Some Comfort Here Ch. 01

There was no sky today, only a rough woollen blanket of mottled grey that covered everything and blocked out the sun. The usual virescent hues of the countryside were muted to the point of dullness, with the wind slowly growing stronger.

Brandon zipped up the waterproof jacket he had slipped on when leaving home since it looked like rain. He was not going far, though. His mother had handed him a few bags of homemade potato crisps and wanted him to take them to his best friend Ben’s house only a few lanes away. He had only been too willing to do that, the reason why his mother had assigned him the errand. He had asked his sister to take over the counter at their family café and set out for Ben’s house, even though he knew his friend wasn’t home.

The wind was blowing leaves and all sorts of other things by the time he rang the doorbell of the single storey Craftsman-style house. It was a small house, with ivy-covered walls and box windows. Ben’s parents were educated and established, unlike his parents who had been running the restaurant since forever. But despite that, not only were the two families close like a tightly-knit sweater, but Dr Thomas and Emily Barrett were also one of the most humble and hospitable couples around, choosing to live in a simple house even though they could afford something bigger and better. They also had a rented apartment in London, where Ben was doing college.

The door scraped open to the sight of a tall female figure in a black housekeeping dress and white tea apron. Brandon had known that pale, freckled face as long as he had known Ben and his family. She was pretty, with short brown hair and a motherly smile. However, her height and strong build belied the fact that she was only thirty.

“Brandy.” Her face curled into a broad smile as she stepped aside to let him enter.

“Hi Elsa,” he smiled back and gestured at the bags of chips in his hands. “Mam sent these.”

“Oh, come in, lad.” With a tilt of her head, she motioned him to enter. Brandon stepped inside the small, narrow foyer, illuminated with a filament bulbs chandelier. “Do you want some tea?”

It was often hard to decipher if Elsa was only the housekeeper or the woman of the house. Thomas and Emily had taken her in as a young girl years ago and made her a part of the household, helping her family and even giving her a college education later. But she had stayed back with them as the housekeeper instead of doing something else with her life. With Ben’s parents travelling most of the time, the Barrett family would be lost without her.

“Umm… no, thanks.” He followed Elsa into the living room, taking off his jacket. “I have to be back soon.”

“Still managing the chip counter, huh?” Elsa laughed. “I’d thought the five of you would be walking in the air in these six months.”

Brandon only laughed in response. All they had to show for the last six months was a single. A hit single that had gone to No.1 the very day it released. The song was everywhere, the video was on every TV channel, and they were apparently the next big pop act of the UK. Yes, they had made a little bit of money, earned quite a bit of fame, seen their faces and names on every channel and every tabloid, and eventually got tired of hearing their own voices on radio. But they were still young lads of 18 or 19, trying to keep their lives as normal as possible amid the sudden flurry of unexpected success.

“When’s the album coming out?” she asked as he handed her the crisps. His parents were famous for their chips. People from distant parts of Ireland and the UK would drop in to eat and take home the delicious potato flakes. If anything, then his success and fame had only helped the business even more.

“It’s in post-production,” he said, putting his jacket down on the back of the sofa. “Should be out in two or three months.”

His eyes darted down the hallway on the left, where the bedrooms were. The one with the pink door was the reason why he was there.

“Izzi’s in.” Brandon jumped at Elsa’s voice, blushed when he realized he’d been caught. “Go on. She’ll be happy to see you,” she smiled.

With a shy nod, Brandon turned to walk down the hallway. The door didn’t look locked. He knocked, waiting for an answer. None came.

“Izzi?” He pushed open the door a little and found no one in. Frowning, he looked around in confusion. Elsa said she was in. Then…

He sighted the study with the door ajar. Elsa had gone back to her own thing so he decided to take a look. The hallway was also illuminated with small chandeliers, cloaking the house in a soft yellow glow. He tried to peek inside the study through the gap in the door, but could see nothing in the low light.

And then he heard sounds inside.

“Izzi?” He gently pushed the door, putting his head in. There was a crash, like something toppling over, and then a wince. He stepped inside, found two slender denim-clad legs poking from beneath a pile of books.

“Are you okay?” He tried to not laugh, but couldn’t help it. Isabel almost buried under a heap of thick books that had toppled from the table next to where she had been sitting on the floor. She nodded, moved her straight black hair out of her eyes, and dragged herself into a sitting position.

Isabel Rosalia Standish. Ben’s younger sister. The most beautiful girl in the whole town. The love of his life. Of course, he’d never said that out loud. Not to her. Not to anybody. For god’s sake, he was just over 19. Wasn’t that too soon?

Yet, he could never help the furious beating of his heart, or the flush of joy in his veins every time he saw her.

He helped her up, then proceeded to assist her to put the books back in place.

“It’s fine. I can do it.” She brushed his hand away and began to collect the books from the floor. “I was looking for a book, then the door startled me, and I jerked the table accidentally.”

“I’m sorry.” Brandon crouched beside her, watching her gloved hands arrange the books and put them back on the table. The study was the library of the house, stuffed with books of all kinds. Ben’s father was a psychiatrist while his mother was a therapist. It wasn’t unusual to find books scattered all around the house. “I was looking for you.”

“I figured.” Isabel rose to her feet, patting dust away from her bottom. Behind her, Brandon rose as well, smiling at the difference in their heights. They both were short; he was five feet nine inches while she was barely five feet. But beside him, Isabel looked even shorter. After his mother, she was the shortest woman he’d met so far. “Why are you here?”

“Mam sent some chips for you,” he said, watching her at work. She put a book under her arm, and put the rest away in their proper places. “You love them.”

Isabel turned, her dark, luminous eyes looking into his. They were impassive, and of late, sad. It was as though she had stopped feeling all emotions. The dark circles had faded a little but they still gave her panda eyes.

“Come on,” she beckoned, walking out of the room. Brandon followed, turning off the light. Her room was right next to that of Ben’s. It was decked in pink, had fairy lights around the windows and potted flowers on the parapet. There were books in the small cabinet next to her bed and on the study desk. As small as the room was, it was spotless and neat. No shoes on the floor, no clothes on the bed, no mess anywhere.

She put the book down on the night table, kicked off her slippers, and climbed on to bed. Then she looked at him and tapped the space next to her. Brandon walked over to the bed and sat beside her, looking at her small, sweet face the whole time.

Her pale, dewy skin made a stark contrast with her black hair and dark orbs. Her nose was blunt, but that could do nothing to diminish her beauty. In contrast to the blonde Irish girls around, she was so different. It was why she stood out everywhere.

“Are you doing well?” he decided to begin the conversation somewhere. She nodded in reply. “You weren’t at the café today, so I was wondering…”

“I was reading.” Her voice was soft, almost whispery. “Didn’t want to going out.”

“How’s school?”

“Okay.”

“Have you made any new friend?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never had any friend.”

Brandon’s brow scrunched into a frown. He crossed his arms and looked into her eyes.

“So you mean I’m your foe? All of us are?”

“Would that be very surprising?” Isabel’s voice was flat. “When my own parents could—”

Brandon pressed a finger to her lips, cutting off the rest of the sentence. When she looked at him, he shook his head.

“Please.” He sighed. “Don’t make yourself relive the horror. Please.”

She held his finger, moved it from her lips, and held his hand for a while. The silk felt smooth against his palm, but he wanted to feel the softness of her palm, not some damn piece of cloth.

He held her hand, slowly beginning to peel away the fabric. She tried to pull away, but he held tight.

“You’re hiding from me?” He raised his eyebrows. “Me, who has seen it all?”

“You don’t have to keep seeing it all the time.” She tried to pull away again but he wasn’t letting go. “Please.”

“I want to see.” He pulled off the glove on her left hand, revealing a deep, scary scar running down the wrist. He flinched. It still looked raw, after more than three months. If the scar on her skin was still that vivid, he wondered what the scars on her mind were like.

“Does it hurt?” he asked, still holding her hand. She had stopped pulling but was looking down at the printed bedsheet.

“Sometimes. Doesn’t matter, though.” She looked up, her eyes sadder now. “I did it, remember?”

Brandon sighed again, his grip slackening, allowing Isabel to pull her hand away. She didn’t wear the glove again. Instead, she tugged the long sleeve of her top until it covered her wrist. Then she folded her arms in her lap.

On an impulse, he reached out to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. She sighed, staring at the closed window. It had started to rain.

He never ceased to wonder how a girl that young could have already lived a life so horrific, it was beyond imagination. She was sixteen, and in the past six months she’d visited every horrible place conceivable— hospital, police, court, attorney’s office. He didn’t know how she did it. She was yet to realize how strong she was. It was one of the many reasons why he loved her.

“You know,” she spoke, still staring out of the window. “I had thought you’d go away from me after this.” She glanced at her scarred wrist. “Thought everyone would go away.”

She looked at him, eyes searching his. “I thought everyone would think I’m a bad person. I’m not saying I’m a good person, but I’m not so bad either.”

“We know you, Izzi,” he tried to smile but could not around the lump in his throat. “We’ll love you no matter what.” He held her hand again, kissing the scar, making her flinch. “We know what drove you to this,” he tried to keep emotion out of his voice. “We know everything. And we still love you just as much. Maybe even more now.”

His blood boiled, his eyes threatened to well up when he remembered the past few months, when all the dark secrets of her life had tumbled out in the open. They had seen a lot more of the police and of hospitals than anyone got to see in their lifetimes. Then her adoption had happened, followed by her move to Sligo.

And then, a week or so after the move, Ben had found her in the bathroom, in a pool of blood…

“So…” He shook off the memories and forced a smile. “Have you heard about the music concert at Hawks Well?”

She nodded. “Are you participating?” he asked. “They’re auditioning now.”

“I haven’t sung in a long time,” she said. “Songs don’t come easy anymore.”

“Please audition at least. You haven’t performed since you moved here.” He shifted closer to her, touched her cheek with two fingers. “It will take your mind off stuff.”

“I’m fine,” she nodded. “And there are many good singers in the town to light up the concert. I’m not needed.”

“Just one song? Please?” he insisted, hoping she’d agree. But she only shook her head.

“I can’t,” she sighed. “I can’t sing.”

Lightning tore through the sky, followed by a deep rumble. Isabel shifted on the bed until their legs were touching. Brandon checked the time on his watch. It was getting late.

“I better get moving,” he said. “Mam will be wondering…”

“It’s raining,” she said, glancing at the window.

“Don’t worry. I have a rain jacket.” He hesitantly leaned in, pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. “Is Emily coming home tonight?

“Yes. She is probably on her way by now.”

“Okay. So I’ll…push off.” He rose from the bed, adjusting his pants. “You take care, alright?”

She nodded. “Thank your mother for the chips.”

“I will,” he smiled, his eyes darting at her lips. He resisted the urge to kiss her and turned around. “Goodnight, Izzi,” he said as he opened the door to walk out.

“Brandy,” she called out just as he had stepped outside. He let half of his body back in through the door with an expectant look on his face.

“You really don’t hate me?” she asked. Brandon’s heart ached at those words. Hate her? She was the first girl he’d fallen in love with. He knew where those words were coming from, but then….

He re-entered the room, closed the door behind him, and walked up to her. Then he leaned and pressed a chaste kiss to her lips. He felt Isabel’s breath hitch for a moment, her hands stiffening. When he pulled away, her mouth was slightly parted, her eyes searing into his.

“I love you,” he whispered. He’d only started telling her that since the past month or so and was yet to hear it back. But it always felt so right to tell her again and again.

She nodded and looked away. Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked out of the room.


“Table number six.” Mae pushed a tray of burgers and coffee towards her youngest son who had returned from college about fifteen minutes ago. He knew he couldn’t carry on with college alongside the band for too long, but he still tried. Brandon nodded, took the tray his mother was offering, and made his way through the tables and chairs to arrive at his destination. The customer smiled, asked him about Hy-Life, and congratulated him on the success. It was a small town and everyone knew everyone. He didn’t mind the local people showing interest in his career. It was only when the girls thronged the counter and refused to move that he became really annoyed.

Yes, he liked girls, had always been a bit of a ladies’ man, with girls drooling over him because of his voice and handsome looks. But ever since their sudden fame, girls of all shapes and sizes had been throwing themselves at him. At first it was a great feeling. But six months on, it had started to be annoying. It was a good thing being appreciated and recognized, and another thing to lose your privacy.

“Was Emily home when you went to deliver the chips yesterday?” His mother asked when he was back at the counter. His father, sister Mairead, and brother Liam were waiting tables in the meanwhile. He shook his head.

“Izzi said she’d be back in a while,” he replied, pouring himself a coffee.

“I’m happy that Elsa is around to take care of her.” He heard his mother sigh as she went about arranging trays with food. A customer came in for a latte, and Brandon quickly fixed it for him. “Is she okay? She wasn’t here yesterday.”

“She’s fine,” he nodded. “As fine as possible. She just wants to be on her own. Maybe the crowd here doesn’t suit her anymore.”

“Could be.” Mae turned, handing a tray to Mairead. “I wish you and Ben could give her more time. Being alone isn’t good for her.”

“She doesn’t like people around her, mam,” he pointed out. “I wonder if she’s even talked to Ben after coming home from hospital.”

“That isn’t the point. Her safety is more important than her moodiness.” He watched Mae pass on some ingredients to his father at the stove. He did make the best burgers and fish and chips in town. “I was worried when they brought her to Sligo. This is Ireland, the church meddles in everything. But people did take very kindly to her.”

“For the most part.”

“What does that mean?” She looked at his face. “Is she having a hard time here? Is there something I don’t know?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He rose from the stool and took a few long gulps of his coffee. Mairead came around for another order, then turned around and smiled when her eyes sighted the door of the restaurant.

“Look who’s here,” she whispered to her brother. Brandon looked, his heart skipping a beat when he saw Isabel at the door, adorable in her blue school uniform, gloved hands holding a book, eyes searching for an empty corner. “Go,” Mairead thumped him on the back. “She’ll go away if she doesn’t find an empty corner.”

“Bring her here, will ye?” Mae asked him. “Haven’t hugged her in a while.”

“Mam.” Brandon rolled his eyes, making his way through tables to the front door. Isabel hadn’t seen him, her eyes still scanning the place for a quiet corner.

“Hey,” he waved when he was close enough to her. She raised a hand in acknowledgement.

“My seat’s taken.” She sounded like a child whose favourite toy had just broken. Brandon looked around to find no empty seat. The restaurant was usually crowded all the time, but ever since the band happened, it didn’t thin even during the afternoons. Sitting at the café was for many people a chance to see his home.

“Umm…would you mind hanging out at the counter in the meanwhile?” he asked. “The customer occupying your seat should be gone by then.”

She looked around again without replying, impatient for a place to sit and read. “I can go home and eat lunch, in that case,” she said. “I don’t want to share a table.”

“You haven’t had lunch?” Brandon raised his eyebrows. She shook her head.

“School lunch is bland. I thought I’d drop in here and grab a bite. But—”

“Izzi!” Mairead called out from the corner, waving. Isabel looked, waving back. Mairead gestured at her with her hand to come over. She looked at Brandon, then back at his sister.

“Come on,” he smiled, holding her hand. It felt weird holding her gloved hands. Till three months ago, he got to feel her soft palms against his. It felt like a proper connection. But now, it was only a piece of black silk against his skin.

He took her through the maze of tables and chairs to the counter, where Mae wasted no time in engulfing her in a huge embrace. Brandon often felt embarrassed by the way his mother showered his friends with unabashed affection. One wouldn’t think she had seven children of her own.

“Oh, my baby,” Mae said to her, when she finally let her go. “I missed you yesterday. Are you okay?” She cradled her face between her palms, smiling. “You’ve lost so much weight. Wait till I fatten you up with chips.”

Brandon noticed a hint of a smile tugging at a corner of her lips. She had always been really slender, but of late, she looked pale and sunken. They all knew why, so it was not surprising. His mother, however, was still on her relentless pursuit of trying to fatten her up. Isabel loved their potato crisps, and they had an unending supply. But they were yet to see any significant weight on her.

“She hasn’t eaten lunch yet,” Brandon mentioned, drawing a concerned look from his mother.

“Oh, is it so?” She turned, disappearing into the pantry just behind the counter. “Come in here, sweetheart. Choose what you want to eat.”

“Go,” he whispered to her, giving her a slight nudge. She slowly made her way in, disappearing behind the brown Dutch door. When Brandon returned to her after serving a few more orders, she was seated on a high bar stool, her legs neatly tucked at the back, a plate of hamburger and cheese dip in front of her. She was nibbling on the food while reading the book she had carried along.

“Okay?” he asked, going up to her. She nodded, looking up at his face for a fleeting moment. He didn’t tell her that Emily had called to ask if she was really there. She was there and she was alright. But her family worried about her all the time, which wasn’t surprising or irrational. They feared she might do something stupid again. They all did. It didn’t seem like she would, but it was hard to push the fear away.

“Your hair’s back to brown,” she observed suddenly, breaking a piece of bread and nibbling on it. He’d never seen her biting on the whole burger at once. She took out the contents one by one and ate them, beginning with the top bread and ending with the bottom.

“I’m glad,” he laughed, pulling a stool to sit next to her. “I only wish the colour had gone before Peter’s wedding. I cringe to look at the pictures.” He really did. Blonde hair was never a good idea.

“Don’t regret. You can always tell people the history behind it.” The top bread was gone now, revealing a bright piece of tomato. “It got you into the band,” she said, peeling the skin of the tomato with her teeth.

Brandon smiled, both at her little quirk and at the memory of the first audition, when he’d been out drinking the night before and couldn’t crack the audition because of a bad hangover. More than his family, friends, or anyone else, it was Isabel who had been angry, berating him for being so reckless. And it was because of her that he was motivated to make the audition the second time, even if that meant dyeing his hair blonde and getting a tan.

“I’ll always remember the way you rebuked me for not making it the first time,” he smiled. “I wonder if I’d ever been scolded that hard.”

“You hadn’t,” she spoke around a piece of meat, her eyes not leaving the book for once. “You’re spoilt.”

He was. Then he’d met her and realised how fortunate he was and how he’d taken his happiness for granted.

“You see, I’ve never had dreams of my own,” she spoke again. “Never knew how to. But I see you and Ben and Mark, and realise that dreams do come true.” She looked at him. “You’ve covered ABBA on this album, right?”

“Yes. I Have A Dream.” Their first album. Fifteen songs—two covers and thirteen originals. He hadn’t stopped singing the songs since the recording. “And it’s never too late to start dreaming.” He reached out to give her hand a soft squeeze. “You haven’t lost anything, Izzi. We want you to live again.”

“Hey! Izzi.” The door opened and the figure of Kyle appeared, blonde locks falling into his blue eyes. He was one-fifth of the band, a talented singer, guitar and piano player, and his childhood buddy. He lived a few metres away from Brandon’s home. “You two snuggling over lunch?”

Isabel had returned to her book. Brandon shook his head and sighed.

“I’m just keeping her company,” he explained. “What’re ye doing here, Hagan?”

That was stupid to ask since they spent every free hour at the restaurant. It was the local hangout spot.

“Myself and Mark were just wandering about,” he said, leaning against the door frame. “Thought we’d drop in.” His gaze turned to Isabel again. She had wrapped her arms around her school bag, clearly uncomfortable in the presence of Kyle.

She had never liked him. Until the band formed, Kyle was something of a troublemaker, always getting into scuffles and fights and calling others names. He had fancied Isabel for a while, but Ben was protective, Brandon was already in love, and Isabel showed no interest in him. He had moved on to other girls soon enough.

“Mark’s also here?” He rose from the stool but did not leave the room, afraid of leaving Isabel alone, lest Kyle bothered her. Even though they were friends, he could still be very mean sometimes.

“Yeah. He got tempted by the nachos there.” He gestured at the counter, from where Mark was walking towards the pantry, still chewing.

“Hiya, folks.” He brushed past Kyle and entered the pantry, smiling at Isabel. She replied with a nod, proceeding to pack her book. Mark Flanagan was another member of the band, tall, stocky, with blue eyes and dimpled smile. The four of them- him, Mark, Ben, and Kyle- had first put the band together in school. Then Mae had got in touch with Louis Walsh and it had all rolled from there.

Mark and Isabel had been friends for a long time and they were close, their reserved and introverted personalities strikingly similar. Sometimes Brandon could not help but think she was closer to Mark and Ben than she was to him.

“Aren’t you participating in the concert at Hawks Well?” he asked Isabel, occupying the stool Brandon had left. Mark’s voice was deep and husky, more fit for blues and soul than pop. If you closed your eyes and listened to his voice, you wouldn’t be able to tell he was a White guy. “It’s going to be great.”

“I’m sure it is.” Isabel packed her bag, zipped up, and rose from the seat. “It’s just not for me.”

“Change her mind, Fletcher,” he said to Brandon. He shrugged with a quiet laugh, watching as she picked up the plate, went over to the sink and quickly washed it clean. Brandon smiled, without stopping her. Isabel was a simple girl, sincere, hardworking, grounded. Despite having spent the first fifteen-and-a-half years of her life in London, she’d adjusted seamlessly to this small Irish county. It didn’t seem like she ever missed London.

Isabel wiped her hands, put her gloves back on, and turned to leave.

“See ya, lads.” She walked past Kyle, slinging the bag on her shoulder. Brandon followed.

“Where ye goin’?” Mark called out, to which he only gestured with a wave of his hand and walked out of the pantry. Isabel was with his mother, probably trying to pay for the meal, but Mae was vigorously shaking her head and smiling. Defeated, she put the money back inside her bag and told her something, to which the older woman smiled and kissed her forehead.

“Izzi.” He caught up with her just outside the green front door of the café. She turned, her eyes questioning.

“Yes?” She pulled the scarf around her neck, wrapping it neatly. “Did I forget anything?”

“No.” He hesitated, not knowing what to say. “Can I walk you home?”

“It’s fine. You’re needed here.”

“It’s close. It won’t be too long.”

“Exactly. I can go, Brandy.”

“Please?” He didn’t want to plead, but it was out before he could help it. Isabel sighed.

“Okay.” She nodded, turning to walk again. Brandon started walking beside her, looking down at the girl next to him. He’d first seen her two years ago, when she’d visited Ireland for the first time. It had possibly been love at first sight for him, which was quite a surprise because all his girlfriends used to be blondes. In the two weeks that she’d spent in the county, Ben’s parents had allowed him to take her to the lake, try to teach her to ride horses, and introduce her to the delectability of homemade food.

The Isabel that moved to Sligo four months past was different. She’d always been quiet and private, but now she was distant and impassive. No one had seen her smile in months now. The antidepressants had somehow made her quieter.

“Can I ask you something?” he said, their feet making crunching sounds as they stepped on dry leaves on the road. She nodded.

“Is everything okay at school?” he asked. “I mean, do they treat you normally?”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Everyone. Teachers, students…”

“Hmm-mm. Everything’s fine.”

“You sure?”

She looked at him, her feet stopping awkwardly. “What’s there to be sure about?” Her voice was stern. “Who would want to hang around with a girl who tried killing herself? I’m mental. Weird.”

Brandon frowned, his hands fisting at his sides. He’d finished school a couple of years ago, so he hadn’t forgotten what the students could be like. Small town kids were less civil than city kids. They often forgot decorum or manners. He’d always been the popular guy. But he’d seen Mark get bullied and Kyle bullying. It wasn’t pretty.

“Do they say that about you?” he asked, the frown still sitting on his brow. She shrugged.

“Not to my face. But I understand.” She started walking again. “I don’t want to hang out with anybody, anyway.”

“Izzi.” He held her hand, stopping her. He pulled her close to him, until he could properly hold her in his arms. Isabel stared up at his face, not surprised, not delighted, not embarrassed. He wondered if she felt anything anymore. Her face was a blank sheet of paper.

“Promise me you’ll tell me- tell anybody- if you’re ever bullied?” he said to her, his hands on her upper arms. “You won’t hide. Promise me?”

“I don’t promise.” She brushed his hands away, turning from him. “I’ve never been bullied, so I won’t even know.” She glanced back at him. “Stop worrying. No one worries about me.”

“You couldn’t be more mistaken.” He crossed his arms, walking over until he was in front of her. “Everyone worries about you. Dr Barrett, Emily, Ben, my family, Mark, his family.” He sighed. “I worry about you. Because I care. We all care. And we want you to be safe.”

“Safe.” She repeated the word, as if hearing it for the first time. “Safe.” She said it again, starting to walk. Brandon shook his head, knew the mistake he’d made. He tried to catch up with her. “Izzi. Wait,” he called out.

Isabel stopped, looked at him with eyes that were dark and scary. For a moment, she simply stared. Brandon half-expected a slap, but instead, she opened her mouth to speak.

“Why did no one care about my safety when I’d been locked in the basement?” she asked him. Brandon opened his mouth, tried to come up with the right words, but nothing came out. Isabel walked away, tightly folding her arms around herself. Brandon didn’t follow. She needed her space. He stood there watching as she disappeared into the lane on the right, the sight of her black hair and blue skirt lingering in front of his eyes.

“Still hanging out with the city lass, eh?” A hand fell on his shoulder. It was Damien, his former schoolmate. Brandon didn’t reply. A hoarse laugh came from his mate.

“She’s pretty. But she’s mental,” he whispered to him. “You’re the ladies’ man. I thought you’d know better.”

“It’s none of your business, Damien.” He tried to not be angry. “Stop saying that about her.”

“I don’t care, really,” he shrugged. “I’m just saying you deserve better.”

Brandon knocked his hand away and turned to walk back home. He knew Isabel’s reality. And he wanted her no matter what.

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