Free to Love by Sydell Voeller
Austin started pacing, his hands linked behind his back. “The day I arrived here,” his words tumbled over themselves, “I told you about how he always wanted to be a firefighter, how he rebelled against our parents’ wishes, and how I supported him.”
“I didn’t tell you the entire story.” He stopped pacing and faced her squarely. “There’s a lot more.” His gaze flicked momentarily away. “You may remember my saying how I blamed myself that Kyle lost his life. Well, I think I’ve finally come to terms with that, just like I’m pretty sure you’ve come to better terms with your own grieving.” He faltered before going on. “I realize now—thanks to some terrific talks I’ve had with Ted—that regardless of anything I may have told him, the choice was ultimately Kyle’s.”
“Of course it was.” She swallowed hard. “Besides, he died doing what he loved the most.”
“But he also died knowing he was leaving you behind.” Austin’s face darkened. “Shortly before he asked you to marry him,” he continued, “Kyle came to me to ask a favor. My brother knew he’d chosen a high-risk profession and was concerned about your welfare if something should ever happen to him.”
She nodded. “Yes. We talked about that—but only a little.”
“Still, what you didn’t talk about, I know, was my promise to him.”
“What promise?” Apprehension, like spiked icicles, stabbed at her as she read the anguish mirrored on his handsome face.
“Kyle asked me to swear that I’d look out for you till you were back on your feet. Of course, at the time, I’m sure that neither of us believed that would ever really come about. A little denial can sometimes help take the rough edge off things, you know.”
“So that’s why you decided to stick around and help me?” she asked in a small voice.
“Yes. I have to confess,” Austin continued, “in the beginning, I did a pretty half-baked job of making good my promise. Every time I called, it sounded as if you had it all together. I figured you’d made the adjustment as well as could be expected, that there was no need for me to keep closer tabs on you.” He paused, studying her intently. “But when I arrived here in Southport, thinking I was only passing through town, I realized I made a humongous mistake.”
She forced her eyes from his. She felt a numbing sensation as the truth seeped in. So Austin’s concern had been driven by mere duty. And now he was still duty-bound. The yellow roses, the intimate dinners, the romantic walks on the beach . . . they’d all meant nothing.
“But why didn’t Kyle tell me this?” she asked.
“Kyle realize from practically the first day he met you that you were independent and proud. He believed if he explained about our agreement, you would insist it wasn’t necessary. That’s why I’ve held out till now too. I was afraid if you sent me away, I’d have lived the rest of my life wrestling with an even greater guilt—the guilt of knowing I shirked my responsibility.”
“So ultimately Kyle didn’t think I could make it on my own?”
“No, it wasn’t that exactly. He just loved you so much, Jo. He didn’t want to see you struggle unnecessarily.” His eyes locked with hers. “But now it appears you’ve gotten through it. You have a terrific job, new friends too. You’ve dedicated yourself to the things that mean so much to you.” He spread his hands. “And the work here is done. You can advertise for tenants any time now.”
“Yes.” She stood up too, hugging her arms about her chest. Tears burned at the back of her throat. If life was so wonderful, why was this foreboding dark cloud pressing down on her?