Stars Awry Ch. 03

“I have lived next to this guy for five years,” Ben deadpanned. “I thought his name was Sean. I call him Sean. His name in my phone book is Sean. I’ve been to his apartment. We’ve had drinks together.”

“And?” Kevin urged, stifling a chuckle as he looked between the patient on the bed and his boyfriend Mark next to him. He had returned home that morning after completing his photoshoot and had not stopped asking questions.

“His name is Bruce.” Ben’s sigh sounded despondent. “His dog is Sean.”

Isabel paused at the doorway, having just opened the door. She frowned at her brother, before looking behind her at Brandon.

“Is he still delirious?” she whispered to him. Brandon rolled his eyes, shutting the door behind him. Ben looked at them, breaking into a ridiculous grin.

“There you go,” he said. “Now it looks like the final scene of a movie. Everyone’s here, surrounding the dying hero.”

Susan momentarily peered over the book she was reading, promptly disappearing behind it again. Everyone indeed was there, from Emily to the four lads to Kevin. Isabel quickly scanned the room before stepping back and pulling her jacket closer around herself.

“You seem better,” Brandon observed. It had been a week since the accident, his wounds were healing well, and physical therapy was due to start in another week. Dancing was out of the question for the next few months but he could not wait to walk again. It was as uncomfortable for him to be indisposed as it was for everyone else to watch him in that state.

At least his spirits were still high.

“I am, thank you very much.” He chuckled, resting his bandaged head against the ergonomic pillow behind him. “Louis said you guys cried because you thought the band was ending.”

“No,” Kyle shook his head. “Because we were worried about you and not because we thought the band would end.”

“Not again,” Isabel groaned, turning around. She’d had enough of that breakup talk for one lifetime. At a time when pop music kept growing worse by the day, Pentoniac was the only band that still made moving, meaningful, poetic songs. But it was more than just the music. It made them one, kept them close, and gave them fulfilment. It was about being together, sharing the same joy and memories.

“Get over it, Izzi,” Ben smiled. “It isn’t ending. We have at least another ten years.”

“I agree.” Nathan smiled, walking over to the side of the bed and holding one of his hands in brotherly warmth. “You must get better soon, and then we will be raring to go into another decade.”

“Oh, he’s alright,” Susan chirped from behind her book. “He made me sneak in three ice-creams today and ate them all from my hand.”

“Susan…” Emily looked shocked as she sighed, shaking her head. 

“I was merely getting back at you for the time you made me boil spaghetti at three in the night while you read aloud from Wikipedia,” Ben cleared his throat. “‘Contrary to popular belief, the black widow spider doesn’t always kill and eat her male. If she’s been recently fed, he might be allowed to live’.”

“I would break your head if it was not already broken,” she muttered under her breath, quickly hiding behind her book again. 

“Why would you need spaghetti at three in the night?” Mark frowned.

“Because she hadn’t eaten all day,” Ben answered. “And the hunger pangs wouldn’t let her sleep.”

“She’s a good match for you,” Isabel said. Ben shifted slightly and laughed.

“Yes, like you were always the perfect match for him,” he pointed at Brandon. “Has peace returned to paradise?”

“You don’t have to concern yourself with us at the moment.” Brandon crossed his arms. “You have yourself to think about now.”

“That’s what I always do, Fletcher.” His gaze switched between his sister and her husband. “When are you having children? Jay and Max are almost a year old now. You’re behind.”

“Well…” Brandon looked down at the floor, the abruptness of the question suddenly drawing all attention to them. “When we got married, she’d said she would kill anyone who asked her that.”

“Too bad I’m already half dead.” He chuckled deliriously. “Come on, I want a following of my own. When your children are older and hate you for ruining their life, I’ll still be cool Uncle Ben.”

“And that’s the most important thing.” Mark rolled his eyes. “If they have a son, you’ll probably teach him how to pick up girls.”

“Don’t you dare,” Brandon raised an eyebrow.

“Are you saying I don’t have taste?” Ben gestured at the sofa. “I have excellent taste.”

Their eyes settled on Susan. The quintessential British lassie frowned at them.

“What?” Her husky voice came out in a squeak. Slowly shaking his head, Ben looked at Isabel again.

“So, as I was saying,” he continued. “It’s time you had children. Enough to fill that mansion of yours.”

“I need some air,” Isabel turned, reaching for the doorknob. Brandon held the door open for her.

“I’ll come with you,” he said with a smile. “Would you like to get a coffee?” He asked when they were in the hallway. “There’s a Costa right around the corner.”

“Sure,” she nodded, fishing the woollen gloves out of the pocket of her fleece-lined leather jacket and slipping them on. It was mild that evening, clear sky adorned with twinkling stars and the full moon. Pentoniac performed their first gig as a quartet the other night at Colchester Castle, where fans had held up banners that screamed ‘We miss Ben’. Since he returned from the show, Brandon had been quiet and pensive. A part of Isabel wanted to know what was coursing through his mind but the other part of her gave him the space he needed after a tragedy that had rocked them.

Things had been less tense between them that week. He had cared for her through her cycle, looked after the house without being asked to, and remained home with her as best as possible. The press conferences, interviews, and endless questions from all corners had drained them. Isabel was glad he could let go with her, stripping off the façade, the makeup, and the fancy clothing to reveal the man that wanted to break down and cry.

They got a coffee each at Costa, and Isabel suspiciously watched her husband put two cubes of sugar in his drink before reaching for a third. She was quick to pick the extra sugar out of his coffee and put it into hers. Brandon said nothing, only fondly laughed.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he took her hand and led her out onto busy Westminster. It was surprising that he wanted to walk. He usually took his car if she sent him to buy bread from the supermarket a block away from their flat. Brandon looked around them for oncoming traffic, before crossing the street.

“To the riverbank,” he replied, letting go of her hand when they were on the sidewalk. “Years ago, when I first came to London, Ben had enlightened me that this was one of the most romantic places in the city.”

“It is,” Isabel agreed with a smile. “But I thought sitting on the banks of Lough Gill or watching you sing on Friday nights at Bohemia was more romantic.”

“I was sad when that place closed,” he nodded, taking the first sip of his coffee to realise it was still too hot. “What’s Hunter up to these days?”

“I have no idea. He left Sligo, I heard.” Leaning her elbows on the metal rails, she stared at the shimmering reflection in the water. “You wanted to buy that place, didn’t you?”

Brandon chuckled. “I changed my mind later because I didn’t have what it takes to run a coffee shop.” He held the tumbler between his hands, warming his palms. “We used to stop for hot chocolate there whenever we went to the woods for a ride.”

“Irish hot chocolate,” Isabel noted.

“Yeah…” He smiled. “The hot cocoa and cookie combination there was good, but we were never able to make them understand that the two should arrive at the same time.”

“I know, right?” she laughed. “Most of the time we ended up bringing the cookies home.”

“Remember when I fell from Carlton Flight, hurt my back, and broke my ankle?”

“I remember that distinct crack of bone more than anything.”

“That was painful,” he winced. “I cannot imagine how much more painful it must be for Ben.”

When Isabel looked at his face, a thousand emotions seemed to be running around in his head. His eyes were dazed, slightly lost, as he stared at the illuminated embankment, hands unconsciously rolling the tumbler between them. She took a swig of her own drink and looked away, ignoring the way her throat tightened the more she stared at him.

“It’s all an illusion,” he finally said, his gaze unwavering. Isabel frowned.

“What is?”

“Our lives.” Sipping his coffee, he rolled it around in his mouth before he swallowed. “Nothing is permanent.”

He glanced at her and nodded. “We needed this.”

“Needed what?” she asked.

“Ben’s accident.” His sigh was heavy. “After ten years in the business, we’ve got egos. Maybe nothing outrageous but it’s still there. We keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’re the biggest pop act of the UK, we’re worth 20 million euros, we don’t give a damn.'”

Pausing, he breathed out a noisy exhale. Isabel waited for him to carry on.

“This was like being knocked to the ground,” he murmured. “Somewhere down the line, we’d forgotten to stop and sort our priorities. We gave everything to the band. And suddenly, here we are, on the verge of losing one-fifth of the band, a close friend, a brother.”

He closed his eyes, as if at the same time both willing and unwilling to relive the memory. “It made me realise how utterly mortal we all are.” His voice was gruff with emotion. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve sold thirty million albums or if we hold two world records. The show will end, the fame will fade, the crowds will not remember us one day. And then it will all come down to what’s really important in life.”

Isabel saw him blinking back tears as he took a small sip. It made her heart ache. “This is Ben we are talking about,” he added. “The most genuine, unselfish person I’ve ever known. He isn’t in the band because of the money or the fame or the fan following. He doesn’t care if he gets the second lead or the third lead or just the chorus. He sings for the sheer joy of it. He dances because he wants everyone to join him… I’m not ashamed to admit that he’s more a brother to me than my own brothers.”

“He is getting better…” she said quietly. “It won’t be long.”

“It isn’t just that.” Taking two long gulps of his coffee, he swallowed slowly. “It could have been anyone. It could have been me, it could have been you, it could have been Nathan or Kyle or Mark.” Turning, he leaned his back against the rails. “Pentoniac is our job. We have established ourselves as singers and can continue to have a career in music if the band ends. But the loss of a loved one… that’s devastating. Life doesn’t remain the same anymore.”

“It’s funny how a close encounter with death changes our whole perspective,” Isabel’s smile was sad and brittle. “I’ve been through it twice.”

“That’s what has made you so much stronger than us.” He looked at her face, his brow furrowing. “You’ve been calmer than all of us through this.” The words were punctuated with a sip of coffee. “Either that or you’ve been hiding it inside.”

She closed her hands around the tumbler, shivering when the nippy air stroked her face. Her eyes drooped when an arm came around her, drawing her against a strong, leather-clad torso.

“I’m sorry about everything,” he said, using a finger to move a stray lock of hair from her face. “We’ve been busy planning the tenth-anniversary tour, and it hasn’t left us with much time for anything else. I know you’ve been home alone, going through the daily grind without me any help… I know sometimes I don’t even have the time for a long phone call. Your temper is understandable.”

“It’s alright.” She nodded up at his beautiful face. “I promised to support you in all that you did.”

“And I vowed to give you a good life. Not a lonely, miserable one.” He put down his coffee and cupped her face with both hands. “Marriage requires two people and I haven’t done my part as much as I should have. That day when you said you no longer care…”

He swallowed, his eyes turning a shade darker. “Do you still love me, Izzi?” he rasped. “Am I still the man you trusted with your life?”


“No, tell me, please. I want you to talk to me. It’s always been easy for you to give up and pull away, retreat into your shell, turn your back on the world. But you know you can be honest with me. If your heart’s not in this anymore–”

“You are a pop star. You are micromanaged. You cannot do anything to make your life less hectic. Talking about it is pointless.”

“No,” he growled. “There are things I can do but never have. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose our marriage or the faith that you had in me.”

“I still do.” Isabel’s shoulders sagged. “I’m just tired of trying to make things the way we want them. You aren’t like other husbands. It’s unfair to expect you to give me the kind of time that other men can devote to their wives.”

“So you’re validating my faults?”

“No, just accepting what cannot be changed.”

“Distance affects relationships. You get used to living on your own, knowing you cannot depend on your spouse to be present.” Moving away, he rested his arms on the rails, eyes gazing down into the water. “You’ve always been on your own, too comfortable with loneliness. When we fell in love, I wanted that to change. I never wanted you to be lonely again. But then we exploded onto the music scene and our private lives suddenly ceased to exist.”

She touched his back, trying to feel the contours underneath. “Just because you have a high-profile career doesn’t mean I’m going to love you any less.”

“You were so young when you married me.” His lips swooped down and pressed against her brow in a warm kiss. “You gave up the world you knew to be part of my world. You got tied to my life, the pressures of my career, the public scrutiny, and unwanted attention. And you endured it without a complaint.”

“I knew what I was getting into.”

“Yes,” he sighed. “But no woman dreams of an empty bed when she gets married.”

“You’ve been good to me,” she said. “You gave me a comfortable life with the luxuries I could never dream of. I can’t complain about your career. It’s given us the comforts we enjoy.”

“It’s easy to confuse between who we are and what we are, sweetheart.” Brandon picked up his coffee again, pulling open the lid. “It almost seems like I expect you to find solace in the luxuries and comforts when I’m not around. I know other women would do that. Ginny spends ten thousand euros every month on clothes. Rose takes luxury holidays. Even Kevin has started to spend more than he used to since he moved in with Mark.” Raising a hand, he wiped his mouth. “Not you, though. You don’t live or act like a multimillionaire’s wife. We have taken only three holidays so far, and one of them was our honeymoon, and you returned empty-handed from all of those vacations.”

Gulping down the remainder of the coffee, she smiled. “You’re my childhood friend. I’m not with you for your money.”

“I know.” Closing the lid of the tumbler, he put it away. “But you’ve been through terrible things in life. You deserve all the happiness.”

“That’s the only reason, huh?”

“Certainly not.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “You are a very special woman. I’m sorry I’m not around to remind you of that more often.”

Shaking her head, she pulled her arms around her body. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not here, not now. Can we go home? It’s getting colder.”

“Yes. Let me…” He fished out his phone and quickly messaged Nathan that they were leaving. “Would you like to get some Chinese takeaway?”

“I can cook,” she offered.

“You can but you will not.” He held her hands, kissing her knuckles through the gloves. “We’ll get takeaway, open our favourite wine, and take a candlelit bath before bed.”

He saw Isabel’s eyes widen. “A bath?”

“Yes. In the big hot tub that we have at home.”

“We haven’t done that in a while.”

“I know. I want to change that tonight.” Holding her close, he let his hands drift past her waist and settle on her hips. The way tension coiled in her muscles was heavenly. “We leave for Dublin in two days. I don’t think we can spend much time together in the weeks to come.”

“I wanted to stay back and look after Ben,” she murmured.

“He will be moved to Sligo once he’s able to walk,” he filled in. “Emily and Elsa are enough to handle him. And then there’s Susan.”

“While I am needed to handle you?” she quirked an eyebrow.

“Oh, yes.” His voice dropped, turned slightly husky. “All of me.”

At his words, Isabel’s eyes lowered bashfully. Brandon smiled, turning his head to gaze at the hospital in the distance. He had faith in that institution. They had given her a new life ten years ago, and he was certain they would do the same for Ben.

“Everything will be alright,” he said to her. “Never stop believing.”

She nodded, wordlessly assuring him that she would not. They picked up the empty tumblers and started to walk down the South Bank, leaving the bustling streets of Westminster behind.

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