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The door of the huge, white Victorian opened and Brett "Sully" Sullivan walked in, his cowboy boots making a dull thud on the gleaming hardwood floor.
Standing in the middle of the great room, he seemed to be larger than life, larger than the room. He held his black cowboy hat to one side, nervously turning it between his thumb and index finger.
Lisa Phillips hadn't seen Sully in three years, and time had been good to him. His pitch-black hair was cut short with haphazard peaks on the top, and it gave him a devil-may-care look that fit his personality. Without the boots and hat and in his gray suit and maroon tie, he looked more like a lawyer than the bull rider that he was.
"Where's Rose?" Sully asked, his turquoise-blue eyes full of concern.
"She's in her room. My parents and your parents are putting her to bed," Lisa answered, spooning sugar into her coffee.
He nodded then shifted on his feet. He seemed not to know whether to stay or go. He probably wanted to retreat back into his motor home instead of trying to make polite conversation with neighbors and relatives who were paying their respects.
Lisa would just like to fly to some place tropical. Some place where she could soak up the rays and water on a beach and maybe stop crying.
"Is that coffee?" Sully finally asked.
"Yes. And it's hot and strong."
He pulled out a chair next to her and helped himself from the pot that someone had graciously put in front of her on a silver tray. She noticed that he drank his blackjust like a tough cowboy should.
Lisa thought back to the day of Rose's christening. She and Sully were Rose's godparents and it had been a festive affair. No, it was a festive weekendin direct contrast to today.
The evening of the christening, Rick and Carol, Sully's brother and her sister, had called a meeting with the two of them and asked them to be Rose's guardians in case something happened to them.
Lisa was stunned yet flattered that she had been chosen to see to Rose's upbringing.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Rick and Carol were gone now. Deceased. Their car had hydroplaned during a rainstorm and hit a bridge support. Rose was with them in the car, but she escaped without a scratch, safely belted into her car seat.
The realization that she'd never see her sister, Carol, again rocked her from her hair roots to her toes, and tears pooled in her eyes. When would she ever stop crying?
And Rose. She was an orphan now. And she and Sully were Rose's guardians.
He turned to her. His blue eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. For a second, she felt sorry for the cowboy. Rick was his brother and her brother-in-law. She had loved Rick, too.
"Remember sitting here three years ago?" she asked. "Rick and Carol had us sign guardianship papers."
"We're Rose's guardians now."
"I know." He pushed his cowboy hat back with a thumb. "I never thought in a million years that"
"Me, either. I'm not cut out to be a mother."
"I'll be the worst father in the world."
"What was my sister thinking?"
"My brother must have been drunk."
Lisa took a sip of coffee. It was too strong, so she added more cream. "What do we do now?"
"Damned if I know."
Lisa kicked off her heels and shrugged out of her black blazer that matched her black skirt. Sighing, she thought how she hated the suit, which she reserved for funerals.
In the mirror on the wall she noticed that her pale blond hair had frizzed in the drizzling rain at the cemetery. Her face looked drained of all color despite the makeup she'd applied.
She was trying to hold her emotions together, but she felt another wave of tears threatening. All she wanted to do was to find the nearest bedroom, pull the comforter over her head and sleep. When she woke, she'd find that all of this had just been a nightmare.
Before they could talk anymore, the doorbell rang and more neighbors arrived, carrying casseroles and cakes. Lisa let the capable Mrs. Turner from across the street handle everything, bless her.
As if someone had turned up the volume on a TV talk show, the high-ceilinged room came alive with noise. Both sets of their parents, Gordon and Betsy Sullivan and Clyde and Melanie Phillips, were deep in discussion. It soon reached a crescendo.
"We can take the child," Betsy said. "We have more than enough room at our Palm Beach condo. Eighth floor. Great views."
"You can't raise Rose in a condo," Melanie argued. "We live in a child-friendly commune in Kentucky. She'll have a lot of children to play with."
"And to dig a new outhouse with at your commune," Gordon added.
"How dare you!" Melanie pointed a finger at him. Former army colonel or not, she wasn't going to tolerate that kind of slam against her parents from Sully's father.
Sully stood up from the table, oozing authority. "That's enough," he said firmly.
Lisa nodded. "I don't want Rose to hear her grandparents snapping at one another. Rose's guardians have already been decided, and Sully and I are them!"
"I don't want any fighting," Sully said. "And I'm sure that you already know about Carol and Rick's wishes."
A deep voice cut through the noise. "I'm sure that they know, too."
Everyone turned in the direction of a distinguished white-haired man in a three-piece suit.
"I'm Carol and Rick's lawyer, Glen Randolph. I'm so sorry to interrupt, but my clients, who were also my good friends, warned me that this would happen. So while everyone is still here, I'd like to meet with Rose's grandparents and Brett and Lisa." The lawyer looked around at the guests who had stopped their conversations to listen. "Let's adjourn to Rick's office."
The capable Mrs. Turner waved them away and called for the remaining guests to help themselves at the buffet table.
Little Rose's relatives followed the lawyer soundlessly, single file.
After they all took a seat, they looked at him expectedly.
"Like I said, I'm Glen Randolph, and I was a personal friend of Carol and Rick." He paused, making eye contact with each of them. He opened an accordion folder and pulled out a handful of typed papers. "As you know, they named Brett and Lisa as Rose's guardians, and"
"Sully? Are you aware that my son lives in a motor home?" Gordon Sullivan interrupted. "He's a shiftless bull rider, for heaven's sake. He travels from one bull riding event to the next. What can he offer a three-year-old?"
Gordon's face was red, and Lisa thought he was going to have a heart attack. Although she wasn't a Sully fan, she didn't particularly like what Gordon was saying about him.
Oh, all right, she might as well admit that she thought the same thing about Sully.
Sully bit down on his lower lip. "Rick trusted me with his daughter. I won't let him down."
"And I won't let Carol down," Lisa added.
"How can you say that?" Her mother rolled her eyes. "You're just like Sully, Lisa. You can't stay in one place long enough to raise a child. You fly those diesel-guzzling biohazard planes all over creation. You pay good money for an apartment that you're never at. How do you expect to raise a three-year-old?"
I'm just like Sully?
"You two are going to make quite the couple," her father said.
"We're not a couple," Lisa stated.
"That's for sure," Sully added under his breath.
Sully tapped his fingers on Rick's desk. His large turquoise ring bobbed up and down. This was the same ring he had been wearing three years ago at Rose's christening. Lisa remembered it. Funny, she remembered a lot of things about him.
And even though she didn't care a fig about him, for some reason she looked for him on TV when the Professional Bull Riders events were on. He was riding hot lately and was near the top in the standings.
He couldn't ride and take care of Rose at the same time.
She couldn't fly and take care of Rose at the same time.
Lisa swallowed hard. She needed an income. She needed to fly. She was a pilot. That's what she did. That's what she was.
The lawyer continued, "I will be making surprise visits to ensure Rose is thriving under their care. This is as per the instructions of Carol and Rick. They have also left a generous stipend for the care of Rose, which I'll dispense monthly for her needs. Carol and Rick also requested that Rose be raised in this house and have left it to Lisa and Brett. It's paid in full. There is also a trust fund for Rose for when she either goes to college or turns twenty-one. They have also left a personal note for Lisa and Brett."
Mr. Randolph handed the letter to Lisa. "You might want to read it at a later date."
"Thank you," Lisa mumbled, looking at her name and Sully's written on the envelope in Carol's rolling script. Tears stung her eyes. She'd never be able to pick up the phone and talk to Carol again or hop a plane and visit whenever she needed a vacation or a "Rose fix."
"I know that this is probably overwhelming at this sad time," Mr. Randolph said. "But if Lisa and Sully decide that they cannot accept guardianship, or if they fail my evaluation, then Rose will be awarded to the grandparents. Six months with one pair, and then six months with the other."
The grandparents perked up, but Lisa was appalled. She had forgotten about the six-month split! That wasn't the answer, either. It would be too hard on Rose, too disruptive. Certainly everyone could see that!
Everyone except the grandparents. No doubt they were already mentally packing Rose's bags, certain that she and Sully would fail.
"Any questions?" Mr. Randolph asked.
"I'm asking the grandparents for their cooperation," Sully said. "Lisa, Rose and I need some time to get to know each other. We need time to adjust. So I'm asking that you all leave within a week's time. Feel free to call Rose anytime you'd like." He stood. "Anything you want to add, Lisa?"
"I think that's a perfect plan," she said.
"I'm hoping that you two succeed," her father said. "But we'll be ready anytime you need us. Just call."
Sully's mother fussed with one of her diamond studs. "I'll get Rose's bedroom ready at our condo. Just in case."
"Please, no more remarks like that," Lisa said, standing. "You must know that we'll do our best to raise Rose."
Sully's mother nodded. "You are absolutely right, Lisa. I apologize."
"Thank you," Lisa said, relaxing a little. "I know that you all have Rose's best interest at heart."
Lisa held the precious letter in her hand. Now that the sun was shining, she decided that she'd like to read it in Carol's beautiful garden in the backyard, where the spring flowers were blooming.
Carol always had a green thumb and had spent hours digging in the dirt.
Lisa would much rather skim the clouds in a jet than garden.
"I think we're done here," Mr. Randolph said. "I'll let you get back to your guests."
Lisa made her way through the crowd of people gathered in the house. Mrs. Turner and some helpers were busy refilling the buffet and picking up the discarded paper plates and plastic forks.
As she walked by the gathering around the buffet table, Lisa pasted on a smile, thanking people for coming and for paying their respects. They were a friendly crowd, and Lisa had a pang of regret that she hadn't made friends with any of her own neighbors in Atlanta, but it was near impossible considering her lifestyle.
She made her way out to the backyard to the garden. Sitting down on a concrete bench, she smiled at the little purple resin door in the tulip garden that said, "Carol's Garden. Fairies enter here."
Taking a deep breath, she inhaled the mix of floral scentsdaffodils, tulips and hyacinths. That was the part of living in the city that she missed mostthe spring flowers that bloomed after the snow. Soon the bulbs would die out and the perennials would bloom, and Carol's garden would be a riot of color and different scents.
Could she possibly keep up Carol's garden? She didn't know a weed from a potential flower.
Could she be a good mother to Rose? She didn't know that, either.
She stared at the back of the huge Victorian, admiring the turrets and the porches that jutted out. It had more rooms than most B&Bs, and she knew that Carol and Rick had wanted more children to fill those rooms.
Looking to her right, she saw a big statue of some goddessmaybe Athena, maybe not. Lisa didn't know her goddesses, but this one was emptying water from some kind of pitcher into a concrete pool.
Currently, Sully was roping Athena. He twirled a rope over his head, then he'd let it loose and it would fly, catching under Athena's breasts and above the pitcher. Every now and then, he'd stop and stare off into the distance, as if he were thinking.
He roped over and over again and stared, until finally he shook his head and walked over to where she was sitting.
"Mind if I sit down?" he asked, loosening his tie and undoing the first few buttons of his shirt. He tossed the rope on the ground.
"Are you done roping?" she asked.
"I always rope when I think."
She moved over to give him room on the bench. "I've been thinking, too."
"We have some decisions to make," he said.
"No kidding. Maybe I should learn to rope, too, so I can sort things out."
Sully raised a perfect black eyebrow. "I'll teach you. It's good therapy."
Why did he have to have eyelashes like paintbrushes? In contrast, she was pale and had to glob on mascara and eyebrow pencil to show that she even had lashes and brows.
His blue eyes met her dark green ones. "First of all, do you think we can work together? I mean, we don't even like each other. Rose will sense that."
He certainly believed in laying his cards on the table, didn't he?
Taking a deep breath, he continued. "We are two adults. And we both love Rose. And there's no way I want her raised by my parents. They're too controlling, especially my father. He always treated Rick and me like army privates. I can't see him with a little girl."
"I don't want her raised by mine, either. They're not controlling enough," Lisa said. "And we don't want her in a foster home with strangers. So we're all she's got."
"Poor kid." Sully smiled, and his eyes twinkled.
Lisa could understand why the buckle bunnies fell at his feet. The cowboy could be charming when he wanted to be.
"Yeah, poor kid," she agreed.
They shared a smile, and Lisa couldn't believe how much they'd agreed on in one sitting, unlike their past history.
Suddenly, Lisa's smile faded and tears cascaded down her cheeksnot for herself, but for Carol and Rick, who'd never see their little girl grow up. And for Rose, of course, who'd never know her parents.