The paved streets of Westminster shone under the warm glow of the last gas lights in the city. Over the years, London had increasingly welcomed smart lighting and done away with gas street lamps, leaving only 1500 of them now. As Isabel stepped out of the car on the drizzling January evening, the glowing sentry posts seemed like a constellation of stars, momentarily transporting her to 19th-century England, when Dickens was writing his gripping novels and Queen Victoria was on the throne.
But then her gaze shifted and she saw the large, dazzling hospital in the distance, the buzz all around her quickly snapping through her thoughts. An arm came around her shoulders, gently stroking through the dark material of her winter coat. Isabel looked up, into the quiet, hazel-green eyes of Brandon, her husband of three years. He wordlessly nodded at her and she took his gloved hand, bucking up as they made a dash through the traffic and the rain while trying to not slip on the water and sleet.
“Hi, we are looking for a Benedict Barrett,” Brandon asked at the front desk of the A&E department of the oldest hospital in London. “He was brought in a while ago. Car crash.”
The words sent a small shudder through Isabel’s body. She pulled her arms around herself, wondering how her responsible brother could get into a road accident while on his way to her house for dinner and end up in intensive care instead. He was more careful and level-headed than that.
“Yes, he’s on the second floor.” The woman looked between them, a quiet smile flickering on her lips when she recognized the man in front of her. “You will find the stairs and the elevator farther down the hallway.”
“Thanks.” Brandon grabbed Isabel’s hand again as he sprinted down the corridor, taking her with him. He paused in front of the busy elevator, and when a few frantic jabs at the button failed to open the door, he made his way towards the stairs. Helpless, she kept up with him, heart hammering as they approached the intensive care unit.
“Thank god, you are here.” Emily pulled them into a crushing embrace, the concern on her face giving way to a brittle smile. “I’ve been so worried.”
“How is he?” Brandon asked, his eyes darting at the glass window of the cabin. Emily followed his gaze, swallowing hard.
“He was conscious when he was brought in,” she answered. “He’s lost a lot of blood so they decided to keep him under observation for a few hours although the doctor assured me the injuries weren’t too grave.” Looking at them, she let out a small laugh. “He wouldn’t stop talking, so they had to sedate him.”
“That’s Ben for you.” A faint smile appeared on Brandon’s lips, disappearing as quickly. “It’s going to be all over the place. We need security.”
“Louis is taking care of that.” Mark walked up to them, hands firmly lodged inside the pockets of his turtleneck coat. “The lads are on their way. What’s happening here?”
The door of the intensive care opened and a doctor appeared. His smile was directed at Emily.
“How is he?” she asked. The doctor shook his head with a laugh.
“Unfortunately, he’s still Ben,” he said. “A broken ankle, a dislocated shoulder, and a fractured head cannot hold him down.” Moving away from the door, he pulled off his gloves. “You can go ahead if you want to meet him. He’s slightly delirious from the sedative but conscious enough to recognise people.”
“Why don’t you go in first?” Emily said to the three of them. “I’ll be there in a while.”
Brandon exchanged a confused glance with Mark, afraid of what was awaiting them inside. Isabel did not have the same problem. She easily pushed open the door, striding right in until the bed came in view. Crossing her arms, she narrowed her brown eyes at the patient, a deep frown settling on her brow.
“Hi,” Ben drawled from the bed. He was surrounded by machines, two IV drips injected into his arm, his head heavily bandaged, a sling across his left shoulder and his plastered left leg elevated. “What was for dinner?”
Isabel inhaled sharply as her jaw stiffened. Her hard gaze rolled across the recumbent form of her brother, throat closing in.
“Lasagna and lobster ravioli,” Mark answered the question, coming up behind her. “She spent the whole day cooking.”
“Oh…man.” Ben slurred, his eyes closing. “I love Italian food…”
Abruptly turning on her heel, Isabel walked past Brandon to leave the room. In the distance, she saw Ben’s father, Dr Thomas Barrett, by the side of Emily, holding his wife by her shoulders and quite possibly asking her to not cry. She quietly walked down the stairs, her boots tapping on the cold, hard floor with every step. When she reached the lobby of the hospital, her eyes did a quick survey of the hall. It wasn’t an unfamiliar place. That hospital held several memories for her. She was born there, and also reborn sixteen years later.
Her hands were freezing despite the gloves as she sank into one of the unoccupied benches at the far end of the lobby. People walking in with rain jackets and umbrellas suggested it ha not stopped raining. It probably would not that night.
Dropping her face in her hands, she sighed. It had been an abrupt turn of events. One moment she was laying out dinner and the next, they were being informed by Emily that Ben’s car had skidded and crashed into a building. Knowing Ben, there was a good chance he was going to recover in no time. He was stronger than he appeared to be. But for those few minutes of her life, she had been frightened like never before.
London had taken away a lot from her. Even if for a fraction of a second, she had not been able to help thinking that maybe her brother was next.
“There you are.” Brandon walked over to the bench, carrying his coat in the crook of his arm. “Are you alright?”
She nodded, looking up when he sat next to her. He had been anxious and overwhelmed throughout the drive to the hospital, barely speaking a word. She could not blame him; the news had been a shock for all of them. They’d had several setbacks over the years— lost passports, injuries, bomb scares, family emergencies. But they had never been so close to losing someone they dearly loved. It could have changed their worlds forever. Ben was alive and receiving the best treatment, but she knew big changes were still going to come.
“Ben had a narrow escape,” he finally said, clasping his hands together. “The airbags hadn’t deployed.”
Isabel’s mouth fell open. Brandon sighed, fishing out his phone from his pocket. “Louis is on his way,” he announced, scrolling through his messages. “The press already knows, so there will be additional security outside the hospital.”
He broke off and rested his head against the wall behind him, breathing out a deep exhale. Isabel resisted the urge to reach over and hold his hand.
“What are we going to do, Izzi?” he murmured. “Two months to the start of the tour and we are without a member.”
“He could have died,” she retorted, her muscles tensing again. “It wouldn’t matter if there was no upcoming tour, right?”
Brandon tilted his head, dark gaze settling on her face. “I didn’t mean that.”
Rising to her feet, she slid her hands inside her coat pockets, sensing Brandon’s frown on her.
“I’m going home,” she announced. “There’s nothing for me to do here.”
“You will be swarmed by fans and reporters the moment you step outside.” He rose behind her, gently tugging her by an elbow to draw her close to himself. “Stay with me, please.”
“I’ve had a long day, I’m tired, and I need a shower.” She breathed, pulling away. “There’s a lot of food at home. Do you think the lads would want to drop in for a late dinner?”
“I’m sure they aren’t going to turn down lasagna or ravioli,” he said, reaching for her again. “Are you really alright?”
“Stop asking that.” Pushing him away, she took two steps back. “You have a tour to worry about. There shouldn’t be anything else on your mind right now.”
“Izzi, I don’t want to fight,” he warned with a tired sigh. “We are just as worried as you are, and try as hard as we might we cannot forget about the tour. We’ve sold four hundred thousand tickets, there’s a lot at stake here.”
“Someone’s life is at stake here.” Isabel looked into his eyes, her throat tight. “He’s my brother, Brandy. You haven’t forgotten what he did for me, have you? His life will never be more important than a goddamned tour.”
Crossing his arms, he filled his chest with air as his gaze lowered. “I have not forgotten anything,” he said with quiet force. “And I’m surprised you think I find the tour more important than Ben’s life. I don’t. He’s as much a brother to me as he is to you.”
“No. He isn’t.” She swallowed around the lump in her throat, pushing her hair behind her ear. “He will never mean to any of you as he means to me. He saved my life ten years ago. You and I wouldn’t be together if it wasn’t for him.”
“Please, Izzi.” He grabbed her arms, his control slipping. “If we must fight, do you mind waiting until we are behind closed doors? I have no idea what has happened to you. It feels like I’m walking on eggshells all the time around you.”
“Let me go,” she hissed, squirming in his hands. Brandon’s grip only tightened on her.
“You are staying,” he asserted. “I cannot let you face the crowd outside all alone.”
“I don’t care about anything right now.” Her voice was breaking, and she gritted her teeth to hold on to the last fragments of stability. “Please let me go.”
The sound of someone clearing their throat jerked them apart. Emily’s confused gaze was trained on them, her arms crossed against her chest as a scowl formed on her brow.
“Louis is here,” she announced. “He wants to see you.”
Picking up his coat, Brandon hurried away, leaving Isabel to fold her arms around her body. When he had disappeared from view, Emily finally stepped forward, gently taking her hands in her own. Isabel was suddenly too afraid to meet her gaze.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “It seemed like you were fighting.”
“It’s nothing,” Isabel shrugged. Emily smiled fondly at her.
“I’m a therapist, Isabel Fletcher,” she said. “I recognise the signs of marital strife with my eyes closed.” Cupping her cheek, she searched her face. “It isn’t the first time I’ve seen you being cold towards each other in the past few months. Ben had made a passing mention about trouble in paradise─”
“Aunt Emily.” Isabel held her hand, bringing it down from her cheek. “Ben has to get better. Please don’t worry about me right now. Your son needs you.”
“You are our daughter, Iz. We have always loved the two of you equally, even if you never felt comfortable calling us mum and dad.” The older woman palmed her small shoulders, staring down at her tired face. “This is eerily reminiscent of our time in this hospital ten years ago… You were in that same intensive care unit after being rescued and we were right where we are now, helplessly watching and praying you would pull through.”
“We… don’t have to talk about that,” Isabel murmured. “This is an accident. It’s different.”
“And we know Ben will pull through just like you had.” Emily squeezed her shoulders, and then looked ahead in the distance. “But you are struggling to pull through this marriage. Aren’t you?”
“I’m alright,” she answered in a small voice. “It’s just been stressful with back to back recordings and shows and travelling.”
“Is the band taking a toll on your relationship?” Emily frowned. “I know this isn’t the time to talk about it, but from what I just saw━”
“Would you like to come over for some Italian food?” Isabel offered, overriding her comment. “None of you have had anything to eat.”
“Mark was eating some kimberley biscuits,” Emily chuckled. Isabel shook her head with a small smile.
“I’m feeding all of you tonight,” she said. “Please drop in.”
“You’re going home? It’s mayhem outside.”
“I know the backdoor to the hospital. I can avoid the mayhem.”
She allowed Emily to hug her, finding solace in her motherly embrace. Within moments, she was sneaking out of the lesser-known back door of the hospital, used only by the staff. In the distance, she heard the reporters and fans, crowding the hospital like bees around a hive. Turning her attention away from the chaos, she hailed a passing taxi and set on her way home.
The rumours about the band ending were all over the place. It was nothing to be surprised of, considering they’d had an interesting amalgam of rumours over the years. If hearsay was to be believed, then all of them were homosexuals, they had been in three plane crashes so far, and the lion at a South African safari had attacked them two years ago.
The lads were good at laughing off rumours. But this one was too real for comfort. With their highly anticipated tenth-anniversary show knocking on the door, they were suddenly clueless about going ahead as a quartet. It had always been five of them. Even Louis did not have a course of action in place for something so unexpected.
She had been looking forward to the show. The band wanted it to be their biggest ever concert, on a much larger scale than their massive show at Wembley Arena two years ago, and had been planning it all with William Baker, the show’s director, for over three months. They had designed the stage, decided that they wanted dancers and backing singers, and roped in Isabel to choose the songs and the musicians. The idea of them covering Kings of Leon had not impressed her, but they thought it would be a good laugh.
Being in the studio had always given her more satisfaction than managing the sound at live concerts. She loved the acoustics of a recording studio and how they could make even the worst voice in the world sound pleasing. Tours usually left her exhausted, and the sight of thousands of screaming people made her nervous. But not this time. Not Croke Park. Ireland had given her a new life. It was where it all began. She’d been excited to commemorate the occasion with her closest friends.
And now there were talks of them breaking up.
“More beer, anyone?” Mark finally decided to break the silence in the living room. The four of them were sitting around the coffee table, legs stretched out on the sofa as they each nursed a bottle of Guinness while staring aimlessly at random objects. The half-eaten lasagna was on the table, going cold.
“I need to drive back,” Nathan replied.
“I’ll have another,” Brandon raised a hand. Mark nodded, discarding the empty bottle while heading for the fridge. He sighted Isabel in the kitchen, absently flipping the pages of a book.
“I can take some of the food home,” he offered quietly. She looked behind her, before shaking her head at him.
“It’s fine,” she sighed. “No pressure.”
“It took you hours to make,” he walked up to her, leaning an elbow on the breakfast island. “And it’s delicious. I could eat all of it myself.”
“Why don’t you?”
Mark sighed, lifting a leg to sit on the cool marble counter. “I’m not very hungry,” he admitted. “Did you eat anything?”
“I’m not too hungry either.”
“Izzi, listen to me.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “We will make it through this. Just be strong, please. Ben was strong for you when you were fighting for life. You have to do the same for him.”
Isabel closed the book, momentarily glancing up at her dimpled friend in a black sweatshirt. His blue eyes were strangely calming, no sign of distress in them. Breathing in a deep inhale, she looked away.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered, tugging the sleeves of her t-shirt to cover her arms. “I know Ben will be alright, but seeing him like that, so close to death–“
“Don’t… say that.” Mark’s arms came around her in a strong embrace, quieting her. “He’s being moved out of intensive care tomorrow. He’s alive and safe. That’s all that matters.”
“We are a boyband. There will always be rumours.” He drew back and gazed into her eyes. “You are coming to the meeting tomorrow, right?”
“With the producers?”
“Yes. It’s an emergency. Louis managed to get hold of all of them.”
Mark nodded. “Louis insisted on your presence.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“You are part of our production team, Izzi. You set the tracklist, you are working with the musicians, you are the force behind the tour.” He gently patted her cheek, smiling. “Just be there. We need a woman amongst us.”
He left her side to stroll over to the fridge, fishing out two bottles of beer. It was well past midnight, but they had only returned home a while ago and Brandon would not be in bed until later. He had already emptied three bottles of beer, moving on to the fourth. Isabel half expected him to tumble into bed tipsy, even though they had an early start in the morning.
The conversation halted when she entered the living room, four sets of male eyes curiously peering at her. She picked up the tray of lasagna from the table, meeting Brandon’s gaze. They silently eyed each other for an awkward minute, neither of them blinking. With a small sigh, Isabel turned around.
No one spoke as she headed back to the kitchen and put the food in the fridge. Later, she sauntered into the lonely bedroom, peeling the sheets to let herself into bed. With the lights turned out, she finally gave in to the tears she had held back all day.
(to be continued)