Chapter One here.
Chapter Two here.
Chapter Three here.
Chapter Four here.
Philip sat at the desk in hotel room, writing a letter.
My dear Robert, I am pleased to report that Stephen is now two weeks old and doing marvellously well. He is healthy and growing fine. His mother's milk is making him strong and he is starting to look like me. What a fine thing being a father is.
He paused, looking at the small hipflask on the top of the desk.
I have not taken a drink since being here. Well, truth be told, I have taken the occasional nip, but always well in advance of any meeting, followed by a thorough wash! Perhaps young Stephen will be the key that sets me free from the chains of the whiskey bottle.
His mother and I are meeting weekly at the moment, and the meetings are civil, if a little strained. But I do think that she is beginning to trust me. Only yesterday she asked if I wished to hold Stephen. As I took him he woke and looked up at me with eyes so blue they were almost luminous.
Philip paused again. Was there anything to add to the letter at this juncture? Not really, he concluded, the time isn't right yet.
I intend to remain here for another couple of weeks, and get Stephen's mother to trust me more. Nothing can be done without trust. Yours ever, Philip.
He sealed up the letter, addressed it and walked over to the post office with it. He thought, wisely perhaps, that leaving it at the hotel desk would be asking for prying eyes to dip into his business.
Returning to his room, Philip started to neaten his dress. He polished his boots and put his jacket on. Casting one last look around his spotless room, he caught sight of the small hipflask on the desk. He smiled briefly, a dark smile on his handsome face, and tucked it away at the back of the drawer. Once he was content that his room was an anonymous as he could make it, he set off for the Dennis farm.
Gloria was feeding Stephen, a job that necessitated her being alone. The girls were out feeding the stock with their father and her mother had gone to market for the morning. Beatrice was hoping to pick up some nice cotton and make clothes for Stephen. Soon he would be out of swaddling and in shirts and vests. Beatrice had embraced the position of grandmother and, together with Brian as a proud grandfather, they had moved heaven and earth to ensure that Gloria and Stephen had the best opportunity to bond in a peaceful harmonious environment.
Gloria smiled down at her son as he slowly drifted off to sleep, her nipple still in his mouth. She gently nudged him away and pulled her dress together. The little baby lay in her arms, his mouth making small milky bubbles and he murmured in his sleep, a sweet baby noise that always accompanied his post-dinner naps.
She gently laid him in his basket, taking care not to wake him. Her mother had always taught her to sleep when baby slept, so she curled up next to the basket. She was reluctant to sleep, as she was alone with the child.
What's wrong? She asked herself dreamily. Philip has been here every week for the month since Stephen was born and nothing untoward has happened. If anything, his impeccable behaviour had induced in Gloria a feeling of relief that Philip was going to live up to his side of the bargain. He had not touched Stephen until she offered him. Then Philip had held the baby briefly, watching him with fatherly wonder, before handing him back.
The thoughts rolling through Gloria's head were comforting and without realising it she drifted off to sleep, one hand resting on the side of basket where her son slept deeply.
Brian finished sorting the livestock feed and watched his elder four daughters distribute it to the animals. He was so proud of his girls, but none more than little Gloria. Such a difficult start to what turned out to be a tortuous married life, yet she took control of her life and that of her son. She made wise conditions with her estranged husband, ensuring her and her baby's safety - yet making sure that Philip was given the opportunity to bond with his son.
Brian rinsed out the buckets and hung them up to dry as usual. Then he started across the yard to the house. Stopping in the kitchen to wash his hands and remove his yard boots, he glanced out of the window and noticed the wagon was gone. Beatrice must have gone to market already. Brian had given her extra money this week to buy material to sew up clothes for the little baby. He walked through the hall to the parlour in his stocking feet and opened the door gently. His Gloria was curled up in her chair, nestled into the corner with her hand laid carefully on the rim of the bassinet. Her blonde hair spilled over the back of the chair, her face relaxed and all worry gone in the comfort of sleep. Brian tiptoed quietly over to the baby's basket and peered in. Amid the rumpled sheets and blankets he could not discern the shape of Stephen. He pulled aside the little sheets to see the child better.
'Gloria! Wake up!'
Gloria woke up with a start, her face suffused with a flush. She looked up at her father's panicked face and then turned to see the empty basket.
Brian held the sheets in his hand and there was no doubt - Stephen was missing.