Almost a Bravo
She isn’t a true Bravo—
And now she’s inheriting a temporary husband!
It’s shocking enough discovering she was switched at birth. Now, to fulfill the terms of his adoptive father’s will, Aislinn Bravo must marry Jaxon Winter or he loses his beloved ranch. Living together as husband and wife for three months only deepens Aislinn’s desire for her longtime crush. But how can she dream of a future with Jax when her whole life is a lie?
The Bravos of Valentine Bay:
They’re finding love
—and having babies!—
in the Pacific Northwest
What Readers are Saying
“Love the Bravo series. And Christine Rimmer's writing style. This was an unusual way to create a romance. Former ranch hand being called to a reading of a will and the circumstances that leave her questioning everything she has ever known. An adoptive son and ranch hand who gets the rug pulled out from under him with the instructions he must marry in order to keep the ranch he grew up on and had always thought would be his."
4 stars, Beverly S, Goodreads Reviewer
"I absolutely loved this book and was honored to have been able to read and review... I just couldn't get enough of it and once I started reading it I couldn't put it down.”
5 stars, Katie Hansen, Goodreads Reviewer
“Aislinn and Jaxon are compelling, rich characters that immediately capture your imagination. You will be cheering for them as they start their new lives and overcome their pasts to find each other.”
5 stars, Marie Campbell, Amazon
“Almost a Bravo is the second book in Christine Rimmer’s The Bravos of Valentine Bay series. I absolutely loved this book! I was hooked from the opening pages. How does one react when they discover the life they’ve led wasn’t theirs to live?”
5 stars, JudyRudy, Goodreads Reviewer
“This was a ‘sit down and finish’ book for me. I sat down with coffee and finished it in one day. It kept me interested and I thoroughly enjoyed the emotional ups and downs of both Aislinn and Jaxon! Kind of real-life stuff. They talked about issues. They agreed and disagreed, but always listened to each other. I loved the truth in the dialogue. Can’t wait for more from the Valentine Bay Bravo’s!”
5 stars, Reading in Morgan Hill, Amazon
When Jaxon Winter entered the waiting room, every nerve in Aislinn Bravo’s body snapped to high alert. The housekeeper and the grouchy old foreman from Wild River Ranch followed in his wake. Aislinn hardly noticed them. All she saw was Jax.
He saw her, too. How could he miss her? She was alone in the waiting area and gaping right at him. He gave her that crooked smile, the one she’d never forgotten, the one that tucked a sexy little crease into his left cheek. Too bad there was a crease between his eyebrows, too—a crease that signaled the beginnings of a puzzled frown.
Aislinn shrank in her chair. She not only knew his crooked smile. She knew that almost-frown of his. He didn’t remember her. And he had no idea why she was gawking at him.
Stop staring, you idiot!
She tore her gaze free of his and focused hard on a large framed print of the Cape Disappointment lighthouse mounted on the wall opposite her chair. It was one of those mass-produced prints, the solitary lighthouse silhouetted against a wide, gray sky.
The print was dead boring in execution, but Aislinn focused on it anyway to keep herself from sneaking another glance at the tall, broad-shouldered rancher with the thick dark hair.
She heard the brush of footfalls on the carpet as he moved behind her. He spoke quietly to the receptionist. Aislinn stared blindly at that print—until Jax, the ranch foreman and the housekeeper filed into her line of sight and settled into chairs right below the lonely lighthouse.
Now she was staring over their heads, which felt totally awkward all over again. She shifted her gaze once more—downward this time. To her purse, which she grabbed and switched from her left side to her right.
That monumental task accomplished, she crossed her legs and smoothed the skirt of her short-sleeved summer-weight dark-blue dress with its cute scattering of tiny white polka dots. The dress had taken her forever to choose. She’d settled on it because the conservative cut and dark color paired with the cheery polka dots said “serious, but with a touch of merriment” to her.
Okay, maybe the merriment part wasn’t exactly appropriate in this situation. But a girl had to have a sense of humor, especially at a time like this.
Was her face flaming red? It had better not be.
Stop being weird, she scolded herself. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
At least her past obsession with Jaxon Winter was her secret, one she’d shared only with her closest friend, Keely, who would never betray a trust. Unfortunately, old Martin Durand, Jax’s uncle by marriage and also his adoptive father, had known, too.
That unforgettable summer five years ago, Martin Durand had seemed to make it his personal business to keep an eye on her. He used to watch her as if he suspected she might have a criminal past or something. At the time, she’d had no idea that Durand had somehow figured out how she felt about Jaxon.
She’d remained blissfully unaware that the old man knew about her desperate crush until a couple of months ago when Durand had called her out of the blue and announced that Jax’s divorce had been final for a year—just in case she hadn’t heard.
“He’s free now,” the old man had said. “You can go ahead and make your move.”
At least Martin Durand was never going to say another word about what he knew. According to the letter from his lawyer, he’d died peacefully in his sleep ten days ago. And as for Jaxon, he clearly had no clue that she’d once imagined herself to be hopelessly in love with him.
He doesn’t know.
And he would never know.
And it was going to be fine. It was five years ago—yeah, okay. Back then, she’d shamelessly fantasized that he cared, too. But in real life?
Uh-uh. The man had been married. He’d been all about keeping his wife happy and he’d hardly known she existed.
As for her, she was so past all that, so over him.
Unwisely, she glanced up—and caught him looking at her with that same perplexed frown he’d worn when he walked in the door. Like she was a puzzle piece and he had no idea where she fit.
This was absurd and she’d had enough of it.
She rose, squared her shoulders and circled the waiting room’s central coffee table. Jaxon and the old guy, the foreman—Burt, wasn’t it?—got up as she approached. She held out her hand. “Good to see you, Jaxon.”
His baffled frown got more so. “I’m sorry,” he said in the lovely, low rumble that made her think of tangled sheets and sweaty skin. His eyes were the most beautiful blue swirled with gray, like the sky over the Pacific when the clouds start to gather. He took her hand—just long enough for an utterly unacceptable shiver to slither up her arm. “Do I know you?”
Her smile felt wide enough to crack her face in half. “Of course, you don’t remember me. I’m Aislinn Bravo. I worked for you one summer…” She turned to the foreman. “Burt, isn’t it?”
The old guy muttered, “Hiya,” squeezed her fingers in his rough paw and sat back down.
She aimed a smile at the housekeeper. “Erma, right?”
“Yes,” said the housekeeper. “Hello.” The older woman reached up and took Aislinn’s hand, too, quickly releasing it.
“Wait a minute,” said Jax. “I remember now. Ashlinn, but spelled in that odd way…”
“It’s Irish,” she replied, just as she had that first day five years ago. “People pronounce it several different ways. But yes, I prefer Ashlinn.”
Jax asked, “Aren’t you the one who just disappeared?”
Defensiveness made her draw her shoulders back. She faced him squarely. “I left a note.”
“Yes, you did.” He looked way too damn pleased with himself that he’d actually recalled some college girl who’d spelled her name oddly and then ran off without giving notice. “It’s all coming back to me now. You said in the note that there was a family emergency, that you had to go.”
“And, um, I did.” Not because of any family crisis, though.
“I hope it worked out all right?” he asked, his tone sincere and gentle now. Because he was not only hot and manly, he was also a good person who cared about others.
“Absolutely. Calamity resolved. Nobody died. Everything’s fine now.”
His frown reappeared. “So you’re here to…?”
She really didn’t get why she was here. But she shared what she did know. “I got a certified letter from one of the firm’s partners, Kip Anders, to attend the reading of Martin Durand’s will.” Truthfully, that she’d been summoned to the Astoria offices of the old man’s lawyer had made no sense at all to her. First off, she hadn’t known that he’d died. She felt sorry for that, as she would when anyone died. But why would he put her in his will? He hadn’t even liked her—or if he had, he’d had a really strange way of showing it.
She’d considered just blowing the whole thing off, not coming. If Martin Durand had left her something, somebody could mail it to her.
Plus, coming here had meant she was setting herself up for just what was happening now: seeing Jaxon again. It shouldn’t be awkward. They’d hardly known each other. Still, she’d had no doubt she would feel uncomfortable. She’d been so right.
And yet she couldn’t help but be curious. So here she was.
Burt muttered something under his breath and glared up at her. His unfriendliness didn’t surprise her. During those eight weeks she’d worked at Wild River, the foreman had been almost as squinty-eyed and suspicious of her as old Mr. Durand.
“I didn’t realize you knew Martin.” Jax eyed her warily now.
“I didn’t, not really.” She felt overwhelmingly defensive, though she had zero reason to be—at least not concerning Martin Durand. “I met him that summer at the ranch, that’s all. After I quit, I never saw him again.” It was true, but it wasn’t what you would call full disclosure. There’d also been that recent unnerving, out-of-nowhere phone call.
“Mr. Winter?” Saved by the receptionist. The pretty blonde stood in the arch that led to the inner sanctum. “Everyone.” She beamed a professional smile in their general direction. “Mr. Anders is ready for you now. This way, please.”
Jaxon gestured Aislinn ahead of him, so she went first. The receptionist led them back to a conference room with a large oval table and a credenza against the wall on which there was a coffee service, including a tray of pastries and doughnuts.
Kip Anders, a slender, balding guy in rimless glasses and a rumpled tan suit, shook Jax’s hand and introduced himself to the rest of them. “Please,” he said. “Help yourselves to coffee and a bear claw. Get comfortable and we’ll get started.”
Get comfortable? How long was this going to take? It was a quarter past ten and she’d agreed to help out at her best friend—and now sister-in-law—Keely’s art gallery starting at noon. The gallery was about a half hour away from Astoria, on the Oregon coast, in Aislinn’s hometown of Valentine Bay. This exercise in awfulness couldn’t go more than an hour, could it?
And seriously, why were they even here? Aislinn had worked for a lawyer’s office not that long ago. At Deever and Gray they never had will readings. Wills were delivered to the parties concerned. A reading of the will only happened in the movies, because it made for good drama.
Her stomach lurched. Was this about drama, somehow, then?
Oh, God, she really shouldn’t have come…
Jax sat at one end of the table. Burt and Erma got coffee and doughnuts and took seats on either side of their boss. Just to have something to do with her hands, Aislinn grabbed a bottle of water. She chose a chair midway down the table. The lawyer took the chair opposite Jax.
“Before you leave,” said Anders, tweaking his glasses so they sat more firmly on the bridge of his thin nose, “be sure you each get your copy of the will, which will be waiting for you at the reception desk.”
Aislinn almost popped out with, I think I’ll just grab that now and be on my way.
But she folded her lips between her teeth, set her water on the table and remained in her chair. She was already here and she could spare an hour. Maybe the will contained some complex terms or strange codicils that Kip Anders would need to explain. The lawyer picked up the first paper on the stack in front of him and began to read.
Martin Durand had left bequests of money—ten thousand dollars each—and a series of keepsakes for Burt and Erma. Erma wore a tender look. She seemed sad, but also touched that Durand had thought to leave her something. Who could even guess what that sourpuss Burt might be thinking?
Anders moved on to the next item on the stack. It consisted of several pages paper-clipped together. He removed the clip, set it on the table exactly parallel to the rest of the stack and glanced up to make eye contact—with Jax and then with Aislinn.
“Martin Durand chose to write a letter explaining the main elements of his will,” said the lawyer. “His wish was that I read this letter to you, Jaxon, and to you, Aislinn. He also requested that you, Burt, and you, Erma, be present while the letter is read. As longtime and faithful employees at Wild River, Martin felt that all four of you should fully understand what he intended and how it should be carried out. The bequests and conditions explained in this letter are also clearly laid out in his formal last will and testament.” Anders fell silent for an endless count of five.
Aislinn had the strangest feeling of complete unreality. Her throat felt dry. Sweat bloomed beneath her arms and her pulse raced. She uncapped her water and took a long drink.
Anders asked, “Any questions?”
“Just read,” said Jax.
Anders began, “‘Dear Jaxon and Aislinn, I never intended for you two to know each other.’”
Aislinn shot a quick glance around the table.
Aside from Anders, serene behind his frameless glasses, they all looked as confused as she felt. How could Durand have intended anything when it came to her? He’d never set eyes on her until that summer five years ago.
Anders continued, “‘The sad truth, Aislinn, is that I spent the first twenty-one years of your life doing everything in my power never to come anywhere near you. I set myself firmly on pretending that you didn’t even exist. And I succeeded for the most part—until five summers ago, when you took the summer job that brought you back to Wild River Ranch.’”
“Back?” Aislinn couldn’t keep quiet for one second longer. “But I’d never been to Wild River before that summer, so there is no way that I could have—”
“I know this is bewildering,” Anders cut in mildly. “But if you will allow me to read the letter through to its conclusion, most everything will be explained.”
Aislinn felt kind of nauseated. She drew in a careful breath through her nose. “Sorry. Go ahead.”
With a nod and another quick adjustment of his glasses, Anders went on, “‘Such a simple thing you did, Aislinn, to turn my whole life upside down. You took a summer job working at my ranch. And that is how I came face-to-face with the result of the crime I had committed in a split second of opportunity the night of your birth, a crime I’ve kept hidden for all these years…’”
The night I was born?
She couldn’t not speak. “I don’t get it. Whatever he did, it’s got zero to do with me. I was nowhere near Wild River on the night I was born.” They were all frowning at her—and okay, yeah. She needed to stop interrupting.
But no. Just no.
Durand had it all wrong. Aislinn had been born in Europe, in a tiny principality called Montedoro, where her mother and father and four of her five brothers had traveled when her mom was pregnant with her.
“That right there,” she insisted, “what you just read? How could whatever he did involve me? It couldn’t. I was born in Montedoro, which is on the Cote d’Azur, in case you didn’t know. No way Martin Durand was there when I was born.”
Down the table, Burt glared at her. Erma sat silent, her expression unreadable. And Jaxon? He looked like he couldn’t wait for this to be through.
Well, neither could she.
And hold on a minute. The letter hadn’t actually said that this “crime” of Durand’s involved her, had it? So maybe this had nothing to do with her at all. She gulped. “I just don’t understand. Why am I here?”
Again, Kip Anders suggested, “If I might just finish…?”
“But it’s all wrong.”
Anders didn’t argue, he simply waited.
With a hard sigh, she gave in. “All right. Fine. Finish it, then.”
Anders granted her a nod. “Martin Durand writes, ‘The morning of the night you were born, Aislinn, George Bravo and his very pregnant wife, Marie, had driven out to Wild River from Valentine Bay to discuss the possibility of their investing in an expansion of our horse breeding and training operation.
“‘The investment never happened. But during George and Marie’s visit, there was a storm, a bad one. The roads were washed out. Marie went into labor—and so did our then-foreman’s wife, Paula Delaney.
“‘You see, Aislinn, I had cheated on my wife, Claudia, with Paula. I make no excuse for that. It was wrong. I did it anyway, with the classic result.’”
“What a complete SOB,” Aislinn cried. All eyes swung her way. “Sorry. Really.” She shot Anders a desperate glance. “And honestly, none of this can be true.” They all continued to stare at her. “All right.” She waved a hand. “Fine. Just go ahead.”
Anders read on, “‘When she realized she was pregnant, Paula had come to me. She swore that the baby was mine. She wanted to leave her husband and make a life with me and the child. I wanted none of that. I was happy with Claudia, for the most part. I loved my wife and I liked our life together—and Claudia owned Wild River.
“‘Jaxon, you were eight at the time. You’d been with us for four years by then. As I’ve explained to you many times, in honor of the long line of Winters who had owned and worked Wild River for generations, we had you keep your last name when we formally adopted you. But in all the ways that really count, you were our son. We were a family—you, Claudia and I. I told Paula no. I urged her to forget about me. Use your head, I said, stay with Lloyd where you belong. Paula wouldn’t listen. She said she loved me. I was sure there would be trouble, that she would come after me, demand a test that would prove her baby was mine. I would lose everything that mattered to me.
“‘I didn’t know what to do to get that woman to leave me alone. And then Marie Bravo showed up and went into labor at the same time Paula did. The perfect moment presented itself, both babies in makeshift cribs made of storage boxes, sharing the same room while Claudia, acting as emergency midwife, tended to the new mothers in rooms on either side.’”
Aislinn felt light-headed. Her stomach roiled.
Anders read on, each word painfully slow and clear. “‘I entered the babies’ room when no one was looking and discovered that the infants were similar in size, both with eyes of that same newborn blue. The hair color was different, one darker, one lighter. But there was so little of it on either tiny head, I dared to hope that no one would notice the difference. I saw my moment and I took it, switching the babies and their blankets, too.’”
Aislinn sat very still, her hands pressed to her churning stomach. She knew if she moved or even dared to breathe, she was going to be sick—just hack up her breakfast, spew it across the unblemished oval of the conference table.
It was all a lie. It had to be. Martin Durand couldn’t be her father. Her father was George Bravo, a good man, a loving husband and a doting dad, a man who made each of his sons and daughters feel wanted and secure.
She was a Bravo, born, bred and raised. Her parents had been deeply in love, wonderfully brave and adventurous—and more than a little bit foolish.
They’d had a passion for traveling the world, her mom and dad. They’d lost one son on a trip to Siberia. Finn, eight at the time, had simply vanished—kidnapped for ransom, they all assumed. But the ransom demand never came and Finn had not been seen or heard from again. And then her parents were lost, too, a few years later, on a romantic getaway to Thailand, where they were caught in a tsunami.
Her family had suffered. But they had gotten through it, together. Her oldest brother, Daniel, eighteen when their parents died, had won custody of all of them. He’d raised them the rest of the way, Aislinn and the six other remaining Bravo siblings. Their road hadn’t been smooth or easy, but they’d made it work. Together. And she loved them.
And they were hers, damn it. Her people. Not some unknown woman named Paula who’d cheated on her husband. Not crazy, bad-tempered old Martin Durand.
She wanted to scream at them—at Jaxon and Burt, at Erma and the lawyer. She wanted to shout at them, Stop this! Stop these lies! Stop right now!
But her voice had deserted her and her throat felt constricted, like brutal hands were squeezing it.
And Kip Anders just kept reading the lying words of Martin Durand.
“‘I left those babies, each in the wrong storage-box crib. I ran from that room and I didn’t look back—until later, of course, when it was too late, when I realized that if Paula did demand a paternity test, she would find out that not only was the baby not mine, it wasn’t hers or Lloyd’s either. She would remember the night of the birth and the other woman’s child in the same room with her child. She would figure it out and I would be caught anyway, proved not only a cheater, but also a criminal.
“‘As it turned out, though, the crime I’d committed was completely unnecessary. Paula never came after me to take a father’s responsibility. Instead, she took my advice and let Lloyd think the child was his. And then a few months later, Lloyd got another job out of state and we hired Burt. I never saw Paula or Lloyd or the child who was really Marie Bravo’s daughter again.
“‘I told myself there was no harm done. Each woman had a baby—yes, all right, the wrong baby. But they didn’t know that, so what did it matter? Everyone was happy. I tried to forget.
“‘To Claudia, I was a faithful husband from then on. Twelve years later, when Claudia died, I missed her. I mourned her. She left everything to me with the understanding between us that it would all go to you, Jaxon, at my death. I steered clear of Valentine Bay and any chance I might see you, Aislinn, and know you as mine.
“‘But then you showed up at Wild River that summer, looking just like my mother, who had died before I ever set foot in Oregon. At first, I was certain you must somehow have found out who you were to me, that you’d come to make me pay for cheating on Claudia, for switching you with Marie Bravo’s child and then just walking away. I watched you, waiting, wondering how you planned to exact your revenge. But all I saw was a girl with my mother’s haunting dark eyes, a girl in love with Jaxon.’”
In love with Jaxon…
Aislinn stifled a groan.
Because, dear God in heaven, why?
Why that, too?
Martin Durand had no pity at all. He’d died determined to strip her of every last scrap of herself—to steal her identity, take away her family and then go blithely on to out her most shameful secret, that she’d once fallen so hard for a married man, she’d had to run away to keep from throwing herself at him.
Aislinn closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at any of them, closed her eyes, braced her elbows on the table and pressed her hands to the crown of her head. Another groan tried to escape her. She swallowed it down.
Anders made a throat-clearing sound.
“Aislinn,” Jaxon asked cautiously, “are you all right? Do you need a break?”
She ground her teeth together and refused to open her eyes. “Finish, damn you all. Get it over with.”
For a moment, there was silence.
Then at last she heard papers rustling and Anders finally got on with it. “Ahem. Let’s see—ah. Here we go. ‘And then one day, Aislinn, you simply quit. You vanished without claiming your last paycheck, leaving nothing but a brief note for Jaxon citing some vague emergency. The months went by and I began to accept the truth that you were innocent. You knew nothing. I began to see that I would have to do what I could to make things right.
“‘I hired an investigator to find Paula and the missing child who should have been Marie Bravo’s daughter. The Delaneys had named the child Madison.’”
At the sound of that name, Aislinn dropped both hands off her head and slapped them, palms flat, onto the table, causing Erma to let out a small squeak of alarm.
No. Uh-uh. Not the Madison Delaney. Pure coincidence, it had to be.
Anders went right on. “‘My investigator reported that ten years after the Delaney family left Wild River, Lloyd Delaney died. Paula and her daughter then moved to Los Angeles, where Madison pursued a career as an actress—to great success, as it turned out.’”
“This has to be a joke, right?” The question escaped Aislinn without any help from her conscious mind. “This is all a prank. I’m being punked. I’m actually supposed to believe that Martin Durand switched me with the baby who grew up to be Madison Delaney? Do you know who Madison Delaney is? She’s won an Oscar. She’s America’s darling.”
And, dear God, she looks way too much like my sisters.
How had she never noticed that before? Madison Delaney had big blue eyes, like all three of her sisters. And the cutest dimples when she smiled, like both Harper and Hailey. The actress had worn her hair in a variety of colors and styles, but she was naturally blond, wasn’t she? Like Aislinn’s sisters. And she had a nose that turned up ever so slightly at the tip, just like her youngest sister, Grace.
The others were openly staring at her now.
“What?” she demanded. “Don’t you even try to tell me you’ve never heard of Madison Delaney.”
“Of course we’ve heard of her,” said Jax. He spoke gently, as though talking to a crazy person—and maybe she was crazy. Maybe she’d completely lost her mind.
Kip Anders made a throat-clearing sound. “May I go on?”
“Please.” Aislinn poured on the sarcasm. “Be my guest.”
With a dignified nod, Anders continued, “‘The sad news, Aislinn, is that Paula Delaney died not long after that summer you worked at Wild River. I’m sorry you will never have an opportunity to get to know the woman who gave you life. I haven’t tried to contact Madison Delaney, just as I never told you the truth during my lifetime. I have no idea how everyone will take this news. I’m an old man now. Forgive me, but I can’t predict what the fallout from these particular revelations will be. And I don’t have the energy to find out. So, I’m leaving all that to you and the Bravo family. The investigator’s full report will be available to you immediately.’”
Coward, she thought. He’d left all the tough work for others to do. She wished he hadn’t died—so she could kill him herself.
Anders kept reading, “‘And as for you specifically, Aislinn, I’ve had my eye on you since the summer you came to work at Wild River. You haven’t married or gotten seriously involved with a man. I wanted to know if you still held out hope that Jaxon might be yours. That’s why I called you recently to remind you that Jaxon is free now. I heard the longing in your voice when you demanded that I never try to call you again.’”
It was too much. Of a ridiculousness beyond all insanity. Aislinn straightened and announced, “Come on. As if that crazy old man could tell anything from one phone call, a very brief phone call, a phone call that he openly admits ended with me demanding that he leave me alone.”
They all just stared at her—as they’d been staring at her almost from the moment Kip Anders began to read Durand’s last letter.
Another sound of pure misery escaped her. She ducked her head once more and laced her fingers on top of it. “Sorry. Go on. Just…get it over with, please.”
Kip Anders did just that. “‘After that phone call, I knew I had to leave you what you want most of all—a chance at a life with my adopted son.’”
“What the hell, Martin?” It was Jax, his voice a rough whisper.
Kip Anders didn’t even pause. “‘Aislinn, you and Jax are to marry within a week from the date of the reading of this letter. You are then to remain married for at least the next three months. After three months of marriage, you, Aislinn, will receive fifty thousand dollars from my estate. And Jaxon, you will get the deed to Wild River and all the rest of it, as you should, as I always promised you and Claudia. Once the three months pass, it’s up to the two of you whether you choose to stay together or not.
“‘You must mutually agree to these terms and carry through with them. Aislinn, if you do not marry Jaxon and live as his wife for three full months, you will get nothing.’”
Nothing. She wanted to throw back her head and laugh.
As if fifty thousand dollars meant squat to her right now.
As if all the money in the world could ever stack up against what Martin Durand had just stolen from her—her pride, her family, her very identity.
Anders droned on, “‘Jaxon, if you refuse to marry Aislinn for three months, Wild River Ranch and everything on it will be sold at auction. You will get the proceeds from the sale as well as everything else that belonged to me, minus any other bequests mentioned in my will. Jaxon, you are the son of my heart, and it has been an honor to be a father to you. I want you to have Wild River, but if that doesn’t happen, you will at least have plenty of capital with which to start over. I realize that will be little consolation to you, as we both know very well that you love Wild River more than your life. But believe it or not, I am doing this for you—for both of you. I think you will make a good match, that you will be good for each other. So I am giving you the opportunity you otherwise never would have had. I wish you both love and happiness and a successful future together. With all my deepest affection and my highest regard, Martin Durand.’”
Dropping her hands from their ludicrous protective position over her head, Aislinn popped up straight in her chair. “That’s it? That’s all?”
Anders blinked behind his glasses. “The, erm, end of the letter, yes. But we have yet to cover several specific conditions and particulars that you’ll both need to—”
“Stop.” She shoved back the chair and leaped to her feet. “As if I care about your so-called conditions. As if I care about that old man’s money. As if I care about any of this crap. I am…not that person. Not somebody who was supposed to be named Madison Delaney. I’m Aislinn Bravo. I was born in Montedoro at the villa of Tristan Bouchard, Count of Della Torre. You ask my brothers. They were there, they remember. They…” She lost track of her words as her gaze skittered around the table. They all looked at her as though she’d lost her mind—all of them, Jax most of all.
She could read his thoughts in that look on his face. She’s a nut job, his expression said, and I am so screwed…
She went ahead and put it right out there, right in his face. “You think I’m crazy.”
Jax jerked back. “No. No, I…”
That made her laugh, a bizarre, deranged sort of sound. “Hey, come on. Be honest, Jax. You think I’ve lost my ever-loving mind. And maybe I have. Because who wouldn’t go crazy, after all I’ve just heard?”
“Aislinn, really, nobody thinks you’re—”
“Oh, yes you do. And to be perfectly honest, you might be right. I’ve come unhinged. This is all too much and I just can’t take anymore. I mean, it’s simply not possible, that my family isn’t my family, that my birth mother and the real Aislinn Bravo moved to Los Angeles where she became a superstar named Madison Delaney. That all I know to be true about myself and my life is really just a big, fat lie.”
The lawyer suggested mildly, “How about if we take a few minutes and—”
“How `bout if we don’t?” Aislinn pinned the lawyer with a hard glare.
It was all so far beyond too much.
Jax tried once more, “Aislinn, if you would just—”
“No.” She cut him off cold as she snatched her purse off the chair. “Uh-uh. I need a minute. I need a thousand minutes. I need a lifetime out of this room.” She turned for the door.
“Aislinn, wait!” Jax called after her.
She kept walking, not once glancing back, grabbing the door handle, flinging it wide and escaping down the hallway that led to the waiting room.
As she flew by the front desk, the pretty receptionist jumped up. “Ms., er, are you all right?”
“Is there something I can—?”
“Thanks, but no.” Aislinn shoved open the entry door and went through it.
Out on the sidewalk under a cool gray sky, she kept walking right into the street. A guy in a red Mustang squealed to a stop just in time to avoid running her down.
“Watch out, you idiot!” he yelled out the window.
She ignored him and kept going until she reached the opposite sidewalk, at which point she suddenly ran out of steam. Halting just past the stop sign, she found herself in front of a three-story building of light-colored brick with a sign that read BPOE on the side.
With no idea where to go next, she ducked into the alcove that sheltered the entry doors. For a moment, she froze and stared at her faint reflection in the glass of the door—a dark-haired woman in a polka-dot dress, someone she hardly recognized.
She shook herself. She couldn’t just stand here blocking the entrance.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she slid into the corner on the right side of the door and tried to decide what to do next.