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The Child Thief by Bella Forrest (1)

Prologue

I stood frozen outside my parents’ bedroom.

Staring at the door handle, I tightened my grip around the breakfast tray I had prepared. I could hear the murmuring of the television seeping through the cracks of the closed door, and I wished I didn’t feel so nervous. I wished today was just like any other day I treated them to breakfast in bed… But it wasn’t.

I had news to share with them this morning. News unlike any I had ever shared before.

And although I had known them for sixteen years and ten months of my seventeen years of living, I feared how they were going to react. They had always treated me as if I were their own child, ever since the day the Ministry of Welfare took me from my birth parents and assigned me to them.

But this… This was big.

I tried to convince myself that everything would be okay. They loved me, didn’t they? They wanted me to be happy, right? They had always said so, and yet, with this, I feared I had gone too far.

Still, I drew in a deep breath and moved closer to the door. I had delayed this for long enough already. It was time to come out with the truth.

God knew I couldn’t wait longer than a couple more months, even if I wanted to.

I repositioned the tray against my hip to free up one hand and then knocked boldly, thrice, with more confidence than I felt.

“Come in,” my mother’s musical voice chimed through the cracks.

Swallowing, I gripped the handle and opened the door, then entered with the tray.

My parents were in bed. My mother, forty-five years young, a beautiful woman with long, dyed blond hair and eyes the color of a clear sky, had been watching the television, while my father, a tall, bald man of forty-nine with swarthy skin and a strong black goatee, was holding a newspaper in front of him. Even lying in bed, he exuded the confidence of one of the most important people in the United Nation of America: a governor, whose moral high grounds were as high as they came.

“Oh, thank you, darling. What a treat!” my mother cooed as I approached her side of the bed. I set the tray down in between the two of them, then tucked my hands behind my back and stepped backward.

“Thank you, Robin,” my father murmured, lowering the paper momentarily to pick up his coffee and a piece of toast.

I nodded and tried to smile back, but it felt like I was wearing one of my mother’s solidifying masks.

As they began eating, my toes curled over the silken rug, and I allowed my eyes to wander to the television screen, unable to resist the temptation of procrastinating a few minutes longer.

“—latest report from the Ministry of Welfare was released this morning. Divorce rates are steady at 79 percent—a slight improvement from 2102—while the number of children born out of wedlock remains at 56 percent of the total number of children born. Government savings are up, thanks to continued implementation of the CRAS, while adoption admin fees continue to improve living conditions for low-income families nationwide. The CRAS has saved the UNA trillions in child welfare and foster services since the system’s introduction by President Burchard after the Crisis in 2082—”

“You sleep well, hon?” my mother interrupted around a mouthful of fruit.

And I was glad for the interruption, as the current news topic was doing nothing to help my nerves.

“Yes,” I lied.

“Are any of your siblings awake yet?” she asked.

“Um, I think I heard Joseph and Lora. I’m not sure about anyone else.” The last thing I’d thought to do this morning was check on any of my seven younger siblings—not when we had two full-time nannies caring for them.

“It’s going to be a gorgeous day, by the looks of it.” My mother sighed, glancing toward the sunshine streaming in through the wide French windowpanes. “You want to take the dogs for a walk?”

“Um, yes. Sure. I just…” I cleared my throat, forcing myself to look from one parent to the other. I inhaled slowly. “Mom, Dad… There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

They both paused in their eating, their eyes moving to me.

“What is it?” my mother asked, while my father raised a dark eyebrow.

A surge of blood rose to my face, and I suddenly felt too hot, even with the cool breeze wafting in through the window. I balled my fists together, trying to take a deep breath through my constricting throat. And then I closed my eyes and let it out.

“I met a boy last year at summer camp. We… We’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s the reason I’ve been coming home late from school on some days, recently. I was going to tell you about him sooner, but… one thing just led to another, and I just… didn’t. I wish I had told you sooner now, though, because… things got a bit out of hand. I never planned for this, but… I’m pregnant.”

It felt like I could have dropped a pin onto the mahogany floorboards and heard it even over the television. My parents stared at me, their jaws slack.

“What?” My mother finally found her voice, her fingers quickly moving to the remote to switch the television off. She gave a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry, Robin. Is this some kind of late April Fool’s?”

I shook my head. “It’s not,” I croaked.

She gaped at me, stunned, while my father maintained his shocked silence.

I was most fearful about what he was going to say, and I was so desperate not to be one of the statistics I knew he so disapproved of—which was why I’d waited for Henry to propose before telling them. I’d thought he would… but he still hadn’t.

And I just couldn’t hide my pregnancy from my parents any longer.

I knew this was a big thing to ask my father to accept. Governors of the Burchard Regime were expected to have the highest moral standards, to be paragons of virtue that set an example for the rest of our lax society. And their families were considered reflections of themselves, their ability to influence and infuse good behavior in others—which, in my father’s eyes, was ultimately what defined a true leader.

If he couldn’t even keep his own family in check, what did that say about him? He’d be gossiped about, and even if nobody said anything to his face, he’d be subtly looked down upon in his social circles.

I knew the consequences, and I felt bad for letting him down, but what was done was done.

His affection for me just had to be strong enough for him to swallow his pride and accept the situation. I had to believe it. Because I had a baby on the way, and a man I was deeply in love with.

If he didn’t accept it, he could ruin everything.

“Who is this boy?” my father asked, dropping the food and cup in his hands onto the breakfast tray and rising to his feet. The bedcovers slipped off him, revealing his full, tall, broad frame, the muscles in his arms visible even beneath his nightshirt.

I hesitated, then glanced toward the door. “Henry,” I called softly, and a moment later my boyfriend stepped tentatively through the doorway. His normally tan complexion looked pale as he laid his deep brown eyes on my parents, his handsome face a mask of tension.

At least he had offered to come meet them today. I’d let him in through the back door first thing this morning, and hoped it would help soften the blow of what we had done once they saw that he was a sweet guy. Marriage was a big step for anyone, and while I wished we had come to my parents with news of our engagement, I loved Henry too much to pressure him into it.

“Good to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Sylvone,” he said tightly.

Silence reigned once more over the room, as both of my parents glared at him. It occurred to me then that inviting him into their bedroom might not have been the most sensitive move.

“Henry’s eighteen,” I said, desperate to break the quiet, “and he works part time at the camp during the summer. He lives on the Meadfield Estate.”

My father’s gaze darkened as he exchanged a glance with my mother, and I looked anxiously at Henry. He came from a humble background compared to me—very humble, in fact. He’d dropped out of school at sixteen to work in the factories and help his parents pay to keep his two younger siblings, and while that shouldn’t be an impediment to us being together, I knew it had to be playing on my father’s mind. I was sure he’d had the son of one of his governor friends in mind for me, although he’d never come out and said it.

There would be little to no financial support for our child coming from Henry’s side, but that didn’t have to be a problem, because my parents had no shortage of money to support an extra child. Hell, they’d been talking about hiring another nanny and doing another adoption recently anyway.

We could pull this off easily. If my father could accept the situation for the sake of his grandchild.

The pause that stretched between us seemed endless, as my father turned his back on us and faced the window. His broad shoulders rose and fell as he took deep breaths, and I feared it was all he could do to keep himself from exploding.

I’d borne the brunt of his temper before, over the years, when I did something to irk him. But I’d never done anything like this. I knew how strongly he was against intimacy outside of marriage. He’d told me time and time again.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel that sometimes you just couldn’t plan love. And since contraceptives had been banned before I was born, situations like mine were hardly uncommon.

But they are uncommon within governors’ families, a small voice in my head reminded me. They train their children well.

It was true that I didn’t know anyone within my social circle who’d been in my position. Which was why I was so nervous about this. Even now that I’d told them, I still didn’t know how this was going to go down.

I looked to my mother, but her expression was stoic, unreadable, as she watched my father’s back. She was avoiding looking at me, waiting for my father’s reaction.

“I’m sorry, Robin,” my father said finally, heaving a sigh and turning back around. “We welcomed you into our family with open arms, raised you as our own. But this… this I cannot, in good conscience, sustain. Your stay here is over. You must leave.”

I gaped at him. I had feared this would go badly. I’d expected some sort of punishment for my indiscretion. But leaving?

My voice choked up and I looked to my mother again, but she was still avoiding eye contact.

“B-But Dad,” I gasped. “What do you mean, leave? Wh-Where will I go?”

I had not a cent to my name. Everything I owned, including the clothes on my back, belonged to my parents. Leave? It was… It was absurd.

I… I was pregnant. This was my home.

Tears flooded my eyes as a surge of panic took hold of me. This couldn’t be happening. I had to get him to see reason.

“Sir,” Henry spoke up, before I could attempt anything. He had gone pale as a sheet and his own voice was raspy as he hurried toward my father, his palms open in a peaceful gesture. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry this happened, but please, don’t ask Robin to leave. I-I’ll marry her. We… We’ll get married before the baby’s born.”

His words made my heart expand, and I prayed this would be enough to fix things. Then my eyes returned to my father’s face, and I saw the deep scowl that remained there.

“Unfortunately, it’s too late,” he grated out. “You were more than willing to mess with my daughter behind my back, and you’re saying this now only because you’re desperate. The two of you have already revealed your mentality to me—and it’s one of the ailments of our country. Irresponsible people like you are what led our great nation to crisis twenty years ago.” He shook his head bitterly, his eyes returning to me. “No restraint. Despite all I have done to try to mold you, make you into an honorable human being, it’s all gone to waste. I can no longer maintain my association with you. You have disqualified yourself from living in our household. I won’t have you infecting your siblings with your bad example… So get out. Now.”

“No, Dad!” I choked out. I rushed toward him, trying to pull him into a desperate embrace, but he gripped my arms as though I were a stranger, and pushed me backward.

“You’ve lost the right to call me that,” he said, then stalked out of the room.

I followed him out at a run, not knowing what else to do. This couldn’t be happening. If I was thrown out, I’d have no means of supporting myself during my pregnancy, and Henry and his family were stretched to the max as it was. If I couldn’t get the money together, then…

“No, Dad!” I cried out again. “Please, just stop!”

I didn’t even know where he was going as he sped down the staircase to the entrance hall. All I knew was that I had to get him to change his mind. I had to get him to see reason. I could hear Henry’s footsteps pounding behind me as I raced after my father, who, I realized a moment later, was heading toward his study.

He ran to the door and pushed it open, and when I entered a few seconds after him, it was to the sight of him rummaging through the drawers of his bureau, his face dark, his eyes a quiet storm.

I realized, then, as he pulled out a brown binder, what he had been searching for.

My adoption papers. He tore them from the folder and drew a huge red cross over each of them with a marker, then ripped them apart, one by one, the pieces scattering all about the room.

“I’m sorry, Robin. But we’re done here. You’ve left me no choice. And now you two are as good as trespassers—your boyfriend in particular. I’ll have the neighborhood know that you have forsaken me and are no longer anything to me, so I suggest you leave and never show your face around here again. You two have made your bed, and now you can damn well lie in it.”

“No, sir!” Henry surged forward, and the next thing I knew, my father was pulling a gun from one of the drawers, his eyes glinting with a rage I had never seen in him before.

He fired at Henry’s left leg before I could scream out for him to stop, and then Henry was crying out and crumpling to the floor.

“No!” I gasped and rushed to him, pressing my hands down around his wound to stem the blood flow while he writhed in pain against the carpet.

“I told you to leave!” my father hissed. “Now, before my children come down here.”

“No, wait! I need to call an—”

My father’s hand closed hard around my wrist and he yanked me up from the floor, then grabbed Henry by the arm and hauled him up, too. His strength was enough to allow him to drag us both out the front door, and he cast one last glowering look at me before he slammed it shut behind us.

Henry collapsed again the second my father let go of him, and I stumbled to help him back up, even as my whole body trembled in shock. Adrenaline lent me strength I didn’t know I possessed, and I managed to support the hobbling six-foot boy down the steps and out onto the street.

I staggered down the sidewalk with him, praying our neighbors were in and would allow us to make a call. It wasn’t a fatal wound, and if an ambulance arrived quickly, I knew Henry would be okay.

But I also knew then that, barring a miracle, the baby I gave birth to would never be mine.