Karen Rose Smith

Harlequin Special Edition #2146

October 2011

ISBN: 978-0-373-65628-8




     As Zack Decker approached Jenny Farber in the cafeteria decorated with blue and yellow streamers, memories washed over him.  He struggled to maintain the cool façade that had enabled him to direct the most temperamental actresses...that had allowed him to hide the turmoil that had churned inside him since he'd left Miners Bluff fifteen years ago.

     In a strapless yellow dress that accentuated her slim but curvy figure, Jenny was dancing with a classmate.  The way she was smiling up at the man lit the wrong fuse on Zack's usually controlled temper.

     He clasped Brody Hazlett's shoulder, dredged up a smile he didn't feel, and ignored the hushed surprise of other classmates he hadn't seen in years.  "Can I cut in?"

     Brody let go of Jenny's hand and faced Zack, his expression friendly.  "Hi, Zack.  It's good to see you.  The reunion must have meant a lot to you."

     "The reunion, and a few other things," Zack said off-handedly, his gaze on Jenny as the silver disco ball spun, casting flickering lights across her heart-shaped face.  She'd left a message on his cell phone last week.  He remembered her words.  Zack, please come home for the reunion.  I need to talk to you about Silas' health.

     And here he was. 

     Taking Jenny's hand in his, he circled her with his arm and steeled himself.  As his hand brushed over the bare skin of her back, golden sparks lit her expressive brown eyes, bringing back too many buried memories.

     "How long can you stay?"  Jenny always went for the bottom line.

     "Until tomorrow afternoon.  I have to be on location in England on Monday."

     "That's all the time you can spare?"  Her voice was less accusatory than wistful…or regretful.

     "I hadn't intended to come to the reunion, but with your call, I revamped my schedule."

     The rhythm of the music overtook them for a few moments.  It was a nineties ballad he recalled too well.  The melody had wafted from the radio in the hayloft as the two of them—

     He shut down the movie in his mind, leaned away from her slender body that had caused an instantaneous and powerful reaction in his.  "Do you want to go somewhere quieter to talk?" 

     Quickly glancing around, she motioned toward the shadowy corridor lined with lockers where they had once exchanged heartfelt secrets...and kisses.

     He led the way as he always had, trying to forget that fifteen years ago, she hadn't followed.


     Jenny attempted to calm her racing pulse and swallowed hard.  Being in Zack's arms again overturned her world until she became almost dizzy!  He couldn't still do that to her.  She wouldn't let him.

     She watched him stride toward the corridor leading to the stairwell where he stopped and waited for her.  He obviously wasn't used to waiting for anyone.  He'd left her behind once before.  She imagined he wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

     Remember, he asked you to go with him.

     Yes, he had.  But she'd been eighteen and had finally found roots with Zack's parents.  On the other hand, he'd wanted to escape both roots and his mom and dad.  All he'd focused on were his dreams and a film school scholarship in L.A.  She hadn't been able to pin their future on something so intangible.  Her own father's dreams had disappointed her too many times to count.  Her job as a groom at the Rocky D, Olivia Decker's faith in her, and Silas Decker's promise to give her more responsibility in the future had been grounding forces much more powerful than her fear of the future with Zack.

     But she had loved him in the ferocious way only an eighteen-year-old could love.

     As she walked beside Zack, her high heels clicking on the waxed tile, her arm brushed his.  The shiver that rippled through her almost loosened the mass of loose blond curls she'd pinned on top of her head.  How could the brush of her skin against his suit jacket cause such a reaction?

     He stopped halfway down the corridor, obviously hoping for privacy.

     She gazed up at Zack, reminded again of how tall six-foot-two could be, how broad his shoulders had become, how slim his hips still were.  He'd always oozed a James Dean kind of sensuality and that hadn't changed.  With a small cleft at the center of his jaw, his tousled, almost raven-black hair just barely tamed by an obviously expensive cut, his stormy blue eyes, she realized the tabloids always got it right—he was a heart-breaker.

     But then, she knew that from personal experience.

     She felt tongue-tied with him, and he seemed to be at a similar loss for words until he said, "I spoke with Dad when I arrived.  Sorry I missed you, but I was delayed."

     Had father and son finally had a heart-to-heart and found common ground?  "And?" she prompted, instead of saying what she was thinking.

     "And," he drawled, "I don't understand why you needed me to come.  He's as contentious as ever.  He wanted to know if I flew all this way for a few dances for old times sake."

     "What did you tell him?"

     "The truth—that you thought something was wrong with him."

     "Oh, Zack, you didn't!  I wanted you to observe him when he wasn't aware of it.  If he knows you're watching, he'll act all macho."

     "Jenny, I don't have time to follow him around and act as if I'm not.  Like he wouldn't catch on to that in about ten minutes."

     Men!  She was ready to throttle the two of them.  Zack hadn't been home for eight years—not since his mother's funeral.

     "Something is wrong with him," she insisted with so much vehemence loose tendrils of hair fluttered along her cheeks.  "He can't walk from the house through the barn without getting winded.  He hasn't taken Hercules riding in weeks.  He doesn't even watch me train anymore.  I spent every day in that house with him for all these years and I know when he's off his game.  He's off, Zack, and I think there's a physical reason."

     "Then make him a doctor's appointment."

     "I did, several times.  He won't go.  A few days before, he always cancels it."

     Zack blew out a long breath and looked as if he were drawing on a short store of patience.  "What do you want from me, Jenny?"

     The first answer that came to mind was—Not a blasted thing.  Then she remembered the manners Olivia had taught her...the wisdom that she'd get what she wanted much easier with a light touch than a heavy one.

     "Silas is getting older.  What I think he needs most from you is your forgiveness."

     They both went silent, then the surprise on Zack's face quickly faded.  "What do you want me to forgive him for?" he asked, in a low but angry voice.  "For the gambling and drinking?  For the affairs that hurt my mom?  For his lack of faith in my abilities and my career path?  Or for the big one—for being responsible for my mother's death?"

     Jenny barely opened her mouth to protest before Zack moved closer.  "Don't give me a sympathetic, 'Oh, Zack, that's not true'.  Her plane went down because of a storm, but she was on it because my father had driven her away."

     Jenny hadd been there in the barn that day when Olivia had confronted Silas, holding the credit card statement showing the hotel bill, and the flower order she'd never received.  Half the ranch hands had overheard their argument.

     All Jenny could say was, "He's a different man now."

     "Different?  He's the same man he's always been.  So what if he doesn't gamble any more?"

     This might be her only chance to make Zack understand.  "When he lost Olivia, he didn't just lose his wife, he lost you.  All of that changed him."

     Zack shook his head.  "You're as naïve as you've ever been."

     The arrogance in Zack's voice nettled her.  "No, I'm not naive, but I've watched him and worked beside him every day for the past sixteen years.  He's changed.  He not only doesn't gamble, but he doesn't drink, either."

     Then very quietly, but firmly, he insisted, "I don't belong here, Jenny.  You fit in better than I ever did.  My father didn't want a son who escaped his parents' fights by videotaping the scenery on Moonshadow Mountain, by recreating an old Western with some of his friends in Horsethief Canyon."

     Tears burned her eyes because he was right.  Zack and Silas had never understood each other very well.  Still, she answered his vehemence with softness.  "Silas wanted a son to take over the Rocky D.  That's all he ever expected of you."

     "You know I loved training the horses, almost as much as you did.  But I never wanted this to be the extent of my world.  I had bigger dreams than that."

     "And you've made them come true."

     After a lengthy pause, he responded, "Yes, I have."

     She heard the pride in his voice and knew his success was as important to him as the Rocky D was to Silas.  "Then be a little generous," she pleaded.  "Be kind, and forgive what neither of you can change.  Find out what it is to be father and son as grownups."

     "You're still an optimist who won't step outside of her little world."

     "Don't talk down to me," she returned hotly.  "I found the life I want in Miners Bluff.  If you want to travel the world, be my guest.  But I'm perfectly happy right here on the Rocky D."

     "You're like him," Zack maintained.  "You both have tunnel vision.  The two of you believe the Rocky D is the only world that matters, but you're wrong.  You're also wrong about Dad needing my forgiveness.  Granted, I haven't been in much contact with him since Mom died—I phone now and then because he is my father—but he's never reached out to me."

     If her plea was for herself, she'd let Zack walk away.  But it was for Silas.  "Please, Zack.  Can't you at least stay for a few days?  Or at least come back after the shoot."

     "The shoot will take three months."

     The walls in Zack's eyes were as solid as the armor he wore on his heart.

     "So why did you bother to come home?"

     "Because you asked, and so I could get a quick peek for myself.  I think you're overreacting.  Dad might simply be growing older and you don't want to recognize that."

     "You're wrong."

     "Time will tell.  Make him another doctor's appointment.  That's all you can do."

     "He might listen to you."

     "To a son he's never listened to before?  I doubt that."

     "You're as stubborn and blind as he is!"  Her voice had risen and she hoped it hadn't carried down the hall.

     "I'm not going to argue with you, Jenny.  I have a plane to catch tomorrow afternoon."

     She was outraged that he cared so little about Silas and the Rocky D that he wouldn't stay long enough to see the full picture.

     "This project is important to me," he went on.  "It has to get off to a good start."

     "And you don't care what ends here?"

     "Everything here ended for me a long time ago."  With those words, and a last long look, Zack walked away.

     Jenny stared at his back, remembering the first time he'd left her.  Six weeks later, she'd discovered she was pregnant.  Six weeks after that, she'd miscarried.

     Zack Decker might think he knew everything, but he still didn't know that.


 Chapter One

Late October

     Finally back in L.A., Zack studied the stack of script revisions on his desk, the mound of messages not important enough to return while he'd been on location.  He started with the most recent, saw Dawson Barrett's name and smiled.  He and Dawson had kept in touch over the years, and they'd reconnected briefly at the reunion a few months ago.

     He'd call Dawson when he returned to his penthouse later that night.  From the amount of reading on his desk, he would be staying in the city this weekend.

     He swore.  He'd been looking forward to a couple of days at his beach house in Malibu.  That was the one place he could relax.  He needed to clear his head and do just that.  Usually he derived satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment after a movie was in the can.  But this time, his mind had kept drifting.  The adrenaline rush had been missing and he didn't know why.

     His cell phone vibrated against his hip.  He considered ignoring it, then pulled it from his belt and studied the caller ID on the screen, surprised to see it was Jenny.  A sense of foreboding zipped from his head to his loafers.


     Words came tumbling from her.  "I was afraid you'd still be out of the country."

     "I just got back yesterday.  What's wrong?"

     He heard her take a steadying breath and he braced himself for what was coming.

     "Silas collapsed.  I rode with him in the ambulance to Flagstaff—"  Her voice caught.

     Zack went numb, absolutely numb.  Images of his dad riding Hercules, giving the hands orders, smoking a Cuban cigar, flew through his mind.  The idea of Silas being loaded into an ambulance—  How could Jenny have been so right when he'd seen no evidence of a problem?  Was he blind where his father was concerned?

     He pushed out the words lodged in his throat. "I'll catch the first flight out."


     To his surprise, he still felt connected to Jenny and could read her thoughts.  "I know you're scared.  Try to take a deep breath and hope for the best.  Call me with updates.  If I'm on the plane, I'll get your message when I land."

     "What if you can't get a seat?"

     "Then I'll charter a plane.  You don't have to go through this alone."

     "Thank you." 

     Her voice wobbled in a way that was so unlike Jenny that Zack's throat tightened.  "No thanks necessary.  I should have listened to you."

     She said nothing. 

     "I'll be there as soon as I can.  Hold tight."

     She murmured her thanks again and ended the call.

     Conflicting emotions battered Zack as he turned to his computer to make a reservation.  What would he find when he got to Flagstaff?  Hope for the best, he'd told Jenny.

     Just what was the best?


     Late that night Zack rushed into the emergency room entrance of the stucco and brick hospital in Flagstaff, his pulse racing.  He'd thought he'd distanced himself from his father.  He'd thought he simply didn't care any more.  Maybe that's why he hadn't seen the symptoms Jenny had noticed when he'd been home for the reunion.  Or maybe his father pretended as much as he himself did.

     It was possible his father had put up a front for Zack's benefit, but Zack's coolness and reserve toward Silas wasn't a pretense.  They'd had many arguments before Zack had left for film school.  Growing up, he'd often seen his dad inebriated after a high-stakes poker game.  He'd heard his parent's arguments and known his dad was always at the root of them.  When Zack had learned what had happened the day his mother died, why she'd taken off in that airplane to visit her sister in Montana, he'd disowned his father just as his father had practically disowned him when he left the ranch to pursue a film career.

     After inquiring at the desk and showing ID, he headed for the cardiac intensive care unit and found Jenny in one of the waiting rooms.  Even looking distraught and pale, she was a beautiful woman.  At thirty-three, maturity had touched her in attractive ways.  Her glossy blond, shoulder-length hair framed a heart-shaped face that had taken on a more haunting beauty.  Her deep brown eyes, always wide with emotions, were stunning as she looked up at him.

     "I'm so glad you're here.  They've stabilized him but—"   The quick shutdown of her thoughts told Zack just how upset she was.

     Shrugging out of his leather jacket, he laid it over the back of the sofa. 

     "Did you even have time to pack?" she asked.

     "No.  I keep a duffle in my office with a change of clothes and workout gear.  I just grabbed that."

     "Are you going to try to see him now?"

     "Yes, for a few minutes.  Thanks for giving me his doctor's number.  I called him after I landed.  He said he'd noted on the chart that I could see him when I arrived."

     "Zack, you can't upset him."  She looked as if that was hard for her to say, but yet she knew she had to say it. 

     Her regret didn't help the sting, though, and he replied, almost angrily, "Do you think I would?  My God, Jenny, I don't wish him harm."

     "How would I know what you wish him, Zack?"

     She was right.  How would she know?  They hadn't really talked except about the most mundane practical things when he called his father now and then.  He'd felt it was his duty to keep in touch even though he hadn't wanted to.  Sometimes Jenny would answer.  Sometimes they'd exchange pleasantries.  Others she'd just tell Silas he was on the line. 

     We live in different worlds, he reminded himself, not for the first time.   Yet standing here, facing her again, years dropped away and lingering nudges of what they'd once shared startled him.  Memories ran through his head of the two of them sitting on the corral fence talking...of gentling a foal together...of graduating...of making love in the hayloft.  No--not making love.  Having sex.  If it had been love, Jenny would have gone with him to L.A. when he'd asked her.

     "How long are going to stay?" she asked and he could see she was already preparing herself for the fact he might be here merely twenty-four hours again.

     "I don't know.  Let's just see what happens after tomorrow.  I'll conference with the doctor and then decide."

     She appeared to want to say something, maybe ask him if he could stay longer than a day, but she didn't.  Instead she murmured, "I'll get a blanket and pillows while you're gone.  I'm bunking here tonight."

     Zack knew his father had become a dad to Jenny, the way her own had never been.  It was ironic that Silas couldn't be a real father to Zack when Zack was growing up, but with Jenny—  Silas Decker had never been anything but supportive, positive, and encouraging with her even before his wife had died.  Maybe that's because Jenny hadn't been a disappointment to him.  Or because she had stepped into the role that Zack had been groomed for but had refused.

     "I'm going to see him now."  Zack steeled himself for the visit, knowing he did have to distance himself from this experience and whatever happened next.

     Surprising him, Jenny crossed to him and touched his forearm.  It was just a whisper of a touch, no pressure at all.  Yet Zack felt the fire of it.  He felt his body respond to it, and he pulled away before she could guess what was happening, but not before he saw the disappointment on her face that they couldn't have a heart-to-heart about this. 

     There would be no heart-to-hearts, not tonight, not in the days to come.  He didn't do that because letting himself become vulnerable would only invite pain.  He'd seen it with his parents.  He'd felt it with Jenny, and he'd certainly experienced it in L.A.

     He headed for his father's cubicle, not knowing what to expect.


     Zack walked into the glass enclosure and stopped short.  Silas's eyes were closed and his complexion was ashen, almost as gray as the hair fringing his head.  His mustache was still black but streaked with gray, too.  His father was a strapping man—six foot tall and husky.  He'd gained weight over the past ten years.  Seeing him like this, lying in a bed in a hospital gown, hooked up to IV's and God knew what else, Zack had to absorb the fact his father was aging.

     What had Zack thought?  That the years would keep passing and his father would remain the same?

     His dad's eyes fluttered open, and he stared at Zack for a few seconds without speaking.  Finally he said hoarsely, "You came."

     Still struck by his father's appearance, Zack didn't respond.

     "You didn't want to come, did you?" Silas asked, sounding more like his old self.  "This is a duty call."

     Was that true?  Not entirely, but he didn't admit it.  "You had a heart attack," he said without answering the question.

     Silas gave a slight shrug.  "That's what Jenny tells me.  The doc uses words that don't make any sense, and tomorrow, well, I don't know what's going to happen.  With a heart cath there's always a chance—"

     Zack stepped closer to the bed.  "No, there isn't.  This test is going to show what's wrong and your doctor is going to fix it."

     "Sometimes you can find out what's wrong and not be able to fix it."
     "You can't think that way going into it."
     "And here I thought you'd like it if I just faded away and you didn't have to deal with me any more."

     "Don't be ridiculous."  Zack said the words, but he did feel guilty.  Hadn't he often wondered what life would be without his father's carping?

     "Don't lie to me.  The truth is the truth is the truth."

     No matter what had happened before, Zack said with certainty, "I want you to be well.  I want you to be healthy again.  Jenny is worried sick about you and she needs you."

     His father swallowed, looked away for a moment, then back at him.  "She's the daughter I never had.  Her own father's a fool for not realizing what a gem he has in her."

     Silent, Zack considered Jenny's background and the year he'd been closer to her than he'd ever been to anyone.
     Silas asked, "What are you thinking about?"

     After a few moments' reluctance, he answered, "How much Jenny meant to Mom and to you."  And how she'd refused to go with him to L.A.  That thought still had the power to bring back bitterness and regret.

     "I need you to promise me something," his father entreated in a low, serious voice.

     "What?" Zack asked warily.

     "With me out of commission, Jenny can't handle the burden of the Rocky D on her own.  She's taken over even more responsibility the last couple of months, with management of the ranch as well as training the horses but it's all too big for any one person.  So no matter what happens tomorrow, will you stay a month, six weeks, and help her get a handle on whatever has to be done?"


     "I know it's a lot to ask.  I know this isn't your life.  You have big fish to fry.  Well, the Rocky D has big fish, too.  I know you think I have no right to ask anything of you.  That might be true.  But Jenny's going to need some help, and you're the only one I trust to give her that help."

     If his father had asked for his own benefit, Zack might have been able to turn him down.  But the way he'd put it, how could Zack refuse?  Still, he had commitments of his own.

     Silas continued, "You could set up shop at the Rocky D for a while.  There's plenty of room.  You could have your own office in the east wing."  He hesitated.  "I have a home theater there now, too."
     The sliding glass doors of Silas's cubicle opened and a nurse bustled in.  "Time's about up," she said gently but firmly.  "Your father needs his rest."
     Zack knew that was true.  He also knew state of mind could make a big difference if his father was to recover.  No, he didn't want to stay.  No, he didn't want to get roped back into a life he'd left behind.  No, he didn't want to be around Jenny and feel that old tug of desire they'd shared.

     "Think about it," his father said.

     Zack knew he wouldn't be able to do much else.


     The following morning, Jenny paced the waiting room while Zack worked on his laptop.  She didn't know how he could concentrate with his dad undergoing catheterization.  Even during the night as she'd tried to doze on the sofa, she'd caught glimpses of images flickering on the laptop screen where Zack studied them and tapped the computer keys.  He hadn't slept at all.

     When he'd returned from seeing his dad last night, he'd been remote and silent.  This morning, after visiting Silas again, he'd been the same.  Just what was going through his head?  Once, so many years ago, she would have known.  For the past fifteen years, she hadn't had a clue.  For the gazillionth time she thought about what might have been if she hadn't lost their baby.  Quickly she shut down those thoughts.

     With a long blown-out breath, Zack closed the lid of the machine, pushed it deeper onto the side table, stood and rolled his shoulders.  His muscles rippled under his black T-shirt.  Above the waistband of his khakis, she could glimpse just how flat his stomach still was.

     "Do you do that often?" she asked, feeling wrinkled and rumpled and not as put together as he had always looked no matter what he wore.  The lines around Zack's eyes were deeper now, but other than that he looked...as charismatic and sexy as ever.

     "Work through the night?  Oh, yeah.  Especially when we're on deadline."

     "For a movie?"

     "For a movie, for an edit, for a casting."  He shrugged.  "It's the nature of the business."
     "Here I thought you lounged in a chaise at the beach most of the time," she joked.

     He gave her a long considering look.  His blue eyes were so direct with an intense focus that hadn't changed.  "My life isn't what it seems from the outside."

     "The outside?"  She was genuinely curious.

     "What you see and hear.  The premieres, the publicity for the movies.  It looks as if it isn't staged, but all of it is."

     "Even those photos of you on the beach?"  She wouldn't mention the drop-dead gorgeous models and actresses he was always photographed with.


     Pausing only a second, she prodded, "Does Silas know about your real life, or do you only tell him about the outside?"

     "Dad hears what he wants to hear."

     "But do you talk about your actual work with him?"

     "You probably know how much we talk.  It's mostly about the weather, his horse buyers, if I'll be nominated for another Oscar."

     "If you made a point of telling him..."

     Zack scowled and even that expression was sexy as the corners of his mouth turned down.  "You're not going to be on my back about talking to Dad the whole time I'm here, are you?  Because if you are, I'm going to spend most of my time working."

     If he'd intended to frame that bomb of information into his response, she didn't know.  But she surely realized the implication.  "The time you're here?  How long will that be?"

     "We'll figure it out after he's back up here giving orders again."

     "We're talking about more than a few days?"

     "It depends on his condition.  I'll let you know after I speak with his doctor."

     For just a moment, Jenny felt her heart fall.  She really didn't have a right to be here, to any information.  No matter she spent every day with Silas, saw his symptoms develop, and cared deeply that they had.  She wasn't a relative.  Zack was his son.  She was not Silas's daughter.  That thought brought to mind the inevitable one of wondering where her own father was right now.  Maybe she cared so much about Silas because her own dad didn't seem to want her to care about him.  And she shouldn't because he always left…he never stayed.  But she did care.

     "What are you thinking?" Zack asked, as he crossed to the sofa where she sat.  He moved the magazine she had tried to concentrate on, lowered himself beside her, yet not too close.

     Did he feel any remnant of the attraction that had rippled between them as teenagers?  The attraction she felt now?  "I'm not thinking.  I'm just worried."

     "Bull.  Something was ticking through that pretty head of yours besides worry."

     His attitude both shook and angered her.  "You don't know me any more, so don't try to read me like a mentalist at a carnival."

     "So you think I don't know you?"  His voice was lower as he said, "When you're thinking, little frown lines appear right here."

     He touched the space between her brows and her heart rapped against her ribs.

     "But when you're worrying—"  He slid his finger across the side of her mouth, "This dimple disappears and sometimes your lower lip quivers."

     She was mesmerized by the pad of his finger on her skin...trembling from skimming her gaze over the breadth of his shoulders, his beard stubble, the past memories in his eyes.

     Grabbing her composure for all she was worth, she straightened her shoulders and leaned back.  "You're making that up."

     "Nope.  You haven't changed all that much.  You grew up fast and were always direct, curious, and sassy.  Give me one way you're different now than when you came to live at the Rocky D when you were seventeen."

     Instead of an off-the-cuff flip reply, she considered his request.  "Now I think before I speak.  I hope I've learned to have as much patience with people as I've always had with horses."

     He smiled and she wished he hadn't.  Zack smiling was almost impossible to resist.

     "You think before you speak and have patience with everyone but me."

     She was about to protest, to tell him he was all wrong, but she considered what he'd said.  "I guess with you, my good intentions get short-circuited."

     His smile faded.  "So tell me what you were thinking."

     Zack had always been determined.  Maybe this time she shouldn't fight his desire to know.  "I was thinking I have no official right to be here...to know Silas's condition.  But I'd like to be included."

     The cold detachment she'd sensed in Zack when he'd arrived, dissipated altogether.  "Of course, you'll be included.  Has anyone told you differently?"

     "Oh, no.  The staff and doctors have been understanding."

     Zack was studying her as if he knew old insecurities still haunted her.  She couldn't let him see that sometimes they did.  Most of all, she couldn't let him see that she was still attracted to him. 

     Rising to her feet, she said, "I'm going to get coffee.  I'll bring you a cup."

     "Black," he told her as he rose, too, and returned to the laptop.

     He'd always taken his coffee black, but she wouldn't let him see she remembered that...along with everything else.


© Copyright:  2011 by Karen Rose Smith
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.


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