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Уильямс Кэтти

Bittersweet Love

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LATER that evening, as Natalie dressed for her evening out, she couldn’t help thinking with bewildered frustration that the cycle of emotions which she had sworn would be harnessed had managed quite successfully to survive Kane’s six-month absence, and was now rearing its ugly head once again. Like a beast that had tempor-arily hibernated, but was already wakening, slowly stretching and testing the water.

She carefully applied her eye-shadow and glared at the reflection staring back at her. What was the good of even thinking about the wretched man? It had seemed so easy, when he wasn’t around, to let thoughts of him slide to the background. He had been a constant back-ground presence which she could handle without too much difficulty.

Now, in the space of just one day, he had filled the office with his overpowering personality and all her well-controlled thoughts had been shot to hell.

Great company I’m going to be tonight, she thought with a grimace. A regular barrel of laughs.

She had arranged to meet her friend Claire and Claire’s brother at a restaurant near Covent Garden, a new place which specialised in Swiss food. Personally, she couldn’t think what food the Swiss had to call their own, but she was game.

She had known Claire since she was a teenager and the company would be good. Eric, from what she vaguely remembered when she had last met him years ago, was good fun, and after the tension of today it would probably be just what the doctor ordered.

They were waiting for her when she arrived at the restaurant one hour later.

Natalie looked around her briefly, scanning the place with interest. It was small, tastefully decorated in cool creams and pinks, and had the eager atmosphere of somewhere very new and still keen to impress. Not that she could see much need for that, since the place was already quite busy, most of the tables taken with a se-lection of well-dressed women and their similiarly well-dressed counterparts. It was all very muted and in terribly good taste, but pleasing nevertheless. Natalie looked across to her friend and waved, hurrying across to their table.

Claire was a petite redhead, bubbly and vivacious, and her brother, whom Natalie recalled as work-shy and good-natured, had, she discovered with wry amusement, become a qualified accountant and was now deeply conservative.

‘I never thought I’d see you in a navy blue suit, Eric,’ she said with a smile, when Claire had excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. ‘In fact, I never thought I’d see you in a suit at all. What’s the world coming to when you can’t rely on people not to remain the same?’

They laughed and he parried with a few remarks of his own on how much she had changed, his eyes in-forming her that he appreciated the changes. He was comfortable company. Amusing, intelligent and undemanding. Natalie was in exactly the right mood for un-demanding company. It relaxed her and she felt as though she needed relaxing.

She was leaning forward, laughing at something he had said, when a familiar deep voice spoke from behind her.

‘What a surprise. I had no idea this sort of place was your cup of tea.’

Natalie swivelled around and watched in alarm as Kane moved around to face her. What on earth was he doing here? He wasn’t going to stay and chat, was he? She sincerely hoped not.

Her eyes slid across to his companion, a tall blonde with an amazing figure. Natalie recognised her instantly. She had been seeing Kane before he left for the Far East. From the way she was clinging to his arm, it was obvious that his six-month absence had done nothing to staunch her ardour. Her name was Anna, and in the past she had barely managed to mutter a few words to Natalie, never mind glance in her direction. Now, however, her emerald-green eyes were narrowed into slits.

‘Are you the same girl who worked for Kane?’ she asked, without the slightest hint of embarrassment. ‘Robin something? Or was it something Robin?’ She laughed but her eyes remained hard and assessing.

Natalie looked at her calmly. ‘Yes, I am.’

Anna threw her a look of stunned disbelief, and then issued a sharp smile to Claire, who was surveying the interchange with interest, and to Eric who was rather more embarrassed than interested.

‘Hasn’t she changed?’

‘Hasn’t she,’ Natalie replied drily, sparing her friends the necessity of trying to find a response to that one.

‘Natalie’s been on some kind of health kick in my absence,’ Kane interjected, his eyes resting on her face with the merest shadow of accusation. He looked across to Eric and raised one eyebrow imperceptibly, just enough for Natalie to realise what he was thinking. She ignored the questioning gleam in his eyes and plastered a blank smile on her face.

‘Has she?’ Anna exclaimed. She nestled against Kane possessively.

What does he see in them? Natalie asked herself with a sharp pang of jealousy. Stupid question. Their bodies of course.

Kane had all the mental stimulation he could handle at work. Every woman he had ever been out with, and there had been no shortage of them over the years, had been a physical work of art. Leggy, seductive. Everything I’m not, Natalie admitted with honesty. Even with my new improved shape and daring hairstyle I’ll never have that sort of feline, vampish grace that attracts him.

She gave Eric a warm smile, a subconscious desire to remind Kane and herself that he wasn’t the only man in the world, and he looked momentarily dazzled.

‘I’ve often wanted to go on a health kick,’ Anna was saying with a flirtatious smile that expertly managed to include both men and neither of the women. ‘Of course, I haven’t got the incentive that you had.’ She addressed her observation to Natalie. ‘ When you’re overweight it’ s so much more motivating to do that sort of thing, isn’t it?’

‘Isn’t it?’ Natalie agreed politely. She gave Kane a look that said, Is this the best you could come up with for a date? and his lips thinned.

‘Shall we go to our table, darling?’ he murmured to Anna, and she gave a throaty laugh of assent.

Natalie watched as they walked across to a table in the far corner of the room. The best table, naturally. Kane had only to show himself at a restaurant and the waiters would appear from nowhere, madly dashing around him, as if sensing his unspoken authority and responding to it.

When she had first joined the company, Natalie had been impressed by this reaction. Now it irritated her. He was just a man, after all. Couldn’t they see that? If the rest of the world treated Kane like a normal human being, instead of a demigod, then he might just get it into that head of his that he wasn’t a cut above everyone else. Not that he ever intimated as much, but that easy self-confidence and lazy assurance spoke volumes.

Across the room she could see him looking absolutely absorbed in whatever Anna was saying. Maybe they were planning what they would get up to after their three-course meal was out of the way. After all, Natalie thought acidly, they had some catching up to do, and she doubted very much of it involved conversation.

For the remainder of the evening, she found her attention drifting off towards Kane and Anna, speculating on all sorts of things, compulsively reading Anna’s body language as she leaned towards Kane, giving him a bird’s-eye view of the shadowy valley between her breasts, and twirling the long stem of her wine glass.

It was a relief when they rose to leave, Kane nodding briefly in her direction as he ushered Anna towards the door, with the usual subservient head waiter in attendance, like a fussy mother hen.

‘Good-looking man, your boss,’ Claire said, following Natalie’s eyes.

‘I suppose so.’ She shrugged and concentrated on her cup of coffee and the tempting little dish of petits fours which she was having trouble resisting.

‘Was that his wife?’

‘Wife?’ Natalie snorted expressively. ‘I think he considers marriage as one of those odd things that other people get up to in their spare time.’

‘And you don’t?’ Eric asked softly, his pale blue eyes looking at her curiously.

Natalie flushed and didn’t say anything.

‘I think marriage is terribly important,’ he continued in the same speculative voice, ‘but without the emotion involved. A business agreement, so to speak.’

Natalie looked at him, surprised, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Claire shake her head, warning her off the inevitable response.

Later, as she was about to step into the taxi to go home, Eric pulled her to one side and asked in an undertone how she felt about seeing him again.

‘It seems a shame to vanish out of each other’s lives for another six years,’ he said with a little laugh, and she agreed.

‘I’d love to see you again,’ she responded warmly, ‘just so long as we get one thing straight. No emotional ties, no involvement.’

Eric nodded. ‘Same here,’ he muttered with heartfelt intensity.

She gave him her phone number, rattling it off in a rush as the taxi driver eyed her with ill-concealed impatience, barely concerned whether he got in touch with her again or not. People, she noticed, had a habit of making showy gestures which rarely got followed up. Anyway, however nice Eric was, he could only end up being a complication in her life, and the less of those she had, the better.

She promptly relegated the entire incident to the back of her mind and forgot about it. That was the one thing to be said for working for Kane Marshall. It was impossible to concentrate on anything else when he was around. He was a sure-fire cure for most problems, be-cause the minute she stepped foot into the office she immediately forgot about them all.

He was already there when she arrived there the following morning. He had loosened his tie and the sleeves of his white silk shirt were rolled to the elbows.

He looked as though he had been hard at it for hours, even though it was still only eight-thirty in the morning.

‘Good morning,’ Natalie said, hanging up her light-weight jacket and automatically pouring them both a cup of coffee. Her huge grey eyes were level and serene, but inside her head a thousand thoughts were seething. Where had he and Anna gone after the restaurant? Had they made love? The thought pierced through her and she firmly pursed her lips together just in case some unwary moan escaped.

All these years, watching him from the sidelines, knowing that he slept with those women he dated, hating the thought of it. Was this her destiny? To live in his shadow, in the constant grip of jealous passion? She hated the thought of it and she hated herself for being caught in that trap like a fish in a net—seeing the freedom of open water, but powerless to reach it. She knew that it was this that made her terse with him, despite the fact that she wanted to at least appear nonchalant and relaxed.

She handed him his cup and he absent-mindedly grunted, not looking up at her.

‘What the hell has been going on with this contract for Tony Harding?’ he shot out, as she was preparing to leave the room and head for the quiet sanctuary of her own office. He looked at her, his eyes flicking over her quickly, then returning back to her face. Natalie suffered the casual appraisal as equably as she could. Kane Marshall appraised all women. It was part of his nature. It did not signify any personal appreciation. Still, there was something fleeting but worrying in those eyes as they ran over body, something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She lowered her eyes, confused, not prepared to dwell on it.

‘He’s halted it until some contractual queries are sorted out,’ Natalie replied smoothly, knowing immediately what he was talking about. ‘He’s been asking for copies of some minor variations to be made, but we have been a bit long in getting back to him.’


Natalie shrugged. ‘You’ll have to speak to Roseanne and Mr Douglas; they’ve been handling it in your absence.’

‘Or not, as the case may be.’ He sat back and looked at her rather longer this time, his eyes narrowed and calculating. ‘Why didn’t you take over?’

‘I would have needed your say-so,’ Natalie said promptly.

He loosened his tie a notch further and she found her eyes helplessly drifting towards the dark hairs just discernible on his chest. She impatiently pulled herself together and produced a businesslike expression on her face.

‘How would you like to handle some of the smaller accounts? From beginning to end? See them all the way through? The more sensitive ones, like Tony Harding.’ He threw her a wry smile. ‘I haven’t got time for them all.’

‘Haven’t you?’ Natalie remarked innocently. ‘You do surprise me.’

‘Sarcasm, Natalie?’ He raised one eyebrow. ‘Some bosses wouldn’t stand for that, you know.’

Something in his voice suddenly confused her. Was he flirting? No. Her imagination. She relaxed and re-turned his teasing smile with a mocking one of her own.

‘How lucky I am to have you for a boss, then,’ she gushed, enjoying their rapport. ‘Perhaps I ought to be paying you for the privilege instead of the other way around.’

‘Seriously, Natalie. What do you think? Do you like the sound of my idea? It would be a promotion, and of course there would be a pay rise. I might even see my way to throwing in a company car as well.’

The offer had caught her by surprise. She looked at him levelly and saw that he was waiting for her response.

‘Can I let you have my answer tomorrow?’ she asked. Instead of the ready assent which she had expected, he frowned heavily and began fiddling with the fountain pen on his desk, tapping it on one of the files; then he gave an impatient sigh.

‘Is that really necessary?’ he snapped. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that you would have needed time to consider my proposition. In fact, most people would have jumped at it.’

Natalie stared at him, surprised. Was she being dense here? Was she missing something? She had thought her request the most natural thing in the world, but from his reaction anyone would have thought that she had asked for the impossible. What was going on here?

He stood up and prowled across to the large window behind his desk and stared down at the street below, his back to her, then he swung back around to face her, half perched on the window-sill, his arms folded across his chest.

‘I’m only asking for one night to think it over,’ Natalie informed him, still bemused.

‘Why? Do you need to consult someone? Can’t you make your mind up on your own?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You heard me. I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime, with a pay rise to match—’ he threw her a figure that made her inwardly gasp, then continued in the same flat, hard voice ‘—and you’re not sure whether you want to accept it or not? Don’t you think Eric will approve?’

Natalie’s eyes widened. What was he on about now? Then the realisation dawned. Of course. He had seen them together, albeit in the company of someone else, someone who didn’t count since she was Eric’s sister and had been introduced to him as such, and had jumped to the wrong conclusion. He still thought that she had done something with herself because of a man. He couldn’t understand the concept of a woman making the most of herself for herself.

Workwise he depended on her. This was his attempt to redefine his authority over her. Give her a promotion, make sure that she’s not going anywhere, and life can carry on as normal.

Natalie stared at him with frozen politeness. It was on the tip of her tongue to inform him that Eric had nothing whatsoever to do with her request, then she thought, Why should I?

‘Why should he disapprove?’ she asked blandly.

He didn’t care for that response. He preferred her to be uninvolved with a man. That was how she had been for the past five years and he had grown accustomed to it. She had always been able to fall in with his hours, his breakfast meetings, his weekend work at short notice.

He frowned but didn’t reply and she said on a sigh, ‘Look, if it means that much to you to have my answer now, then I accept.’

He relaxed visibly. ‘Personnel will fix up the new contract.’

‘I’ll pop along there this afternoon,’ Natalie promised. Sometimes there was something boyishly transparent about him. He moved back to his desk, but instead of resuming work he continued to stare at her until Natalie flushed awkwardly.

‘Shall I get along to my desk?’ she volunteered. ‘I might as well start sorting out my workload.’

He ignored her remark completely. ‘So I was right after all. Eric is the man in your life.’

Natalie shot him an impatient look and wondered whether she could get away with telling him that she had better things to do than stay in his office and discuss some non-existent boyfriend. Then she decided that her promotion really was too good to toss out of the-window in a fit of bravado. He might have given her the job for all the wrong reasons, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a damn good job and she had no intention of jeopardising it.

‘If you say so,’ she said, glancing at her watch.

‘What do you mean “If I say so”? Is he or isn’t he?’

‘I wouldn’t have thought that that was any of your business,’ she said, restraining the urge to snap. Her feet were beginning to ache from standing up. She wanted to get back to her desk, but she knew well enough that that was impossible. Nothing incurred Kane’s wrath more easily than leaving before he was ready for you to leave.

‘He looks as dull as dishwater,’ he said with an oblique glance in her direction, and Natalie bristled.

‘Does he now?’ she queried softly, angry on Eric’s behalf even though she was not involved with him at all. What gave Kane Marshall the right to make snap judge-ments on anyone’s personality anyway? It was hardly as though he was as unblemished as the driven snow.

‘No need to get into a flap about it,’ Kane said with infuriating calm. ‘It was merely an observation.’

‘I am not in a flap,’ Natalie said stiffly, feeling very much like someone in a flap and wondering why. ‘And since it’s a free country you can make any number of observations that you like.’

He grinned at her and she glared back at him. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that he was your type at all, though,’ he murmured, pursuing his line of thought with utter disregard for her tightened lips and glacial expression. ‘Mind you, he does have a certain secure look, and women seem to yearn after security, for some peculiar reason.’

He lowered his eyes, the long, dark lashes drooping against his cheek and Natalie stared at him in frustration. He was deliberately provoking her and, like it or not, here she was, responding. Couldn’t she do better than this, for heaven’s sake?

‘I don’t yearn for security,’ Natalie informed him. ‘So much for your generalisations.’

‘Don’t you?’ There was a mixture of curiosity and interest in his eyes when he looked up at her. ‘You must be the exception to the rule in that case.’

‘Or else you’re completely off course in your sweeping comments about the female sex.’ She smiled sweetly, feeling her composure return with reassuring speed, ‘But no. I don’t suppose you could be wrong. That would be unthinkable.’

He laughed at that, his eyes warm with appreciation for her verbal barb, and she had to force herself not to respond to him. And he talked about women wanting security? she thought. She certainly hadn’t been lying when she told him that that was the furthest thing from her mind. Oh, no. Nothing as simple as a desire for security for her. Why settle for the easy course when she could waste her life secretly craving this sexy, arrogant, brilliant man sitting in front of her?

He glanced down at the file open in front of him, his hand on the telephone, and she knew that already his mind was back on work, after its short interlude wreaking havoc with her thoughts.

‘Do you need any help with the transferral of ac-counts to you?’ he asked, confirming her thoughts.

Natalie frowned. ‘If you give me a list of the ones you want me to take over, I’ll have a look at them this afternoon. I should be all right, but you might need to fill me in on any peculiarities with any of them.’

He nodded briefly. ‘Tonight,’ he said bluntly, already dialling his number. ‘I take it you’re no longer averse to overtime?’

‘I never was,’ Natalie said ambiguously.

‘Fine.’ He gave her a curt nod, his hand over the receiver. ‘My place. Seven sharp. I’ll get O’Leary to do something to eat.’

Natalie’s mouth dropped open in dismay. This was not her idea of agreeable overtime one little bit. True, she had been to his flat before to work, usually in the presence of other people when she was used mainly to take the minutes and attend to practicalities. But it had always made her feel uneasy.

Poring over files with no one else around, apart from O’Leary, his manservant-cum-general housekeeper, who was as deaf as post and generally retired to his quarters to watch television as soon as he feasibly could anyway, was not her idea of a fun night out

‘But…’ Natalie began in protestation, but he was already talking down the line, waving her away.

It wasn’t until she was almost ready to leave for home that she next got the opportunity to try and wheedle out of the nightmarish scenario, but Kane was having none of it.

‘Three of the files are at my place. The most complicated three, in fact.’ His eyes narrowed suspiciously on her. ‘Not trying to tell me that you can’t work a bit of overtime, are you? Because I needn’t tell you that this promotion will entail a fair amount of it. I won’t allow clock-watching.’

‘Of course I understand,’ Natalie said hastily, following him with her eyes as he prepared to leave for yet another meeting, this time with one of his financial directors.

‘Good,’ he said smoothly. ‘In that case, there’s no problem, is there?’

‘No problem,’ she agreed with vast understatement.

She got home with barely enough time to have a bath before she rushed back out. The phone was ringing as she stepped out of the bath, and for one fleeting moment of heady optimism she thought that it might be Kane cancelling his engagement.

No such luck. It took her a second or two before she recognised Eric’s voice, then she remembered that she had given him her telephone number, had agreed that they mustn’t lose touch. She rubbed herself dry, wandering around the bedroom with the receiver tucked behind one ear, awkwardly getting dressed in a pair of jeans and a thin cotton top with buttons down the front.

In her left ear, Eric chatted to her enthusiastically until she gently interrupted to tell him that she was going out and would have to say goodbye. She knew that he was going to arrange to see her; after all, hadn’t she given him every encouragement despite her ‘hands off warning? Even so, when he asked her to dinner later on in the week, she felt herself hesitate slightly.

Was it wise? Could she trust him? What if he wanted involvement, even though he had emphatically stated that it was the last thing on his mind?

Then she thought of Kane, the chiselled beauty of his features, the trail of women who flocked behind him, and on the spur of the moment she agreed with Eric that yes, dinner and the theatre would be wonderful.

‘I’m afraid it’ll have to be an early start,’ he said. ‘Can I meet you at your workplace? Say around six?’

It’ll do me good, she thought, catching a taxi to Kane’s flat in St John’s Wood. She wasn’t about to fall into the same old rut of all work and no play, promotion or no promotion. And Kane already knew of Eric’s presence in her life. She would not have to explain anything further to him.

It was raining steadily outside and she let her thoughts drift as the taxi wound its way along Finchley Road, taking ages because the traffic was appalling. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in the country? she thought. No traffic, no pollution, just wide open spaces. She had grown up in the country and although it was years since she had last lived there she still hankered for the peace and quiet.

Whenever she visited her sister in her delightful little house in Tamworth-in-Arden in the Midlands, she felt the same yen to pack in everything, Kane Marshall included, and do something really useful like become self-sufficient somewhere terribly rural.

Of course she wouldn’t.

‘You’d collapse from sheer boredom after a week,’ her sister always told her, whenever her thoughts became a little too fanciful. ‘London’s in your blood now. You’ll probably end up having to wean yourself out of it. Richmond first, then maybe Windsor, then the vegetable plot in the wilderness.’

But then vegetable plots in the middle of nowhere didn’t include Kane, did they? Dammit, she thought, don’t think like that! You’re in the process of trying to exorcise him, or have you forgotten? Thinking along those lines isn’t going to speed it up, is it?

She had to cover her head with her handbag when the taxi set her down outside Kane’s flat. The steady drum of rain had become more of a downpour and she arrived on his doorstep soaking wet. O’Leary opened the door for her and she shouted by way of apology for removing her shoes in the hall.

‘It’ s pouring outside! Don’t want to bring my mud into the lounge!’

O’Leary took her jacket and said, shaking his head, ‘Raining outside, is it?’

Obviously not wearing his hearing aid tonight, Natalie thought, her lips twitching. Most people would be mystified as to why Kane kept him on, but it didn’t puzzle Natalie at all. Kane could be surprisingly indulgent in some areas and this was one of them. O’Leary had been with his family for years and when his parents retired to the South of France he had inherited the old man without question.

‘Master Kane’s in the lounge,’ O’Leary was telling her, preceding her through the hall. ‘Work, work, work—don’t you young people ever know when to stop?’

Natalie knew better than to answer. Answering O’Leary without his hearing aid was an exercise in torture, so she clucked a bit and glanced around her. It really was a magnificent flat. It never ceased to impress her. The carpets were deep and in a soft, minty green colour, the walls, split by a dado rail in the middle, gave back the hues of green, but were mixed with creams and peaches as well, and were scattered with paintings, most of them impressionistic and all of them originals. Strange to think that someone as bold and self-assertive—in fact downright persuasive—as Kane Marshall could actually live in surroundings as restful as these.

O’Leary showed her into the lounge, yelling at Kane that the meal would be ready in half an hour sharp and could he please be prompt because there was a detective show on television that he wanted to watch.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Kane muttered, when O’Leary had departed, ‘why on earth do I keep on that old duffer?’ He turned towards the drinks cabinet and poured himself a gin and tonic for himself and a vodka and orange for her.

‘Because it would break your heart to see him go.’ Natalie accepted her drink, even though she would have preferred something non-alcoholic, and sipped from it tentatively.

‘I must be mad,’ he grumbled under his breath. ‘I should have sent him packing off to the South of France with my parents.’

The files had been dumped on the marble coffee-table in front of the fireplace, and Natalie sauntered across to them, picking one up and rifling through it.

The sooner they got down to business, the sooner she would be on her way home. She was about to tactfully lever the conversation around to one of the accounts when she heard a silky voice from the doorway and looked up to see Anna standing there, barefoot, her blonde hair loose and trailing down her back in a mass of tendrils. The other woman was staring at her with open malice. ‘Now I see why you cancelled our dinner date this evening,’ she said with a freezing smile, stepping into the lounge and moving gracefully over to the sofa. She slipped into a pair of flat gold ballet shoes and turned towards Kane. ‘Or maybe I don’t.’ A flick of a glance in Natalie’s direction. ‘If you’ve decided to supplant me with her, then your taste has certainly gone downhill.’

‘This is work, Anna. Not that I have to justify cancelling a dinner date to you. So get your claws back in and wait for the taxi in silence like a good little girl.’ Kane looked at Anna with a mixture of boredom and amusement.

‘It’s so passé to sleep with your secretary!’ There was a hint of tears in her voice and Natalie checked the vigour of her retort back.

Kane glanced across at her, amused, and Natalie glared back with impotent fury. ‘I am not sleeping with Mr Marshall,’ she said tightly. ‘I’m here to work, and in fact if it would ease things over I don’t mind going right back home. Not one little bit.’

She bent to retrieve her handbag and Kane snapped, ‘Stay put. Anna is the one who will be leaving.’

‘I was looking forward to some time together,’ Anna said in a smaller voice, and Natalie almost felt sorry for the other woman.

Kane shrugged. ‘Work first, all else later.’

Anna bit her lower lip and threw Natalie a venomous look, then she said to Kane with a trembling smile, ‘Darling, I forgot my bag upstairs. In your bedroom. Would you mind fetching it for me, please?’

He clicked his tongue impatiently, but left the room, and as soon as he was out Anna turned to Natalie. The trembling lip had gone, as had the broken, tearful voice.

‘I might have guessed,’ she said. ‘You. Little Miss Background goes to grooming school and then thinks that she can steal my man. Well, you’re in for a shock if that’s what you’re up to.’


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