Isabel stopped at the door of Ben’s private room in the hospital, her hand inches away from the knob when she glanced through the small glass panel. Her brother was asleep but he was not alone. A young brunette with full lips and piercing blue eyes sat next to him, holding his hand.
Susan Cavendish. Ben’s childhood friend and beloved. Isabel had been a witness to their growing relationship ever since they met at an inter school archery contest fourteen years ago. They had gone from being at loggerheads to being the best of friends, sharing the same sarcasm and dry sense of humour. Susan always came to their shows, and often travelled with him on tours, and every time he pulled her aside to steal a kiss or a nuzzle, the attraction was apparent. Ben had kept her hidden from the media for years, and it was often hard to tell if they were in love or only close friends. But the tears in Susan’s eyes, spilling over as she stared at his bruised face, made Isabel believe they indeed shared a special bond.
She stepped back, her throat catching for some reason. Their phones had not stopped ringing since the news got around. Mark’s parents had been calling, so were Kyle’s and Nathan’s. Gillian wanted to come to London but could not because she had nobody to leave the twins with. Brandon’s parents and his brother Liam were on their way to see Ben. Elsa had been working herself into a frenzy back in Sligo.
It had been a long night for all of them. Isabel had cried herself to sleep, unaware of when Brandon had come to bed. Mark and Nathan had gone home but Kyle had stayed in the guest room. They had left for the meeting together that morning. It had not gone well.
When Brandon turned up at her side, he still looked upset. Production meetings were always heated, and with Simon Cowell present in the room, things were not expected to be smooth. Isabel glanced at his unshaven face, his eyes hard as he stared through the glass panel in the door, a small frown in between his eyebrows. The fragile vulnerability on his handsome countenance made her reach for his hand.
“Do you want breakfast?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper. “We could stop somewhere. The Garden Cafe is around the corner. We━”
The rest of the words were lost when Brandon drew his hand away, sliding it inside his plaid coat. Isabel physically recoiled at the gesture, angry tears pricking the back of her eyes. She swallowed hard, withdrawing her hand.
“I know the meeting did not go well,” she offered quietly. “But there’s no use being upset about it. Louis did assure us that the tour would go as planned.”
“I’m not upset about that.” The words were slow and calculated. When he looked at her face, his frown deepened. “Stop pretending to be so oblivious.”
“What are you talking about?” she snapped. “What am I oblivious to?”
“Oh, so you want me to go around with a sign around my neck that says ‘I don’t like Simon Cowell making advances at my wife’?” His voice was laced with menace, shoulders squared and jaw tense. “Is that when you will see what’s making me upset?”
Isabel’s eyes widened, realization dawning on her. It was both surprising and distressing to suddenly find him jealous and possessive. Brandon was a secure person, comfortable with her physical appeal and the way it affected men. Perhaps, he was not in the right state of mind. Maybe the stress was making him irrational.
“He was not making advances at me,” she clarified, looking away. “That’s how he is with every woman. How long have you known him again?”
“I don’t care what he does with other women,” he gnarled. “But he does have some nerve to touch my wife and hold her hand in front of me.” Crossing his arms, he turned around. “It’s like I don’t even exist.”
“This isn’t the first time he has flirted with me,” she reminded him.
“Flirting is one thing,” he breathed. “Today he was trying to crawl inside your pants.”
The unintentional rise of her voice drew the attention of the nurses. She apologized, moving away from the door and farther down the hallway. Brandon followed, stopping a few feet from her.
“You’re getting worked up for no reason,” she said, her voice surprisingly calm.
“Oh, really?” His brow arched. “Some other guy tries to make advances at you and I’m supposed to play it cool. Is that so?”
He was not letting this go, was he?
“Look…” Wondering if the others were there yet, Isabel started to walk towards the stairwell. The last thing she wanted was to get caught fighting again by Ben’s parents. “That was the perfect time for you to swoop in and say ‘Hey, this is my wife. Back off, pal!’ But you didn’t.”
This time when they looked at each other, she warned him with her eyes. They were now getting into mined territory if he did not let this go.
“You didn’t seem to mind either,” he grunted, taking small steps behind her.
“Is that what this is all about?” Stopping abruptly, she turned to face him. She glared, her breaths quickening. “And how do you think I feel when Marissa flirts with you on camera and you seem to enjoy it?”
His hands fisted by his sides, the frown that had faded quickly making a return. Marissa was a reporter from Ireland’s leading TV channel, who never missed an opportunity to get physically close to him whenever she was interviewing the band. Isabel had noticed that she never flirted with the other lads, just her husband. She had resisted bringing it up so long, but not anymore.
“I think we’re finally getting somewhere with this,” he hissed. “So was this some sort of a payback?” He bridged the distance between them. “You don’t expect me to censure a reporter’s behaviour, do you? You want me to tell her on camera to keep her hands off me? I can’t do that.”
“Can’t or won’t?” she barked. “I see Simon not more than a few times a year. But you see Marissa every other week. And she does it all the time. Every damn time.”
She inched closer with predatory intent, blood roaring in her ears. Brandon held her gaze, almost expecting and preparing himself for a slap. His heartbeat quickened when she fisted the lapel of his coat, going into attack mode. “You have more liberty because you’re a man, don’t you?” she snarled. “It makes you feel powerful when women flirt with you, doesn’t it?”
“Hey!” he growled and roughly pulled her against his chest. “You know I don’t care who flirts with me, right? I don’t even remember how many interviews I give every day!”
“And I’m supposed to remember and take notice of everything because I’m a woman? You think I was enticing him?”
“Hell, no!” he let go of her, looking a little frustrated. “No… I don’t think that.” Closing his eyes, he ran a hand through his dark hair and tried to calm his temper. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have begun it in the first place.”
“Yes, you shouldn’t.” Isabel turned and resumed walking down the stairs, sticking to the side to let others pass. She had reached the bottom of the staircase when she faltered, sharp pain shooting through her pelvis. Brandon was at her side in a moment, holding her.
“Let me go,” she said. “I’m hungry. I have to get some food.”
“You aren’t alright,” he observed. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m fine.” Averting his eyes, she tried to ignore the pain in her body. Brandon cupped her cheek, holding up her face.
“Are you bleeding?” he asked, the ease in his voice taking her by surprise. Isabel squirmed, face flaming with embarrassment.
“How did you…?” she wondered aloud. Brandon’s hands snaked around her small waist, the warmth of his palms reaching her skin through the wool of her cardigan.
“I recognize the way you close your legs together when you’re bleeding, as if that will help things.” Looking around him, he sighed. “Are you protected? We are in a hospital. The restrooms usually have feminine supplies.”
“How do you know that?” she squeaked, eyes wide and gaping at him. He chuckled.
“You haven’t forgotten those times when we made love in the restroom, have you?” he smirked. “Or when you enlightened me that certain restrooms have emergency supplies?”
Isabel lowered her face, suddenly overcome with the urge to run and hide. She moistened her lips with her tongue, unable to meet his gaze.
“I can go home and… and… you know…” she fumbled. Brandon smiled down at her.
“Fine, let’s get you home,” he announced. “I can make us breakfast and you can get comfortable.”
“Don’t you have two more meetings?”
“Yes, but they are later.” He quickly checked the time on his watch. “I’ll come back in the evening to see Ben. Susan needs some time with him.”
Taking her hand, he gave it a small tug. “Forget what I said, okay?” His voice was thick with guilt. “I was not thinking.”
“None of us have been thinking since yesterday,” she sighed.
“Louis is. He did remember the personal injury claim that Ben is entitled to.” He breathed heavily, shaking his head. “I can’t believe the airbags didn’t deploy after a crash of that magnitude. It could have been worse.”
“Did the police find anything?”
“No. He was well within the speed limit, there was nothing wrong with the brakes, and he definitely was not drunk.” He put an arm around her, gently guiding her towards the exit. “I guess all of us have to use the back door while Ben is here. The reporters refuse to move from the front of the building.”
When he looked at Isabel, the pure discomfort on her face was heartbreaking. He was surprised to have not noticed the signs when she was getting close to her time of the month, like he usually did. To be able to see the signs, he needed to be more present. That was something he had not been for close to a year.
“Did you want to stop at the Garden Club?” he offered hesitantly as he helped her into the car. Isabel shook her head, fumbling around with the control until she had reclined the seat. Brandon cursed in his head. She had not been talking much to him lately, and he had managed to close her off further by starting the fight. He wished things were going as planned. The dinner had been his idea; he had hoped it would help her loosen up and relax. Instead, she had spent a good part of the day in the kitchen, ended up tired, and then dealt with her brother’s accident.
They made the drive home in silence. Isabel seemed to have dozed off, stirring in the seat only when he drove into the basement parking lot. He watched her get out of the car with painful slowness, almost dragging her feet as she walked over to the elevator and impatiently waited for him to follow. Something clenched inside him to realise that she did not want to take the stairs. He could only imagine the discomfort she was in if she was ready to face her greatest fear⎼ elevators.
Once they were inside, she withdrew into a corner of the elevator, folding her arms around her abdomen and whimpering through sealed lips. Brandon reached out to hold her, and after a moment of resistance, she gave in, crumbling against his chest. It was only when her shoulders trembled that he realised she was crying.
“What?” he lifted her chin with a finger. “Is it that bad?”
Isabel did not answer, hastening to wipe the tears away as they approached their destination. Brandon sighed, taking her hand when the door opened.
“No!” She gasped when he unlocked their apartment and stopped to pick her up. “Put me down.”
“I will.” He shouldered the door shut and strode towards their bedroom, pushing open the door with his foot. Isabel was relieved when he laid her down in bed.
“Don’t move,” he commanded, letting his coat drop to the floor as he disappeared into the ensuite bathroom. Isabel shrugged out of her sweater and raised herself on her elbows. When her husband appeared with a towel, a box of wet tissues, and a shiny pink tampon, she almost died.
“What are you doing?” Mortified, she recoiled when he approached her.
“Helping you.” He crawled over her body, deftly undoing her pants and sliding it down her hips. She stiffened and tried to pull away.
“You don’t have to do this.” Dragging herself away from him, she moved towards the tufted headboard, not caring about staining the sheets. “I can do it.”
“I know.” He leaned close and pressed his lips against hers in a soft kiss. “But I want to do it.”
Isabel turned magenta when he spread the towel on the bed and gently pulled her closer to the edge of the mattress, tossing her jeans on to the floor. She wanted to disappear amongst the pillows, her body flushed with unease. He’d never done that. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined revealing her bloodsoaked underwear to him. But there was nothing she could do to fight him. He would have his way.
Fisting the sheets in both hands she tried her best to not squirm when he removed her knickers. He kneeled, and his breath warm against the folds of her womanhood made her shiver.
“This is so awkward,” she mumbled almost inaudibly, covering her face with both hands. Brandon momentarily looked at her.
“What is?” he asked, pulling out a few tissues from the box. She yelped, her hips rising off the bed when the cold tissue made contact with her shaven labia. “Just how long have we been together, Izzi?”
“It’s gross,” she whined. “You didn’t have to see it.”
“It’s not gross,” he half-scolded her, continuing to tenderly clean her between her legs, removing the dead blood and tissues. “You’re fertile. You have the gift of life. It’s beautiful.”
He spread her legs wider, taking care to clean everywhere. Isabel breathed hard, too embarrassed to see what he was doing even though she could feel everything. The tenderness, the adeptness, the familiarity with her body. It made her want to cry.
“Heavy? Or regular?”
His voice brought her attention back to him. Stealing a glance downwards, she saw he was talking about the tampon in his hand. She flopped back down with a sigh.
“Definitely heavy,” she said. A moment of silence followed. Isabel looked down again, her stomach in knots.
“You know how a tampon works?” she asked. It had been years and it still hurt. She shuddered at the thought of him doing it for her.
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.” He tore open the wrapper, the sound making her body stiffen. Brandon paused, one hand gently rubbing her knee.
“Deep breaths,” he said. “Let your body relax.”
“It sounds like the first time we made love.” The memory made her cheeks flush. She tilted her head to the side, biting on a knuckle. “It had taken you two hours to get me to relax and loosen up.”
“You remember,” he laughed, holding her legs apart. “It still takes you time to relax, though. Your muscles are always tense.” He placed the cool tip of the tampon at her opening. “Like right now.”
“I’m sorry…” She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to help the tightening of her body. “It’s usually painful.”
“It shouldn’t be.” He started to slip in the applicator and felt her muscles constrict around the device. “Izzi… sweetheart. I don’t want to hurt you. It isn’t painful if you relax.”
“I’m trying…” she whimpered, her heart racing when he parted her folds with one hand while deftly slipping in the applicator. He paused for a moment, searching her face for any sign of pain.
“Relax,” he repeated. Isabel took a long, deep breath, and felt him push his index finger against the applicator. Within a few seconds, he had pushed it all the way in and she could no longer feel it. She looked down to find him pulling the applicator out.
“What did you do?” she squeaked. “I felt nothing.”
Brandon wordlessly sauntered to the walk-in closet while cleaning the blood off his fingers. He took out a fresh pair of knickers from her underwear drawer and returned to the foot of the bed.
“How long has it been bad?” he asked, slipping the underwear on her. Isabel sat up, torn between answering his query and revelling in the comfort she suddenly felt.
“I’m alright.” Moving back in the bed, she slumped against the headboard. Her abdomen and pelvis were protesting again, and she was starting to be queasy.
“You’re hiding,” he said, finally taking off her shoes. “I realise I haven’t been around much lately but that doesn’t mean I cannot want to know about you.”
“You really want to talk about this?” she snorted. “After what you said to me at the hospital…”
“Izzi…” he sighed. “I said I’m sorry. Don’t I have the right to be possessive about my wife sometimes?”
“Not by starting a fight in the middle of the hospital.” She rubbed the middle of her brow, shaking her head. “I’m sure Susan saw us.”
“I don’t care.” Brandon pressed a kiss to her forehead, lingering for longer than necessary. He had missed the feel of her soft skin against his lips. His heart sank when she pulled away.
“You better do,” she warned. “Because if you say something like that again, I’m going to smash your face. You do remember I had kickboxing lessons, right? I don’t want to destroy the band’s moneymaker.”
It took him a minute to realise she was not joking. The surge of guilt was accompanied by bewilderment. “You don’t want me to defend you?” he asked.
“You weren’t defending me. You were showing me my place.”
“Isabel…” he gasped, face reddening. “What are you saying?”
“What were you saying?” she retaliated. “Didn’t you imply that Simon wants to sleep with me?”
“I was not in my right mind!” he exclaimed. “Please. Can we just move on? I’m very sorry I started it.”
With a pained intake of breath, Isabel grabbed a pillow and hugged it, her body throbbing every time a spasm clenched at her muscles. Despite her annoyance, Brandon could not help sitting next to her when he saw the misery on her face.
“How long has it been bad?” he asked again.
Isabel bit back a sob. “The last few months.”
“Is it stress?”
“I don’t know.”
“So you’ve been spending five days of every month in agony?” he noted. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You haven’t been around,” she retorted. “You’re never here when I need you and then you suddenly pretend as though I deliberately don’t tell you things.”
“You can tell me things even when I’m away,” he offered.
“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “Remember last month when you guys were in Belfast and I needed only a few minutes of your time? You hung up unceremoniously because you were in a meeting and could not talk.” The memory made her eyes well up again. “You didn’t realise I was not well. You didn’t realise I hadn’t slept in three nights because my symptoms were bad. And you want me to tell you things when you can’t even spare a minute for me.”
Brandon looked away in regret and self-reproach when it suddenly became clear why she seemed to have lost weight. “I’m sorry…” he murmured, admitting defeat. “I know an apology isn’t enough but I hope you know I don’t enjoy staying away from home. It’s my job. It requires sacrifices.”
“It’s not just a job for you, it’s your lifestyle,” she scorned. “And you aren’t the one making sacrifices.”
His body tingled with stubborn pride. “I am,” he countered. “Every moment that I spend away from you is a sacrifice. How do you think it makes me feel when I know you’re somewhere backstage but still get to see you only when you’re asleep in the hotel room and I’m stumbling in after a long night?”
“So why not make it to the room in time, while I’m still awake and waiting for you?” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “You have no discipline, Brandy. None at all. I’ve tried long and hard to get the boy out of you but at this point, I no longer care.”
His throat tightened. “You… don’t care about me anymore?”
“I wish I didn’t.” Her snicker was infused with wryness. “But you’re all I have. I can never run away from you. The best I can do is get used to being on my own so I don’t need you for anything. After all, you’re the ninth richest celebrity in Ireland, right? You have more important things to take care of.”
“Celebrity?” he bit out a laugh. “You think so? You have seen us without the makeup, the grooming, the choreographed moves. When I come home to you, I’m not a celebrity. I’m your husband, the lad you fell in love with all those years ago.” He rose from the bed, pulling up the duvet to cover her body. “The man you hopefully still love.”
He reached a hand to stroke her hair. “I don’t blame you for anything. All the fights we’ve had over the last few months… I started all of them. I understand your anger, but right now I only want to take care of you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“I want to. Please? You should stay in bed today. Take it easy this week. Things will soon be hectic.”
“Are we still going to Dublin?” she asked.
“Yes.” He turned around, picking up the supplies from the floor and heading into the bathroom. When he came back to the room, Isabel seemed lost in thought.
“What?” he queried, squinting at her. She stared at his face, the colour suddenly leaving her cheeks.
“Is the band really going to end?” The question came out on a whisper, half-afraid, half-confused. Brandon filled his lungs with air, before slowly exhaling through his nose.
“I’ll make breakfast and bring it to you, okay?” he smiled. “What would you like?”
“If you think this will make everything right, you’re mistaken.”
“Can’t a man try?” He framed her face. “I know I have no discipline. That’s what being the spoilt youngest child of the family does to you. But I want to look after you when you’re not your best. I can’t leave you like this.”
Isabel stifled a groan when pain shot through her lower body, nearly making her head swim. “Just get me some ibuprofen,” she whined, burrowing her face in the pillow.
“I’ll also get you some bacon sandwiches and baked beans,” he nodded, leaving the room. She listened to the fading footsteps, glad that for the first time in several months, she had someone to take care of her again.
“The band cannot go on as a four-piece,” Kyle announced from the corner of the room. “We are in this together. We decided long ago that if one of us leaves, all of us do.”
“Ben is alive,” Louis explained, fatigue and frustration creeping into his voice. “Stop making it sound like he’s dead. You don’t have to be a four-piece.”
“It’s only for a few months,” Nathan said, turning behind to look at Kyle. “Ben needs time to recover. But we must go on in the meanwhile.”
“Ben is the life of the band,” Mark quipped, anxiously twisting his wristband. Louis threw up his hands in defeat.
“What has happened to all of you?” he exclaimed. “Ben will get better and be back in time for the Croke Park show. The band is not turning into a quartet, and definitely not ending.” He looked at Brandon, who was seated across from them on an ottoman, absently staring at the carpet. “Why don’t you say something? You’ve been quiet all day.”
Brandon looked up, his eyes passing over each of the men in the room, before settling on the carpet again. “There’s nothing to say,” he sighed. “We are too emotionally invested in the band to carry on if something happens to one of us.”
“Boyzone carried on after Stephen’s death,” Louis pointed out.
“You made them carry on,” Kyle retorted. “We know how hard it was for them.”
“Louis…” Nathan sighed, coursing his fingers through pale blonde hair. “Why don’t you leave us alone for the night? We can sort this out without you.”
“Very well.” Their grey-haired manager rose from the sofa, grabbing his coat from the back of the door. “I’ll see you at the hospital tomorrow. Don’t forget about that press conference.”
Kyle looked grateful when he left the room. He sank into the nearest chair and seemed ready to pass out.
“No more crying,” Nathan warned, eyeing him suspiciously. “We’ve had enough stress for today.”
“You cried too,” Mark found it important to mention. Nathan rolled his eyes.
“What am I supposed to do when all of you are getting emotional?” he said, pouring himself another glass of whiskey. His gaze rolled across their frontman.
“How’s Izzi?” he asked. “Is she holding up?”
Brandon shrugged, recalling the fight he had started that morning and how sick she had been later. He had not had the chance to call her through the day to ensure she was resting as per his suggestion. After spending most of his time away from home, he doubted he even had the right to tell her what to do any longer. He was never there when she needed him. If today it had been Isabel in place of Ben, he would not have been able to do anything, except helplessly watch his world crumble all around him.
A shiver ran down his spine when the thought crossed his mind. Ben was his best friend, his brother. He cared about all the lads and their families like his own. But Isabel was his world, his soul. Letting her down meant failing in his own eyes.
Three pairs of curious eyes locked on him when he rose from his seat in a hurry.
“Leaving?” Nathan raised his eyebrows. Brandon nodded.
“It’s late,” he said. “I need to be with Izzi.”
He grabbed his coat, quickly wished the lads goodnight, and headed for his car. It was nearly midnight when he returned to the apartment, all dark and quiet except for the low hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the clock. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, Isabel asleep in bed, her heavy breathing echoing through the room. With one hand she held a heat pack to her abdomen, the other folded under her head. Brandon’s eyes threatened to well up when she winced in her sleep, her face contorting in pain.
Ten years. They had changed much in all this time. Nathan was a father, Kyle was mellow and happily settled with Rose, Mark was out of the closet and had found love with Kevin, Ben had a companion in Susan. His parents had closed the restaurant and now enjoyed their trips across the globe. He had seventeen nieces and nephews. They were not anymore the fresh-faced young lads they were a decade ago. They were men of almost thirty, with families, responsibilities, and a public life that chased them everywhere.
But Isabel had been constant in his life, helping him up every time he stumbled, taking care of home and hearth with devotion and discipline, and keeping the wheels running in his absence. He did not know how she managed to always have the fridge stocked with food while going about two jobs – one with the band and the other with the music school. He did not know how she found the patience or skill to train a bunch of blind children to sing to a standing ovation at the Slane Castle. He did not know how she had the foresight to make him remove his investments before the Irish property market crash and save him from doom.
All he knew was that he did not deserve her. That was not what he intended when he married her. He never wanted her to get used to being alone or cry herself to sleep or spend her life waiting for him. He had wanted to be there for her, live up to every word of the vows he had spoken.
Watching her alone in an empty house, he knew he had failed.
Isabel stirred in her sleep when he climbed into bed and settled under the duvet. “How’s Ben?” she mumbled.
“Better.” He kissed her shoulder, one hand settling on her abdomen. “Would you like me to reheat that pack?”
“No.” She pushed back into him, trying to leech his warmth. “There’s still some lobster ravioli in the fridge.”
Brandon blinked back the tears, squeezing her shoulder as he pressed his face against her neck. “I’ve eaten,” he whispered. “Sleep now.”
“Are you alright?” she asked. He kissed her hair, nodding to himself.
“As long as you are with me, yes.” The words hung in the silence of the night as he let sleep wash over him.
(to be continued)