It was an unusually pleasant midsummer’s eve.
As the starlit sky awaited the rise of the moon, the shadows of the trees danced upon the red picket gate of the Carlton Lodge, the amber glow of the streetlight reflecting into the dusk. From inside the house came the music of laughter, familiar voices that held the promise of home and belonging.
Yet, as the perfume of the fresh blooms carried on the crisp, gentle breeze, it awakened deep inside the nagging ache Brandon had fought all day.
“You’re missing her.”
His best friend’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. He looked over his shoulder as Ben came up to stand next to him on the small patio, a glass of Black Velvet between his fingers, his tall, lean frame perfectly adorned in a tailored suit. Earlier that morning, Brandon and his immediate family had returned from a night of celebration at Lillie’s Bordello in Dublin in honour of his 21st birthday. Later, as guests started to trickle into his parents’ house, the absence of the one person he wanted to see made all the joys seem incomplete.
Ben stood beside him in silence, both of them staring at the swaying trees. Many moons ago, their mothers were carrying them at the same time, forging their brotherly bond even before they came into the world. The Barretts and Fletchers had always been close, but someday in the not-so-distant future, they hoped to be a family, officially.
Brandon took a swig of his whiskey, rolled the drink in his mouth, and swallowed to moisten his throat.
“Did she call you?” he asked his raven-haired friend. Ben shook his head.
“I think she needs the space,” he answered. “Things have been overwhelming her lately.”
“Including me,” Brandon rued, staring inside his glass. Ben gave him a fleeting look.
“My sister was always different, and you knew that. She isn’t Ginny. She isn’t going to fawn over your sudden wealth.”
“I only wanted her to have nice things.”
“You said you wanted her to look expensive.”
Brandon’s skin tingled. “I did not say that.”
“You implied it.” Ben took a sip of his rich beverage. “There’s a lot on her plate right now. She’s just started at one of Britain’s finest colleges on a full scholarship, she’s living on her own, she accompanied you on our first world tour, she’s now known as your girlfriend everywhere, and she’s left the comfort of Sligo to return to the city where she almost died several times.”
He looked at Brandon’s sad face again. “And all you care about is your Ferrari.”
“You know it’s not true.” Brandon frowned at him. “But it’s my money. I earned it and I have the right to spend it the way I want.”
“You tell her that your money is her money too, but you have a problem when she expresses her displeasure about how you’re spending it. All she did was point out how impulsive and meaningless your purchase was. You didn’t have to pick a fight with her.”
“Just because I’m buying supercars doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my priorities. I bought my parents a house before I started splurging on fancy things.”
“But it makes her think you’re getting out of her league.” Ben sighed heavily. “We’re rich and famous now, and you, Kyle, and Nathan are blowing money on things that no one has ever owned in small-town Sligo or even Malahide. But she shouldn’t have to deal with your celebrity lifestyle when she’s starting a new chapter.”
And what a chapter it was. After having awed one of the oldest music colleges in the world with her grades and talents, she stepped out with him to three record label parties, four award functions, and two charity balls, unintentionally becoming the centre of attention with her poise, elegance, and breathtaking beauty. Hushed whispers wondering who she was went around whenever she was spotted with him at any event. Ginny called her a princess. Even Kyle failed to look away, forgetting that she was the same girl he had called a weirdo.
She had then gone on to win an Irish dancing contest with her fluid moves and innovative choreography, and if Brandon had not been in the audience bursting with pride, he would not have believed that her slender, graceful legs were powerful enough for such nifty footwork.
The high had ended with a steep fall. Brandon’s throat felt tight as he recalled her panic attack at his London apartment and the remote possibility that he was going to lose her when she could hardly breathe. “It was because of me, wasn’t it?” he spoke hoarsely. Ben did not misunderstand.
“No, not entirely at least.” Turning around, he leaned back against the railing and stared at the gathering inside the house. “We thought she was doing so well in her new life when she performed that piano sonata at her college auditorium, and then took part in the dance contest. But inside, it was probably getting too much for her, and she just…” He made a vague gesture with two fingers. “…snapped.”
Brandon swallowed hard. “I didn’t expect Louis to say that, you know. I couldn’t leave her in such a state, even if that made me late for an event, but it wasn’t the end of the world, right? The four of you reached the show on time and the interview wasn’t until much later. This is the first time I had a personal emergency and he showed great support by saying that we shouldn’t let girlfriends get in the way.”
His hands curled into fists. “I’m glad she doesn’t know about it. She’ll never want to come with me anywhere again if she hears what Louis said.”
“He is the same man who wanted us to be single,” Ben scoffed, bringing the glass to his lips.
“But she’s your sister before she’s my girlfriend,” Brandon retorted.
“He doesn’t care. He called Mark fat, called me lanky, gave Nathan grief over his teeth. Louis isn’t capable of sensitivity.”
Ben gave him a small smile. “You cried in the restroom, didn’t you?”
“I really thought she was going to die.”
“She was not, though I do agree it’s scary.”
“And to think she practically nursed me back to health when I was down with the flu last month.” Gulping the remainder of his drink, Brandon swallowed audibly. “Louis wanted me out of the hotel so you lads wouldn’t catch my sickness, and she was there for me to fall back on. She cooked for me, gave me the medicines on time, did my laundry, and even tucked me in and sat holding my hand while I napped. I don’t think my mother ever had that kind of time to look after me.”
He shook his head. “She’ll always come before everything else.”
“I’m not the one you need to convince, mate.” Ben slapped a hand to his shoulder. “Give her a call.”
“I tried. Couldn’t reach her phone.”
“She won’t be mad at you on your birthday, I’m sure.”
“Even if she is… I know I deserve it.”
“Every relationship needs this,” Ben reasoned. “The first big fight. At the risk of sounding like my mother, believe me when I say that you need moments of conflict just as much as moments of tenderness and passion. Love is about sticking through the ups and downs, facing the challenges and overcoming them.”
“Hey, Brandy,” Denise called out from the doorway. “When’s Izzi getting here?”
“I don’t know,” he snapped. That was possibly the hundredth time someone had asked him the same question within an hour. Denise stepped onto the patio.
“She isn’t coming to your birthday?” His sister asked, frowning at them in turn. “What happened?”
“Oh, boy.” With a small chuckle, Ben returned to the house. Brandon closed his eyes. Birthdays made Isabel sad. His family’s pride over him reminded her of the things she never had. Watching him and Kyle drink themselves into oblivion for fifty nights in a row broke her heart, and witnessing his show of wealth probably made her doubt her place in his life. She would never say it, but he had learned how to read the unvoiced thoughts.
“Brandy?” Denise spoke again. “Where’s Izzi?”
“In London, to the best of my knowledge.” He checked the display of his watch. It was the time she usually took a shower after dinner, and then sat on her flower-decked balcony reading until sleep overpowered her. Even without trying, he could see her long, damp hair flowing down her shoulders as she walked around her pretty little apartment in her dressing gown.
Cutting the cake without her had been painful, and as he blew out the candles, being with her tonight was all he could wish for.
A cool gust of breeze hit his face, ruining the stylish arrangement of his hair. Looking at the sky, he found the stars hidden behind the unexpected mountain of twisting clouds.
“Seriously?” He exclaimed to the world at large. “Couldn’t we have one nice evening without rain?”
“Well, come on in. It’s time to open the presents.” His sister grabbed his arm, giggling. “Wait till you see what Patrick got you.”
Behind him, wind-driven rain blew in fast, pelting on the lawn and blurring the serene views he had been enjoying for so long. Denise dragged him inside the house and shut the door, but Brandon could not take his eyes off the onslaught of the downpour and what seemed like a pair of headlights approaching the house.
He frowned. The last of the guests had arrived about an hour ago and they were not expecting anyone else.
His heart missed a beat as he reached for the doorknob.
“Close the door, Brandon!” Liam yelled from somewhere. “You’re going to flood the room.”
The words fell on deaf ears as he stared from the doorway, squinting when he saw someone behind the pall of rain. Within moments, as the vision cleared, his jaw dropped.
Isabel was pushing through the rain to unsteadily reach the patio, a duffel bag across her shoulder, water dripping from her hair, her black dress and sheer black cardigan. She stumbled near the railing, and Brandon rushed down the steps to hold her.
“Oh, hi Brandy. Can you believe all this rain?” She looked up at his face, blinking away the water that kept getting into her eyes. When he drew her to the shelter of the covered patio, she let the heavy bag drop to the ground. “I now know how Noah must have felt. Whew.”
She gave him a broad smile, and the shimmering dazzle of that radiant face blinded him. His eyes welled up as he wrapped her in his arms, if only to make sure he was not dreaming.
“Uh… Brandy,” she mumbled against his shoulder. “I’m very wet.”
“Oh, I can take care of that,” he whispered against her ear.
“Nothing.” He looked down and studied her face. “Are you alright?”
“Yes. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ve been worried about you.”
She knew what he meant. Life on the road had overwhelmed her more than she wanted to admit. The pace was frightening, the lights blinding, and the sight of hundreds of thousands of screaming women wherever the band travelled horrified her. But there were wonderful things about it too. Like sharing a room with him for the first time and their relationship finding more permanence. Like being considered a part of his life and that rollercoaster ride. Like the tingle of desire watching him all sweat-drenched on stage and the rush of sensation when he came backstage after a show and engulfed her in his arms, the feel of that warm, solid body enlivening her. Like the mad, hungry, all-consuming sex every day, finally being together as a formal couple, and no longer having to spend weeks and months apart.
Brandon cupped her face and claimed her lips, taking her breath away. His fingers crept into her hair, and she involuntarily circled her arms around his neck as they devoured each other.
“I thought you wouldn’t come,” he smiled through the tears in his eyes. “I missed you. Missed you so much.”
“I would never miss your birthday.” She smiled again, her bottom lip sliding between her teeth. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It was hurried and unplanned. I took a last-minute flight with the worst available seat, and–”
She sneezed into his shirt. Then turning away from him, she sneezed again. And again.
“Izzi!” Mairead stared from the doorway. “Holy Mary Mother of God, you’re soaked.”
She looked at her brother. “Where are your manners? Bring her in and let her dry off. I’ll get a towel.”
Brandon picked up her bag and led her into the house. Isabel gratefully accepted the towel and proceeded to squeeze the water out of her hair, sneezing a few more times. Nathan thrust his glass of whiskey into her hand.
“That should warm you up,” he said with a nod.
“Yeah, after she changes out of those clothes,” Ben added. “She looks like a drowned rat.”
“Better a drowned rat than no rat at all,” Brandon countered with a smile, watching her take a sip of the drink and roll her big doe eyes at him. “Got clothes in your bag? You can go upstairs and change.”
“And then you can tell us all about college!” Mairead beamed. “This is your first time home since you started.”
She nodded, putting the glass down. Brandon picked up her bag and followed her up the stairs, surreptitiously pulling her to a corner.
“What?” Isabel smiled, staring into his eyes.
He shook his head. There was so much going on inside him. He wanted to apologise again for his thoughtless comments, wanted to remind her of her place in his life, wanted to explain what it did to him to see her in the throes of panic. Wanted to admit how lucky he was to still be her one when she could have every man in London falling at her feet like ninepins.
But all that could wait. As of now, he was content holding her, kissing her senseless, and assuring himself that it was indeed happening. That the wish he made only a while ago was already in front of him.
“I’ve got something for you.” Isabel stepped into the guest bedroom and opened her bag to fish out a plain white envelope. She handed it to him and he carefully tore it open, revealing two tickets to the Royal Ascot Races– dress circle, no less.
His jaw met the floor again.
Isabel kissed his cheek. “Happy birthday, big boy,” she whispered, disappearing behind the door.
It was an unusually pleasant midsummer’s eve.