Breath by Breath Ch. 09
Morning dawned painfully late the next day. After spending much of the night staring at the ceiling, Brandon had fallen asleep in the wee hours, awakening at the stroke of seven. As excited as being in Pentoniac made him, he knew in another day or two, he would miss the slow days at home and the familiar comfort of his room. The thought did not help the nagging melancholy gnawing away at his heart.
He sat up in bed and reached for his phone, unable to get Isabel’s panic attack out of his mind. After hearing about it from Ben and his parents for the longest time, when he had finally experienced one of her episodes, it only made him more aware of her vulnerability. He had tried his best, clueless though he was, but he needed to know that she was alright. That the sudden onset of fear had not left her drained and ill again.
No, calling her was not enough. He decided to visit her after breakfast.
“What’s this?” He asked his mother when he was downstairs at the restaurant, his eyes on the pink baking tray on the counter. Mae gave him a glance and smiled.
“Breakfast muffins.” She filled the coffee machine to the brim. “Izzi brought them over.”
The mention of Isabel made a few butterflies take a test flight inside his stomach. “Izzi was here?”
“Still is. Killian dragged her to the barn.” His mother came up to the counter. “Don’t they look good? She made them for the first time and they are delicious. Mairead has already eaten two.”
“She… she made them?”
“Yes.” Mae laughed, handing him a muffin. Brandon took a bite, the most delightful mix of bacon, eggs, and peppers melting in his mouth. “And that’s not all.”
His mother reached below the counter and produced a small glass container. “She told me this is just for you and I should hide it from everyone else.”
“Whoopsie pies!” Brandon laughed as he opened the lid. “I haven’t had them in ages. Where did she find these?”
“Silly lad.” Mae tsked. “She made them for you.”
His mouth dropped open. “She really… made them… for me? But I don’t remember telling her that I love whoopsie pies.”
“She’s spent enough time with you to know what you love,” Mae smiled. “I always knew that girl has all the makings of a well-rounded woman. Give her some time and patience and she’ll reward you with the world. Oh, I’ve got something to show you.”
She fetched the newspaper from the pantry, shuffled through the sheets, and opened a certain page in front of him. “We didn’t even know until Tom got the paper on his way from London,” Mae smiled. “Take a look.”
He did. It was the Guardian, and that was Isabel’s winning entry for the writing contest. Brandon fought the sting of tears, even as the rich notes of chocolate and Irish cream coated his tongue. That was the most decadent whoopsie pie he had ever eaten. Those were the most moving words he had ever read.
“I’ll make you some coffee to go with that,” Mae offered, but Brandon shook his head.
“I’ll come and get it later.” He wiped his hands and his mouth and grabbed his jacket. On his way to the barn, he asked Fionn if Isabel was still around. His oldest brother pointed to the stables, where his son Killian was holding Isabel’s bare hand and showing off Carlton Blake, the new horse they had got for Brandon’s four-year-old nephew.
He blinked, trying to make sure his eyes were not fooling him. Over her dress and wool leggings was the red show jacket he had got her weeks ago. She looked like a Celtic goddess in it, and when she smiled at something the little boy said, the butterflies inside Brandon’s stomach went kamikaze.
The biggest horse at the stable, Carlton Diamond, craned its neck to seek her attention, and he watched Isabel take two steps to her left and stroke the snout of the animal. Diamond stooped lower, allowing her to hold its face with both hands and rest her forehead against its white star. Something about that poignant moment of connection made Brandon’s eyes misty.
Once Killian had hopped away to help his father with an errand, Brandon slowly approached her.
“He’s beautiful,” Isabel said when she sensed his presence behind her. Brandon glanced at Blake, smiling to himself when the animal affectionately nipped at her head.
“Congratulations.” He slid his hands inside the pockets of his jeans. “I always said you’d win, remember?”
“Yeah.” She held up a bunch of hay to the horse’s mouth. “A small victory in my otherwise grand tragedy.”
“Thanks for the whoopsie pies,” he added quietly. “People in London never have any idea what they are.”
“I would make it sooner, if they allowed me near the kitchen,” she explained, struggling a little when Blake snatched the hay away from her hand. “Elsa watched over me like a hawk the whole time I was in there.”
“I assume you won her trust?”
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re without your gloves.”
Slowly turning around, Isabel gave him a small nod. “I no longer need them.”
Brandon looked down at her hands and then back at her face. “I’ll be honest, I had no idea you could cook.”
“I sent some over to Mark and Kyle, too,” she said. “Ben polished off half a tray all by himself.”
Her head lowered. “You lads have been very good to me. I wanted to do something in return.”
He involuntarily thought back to all the times Kyle had been mean to her. Then he gave her a small smile. “Are you feeling better?”
She did not shake her head either way. “I slept for fourteen hours after you dropped me home. My head was killing me when I woke up.”
“You were probably dehydrated from the crying.”
“I scared you, didn’t I?”
He let out an awkward chuckle. “Put my heart crossways, yeah.”
“Thank you for staying with me,” came her quiet murmur. “And I’m sorry I couldn’t make the audition.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” He took a step closer to her. “It’s okay.”
“I didn’t mean to tell you all that.”
“I’m glad you did, all the same.” His gaze roamed across her pensive profile. “You know you can tell me anything and I won’t freak out.”
Isabel turned to face the enclosure again, reaching up to touch the snout of the horse. “Did I ever tell you that I love the way you treat your horses?” she said. “The way you feed them, pet them, call them by their names, make that clicking sound with your tongue to get their attention…”
When Brandon stepped forward to stand beside her, she looked fleetingly at him. “You’re such a kind, gentle person.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. You can always tell how a person is from the way he treats animals.”
Brandon reached out to stroke the horse’s mane, and his hand met that of Isabel’s. She did not flinch, did not resist. When he held her hand in his own, there was only warm acceptance.
“It must be awful for you to be in a big city,” she suddenly remarked. Brandon’s smile broadened.
“How did you know?”
“This is your life.” Her gaze quickly surveyed the barn. “The country, horses, land, open fields. I can imagine how suffocated you must feel in the city.”
He had never told her that. Never told anyone that he could not bring himself to settle in the city, away from the open, unadulterated beauty of the country. Away from the woods, the fields, the river, the barn. London was different. It was glamorous and expensive. But Carraroe was home. He was a free man here.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. I’ve never lived in a big city and I don’t think I can be comfortable living somewhere that doesn’t have this.” His eyes surveyed the place. “I’m happy my parents raised me in the country. Every child should experience something like this growing up.”
“I would have loved to experience this growing up. It’s easy and domestic and…” She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Reminds me of all that I never had in life.”
“This is not going anywhere, you know.” He tugged up her hood to see how large it was for her face. “You can have your fill of it all you want now.”
“I feel out of place.”
“Clearly the horses don’t think that.” He could not help laughing when Blake nudged her for more hay. Brandon picked up a bunch and the horse ate like it had starved for a century.
She bit her lip, trying and failing to blink back the tears. “I’ve never vented like I did yesterday,” she murmured. “When I woke up at the crack of dawn today, I felt lighter than I ever have.”
A small shiver ran down her body. “You’re a patient lad putting up with my baggage.”
Taking her hand again, Brandon pulled her away from the enclosure and into the corner. “Start by not looking back,” he said. “Look forward instead.”
“There’s nothing to look forward to,” she mumbled.
“There is. Your future. Our future.”
She looked at his face, surprised.
“You don’t know what you’re taking on,” she warned. “I’m like a can of worms. Once you open it, there’s no way to undo what you’ve done.”
He crossed his arms. “You’re doing a bad job of trying to scare me.”
“I’m not trying to scare you,” she amended. “Just reminding you of my reality.”
“I know your reality as well as you do,” he emphasised. “There are no secrets between us, Izzi. You can be an open book or an open can of worms, and I will still be madly in love with you.”
“Even though I’m not like other girls?” she countered. “I cannot show off my skin or go out to parties with you. The panic attacks may never go away. The scars will never go away. I may never be fit for–”
“You’ll always be fit for sharing my life.” Brandon tugged her closer, not caring if anyone saw them. “I know we have a long way to go, but I see my future with you.”
“You haven’t even seen what hides underneath these clothes.”
“I don’t need to, because that is not the measure of a person.”
He tenderly brushed a finger across her cheek. “No matter where I go or what I become in life, you’ll always be my girl.”
“Even when you’re a big celebrity?”
“Fame is not my goal. I love to sing. That’s the only thing I ever really wanted to do. It makes me happy.” With both hands, he held up her face. “And so does being with you.”
Laying a kiss on her forehead, he inhaled the beloved scent of her skin. “Because you’re the sweetest, purest, the most precious thing I’ve ever known.”
“It’s funny you think that.” She scoffed a little. “Someone once said that I was tortured because they were trying to exorcise the devil out of me.”
“Who said that?” He demanded, pulling away. “Was it Damien? Eric? Or that bastard Cailean?”
“I’m used to it, Brandy,” she pacified him with a gentle pat on his chest. “People will never stop talking.”
“And I’m quite ready to burst their faces if they talk like that about you. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you’re a person, just like any of us. The cheek of them to slag an innocent newcomer to the town just because they’re jealous.”
“Jealous?” Her eyes widened. “Of me?”
“Yes. Because you’re beautiful and brilliant.”
“And all yours,” she added. “It’s probably what bothers them the most. That you chose me over all other girls here.”
“Say that again?” Brandon held his breath, hoping he had not misheard her. Isabel looked confused.
“They’re probably jealous because you–”
“No, before that. What did you say you were?”
She paused. “All yours.”
Brandon was certain the butterflies were about to flutter up his throat. After staring at her face for a long minute, he threw his arms around her and pressed her to his chest, letting out the breath he had been holding in. He felt Isabel’s arms around him, his heart thumping against her ear.
“How did a farmer’s son get so lucky?” he wondered out loud. Isabel balled the hem of his jacket in her hand.
“I’m afraid.” She looked up at his face. “I don’t want you to regret this.”
“I’ll be the biggest fool if I regret having you in my life.” He choked out a small laugh. “I know I’m a dork, but I’m never going to be stupid enough to lose you.”
He shook his head, his face saddening. “I’m sorry, this may be hard for you.” Brandon gave her a watery smile. “But I’m always with you. I’ll protect you, keep you safe, never let any harm come to you. And when the thoughts overwhelm you, I’ll make sure to remind you to breathe until your mind slows down again.”
When he kissed the bridge of her nose, her lips were trembling. “One breath at a time, Iz. That’s all anyone expects us to do.”
“You’re too deep for a culchie sometimes,” she groused playfully. “I’m so proud of you.”
“And I’m proud of you.” He held her tight, marvelling at the way she fit into his embrace perfectly. “If anything had happened to you, neither Ben nor I would be in the band today. I mean, even Emily cried when you were in the hospital. And she’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”
She scrunched her eyes. “I feel terrible for all that they had to go through because of me.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” He chuckled when Blake craned his neck around the enclosure and nudged her with his mouth.
“He’s very affectionate, just like Carlton Diamond.” She cooed to the animal. “I tried petting Flight for a minute longer and he ducked behind the door.”
When the horse rubbed its face against her cheek, Brandon laughed.
“Look at that,” he deadpanned. “One woman at the stables and they lose all interest in the men.”
Isabel made a small noise, stroking the middle of Blake’s snout. “Are you competing with an animal now?”
He drew her back to himself. Isabel circled her arms around his neck, her fingers creeping into his hair. “It’s all fine and dandy how you love these boys here,” he teased, lacing his fingers against her lower back. “But I wouldn’t mind getting some of that attention myself.”
“So you are jealous of a horse?” Her tone was playful, their foreheads pressed together. “Would you like me to feed you some hay?”
“I’m sure you can make even hay tasty,” he giggled, dipping his head. Isabel welcomed his lips more eagerly than ever before, her hands tightly clutching the collar of his jacket as he tilted her backwards.
Liam passed them by, loudly clearing his throat. When they broke the kiss, he was shaking his head.
“There’s a child here,” he reminded them. “Go somewhere else and snog, you two.”
“Yeah, I still need to eat breakfast,” Brandon said, unable to take his eyes off her face. “And then we’re back to business. Okay?”
Her face lit up. “You’ll take me riding into Hazelwood? Then we can ride all the way to Mark’s house to see the donkey.”
Brandon rolled his eyes. “We have more important things to do than see a donkey.”
“I’m talking about the concert, Izzi.”
“I can’t do it,” she sighed. “I made a right bags of it yesterday.”
“You were just unprepared. My mistake. You needed more practice.”
“It wouldn’t have helped.” She shrugged, turning her face away. “I’m not fit to perform in public.”
“No.” Brandon asserted. “As I said, you just need more practice. Please don’t give up on yourself. I’ll help you.”
“Just watching me sing isn’t called helping.” She crossed her arms. “I require your active participation.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
She smiled quietly, and kissed his lips again. “I love you,” she whispered. “Now hurry. I can’t wait to see the donkey.”