Whoever said cities were the place to find romance never lived in an area like Market Chipping. Our little town is located just on the outskirts of the capital, out of reach of commercial influence. A place where people like our family could own a successful little hat shop. My father built his business from the ground up with only sweat and determination as his tools. It was through this store that he met the first great love of his life, my mother. With her eye for detail and his passion for creating, they had made a living in this quaint little town. Shortly after that, my sister and I came into the world, and it seemed like everything was perfect.
Well, at least we still had the hat shop.
With a knot on her face like she'd smelled something unpleasant, my stepmother, Gerta, kept a constant eye on my sister and me. She licked the pad of her thumb, counting what I assumed was a shockingly small amount of money in the till. I shook my head and sighed, turning away from her scowl and fixing my attention instead to our shop.
Doll hats, beaver hats, top hats, Gainsborough hats and every other manner of headpieces adorned our shelves. Only a few remained that my father created. The rest were proudly my own. I had a knack for design and an eye for colour, having spent so much time watching my father whip up masterpieces from scratch.
I busied myself stitching the last flower into a deep mauve doll hat and trying to ignore Gerta's petty attitude. We always argued about the pricing of our goods; she insisted we charge double because our hats were of superior quality, but I refused to budge. I wanted to keep things the way my father would have wanted them, on peoples heads instead of displays but trying to explain my view to her always resulted in a fight. Sadly her attention was fixed solely on profit margins.
Thankfully, my older sister was all the support I needed when it came to our business. Lettie at the moment was bustling about the room, tending to this customer and that, offering her million dollar smile to all the young men who came through the door. It was an oddity seeing so many male patrons at a hat shop, but one look at them told me their admiration was more for my sister and less about the merchandise.
She had inherited all of our mother's good looks and charm. It was a mystery that she wasn't tied down by now, but that's how Lettie wanted it. No man could persuade her to settle down when she had so many dreams of her own to fulfill. If Gerta had her way, Lettie would have been married off to the first wealthy suitor that walked through the door, but thankfully Lettie was too strong-willed to let anyone dictate how she lived her life. I smiled at her as she glided past the counter. Lettie winked back at me, fluffed her golden locks and straightened out her petty coat to continue her walk about the room. Waltzing past patrons, she offered sincere compliments to the ladies trying out our new line of sun hats.
I focused my attention on the stitching I had finished on a little red hat, pulling it neatly with a knot before trimming the ends. I hopped off my stool and grabbed the mauve doll hat next to it before edging my way past a few people to display them on awaiting mannequins. As I adjusted the fit on the last one, a couple of hushed voices caught my attention.
"I heard he's in town again," one of them giggled.
"You mean Howl?" Another clapped her hands together, dreamily.
The third hushed the second with a slap on the arm. "Don't say his name too loud; you don't want him to show up! I heard he steals hearts."
I fought hard not to roll my eyes as they gasped in mock horror. How many times had I heard that ridiculous story before? The apparently handsome, yet oddly never seen in person, wizard Howl had been rumoured to steal women's hearts to replace the vacancy of his own. I smiled inwardly at the thought. I could only imagine that the real Howl was a pervert who thrived on these rumours to court women into his bedroom at night.
"Well, he can steal my heart any day!" The first lady placed a hand on her chest, fanning her face with her hand.
My point exactly.
"What does he look like?" one of them asked.
"That's the thing, nobody knows! But I heard that he casts spells on himself to change his appearance!" The ladies shared astonished looks.
"Why would he want to do that?" I invited myself into the conversation.
They blinked at me, noticing for the first time that I had been eavesdropping on their private conversation. One of the ladies politely stepped forward.
"They say Howl and the witch of the waste have a long-standing feud. Something about her wanting to steal his heart. He changes his appearance to hide from her, you know--," she leaned in closer and whispered, "--because he's immortal."
Lettie wrapped her arm around my waist and pulled me to her side, interrupting me before I could give them my learned opinion.
"Sophie sweetheart, a charming young gentleman is waiting to be served. Be a dear and help him out?" she whisked herself away, leaving a scent of honey and lipstick in her wake.
I smiled politely at the ladies and hurried away, thankful to have a reason to leave the conversation.
Across the room, an attractive young man stood patiently by the till looking every part the gentleman. The suit that man wore became him. With perfectly polished oxfords complete with a lavender handkerchief tucked neatly into his breast pocket, he made both women and men stop and stare.
I calmed the fluttery feeling in my chest at the sight of him. I looked over at Lettie, who I had hoped would save me from doing something stupid, but instead, she shook her head, winked at me mischievously and then carried on into the back room.
As I made my way over to him, he turned and let his eyes wander over me. Adjusting his cufflinks which I assumed were perfectly alright to begin with, a slow smile spread across his face.
"Can I help you, sir?" I managed.
"I certainly hope you can." He voice was velvet, giving me a wink reserved for ladies like Lettie. He gave me an appreciative look from head to toe and uttered something a lot like lovely under his breath.
I spent more time than was needed smoothing down my dress, avoiding his eyes. What on earth did he think was so lovely?
"Is everything alright?" He brushed my arm with his fingertips, and all I could feel was fire licking my skin from the touch.
"I-- uh," I couldn't find my words.
With a white-gloved hand, he combed his fingers through his perfectly oiled blonde hair, hiding what looked like a smile.
"I'm looking for something to go with my suit, miss. . ?"
"S-Sophie," I curtsied and quickly set about finding one that was just right. It was easy to focus on this task instead of the man who's eyes continued to watch me. At the back of the room, on an older and worn out mannequin was one of my father's hats. It was a black gossamer top hat, pinned with a white satin ribbon. A part of me wanted to put this particular one away, but I knew well enough that seeing it worn would have made my father happier than if it had been stowed away in a box.
I brushed it lightly with my hand and placed it on the counter for the man's inspection. He ran his fingers along the perfectly spaced stitches in the seam and removed one glove to touch the gossamer that covered the outer surface.
"This a beautifully crafted item, miss Sophie," he nodded his approval. Turning it over he placed it in my hands, "but it's not one of yours, is it?"
That took me by surprise, one look and he could tell it wasn't my work? He didn't even know my name a minute ago.
I shook my head. "It isn't. It's one of the hats the former owner of the shop made."
"That would be your father?" he gauged my reaction.
"Yes. . ." I couldn't find the words to fill the void.
He nodded sagely. "Not to besmirch his work, but I think I would prefer something you've made, Sophie." His words were butter on toast.
It took me a few seconds to remember where I was and what I was doing. By that time, most of the patrons in the shop had fixed their attention on us. Mechanically, I forced myself to turn around and grab the top hat I had just recently completed. It was missing a satin sashing, but within moments I had fixed it with a lavender ribbon to compliment his outfit. The stitching was a little uneven, and there was a slight wear in the fabric from stretching it, but when I showed it to him, he approved of it instantly.
"Perfect." he bowed his head, allowing me to fix it for him. The hint of lavender brought out the bright flecks of green in his eyes and lightened his face which, at the moment was admiring me. He ran his thumb over the rim of the hat with the most breathtaking smile I'd ever seen.
"This will do nicely, Sophie," he pressed more money than was necessary into my palm and, leaning in closely, he whispered, "it was lovely meeting you."
He tipped his hat and was out the door and into the busy streets of Market Chipping before I could say the same.
"Sophie, sweetie?" Lettie shook my shoulder until I had grounded myself again. She peered into my eyes, looking very concerned about something. "You don't look well, is everything alright?"
Feeling my legs begin to give out, I sat down on my stool and gave her an incredulous look.
"I'm not entirely sure Lettie, but I think I just met Howl."