The Marriage He Must Keep
BOOK 1 in the Wrong Heirs Duet
Claiming his heir
When Alessandro Ferrante dutifully married shy heiress Octavia, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that his convenient bride was as sweetly sensual as she was beautiful. But when their newborn baby is swapped at the hospital, their fragile marriage reaches crisis point.
…and his wife!
With her baby safely back in her arms, the revelation that Alessandro’s family was involved leaves Octavia wanting nothing more to do with him. But Alessandro won’t take no for an answer…after all, in the bedroom she always said yes! He will seduce his wife again and ensure Octavia—and his child—are his forever!
“Look at him,” she said with a tremble in her voice, and showed him the baby. “And look at that one.”
— Octavia, The Marriage He Must Keep, Book One: THE WRONG HEIRS
Sometime toward the end of 2014, I was finishing up my last book in my contract with Harlequin Presents and began to consider what I would propose next. I think the idea of a baby swap came to me from a gossip magazine. (I buy them for the Sudoku puzzles, I swear!)
I knew pure negligence on the hospital’s part wouldn’t do, not in this day and age where we have locked-down nurseries and vigilance to procedures. There had to be a villain. But whom?
I love my Italian heroes and I love the sinister richness of secrets and unexpected betrayals. Alessandro deeply trusts the villain in this story and is devastated by the treachery when it’s exposed, especially since it nearly costs his wife’s life. Coming back from that, earning Octavia’s trust all over again, is hard. (But he is a Presents hero, so he is up to the task!)
Octavia has been too trusting as well. When she realizes her marriage was more a power play than a true desire for her on Alessandro’s part, she’s heartbroken. And no longer willing to be a game piece in his power struggles. They have a long way to go, both emotionally scarred from past pain, but they have a son together so they try.
Given this is a baby swap story, I had two books to write. The other mother in the hospital is Sorcha and the father of her baby doesn’t even know they had sex! You’ll meet her and Cesar here and you can read their journey to HEA in The Consequence He Must Claim, releasing February 2016.
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The Marriage He Must Keep
Another knifing pain speared into her lower back, radiating like a spiked belt around her middle and clenching her torso in a merciless fist that stole her breath.
“Please call Alessandro,” Octavia Ferrante begged in a pant, knotting her fists in the blanket beneath her as she braced herself for the next contraction. She was starting to fear that something would happen and she would never hear his voice again.
Her husband’s cousin, Primo Ferrante, only sighed. His hold on the curtain dropped with disinterest as he turned away from the window. “I told you. He said he would come if the baby is born alive. Otherwise he’s not going to put himself out.”
She didn’t want to believe it. Primo seemed to draw more enjoyment daily from tormenting her. She no longer trusted him and was sure this was more of his games.
But after this many months of being exiled to London by her husband, she was beginning to believe at least some of what Primo said. He was certainly correct in labeling her soft in the head. She’d let her life spiral beyond her grip. Pregnancy was an odd state, making you feel vulnerable in tiny degrees so you didn’t realize how defenseless you were until the need to fight arose and there was nothing to draw on. She had insulated herself here, licking her wounds over Alessandro’s rejection, and suddenly she had no resources. No one to help her.
Rebellion had backfired on her in the past so she rarely dissented, but she’d never been weak. At one time she’d been confident in herself, at least, if not truly assertive. She’d even felt a certain pride in those first few weeks of her marriage—
Another pain tore through her, making her grit her teeth to hold back a scream.
Alessandro, she silently begged, as a fresh wave of perspiration rose to ice her skin. But she knew all about men who wanted live births of their sons. Maybe Primo was telling the truth about her husband’s lack of concern.
Call my mother then, she almost said as another pain gripped her, but her mother was also in Italy and would have even less sympathy. Eight times she’d gone through this. Seven of them fruitless labors. Eight, really, since Octavia was hardly counted as a valid heir.
Female. Only good for one thing. This.
Octavia had lived in fear all her life that she would suffer as her mother had, losing babies before she could deliver them. For good reason, apparently. This was not the idealistic, natural process the books promised. This was torture. The baby was coming a month too early, and the pain was terrifying. Something was wrong. She knew it.
“Where is the ambulance?” she cried as the pain throttled back enough that she could catch her breath and speak. “The clinic said to call one as soon as I went into labor. Did you do it?”
“You’re being hysterical. These things take hours. You know that,” Primo muttered.
He had said he would, but she would bet her life that he hadn’t.
“Give me the phone,” she demanded, holding out her hand. Why was he even here? Why wasn’t her husband?
Her pains were coming on top of themselves. She had to wrap her arm across her swollen middle, fearful her skin would split under the stress.
“Please, Primo. I’m begging you. Take me to the hospital.”
“You’re an embarrassment to our family name,” he said, sneering at her rumpled, sweaty form and tear-streaked face. “Where is all this pride in duty you once told me you had? Show some dignity.”
His cruel words, delivered by a cruel man whom she hated with all her being, still had the power to wound. Because Alessandro had left her to this. Each time Primo verbally flayed her, she felt it as an uncaring swipe from Alessandro, like batting a fly. She had been his toy, perhaps, because he’d seemed so taken with her in those early days, but now she was nothing to him. Utterly forgotten. His indifference was a body blow every time she confronted it.
As anguished and defeated as that made her feel, she wasn’t about to give birth on her bed, risking her baby’s life and her own. Inching to the edge of the mattress, she braced herself on the night table, begging her knees to hold her. She’d crawl out of this room if she had to. Primo might wish her dead, but she wasn’t going quietly.
“Is that blood?” Primo demanded sharply. His hawk-like gaze swooped from her tense face to the spotted blanket and back. His complexion grayed.
As she looked at the small mark, what little body heat remained in her drained from her face and chest and limbs. This was it, then. Like her mother, she was doomed to lose her baby. If she survived, this would happen again and again as she tried to live up to her side of the marital contract. Why, oh, why had she thought going through with an arranged marriage would finally earn her some respect from her father? Why had she let herself begin to care for her husband, hoping to earn his affection?
Why had she opened her heart and taken this unborn infant deep inside it, believing that finally there would be a human on this earth who loved her back?
No one was ever going to love her. She was the only person she could rely on. It was time to face that.
With a sob, she staggered across to where he’d left her phone on the windowsill and snatched it up. Bowing her head against the wall, silently praying, she dialed the number for emergency services and told them to send an ambulance.
Alessandro Ferrante saw his wife was calling and his pulse tripped. He immediately tamped down on the involuntary reaction, ruthlessly regaining control over himself and annoyed that he let her catch him so easily, even when she was on the other side of the continent.
But some measure of surprise was legitimate. She never called him anymore.
Which he was trying not to let bother him.
“Cara,” he answered, ears straining for clues as to why she was calling now. It was late in London, even later here in Naples, but apparently they were both still up. Perhaps the baby was kicking. She had said a few times that she had trouble sleeping through that. It had made him feel the distance between them quite keenly…
He ignored the stab of something that might have been regret. The separation was necessary. He wouldn’t give in to weak yearnings and wind up putting her in danger. That would be irresponsible.
“Sono io,” Primo said into his ear. It’s me.
Not Octavia then. Disappointment fell through him before he could deflect it. He habitually fought extreme degrees of emotion, never allowing them to rule his actions, but this marriage was becoming so very much not a marriage and it was beginning to frustrate him. It had started with such promise. They had had a remarkable compatibility, particularly in bed, but it had disintegrated into something he didn’t know what to do with anymore.
Not for the first time, he questioned his decision to leave her in London, but all the facts remained the same: she was pregnant and at risk. Her mother had a history of losing babies. His mother’s house in London was in the same city as a world-class specialist clinic, one that had been monitoring her closely. She was also safe from the threats here in Naples. His refusal to bring her home was absolutely the best thing for her and their unborn child.
His wife had taken to avoiding his calls, however. His cousin made all her reports, which was an intrusion Alessandro didn’t appreciate. Why was Primo even still at his mother’s house? How long did it take to get an apartment painted these days?
“Si?” Alessandro prompted his cousin now, tone sharpening with dismay.
“She’s gone into labor,” Primo said bluntly.
Alessandro sat up, arteries stinging with an immediate shot of adrenaline, the desk full of work before him forgotten. This was too early. Almost a month before her due date. He had planned to fly out next week. He reached for his tablet, already tapping out a message to his driver and pilot.
“It all happened very quickly or I would have called you sooner,” Primo continued. “The ambulance was delayed and—well, there have been complications.”
A knife of dread went through him, impossible to dodge. Primo liked to frame things in as much drama as possible. Sandro had talked to him about it more than once, told him that it only exacerbated situations, but Primo loved to grab and hold attention.
This wasn’t the time.
Unless Primo was truly reluctant to deliver bad news.
Alessandro could hear the ticking of the clock that had been in his family for generations—tick, tick, tick. Like a bomb. He couldn’t breathe. He was paralyzed, completely devoid of feeling and his mind was empty as he held off what he feared would be a repeat of another moment when tragedy unfolded. When tires screeched and—
“Yes?” he prompted, throat raspy and thick.
“They had to take her to the nearest hospital, not the one where she was scheduled to deliver. It’s inundated with a bus crash, but they’re taking her for surgery right now.”
His nerves exploded with a rush of urgency, barely rational.
“Which hospital?” Alessandro demanded, fighting a ferocious grip of emotion that wanted to overstep reason and break down doors and walls and laws of man and nature to reach London. He grappled to stay calm, forcing himself to speak clearly even as his mind and heart raced. “I’m leaving now. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Score one for state-run hospitals, was Octavia’s first clear thought as her muddled brain came back from the anesthetic and worked out that Primo had no access to her son.
While he had followed her ambulance, she had clasped the female paramedic’s hand, a kind of desperate fury gripping her. “Primo is not my husband. Not the father. Do not allow him near my baby. Tell the hospital to keep him out of the delivery room. I will hold you responsible if something happens.”
She still felt irrational for saying it, but she just didn’t trust him. Not after the way he’d moved into the mansion as if he owned it and had taken such great pains to make her miserable while he was there.
Despite his premature birth, her son was thankfully doing well. He was being kept in an incubator for observation and the nurse was about to take Octavia to the nursery to feed him.
The staff here was nice, treating her with more warmth and kindness than she’d seen in months. And Alessandro was on his way. He should be here soon, Primo had begrudgingly told her as he’d paced her room.
Because it was a boy? Octavia tried not to feel bitter. Her father would be pleased, she supposed. Oddly, she discovered that she no longer cared what the men in her life expected of her. There was only one male to whom she wanted to answer and that would be on her own terms as his mother.
Still, part of her fluttered with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, knowing she’d finally see Alessandro again. He hadn’t been here since Christmas and that had been a very brief few days. They hadn’t even shared a bed, let alone the physical loving she’d been craving. Her condition had cut that off months ago.
Primo was telling the truth about one thing, she supposed. Alessandro not only thought she was fat and unattractive, but was taking his pleasure elsewhere.
So she shouldn’t be feeling like this: as conflicted as she’d been in the weeks leading up to their wedding, when she’d been tormenting herself with worry over their wedding night. Would he think she was pretty? Would she please him?
With a pang in her heart, she recalled how silly it had been to stress about that side of things. Lovemaking had turned out to be the least of her concerns. Once they got past her virginal inhibitions, she’d adored making love with him, discovering things about herself and the fit of man and woman that astonished her.
But sex—or rather, lack thereof—had become yet one more way Alessandro had been showing her how little she interested him these days. It made her feel needy and pathetic that she ached for his attention, both in bed and out.
She’d learned long ago to roll that lonely emptiness into a wall of aloof indifference, though. She just wished she could feel aloof or indifferent at his impending arrival. But she couldn’t.
“Mrs. Ferrante,” the nurse, Wendy, greeted her as she brought in the empty wheelchair she’d fetched. “Let’s take you to your little man.”
Primo made no move to help Octavia and she was grateful, even though her emergency surgery had annihilated her abdominal muscles and the anesthetic still had her feeling nauseous and weak.
He did follow them from the room to the door of the nursery though, obviously under the impression he could enter with them.
Wendy, bless her, said, “I’m sorry. Parents only in the nursery.”
“Octavia,” he prompted firmly.
“You’ll have to meet Alessandro and show him where we are,” she replied innocently.
The hospital wasn’t that big. Alessandro was a resourceful man. He’d find her just fine, but Wendy was buzzing them into the nursery with her security card and the bright, warm room washed over Octavia like a hug of welcome. Beyond the windows, beams of morning sunlight broke the gray clouds hovering over London, sending angelic rays onto the rooftops and giving Octavia a lift of hope for the first time in ages.
“He’s been calling for you,” the heavyset nurse inside the nursery said. Her name tag read Hannah. “I’ll fetch Miss Kelly while you’re in here to keep an eye on this one,” she said to Wendy, nodding at the only other baby in the room.
“The calm after the storm,” Octavia said as she gingerly moved herself into one of the padded rocking chairs. “The emergency room was a zoo when I arrived last night.”
The chaos had been alarming, adding to what was already a frightening situation. Tears of relief stung her eyes as she finally felt as if she could relax and hold the baby she’d been so worried for.
“I heard,” Wendy responded as she gathered up the fussing baby from the incubator labeled Ferrante and loosely wrapped his diapered form in a blanket. “That’s why Dr. Reynolds isn’t in to see you yet. She had these two deliveries back-to-back, then they asked her to assist with that tourist bus crash that came in right before you two. She was here very late. Everyone was on their toes for hours. One of you was actually sewn up by our cosmetic surgeon so Dr. Reynolds could run to the other. Yes, we hear you, Mr. February,” Wendy said as the baby in the other incubator grew more insistent.
Wendy came across to her, but something in the other baby’s cry gave Octavia a stab of fretfulness. It was disconcerting, but Wendy distracted her, waiting with her baby, saying, “You’ll want to take your arm out of the sleeve of your gown.”
Octavia did, feeling immodest as she bared her breast, even though it was only her and the nurse in this very warm room. The baby Wendy offered her was clearly distressed and famished.
Goodness both babies had a pair of lungs. As Wendy placed her son in her arms, his warm weight filled Octavia with a rush of protective emotions. He was wiggly and endearing, very handsome with a shadow of silky black hair showing from beneath his little blue-and-white striped cap. His eyelashes and eyebrows were so faint they were barely there, his nose a button, his disgruntled expression almost laughable.
A strange chill went through her.
“That’s what we’ve been calling them. Mr. January and Mr. February,” Wendy chattered on. “Since they were born barely an hour apart, but in different months. Do you have a name picked out? Let him find your nipple,” she prompted.
“I was waiting for my husband to finalize his name,” Octavia replied in a murmur, but broke off as the baby’s arm waved and his little face rooted against the swell of her breast. He was adorable, so cute in his determination. He rather stole her heart in a way, but drawing him to her breast felt wrong.
Oh, dear God, is this what had happened to her mother? She’d finally birthed Octavia, a live baby, and had wanted to meet the basic needs of her daughter, but failed to feel a wash of true, maternal love?
Octavia’s world crashed in on itself. She was such a failure. An utter failure. First as a child, then as a wife. Now as a mother. No wonder no one loved her. She was incapable of feeling the emotion herself.
Tears rushed up to cling to her lashes. She blinked hard. One fell onto the scrunched-up face of the infant. She wiped it away, trying to find something in his tiny features that would provoke that feeling she had had during her pregnancy. The one that had told her this baby was connected to her. Indelibly.
But it didn’t come.
This was wrong. The boy grew more frantic, his high-pitched cries breaking her heart, but there was nothing of herself in him. Nothing familiar. He looked wrong. Not bad or repulsive or ill or damaged. Just…wrong.
He arched his little back and let out demanding, furious squawks.
“The first time is always awkward,” Wendy assured her, reaching to assist. “You’re not the first to cry. Just let him—”
“No,” Octavia said, asserting herself with more strength than she had realized she possessed, but this was the oddest sensation she’d ever felt. She wanted to help this baby. He was obviously hungry and distraught and so helpless. She wanted to feed him, but the words just came out. “This isn’t my baby.”
Alessandro hadn’t slept. He’d piloted his private jet himself and sped through a mess of winter weather to arrive in London as quickly as possible. It was exactly the sort of recklessness he would lecture anyone else against, but he was here and that was the result he had sought.
On landing, he picked up the message that his son was born. He was being kept in an incubator as a precaution since he was a few weeks premature, but he was otherwise healthy.
Good news, but Primo had said nothing about Octavia, which Alessandro suspected was deliberate. Couldn’t Primo see there was a place for jocular games and this wasn’t it? Alessandro loved his cousin, but Primo was compelled to taunt and make power plays at every turn. When would he grow up and quit swiping at him for a decision made by their grandfather?
Stepping onto the curb next to his pensive cousin, Alessandro demanded, “How is she?”
“How am I to know?” Primo dropped his cigarette and stamped it out, then gave Alessandro’s security detail a look that was difficult to interpret. Like he viewed the bodyguards as an affectation, making Alessandro bristle.
“She doesn’t talk to me,” Primo continued. “Didn’t tell me she was hemorrhaging. I suppose the surgery went well enough, since she’s alive, but it’s like she didn’t want to make it to the hospital in time. This hospital is a joke, by the way. She put herself and the boy at risk. Honestly, Sandro, I told you I wonder about her mental health and this is a perfect example.”
Alive. His heart finally settled into a normal, healthy beat, making him aware of how high his blood pressure had been.
“Women are emotional during pregnancy,” he reminded his cousin, striding into the hospital. “Why do you take these things so personally?” He was such a prima donna, not that Alessandro had ever called him that aloud. He would never hear the end of it, but his cousin’s narcissism grated. Things were fraught enough without Primo waving his hands in the air.
But Primo still had his father and the bunch of them was as animated as any Italian family. Sandro was the wet blanket of the clan, consistently reminding everyone that lack of forethought could have dire consequences.
“It’s more than that, Sandro,” Primo insisted, pacing him. “She says things that don’t make sense.”
Alessandro schooled himself against making a patronizing remark that at least Octavia didn’t constantly border on hysteria, but he had some concerns for her mental state all the same. He’d noticed small inconsistencies in Primo’s reports against what Octavia had told him via text and email. Her odd relationship with her parents, so detached, had made an impression on him from the beginning.
Her mother had a tendency toward depression, Alessandro had come to recognize, but he had hoped his wife wasn’t prone to it, as well. She’d been bashful in their early weeks of marriage, gradually opening up in a way that had delighted him, but she’d become downright withdrawn in the past months, which worried him.
She had been pregnant, though. He’d watched enough sisters and cousins go through the process to know that every woman behaved differently as she came to terms with the way her body and life was changing. He had told himself that all of this was normal and temporary.
Primo steered him up the stairs then down the hall to an empty room. He should have brought flowers, Alessandro realized belatedly, and was startled by a lurch in his middle as he stared at the unoccupied bed. He had been counting on seeing her.
“She must still be in the nursery,” Primo said, stepping into the hall to point toward the end. “They may not let you in. She was being very touchy, didn’t want to let me see him. Honestly, Sandro, this animosity she has… We’re family. I understand that she’s an only child and is jealous of me, that it threatens her that you and I are so close, but I’m only trying to look out for her. You asked me to. Will you explain that to her? Again? Please?” He tagged on the last with a testy roll of his eyes.
Alessandro hadn’t asked his cousin to look after his wife. He had said once that it had been kind of Primo to take Octavia to her doctor appointment. Frankly, he’d hoped Primo’s staying at the mansion would help the two of them get past that small discord from the night they’d all met, but it hadn’t happened. Sensing the tension, Alessandro had actually suggested Primo find other accommodation when he had been here at Christmas. Primo had assured him the renovations to his apartment were almost finished.
“I’m here to look after her now,” Alessandro said, and, since the death threats hadn’t been repeated, he added, “She and the baby will come back to Naples with me once she’s released. You can focus on work.”
“About that, there are things we need to discuss,” Primo said with abrupt urgency.
“They’ll have to keep,” Alessandro said, thinking that Octavia was not the only one who was jealous. Primo couldn’t stand being upstaged ever, which was the foundation of his acts of rivalry. Normally, Alessandro would do what he could to keep the peace, but today he had higher priorities. “I would like to meet my son, Primo. Go back to Mother’s and get some rest.”
He motioned to a nurse as he continued toward the nursery, vaguely aware of Primo falling back, but the focus of his attention was now firmly fixed on Octavia and his child. “Thank you,” he said to the nurse after identifying himself and being buzzed into the nursery.
It was a surprisingly noisy place. Babies were crying, a nurse was speaking plaintively, and Octavia’s voice, always clear and modulated, never whiny or harsh, said firmly, “I can see he’s hungry and I’m telling you I will feed him, but with a bottle.”
“Octavia?” Alessandro moved forward and the nurse standing in front of her stepped aside, an uneasy look on her face.
The anticipation rising in him skewed to concern. His wife looked…breakable. Wan. As if she was barely holding herself together. Her eyes, dark as the petals of black pansies, were pools of fraught distress. Her luscious mouth, the lips he loved to devour, were pinched in torment. The roundness in her face and bare shoulder took him by surprise. Her weight gain through the pregnancy hadn’t been tremendous, but he hadn’t seen her often enough to be used to it. It made her seem that much softer. Vulnerable.
And so feminine, still so beautiful and womanly with her hair loose and her face clean of makeup that his libido responded. How? How could he not go five seconds in her presence without experiencing a rush of heat to his groin and a lurch of possessiveness in his gut? It was maddening to have such a primeval reaction and not be able to control it.
For the merest hint of a second, as their gazes locked, he saw a flash of…something. The thing he saw when she woke beside him. The smile that began to glimmer before it reached her lips.
Then it was gone.
She adjusted her hospital gown self-consciously and shifted the baby up to her shoulder, rocking with agitation in the gliding chair, trying anxiously to soothe the baby who sounded positively desolate.
“Alessandro.” She kept her lashes lowered.
Not caro. Not even Sandro. He tried to recall the last time she’d greeted him in a way that sounded the least bit welcoming or friendly.
When had she last really looked at him? Met his gaze for longer than a millisecond?
But if he had a moment of regret that leaving her in London had impacted their marriage, his sense of duty smothered it. Every decision he made was for the sake of the Ferrante family. He had shunned marrying for love quite deliberately. His wife was an asset, a strength, not a weakness.
Still, her rebuff grated after his difficult journey to reach her.
The nurse gave him a pleading, I don’t know what to do look, putting him further on edge. He loathed emotional chaos and had been drowning in it since Primo’s call. Why the hell wasn’t anyone taking things in hand here?
“Is there a problem?” he asked, taking control himself.
“Your wife wants to use a bottle, but you don’t want to introduce one this early,” the nurse insisted to Octavia. “It causes nipple confusion. He might not take to the breast after.”
“You don’t want to feed him yourself?” Alessandro was genuinely shocked. He and Octavia hadn’t talked about how she would feed the baby and women had a choice about these things, he supposed. He wasn’t sure why he took her decision like a slap, but coming on the heels of her cool greeting, he had never felt so summarily rejected in his life.
“Look at him,” she said with a tremble in her voice, and showed him the baby.
The infant was red-faced and frantic, abrading Alessandro’s nerves with his cries. Just feed him, he thought, unable to fathom why she couldn’t see that’s what the baby wanted.
“And look at that one.” She pointed to the incubator on the other side of the room. It was clearly labeled Kelly.
Alessandro looked from the incubator back to his wife. Then to the fussing infant she held. Then to the nurse. Then back to the incubator.
He was not a stupid man, but he didn’t understand. And it made him uneasy that he didn’t understand. It was too foreign an experience.
“The tags are in order, Mr. Ferrante,” Wendy assured him. “We follow very tight protocols. When the head nurse gets back, she’ll explain. This is your baby.” She pointed to the one that Octavia held.
“Look at that one,” Octavia demanded vehemently enough that Alessandro was impelled across to view the other infant inside the dome.
The boy was on his side, naked but for a diaper, limbs moving in slow flails. He looked forsaken, bawling alone in there, catching at Sandro’s heart. He had the urge to pick him up and try to soothe him. This boy was literally crying out for human touch, but that would have to come from parents with the last name of Kelly. Obviously.
Nevertheless, he found himself unable to lift his gaze, locking on to the few wisps of black hair that poked from beneath the baby’s green-and-white striped cap. Something in the fine silkiness made Sandro think of the delicate strands at Octavia’s temple and the back of her neck, but the tag on this baby’s ankle read Kelly.
Exhaustion was catching up to him if he was having delusions. Octavia had been through a lot, he reminded himself, using mammoth effort to scale himself back to cool reason. He had thought Octavia one of the most rational people in his life, but she was only human and possibly still foggy from whatever drugs they might be feeding her.
He looked back at her and for once he held her complete attention, as if she was sending silent brain waves at him, trying to induce him toward something.
“She won’t give him to me,” Octavia said, husky voice wavering between acute anger and a deep suffering that tugged at a deep place inside him.
“He’s not your baby, Mrs. Ferrante,” the nurse maintained.
“This is not my son,” Octavia returned, red and frazzled as she tried to calm the baby bellyaching on her shoulder.
Alessandro had to use a long mental reach to find his patience, but he was well-practiced at maintaining his composure. Snapping and acting on impulse, no matter how tempting, was not the sort of behavior he exhibited, ever. Italian or not, his mother’s son or not, his displays of passion were confined to the bedroom.
“Bring me a bottle. I’ll feed him,” he ordered the nurse. “My wife is obviously having reservations. It’s her body, so…”
“That is not—I’ll feed my baby,” Octavia cried, looking up at him in a way that was halfway between forceful and vanquished. Betrayed and misunderstood.
As stung as he was by her rejection of their son, as shocked as he was to see her throw a tantrum, something moved in him. Uncertainty.
But she had to be wrong. Mix-ups didn’t happen. She was holding their baby. Wasn’t she?
Her gradual rejection of him the past months crept over him like a frost. Why didn’t she want him anymore? Why wouldn’t she accept his child?
Wendy left to prepare a bottle, of course, because when Alessandro spoke, people listened. No one ever jumped like that when Octavia spoke.
And no one had ever managed to look at her quite like that, as if she was something he wanted to scrape off the bottom of his shoe like cold, fetid mud.
Octavia dropped her gaze, unable to meet his gaze. He was far too handsome anyway, shrugging out of his leather aviator jacket so his muscles strained against the clinging knit of the light blue pullover he wore. His stubbled cheeks were the only sign of his long night in the air. The rest of him was crisp gray pants, hair ruffled and starting to curl where it was a little too long on top, and those gray-green eyes that penetrated like a persistent tropical rain.
Everything about him was strength. Level shoulders, steady mouth, composed brow. His face had a perfect bone structure of clean lines, like his maker had used a ruler while drawing his features, leaving sharp angles at his cheekbones and making a straight slope of his nose before finally softening with freehand for his lips.
His sinful lips. She shouldn’t be thinking of all the wonderful things that mouth had done to her. Carnal things.
That mouth was pursed in distaste at her unbelievable claim.
Patting the baby she held, Octavia tried desperately to comfort him while seeking comfort herself. Was she crazy? Primo was always quick to ask her that. Are you on drugs? Have you lost your mind? Do you think like normal people? How could you imagine such a thing?
Months of those sorts of queries had left her questioning her own sanity. Why was she in London, isolated from all that was familiar, carrying a baby the father seemed to care nothing about? Why wasn’t she fighting for a better situation? At the very least, she should have insisted on some sort of contact or acknowledgement from her husband. Why hadn’t she demanded that he speak to her firsthand, not second?
Being here in London had been like boarding school, something to be endured. She hadn’t been in physical peril, merely unhappy. Her mother had spent her entire life unhappy. Such was the lot of a wife who was a pawn in male ambition. Who would have had any pity for Octavia? Poor little rich girl, whining because she had to live in a mansion with servants and all the shopping she could stand.
Being the tolerant, patient sort, she’d thought her husband would eventually show up and make her feel special again. She had believed in the vision of a warm and loving family, that was the problem, yet here she was being denied even the right to hold her own baby.
Being tolerant and patient and obedient and dutiful were all starting to look like the stupidest things she’d ever done.
Rocking jerkily, she gently bounced the baby she held, mind whirling. That baby over there looked like Alessandro. Couldn’t he see it? She’d argued with the nurse until she couldn’t stay on her feet any longer or risk dropping the baby she’d been given. The woman had refused to let her have him, but it was obvious to anyone with functioning eyes. Why wasn’t her husband backing her up? If he couldn’t see it, perhaps she really was cracked.
But his cry, that baby’s cry, muted as it was by the incubator, was tearing her up. So was this one’s. She felt like the worst person in the world, unable to help him, but she couldn’t feed him from her breast. That boy over there was her son. That was the baby her body yearned to nurture. She knew it.
Into the din of crying infants and the staccato glide of her chair, the door gave a click and a woman’s chattering voice entered.
“—expected to deliver naturally, but the cord— Oh, hello. I heard we were competing for the surgeon’s attention last night. I’m Sorcha Kelly.” The blonde in the wheelchair was beautiful. Her hair was pulled into a clip and her oval face was clear and pale. She hadn’t puffed up the way Octavia had. When her curious gaze lifted to Alessandro’s, it made Octavia tense with jealousy.
Bracing herself, Octavia glanced up, certain Alessandro would be noticing and responding to a smile that wasn’t exactly an invitation, but what man could resist such fresh-faced beauty?
He offered a polite nod and a distant introduction. “Alessandro Ferrante. My wife, Octavia, and our son, Lorenzo. That is the name we agreed upon, is it not?” he said to Octavia, willing her to accept that much at least.
All she could manage was a tiny nod and a shrug. Yes, she wanted to call her son Lorenzo, but that name didn’t match this baby.
Alessandro’s dour look stilled the air in her throat, making it impossible for her to say so. Why did he have to look at her with such disdain? She could practically hear him thinking, Just like Mother, but she wasn’t making a scene on purpose!
She opened her mouth to plead her case, but Sorcha Kelly was holding out her arms for the baby that her nurse had fetched and loosely wrapped. The nurse asked Alessandro to turn his back and he did with a brisk apology, dragging his gaze off the other infant and giving Sorcha the privacy she needed to settle in the rocker with one breast bared.
A lightning streak of anguish burned through Octavia, singeing her heart into a dark, powdered coal as she watched Sorcha close her arms around the baby.
“I’ve been waiting to meet you, Mr. Kelly.” Sorcha’s expression was filled with anticipation and sweet joy.
Octavia finally found her voice. “That’s—”
“Octavia,” Alessandro said, his tone soft yet deadly.
She took a shaken breath, glanced into eyes that might have been shadowed with something more than disparagement. Offense? Injury? It caused a dip and roll in her chest, but anxiety had her quickly shifting her attention back to Sorcha.
The other woman had cocked her head. Her brows pulled together as she smiled crookedly at the overwrought infant she held. The nurse urged Sorcha to put the baby to her breast.
“I don’t think—” Sorcha’s gaze came up and straight across to the baby Octavia was trying to soothe, rubbing his back and rocking him.
“The bottle, sir,” Wendy said, returning to hand something to Alessandro.
Octavia was aware of them in her periphery, but her entire world fuzzed at the edges as she met Sorcha’s troubled gaze. The only thing that mattered was that baby Sorcha held. Her baby.
Sorcha’s gaze clashed with Octavia’s, apprehensive and confused. Gently, Octavia lowered the baby she held so Sorcha could see his face.
They were only a few meters apart. It was very easy to see Sorcha’s eyes widen in shock, to interpret her expression as the kind of terrified alarm that only a mother whose baby was in peril would wear. As if he was falling out a window.
“How did you—” Sorcha began in a tone of accusation, then quickly bared the ankle of the boy she held, hand shaking as she looked at his tag. Her panicked gaze came back to Octavia’s.
“They wouldn’t believe me,” Octavia said, voice so thin she barely heard it herself.
“Believe what?” Sorcha’s nurse asked, while the nurse who’d been torturing Octavia tried to stammer out statements of protocol again.
“My wife is confused,” Alessandro said and bent to reach for the baby Octavia held.
She tightened her arms around him, refusing to give up the infant.
At the same time, Sorcha blurted, “Don’t. Don’t touch him.” She struggled to her feet and hitched her gown over her breast, then came across to Octavia.
“No one would believe me,” Octavia told her again, motherly instincts rising hard as her own baby approached. Her eyes stung and her heart hurt. “I wanted to feed him, but he needs his own mama and they wouldn’t give me mine…”
Her words garbled into a choke of emotion as she and Sorcha clumsily exchanged infants.
“I believe you,” Sorcha said with a wobbling smile, kissing her baby’s cheek as she took him, drawing him close against her chest with tender care. “Of course we know our own babies.”
Octavia nodded in gratitude, thinking she would be Sorcha’s slave forever, she was so thankful. This was Lorenzo. He smelled right and fit her arms and his skin was so soft and right against her lips. His little body was startlingly strong despite being racked by crying for a good twenty minutes. Oh, he had his father’s ferociously determined face, looking as though he would get exactly what he wanted no matter what he had to do.
He latched perfectly, quieting in synchronicity with his nursery mate.
Octavia sighed with relief and exchanged a teary smile with Sorcha, then became aware of the thick silence. The nurses were staring at them, mouths agape.
Alessandro was thunderstruck.