His heir: shockingly revealed!
Their flame: deliciously reignited…
Brazilian billionaire Duarte Avelar, kidnapped and rumored dead, has returned! He can’t remember what happened to him, but he knows that the breathtaking woman standing in front of him is important…and in labor!
Reeling from the heat still blazing between them, Nora Beckett must decide when to reveal that her newborn son is Duarte’s heir. As soon as she does, Nora knows he will claim them both in order to protect them. But with her impossible, addictive feelings for Duarte resurfacing, that feels like the most risky choice of all…
Release Date 21st January 2021
IT WASN’T OFTEN that a man could say he’d looked upon his own grave. Duarte Avelar stood frozen in the sleepy English village graveyard, staring at the elegant family crypt where he and his twin sister had laid their beloved parents to rest seven years before.
But now a third name had been added to the marble plaque.
Dried wreaths and bouquets lined the resting place, with small notecards and offerings of condolence from friends and business colleagues alike. He’d been told his memorial service had been a grand affair, filled with Europe’s wealthy elite, come to pay their respects to one of their favourite billionaire playboys.
His mind conjured up an image of his twin sister Dani, accepting their sympathies, standing in this very spot to watch as they lowered an empty coffin into the ground…
His stomach lurched, nausea burning as he turned away and moved swiftly through the empty cemetery grounds. A sleek black car awaited him outside the gates, the young male chauffeur studiously staring at the wet ground as he held the door open. A pair of hulking bodyguards in plain clothes stood nearby, quietly focused on monitoring the surrounding countryside.
He had once enjoyed a certain level of familiarity with his staff. Had prided himself on being considered a likeable employer, easy-going and approachable. And yet for the past two weeks, since his shock return, he had been a pariah. It seemed everyone had been forewarned of his unpredictable temperament and had decided that ignoring him was the safest option.
Still, he caught them trying not to stare at the thick crosshatched scarring that spanned his face from the centre of his left eyebrow to the tip of his ear. He saw their stricken gazes upon seeing the scars along the rest of his torso when he went for his twice daily swim.
He had gone from being the kind of man who could command a boardroom and charm any woman in his path to being one who avoided his own staff so as not to make them nervous.
His sister had managed the media, laying down an embargo for a couple of weeks until Duarte was ready for the attention. He had walked out of their first press conference less than an hour ago, knowing he hadn’t been ready, but there was nothing to be done now.
The press had called him a walking ghost, a man returned from the dead. They had jumped at the chance to paint him as some kind of hero to fit their own sensational narratives.
No one seemed to understand that his survival was not something he wished to be celebrated for. Not when he was sure that his disappearance and the suffering he had endured had been entirely his own fault.
By rights, he should be dead.
He sat heavily against the back seat of the car, running his hand along the length of the long scar that traced the side of his head above his ear. It turned out that the nightmarish recovery process he’d endured after a gunshot wound to the head had been child’s play compared with trying to fit back into a world where Duarte Avelar had ceased to exist.
As they drove away he watched the sun shine over the picturesque countryside hamlet that his family had adopted as their home after moving from Brazil. As a young boy he had been angry and homesick, barely even ten years old, but this quiet place had soon become home. Even when he had made his fortune, owning homes in every corner of the world, nothing had compared to the feeling of this small slice of peace and paradise.
Now…nowhere felt like home.
Everything was wrong. He was wrong.
He saw it in the glances his sister shared with Valerio, his business partner and best friend. They had witnessed his shifting moods, his restless lack of focus and his irritation with the debilitating headaches that could hit at any moment.
Two weeks previously, when they had been informed that he had miraculously survived, they’d both rushed to where he’d been kept, at an elite private medical facility on a tiny island off the coast of Brazil. Up until that point he’d had no memory of who he was, and had been singularly focused on rebuilding the physical strength he had lost during the months he’d spent confined to a hospital bed.
Talking to them had been painful, but he had started to recover some memories with their help. Coming back to England had been Dani’s idea, and he had seen her eyes fill with hope that he would somehow come back to their childhood home and magically be restored to his former self.
It had worked to a certain extent. With their help, the gaps in his memory had begun to fill, but he still felt a strange disconnection from it all. Dani was determined to think positively, but Duarte felt nothing but apathy for the strange world he had re-entered. At times he even longed for the peaceful solitude of his anonymous life on the island, then felt guilt for his own selfishness.
In his absence, so much had changed. With every passing day he continued to be reminded of how people had moved on and adapted, growing over the hole he had left behind. Growing together mostly. He scowled, thinking of the look on his best friend’s face when he’d revealed that in Duarte’s absence he and Dani had fallen in love and were now engaged to be married.
His best friend and his twin sister were going to be man and wife. The fact that their relationship had begun as a measure to protect Dani from the corrupt forces who had been behind his kidnapping had only angered him further.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to be happy. But they’d buried him. Mourned him. And then they had moved on—all while he had been trapped alone in a living hell.
His anger was a constant presence and it shamed him. They had done nothing wrong. No one could have known he was still alive. In fact, his father’s oldest friend in Brazil had ensured that no one knew until the time was right.
But Duarte hadn’t told them that part of the story yet… He hadn’t told anybody. Telling the truth behind the events that had led to him and Valerio being captured and tortured at the hands of Brazilian gangsters would mean admitting his own part in what had happened. Revealing the secrets he’d kept from them both. Secrets that now had gaping holes in them, thanks to his memory loss.
Dani had been subtle, but pointed in her questions about when he might feel ready to get back to work. Velamar, their luxury yacht charter company, was just about to open new headquarters in the US and in the Caribbean. It was something that he and Valerio had been building towards for more than a decade. His answers to her repeated questioning had been hostile and he had refused to commit to attending.
After the press conference that morning he’d told them both that he was going back to Rio for a while, to assist with securing one of the Avelar Foundation’s charity developments—a sizeable portfolio of prime urban development sites in Rio De Janeiro, which had been the catalyst for all the trouble he had brought into their lives.
Of course the charity was only one of the reasons he was returning to Rio, but he hadn’t told them that.
Dani had been stone-faced and had walked away from him without a single word. Valerio had been torn between them both, his mouth a grim line as he’d urged Duarte to take a large security detail and be careful.
He knew his sister was hurt by his distant moods, but he felt stifled by her company, by her obvious happiness with Valerio and by her questions about his time in recovery. But he didn’t want to talk—didn’t want to remember the pain of learning to walk again and pushing his broken body to its limits. Not when he was so consumed with bringing down the wealthy criminals behind his ordeal and making sure they paid for their crimes.
The insistent chime of his phone grabbed his attention. The screen showed a text message from an undisclosed number.
We found her.
Duarte felt his body freeze for a moment before he tapped a few buttons on the phone to open an encrypted server. His team of private investigators and ex-law-enforcement operatives had been hard at work in the past week, since he’d set the course for his revenge. They’d already recovered and collated every photograph and video of him from the past year, trying to create a map of his movements. Judging by the most recent files added, they’d uncovered a wealth of photographs taken at a political event he had attended directly before his kidnapping.
He scanned through the countless images, one after the other, seeing that a trio of pictures at the end had been flagged for his attention. The photographs showed him standing away from the main podium area, towards the back of the large event hall. Something thrummed to life in his gut as he clicked through the files until finally a glimpse of long red hair made him freeze.
It was her. Cristo, he’d finally found her.
Of all his tortured dreams as he’d recovered on the island, those of the beautiful redhead had plagued him the most. When he’d first come out of a medically induced coma, the only clear memory he’d had was of her holding him as he bled out. He hadn’t been sure if it was his imagination that had conjured such a vivid picture or if it was truly a memory he’d managed to retain.
She’d kept him warm with her body around his, her hand holding his own as she’d spoken his name so softly. Her bright silver eyes had been filled with tears, and the scent of lavender had cocooned him as she’d tried to stem the blood-flow.
‘Duarte…please don’t die,’ she’d sobbed, before cursing in colourful Portuguese.
Her words had been like a mantra in his mind.
‘You need to stay alive for both of us.’
That voice in his mind had kept him going throughout his intense recovery process. And now he couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was…important, somehow. That she was real. But, despite all the people that Angelus Fiero had tracked down and arrested in the last two months, there had been no mention of a woman anywhere near that shipping yard.
But now, looking at the photo on his phone screen…
One look at her face and he knew it was her. He knew she was real, not a dream. She had been his very own angel that night. She had saved his life with her bare hands, but she had left before anyone saw her.
He ignored the countless theories his mind produced, knowing none of them painted her as having nothing to hide. He would think about that later. For now, this woman was possibly the only link to what had happened that night and he needed to find her.
He looked up, noticing that they had arrived at a small private airfield outside London. His pilot, Martha, stood on the Tarmac to greet him, along with the small crew of one of the Velamar fleet of private jets.
Duarte smoothed a hand over his jaw as he tried not to think of his sister’s words, begging him to forget his ordeal, to let the police continue to handle it while he focused on getting back to his normal life. Now, after seeing the woman’s face, knowing she was real, he felt as if he was finally doing something that mattered. The cogs in his brain were turning, giving him purpose.
But was he just tracking her down to find out what she knew, or was it something more?
He brushed off the thought and dialled a number on his phone, hearing the rasping voice of his chief investigator as he answered the call and began griping about the various data protection laws standing in the way of facial recognition and searching for the mystery woman. Duarte growled back that he didn’t care what he had to pay or what had to be done. He added that if his team had eyes on her by the time he landed in Rio their fees would be doubled.
The other man swiftly changed his tune.
‘You will wait for my arrival before you make a move. Nobody is to approach her or bring her in—understand?’ Duarte felt anticipation build within him as he growled the warning.
Nora Beckett took one last look at the empty space of her tiny apartment and felt the weight of uncertainty descend, choking the air from her throat.
She wouldn’t cry. She’d done enough of that in the last six and a half months to last her a lifetime. Crying was for people who could afford that weakness, she thought miserably as she opened her phone one last time and looked at the list of missed calls and unopened voicemails. The name on the screen read ‘Papai’. Such an innocent word to cause such a violent reaction in her gut.
She placed the phone in one of the boxes, knowing she couldn’t take it with her. As far as she was concerned she had no father. Not any more.
She’d thought she was almost free of his reach…
She’d thought she still had time…
Her powerful father had been in hiding somewhere outside of Brazil for months, and Nora had taken the time to finish her studies at university, cramming in as many repeat classes as she could to try to undo some of the damage of the last year.
She’d barely managed to scrape through her final exams when the first messages had begun to arrive. She had no idea if she would even be allowed to graduate with her patchy attendance record, but sadly, that was the least of her worries right now. She had to get out of Rio.
The open boxes on the floor overflowed with books on engineering and environmental studies. They were the only possessions she owned other than her small case of clothing, but they were too heavy to take with her. She’d already done far too much today, bending down and scrubbing the place all morning so she could get her meagre deposit back.
As though agreeing with the thought, her lower back throbbed painfully.
As she descended the five flights of stairs to the street below she cradled the enormous swell of her stomach, taking care not to go too fast for fear she might jostle the precious cargo nestled within.
She had agonised over booking the four-hour flight to Manaus at this late stage of her pregnancy, but the nurse at the clinic had assured her that spending three days crammed in a bus to travel across the country would pose far more of a risk.
Her legs and feet had already been swelling painfully in recent days. And arranging her swift escape had put her under so much stress that her head throbbed constantly and insomnia plagued her. When she did manage to sleep she had fevered dreams of walking into her mother’s arms in the quiet, peaceful safety of the remote animal sanctuary where she’d grown up on the banks of the Amazon.
She just hoped that Maureen Beckett would welcome her runaway daughter’s sudden, unannounced return…and forgive her for the past five years of silence…
Whenever she thought of the last words they’d spoken to one another shame burned in her gut and stopped her from calling, but she had at least sent a letter. She’d written that she was sorry. That she’d been a naïve, sheltered eighteen-year-old with a desperate hunger to see the world and her father’s promises ringing in her ears.
She’d received no response.
The sanctuary was the only place she could imagine raising her baby without fear or threat. She wouldn’t be alone there, amidst the bustling community of ecologists and volunteers, with her fierce Irish mother at the helm. There was a small birthing clinic in the nearby village, and she’d arranged to rent a room with the last of her savings in the event that her mother turned her away.
But deep down she hoped her mam would forgive her.
It was the beginning of May, technically the start of the dry season, and yet the torrential downpour that now descended on Rio De Janeiro was like something from a catastrophe movie.
Nora tried her best to stay dry under the narrow porch, craning her neck to do a quick scan of the street. The bells from the cathedral nearby began to chime midday and, as she’d hoped, there was no sign of the dark blue car that had been parked in the alley all week. Even criminal henchmen took predictable breaks, it seemed.
Even though Lionel Cabo hadn’t set foot in Rio in months, he still made it his mission to make his only daughter’s life hell. Having her watched was only one of the ways he’d been tightening the noose, showing her the power he wielded. When she’d continued to ignore his calls he’d somehow managed to get to her landlord and have her evicted.
He knew she wouldn’t dare go to the police, who were mostly in his pocket. He knew she was utterly alone here.
She bit her lower lip as she rubbed small circles on her aching lower back.
A small group of teenagers in hoods moved out from their spot in a nearby doorway as a sleek black sports car prowled slowly up the narrow street and came to a stop a short distance away. The young boys crowded around it, peering into the windows through the rain which was now beginning to ease.
Nora felt her senses shift into high alert. Usually the wealthy residents of Rio stayed far away from the more dangerous streets in this part of the city.
The teenagers moved aside as a tall figure emerged from the expensive vehicle. Rain instantly soaked his dark coat and he looked up, amber eyes glowing bright against the dark skin of a sinfully handsome face.
She was hallucinating.
Either her brain was playing tricks on her or she had fallen asleep, and was still upstairs, dreaming the same dream she’d had for more than six months.
The man closed the distance between them with a few long strides, stepping under the canopy with a strange stiffness to his movements. Nora fought to breathe as her headache intensified, her heartbeat thundering in her ears as she waited for him to speak.
‘Nora Beckett?’ he asked softly.
His voice contained the slightly clipped undertone of an English accent that she knew came from more than two decades living away from his homeland.
He extended a hand towards her in polite greeting. ‘I hope you don’t mind me coming to find you like this?’
Nora remained frozen, feeling as if she was watching herself from above, standing with this man who had Duarte’s face and Duarte’s voice. He dropped his hand after a moment, frowning, and looking back to where the boys were still investigating the exterior of his fancy car.
‘I don’t know if you remember me.’ He spoke quickly. ‘My name is Duarte Avelar. I was in an…an incident about six months ago—’
‘Duarte Avelar is dead.’
Nora heard the hysteria in her own voice and willed herself to calm down, willed herself to find a logical solution for this madness.
‘I’m quite alive, as you can see.’
His smile was forced, his movements strangely stilted as he reached for a split second to rub his hand across the slightly uneven hair growth on the left side of his head.
Nora followed the movement, noticing the thick dark brown line of puckered skin that began at his temple. What had once been soft, springy jet-black curls was now a tight crop that was barely more than skin at one side. She could clearly see the tiny marks where stitches had once sealed a wound that ended above his left ear.
The exact same place where she had tried to stem the blood flow with her own hands, had felt it spill over her dress and onto the cold ground around her feet.
She swallowed hard against the awful memories and focused on the man before her. His lips were still curved in a polite smile that was nothing like the man she had known. He seemed so real she almost felt as if she could reach out and touch him…
Frowning, she stepped forward and impulsively placed her hand on his chest. His sharp intake of breath took her by surprise, and she felt her insides quake with a strange mixture of fear and relief. She hardly dared to hope. She was unable to move, completely entranced by the blazing heat of his skin under her fingertips through the expensive material of his dove-grey shirt.
Almost of its own volition, her hand skimmed up a hard wall of muscle to where a glorious pulse thrummed at the base of his neck. Alive. She closed her eyes and felt a painful lump form in her throat at the cruelty of such a vision if this wasn’t real. If it was just another one of her vivid dreams, after which she would awake in the middle of the night and expect to see him lying beside her.
Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away, tipping her head up to find him staring down at her. His skin was still that rich caramel- brown, vibrant and healthy, so unlike the deathly pallor of that awful night.
She heard the tremor in her voice as she whispered, ‘Duarte…this is impossible…’
‘I’ve thought the same thing over the past months, believe me.’ One side of his mouth twisted in the same sardonic way she remembered. ‘But here I am.’
‘You’re actually here. You’re alive…’ Her voice was a breathless whisper as she felt a long-buried well of hopeless longing burst open within her.
Before she could stop herself, she closed the space between them and buried her face against his chest. He froze for a split second, and she feared he might push her away. She wouldn’t blame him, considering she was essentially the reason he had received that scar in the first place.
She stiffened, bracing herself for rejection, only to feel his strong arms close around her. She was instantly cocooned in his warm spicy scent and the glorious thumping rhythm of his heart. His beating, perfect heart.
Emotion clogged her throat as she was consumed by the urgent need to feel him, to hold on to him as though he were an oasis of hope in the unbearable desert of her grief. Her breathing became shallow and she was overcome with the need to kiss him, to feel his lips on hers once again.
From the moment she had first laid eyes on him in that crowded Samba club almost a year ago he had affected her this way. She had never reacted to another man with such primal desire, and he had told her that she affected him just the same way.
‘You bring out the animal in me, querida.’
He’d whispered that in her ear right before their very first kiss. They’d almost made love on the beach, in full view of the pier. It had been madness, and she felt that same desire humming through her veins just from being in his arms now.
She leaned back, looking up and expecting to see a reflection of the intense emotion she felt. Instead his face was utterly blank, and so confused it was like being doused with ice water.
This was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
Suddenly she felt a tiny kick within her, wrenching her back to the present moment. She forced herself to take a step back, putting space between them as she composed herself and took in a lungful of air. The rain had died down and around them the sound of the boisterous youths filled the street.
Suddenly the weight of reality came crashing down upon her. If this wasn’t a dream then it was a living nightmare. There was no question that this man was Duarte. And that meant her life had just become even more complicated.
She wrapped her bulky raincoat even tighter around herself and held her handbag in front of her stomach. If he was here, they were both in danger. This changed everything.
She looked around the streets once more, praying the blue car hadn’t returned.
‘How…?’ she breathed. ‘How are you alive?’
‘It’s a very long story.’ He rubbed at his freshly shaven jawline. ‘One that involves a medically induced coma and many months of painful rehabilitation. Let’s just say I’m a hard man to kill.’
She heard the gasp that escaped her throat and closed her eyes against the image it created in her mind. He’d been alive all this time…in pain, broken…
She fought the urge to cling to him once again, never to let him go. But a tiny voice in her mind was screaming at her to run away as fast as she could and pretend she’d never seen him. Even if walking away from him now might be more painful than losing him the first time.
It was too much… She could hardly breathe…
‘I hope you don’t mind me tracking you down,’ he said, and he spoke with a strange politeness to his tone that made her uneasy. ‘You were there with me, the night I was shot.’
‘Yes, I was there.’ She frowned, watching the relief that crossed his face at her response. He smiled, and her heart seemed to pulse at the sight of it.
‘Your care and kindness were the first things I remembered when I woke up.’ His gaze softened for a moment before he seemed to shake himself mentally, then cleared his throat. ‘I have a few things I’d like to ask you, if you wouldn’t mind?’
‘You don’t remember me.’ She spoke half to herself, processing the polite detachment in his gaze, the way he’d introduced himself to her—as though they were strangers.
It all came painfully into focus, like a movie replaying in her mind. He had no idea who she was…no idea what they’d been to one another.
‘My injury has caused some slight memory loss. It’s been a process—one I’m hoping you might help me with, actually.’ He put his hands in his pockets and looked at her through his thick lashes. ‘Is there somewhere private that we can talk?’
To any other woman his overtly calm posture would appear benign and almost welcoming. But Nora wasn’t any other woman, and she knew when she was being baited. He might not have any memories of her, or their history, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still possess the killer instinct he was famous for.
He’d noticed her lengthy pause and the skin around his mouth had tightened with barely restrained irritation. She felt a shiver run down her spine. He wanted answers and he had managed to track her down. She suddenly felt as if he was a predator on the hunt and she a small rabbit heading straight for his trap.
She looked up the street and saw her bus, just beginning to turn the corner.
Duarte followed her gaze and narrowed his eyes.
‘I’m sorry. I have to go. I have a flight to catch.’ She forced the words from her lips, trying not to let him see the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes at any moment.
‘Let me drive you to the airport. I just want to talk.’
Nora stared at the face of the man she had once loved. The man she’d thought she loved, she corrected herself.
If he said he had no memory of her, did that mean he had no recollection of what had passed between them all those months ago?
Guilt and anger joined the swirl of emotions warring within her. She had made her own mistakes, but he had ensured she was punished in return. He had shattered her trust and broken her foolish heart.
She had grieved for him and mourned the father her child would never have. But a small, terrible part of her had whispered that at least with his death she would be safe from his wrath. Her child would be safe.
She needed to get away. Fast.
If there was one thing she had inherited from her crime boss father, it was the sheer will to survive. She closed down her emotional reaction to his miraculous return and focused instead on the worst moments they’d spent together. The pain he’d put her through.
She lowered her hand to her stomach, reflexively protecting her unborn child from the threat of danger. That was what Duarte Avelar was to her, she reminded herself. Dangerous. That was what he had always been.
Nora opened her mouth to tell him she had no interest in answering his questions, but instead let out a silent gasp as her entire lower body spasmed with pain. Her handbag fell to the ground and she gripped her stomach, feeling the dull throbbing that had been torturing her back all morning shifting around to her front and burrowing deep inside.
The twisting heat took her breath away. She could do nothing but breathe for a long moment.
‘Are you okay?’
His voice came from close beside her, and his hand was warm on her elbow. She pushed him away, not able to look up into his face. She needed to get on that bus before her father’s men returned. She needed to get out of Rio today. But she couldn’t think straight.
‘Cristo, you’re pregnant…’ Duarte breathed reflexively, slipping into heavily accented English. ‘You’re really, really pregnant.’
‘Excellent observation.’ She spoke through clenched teeth.
‘Do you need to get to a hospital?’
‘No… I was just lifting some heavy boxes. I’m moving out of town today.”
She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, praying this was just the shock of him showing up on her doorstep and her body was simply reminding her to take it easy.
In the back of her mind she heard the noise of the bus drawing closer along the street. She needed to move. ‘I’ll be fine. I need to get to the airport or I’ll miss my flight.’
She moved to walk around him, throwing her arm out to hail the ônibus, but then she felt another wave of pain tighten inside her abdomen so swiftly she cried out.
Clutching onto the nearest object for balance—a very firm male bicep—she squeezed hard and prayed that this wasn’t the moment her child would choose to be born.
As that thought entered her mind she felt a strange pop and the trickle of what felt like water between her legs.
This could not be happening.
She kept her eyes closed tight, a low growl escaping her lips through the waves of pain that seemed to crash into her body.
‘I think my waters have just broken.’