It's not so very different from climbing a mountain, Grace Sullivan cheered herself, carefully finding one runner-carpeted step, then the next, without looking. Except for the book on my head.
She couldn't see her feet, in their neatly buttoned, kid-leather boots, because of that book--her mother's well-worn copy of A Lady's Guide to Society and Deportment. She couldn't even see the red carpet-runner, except for six steps ahead of her, or any other glimpses of the Sullivans' fine Colorado Springs home.
And I don't generally stumble or break things in the mountains, she reminded herself, closing her eyes and pretending. So if I only pretend that this--
Suddenly the banister hit her in the tummy. She abruptly stopped, eyes flying open. The book, not so encumbered, kept going.
And it was such a large, heavy book.
Grace peeked tentatively over the edge of the banister, wincing even before she saw that A Lady's Guide to Society and Deportment had landed in the midst of her mother's collection of porcelain pastoral figurines which crowded the sideboard beside the stairway.
"Oh dear...." she whispered.
This was not a mountain. She'd probably only survived the mountains, or he mountains survived her, because she'd been a child, instead of a woman of almost eighteen. Besides, unlike Mama's crowded showplace of a home, the mountains hadn't been quite so... fragile.
If they were, Grace Sullivan surely would have broken them.
At least it was her oldest sister, Belle, whose head poked out of the adjoining parlor to survey this most recent disaster. She rolled her eyes up at Grace with affectionate exasperation as she swept to the sideboard to fix what she could. And Belle did sweep. Even back when she'd thought herself plain, she'd been graceful.
Belle wasn't plain now. In just the last year, she'd become very, very pretty. Her once rusty hair now glowed almost auburn, and her freckles were hardly visible since she'd started using a parasol, and she wore the most stylish clothes and carried the prettiest fans Grace had seen in all her years.
Unlike many, Grace had always thought her tall, vibrant eldest sister pretty. If Belle had found true beauty, it likely wasn't so much the dresses or the hair rinse as the simple fact that Belle was engaged to be married.
Love added a glow to the older girl's cheeks and a spring to her step that no wardrobe or new coif could ever have provided. Grace felt quite certain of that. After all, she'd seen a similar glow ignite in their middle sister Charisma, whose engagement was more recent.
And she'd seen how worn their mother looked of late, the longer she fought with Da.
Remembering the discord that haunted the Sullivan household, Grace--already on her way down the stairs to help--decided to hurry, lest Mama see this latest damage and become even more upset. On the third-to-the-last step she caught the hem of her skirt under one foot and began to fall, but caught herself against the newel-post and swung full around on it in a way that would have been fun... if it weren't so hoydenish.
Of the many things she'd broken since the family moved to this fine house in Colorado Springs almost seven years ago, Grace never seemed to break herself.
"Do have a care, dearest," cautioned Belle as she swept shards of porcelain--a shepherdess's crook, a glazed sweep of ceramic pinafore--from the sideboard and into her palm, then into her dress pocket. "Our parents are feeling particularly sour today."
"We knew it couldn't last," agreed a second voice. Their middle sister, Charisma, floated down the stairs as she came to join them in the foyer. Why did only Grace's feet make pounding noises, when Grace was the smallest? Charisma, with her strawberry blond hair and blue-green eyes, had always been both pretty and graceful. All Charisma ever wanted had been tact.
Like now. Even now, Grace felt a stab of panic at her middle sister's words. "What couldn't last?"
Mama and Da?
"How happy everyone was after Will announced our engagement." Charisma cocked her head at Grace's visible upset. She had not meant anything upsetting, after all--she had improved in charm, lately. "We keep thinking that if we can only put Mama at ease about our prospects, she might stop fighting with Da, but I'm beginning to wonder if it is of any use at all."
But... it just had to help the problems between their parents! Belle would be marrying the son of a British viscount, and Charisma was engaged to a fine lawyer who had very nearly won the recent Senatorial race. Their mother's fervent wish for them to escape their past as the children of a struggling miner, living in a company shanty, seemed to have been granted.
Really truly granted, considering the wishes....
But Belle and Charisma were not the only Sullivan girls who had wished themselves a better future the previous spring, out amongst the twisting red-rock formations in the nearby Garden of the Gods. The particular stone the sisters had wished at was the Three Graces, a triple spire said to represent the idealized images of Beauty, Charm, and Grace. Since beauty, charm, and grace were exactly what the Sullivan sisters needed, their wishes had made sense. Better yet, over the last year they seemed to be coming true!
Just like magic, Grace thought, and as ever, the thought pleased her.
Belle had found both inner and outer beauty with the help of the Honorable Christopher Stanhope.
Charisma had found direction, and a far sweeter nature, on the arm of William Barclay, a senator's aide.
"It's because I still don't have a beau," she admitted, reaching among the collection of sleek figurines to help Belle with the clean-up. "Once I win someone Mama approves of--"
"Of whom Mama approves," corrected Charisma smoothly.
"--then perhaps she'll truly believe that Da hasn't ruined our chances at happiness, and they can love each other again. I just need to become more graceful, the way you--"
But even as Grace spoke, her anxious hand accidentally nudged over another figurine. Its arm snapped off on impact.
Grace bit her lip and tried not to let her upset crawl out of her throat. This was her fault. Her sisters did not have this problem. And yet...
She tried so hard!
"Here, dearest." Charisma carefully guided Grace's hand out of the pastoral display of now-wounded porcelain figures and handed her the book to hold. "Let me do that."
As Belle finished clearing the fragments and dust left by the book's initial impact, Charisma scooted several of the figurines around so that there were no empty spots in their arrangement. After a moment's consideration, she turned the wounded goose girl away, so her missing arm didn't show, and tucked that extra arm into a ceramic milkmaid's pail. "There. Mama rarely pays attention to all the knickknacks she buys; she should never even notice. We simply need to speak to the housekeeper and ask her not to point it out herself. Why don't I do that?"
Charisma truly had become increasingly adept at negotiation. As a politician's wife, she would have to be.
"Your wishes were granted," Grace reminded her sisters in a low voice. Nobody but the three of them knew what they'd truly wished on that fateful picnic, after all. Well, them and the Three Graces. "Belle got prettier, and won Mr. Stanhope. And Charisma learned to be more charming and caught Mr. Barclay. If I can just learn to be more graceful, then perhaps I'll find a man Mama approves of just as much."
"Of whom Mother approves," corrected Charisma--but she seemed to be sharing a secret glance with Belle.
"And then she can be happy," Grace finished, but with increasing suspicion. "What is it?"
Belle hesitated, but Charisma confessed. "We think your help may be en route."
"It was meant to be a surprise," added Belle.
Charisma said, "Mama has sent for a teacher, all the way from Paris! She should be here by month's end."
Grace blinked at them. She knew she should celebrate receiving help at last--but instead, she felt oddly like an old boot, dropped off at the cobbler without its consent. That was silly. Of course she wanted help. Except....
"It's not just for the clumsiness," Belle assured her.
"Oh no," Charisma added. "Comtesse Arabella is a connoisseur of feminine comportment."
"Kit doesn't now her," admitted Belle. "But he says there are a great many noblewomen he doesn't know, despite the rumors."
Kit was Belle's fiancé, and Grace liked him. He was certainly proof that coming from a noble background wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Comtesse Arabella," Grace repeated carefully, and it did sound like a terribly graceful name. "Do you think she can truly help? Even me?"
"It has not escaped us," explained Belle, lowering her voice, "that neither Charisma nor I managed our transformations alone. I had the help of Miss Keithley, and of the dressmaker, Madame Aglaia."
"And I received assistance from the Widow Pappadopoulos," added Charisma. "So if our wishes really are being granted, why would you not receive help too?"
"Comtesse Arabella," repeated Grace, more hopefully. "She may make me elegant yet!"
"If that's what you really want," said Charisma. But of course it was what Grace wanted. To no longer embarrass her family. To win a socially acceptable husband so that Mama would stop worrying. To--
A door slammed open from the dining room, full proof that the task of easing Mama's worries would be a challenging one.
"Bringing all manner of rough men into our home!" Mama exclaimed, sailing ahead of their new cook in the direction of her husband's office. "Does he not have a care for his own daughters or their fragile reputations?"
Belle and Charisma exchanged another secret look at that. Then Belle, in several long strides, intercepted their mother's latest complaint. "Mama? Whatever's the matter?"
"Your father is the matter!"
Charisma whispered, "As if we expected anything else."
Grace bit her lip and stayed silent.
"He has the audacity to invite ne'er-do-wells to waltz right in off the street, as if they belong here! What would either of your good affianced husbands think, should they come to visit and find ruffians amongst us? What might become of poor Grace's reputation?"
Actually, ruffians sounded interesting. Grace stopped worrying her lip so hard, and glanced again at Charisma.
"Ruffians, Mama?" asked Grace's middle sister. "On [Whatever Street--Cascade Avenue? Wood?"
"Begging your pardon, ma'am," murmured their latest cook. The dark-haired, matronly woman had come all the way from one of Denver's elite restaurants to work for them. She had a long and foreign-sounding name, so everyone except Charisma--who felt strongly about things like equality--called her Cook. "He did come to the back door, instead of the front."
For all her faults, Mama--who'd once had to work as a domestic herself--rarely condescended to the servants. She simply answered, "He ought not be coming to this house at all, and even Mr. Sullivan should know that much!" Then she continued her march toward the den. "MISTER SULLIVAN!"
Grace saw both Belle and Charisma wince. She suspected their fiancés, were they here, would be as taken aback by Mama's bellow as they would by the presence of ruffians. Not that they would hold either Mama or ruffians against the women they loved; they'd already proved that much.
Grace loved watching how in love her sisters were. But her parents....
The door from Da's den slammed open, and the battle royale began. "Bridey Sullivan, you can call me Paddy like you always used to do, or Patrick if you're of a mood, but otherwise you can keep your tongue in your head! This is my home. I'll not be referred to as if by one of my employees!"
Which, sadly, was just the opening Mama needed. "If this is indeed your home, sir, then why would you invite some common gold-miner to bring his business here? Surely the mining offices are a far more appropriate place than this quiet haven which I have struggled so valiantly to provide for your innocent daughters."
Da strode around the foot of the staircase to the foyer, clearly looking for somebody. "Erikson's here?"
"I asked him to wait in the kitchen." Mama put her hands on her hips in full challenge.
Even when Da slowly turned back to her, full Irish rage in his face, Mama hardly flinched. She only flinched--briefly--when Da roared, "YOU-DID-WHAT?"
Then she launched her own counter-attack, and even the promise of ruffians couldn't protect Grace from that sick, dizzy feeling she got when they yelled like this. Her parents had magnificent voices, shaking the chandeliers, bouncing off Mama's hundreds of knick-knacks, echoing from the shelves and paintings and dark-paneled walls.
Cook backed carefully away toward the kitchen.
"Come along, Grace," murmured Belle, herding her sisters up the stairs. "We should give them privacy."
"And hope that Kit and Will don't show up until the storm passes," muttered Charisma.
Clutching her book tightly to her stomach, like she might a favorite doll, Grace followed miserably up the stairs, only occasionally stepping on her sisters' skirts--they were adept at sweeping hems neatly out of her path. If becoming graceful and winning an advantageous beau would help keep Mama from blaming Da for everything, then she longed to do just that. She had to! It was her duty.
But she had to wonder why Cook, lingering in the doorway by the dining room, smiled slowly up at her as if in silent encouragement.
* * *
When Jon Erikson first saw the house--a tall brick mansion, really--he wondered if he should even have come. He was looking for one of his father's old friends from the men's younger days back East, not for a millionaire silver-king! That's why he'd gone around to the back door, for fear that he'd gotten the wrong house.
But the cook assured him that this was indeed Mr. Patrick Sullivan's home and sent for Mrs. Sullivan. That's when the trouble started. Mrs. Sullivan was dressed to the nines--was that normal for the middle of the day, even in a mansion? Jon reckoned so. From the way she looked him over, his own clothes--good, sturdy jeans, work boots, suspenders and a chambray shirt--clearly were not.
It unsettled him, her displeasure. Normally women of all ages took an immediate shine to him.
"Mr. Sullivan left word at his office for me to come here," he explained carefully, trying not to let any trace of his parents' immigrant lilt color his words. He was dark-blond, for a Swede--his hair closer to honey than buttermilk--but she would likely guess his background from his name. An accent, on top of it, would likely seem as ugly to a society lady like this as if he'd tracked in mud on his boots. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"How could he?" demanded Mrs. Sullivan--startling Jon with her full Irish brogue. Then she simply turned and stalked away, as if hunting something. He pitied that something. Mrs. Sullivan's voice echoed back at them. "Mr. SULLIVAN!"
The cook placed a mug of coffee and a plate with several pastries onto the kitchen table, an apologetic look on her face. "Please, Mr. Erikson, have some refreshments while we fetch the master."
So he sank into the indicated chair, which felt too small for him, and he listened to the fight echoing back at him from the front of the mansion. It was raw enough to have garnered wagers, if he could have guessed a winner... and if anybody were around to cover him.
And Jon ate. He wasn't such a fool as to turn down good food. One sip of the richest coffee to ever caress his tongue, and one taste of the gooey, flaky, nuts-and-honey strewn pastry made him glad for that policy.
After all, he had no reason to concern himself with the Sullivans' lives. One of the things he most loved about prospecting was that it kept him from the snare of trying to impress fancy society types like Mrs. Sullivan.
Or, considering her own volume and accent, like Mrs. Sullivan pretended to be.
The lady's complaint, from what Jon could hear, was that Mr. Sullivan ought to conduct his business at the mine office. He certainly should not invite riffraff--like Jon, apparently--into the delicate confines of her home. It seemed they had daughters to worry about. Apparently those daughters had beaus who would prefer not to rub elbows with a common laborer.
It was enough to make Jon consider shouldering his pack and heading out. He wouldn't stop until he found a camp somewhere in the mountains above Colorado Springs, away from such petty worries. But he'd promised his father, and Jon kept his promises.
Besides, the mountains were right cold, this time of year. No reason to head out on an empty stomach.
Mr. Sullivan's position was that he'd bought the blasted house and thus could invite anyone he chose, and that their daughters had the sense to differentiate between good men and bad by better proof than their clothing, praise God--and speaking of God, which one of His angels or the saints gave Mrs. Sullivan the right to mistreat his invited guests?
That sent them into a fracas about Mr. Sullivan's behavior at her parties, and why people rarely attended.
Jon sighed, chanced distracting God with a quick thanks that he was unmarried, and took another bite of pastry.
Then he noticed a little boy staring at him from behind a cracked doorway. Cute kid. Black hair in long, loopy curls. Large black eyes with thick, black lashes. Button nose with freckles. Maybe seven years old.
Before Jon could even offer the child a pastry, the boy noticed his attention. His eyes, against all probability, got even wider--
Then he was gone. The door, either to a pantry or a cellar, stood cracked but empty.
In the meantime, the Battle of the Sullivans had turned. Mrs. Sullivan screamed that her husband cared nothing for his girls or their future. Mr. Sullivan asked God never to let him care so selfishly that it meant scorning good, working-class men--and he asked it loudly enough, Jon suspected God Himself might hear the request personally. One door slammed. Another door slammed. Something broke.
Silence descended over the house while Jon sipped more coffee. Then a moment later, the door to the dining room opened and the cook reappeared. "Mr. Sullivan will see you now," she announced as he rose.
He nodded, and started to follow her out, checking to make sure he hadn't tracked in mud. On second thought, he veered back to the table to grab the second pastry and stuffed it in his mouth as he passed.
He never ate this well in the gold fields.
By the time they reached the hallway outside Patrick Sullivan's office, Jon had not only swallowed the treat, but wiped his big hands carefully on his jeans. He might be riffraff, but at least when he shook hands with his father's old friend, who emerged from the office to greet him, he wasn't sticky. "Hello, sir," he greeted. "I'm--"
"Erikson!" exclaimed Patrick, surprising him with a quick, hard hug. "Even if I were nae expecting you, it's recognizing you I'd be; you're the image of your da, sure enough."
Maybe in appearance. But Jon's father had made mistakes that Jon himself meant to avoid. "Thank you. Pa remembered you fondly, too." He swallowed back the catch that sometimes hurt his throat when he thought of the letter he still carried, informing him of his father's death. "When I told him I was Colorado bound, he made me promise to find you and--"
But the strangest thing interrupted him. It was a book. A large book. And it plummeted down onto the carpeted stairway and then bounced, beside the two men, as if from the sky. It bounced.
"Oh!" exclaimed a female voice, from the same direction.
Jon and Mr. Sullivan looked at each other and then, as one, leaned over the banister to look up the stairs. Past the first landing. Past the second. All the way up to the top floor.
A red-haired girl was hanging precariously by one arm, all petticoats and blue skirt and white-stockinged legs, easily twenty feet above them. "Oh dear!" she moaned.
Then her hand slipped, and with a cry she plummeted after her book.