, Gabe’s eldest brother Rory’s voice sounded heart-wrenchingly similar to their Da’s. He’d appointed himself patriarch of the family after their father’s heart attack last summer – a role he took very seriously.
‘Sure am. Just arrived.’
Gabe cast a last glance up at his name as he passed underneath the sign and stepped inside.
He looked around at the haphazard clutter of stepladders and paint pots that littered the reception area.
‘And, yeah. It’s looking pretty good.’
‘Only Phil the Drill said it’s an almighty mess.’
Phil the Drill has a big mouth, Gabe thought, but refrained from saying it, because he knew that Rory meant well, and would no doubt relay everything he said back to their mother and three other brothers. He brushed off Rory’s concerns.
‘It’s nothing I can’t handle.’
Besides, it wasn’t a lie. He’d handle any amount of mess rather than go home and take his place in the family firm. He loved the bones of his family, but being back there had just been too hard on his heart since last summer. His dad was everywhere, and for Gabe, the only way to deal with his grief was to be somewhere else.
Rory’s rich laugh rumbled down the line. ‘Same as ever. Bossy. Interfering. But she misses you.’
Guilt stabbed through him. ‘Tell her I’ll call her later.’
‘Don’t forget, okay?’
‘And Gabe …’
‘Good luck, little brother.’
Gabe clicked the phone shut and rested his helmet down by the door. He’d drifted from funeral home to funeral home since his father’s death, unable to settle but unwilling to go back to Ireland. His heart might belong in Dublin, but he was going to make this place his home now.
It had all happened quite by accident really. He supposed some might have called it fate if they were given to believing in such things. Firstly, he’d turned thirty. His family had, of course, wanted to throw the customary huge bash at the club in Dublin, and Gabe had known perfectly well that once he was there they’d use every trick in the book to make him stay in Ireland and leave his days in England behind. He’d refused their pleas and opted to stay in Shropshire with his best mate Dan, making plans for a weekend where the sole intention was to drink until they couldn’t stand up any more.
A weekend which, in turn, was, devastated beyond repair by the untimely death of Dan’s gregarious, life-loving grandmother. Gabe’s funeral director instinct had kicked in hard as he’d leaned over to gently close Lizzie Robertson’s eyes for the last time. He’d poured out generous measures of scotch for her family, and made the calls they were too shell-shocked to handle themselves.
Much later, over midnight brandies, it had struck him exactly how far away the closest undertakers were. Dan’s family had waited a good few hours before anyone could reach them from Shrewsbury, the nearest market town to sleepy Buckleberry. Much longer than any family needed to wait at a time like that. And so the seed had been sown. A seed that grew with frightening speed, like a magic beanstalk leading Gabe towards his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But I don't have any premises, and I can’t afford it anyway, he’d reasoned, and he’d smiled with relief that there was a bona fide reason to let himself wriggle off the hook. Which was all very well, until his brothers finally wised-up to the fact that he really wasn’t coming home and bought him out of the family undertaking business as a birthday gift.
Still, he’d laughed when Dan shoved property details into his hands for some place that had just come back onto the market due to a deal falling through with a cupcake company. Cupcakes? How could a company hope to survive just selling cupcakes? No wonder the deal had fallen through. It would be way too small, but he’d viewed the premises anyway to shut Dan up. Cupcakes didn’t take up as much space as dead bodies.
Gabe wasn’t much given to mystical flights of fancy, but had he been pushed, he’d probably have agreed that it seemed as if the planets had aligned obligingly just for him. He had the money. He had the experience. And now he had the perfect premises. ‘Go big or go home’ had been Dan’s sage advice over a pint in his prospective new local. And because going home wasn’t an option, Gabe had climbed the beanstalk and signed on the dotted line before he could let himself back out of it.
‘Time to grow up, Gabe.’
He picked his way between the stepladders and criss-crossed extension cables and let himself through to the back. In the kitchen, his eyes fell on the bright yellow note gaffer-taped to the bubble wrap around the newly delivered fridge.
‘The Yank bird from across the way is on the warpath. Watch yer back, kid.’
Gabe read it over twice more, still none the wiser about the note’s possible meaning. What Yank bird? And why the hell would she be on the warpath already?
He glanced out of the window, half expecting to see someone storming his way, but no warring harridans appeared to be beating a path to his door at this early hour. No doubt all would become apparent when Phil the Drill arrived. Late, of course. But what Phil lacked in time-keeping skills, he more than made up for in fitting skills. He’d worked for the family undertakers in Ireland for over twenty-five years and knew their business inside out. He’d been happy to bring his boys on a jolly across the Irish Sea on the promise of decent money, good digs and as much beer as they could drink.
Impatient for his first caffeine shot of the day, Gabe rummaged around and managed to unearth the kettle from behind a pile of half-eaten packets of biscuits.
A blur of red caught his eye outside as he sat down with the steaming mug cradled in his hands. He rocked back on his chair legs to watch the girl outside as she struggled to find something in the bottom of the huge bag she was balancing on her knee. Why did girls always carry such huge handbags? Her hair whipped around her cheeks, heavy red waves that irritated her enough to make her brush them roughly away from her mouth. She found what she was searching for, straightened up and disappeared around the back of the weird chapel place next door.
Interesting. He added ‘attractive redhead working next door’, to the growing file of positive aspects to his new venture. He grinned as the caffeine seeped steadily into his system. Phil the Drill was wrong. Today was going to be a good day. He could feel it in his bones.