She returned her attention to sprinkling a cascade of faux cherry blossom petals around the mannequin heads in the window and noted that the marchers were moving on at last. Hattie watched a woman bend over to talk to a girl of about twelve or so. Both wore very plain, outmoded garments. They were clearly working class yet marched beside a society matron dressed in the latest Parisian style including a gold turban on which sequins glittered in the sunlight. The contrast between the marchers and the sight of all of these women from different stations in life banded together in a common cause made Hattie’s throat tighten with emotion.
The bell over the door rang as someone entered the shop. Hattie swallowed the lump, dashed away foolish, sentimental tears, and turned to greet her customer with a smile. “May I help—”
The rest of her customary greeting came out as an unintelligible gurgle, for the person who had entered the millinery was not her normal sort of client. On rare occasions, gentlemen did stop in alongside their fiancés, wives, or, more often, mistresses, but the shock of this particular fellow was not due to his gender. Hattie had quite simply never seen such an attractive man. His face and figure were handsome, for he had finely-drawn features and a trim athletic build, but more than that, his presence crackled with vitality. Bright blue eyes beamed joie de vivre and mischief. Such a man could mean nothing but trouble to any woman who came within his orbit.
Hattie stilled the rise of answering energy in her body and calmed herself before repeating, “May I help you, sir?”
“Indeed.” The fellow had been looking around the shop, but now gazed directly at Hattie. Another jolt of ridiculous attraction stabbed her. She waited for it to pass while scolding herself for such nonsense. The only time she’d allowed herself to be swept away on a tide like this, it had nearly drowned her.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
He examined Hattie from head to toe in less than a heartbeat, yet it felt as if his gaze lingered caressingly. Heat unfurled from deep inside to coil through every part of her. Again, she banished unwelcome feelings.
He answered her question flippantly, “Well, I’m in a millinery so … I suppose I’ve come to purchase a hat.”
She did not smile at the joke as she approached the man in the light blue suit as if his presence did not send tickling fingers up her spine. “What sort did you have in mind?”
He studied the nearest mannequins. “She already owns so many hats, I don’t know if one more will impress her. But she adores them so it seemed the perfect gift.”
Hattie touched the gold badge and plume on the side of a navy blue tricorn. “The military style is popular this spring if you want to choose something the lady is not likely to already possess. Tricorns are all the rage just now.”
“What about one of these numbers?” The customer indicated the fussiest, most over-embellished Merry Widow on the floor. The huge picture hat had been created to the precise design of Mrs. Constance Darrow, who had passed away before claiming it. Hattie could not seem to sell the monstrosity. Perhaps if she removed some of the garden of flowers and small birds from its brim.
“If you believe your friend would like this one, I can wrap it and have it sent today.”
“Hm. It’s a bit garish, is it not? Perhaps something simpler.”
The gentleman seemed in no hurry to vacate the premises, unlike most men who appeared to want out of this feminine domain as soon as possible. He strolled past Hattie to study the display of trimmings. A whiff of something spicy and warm, perhaps sandalwood, teased her nose as he walked by.
She smoothed the front of her bodice and followed him toward a rack that sported a rainbow array of gauzes. “If you tell me something about the woman you’re purchasing the hat for, perhaps I can be of better help.”
“She wears very elegant styles, simple, yet striking. Something involving this sheer stuff draped around her face would suit her well, I believe.”
“A wide-brimmed straw with gauze draping and ties is very charming, but one must consider the hairstyle. Does your friend generally adopt the Gibson roll? One wouldn’t wish the hat to crush her bouffant too badly.”
The customer examined Hattie’s hair with a frown of concentration. “She wears it rather like yours, I guess. Only it is not such a rich chestnut color.” The corners of his mouth curved slightly. Light slanting through the nearby window sent blue flames dancing in his eyes. “No. Not this color at all.”
Warmth rekindled in Hattie’s lower regions. She tamped it down before her cheeks could flush. Men often attempted to trifle with her. She knew how to quash such inclinations. “Is this gift for your wife, or perhaps your daughter? Maybe your mother or grandmother?” She named all the females in a man’s life the mention of whom would make him feel guilty for dallying.
His smile broadened as if he knew exactly what she was doing. “Ah, no. This lady is merely a good friend.”
Mistress Hattie mentally translated.
“This is a farewell gift as our ways must soon part.”
“Something tasteful would be just the thing. I trust your judgment as far as decorating it. A friend pronounced you the finest milliner in London.” He glanced around. “And I can see that you have quite a talent.”
Notwithstanding Mrs. Darrow’s vulgar hat, which Hattie wished she had not put on display. She felt unaccountably pleased at his assessment, even though she felt quite certain this fellow handed out compliments like penny candy.
“Thank you,” she replied.
Again his eyes pierced her. “Thank you for creating a perfect gift that will say I appreciate you, and pray we may remain friends.”
The end of an affair with a meaningless token. Hattie’s temper prickled on behalf of this unknown paramour. What a cad the man was. She should not find him attractive at all.
She drew his attention back to the mannequins and pointed out a side-angled straw with a minimum of embellishment. “Will this do? If so, I will wrap it for you.”
“No hurry. Make one similar to it and I will stop by to pick it up.”
There was no way she would create a hat on account for a stranger who might never return. Bad enough when her regular customers were slow in paying their bills. Such was the hazard of being in trade. The more prestigious the client, often the worse they procrastinated, even if they were wealthy.
“I’m afraid I must ask for payment in advance,” Hattie said firmly.
Another smile carved a groove on either side of his mouth. “Of course. How much?”
Hattie quoted a price then retreated behind the counter. Her customer paid the required amount, and she slipped the money into her cash box under the counter. “May I have an address for delivery?”
He shook his head and a lock of dark hair escaped its pomade to tease his forehead. “I’ll return in… How long will it take?”
“Two days. If you don’t wish to wait, you may take the display model with you,” she urged.
Now the transaction was complete, the fellow leaned lazily against the counter. “I don’t mind returning. Are you always so eager to be rid of your customers? On another day I might be persuaded to buy a pair of gloves or a fur tippet or something.”
“I don’t sell tippets. And it isn’t the season for them.” With his money in her till, she could afford to be rather caustic.
Her sharp tone only spurred him to laughter. “I don’t blame you for thinking me a reprobate, but I wish to assure you I am at least an honest one.”
“Are you certain you understand the definition of the word?”
He grinned. “Aren’t you a clever thing?”
His patronizing tone made Hattie bristle. “I am not a ‘thing’ at all, but a person, a business person to be precise. One who demands respect from her customers.”
“I did not intend to sound so frivolous. I offer you my abject apology, madam. A woman as beautiful as you must be forced to fend off unwanted attention too often. I apologize on behalf of my gender,” he said without a smirk. “It occurs to me I never introduced myself. Guy Hardy.” He offered a hand to shake, his expression as open as the sky on a cloudless day.
“Mrs. Harriet Glover.” She took his hand to shake it once, briefly pressing palms. The effect of the touch was electric. Even after she’d returned her hand below the counter, her flesh still tingled.
“You are married?” Hardy asked.
“My husband is deceased,” she lied. A widow in business was not uncommon, a single woman, living by her own means was rarer than a unicorn.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He paused. “To own a store is an admirable achievement. You must have a head for business as well as the creative touch.”
His compliment seemed sincere enough so she replied politely, “Thank you, Mr. Hardy.”
He remained, looking into her face a moment longer, while his fingers tapped the brim of his straw boater. Then he dipped his head and offered a farewell. “Good day, Mrs. Glover. I shall return soon for the hat.”