My Husband's Son - Deborah O'Connor


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