The Prince's Secret Baby
“Stop here,” Rule Bravo-Calabretti said to the driver.
The limousine rolled to a silent stop at the head of the row of parking spaces in the shadowed parking garage. The Mercedes-Benz sedan Rule had been following turned into the single empty space at the other end of the row, not far from the elevators and the stairs that led into the mall. From where the he sat behind tinted windows, Rule could also see the breezeway outside the parking structure. It led directly into Macy’s Department Store.
The brake lights of the Mercedes went dark. A woman emerged from the sedan, her head and shoulders appearing above the tops of the row of cars. She had thick brown hair that fell in well-behaved waves. Settling the strap of her bag on her shoulder, she shut the car door and emerged into the open aisle, where she turned back and aimed her key at the car. The Benz gave an obedient beep.
She put the key away in her bag. She looked, Rule decided, just as she’d looked in the pictures his investigators had taken of her—only more attractive, somehow. She wasn’t a pretty woman. But there was something about her that he found much more interesting than mere prettiness. She was tall and slim and wore a blue silk jacket, which was perfectly and conservatively tailored. Her matching blue skirt kissed the tops of her slender knees. Her shoes were darker than her suit, with medium heels and closed toes.
He watched as she settled her bag in place again, straightened her jacket and turned for the door to the breezeway. He thought she looked very determined and somehow he found that determination utterly charming.
She hadn’t glanced in the limousine’s direction. He was almost certain she had no idea that he’d been following her.
And his mind was made up, just like that, in the sixty seconds it took to watch her emerge from her car, put her key in her purse, and turn to go. He had to meet her.
Yes, he’d always told himself he never would. That as long as she was running her life successfully, taking good care of the child, it would be wrong of him to interfere. He’d relinquished all rights by law. And he had to live with the choices he had made.
But this wasn’t about rights. This wasn’t about challenging her for what was hers.
He had no intention of interfering. He simply had to…speak with her, had to know if his first reaction to seeing her in the flesh was just a fluke, a moment of starry-eyed idiocy brought on by the fact that she had what mattered most to him.
All right, it was playing with fire. And he shouldn’t even be here. He should be finishing his business in Dallas and rushing back to Montedoro. He should be spending time with Lili, learning to accept that they could be a good match, have a good life.
And he would return to Montedoro. Soon.
But right now, today, he was going to do the thing he’d wanted to do for far too long now. He was going meet Sydney O’Shea face-to-face.
Sydney could not believe it.
The totally hunky—and oddly familiar—guy down the aisle from her in Macy’s housewares department was actually making eyes at her. Men like that did not make eyes at Sydney. Men like that made eyes at women as gorgeous as they were.
And no, it wasn’t that Sydney was ugly. She wasn’t. But she wasn’t beautiful, either. And there was something much too…practical and self-sufficient about her. Something a little too focused, as well. She also happened to be very smart. Men tended to find her intimidating, even at first glance.
So. Really. It was probably only her imagination that the drop-dead-gorgeous guy by the waffle irons and electric griddles was looking at her. She pretended to read the tag on a stainless steel sauté pan—and slid another glance in Mr. Eye Candy’s direction.
He was pretending to read a price tag, too. She knew he was pretending because, at the exact moment she glanced his way, he sent a sideways look in her direction and one corner of that sinfully sexy mouth of his quirked up in a teasing smile.
Maybe he was flirting with someone behind her.
She turned her head enough that she could see over her shoulder.
Nope. Nobody there. Just more cookware racks brimming with all-clad stainless steel pots and pans, Le Creuset enameled cast iron casseroles and complete sets of Calphalon nonstick cookware—which, she firmly reminded herself, were what she should be looking at. She put all her attention on the business at hand and banished the implausibly flirty, impossibly smooth-looking man from her mind.
Yet another co-worker was getting married, a paralegal, Calista Dwyer. Calista hadn’t bothered to set up a bridal registry anywhere. The wedding was something of an impromptu affair. Tomorrow, Calista was running off with her boyfriend to some tropical island for a quickie wedding and a two-week honeymoon in paradise.
Sydney had left the office before lunch to choose a wedding gift. It was a task she had come to dislike. It happened so often and always reminded her that other people were getting married all the time. She really should do what a man in her situation would do, just have her assistant buy the wedding gifts—especially in a case like this, where she had no clue what Calista might be wanting or needing.
But no. She was still her grandmother’s granddaughter at heart. Ellen O’Shea had always taken pride in personally selecting any gift she gave. Sydney continued the family tradition, even if she sometimes found the job annoying and a little bit depressing.
“Cookware. Necessary. But not especially interesting,” a voice as warm and tempting as melted caramel teased in her ear. “Unless you love to cook?”
Good gravy. Mr. Hot and Hunky was right behind her. And there could be no doubt about it now. He was talking to her—and he had been giving her the eye.
Slowly, as if in a dream, Sydney turned to him.
Breathtaking. Seriously. There was no other word for this guy. Jet-black eyes, sculpted cheekbones, a perfect, square jaw, a nose like a blade. Broad, broad shoulders. And the way he was dressed…casual, but expensive. In light-colored trousers and a beautifully made navy jacket over a checked shirt.
He arched an ebony brow. “Do you?”
She forced herself to suck a breath and then asked warily, “Excuse me?”
“Do you love to cook?” He gazed at her as though he couldn’t tear his eyes away.
This could not be happening.
But wait. A gigolo? Maybe she looked like gigolo bait. Well-dressed and driven. Maybe it was the new black, to go trolling for a sugar mama in housewares.
And then again, well, he did look somehow familiar. She probably knew him from somewhere. “Have we met before?”
He gave her a slow once-over, followed by another speaking glance from those black-velvet eyes. That glance seemed to say that he wouldn’t mind gobbling her up on the spot. And then he laughed, a low, sexy laugh as smooth and exciting as that wonderful voice of his. “I prefer to think that if we’d met in the past, you wouldn’t have forgotten me so easily.”
Excellent point. “I, um…” Good Lord. Speechless. She was totally speechless. And that wasn’t like her at all. Enough with the stumbling all over herself. She stuck out her hand. “Sydney O’Shea.”
“Rule Bravo-Calabretti.” He wrapped his elegant, warm fingers around hers. She stifled a gasp as heat flowed up her arm.
The heat didn’t stop at her shoulder. Arrows of what she could only categorize as burning excitement zipped downward into her midsection. She eased her hand from his grip and fell back a step, coming up short against the steel display shelves behind her. “Rule, you said?”
“Let me guess, Rule. You’re not from Dallas.”
He put those long, graceful fingers to his heart. “How did you know?”
“Well, the designer clothes, the two last names. You speak English fluently, but with a certain formality and no regional accent that I can detect. I’m thinking that not only are you not from Dallas, you’re not from Texas. You’re not even from the good old U.S. of A.”
He laughed again. “You’re an expert on accents?”
“No. I’m smart, that’s all. And observant.”
“Smart and observant. I like that.”
She wished she could stand there by the cast iron casserole display, just looking at him, listening to him talk and hearing his melted-caramel laugh for the next, oh, say, half century or so.
But there was still Calista’s wedding gift to buy. And a quick lunch to grab before rushing back to the office for that strategy meeting on the Binnelab case at one.
Before she could start making gotta-go noises, he spoke again. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Ahem. Your question?”
“Sydney, do you love to cook?”
The way he said her name, with such impossible passionate intent, well, she liked it. She liked it way, way too much. She fell back a step. “Cook? Me? Only when I have no other choice.”
“Then why have I found you here in the cookware department?”
“Found me?” Her suspicions rose again. Really, what was this guy up to? “Were you looking for me?”
He gave an elegant shrug of those fine wide shoulders. “I confess. I saw you enter the store from the parking garage at the south breezeway entrance. You were so…determined.”
“You followed me because I looked determined?”
“I followed you because you intrigued me.”
“You’re intrigued by determination?”
He chuckled again. “Yes. I suppose I am. My mother is a very determined woman.”
“And you love your mother.” She put a definite edge in her tone. Was she calling him a mama’s boy? Maybe. A little. She tended toward sarcasm when she was nervous or unsure—and he did make her nervous. There was just something about him. Something much too good to be true.
Mr. Bravo-Calabretti either didn’t get her sarcasm—or ignored it. “I do love my mother, yes. Very much. And I admire her, as well.” He studied Sydney for a moment, a direct, assessing kind of glance. “You’re a prickly one, aren’t you?” He seemed amused.
So he had picked up on her sarcasm. She felt petty and a little bit mean. And that made her speak frankly. “Yes, I am a prickly one. Some men don’t find that terribly attractive.”
“Some men are fools.” He said it softly. And then he asked again, “Why are you shopping for pots and pans, Sydney?”
She confessed, “I need a wedding gift for someone at the office.”
His dark eyes twinkled at her, stars in a midnight sky. “A wedding gift.”
“Allow me to suggest…” He reached around her with his left hand. She turned to follow the movement and watched as he tapped a red Le Creuset casserole shaped like a heart. “This.” She couldn’t help noticing that he wore no wedding ring. And the casserole? Not bad, really.
“Very romantic,” she said dryly. “Every bride needs a heart-shaped casserole dish.”
“Buy it,” he commanded. “And we can get out of here.”
“Excuse me. We?”
He still had his arm out, almost touching her, his hand resting lightly on the red casserole. She caught a faint, tempting hint of his aftershave. It smelled fabulous—so subtle, so very expensive. He held her eyes, his dark gaze intent. “Yes. We. The two of us.”
“But I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t even know you.”
“That’s true. And I find that very sad.” He put on a teasingly mournful expression. “Because I want to know you, Sydney. Come to lunch with me. We can begin to remedy this problem.” She opened her mouth to tell him that as far as she was concerned there was no problem and lunch was out of the question. But before she got the words out, he scooped up the heart-shaped dish. “This way.” He gestured with his free hand in the direction of the nearest cashier stand.
She went where he directed her. Why not? The casserole was a good choice. And he was so charming. As soon as the clerk had rung her up, she could tell him goodbye and make him see that she meant it.
The clerk was young and blond and very pretty. “Oh! Here. Let me help you!” She took the casserole from Rule and then kept sliding him blushing glances as she rung up the sale. Sydney sympathized with the dazzled girl. He was like something straight out of a fabulous romantic novel—the impossible, wonderful, hot and handsome, smooth and sophisticated lover who appears out of nowhere to sweep the good-hearted but otherwise perfectly ordinary heroine off her feet.
And did she actually think the word lover?
Really, she needed to get a grip on her suddenly too-vivid imagination.
“This casserole is the cutest thing. Is it a gift?” the clerk asked.
“Yes, it is,” Sydney replied. “A wedding gift.”
The girl slid another glance at Rule. “I’m sorry. We don’t offer gift wrapping in the store anymore.” She spoke in a breathy little voice. Rule said nothing. He gave the girl a quick, neutral nod and a barely-detectable smile.
“It’s fine,” Sydney said. Like her grandmother, she not only bought gifts personally, she wrapped them, too. But she didn’t have time to wrap this one if she wanted to give it to Calista before her wedding trip. So she would need to grab a gift bag and tissue somewhere. She swiped her card and signed in the little box and tried not to be overly conscious of the too-attractive man standing beside her.
The clerk gave Sydney the receipt—but she gave Rule the Macy’s bag with the casserole in it. “Here you go now. Come back and shop with us. Anytime.” Her tone said she would love to help Rule with a lot more than his shopping.
Sydney thanked her and turned to him. “I’ll take that.”
“No need. I’ll carry it for you.”
“I said, I’ll take it.”
Reluctantly, he handed it over. But he showed no inclination to say goodbye and move on.
She told him, “Nice chatting with you. And I really have to—”
“It’s only lunch, you know.” He said it gently and quietly, for her ears alone. “Not a lifetime commitment.”
She gazed up into those melting dark eyes and all at once she was hearing her best friend Lani’s chiding voice in her head. Seriously, Syd. If you really want a special guy in your life, you have to give one a chance now and then….
“All right,” she heard herself say. “Lunch.” It wasn’t a big deal. She would enjoy his exciting, flattering attention over a quick sandwich and then say goodbye. No harm done.
“A smile,” he said, his warm gaze on her mouth. “At last.”
She smiled wider. Because she did like him. He was not only killer-handsome and very smooth, he seemed like a great guy. Certainly there could be no harm in giving herself permission to spend a little more time with him. “So. First I need a store that sells gift bags.”
He held her eyes for a moment. And it felt glorious. Just standing there in Macy’s, lost in an endless glance with a gorgeous man. Finally, he said, “There’s a mall directory, I think. This way.” And then he shepherded her ahead of him, as he had when he ushered her to the cashier stand.
They found a stationery store. She chose a pretty bag and some sparkly tissue and a gift card. The clerk rang up the sale and they were on their way.
“Where to?” she asked, as they emerged into the mall again.
“This is Texas,” he said, his elegant face suddenly open and almost boyish. “We should have steak.”
He had a limo waiting for him outside, which didn’t surprise her. The man was very much the limo type. He urged her to ride with him to the restaurant, but she said she would follow him. They went to the Stockyards District in nearby Fort Worth, to a casual place with lots of Texas atmosphere and an excellent reputation.
An antler chandelier hung from the pressed-tin ceiling above their corner table. The walls were of pine planks and exposed brick, hung with oil paintings of cowboy boots, hats and bandanas. The floor was painted red.
They got a table in a corner and he ordered a beautiful bottle of Cabernet. She refused the wine when their waiter tried to fill her glass. But then, after he left them, she gave in and poured herself a small amount. The taste was amazing, smooth and delicately spicy on her tongue.
“You like it?” Rule asked hopefully.
He offered a toast. “To smart, observant, determined women.”
“Don’t forget prickly,” she reminded him.
“How could I? It’s such a charming trait.”
“Nice recovery.” She gave him an approving nod.
He raised his glass higher, “To smart, observant, determined and decidedly prickly women.”
She laughed as she touched her glass to his.
“Tell me about your high-powered job,” he said, after the waiter delivered their salads of butter lettuce and applewood smoked bacon.
She sipped more of the wine she shouldn’t really be drinking, given she had that big meeting ahead of her. “And you know I have a high-powered job, how?”
“You said the wedding gift was for ‘someone at the office.’”
“I could be in data entry. Or maybe a top executive’s very capable assistant.”
“No,” he said, with confidence. “Your clothing is both conservative and expensive.” He eyed her white silk shell, her lightweight, fitted jacket, the single strand of pearls she wore. “And your attitude…”
She leaned toward him, feeling deliciously giddy. Feeling free and bold and ready for anything. “What about my attitude?”
“You are no one’s assistant.”
She sat back in her chair and rested her hands in her lap. “I’m an attorney. With a firm that represents a number of corporate clients.”
“An attorney. Of course. That, I believe.”
She picked up her fork, ate some of her salad. For a moment or two they shared a surprisingly easy silence. And then she asked, “And what about you? What do you do for a living?”
“I like variety in my work. At the moment, I’m in trade. International trade.”
“At the moment? What? You change jobs a lot, is that what you’re telling me?”
“I take on projects that interest me. And when I’m satisfied that any given project is complete, I move on.”
“What do you trade?”
“At the moment, oranges. Montedoran oranges.”
“Montedoran. That sounds exotic.”
“It is. The Montedoran is a blood orange, very sweet, hinting of raspberry, with the characteristic red flesh of all blood oranges. The skin is smooth, not pitted like many other varieties.”
“So soon I’ll be buying Montedorans at my local Wal-Mart Supercenter?”
“Hardly. The Montedoran is never going to be for sale in supermarkets. We won’t be trading in that kind of volume. But for certain gourmet and specialty stores, I think it could do very well.”
“Montedoran…” She tested the word on her tongue. “There’s a small country in Europe, right, on the Côte d’Azur? Montedoro?”
“Yes. Montedoro is my country.” He poured her more wine. And she didn’t stop him. “It’s one of the eight smallest states in Europe, a principality on the Mediterranean. My mother was born there. My father was American, but moved to Montedoro and accepted Montedoran citizenship when they married. His name is Evan Bravo. He was a Texan by birth.”
She really did love listening to him talk. He made every word into a poem. “So…you have relatives in Texas?”
“I have an aunt and uncle and a number of first cousins who live in and around San Antonio. And I have other, more distant cousins in a small town near Abilene. And in your Hill Country, I have a second cousin who married a veterinarian. And there are more Bravos, many more, in California and Wyoming and Nevada. All over the states, as a matter of fact.”
“I take it that Calabretti is your mother’s surname?”
“Is that what they do in your country, combine the husband’s and wife’s last name when they marry?”
He nodded. “In…certain families, anyway. It’s similar to the way it’s done in Spain. We are much like the Spanish. We want to keep all our last names, on both sides of our families. So we string them together proudly.”
“Bravo-Calabretti sounds familiar, somehow. I keep wondering where I’ve heard it before…”
He waited for her to finish. When she didn’t, he shrugged. “Perhaps it will come to you later.”
“Maybe so.” She lowered her voice to a more confidential level. “And I have to tell you, I keep thinking that you are familiar, that I’ve met you before.”
He shrugged in a way that seemed to her so sophisticated, so very European. “They say everyone has a double. Maybe that’s it. You’ve met my double.”
It wasn’t what she’d meant. But it didn’t really matter. “Maybe.” She let it go and asked, “Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“I do.” He gave her a regal nod. “Three brothers, five sisters. I’m second-born. I have an older brother, Maximilian. And after me, there are the twins, Alexander and Damien. And then my sisters—Bella, Rhiannon, Alice, Genevra and Rory.”
“Big family.” Feeling suddenly wistful, she set down her fork. “I envy you. I was an only child.” Her hand rested on the tabletop.
He covered it with his. The touch warmed her to her toes—and thrilled her, as well. Her whole body seemed, all at once, completely, vividly alive. He leaned into her and studied her face, his gaze as warm as his lean hand over hers. “And you are sad, then? To have no siblings?”
“I am, yes.” She wished he might hold her hand indefinitely. And yet she had to remember that this wasn’t going anywhere and it wouldn’t be right to let him think that it might. She eased her hand free. He took her cue without comment, retreating to his side of the table. She asked, “How old are you, Rule?”
He laughed his slow, smooth laugh. “Somehow, I begin to feel as though I’m being interviewed.”
She turned her wine glass by the stem. “I only wondered. Is your age a sensitive subject for you?”
“In a sense, I suppose it is.” His tone was more serious. “I’m thirty-two. That’s a dangerous age for an unmarried man in my family.”
“How so? Thirty-two isn’t all that old.” Especially not for a man. For a woman, things were a little different—at least, they were if she wanted to have children.
“It’s time that I married.” He said it so somberly, his eyes darker than ever as he regarded her steadily.
“I don’t get it. In your family, they put you on a schedule for marriage?”
Now a smile haunted his handsome mouth. “It sounds absurd when you say it that way.”
“It is absurd.”
“You are a woman of definite opinions.” He said it in an admiring way. Still, defiance rose within her and she tipped her chin high. He added, “And yes, in my family both the men and the women are expected to marry before they reach the age of thirty-three.”
“And if you don’t?”
He lowered his head and looked at her from under his dark brows. “Consequences will be dire.” He said it in a low tone, an intimate tone, a tone that did a number on every one of her nerve endings and sent a fine, heated shiver dancing along the surface of her skin.
“You’re teasing me.”
“Yes, I am. I like you, Sydney. I knew that I would, the moment I first saw you.”
“And when was that?”
“You’ve already forgotten?” He looked gorgeously forlorn. “I see I’m not so memorable, after all. Macy’s? I saw you going in?” The waiter scooped up their empty salad plates and served them rib eye steaks with Serrano lime butter. When he left them, Rule slid her a knowing glance as he picked up his steak knife. “Sydney, I think you’re testing me.”
Why deny it? “I think you’re right.”
“I hope I’m passing this test of yours—and do your parents live here in Dallas?”
She trotted out the old, sad story. “They lived in San Francisco, where I was born. My mother was thrown off a runaway cable car. I was just three months old, in her arms when she fell. She suffered a blow to the head and died instantly, but I was unharmed. They called it a miracle at the time. My father was fatally injured when he jumped off to try and save us. He died the next day in the hospital.”
His dark eyes were so soft. They spoke of real sympathy. Of understanding. “How terrible for you.”
“I don’t even remember it. My grandmother—my father’s mother—came for me and took me back to Austin, where she lived. She raised me on her own. My grandfather had died several years before my parents. She was amazing, my grandmother. She taught me that I can do anything. She taught me that power brings responsibility. That the truth is sacred. That being faithful and trustworthy are rewards in themselves.”
Now his eyes had a teasing light in them. “And yet, you’re an attorney.”
Sydney laughed. “So they have lawyer jokes even in Montedoro?”
“I’m afraid so—and a corporate attorney at that.”
“I’m not responding to that comment on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me.” She said it lightly.
But he saw right through her. “Have I hit a nerve?”
She totally shocked herself by answering frankly. “My job is high-powered. And high-paying. And it’s been…important to me, to know that I’m on top of a very tough game, that I’ll never have to worry about where the next paycheck is coming from, that I can definitely take care of my own and do it well.”
She revealed even more. “And yet lately, I often find myself thinking how much more fulfilling it might be, to spend my workdays helping people who really need me, rather than protecting the overflowing coffers of multi-billion-dollar companies.”
He started to speak. But then her BlackBerry, which she’d set on the table to the right of her water goblet the way she always did at restaurants, vibrated. She checked the display: Magda, her assistant. Probably wondering why she wasn’t back at the office yet.
She glanced at Rule again. He had picked up his knife and fork and was concentrating on his meal, giving her the chance to deal with the call if she needed to.
Well, she didn’t need to.
Sydney scooped up the phone and dropped it in her bag where she wouldn’t even notice if it vibrated again.
With the smooth ease of a born diplomat, Rule continued their conversation as though it had never been interrupted. “You speak of your grandmother in the past tense….”
“She died five years ago. I miss her very much.”
“So much loss.” He shook his head. “Life can be cruel.”
“Yes.” She ate a bite of her steak, taking her time about it, savoring the taste and tenderness of the meat, unaccountably happy that he hadn’t remarked on her vibrating BlackBerry, that he hadn’t said he was “sorry,” the way people always did when she told them she’d grown up without her parents, when she confessed how much she missed her grandmother.
He watched her some more, his dark head tipped to the side in way that had her thinking again how he reminded her of someone. “Have you ever been married?”
“No. I’m Catholic—somewhat lapsed, yes, but nonetheless, I do believe that marriage is forever. I’ve never found the man I want forever with. But I’ve had a couple of serious relationships. They…didn’t work out.” Understatement of the year. But he didn’t need to hear it and she didn’t need to say it. She’d done enough over-sharing for now, thank you very much. She added, “And I’m thirty-three. Does that seem…dire to you?”
“Absolutely.” He put on a stern expression. On him, sternness was sexy. But then, on him, everything was sexy. “You should be married immediately. And then have nine children. At the very least. You should marry a wealthy man, Sydney. One who adores you.”
“Hmm. A rich man who adores me. I wouldn’t mind that. But the nine children? More than I planned on. Significantly more.”
“You don’t want children?” He looked honestly surprised.
She almost told him about Trevor right then. But no. This was a fantasy lunch with a fantasy man. Trevor was her real life. The most beautiful, perfect, meaningful, joyful part of her real life. “I didn’t say I didn’t want children. I do. But I’m not sure I’m ready for nine of them. Nine seems like a lot.”
“Well. Perhaps we would have to settle for fewer than nine. I can be reasonable.”
“A man and a woman have to work together. Decisions should be jointly made.”
“Rule.” She put a hand to her breast, widened her eyes and asked him dramatically, “Could this be…oh, I can’t believe it. Is it possible that you’re proposing to me?”
He answered matter-of-factly, “As it happens, I’m wealthy. And it would be very easy for me to adore you.” His dark eyes shone.
What was this feeling? Magical, this feeling. Magical and foolish. And that was the beauty of it. It was one of those things that happen when you least expect it. Something to remind her that life could still be surprising. That it wasn’t all about winning and staying on top—and coming home too late to tuck her own sweet boy into bed.
Sometimes even the most driven woman might just take a long lunch. A long lunch with a stranger who made her feel not only brilliant and clever, but beautiful and desired, as well.
She put on a tragic face. “I’m sorry. It could never work.”
He played it stricken. “But why not?”
“You live in Montedoro.” Grave. Melancholy. “My career—my whole life—is here.”
“You might change careers. You might even decide to try a different kind of life.”
Hah. Exactly what men always said. She wasn’t letting him get away with it. “Or you might move to Texas.”
“For you, Sydney, I might do anything.”
A moment ensued. Golden. Fine. A moment with only the two of them in it. A moment of complete accord.
Sydney let herself enjoy that moment. She refused to be guarded or dubious. It was only lunch, after all. Lunch with an attractive man. She was giving herself full permission to enjoy every minute of it.
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