“I have lived next to this guy for five years,” Ben’s voice was without a trace of amusement. “I thought his name was Sean. I call him Sean. His name in my phone book is Sean. I’ve been to his apartment. We’ve had drinks together.”
“And?” Kevin urged, stifling a chuckle as he looked between the patient on the bed and his boyfriend Mark next to him. He had returned home that morning after completing his photoshoot and had not stopped asking questions.
“His name is Bruce.” Ben’s sigh sounded despondent. “His dog is Sean.”
Isabel paused at the doorway, having just opened the door. She frowned at her brother, before looking behind her at Brandon.
“Is he still delirious?” she whispered to him. Brandon rolled his eyes, shutting the door behind him. Ben looked at them, breaking into a ridiculous grin.
“There you go,” he said. “Now it looks like the final scene of a movie. Everyone’s here, surrounding the patient.”
Susan momentarily peered over the book she was reading, promptly disappearing behind it again. Everyone indeed was there, from Ben’s parents to the lads to Rose and Kevin. Isabel quickly scanned the room, before stepping back and pulling her jacket closer around herself.
“You seem better,” Brandon observed. It had been a week since the accident, his wounds were healing well, and physical therapy was due to start in another week. Dancing was out of question for the next few months but he could not wait to walk again. It was as uncomfortable for him to be indisposed as it was for everyone else to watch him in that state.
At least his spirits were still high.
“I am, thank you very much.” He chuckled, resting his bandaged head against the ergonomic pillow behind him. “Louis said you guys cried because you thought the band was ending.”
“No,” Kyle shook his head. “Because we were worried about you and not because we thought the band would end.”
“Not again,” Isabel groaned, turning around. She’d had enough of that breakup talk for one lifetime. Hy-Life was more than just a band. It made them one, kept them close, and gave them fulfilment. It was not about the money or the music. It was about being together, sharing the same joy and memories.
“Get over it, Izzi,” Ben smiled. “It isn’t ending. We have at least another ten years.”
“I agree.” Nathan smiled, walking over to the side of the bed and holding one of his hands in brotherly warmth. “You must get better soon, and then we will be raring to go into another decade.”
“Oh, he’s alright,” Susan chirped from behind her book. “He made me sneak in three ice-creams today and ate them all from my hand.”
“Susan…” Emily looked shocked as she sighed, shaking her head.
“I was merely getting back at you for the time you made me boil spaghetti at three in the night while you read aloud from Wikipedia,” Ben cleared his throat. “Contrary to popular belief, the black widow spider doesn’t always kill and eat her male. If she’s been recently fed, he might be allowed to live.”
“I would break your head if it was not already broken,” she muttered under her breath, quickly hiding behind her book again.
“Why would you need spaghetti at three in the night?” Mark frowned.
“Because she hadn’t eaten all day,” Ben answered. “And the hunger pangs wouldn’t let her sleep.”
“She’s a good match for you,” Isabel said. Ben shifted slightly and laughed.
“Yes, like you were always the perfect match for him,” he pointed at Brandon. “Has peace returned to paradise?”
“You need not concern yourself with us at the moment,” Brandon crossed his arms. “You have yourself to think about now.”
“That’s what I always do, Fletcher.” His gaze switched between his sister and her husband. “When are you having children? Jay and Max are almost a year old now. You’re behind.”
“Well…” Brandon looked down at the floor, the abruptness of the question suddenly drawing all attention to them. “When we got married, she’d said she would kill anyone who asked her that.”
“Too bad I’m already half dead.” He chuckled deliriously. “Come on, I want a following of my own. When your children are older and hate you for ruining their life, I’ll still be cool uncle Ben.”
“And that’s the most important thing,” Mark rolled his eyes. “If they have a son, you’ll probably teach him how to pick up girls.”
“Don’t you dare,” Brandon raised an eyebrow.
“Are you saying I don’t have taste?” Ben gestured at the sofa. “I have excellent taste.”
Their eyes settled on Susan. The quintessential British lassie frowned at them.
“What?” Her husky voice came out in a squeak. Slowly shaking his head, Ben looked at Isabel again.
“So, as I was saying,” he continued. “It’s time you had children. Enough to fill that mansion of yours.”
“I need some air,” Isabel turned, reaching for the doorknob. Brandon held the door open for her.
“I’ll come with you,” he said with a smile. “Would you like to get a coffee?” He asked when they were in the hallway. “There’s a Costa right around the corner.”
“Sure,” she nodded, fishing the woollen gloves out of her fleece-lined leather jacket and slipping them on. It was mild that evening, clear sky adorned with twinkling stars and full moon. The lads had done their first gig as a quartet last night for Childline, where fans had held up banners that screamed ‘We miss Ben’. Since he returned from the show, Brandon had been quiet and pensive. A part of Isabel wanted to know what was coursing through his mind but the other part of her gave him the space he needed after a tragedy that had rocked them.
Things had been less tense between them that week. He had cared for her through her cycle, looked after the house without being asked to, and remained home with her as best as possible. The press conferences, interviews, and endless questions from all corners had drained them. Isabel was glad he could let go with her, stripping off the façade, the makeup and the fancy clothing to reveal the man that wanted to break down and cry.
They got a coffee each at Costa, and Isabel suspiciously watched her husband put two cubes of sugar in his drink before reaching for a third. She was quick to pick the extra sugar out of his coffee and put it into hers. Brandon said nothing, only fondly laughed.
“Where are we going?” she asked as he took her hand and led her out on to busy Westminster. It was surprising that he wanted to walk. He usually took his car if she sent him to buy bread from the supermarket two minutes from their apartment. Brandon looked around them for oncoming traffic, before crossing the street.
“To the riverbank,” he replied, letting go of her hand when they were on the sidewalk. “Years ago, when I first came to London, Ben had enlightened me that this was one of the most romantic places in the city.”
“It is,” Isabel agreed with a smile. “But I thought sleeping on the banks of Lough Gill or watching you sing on Friday nights at Bohemia was more romantic.”
“I was sad when that place closed,” he nodded, taking the first sip of his coffee to realise it was still too hot. “What’s Hunter up to these days?”
“I have no idea. He left Sligo, I heard.” Leaning her elbows on the metal rails, she stared at the shimmering reflection in the water. “You wanted to buy that place, didn’t you?”
Brandon chuckled. “I changed my mind later because I didn’t have what it takes to run a coffee shop.” He held the tumbler between his hands, warning his palms. “We used to stop for hot chocolate there whenever we went to the woods for a ride.”
“Irish hot chocolate,” Isabel noted.
“Yeah…” he nodded with a small smile. “The hot cocoa and cookie combination there was good, but we were never able to make them understand that the two should arrive at the same time.”
“I know, right?” she laughed. “Most of the time we ended up bringing the cookies home.”
“Remember when I fell from Carlton Flight, hurt my back and broke my ankle?”
“I remember that distinct crack of bone more than anything.”
“That was painful,” he winced. “I cannot imagine how much more painful it must be for Ben.”
When Isabel looked at his face, a thousand emotions seemed to be running around in his head. His eyes were dazed, slightly lost, as he stared at the illuminated embankment, hands unconsciously rolling the tumbler between them. She took a swig of her own drink and looked away, ignoring the way her throat tightened the more she stared at him.
“It’s all an illusion,” he finally said, his gaze unwavering. Isabel frowned.
“Our lives.” Sipping his coffee, he rolled it around in his mouth before he swallowed. “Nothing is permanent.”
He glanced at her and nodded. “We needed this.”
“Needed what?” she asked.
“Ben’s accident.” His sigh was heavy. “After ten years in the business, we’ve got egos. Maybe nothing outrageous but it’s still there. We keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’re the biggest pop act of the UK, we’re worth 20 million euros, we don’t give a damn.'”
Pausing, he breathed out a noisy exhale. Isabel waited for him to carry on.
“Ben’s accident was like being knocked to the ground,” he murmured. “Somewhere down the line, we’d forgotten to stop and sort our priorities. We gave everything to the band. And suddenly, there we were, on the verge of losing one-fifth of the band, a close friend, a brother.”
He closed his eyes, as if at the same time both willing and unwilling to relive the memory. “It made me realise how utterly mortal we all are.” His voice was gruff with emotion. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve sold thirty million albums or if we hold two world records. The show will end, the fame will fade, the crowds will not remember us one day. And then it will all come down to what’s really important in life.”
Isabel saw him blinking back tears as he took a small sip. It made her heart ache. “This is Ben we are talking about,” he added. “The most genuine, unselfish person I’ve ever known. He isn’t in the band because of the money or the fame or the fan following. He doesn’t care if he gets the second lead or the third lead or just the chorus. He sings for the sheer joy of it. He dances because he wants everyone to join him… I’m not ashamed to admit that he’s more a brother to me than my own brothers.”
“He is getting better…” she said quietly. “It won’t be long.”
“It isn’t just that.” Taking two long gulps of his coffee, he swallowed slowly. “It could have been anyone. It could have been me, it could have been you, it could have been Nathan or Kyle or Mark.” Turning, he leaned his back against the rails. “Being in the band is our job. We have established ourselves as singers and can continue to have a career in music if the band ends. But the loss of a loved one… that’s devastating. Life doesn’t remain the same anymore.”
“It’s funny how a close encounter with death changes our whole perspective,” Isabel’s smile was sad and brittle. “I’ve been through it twice.”
“That’s what has made you so much stronger than us.” He looked at her face, his brow furrowing. “You’ve been calmer than all of us through this.” The words were punctuated with a sip of coffee. “Either that or you’ve been hiding it inside.”
She closed her hands around the tumbler, shivering when the nippy air stroked her face. Her eyes drooped when an arm came around her, drawing her against a strong, leather-clad torso.
“I’m sorry about everything,” he said, using a finger to move a stray lock of hair from her face. “We’ve been busy planning the tenth-anniversary tour, and it hasn’t left us with much time for anything else. I know you’ve been home alone, going through the daily grind without me of any help… I know sometimes I don’t even have the time for a long phone call. Your temper is understandable.”
“It’s alright,” she nodded up at his beautiful face. “I promised to support you in all that you did.”
“And I vowed to give you a good life. Not a lonely, miserable one.” He put down his coffee and cupped her face with both hands. “Marriage requires two people and I haven’t done my part as much as I should have. That day when you said you no longer care…”
He swallowed, his eyes turning a shade darker. “Do you still love me, Izzi?” he rasped. “Am I still the man you trusted with your life?”
“No, tell me, please. I want you to talk to me. It’s always been easy for you to give up and pull away, retreat into your shell, turn your back to the world. But you know you can be honest with me. If your heart’s not in this anymore–”
“Is this all coming from a place of fear?” she sighed. “You are a pop star. You are micromanaged. You cannot do anything to make your life less hectic. Talking about it is pointless.”
“No,” he growled. “There are things I can do but never have. And yes, this is coming from a place of fear. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose our marriage or the faith that you had in me.”
“I still do.” Isabel’s shoulders sagged. “I’m just tired of trying to make things the way we want them. You aren’t like other husbands. It’s unfair to expect you to give me the kind of time that other men can devote to their wives.”
“So you’re validating my faults?”
“No, just accepting what cannot be changed.” She searched his face. “You think we are going to lose our marriage?”
“Distance affects relationships. You get used to living on your own, knowing you cannot depend on your spouse to be present.” Moving away, he rested his arms on the rails, eyes gazing down into the water. “You’ve always been on your own, too comfortable with loneliness. When we fell in love, I wanted that to change. I never wanted you to be lonely again. But then we exploded onto the music scene and our private lives suddenly ceased to exist.”
“You sound like you regret all of it.”
“I don’t. But I would if I lost you.”
“You haven’t.” She touched his back, trying to feel the contours underneath. “Just because you have a high-profile career to take care of doesn’t mean I’m going to love you any less.”
“You were so young when you married me.” His lips swooped down and pressed against her brow in a warm kiss. “You gave up the world you knew to be part of my world. You got tied to my life, the pressures of my career, the public scrutiny and unwanted attention. And you endured it without a complaint.”
“I knew what I was getting into.”
“Yes,” he sighed. “But no woman dreams of an empty bed when she gets married.”
“You’ve been good to me,” she said. “You gave me a comfortable life with the luxuries I could never dream of. I can’t complain about your career. It’s given us the comforts we enjoy.”
“It’s easy to confuse between who we are and what we are, sweetheart.” Brandon picked up his coffee again, pulling open the lid. “It almost seems like I expect you to find solace in the luxuries and comforts when I’m not around. I know other women would do that. Gillian spends ten thousand euros every month on clothes. Rose takes luxury holidays. Hell, even Kevin has started to spend more than he used to since he moved in with Mark.” Raising a hand, he wiped his mouth. “Not you, though. I think we have taken only three holidays so far, and one of them was our honeymoon, and you did not shop on any of those vacations.”
“You get me plenty of things when you’re travelling.” Gulping down the remainder of the coffee, she smiled. “You’re my childhood friend, Brandy. I’m not with you for your money.”
“I know.” Closing the lid of the tumbler, he put it away. “I would give up the band if you asked me to. All of us would if our partners weren’t happy.”
“You do know we would never make that demand, right?” she chuckled. “You would hate us if we did.”
“Not if there was a good reason behind it.” His face turned a little sad. “You’ve been through terrible things in life. You deserve all the happiness.”
“I do have all the happiness.”
“Really? What about the times I made you cry? When I made you doubt where you belong… when I made you feel the band comes before you?”
“Brandy…” Shaking her head, she pulled her arms around her body. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not here, not now.”
His intense gaze settled on her face, even as his hand reached for hers. “Will you forgive me?” He squeezed her fingers. “I swear nothing comes before you. Nothing.”
“I believe you,” she nodded. “Can we go home? It’s getting colder.”
“Yes. Let me…” He fished out his phone and quickly texted Nathan that they were leaving. “Would you like to get some Chinese takeaway?”
“I can cook,” she offered.
“You can but you will not.” He held her hands, kissing her knuckles through the gloves. “We’ll get takeout, open our favourite wine, and take a candlelit bath before bed.”
He saw Isabel’s eyes widen. “A bath?”
“Yes. In the big hot tub we have at home.”
“We haven’t done that in a while.”
“I know. I want to change that tonight.” Holding her close, he let his hands drift past her waist and settle on her hips. The way tension coiled in her muscles was heavenly. “We leave for Dublin in two days. I don’t think we can spend much time together in the weeks to come.”
“I wanted to stay back and look after Ben,” she murmured.
“He will be moved to Sligo once he’s able to walk,” he filled her in. “Emily and Elsa are enough to handle him. And then there’s Susan.”
“While I am needed to handle you?” she quirked an eyebrow.
“Oh, yes.” His voice dropped, turned slightly husky. “All of me.”
At his words, Isabel’s eyes lowered bashfully. Brandon smiled, turning his head to gaze at the hospital in the distance. He had faith in that institution. They had given her a new life ten years ago, and he was certain they would do the same for Ben.
“Everything will be alright,” he said to her. “Never stop believing.”
She nodded, wordlessly assuring him that she would not. They picked up the empty tumblers and started to walk down the South Bank, leaving the bustling streets of Westminster behind.
It smelled of roses in their Notting Hill apartment. Isabel watched Brandon clean up the table after dinner, before carrying the near-empty bottle of Zinfandel to the bathroom. She followed him, only to find several scented candles surrounding the tub, the light bouncing off the walls and creating a golden halo. In the quietness, she could hear her own breathing and the soft gurgle of the steaming water.
She failed to recall when they had last been in that bath together or when candles had been last lit in the bathroom. The past few months that Brandon had been busy, she had kept herself occupied with work, either mixing tracks for the band or training the children for the concert. It was hard to find the time anymore for a leisurely bath or the energy to light candles.
“Candlelight, a glass of wine
A dinner made for two…
All the noise of the city
I drown it out for you…”
She shivered at the feel of the words sung against her ear while strong hands massaged the stiff muscles of her shoulders. A sigh left her lips as she closed her eyes.
“Then we kiss as we dance…
I hope this feeling lasts forever…
Life is fast, raise a glass, we’re still together…”
There was something about his voice that always took her breath away, whether he was singing live on stage or providing vocals to recorded music at the studio. Despite all the challenges their relationship faced, she had only grown to be more in love with him every day of her life. Even when she did not have his undivided attention, she had his loyalty. Good-looking, gifted singer, excellent rider⎼ he was the object of attraction all over the world. But he’d been hers from the very beginning, even when she had tried to change his mind and push him away.
“And you’re so beautiful…
If I lost you then
I’d lose it all…”
He turned her around, her heart skipping a beat when she found him naked. With eyes locked on hers, he started to undo her robe, and she flushed to think there was nothing underneath.
“‘Cause this world would be
Empty without you
Scares me that this life would mean
Nothing without you…”
“Brandy…” she sighed, awkwardly shifting on her feet as he pushed the robe off her shoulders to reveal her bare body.
“Will you let me make it up to you tonight?” he purred, admiring the warm glow of the candlelight on her face. “Are you willing to forget all the troubles just this once and let me hold you again?”
“Do you need to ask that when I’m naked in front of you?” Isabel rolled her eyes, before holding his hand and leading him to the tub. He supported her as she gently eased herself into the bath, sighing when the warmth engulfed her body. Brandon followed, and certain parts of his anatomy twitched when he pulled her close against himself.
“Did you really enjoy watching me sing at Bohemia?” he asked, lying back in the tub with his gorgeous wife sprawled across his body. “I was nineteen and dorky.”
“And the best singer Sligo ever produced,” she murmured, reaching for the glass of wine. “Don’t let the lads hear that, though,” she added with a laugh.
“I enjoyed having you in the audience,” he smiled, parting her hair to stroke her scalp. “But I could never convince you to come up and sing with me.”
“The whole coffee shop would sing with you.” She giggled around the glass. “It seemed like the whole town turned up to hear you sing. Particularly the girls.”
“Come on,” he took a swig of wine. “I was in love with you.”
“And you would kiss me and give me suggestive looks in front of my brother.” Holding up the glass in front of her face, she stared at the red swell of the wine. “Getting him to play the drums would always be your idea.”
“Sligo didn’t have a better drummer or percussionist than him.” He lifted the glass to his lips. “Still doesn’t.”
“Yes, but…” Filling her mouth with wine, she shook her head. “It was embarrassing. He probably used to think we were…”
“Shagging?” Brandon provided the words, before laughing. “He was not wrong. Best friend and sister. Cringey.”
“The reason why he never shared a room with you.” She could not help the involuntarily flush of colour that tinged her face. “He didn’t want to be an audience to your phone calls with me.”
“Oh, yeah. They did get explicit sometimes.”
Isabel gently shoved an elbow into his ribs, smiling when he roared with laughter. “I miss those days,” he sighed. “As mad as they were, it was still a great feeling. New and excited and ready to explore.”
“And now you’re celebrating ten years,” she said.
“We are doing something different for the Croke Park show.” He looked at her face. “Any guess?”
“Well… there are backing singers and helicopters and fireworks and a laser show…”
“And thank-you speeches.”
“What’s different about that?”
“They will be long and elaborate and acknowledge our families, spouses and everyone else we never got to thank.”
Isabel sat up, surprise sliding on to her face. “Really?”An amused smile broke out on her lips. “So over 83,000 people will get to see you cry?”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “How much have you had to drink, Iz?” he said, taking the glass from her hand. “No more.”
“You wanted us to get drunk,” she protested.
“I wanted us to relax,” he corrected her. “Lay against me. I love the feel of your naked body against mine.”
“Me too.” The giggle rising up her throat was quickly lost when his hands dipped under the water and cupped her breasts, squeezing the soft flesh. She instinctively pushed into his touch, her stomach tightening when she felt him harden against her back.
Dropping her head against his shoulder, she sought his lips and he obliged by drawing her into a heated kiss. Tongues came out to play, slowly sliding and dancing in and out of their warm, familiar mouths. Isabel seemed to melt, a dull ache starting in her body.
“It’s been a while,” she whispered against his mouth. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.” He kissed her neck, grinding against her back. “We’ll never be apart for this long again. Promise.”
“We’ll find the time.” He ran his hands over her taut stomach and down to her womanhood, swallowing her moan by deepening the kiss. She spread her legs, giving him better access to her moist opening.
“Brandy…” The sigh was music to his ears. He flicked the swollen knot of nerves with his thumb while slipping a finger inside her. She whimpered, her body tense.
“Relax…” He placed tiny kisses along her neck, down to her collarbone, nibbling and sucking at the delicate skin before soothing it with his tongue. “Let your muscles loosen up.”
Brandon lazily thrust his finger in and out of her, the feel of the warm water lapping at her core and his arousal digging into her back heightening her senses.
“Want you,” The throaty murmur against her shoulder was hard to resist. When he slipped a second finger inside her, the stretching of her walls was delightfully torturous.
“Want you too,” she croaked, pushing herself onto his fingers, the friction between their bodies fueling his erection. When she lifted up and slowly turned to face him, his weeping manhood sprung free between them, the sight making her groan. Straddling him, she plundered his mouth as her hands trailed down his hairy chest. He gasped against her lips when slender fingers wrapped around his raging arousal.
“Izzi…” He warned when she grabbed his shoulders and pushed herself up in preparation. With one hand, she held him in place, the pressure too much to bear anymore.
“I just had my period,” she said, rocking herself over the tip of the crown. “I’m not fertile right now.”
Brandon could not form words any more. His skin was burning hot, his breaths quick and heart threatening to beat out of his chest. He could barely think when she shifted her hips, and there he was, his broad head covered in her feminine cream. She sank on to him, and the ease with which he slid inside was glorious. His fingers dug into her firm buttocks, body quivering with ragged breaths.
“You’re so…” he gasped, quickly losing his senses. “Oh god… I’ve needed you, Izzi. I missed your tight wetness around me, drawing me in…”
She lifted until he was barely within her and then lowered again, encasing him in her moist heat, her urgent whimpers of need fueling his ardour. Everything inside him was busting loose. He wanted to have her underneath him, plunging into her until his maddening hunger was thoroughly sated. But he could only hold on to her as she rode him, knowing he was not too far from the shattering extremity of his desire delivered by the woman he loved.
“You’re so deep in me…” she slurred, her head dropping back. Moving wet hair from her face, he cupped her jaw, deepening their contact with an open-mouthed kiss. “It won’t take long.”
“I know… Oh…” Words failed him against the punishing rhythm that she set, sinking her beautiful body onto his arousal as best as her position would allow. She did not care that her knees were starting to hurt or that the water was turning cold. All she knew was that she needed him as badly as she needed air to breathe.
“I can feel it…” He spoke over the roar of blood in his ears, every muscle taut from the drugging ecstasy. With everything he had, he pushed back into her, making sure she felt him right into her heart. “Please…”
Isabel wrapped her arms around him, hiding her face in his shoulder as she continued to ride him, his hands on her hips helping keep her balance. The heat spread across her body, the tension reaching its peak. She moved faster, almost desperate for release.
“That’s it,” he urged, thrusting up into her. “Almost there… Just…”
“Let it go,” she breathed. “Pour your love into me.”
His cry of release came at the same time as her muscles clamped around him. He groaned and cursed, his body helplessly jerking to every wrenching spurt into her womb. She continued to move, milking every drop, crying through her own release as the tension snapped. They held each other for purchase, shuddering and panting together, her muscles twitching around him.
“I love you, Izzi.” His hoarse whisper echoed in the quiet bathroom, hitting her in the middle of her chest. “You’ve never let me give in, no matter what. You’ve always taken care of me, been there for me, making sure I was fed, taking the extra sugar from my coffee, packing a slap every time I did something wrong.”
His fingers crept into her hair, their breaths mingling. “Please don’t give up on me,” he implored. “You’re my strength. If you don’t believe in me anymore–”
“I’m not giving up on you.” Pecking his lips, she gently raised herself to let him slip out of her. “Just the way you never gave up on me. I always had your love and support through those dark, difficult years. You never left my hand.”
Climbing out of the bath, she hastened to reach for her robe when the cool air touched her wet skin. Brandon watched her with an imperceptible smile on his chiselled lips, dark brown hair sticking to his damp forehead. He pushed it back and climbed out of the bath.
“It isn’t an illusion,” she said when he came up to her. Her eyes gingerly met his. “What we have… it’s real.”
Brandon wrapped a towel around himself and drew her against his chest. His heart soared when she relaxed in his arms, yawning contentedly.
“I love you, Brandy,” she said, slumberous gaze smiling up at his face. He parted for a minute to blow out the candles and pull the plug to drain the water. Then he was scooping her in his arms and carrying her to their bed.
“Thank god,” he smiled, relieved and happy as his lips brushed her cheek. “Because I love you too.”
(to be continued)