Brandon was fairly certain Nathan had taken his jacket again.
It wasn’t the first time, not for any of them. When you were all on the road together, suitcases tossed around from bus to hotel more times than should be possible, things were likely to get mixed up. Or borrowed. Or conveniently removed and not returned. Ben had been wearing a pair of jeans for the last six months that Brandon was almost certain had originally belonged to Mark, and Kyle’s hairspray constantly running out was probably not due to overuse but the fact that Nathan had started borrowing it when he wasn’t looking.
Not that Brandon wasn’t guilty. He wasn’t quite sure where the comb in his pocket had come from, he just knew that Mark used to have one a lot like it.
It was his jacket, though.
Kyle was napping on the bed next to his, but he wasn’t sure where the others were. Ben and Mark were talking about going shopping so they were possibly out. Nathan could be in his room if he wasn’t out as well.
London had been feeling a little too chilly ever since they landed from Mexico, and he needed his jacket.
He got down from the bed. Nathan wasn’t far away, just two doors down the hall. He ambled down the hallway and was about to knock on the door when he heard Nathan’s voice, talking to someone.
“Come on. I miss you.” He sounded like he was pouting. His voice was husky, shrill, and a little bit croaky, making him ideal for the peppy numbers they did. But right now, it sounded deep and enticing. Brandon figured he was on the phone because he could hear no one else in the room.
“Why not?” His voice was low, a bit sooky. “I love you.”
Brandon’s eyes widened in realization. He was talking to his girlfriend Gillian. As funny as Nathan was, he could be absolutely soppy when it came to love. He’d heard him spend entire nights on the bus talking to her on the phone, acting like a love-sick puppy.
“Aw, baby…” he soothed. “Poor thing. Can I kiss it all better?”
There was a laugh from him. “I will. I promise. Kiss you all over,” he sighed.
Brandon shook his head. He was, in all likelihood, trying to entice her into having phone sex. It was not surprising at all, considering they spent so long away from home. From what they’d seen of Gillian, she was a firecracker.
And the Prime Minister’s daughter, of course.
The fact that Nathan was in a relationship with the Taoiseach’s daughter was something only the four of them knew. They had been together since sixteen, and had really strong chemistry. They were twenty now, and made an adorable couple. But since they were an up and coming boyband, with young girls as the target audience, they had to hide their relationships as best as possible.
He turned away from the door, deciding to not interrupt his private moment. When he entered his room, Kyle was awake and idly switching from one TV channel to another.
“Hey,” he looked at him as he walked back to his own bed and collapsed. “Where have you been?”
“Just…around.” He shrugged, reached for his phone on the side table. They were supposed to be at a club for a gig that night. That meant more makeup, costumes, and fancy moves. They were also scheduled to appear on the Late Late Show after the gig. That meant answering more questions on their upcoming album. “What are we watching?”
“There’s nothing on TV,” Kyle shook his head, then yawned. “You want to pick a movie?”
“Not in the mood, really.” Brandon sank back against the satin pillows and sighed. Mexico had been fun, shooting for the music video, lots of shopping, travelling, and eating. He’d shopped for himself– jackets, shades, shoes. He’d also shopped for his family, though he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to give them the presents.
His phone rang, his home phone number flashing on the screen. It was his father on the line when he answered.
“Hi dad,” he smiled. “We’re back in London. How’s everything?”
“Everything’s fine, lad,” he could hear his dad smile. “Your mam wanted me to check if you had landed yet.”
“We did a couple of hours ago,” he looked at Kyle, who was watching a music video with the sound muted. “You guys are being flown down next week for the gig, right?”
“Oh, yes. We are.” Peter laughed. Their gigs were still small, but were getting bigger, with everyone wanting a piece of them. Their security had also been heightened after certain untoward incidents by fans, either at airports, in front of hotels, or outside their cars. Now they had two guards each wherever they went.
They were the support act for Mariah Carey next week, after having recorded a duet with her for their first album, and their families were being flown in for the gig. It would be a new and exciting experience for them and their folks.
“Ben’s parents are also coming, right?” he asked, although he already knew they were. As busy as they were, they still tried to be present at most of their performances.
“Yes, they are,” his father replied. “Thomas is home and Emily sounded very excited about watching you lads perform.”
“Oh.” He ran a finger through his hair, felt Kyle’s eyes on him. He knew what Brandon was thinking, why the sudden interest in Ben’s parents. “I’ll probably get to meet you after the show, then,” he said, dropping the subject. “Say hi to mam from me.”
“You take care of yourself,” his father said. “We’ll see you next week.”
He stared at the screen of the phone long after the call had ended. It was only when Kyle spoke that he was startled out of his thoughts.
“Okay?” he asked, balancing the remote on his knees. Brandon nodded. Kyle smirked, turning his head to look at the TV.
“Thinking of Izzi, aren’t ye?” he asked, humour in his voice. Brandon didn’t want to admit it, but he nodded anyway. Kyle laughed.
“What?” he frowned at him.
“Just…” He switched a channel, stopped on a random movie. “I’d never thought you’d fall in love with her,” he sniggered. “I mean, you’ve gone out with the most popular girls in town. You used to have a new girlfriend every week, remember? And then you get hooked on Izzi.” He looked at him, that cheeky smirk plastered on his face. “I thought you went for the blondes.”
“Izzi is better than all of those girls combined,” he defended her. “At least she doesn’t give me a headache with perfume or makeup or constant chatter.”
“That’s if she talked at all.”
“She does talk. You have to know the right things to say to her.”
“Uh-huh? And what are they?”
Brandon shot a glare at Kyle. He hadn’t changed, still the rascal trying to bully others. Even when he knew Isabel’s history.
“Why are ye so interested?” he snapped without meaning to. “Haven’t you got a girl of your own?”
“At the moment, no.” He bounced his legs, his eyes fixed on the movie. “Don’t worry. I’m not after her. You’re the only sane person who’d want to be with a weirdo like her.”
“She’s gone through hell, Kyle,” his voice rose. “How would you feel if you were locked in a basement, starved, and beaten up? Or…”
He trailed off, the very images nauseating him. Closing his eyes, he shook his head to clear his mind and got down from the bed.
“Fuck you.” He snapped at him as he left the room and shut the door behind him.
“Hey Brandy. I was about to get you.” Nathan was leaving his room, smiling. “Your jacket was in my bag. Here.”
He threw the familiar brown leather at him. Brandon grabbed his jacket and slipped it on, walking slowly towards his friend.
“Are you okay, mate?” Nathan asked when he was close enough. Brandon nodded.
“Kyle’s being an eejit,” he pinched the bridge of his nose. “He can be such a…”
“It’s okay.” He put an arm around him. “He’s young and reckless. He’ll get better, you’ll see.”
“I hope so. Because I don’t think I’ll keep his face intact if I hear him talking like that about Izzi again.”
Nathan frowned. “What did he say?”
Brandon sighed, starting to walk down the hallway. “Mean things,” he murmured, shoving his hands inside his pockets. “I don’t know how he can say all that about her. He knows her story… He should be more considerate.”
“He’s probably just jealous because she chose you and not him.” Nathan patted his back. “Ignore what he says. When he falls in love, he’ll understand.”
“I don’t think he’ll ever understand someone like her,” he shook his head.
“No. But he’ll understand your feelings. Why you do what you do for her.” He squeeze his shoulder. “Izzi is a sweet girl. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what she must’ve gone through all these years, but…” He smiled, tussling his hair. “…I love the way you love her. When we tour together, I’m sure she’ll get along well with G.”
“You think that day will come? When we tour together?” Brandon’s hazel-green eyes glistened with tears. Nathan hugged him properly this time. He understood him, knew how he felt. It wasn’t for nothing that he thought Nathan was the most sensible guy in the band, and it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was the oldest among them.
“I do,” he said. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know, Nat,” he pulled away, tears blurring his vision. “She’s so fragile… She doesn’t even seem human anymore. She doesn’t smile, doesn’t cry, doesn’t show any emotion.” He looked away and closed his eyes. The tears trickled down his face. “She doesn’t sing. I can’t even remember now what she used to sound like singing.”
“Except when your phone rings,” Nathan laughed softly. That was true. His ringtone was Isabel singing Amazing Grace for him. It was probably the most emotional rendition of the song he’d ever heard. The first time she sang it to him, he couldn’t stop crying.
“I know how you feel,” Nathan nodded, holding his arms. “She’ll get over this, no matter how long it takes. The worst is over. Now…she only needs time to heal.”
Brandon nodded, wiped off his tears. Nathan thumped his back. “You want to grab lunch?” he asked. Brandon nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll get Kyle. You see what Ben and Mark are up to. They should be back by now.”
Brandon nodded again, forced a smile, and headed further down the hallway.
Mark peeped at the audience from behind the curtain. They were insane. It had to be the biggest crowd they’d performed to so far. And why not. It was the biggest music venue in London.
“It’s crazy out there!” He announced, coming back to the dressing room. “Four thousand people! Can you imagine?”
Nathan turned, smearing his hair with a generous amount of mousse.
“Yeah? Saw anyone?”
“Nope. Too dark there.” He came in front of the mirror, checking his own hair. “I’m sure our families have arrived. They have VIP seating.”
He turned to look at Brandon, who on other days would be bouncing around the place like a rubber ball. He was the most energetic one in the band, always full of mad vigour and enthusiasm that had less to do with him being the lead singer and more with his passion for the job. It had to be the best job in the world.
That night, however, he was swinging in a chair, lost in thought.
“Are you alright, Brandy?” Mark asked him. He finally looked up and gave a faint nod. Ben looked up from his shoe laces.
“You look down,” he observed. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine.” He sighed, dropped his head back. He didn’t want to admit he was missing Isabel, wondering if she’d come to watch them at their biggest gig yet. It was only a support act, but they had got the chance because they were brilliant.
He wanted Isabel to be there, witness the moment. He wanted to share his joy with her.
A hand came on his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see Ben smiling reassuringly at him.
“Don’t worry,” he nodded. “I’m sure she’ll be there.”
Their stage time was no more than fifteen minutes, but it was maddening. The crowd cheered them with a deafening roar, threw bras, knickers, and teddy bears at them, and held up suggestive banners. It didn’t seem like they were only a support act. They owned the stage for those minutes.
Even amid the madness, Brandon searched for Isabel in the audience. He could see his parents and his siblings, even his nephew. His friends were also there. And then he thought maybe she was too shy to sit amid the audience and would choose to come and meet them backstage.
But she wasn’t there either.
He wanted to cry. He hadn’t seen her in more than three weeks, had spoken not more than once or twice at night, and both the times he’d been pretty tipsy. He missed her. Wanted to see her, hold her. Talk to her properly.
Once he’d caught up with his family, he made his way towards Ben’s parents. They hugged him, congratulated him on their brilliant performance.
“Didn’t Izzi come?” he asked them, unable to hold back any longer. Thomas and Emily exchanged glances and then looked at him like he’d asked something odd. Like he was stupid to expect Isabel to come and cheer for him amid a 4000-strong audience when she barely spoke to anyone or left her room.
“She didn’t want to come,” Emily said with a weak smile. “And she has school tomorrow. We didn’t badger her.”
Thomas came forward, holding him affectionately by his shoulders. “Brandy, as much as you miss her, you have to remember that she isn’t fit to come to a place like this at the moment,” he explained. “She just wants to be left alone. She needs space.”
“And crowds make her uncomfortable,” Emily added. “She doesn’t even listen to music anymore.”
Brandon nodded. None of that was news to him. He knew Isabel just as well as they did. But damn, he missed her. He blinked, willing the tears to go away.
“Is she okay?” he asked, speaking around the lump in his throat.
“She’s fine,” Emily nodded. “And if it helps, she misses you too.”
“She does?” His eyes widened. “Does she…does she ask about me?”
“All the time, lad,” Thomas laughed. “Ask your parents, they will tell you better. She’s always asking about you, about all of you. She may not be here, but she supports you all the same.”
Brandon’s hand went to his chest. He breathed in, trying to not become emotional all over again. He knew Izzi was there. When he’d spoken to her the other day, he hadn’t asked if she was going to come to the show, because he wanted her to give him a surprise. But even when she wasn’t there, he knew she still loved and supported him. It was because of her he’d got into the band.
It wasn’t until one in the night that they made it back to their rooms. They had probably emptied all the vodka in the bar, and then stumbled into the car, plastered. Kyle had crashed on his bed fully clothed and started to snore right away. The others hadn’t been any better. Brandon could tell he was still sober than the other lads because he was awake two hours later.
He fumbled for his phone in the dark, accidentally knocked his watch down, and then finally decided to switch on the lamp. Kyle had rolled over, now only in his underwear. He’d probably stripped off his clothes in his sleep. Brandon wondered how he did that.
Phone in hand, he debated if he should remain in the room or go out. Kyle was drunk and unconscious, so it wouldn’t matter. It was late. He was tired and tipsy. But he couldn’t sleep. Not without…
He pressed the number on speed dial. Isabel had a mobile phone but she hardly ever used it. So he tried the house phone. One of the extensions remained in her room, and with Ben’s parents staying over in London for the night, she’d be the one to pick up, if at all. There was no way Elsa was receiving a call at three in the night. Not even a bomb could wake her up.
When the phone started to ring on the other end, Brandon sat up, bouncing his legs uneasily. It was wrong to wake her up at that ungodly hour. She had school the next day. She needed to sleep well.
And just then the call connected.
Brandon couldn’t breathe. Isabel’s sleepy, throaty voice down the line poured into his ears, ran through his veins.
“Izzi?” he said, his voice almost a whisper, not wanting Kyle to hear him. There was a long pause.
“Brandy?” There was recognition in her voice. “It’s three in the night.”
“I know.” He glanced at the sleeping form of Kyle, then shuffled down from the bed, opened the door and walked barefoot out of the room. “I couldn’t sleep… I…”
“You’re drunk.” It was a statement. Isabel didn’t like people getting drunk. She could never understand why anyone would want to drink so much that it deprived them of their senses.
“I’m still a lot sober than the other lads,” he tried to explain. “I’m just… I’m sorry I woke you up–“
“No. I was awake.”
Brandon frowned. “Awake? At 3?”
“I woke up an hour ago. Thought of going over the lessons for the test today.”
“Couldn’t sleep?” There was a faint smile on his lips, but he felt bad deep inside whenever she couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. She was on sleeping pills, but she often cheated and tried to sleep on her own. It would hardly ever help and she’d go through the next day with tired eyes and a confused mind.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Because I’m missing you.” He leaned against the wall, the overhead light drawing his silhouette on the carpeted floor of the hallway. “You didn’t say you wouldn’t be here today.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Ben said you’d be here for the show.”
“I didn’t tell him anything. He must have lied.” There was a pause again, the sound of turning pages. “How was the show?”
“Amazing,” he sighed, closing his eyes. His legs seemed wobbly. He looked around for someplace to sit, but there was nothing except a long, deserted hallway. “Wish you were here.”
“I’m not fit company.”
“That’s what you think. To me, you’re the best company in the world.”
“That’s because you’re an eejit.”
Brandon didn’t miss that. Eejit, was it? So she was slowly turning Irish. The realisation made him smile.
“No, just in love with you.” He sank to his feet, crouched on the floor, just in between his and Nathan’s rooms. “So in love with you. You’re beautiful.”
“And you’re really stoned. Please go to sleep. Don’t you have anywhere to be in the morning?”
“I can’t remember. Anto will remind us.”
Anto was their tour manager, always trying to herd them, discipline them. He only ended up frustrated most of the time, because they were wild and uncontrollable. Just what you’d expect from lads barely out of their teens.
“Poor Anto,” Isabel sighed. “You give him grief.”
“We’re only kids,” he pouted.
“Kids earning millions, huh?” She yawned, and he heard a page turn again. “I think you should go.”
“I’m bothering you?”
“Kind of. I’m trying to revise my lessons here,” she yawned again.
Brandon laughed quietly, adoring her sweetness. Despite all that she had experienced in her young life, she was never mean to anybody. His mother had loved them together from the first day and gone on to tell him that she’d be a fine woman in future, perfect for him.
“What about the writing contest?” he suddenly remembered.
“I’ve sent my entry. Not hoping for anything though.”
“Your smile,” he sighed. “You don’t smile anymore.” He wanted to say she didn’t cry either, but it didn’t matter.
“There’s nothing to smile about.”
They’d had that conversation before and she had always said the same thing. At three in the night, it didn’t make sense arguing about it again, especially when he was drunk.
“I should be home in two weeks,” he said, his speech turning a little slurry. He got to his feet or he feared he’d fall asleep right on the hallway. “Is there any way I can see you before that?”
“Yes, if you can come home sooner.”
“Doesn’t seem possible. We’ll head to Tenerife for a shoot, but it’s a one-day thing and we’ll be heading to Dublin right after…” He sighed. “God, I miss you so much. Are you okay?”
“Hmm. How’s everybody?”
“Great. We’re having fun. It’s like a whirlwind but we wouldn’t want it to be any other way. Izzi…” He breathed, then swallowed. “I wish I could see you. Haven’t seen you in weeks now.”
“I miss you too.”
“Oh god.” He dropped his head back, winced when it made a hollow thud. “I’m keeping you… I better go.”
“Please try to get some sleep,” his tone was concerned. “You’ll fall ill.”
“I won’t. Please go.”
“I love you.”
There was a pause. She had never said anything in reply to that. He knew it was too soon for her, but…
“I love you too.”
His eyes snapped open. Did he hear that right?
“I love you three.” Corny, but he only wanted to hear her say that again.
“I love you to infinity.” Her voice was flat and mechanical like always but he still felt her love in those words. “Now go. Please. Goodnight.”
He clutched the phone to his chest, trying to think how to breathe. And then with slow, unsteady steps, he made his way back to his room, the happiest man in the world.
The middle-aged gent was talking about their new single from their first album that had debuted on No.1, making it their second song and their second hit. It was early, they were on a radio show in Dublin for an interview, and were scheduled to go straight back to the hotel for breakfast. They were already starving.
Brandon and Nathan usually did most of the talking. Mark was the quiet one, only spoke when asked something. Kyle handled the difficult questions, marketing, budgeting. They joked he had Louis’ number on speed dial, always talking business with him. Ben was the funny one. You asked him something and then spent the next ten minutes trying to get your breath back.
They talked about their new hit single, their upcoming album, and how it felt being small-town lads from Ireland dominating the pop scene, if they felt competition. They were used to those questions already and also had set answers for them. They didn’t have a lot of control over these things. They needed to listen to management, whether it was their clothes, their food, or their relationships. They knew the systematic crap they had to repeat at interviews. They knew when to smile and when to act totally unaffected.
It wasn’t going to be an easy life. But they wouldn’t want to change any of it. That was their dream, and they were living it.
“Hey.” Kyle whispered to him in the van, on their way to the hotel. Brandon looked away from the window, gave him a small smile.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Yeah. I just…” He bit his lip, glanced around quickly. “I wanted to say…I’m sorry about what I said that day in London. About you and Izzi…”
Brandon stared at him, then nodded, accepting his apology. Kyle didn’t always apologise, was kind of self-righteous, so it felt nice that he’d had good sense. He only wished he hadn’t said all that in the first place.
“I can understand those who call her weird without knowing her story,” Brandon said, looking out of the window again. “Hadn’t expected it from you, though.”
“I know. Shit.” A hand fell on his knee. “I hurt you. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He looked at him, tapped the hand that was on his knee. “Just don’t repeat it.”
“You really love her, dontchya?” he smiled. Brandon laughed a little.
“Funny you should ask that, after all this time.” He raised an eyebrow. “How long have you known me, again?”
“Have to go back a few decades then,” Kyle laughed back.
“A few? You haven’t even been here for two.” The soft, smirking voice was that of Ben, beside the driver. “You want to go straight to breakfast?”
“Oh yeah,” Brandon yawned. “I need food.”
“Me too.” Mark raised his hand, half-asleep in the other corner. They laughed, as Nathan punched him lightly in the belly.
It wasn’t until he got to the restaurant that he saw it. Nathan had picked up the newspaper from the lounge, wondering if there was anything about them.
“Look, lads. There’s our interview here.” He held up the entertainment section of the paper so that the others could see.
“Which one?” Kyle asked. Nathan shrugged.
“Don’t remember. But this was probably last week.”
“Show.” Brandon snatched the paper from him, his eyes falling on the file picture of the five of them, in black leather. He skimmed through the text, reading only his parts. There was a certain fun in reading your own interview. His family always got so excited every time they were shown on TV or featured in the paper. If he wasn’t very mistaken, his mother even recorded some of their interviews.
And then he saw it. He froze.
“What?” He hadn’t realised he’d said that out loud. Kyle, who was also reading the interview while he held the paper, glanced at him. Brandon shook his head, his eyes refusing to leave that paragraph.
Interviewer: Brandon, you’re rumoured to be dating X-Factor finalist Jessica Forsman. Is that true?
Brandon: No! (laughs) I’m single, not dating anyone. It’s so hard to date when you’re in a boyband. The schedules are hectic, you’re always travelling, and it’s also hard to trust people now when you’re getting famous. I’m happy being single as of now. When I find someone good enough…we’ll see what happens.
“Shit, shit, shit.” He threw the paper away and dropped his face in his hands. That was disastrous. Everyone would see it. His family. Ben’s family. Isabel.
He knew she read all of their interviews, she’d told him. She’d definitely read that one too. After all, it was Ireland’s leading paper.
He remembered the looks Ben had been giving him while he was saying that at the interview. He knew he’d been asked by management to say that. But no one else did. And now everyone would think he was playing with Isabel’s feelings.
“Geez.” Mark shook his head, sympathetically. “Are you in trouble?”
Brandon didn’t know. He only prayed he wasn’t.