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My Husband's Son
Author: Deborah O'Connor


 

Prologue


He appears from behind the door like a gift. He is alone, his stare daydream-soft.

She sees a chance, steps forward and puts a finger to her lips in warning. Keep quiet. His gaze narrows. But he is not scared, not yet.

She hesitates. Despite everything, he is not hers to take. Then he smiles. Gap-toothed and cresting a thick patch of blond hair. His eyes are a dark, almost black, brown. A beautiful child. She reaches for him.

‘Let’s go.’

He tilts on his heel, wary.

Her hand around his wrist, she leads him into the corridor. She decides against the lift and heads for the stairs. Before they descend, she checks to see if they have been followed.

Soon the boy is slowing, asking to go back. She tightens her grip and they take the steps two at a time, the red lights flashing in the soles of his trainers. Still he protests. Cajolery abandoned, she half pulls, half carries him until finally they reach the ground floor and find themselves funnelled into a car park. Sheltered from sight by a shallow overhang, she releases her hold and tries to think. What to do next? She stole him on impulse. There is no plan.

While he nurses his wrist, she scans the horizon. In the near distance she can see the neat incision of dual carriageway curving its way down through the landscape, while to the right is a small clump of houses. She decides on the carriageway. It is the riskiest of the two – between here and there is nothing but open ground; they will be exposed, easy to spot – but if they can make it across they might be able to lose themselves in amongst the small peaks on the other side.

She takes his wrist and urges him forward, through the grass. They make good progress, but the road is further than she thought. She increases the pace and soon the boy is stumbling, struggling to keep up. Each time she feels him about to lose his footing, she braces and yanks him into the air. He dangles from her hand and his feet lift off the ground. He rights himself, she drops him to the floor and they continue.

They’re almost there. Ahead, the traffic roars. At the side of the road she stops to let him rest. There are tears on his face. She glances at the block from which they fled. They need to push on, but she does not move.

The boy senses an opportunity and asks gently to go back.

She considers the possibility. She could release him, let him retreat. He would be reunited with his family and although a small amount of confusion and distress would follow, it would be minimal, soon forgotten.

The boy realises polite negotiation is not working and starts to beg. He gulps down a sob and, for a second, his features contort into a familiar expression.

The arrangement of cheeks, brow, nose and chin is one she has seen before. It feels like finding a match, a key that fits. It seems to make his face shine extra bright.

She grabs his hand and assesses the flow of cars.

‘Stay close.’

She waits for a lull in the traffic. As soon as a gap appears, she launches them both into the middle of the road. Then they are running, horns beeping, the air searing her lungs, as they try to make it across to the peaks on the other side, to safety.

 

 

Chapter One


The day I stumbled upon him was just like any other. I’d been out of town, at a sales presentation, and I was on my way home. I was tired and I wanted to get some wine to have with dinner and so, even though it wasn’t the nicest of streets, I stopped at the first place I could: an off-licence.

The place had seemed normal from the outside, but inside was a different matter. A long, thin room, it was badly lit and only slightly wider than your average corridor. The shop was made stranger still by the fact that the till, alcohol, crisps, sweets and cigarettes were all securely displayed some distance from the door, behind a metal cage of brown wire squares.

I made my way to the opposite end of the room and I’d almost reached the counter when a man appeared behind the cage. He noticed me looking and gave it a rattle.

‘It might not look pretty, but it works a treat. No shoplifting, no getting beaten up.’

He wore a sovereign ring on every finger and the curl of them through the cage made it look like he’d been blessed with an extra set of golden knuckles.

I laughed politely and peered through the holes, trying to see what was for sale, but then a movement behind the cage caught my eye. I peered closer.

Silhouetted by a single, weak, fluorescent light, I saw a small boy. He was in a shadowy corridor that led to the rear of the shop, rocking back and forwards on his heels. He leant forward, into the light, and I caught a glimpse of his face. And even though it was only a glimpse, my body responded instantly: my armpits blotting my shirt, my ribs fractious with air.

I steadied myself against the counter. I was seeing things. I must be.

I forced my attention back to the man.

‘A bottle of …’ But then I couldn’t help myself and my eyes reached over his shoulder, to the boy.

My first instinct was to look for any signs of distress, but he seemed well cared for. Apple-cheeked, his jeans and T-shirt were smart, his blond hair clean and neatly shorn. I tried to work out how old he was. He seemed to be about eight, the same age Barney would’ve been by now. And then, as I always did whenever I calculated Barney’s age, I immediately thought about what age Lauren would be if she were still around.

I realised that the man had followed my gaze to the now-empty doorway. I looked away as quickly as I could and was scrabbling to come up with something that would explain my interest in the back of his shop when he answered a question I hadn’t asked.

‘He’s home sick with a cold.’

The off-licence’s door-siren went and a woman wearing a fake Lacoste jumper pushed a pram up to the counter. Without asking what she wanted, the man hoisted himself off his stool and went to the vodka shelf, his hip jowls escaping from his too-tight Newcastle United shirt as he reached for her favoured brand. The woman placed her money in the metal drawer through which all cash and booze was exchanged and, as he pulled the drawer forward, it made a satisfying ‘shunk-shunk’ noise. The customer snugged her vodka next to the baby, lumpish in his blankets, and directed the pram back out onto the street.

‘A bottle of rosé?’ I said, pretending to scour the shelves. I was desperate for another look, but I wanted to reassure the man that I wasn’t bothered, that the child wasn’t on my radar.

‘Rosé?’ It was as though he’d never heard the word before. ‘Not much call for that kind of thing round here.’ He sniffed. ‘I might have some out the back.’ He headed off towards a small room to the right of the counter.

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