The Marriage He Must Keep

By: Dani Collins

CHAPTER ONE

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?

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