Authors: Dani Collins
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.
?” Alessandro asked Octavia, feeling as though he’d hit black ice and was skidding toward an abyss. Never in his life had he seen anything like what had just happened.
“Can’t you see they mixed them up? Look at him.” She gently adjusted the blanket with a trembling hand, ensuring the baby was kept warm, but allowing Alessandro to see the boy’s face.
she showed an inclination toward love, but to whose child?
Was he as unhinged as she was that he thought he saw a resemblance in that baby’s features to the various scrunched faces he’d seen on his infant nephews? He’d always thought all babies looked alike at that age, but...
Octavia’s frenetic pace on the rocker had slowed. She looked far more at peace, much more like the composed woman he knew her to be. It was finally quiet enough in here that he could think, but he simply couldn’t wrap his brain around what had just happened. Had she somehow conspired with that other woman to switch his own son with a stranger’s? Or had the hospital genuinely mixed up something as important as two babies?
“It’s impossible,” one of the nurses said, echoing his thoughts. “We have very strict protocols. They couldn’t have been switched. You shouldn’t be doing this. You both have it wrong.”
have it wrong,” the other mother, Sorcha, said. “Test them. You’ll see we’re right.”
Alessandro was trying to afford that woman some privacy, but he could see Octavia staring over at Sorcha with solidarity in her expression that was so fervent, it gave him pause. She had welcomed this second infant so tenderly. What if she was right?
“This is beyond anything I’ve ever encountered,” he pronounced, cutting into a discussion between the nurses about how completely impossible a mix-up could be. “Run the tests. Immediately.”
“Of course, sir, but the doctor will have to order it. I’ll phone straightaway,” she assured him.
suggest tests?” Sorcha murmured dryly to Octavia.
“Women’s voices are so high only dogs hear them,” Octavia retorted, revealing the sense of humor she’d kept hidden from Alessandro since the first weeks after their honeymoon.
As soon as she realized he’d heard her, she sobered, expression ironing into the passive mask he was beginning to realize was a special look she adopted just for him. It shot an arrow of discomfort into his chest, lodging there and vibrating, but he dismissed it, determined to get to the bottom of the babies’ identities. That was paramount.
Her expression softened as she looked down at the baby. Lorenzo, if that was indeed their son, had fallen asleep. Carefully pulling him off her nipple and adjusting her gown so her breast was covered, Octavia brought him to her shoulder and rubbed his back, looking so natural and content, eyes closed and the most loving of smiles on her lips, that Alessandro had to swallow a lump of emotion.
“Maybe you should stick with the bottle, Mrs. Ferrante, until things are made clear,” her nurse said.
“Things are very clear,” Octavia said, lifting heavy eyelids, but sounding surprisingly fierce. “This baby is mine and I’m not letting him out of my arms until you’ve all accepted that.”
Her gaze shifted to slam into Alessandro’s with banked animosity, including him in her statement. More than just a mother bear, she was a jungle cat capable of clawing him to pieces and eating him alive if he crossed her.
Even more unexpectedly, her revelation of such pure aggressive emotion turned him on.
* * *
Lorenzo was surprisingly heavy. Octavia wished they could all go back to her room where she could lie down with her baby and rest.
She wanted to ask Alessandro if he wanted to hold his son. He should have demanded the opportunity by now, she thought, but he was too busy conducting a razor-sharp interview of the nurses on their newborn-tagging procedures.
Even she had to admit, given the precautions in place, the chance of a mix-up was very low. Still, it had happened. She couldn’t prove it, but she knew it.
A rush of tears threatened to overwhelm her as she faced the challenge of substantiating what was merely an instinct.
Fortunately Dr. Reynolds arrived and involved the hospital administration immediately. “DNA tests take time. We’ll do one, of course, but we’ll do a quick blood test right now,” Dr. Reynolds said. “It won’t be conclusive, but it could certainly determine if a baby is
with the right pair of parents.”
“Excellent.” Alessandro began rolling up his sleeve, so used to having people jump the minute a decision was made, he expected nothing less than to have a needle plunged into his arm right this second. “I believe I’m a B, but test to confirm it.”
It all took time, however. A technician from the lab had to come up. The hospital administrator wanted to witness and sign off on the labeling, and interview both mothers. The night staff was being called in for questioning. Security was reviewing records of comings and goings to see if there’d been interference.
At least Octavia had an ally in Sorcha. Yes, Alessandro was determined to get to the bottom of things, but Octavia couldn’t help feeling that he was blaming her. She’d seen that hard-faced look before, usually when his mother was around, saying outrageous things and demanding to be the center of attention.
When he came across to her, she almost flinched from his hand on her shoulder.
He noticed, shock flickering in his expression before he gentled his touch into a soothing caress.
“I’m going with the administrator to speak with their head of security.” He still sounded gruff and looked terrible. Tired and stressed, but that air of grit was oddly reassuring as he added, “I want to see for myself whether their procedures were followed. This is unacceptable. There shouldn’t be any doubt.”
His gaze dropped to the sleeping baby and a flash of torture cut across his expression before he suppressed it. He might not be ready to believe her—he was too much a man of facts and process to follow someone’s gut instinct, even his wife’s—but he wasn’t discounting her, either.
Before she could react, he cupped the side of her face and leaned in. His mouth covered hers in a brief, damp openmouthed kiss that shot a jolt of excitement through her, stopping her breath and curling her toes in her slippers. It was over before she could respond, but his mouth had been hot enough to brand, turning her inside out.
He straightened and his gaze delved into hers before she could hide the yearning he had provoked. With a final caress of his thumb against her cheek, he left.
His absence always left her bereft, no matter how much she hated herself for being dependent on him, but there was more. She felt as though he’d just promised to fight for her, which was deeply heartening after she’d pretty much given up on his wanting anything to do with her.
Maybe that was wishful thinking, though.
“He reminds me of Enrique’s father,” Sorcha murmured after Alessandro was gone. She rocked gently. They’d both been given slings so the babies were tucked securely against them in case they nodded off in their comfortable gliding rockers.
“How so?” Octavia asked, curious how any man could be anything like Alessandro. In every way, he was a step above anyone she had ever met.
“His way of taking control. So confident and determined. You’re lucky to have him here. I guess we both are,” she said wryly.
“Your husband isn’t here?” Octavia probed gently, wanting to know more about her new friend. Well, she hoped they were becoming friends. She had lost touch with the few women she’d known in Naples. They’d never been true friends anyway, just young women she’d gone to school with, most of them single and keen to party, hunting in packs for Mr. Right. After she married and became pregnant and moved to London, Octavia had had nothing in common with them. They’d moved on without her.
“He’s in Spain,” Sorcha answered, voice growing strained. “There was an accident.” She lifted a quick hand from the back of her baby’s head, staying Octavia’s quick gasp. “He’s fine. Recovered. Mostly. But no, he isn’t here.”
“Because you delivered early? Is he on his way?” Octavia asked, instinctively trying to comfort.
Sorcha’s mouth pulled down at the corners and her gaze skimmed the nursery. Only one nurse remained and she was on the telephone.
“We’re not married. Not together,” Sorcha admitted, offering a brave, but flat smile. It fell away very quickly, as though she was having second thoughts about confessing that she was single. As though it was a crime to be ashamed of.
“I’m sorry,” Octavia said thinly, worried she’d overstepped. “But you won’t leave here without my phone number,” she added on impulse. “You and I are in this together.”
“Seems so, doesn’t it?” Sorcha said with a flash of her pretty smile. “Mum always tells me there’s a silver lining to any of life’s setbacks. I’ll be going home to stay with her in Ireland until I’m ready to go back to work, though. I won’t be here to have coffee in person. We’ll have to do it over the tablet.”
“Oh,” Octavia said, crestfallen. As much as she’d been yearning to go back to Naples all these months, now that she’d seen Alessandro again, she wasn’t sure. He might be taking her side right now, but where had he been all these months?
Funny how she’d thought marriage would offer her a chance at a real family, but she felt more alone than ever, despite having a child with him.
“A friend over the tablet would be better than none at all,” Octavia assured her.
* * *
Alessandro was used to results. If they weren’t provided promptly, he got them himself, which was what he was doing right now.
He stationed one of his bodyguards at the nursery door and the other accompanied him and the administrator through the green corridors to meet the hospital’s head of security, Gareth Underwood. Underwood was burly with a fringe of closely cropped hair that left the top of his head bald. He wore wire-rim glasses and a shirt in the particular shade of beige that marked a man as uniformly practical. An access card was clipped to his chest pocket and a radio hung off his hip.
He cocked his head as he shook Alessandro’s hand. “Mrs. Ferrante’s husband,” he repeated. “You’re aware that your cousin identified himself as her husband last night?”
That news was not as surprising as it should be and more than a little irritating. After several escapades in their teens, including one that had even left him making explanations to the law, Alessandro had given Primo strict instructions never to take his identity for any reason. Today, however, he wound up making excuses.
“An effort to ensure her safety, I’m sure. Without going into detail, we’ve had some security concerns at home in Italy.” The possibility had been dancing in Alessandro’s subconscious that this baby switch could be an open attack from the faceless threat he’d been trying to identify for months. He refused to man panic stations until he had all the facts, though. For now, “Octavia was supposed to deliver at a private clinic where her security was already arranged. Primo was only looking out for her, I’m sure.”
“And she didn’t go to the private clinic because...?” Gareth prompted.
“The ambulance failed to arrive and her labor progressed very quickly.” That still infuriated him, but he kept a firm cap on himself. “They had to bring her here.”
“I looked into that.” The administrator held up his cell phone. “Dispatch confirms no other ambulance was called to that address, just the one that brought her here. She made that call herself.”
“Obviously dispatch didn’t log Primo’s request,” Alessandro stated tightly, deeply disturbed that his wife had suffered needlessly. “I’ll follow up with them. None of us would be here if the ambulance had come when ordered and taken her to the correct hospital.”
“Sir?” A wiry technician invited them into a control room. It was small and hot, as these types of stations usually were, and a tight fit for all of them. They were quickly shown an image of Primo trying to accompany Octavia’s stretcher into a locked-down area. The nurse shook her head, pointed at her cap and scrubs, then indicated something down the hall.
“She’s telling him to wait in the lounge,” the administrator provided.
Seconds later, the staff was clearly under pressure, moving quickly as the emergency deliveries were stacked up. People came and went through electronically controlled doors, leaving the doors hovering open again and again. Primo took advantage and stepped into the restricted area directly outside the theaters.
Everyone looked to Alessandro.
He shrugged jerkily, wanting to explain his cousin’s trespass as concern for Octavia, but finding himself holding his tongue and watching, waiting to see what Primo did next.
The technician flicked screens and a moment later they could see the interior of the restricted area. An administration desk was set up with a computer and printer. The surgeon walked out of one theater, peeling scrubs as she went. She threw them into a bin and quickly began to wash her hands. There was no sound, but the way she pointed toward the door with her elbow suggested she was ordering Primo to leave, but she was being urged into the other theater and hurried to put on fresh scrubs and comply.
When a nurse came bustling from the first theater, she halted with surprise, but Primo pointed to the room labeled Theater Two. Whatever he said seemed to alleviate the nurse’s concern. She was in a hurry. She grabbed a tiny striped cap from a cupboard, then quickly began preparing two trays with papers and pens and...
“Name tags?” Alessandro guessed as he saw a printed strip go onto each tray.
“With the mother’s name and the bar code that matches her file,” the administrator clarified. “They print them ahead when they can and add the time of birth in the theater.”
Another nurse came out of Theater Two. She examined both trays, drew one closer to herself, then was pulled into a hunt for something with the other nurse.
That was when Primo glanced at the closed-circuit camera eye, shifted his back to block the line of sight to the trays and made a furtive movement.