Colorado Springs, 1882
Belle Sullivan sighed as her mother fussed over her and her
two sisters, all lined up for inspection in the front parlor. Belle just wanted to get through this ordeal with
the minimum of bother, but it was not to be. One
would think they were being presented to Mama's idol, Queen Victoria, for heaven's sake,
instead of merely waiting for a few young men.
Bridey Sullivan clucked her tongue in
frustration as she straightened Belle's bodice and tugged futilely at the wrinkles in her
close-fitting skirt. "How do you ever
expect to catch a husband looking like that?"
Belle shrugged. She'd
heard it all before, in endless detail. Her
rusty red hair was too unruly, her complexion too freckled, and her manner too tomboyish.
Belle cared little for her appearance. All she wanted was to stay
in the bosom of her family for the rest of her life, but Mama was determined to kick all
of her baby birds out of the nestso long as the new nest was lined with the best
feathers, of course. But now that Belle was nineteen and without a beau who might
turn into that most coveted of possessionsa husbandMama was becoming frantic.
She obviously saw this outing as an opportunity to rectify that situation.
Not that Belle was totally opposed to the idea, especially since
the young man who had asked her out was Christopher "Kit" Stanhope, the second
son of a viscount. A remittance man who seemed to do nothing but idle about, he was
scorned by the hardworking self-made men of Colorado Springs, but the women found his
aristocratic upbringing, education, and refined ways irresistible.
And Belle was no exception. When Kit Stanhope had asked her to
step out with him, she'd been thrilled that such a handsome man, fribble though he might
be, was interested in her. She had long admired him from afar, thinking him the most
handsome man of her acquaintance, but assumed she could not catch his interest. But
somehow, she had. Perhaps he was one of those few discerning men able to see beyond
"She doesn't care how she looks, Mama," Charisma
declared. At eighteen, Charisma came in for her share of Mama's attention, too,
though with her height and sleek strawberry blond hair, her appearance was usually without
fault. Always blunt, Charisma added, "And I don't know why you should
Mama looked horrified. "Not
care? Where would you girls be if I didn't
care about your futures?"
Happy and a whole lot better off, Belle thought, but
unlike Charisma, Belle knew better than to say it out loud.
Obviously trying to
distract their mother, Grace, the youngest member of the family at seventeen, twirled
around the parlor, looking like a glowing candle in her new dress and bright red hair. "I think we all look lovely," she
But where Grace went, disaster
was sure to follow. The Sullivans, used to her
clumsiness, deftly rescued one urn and two figurines as Hurricane Grace whirled by. They were unable to catch two more knickknacks, but
they hit the plush carpet and didn't break. In
fact, that's why the carpet was there in the first placebecause of Grace's little
"Oh, do be careful,
Grace," Mama exclaimed as she replaced a figurine on a table. But Grace's attempt at distracting their mother
didn't work, and Mama returned stubbornly to her favorite subject. "Do you want to dwindle into old maids like
Miss Keithley? Living alone in that huge house
all by herself with nothing but cats and no husband to call her own?"
"It doesn't sound so
bad...," Belle muttered. At least Miss
Keithley went about in society, had a place of her own and didn't have a mother nagging at
her constantly. Besides, Belle liked cats.
Mama whipped around to glare
at her. "Now, you listen to me, young
lady. You have it a whole lot better than I
did in my day."
Belle exchanged rolling
eyes with Charisma and Grace and pretended to listen, but they'd heard it all before. Mama had grown up poor as the daughter of an unlucky
silver miner in Leadville. She'd married
another miner, Patrick Sullivan, for love, but the early years of their marriage had been
troubled by poverty and hardship.
When Patrick had
finally hit the mother lode in the Grace of God Mine six years ago, Bridey had vowed to
ensure her three daughters would never have to live the harsh life she'd had to endure. Once the mine was producing ore at a steady rate and
didn't need Patrick's constant presence, she'd insisted on moving their small family to
Colorado Springs. Having heard tales of the
city they called Little London, Mama was eager to join the British aristocrats and
denizens of polite society and leave her past far, far behind.
But though life was
certainly easier for the Sullivans, Mama's ambitions to become a leading light of society
hadn't panned out. Papa's indifference to the
trappings of wealth hampered her, and though Mama had worked hard to overcome her own
humble origins and lack of polish, she just tried too hard.
Undeterred by her lack
of success so far, she had decided to focus all her hopes on her three daughters. Through them, she hoped to achieve the status she
longed for. And to Mama, the height of success
lay in obtaining an invitation to the annual Founders' Day Ball in July. If not for her, then certainly for one of her
daughters. But since only the elite of
Colorado Springs were invited, Belle feared Mama would never get her wish.
"I'm doing this
for you," Mama finished as she tried unsuccessfully to smooth Belle's wayward curls. "You'll be much happier married to men of
breeding and substance, I assure you."
"But you married
for love," Charisma protested. "Why
Belle stifled a grin. Trust
Charisma to blurt out the unvarnished truth.
Mama bristled. "Mind
your tongue, girl. Of course you should marry
for love. But remember, it's just as easy to
fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man."
Charisma frowned. "But"
Belle cut her off with an elbow to her side. There was no use arguing with Mama on this subject. At this rate, they'd never get out of here. "Oh, I'm sorry," Belle said sweetly. "My elbow slipped. Did I hurt you?"
Charisma glared at her but took the hint and kept her mouth shut.
"Well," Grace exclaimed, "I'm looking forward to
this drive. When will our escorts
It was the right thing to say, for it finally distracted Mama. Relaxing into a smile, she said, "You have
plenty of time, girls. First, I want to tell
you a story. Come, sit down."
They all seated themselves,
taking care to make sure Grace was sandwiched between them and far from any
breakablesnot an easy task in the fashionably cluttered parlor.
"Did I ever tell you the story of how your father
The girls shook their heads. They'd
heard plenty about the hardships, but very little about the more pleasant moments in the
early years of their parents' marriage.
"Well, it was in the Garden of the Gods, the very park
you're visiting this afternoon." Mama
clasped her hands together and her eyes turned uncharacteristically dreamy. "I was very much in love with your father, and
he seemed to feel the same way about me, but he wouldn't declare himself. So, when several of us went to Colorado Springs on a
visit and stopped off in the Garden of the Gods, I tried to ignore him and concentrated on
the rock formations. I found all of them
interesting, but the Three Graces rock formation just...spoke to me."
"What did it say?" Charisma asked with a grin.
Mama quelled her with a
glance. "I placed some wildflowers at
their feet and wished with all my heart that your Papa would ask me to marry him. He proposed to me then and there," she said
with a wistful sigh. "That's why you're
named for the Three Graces."
The girls exchanged glances. They'd known who they were named for, but had never
heard why before. "I thought their names
were Greek and hard to pronounce," Grace said.
"Well, yes," their mother admitted. "But I named you for what they
representbeauty, charm and grace."
Poor Mama. She had
chosen entirely the wrong names for her daughters. Plain
Belle had no beauty, forthright Charisma lacked charm, and Grace was...somewhat less than
graceful. But it was a sweet story, and Belle
said as much. "Why are you telling us
this now?" Belle knew her mother well
enough to know she had an ulterior motive.
"Well, offering flowers to the Three Graces and making a
wish for a husband worked for me. Maybe it
will for you three, too."
"You want us to
ask for husbands from a bunch of rocks?" Charisma asked incredulously.
"Well, it couldn't
hurt," Mama said. They all knew Charisma
too well to be offended by her bluntness, even Mama.
"But we'll look
silly," Belle protested. "Besides,
we don't have any flowers."
her mother said with confidence. "Your
escorts are bound to bring you posies."
"What if they
don't?" Grace asked.
"Oh, they will. I reminded them myself."
Belle groaned inwardly.
It was rare enough for a young gentleman to
call on one of the Sullivan girlsmore than once, anywaybut Mama's interference
would make it even worse.
"What did you say
to them?" Belle asked, feeling humiliated already. "Did
you embarrass us?"
"Of course not. I simply reminded them of their responsibilities as
So, she had
embarrassed them. Oh, dear. What would Kit Stanhope think of her? "Oh, Mama. How
could you?" It was the first time such an
eligible young man had invited her on an outing, and she felt awkward enough already.
"Well, I have to
be sure my girls are treated right, don't I? I
know what's due you, and they're going to treat you like proper ladies or I'll know the
And, to Mama, being
proper ladies meant being escorted by proper gentlemen. Though
Mama considered Kit Stanhope the catch of the town, Charisma and Grace's escorts were just
as acceptable. Charisma's intended beau, young
George Winthrop, was the son of a wealthy rancher, and Harold Latham had a secure future
in his father's bank.
Belle and her sisters
sympathized with their mother's ambitions and, though they didn't entirely understand why
those goals were so important to her, they loved her and wanted to make her happy. However, they had met with too many rebuffs from the
people Mama was most anxious to impress, and preferred to spend time with those who
weren't so hoity-toity.
But they didn't want to
let their mother down, so they had agreed amongst themselves to do everything in their
power to make the outing a success. For once,
they hoped to please her.
our best to make you proud, Mama," Belle promised, and Charisma and Grace nodded
flowers and the wish?" Mama asked.
resigned glances with her sisters and spoke for the three of them. "Yes, Mama. Even
the flowers and the wish." After all,
what could it hurt?
The knocker sounded
then, announcing the arrival of their escorts. Sudden
queasiness attacked Belle's midsection. What
could she do or say to such a distinguished young gentleman as Kit Stanhope? Belle knew she couldn't capture the heart and hand
of such an illustrious figure, but could she make Mama proud?
The gentlemen were
shown into the parlor and Belle's heart beat wildly in her chest as she beheld her partner
for the day. With his slightly wavy white
blond hair, bright blue eyes, high cheekbones in a patrician face, and erect carriage and
air of confidence, Kit Stanhope looked every inch the distinguished British gentleman. And even Belle could tell his dress was the height
He smiled with a slightly
mocking air as his gaze swept her, and for once, Belle wished she had paid more attention
to her appearance. Oh, dear. Maybe Mama was rightmaybe such things did
In fact, all three
gentlemen looked splendid and Belle felt positively dowdy beside them. She and her sisters wore the best money could
buytheir mother made sure of thatbut they didn't have the inbred ability to
carry it off quite so well.
And, just as Mama
promised, the gentlemen had brought posies. When
Kit bowed slightly and presented Belle with his floral offering, she couldn't help but
remember that Mama had practically forced them to bring the flowers, and it robbed the
moment of any pleasure she might have felt. Belle
stole a glance at her sisters. From their
expressions, it seemed they felt the same way, and the moment turned awkward.
The silence was broken
by Charisma, of course, who declared bluntly, "Shall we go? I'd like to see the rock formations, especially
'Kissing Camels' and 'Seal Making Love to a Nun'."
Mother looked horrified
and quickly corrected her, giving Charisma a stern look. "No,
dear. The proper title is 'Seal and
George looked pained at his
companion's bluntness and Belle felt her spine stiffen. Nothing
put her back up more than someone who criticized her family. "An excellent idea, Charisma," Belle said
smoothly. "We shouldn't keep the horses
go," Grace declared. Suiting action to
words, she stepped out briskly and promptly trod on Harold's foot. When he bent over to clutch at the offended
appendage, Grace whirled in remorse and caught him in the eye with her elbow.
Harold let loose with a
yelp and Grace apologized profusely as she backed awayright into a knickknack-laden
table. With the ease of long practice, Belle
and Charisma covered for her by surreptitiously righting the table and steadying Grace.
Though Harold now
looked as fully pained as George had earlier, Belle figured he had cause. But Grace was so horrified, Belle murmured,
"It's all rightjust a little accident. Come,
the horses are waiting."
The others helped
smooth over the incident and it was a subdued, if slightly wary group, who arrived
outsideunscathed for the most part. A
carriage awaited them, and Kit handed Belle into the front seat while the others seated
her sisters in the back. Then Kit drove while
George and Harold rode alongside.
It was a good
arrangement. During the drive to the Garden of
the Gods, Grace was unable to inflict any more damage on poor Harold, and Charisma's
distance from George made her less able to offend him by blurting out anything untoward.
But Belle was so
concerned about keeping an eye on her sisters and their escorts' reactions that she gave
very little attention to her own companion. All
she knew is that he looked wonderful and smelled even betterall manly and woodsy. It was a pity they hadn't had a chance to converse
much, especially since she just adored his upper crust British accent, but perhaps she
could get to know him a little better once they reached their destination.
They finally came to a
stop, and as Kit helped her down from the carriage, Belle felt a little thrill course
through her at his touch. She glanced shyly up
into his handsome face to see if he felt the same and saw nothing but aloof politeness.
made any sort of impression at all. Well,
maybe it was time to let her sisters fend for themselves. They
were big girls now and shouldn't need Belle to watch after them.
Belle hadn't paid much
attention to her surroundings, but she did now as Charisma declared, "Why, it isn't a
garden at all."
Belle looked around. No, it couldn't be considered a garden, though there
were a few wildflowers here and there. Instead,
huge rock monoliths in odd shapes thrust up from the earth, towering high above them. Some were gray but most were made of red sandstone,
the rusty color providing a vivid background for the green spring foliage. The result was slightly otherworldly and utterly
"Haven't you been
here before?" Kit asked.
haven't," Belle said. At first, it seemed
odd that they hadn't. Then she realized that
anyone who knew Mama wouldn't wonder at it. Mama
rarely let them leave the confines of the town, declaring there was nothing of interest
beyond the borders of Little London. Except
the real London, of course.
George smiled at Charisma a
bit superciliously and said in a pompous tone, "So you haven't heard the story of how
it was named?"
When Charisma shook her
head, he added, "Local legend says that when two men were looking over the gardens,
one man was so impressed, he said he thought it might make a good Milwaukee beer garden. But the other declared that it was a garden fit for
the gods, and the name stuck."
A beer garden? Belle wrinkled her nose. How prosaic.
doubtful," Harold scoffed. "M'father
says it's more likely the fanciful name was invented to lure people to this area."
George and Harold
erupted into an argument, each defending their version of the story. Not knowing anything about it, the girls stayed
silent, but Kit soon broke in and turned the men's anger aside with a joke, then added,
"Since you two seem to know so much about the park, perhaps you will educate the rest
Belle watched in
admiration as his ploy worked. Soon, George
and Harold were outdoing each other in pointing out the various formations, including
"Elephant Attacking a Lion," "Eagle With Pinions Spread," and
When they began to
recite various improbable legends associated with the rock formations, Belle was reminded
of their promise to Mama. When a suitable
break in the conversation occurred, she asked, "And where are the Three Graces?"
George pointed to
a set of three elegant finger-like spires of varying heights that reached toward the sky.
Belle nodded. "Would you gentlemen excuse us for a few
moments? There's something we promised our
mother we'd do."
her eyes, but managed to control her tongue until Belle led her two sisters away from the
young men. "Do we really have to do
this?" her outspoken sister complained.
"Oh, don't be such
a fussbudget," Grace said as she tripped over a rock. But
she managed to right herself without mishap. Luckily
for Grace, her mishaps usually injured others and not herself. "Don't you want to see where Papa proposed to
Mama? I think it's romantic."
"I think so,
too," Belle said. "Besides, we
right," Charisma complained. "But I
think it's silly."
Grace said with a grin. "Even after
seeing how handsome our escorts are? Doesn't
it make you wonder what it would be like to be married to one of them? Just a little?"
just a little," Charisma confessed.
"Then it's not so
silly, is it?" Grace said in triumph.
No, it wasn't. Especially since Belle hadn't been able to stop
wondering what it would be like to be married to Kit Stanhope, to feel his strong arms
around her, to touch her lips to his....
Yes, his lips. Soft but firm, Kit's lips were very expressive and
Belle had often found herself staring at his mouth as if mesmerized. Perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea to make a wish
They made their way to
the base of the formation and looked up at the rocks in awe. "So this is what we're named for," Belle
Grace stilled. "They're so grand..."
agreeing for once. "Inspiring."
For a moment, they
simply stood there in silence, staring up at the same Three Graces who had watched as
their father proposed to their mother. And this was where they were supposed to leave their
flowers and wish for husbands of their own.
Could Belle dare wish
for someone like Kit Stanhope? With his
breeding, elegance, and charm, he could win any girl. Could
she hope he might favor her?
As they stood there,
each thinking their private thoughts, Belle realized that, through a trick of geography,
they were able to hear their escorts' voices clearly.
"Is that George I
hear?" Grace asked.
Belle nodded and the
men's voices became even more distinct.
Latham," George said with a laugh. "You're
as clumsy as your date."
Seeing Grace's stricken
expression, Belle said, "Maybe we should"
Grace waved her to
silence with a fierce look. "I want to
anyone as ungraceful as Grace Sullivan," Harold Latham said with a bitter
laugh. "One needs armor to survive an
encounter with her. Too bad she doesn't live
up to her name."
Not to be outdone,
George said, "What about my date? Do you
know of anyone I charming than Charisma? I
don't think she's ever had a thought she hasn't voiced."
turned blank, but her emotions were revealed in the pain in her eyes. Compassion for her sisters filled Belle, and rage
toward the men who had hurt them. She swung
away from the Three Graces, prepared to do battle, but her sisters held her back.
whispered. "We can't let them know we
right," Charisma agreed. "It would
be too embarrassing."
Since when did Charisma
care about that? She must really be hurting. Belle wrested herself free and heard Harold say,
"And what about your date, Kit? Belle is
certainly no beauty."
Belle froze, knowing
she had to hear Kit's reply yet dreading it. Surely
he didn't care about appearances...did he?
He paused for one
of the longest moments of Belle's life, then drawled, "No, I'd have to say she's the
most homely woman of my acquaintance."
Anguish filled Belle,
but she continued to torture herself by listening.
George laughed. "So why did you invite her out?"
"I expect it's for
the same reason you did," Harold said. "Because
her mother paid us handsomely."
When Kit and George
agreed, agony pierced Belle. How foolish she'd
been to think that aristocratic Kit Stanhope would ever look twice at plain Belle
Sullivan. Why, her mother had to pay
him to even consider going out with her.
But through the pain
came steely determination. She'd never forgive
him for this. Or Harold and George either. They could say anything they liked about Belle, but
the cads had hurt her sisters. Just look at
them. Grace wore an expression of horrified
anguish and though Charisma was standing proud and defiantly straight, moisture shone in
Charisma dashed a tear
away. "They're only saying the truth. Everyone knows it."
Grace's bottom lip
quivered. "I know, but...did they have to
be so cruel?"
"They didn't know
we were listening," Charisma said in defense.
"How dare you
speak up for them?" Belle demanded. Grace
might be clumsy, but she was the sweetest person Belle knew. And though Charisma was outspoken, she was
incredibly generous and kind to those in need. Couldn't
the men see that?
they saw was the superficial. Determination
stiffened Belle's spine. No one insulted her
family and got away with it. "Why, I'd
She checked a
throttling motion when she realized she was strangling the posy Kit had given her.
"You'd like to
what?" Charisma asked.
Flourishing the flowers
in Kit's direction, Belle declared, "I'd like to shove this posy up his nosy."
Just as she'd hoped,
that made them both laugh. Laughter was a
wonderful way to ease their heartache, but how did she go about easing her own?
"I'd pay money to
see that," Charisma declared.
Grace's eyes rounded in
astonishment. "You're not really going to
do it, are you?"
said reluctantly. "If I did, Mama would
do far worse to me."
"Not that she
deserves any consideration after what she did," Charisma declared.
"I agree, but we
did promise to make an offering to the Three Graces and make a wish."
A mischievous light
suddenly appeared in Charisma's eyes. "That's
truebut we didn't promise what that wish would be..." She boldly laid her bouquet at the foot of the
sandstone monolith, but her tone was uncharacteristically wistful. "I wish I lived up to my name. I wish I had charm."
Grace copied her,
saying, "Me, too. I wish I had true
Belle sighed, feeling
forced to go along as she laid her flowers alongside the others. "And I wish I were beautiful." Though she knew in her heart that all she really
wanted was a chance to get even with the men who had hurt them so.
Her true wish was for
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