This Italian billionaire’s marriage began with convenience, grew to passion and ended in heartbreak. Now he has the chance to reunite his family again… Can he do it?
When Alessandro Ferrante married shy heiress Octavia, it was an unexpected thrill to discover that the chemistry simmering between his convenient bride and himself was all too real! Innocent Octavia was as sweetly sensual as she was beautiful, but when their newborn baby was swapped at the hospital their fragile marriage reached crisis point.
Now, with her baby safely back in her arms, the revelation that Alessandro’s cousin was involved leaves Octavia wanting nothing more to do him. But Alessandro is determined to distance himself from his estranged family’s betrayal, and prove that he is a husband Octavia can trust…with her child, body and heart!
From Harlequin Presents: Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.
Read both stories in The Wrong Heirs duet by Dani Collins:
Book 1 - The Marriage He Must Keep
Book 2 - The Consequence He Must Claim
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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 andwell, 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 generationstick, 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."
C* * *
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 be-grudgingly 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 sexor rather, lack thereofhad 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.