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Sarah's child (Chapter 3)

The cocktail party to welcome Max to the Dallas headquar-ters was overflowing with people anxious to be seen by and talk with the upper echelon of Spencer-Nyle. Rome, Mr. Ed-wards, and Max were the center of attention, as they were the triumvirate that controlled billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Mr. Edwards, a lean, quiet man whose shrewdness and corporate savvy had kept him at the top for fifteen years, had hand-chosen his lieutenants and been well-rewarded for his trust in them. Rome was being groomed for the chairmanship, which he would certainly attain when Mr. Edwards retired. Watching the ambitious young executives swarm around him, Sarah realized that it was common knowledge, up and down the ranks, that Rome was Mr. Edwards's chosen successor. Max, on the other hand, was an unknown, but already there was an ease between him and his superiors that told everyone he was on the inside.

Tired of being pumped for information about Max, Sarah developed the strategy of staying on the move. It took a well-planned schedule to move in, take up a handful of peanuts or dip a stalk of celery into the cheese dip, then waltz on with-out pausing long enough to give anyone an opening. She clutched her single drink of the evening in her hand, taking tiny sips and trying to eat enough to absorb the alcohol be-fore it could go to her head. Earlier, a quick foray into the tiny kitchen, where the caterers were frantically trying to keep pace with the appetites of the guests, had produced a small glass of milk, which she had slugged back with all the deli-cacy of a stevedore downing his first frosty beer after work-ing all day in hundred-degree heat.

"You're gobbling peanuts like you've been on a starvation diet," Rome said in her ear, startling her. He took the cocktail from her hand and replaced it with a tall glass filled with a pale amber liquid and ice cubes. "There. Drink this instead. Gin-ger ale." He winked at her, and finished the cocktail for her.

"I've already raided the refrigerator for milk," she laughed, her eyes twinkling up at him. "Did you think I was in danger of falling on my face before the party was over?"

He regarded her somberly, noting that there was no hint of the usual sadness in her eyes that night. Whether it was the small amount of alcohol she'd drunk that made her laugh so gaily, or whether something had happened to make her happy, he didn't know, but it didn't matter. Since it was as much a business occasion as a social one, he hadn't brought her to the party, but he fully intended to visit her when it was over. From the way she was looking at him now, she might be re-laxing those invisible restraints that had kept her from re-sponding to him more fully.

"No, you'd never do anything as disgraceful as getting drunk," he finally said in answer to her question. "You're too much the perfect secretary. You already have Max eating out of your hand."

"Max is a dear," Sarah responded warmly, looking around for his tall, graceful figure and missing the way Rome's eyes darkened to a stormy black. "I was fond of Mr. Graham, but I'll admit that I enjoy working with Max more. Max keeps things hopping."

Introducing Max into the conversation had been a mistake. Rome moved instinctively, placing himself between Sarah and the rest of the room, blocking her view of Max.

"Do you mind if I come over tonight?" he asked, but there was a harsh note in his voice that commanded rather than asked, and Sarah eyed him warily.

"If you like. I wasn't going to stay much longer anyway. Have you had dinner, or is this all you've had too?" With a wave of her hand, she indicated the colorful but unfulfilling array of dips, snacks, and fresh vegetables that she'd been raiding all evening.

Rome had a healthy appetite. "I'm starving," he admitted. "Do you want to go out for a late dinner?"

"No, I think I'd rather stay home," she said, after consider-ing the invitation for a moment. "I have some chicken left over from yesterday; how do you feel about chicken sandwiches?"

"I'd trade all that rabbit food for just one chicken sand-wich." His mood lightening, he grinned at her, and Sarah smiled in return. He was more relaxed with her now than he'd ever been before, and she was blooming under his at-tention. Perhaps he was beginning to think of her as some-thing other than a friend; the hope of it made her radiant, and the glow of her face beck-oned more than one glance from the other men in the room.

Suddenly Max was at Rome's elbow, his smile tender as he looked at Sarah.

"You really should be by my side," he said lightly, noting how well the apricot color of her dress suited her creamy complexion. "After all, I'm still totally lost without you. With-out you to point me in the right direction these last few days, I'd have made a perfect idiot of myself."

He'd already stretched his hand out for Sarah when Rome forestalled him by extending his own arm, blocking the ges-ture. Something hard and frightening was in his dark face as he looked at Max. "I've already warned you once," he said with soft, purring menace. "Sarah is off-limits to you."

"Rome!" Shocked, taken completely off guard, Sarah gasped his name, dismay filling her. How could he behave like this at a business function?

"She isn't wearing your ring," Max pointed out calmly, not turning a hair. "You'll have to take your chances."

White with distress at the way a casual, lighthearted con-versation had turned so abruptly into barely restrained male aggression, Sarah stepped back from both of them. "Stop it!" she ordered, her voice shaking so much that it was barely above a whisper. "Don't either of you dare say another word!"

Rome's nostrils flared and he moved swiftly, his hard arm passing around Sarah's slender waist. "I'm taking Sarah home," he said deliberately, his hard fingers biting into her soft flesh. His words were loud enough to be heard, and several people turned to look at them. "She doesn't feel well. Make our excuses, Max; see you in the office."

Sarah knew that she was pale enough to give credence to his lie, and he hustled her out of the suite before anyone could approach. The arm around her waist had lifted her almost off her feet; he was effectively carrying her. "Rome, stop it," she protested, trying to wriggle away from him and walk under her own power.

He swore softly under his breath and adjusted his grip on her, leaning down to slide his other arm under her knees and lift her completely into his arms. Sarah caught her breath as the swift motion made her head whirl dizzily, and she clutched at his shoulders. The elevators were down a long corridor, and they passed a man in a white dinner jacket who stared after them with great interest.

"You're making a scene," she whispered. "What's wrong with you?" She was too startled to even be angry, but she felt as if she were groping her way through a fog, because she failed completely to understand his motives.

He jabbed the down button with his elbow, then bent his head and kissed her with such deliberate intimacy that she curled in his arms, her mouth opening for his tongue. He could have been standing in the middle of the street for all she thought about their location. When he kissed her like that, every thought left her head, leaving her preoccupied only with the slow burning pleasure he gave her with just a kiss.

An electric ding signaled the arrival of the elevator. Still carrying her, Rome stepped into it; they were the only occu-pants, and she stared at him in bewilderment. His expression was clearly revealed under the bright artificial lights, but she was still unable to decipher it.

"You can put me down now," she ventured softly. "Were you intending to carry me through the lobby of the hotel?"

"This is Texas," he replied with a hint of wryness. "No one would be surprised, though for form's sake I suppose I should throw you over my shoulder." But he let her down, though he kept his arm firmly anchored around her waist.

"What was that all about?" she asked as the doors slid open and they stepped out into the vast ultramodern lobby, overwhelming with its glass and greenery.

"It's called staking a claim."

She considered that in silence for a moment. She wasn't coy, nor did she believe in dissembling; she wasn't going to simper and pretend she didn't understand. On an instinctive level, though, she was a little alarmed by the swiftness with which he'd moved. She darted a quick nervous glance at him, one that he intercepted and read, and his mouth tightened fractionally. Looking at him, with his hard face set in deter-mined lines, she knew that she'd been cut from the herd the way a stallion would isolate the mare he'd chosen. The thought made her mouth go dry, and her knees feel weak. Per-haps he wasn't a native Texan, but he knew just how to go about it. The move Max had made on her had awakened a pos-sessive streak in Rome, and instinctively he'd snatched her away from the other man; now he was determined to finalize his possession.

"My car is here," she said, making a motion with her hand as if to halt him.

"Forget about it." He didn't even glance down at her as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, where the warm night breezes fanned his face. "I'll bring you back for it in the morning."

"I'd feel better if I drove it home." She spoke firmly, and he sensed her decision, realizing immediately that the car gave her a feeling of independence that she needed, after the way he'd high-handedly whisked her away from the party. He didn't want her out of his sight for a minute, but he was afraid that if he pushed too hard, he'd run the risk of making her re-treat back behind her cool mask. He was close, too close, to breaking her reserve for him to let his impatience ruin things now. Having her was becoming an obsession with him; shat-tering her control was a goal that occupied more and more of his time and thoughts.

"All right," he agreed, deciding to use the time alone dur-ing the drive to her apartment to cool himself down. He was feeling violent and caged, and he needed to ease himself with the soft magic of a woman's flesh. Sarah's flesh. She was the only specific woman he'd wanted since Diane's death, and he wanted her so violently that he almost resented her for get-ting to him the way she had.

She was so pale and composed and sure of herself, like an ice-queen. Would she be that cool and controlled in bed, or would those shadowy green eyes blaze with animal need? He imagined her beneath him, writhing in the throes of desire he'd awakened in her, with wild cries tearing up from the depths of her slender body as he drove into her again and again and again…

He stopped his fantasy, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he watched the graceful swaying of her body as she walked away from him. He went to his own car and waited until her little red car passed him; then he pulled out behind her and followed closely on the drive to her apartment.

Sarah already had the door unlocked when he arrived, and she glanced at him warily as he entered behind her. His dark eyes still held that dangerous look, with a hunger in them that she understood but couldn't measure. She wanted him – she'd always wanted him – but at the same time she didn't want to be a one-night stand for him, a fast coupling for the purpose of easing him, forgotten as soon as it was finished. Sponta-neously she tried to slow him down.

"Would you like coffee?" she invited, dropping her small purse on the sofa and moving away from him to the kitchen.

"No." His refusal was flat.

"I think I'll have something to eat, just to be on the safe side," she called over her shoulder. "How about one of those chicken sandwi – "

Without warning, he seized her from behind, his hard hands locking on her waist and pulling her back against him. His head bent, and his hot breath blew over the curve of her neck, lightly touching her sensitive skin and awakening all her nerve endings. She shivered a little, but didn't try to pull away; in-stead she pressed back against the virile contours of his body.

"I don't want a sandwich," he muttered, nipping at her neck with his teeth, then soothing the slight sting with but-terfly strokes from the tip of his tongue. Sarah's eyes closed in ecstasy, and she let her head fall back against his shoulder, baring the vulnerable curve of her throat to him.

His breathing was becoming hard and fast, rasping in her ear, and the way he moved against her buttocks vividly demonstrated his arousal. His right hand shifted from her waist, sliding boldly upward to rub and cup her breasts, his touch burning her through her dress.

"I want to break Max's jaw when he looks at you as if he wants to do this." There was a roughness to his voice that she hadn't heard before, the guttural tone of fierce desire. His hands were all over her, stroking her as if to stake his claim as he'd told her he would do, and she leaned against him, her eyes closed, shaking a little as waves of pleasure assaulted her, each one stronger than the one before. With a harsh, impatient sound, he quickly tugged down the zipper of her dress and dropped the garment to her hips, then dispersed with her bra, freeing her breasts to his hands and gaze.

Sarah moaned softly as he cupped both of her breasts in his palms, kneading her soft flesh and gently pinching at her pink nipples. "You're so beautiful," he groaned and the rough desire in his voice made her feel beautiful. She loved the way the mounds of her breasts filled his palms, hardening and thrusting out to seek his touch.

Abruptly he turned her in his arms, holding her so tightly against him that her ribs ached, while he kissed her with bla-tant hunger. With his tongue, he told her what he wanted to do, and the symbolism was unmistakable. Sarah gasped under his mouth, seeking air to feed her starving lungs. "Rome…please!" But she didn't know if she begged for mercy, or for more of the primal pleasure he was giving her. Her body was growing heavy and liquid, and a deep inner throbbing made her move restlessly against him.

"Yes," he said against her throat, interpreting her plea as he chose. He bent her over his arm to give himself access to her tempting breasts, and she gave a thin cry when his hot mouth closed over her nipple, sucking it strongly into his mouth. Blackness swirled over her, a warm, velvet blackness that blocked out any reservations she might have had about belonging to him. She dissolved into a purely physical ani-mal, instinctively seeking more of the pleasure he offered her. Her hands roamed his body as his had roamed hers, im-patiently brushing away the layers of cloth that separated her from his hard muscled flesh. He trembled wildly at her inti-mate touch and pleaded with her for more.

At some point, they dropped to the floor, the plush carpet soft under her back. Too impatient to undress her completely, he lifted her skirt out of the way and stripped her panty hose down her legs. Sarah reached for him, her expression rapt, lost in the passion he'd aroused in her, and he caught his breath sharply. "Easy, easy," he said hoarsely, not wanting it to end too quickly, and knowing he was perilously close to satisfac-tion. He wanted to make certain she was satisfied too; he wanted to see her face at the peak of her pleasure. He held back, twisting his body away from her inciting hands, while he stroked and petted her, bestowing fleeting, intimate ca-resses on her that had her arching for more.

Sarah cried out at the tension that was building in her, the sensation that was as frightening as it was pleasurable, as if she might explode into a thousand little pieces. His warm hand, his devilishly dancing fingers, were doing things to her that were destroying her control, her sense of self. "Let go, let go," he cajoled in a rough whisper against her ear, and she did, crying out unintelligible sounds of passion fulfilled, her hands clutch-ing at him as her body writhed in the glory that consumed her.

Just as she began the downward slide into peace and re-laxation, he pinned her to the floor with his weight, adjusted himself between her thighs, and thrust into her with one pow-erful deliberate movement. Sarah was unable to hold back the sharp single cry that tore from her throat, and her body jolted in shock. But she reached up to wind her arms around his neck, clinging to him, as she offered him the comfort of her loving body. He groaned thickly against her throat and lost all control, taking her swiftly, a little roughly, and somehow, despite her discomfort, lighting again that small spark of de-sire in her. It was over before that spark could grow into the inferno that would consume her; with a cry from between his clenched teeth, he reached his own pleasure.

The upheaval of her senses left Sarah dazed; she lay on the carpet after he'd rolled from her, her body feeling buffeted, shocked, and quite unlike her own. Alien sensations were still sending their wild messages to her brain, and she labored in a benumbed manner to sort out and understand them. She might have lain there and even gone to sleep if his angry, tightly controlled voice hadn't jerked her to full awareness.

"Damn it, Sarah, you could've warned me!"

Still a little disoriented, she sat up with movements that weren't quite coordinated, frowning in a faint, quizzical man-ner as she fumbled with her dress, pulling it up over her shoul-ders again and pushing at the skirt until it once again covered her legs. "I… what?" she mumbled in confusion; then she sighed in sudden weariness and lifted her hand to cover her eyes.

He swore, a basic Anglo-Saxon word that blasted against her sensitized skin, making her flinch slightly. She couldn't grasp why he was angry; was it because of Diane? She gave him a sudden haunted look that stopped him in his tracks, as if her eyes briefly lost their veil and let him see the pain that ravaged her daily. Then she looked away, and tried to gather her trembling legs beneath her to stand up.

He said something violent under his breath; then he crossed the room in three quick strides to lean down and swing her bodily into his arms, straightening without any sign of strain. "What did you expect?" he snapped, taking her to the bed-room and placing her on the bed. "Keeping me in the dark was a damned stupid thing to do!" Despite his anger, his hands were gentle as he undressed her.

Sarah lay quietly as he cared for her. Finally she'd under-stood the reason for his anger. Her inexperience wasn't what he'd expected. She only wanted to know if he'd been disap-pointed, or if he was angry because he'd been caught off bal-ance. When he'd dressed her in a nightgown and propped her up on the pillows, he sat down on the bed beside her, the light from the single lamp throwing harsh shadows across his roughly etched face. He drew a deep breath, as if reaching for control.

A rather inappropriate hint of humor made a smile tug at her lips. She fought it, knowing that he wasn't in a humorous mood, but it spread anyway. Her soft mouth curved in a ten-der smile, and she teased gently, "Having sex hasn't turned me into an invalid. I could've undressed myself."

He glared at her, then saw the tenderness in her smile that in-vited him to share the moment with her. Realizing that he'd been treating her like someone who'd been wounded, he lost the hard edge of his temper, then found himself feeling sheepish. He fought off the feeling, keeping his expression grim. "Then you're luckier than you deserve to be. I could've hurt you, really hurt you. Damn it all, you should have told me it was your first time!"

"I'm sorry," she apologized gravely. "I didn't know the procedure."

For a moment he looked as if he would explode, pure fury burning in the dark depths of his eyes. But he was a man who controlled his temper, and he exerted that control now, re-fraining from even speaking until he trusted himself again. He finally thrust his hand roughly through his tousled hair, ruf-fling it even more. "You're thirty-three years old. Why inhell would you still be a virgin?"

He sounded totally baffled, as if it were beyond his com-prehension. Sarah shifted in embarrassment, fully realizing what an anachronism she was. If she'd been born even one generation earlier, she wouldn't have been so obsolete; chastity would have been expected of her until she married. But instead she was a not-so-modern woman locked into a more progressive society. It wasn't that she lacked the nor-mal curiosity and desires, or that she was a prude; her deeply ingrained need for security had kept her from risking her "all," as it were, in any relationship that would be too casual and transient to satisfy her instincts. Then she'd met Rome, and that had stopped cold any other man's chances with her, but Rome had also been off-limits. If she couldn't have him, she hadn't wanted anyone else; it was that simple, and totally impossible to explain to him.

She didn't even try to answer; she just looked at him, with the shadows once more gathering to dim the light that had been in her eyes.

Suddenly Rome quivered as if he'd been struck, staring down at her with an expression of torment on his face. What would Diane say, if she knew he'd just seduced her best friend? Pain clawed at his insides, pain and guilt, as he sud-denly realized that the physical act of release he'd sought with other women, which had meant an act of physical be-trayal, had been nothing compared to the way he'd just be-trayed Diane with Sarah. Sarah hadn't been just a faceless body to him. He'd been aware of her every moment; he'd wanted her for the qualities and characteristics that made her peculiarly herself. Not only that, the pleasure he'd had with her had been shattering, totally wiping out the memories that usually plagued him after sex, memories of making love with his wife, of lying in the darkness with her afterward and talk-ing their hearts out. He hadn't thought of Diane at all; Sarah had filled his mind and his senses, which was the greatest be-trayal of all.

He had to move away from her. He surged to his feet and paced restlessly across the room, once again thrusting his fin-gers through his hair. Why did she have to lie there and look at him with those mysterious eyes? He couldn't even begin to understand her. He'd thought that if he could take her, re-duce her to the common status of all the women who'd lain beneath him during the past two years, then she would lose her mystery and he'd no longer feel so obsessed by her, but that hadn't happened. Instead she'd revealed a secret that made her even more mysterious, and now she'd retreated again into her private self, too distant for him to reach.

It was, abruptly, more than he could stand. He felt suffo-cated, and he glared at her in anger at the panic that was con-suming him. "Hell," he uttered in complete disgust. "Look, are you all right?"

Sarah lifted a slim eyebrow. "I'm fine." She sounded cool and in perfect control, as usual.

"I've got to get out of here," he muttered. "I'm sorry; I know I'm acting like a bastard, but I can't – " He stopped, shaking his head in bafflement. "I'll call you tomorrow."

He was at the door before Sarah found her voice again. "There's no need. I really am all right."

The look he gave her was almost violent; then he was gone, and a few seconds later she heard the door slam. Im-mediately she got out of bed and went to lock it, then crawled back into bed, wincing as her body protested the movement.

So, already the fragile companionship that had been grow-ing between them was shattered, by a swift, consuming act of lust. That was all it had been for him, though she'd gone into his arms with love. She knew that it was much too soon in their relationship for it to be able to support the stress of lovemak-ing. He'd taken her, and she'd seen the anger, the guilt, in his eyes when he'd looked at her. Because she was so acutely sen-sitive to him, she'd known that he was thinking about Diane and regretting the wanton moments on the carpet.

Sarah didn't cry; she'd hoped, but the dream had been so brief that she hadn't really let herself start believing in it yet. He was gone, but then she'd never had him, not in any way that counted. She hadn't had his trust, or his love. His inter-est in her hadn't made sense anyway.

What now? Could she really go on working for the same company as he did, seeing him every day? Or had she finally reached the stage where she couldn't take any more, when she'd have to be cowardly in the interests of her own sanity? After all, she'd been brave for more years than she cared to remember, and bravery had gotten her nothing but a constant ache in her heart and an empty apartment. She was thirty-three, after all; she was already past the prime age for mar-rying and having children, and the love that she'd always craved had eluded her. The total summation of her life was that she had a nice apartment, a snazzy car, and had wasted her life by loving her best friend's husband. Time, and life, were passing her by, slipping away from her outstretched arms without even pausing to look at her.

Midnight was the time for making plans for the future, when the past had proved barren. She lay there, forcing her-self to be logical and deliberate, even when it hurt. In her own best interests, she'd have to find another job. She'd never get over Rome if she saw him every day. She would begin look-ing for a suitable job Monday morning, and she didn't think it would be that difficult; she'd made a lot of friends and con-tacts during her years with Spencer-Nyle, when she'd worked so hard to develop a career that she'd never really wanted. Diane had been the ambitious one, making stupendous plans that she'd chucked the instant after meeting Rome. All Sarah had ever wanted was someone to love, a husband who looked at her with devotion, children to love and raise as best she could, and a home to provide a warm haven from the rest of the world. The man who loved her wouldn't be Rome, she re-alized anew, and the pain struck her as strong and fresh as it had from the first.

What good would leaving Spencer-Nyle do her if she kept mooning over a man she couldn't have? It was time – past time – for her to forget about Rome and start looking for someone who would love her in return. Max's lean, intelligent face swam into her view, and she caught her breath. Max?

She wouldn't use him. He deserved better than that. But the fact remained that she'd been more attracted to Max than she'd ever been to any man other than Rome. If he asked her out again, she'd accept. After all, she would be leaving the company, so there wouldn't be the dangers inherent in a boss-secretary relationship.

She could even grow to love him. Perhaps she'd never love him with the depth or fierceness that she loved Rome, but there were different types of love in the world, all of them pre-cious. She'd no longer reject any of them.

Her brave new plans were never given a chance to work. The strident sound of the doorbell jerked her awake before seven o'clock the next morning, and she stumbled out of bed, then had to find a robe to drag on before answering the door.

Leaning against the door tiredly, stretching muscles that ached, she called cautiously, "Who is it?"

"Rome."

Sarah stiffened against the door, suddenly alarmed. How could she get over him if he kept coming back into her life? She didn't want to be hurt any more. She hadn't let herself think about the way he'd taken her because she couldn't han-dle that yet, couldn't begin to accept that he'd had her, then walked away. Diane had come between them, and she always would be between them.

"Sarah," he commanded in a low voice when she didn't open the door. "We have to talk. Let me in."

Biting her lip, knowing that there had to be a postmortem, she unlocked the door and opened it, stepping away as he en-tered the apartment. Quickly she looked at him, then averted her eyes. "Coffee?"

"Yes, and plenty of it. I haven't slept."

He looked it. He'd changed clothes, into jeans and a red polo shirt that looked fantastic with his olive complexion, but the lines on his face were harsher than ever, and dark circles lay under his eyes. He was somber, even grim. He followed her into the kitchen and while she put on the coffee he leaned his hip against the tall kitchen stool, one booted foot hooked on the bottom rail of the stool, the other leg stretched out be-fore him. He watched her closely, wondering how she could look so unruffled even though it was plain he'd gotten her out of bed. Except for the thick pale tangle of her hair, she was as remote as an alabaster statue, cool and lovely to look at but not inviting to the touch.

"I want you," he said suddenly, startling her, and her eyes widened.

"I'd planned to have you," he continued, gauging every nu-ance of her expression, noting her reactions. "Last night didn't get out of hand; I'd intended to have you from the mo-ment I hustled you out of that party. I was going to take you, then forget about you. But it didn't work that way," he said softly.

Sarah stared at the coffee maker as if the slow drip of the coffee into the glass pot fascinated her. "I'd say that every-thing went according to plan," she forced herself to say lightly. "I don't have anything to compare it to, but it seems to me now that as far as seductions go it was highly successful. I didn't even think of saying no."

"That's when things started to go wrong. You were a virgin, and I couldn't forget about you. I jeopardized you by my lack of control – "

Sarah's head jerked up, as the thought of pregnancy oc-curred to her for the first time. She stared at him for a long mo-ment, counting in her head, then relaxed against the cabinet. "I should be safe from that," she muttered. "It's the wrong time."

"Thank God," he sighed, closing his eyes. "I couldn't have stood that. I have enough on my conscience as it is."

"I'm an adult," she pointed out briskly, thrusting alarm away from her. "You don't have to feel responsible for me."

"I know I don't have to, but I do. Diane loved you," he said, staring at her intently. "She'd have done away with any-one who hurt you, and now I've done my best to hurt you. She'd want…she'd want me to take care of you," He drew in a deep shuddering breath, his eyes glittering, his entire body taut with stress.

"Sarah, will you marry me?"

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