PROLOGUE


I listen for your voice on the sound of the wind
But all I hear is the heartbreaking note of her laughter
I listen for your breathing as you sleep next to me
But all I hear is the ruin of my happy ever after.

My pencil scratched across the surface of the paper as I tried to capture the lyrics that had come to me while I’d slept. I’d woken up five minutes before and for the first few seconds had struggled to figure where I was. Eventually the stark white sheets, the smell of the stale air-conditioned air, and the bland, nondescript decor brought it all back. And that’s when it hit me all over again—my marriage was over and I had another fucking hangover to contend with. And that warm body across the bed, tangled up in those wrinkled white sheets? I didn’t have the first clue who he was and, to be honest, I didn’t really care. Not that it mattered, since I wouldn’t be seeing him again after this morning anyhow.

Even though my behavior was dangerous and could get me into real trouble, I couldn’t seem to stop. Why should I? If word got out how I spent my nights, no one would be surprised. After all, it’s what everyone already believed. So what if I’d been the only one who’d been faithful to my marriage? So what if Crawford Madigan, the man who I thought had been the love of my goddamn life, had been having an affair with his co-star the entire time we’d been married? So what that his new fiancé had cheated on her husband too and now those two fucking hypocrites were on the cover of every shitty celebrity magazine that existed proclaiming their undying love?

None of it mattered because the world knew what they knew and that was that. And since I’d signed a stupid fucking prenup that prevented me from ever discussing the dissolution of my marriage, I’d decided to live up to their expectations. I’d been surprised to discover I was actually good at it too. That was, assuming, having sex with random strangers and drinking my way across America could be considered good. But since it was the only thing I seemed to excel at lately, I kept on doing it.

At first these nights had filled the void, but now I was just numb.

When I stood under the blazing lights of the stage and belted out my hits, I was somehow able to pull myself together and give the fans a show worthy of the hundred dollars they’d spent to be there. But the second my encore was over I went back to nursing my broken heart the best way I knew how: through alcohol and sex. Every night a different city, a different bed. Sometimes I slept alone, but mostly I found someone to keep me company. It wasn’t hard to find a man willing to fuck the woman who, up until a few short months ago, had been America’s sweetheart. It wasn’t vanity that made me say that, but rather experience. Because when a woman sauntered up to a drunk, horny man and said, “I’m leaving in 10 minutes and I want you to go with me,” not many refused.

Including the man in my bed right now. At least he’d been worth the effort, which wasn’t always the case. Actually, that wasn’t usually the case. You’d think night after night of mediocre sex would have put me off this path long ago, but even when the sex was disappointing, at least I felt something.

I sighed and ran a hand through my tangled hair. The chorus had been so clear in my head in those hazy moments just before I woke, but the longer I sat here, the further away the words floated.

I try to recall the moment we … met (?)
And the beautiful words you once spoke to me
But all I can remember is the moment you said
That some things just weren’t meant to be. [Not strong enough.]
I dream of the time

With a groan of frustration, I dropped the pencil onto the bedside table, stood, and stretched. As my spine popped and settled, the bed springs whined and the stranger stirred.

“Good morning,” came his gravelly rasp.

I turned to face the man who’d been inside of me only a few hours ago and tried to feel guilty. Guilty for what I’d done, and for what I was about to do. I watched as his eyes came to life and a satisfied smirk crossed his lips. Lips that were quite nice—full, with a cupid’s bow that shouldn’t work on a man yet somehow worked perfectly on this one. He was handsome and rugged and different than the type of guy I usually hooked up with. I remembered asking him what he’d been doing in that dark and dingy bar because he hadn’t looked like he belonged. Hadn’t looked like he was running from himself or trying to escape his memories.

As I took him in, I tried to tell myself he was different than the others. With them I’d felt a small spark inside of me, but with him, I’d felt an explosion of life. When I’d come that first time, I thought maybe things weren’t so bad after all. That maybe, just maybe, he could bring me back to life. But that had been last night, and I’d been drunk, and now, in the harsh light of day, I could see that I’d been fooling myself. He wasn’t any more special than any of the others. He wasn’t the guy who’d make me stop doing this. He wasn’t my last one-night-stand. I didn’t feel anything when I looked at him now.

Like I said, I was numb.

“I’m hopping in the shower. I expect you to be gone by the time I get out.”

“You not a morning person or something?” he asked, not quite getting that our time together was over. I watched as he scratched his beard and when realization dawned, his flirty smirk faded and his eyes dimmed. “You’re fucking serious, aren’t you?”

“As a heart attack,” I confirmed and tossed him his shirt.

He caught it and slid out from beneath the sheets. Unabashedly, he turned to face me, his naked body on full display. Unable to stop it from happening, my eyes roved over every ridge and plane of his chiseled abdomen and then lower … down, down, down until landing on a stiff, thick cock standing at attention.

I might have licked my lips.

“That’s not the look of someone who’s had her fill,” he remarked with a cocky twang I couldn’t place.

You’d think with all the crisscrossing of the country I’d done, I might be able to place it, but I’d never been good with regional dialects. I could tell he was from the south, but it could have been anywhere.

I raised my eyes and when they met his, they were flinty. Hard. Angry.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, my voice steady, “but last night is all there is.” I shrugged. “I thought I made it clear that I’m a one-and-done type of girl. But even if I wasn’t, I have to get to work so it was nice meeting you. Take care.”

The first time I’d given this speech my voice had cracked and my hands had shaken. Now, I could recite these words without feeling anything. And besides, it wasn’t like I didn’t make it clear what this was, what it wouldn’t ever be. I tried to recall if I’d given him my regular spiel on the cab ride back to the hotel but all I found was a blank space where my memory should have been. Shit, that meant I’d drank more than I usually did.

He tilted his head and eyed me critically. There was a time I would have shifted uncomfortably under his probing gaze, but no longer. Since I couldn’t bring myself to care what my closest friends and family thought of me these days, the judgement of a complete stranger meant absolutely nothing. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t move. Part of my brain was screaming at me to move to the shower so I could get to the next town, the next handsome stranger, but the other part urged me to stand still, to find out what he saw when he looked at me like that, like I was a puzzle he needed to solve. Did he see a woman as empty as she felt? Did he see the shell of my former self? Did he know I hated my life but was too chicken shit to actually end it? 

“You’re fucked up. You know that, right?”

Well, that answered my questions. He saw exactly the same thing I did when I looked in the mirror each morning.

“Yes, I do know that,” I told him. “Which is why you need to put your clothes on and leave …” I struggled to remember his name but nothing came to mind. The rest of my sentence hung heavy between us.

He scoffed and rubbed his free hand over his beard. “You can’t even remember my name, can you?”

This was the part where I should blush, where I should feel embarrassed and ashamed. My grandmother would die of mortification if she knew I couldn’t remember his name. Actually, no. Not knowing his name would be the least of her worries. The fact that he was probably the tenth guy this month just like him would do her in first.

“I don’t need to know your name,” I answered, my chin raised defiantly high, “because the second you walk out that door, I’m going to forget all about you. If you came here last night looking for something more, I’m sorry, but I’m not that girl.”

Before I’d even finished my sentence, the man’s head was through the neck of his shirt and he was stabbing his legs into well-worn denim. Standing to his full height, he shook his head solemnly and made his way around the bed to stand in front of me. Then, with the same sort of confidence he exhibited in the way he fucked, he laid his large, calloused palm on my shoulder and bent his knees so our eyes met. “I don’t know your story, but I hope you find what you’re looking for.” When he stepped away his hand slid from my skin, raising goosebumps in its wake.

Walking backward, one step after another, he kept going but never broke eye contact. When his back hit the door, he held my gaze for several long seconds, his eyes flicking between mine, searching. For what, I couldn’t say. The truth? An olive branch? The real me?

Suddenly I wanted to tell him … everything. I wanted to explain how my life was one big lie and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wanted to tell him that the only time I felt something was when I came and that’s why I’d brought him back here last night. I wanted to explain how everything had fallen apart and that I didn’t know how much longer I could go on this way because every day a piece of me died just a little bit more. I wanted to tell him not to go, to stay and I’d tell him my whole story. Instead I said, “I’m not looking for anything.”

“Right,” came his skeptical response. All at once, he turned and opened the door. Stepping over the threshold, he glanced over his shoulder one last time. “My name is Ash,” he told me before leaving me standing alone in another hotel room, on another gray morning.

“Ash,” I repeated on a whisper, the word a hot, black cinder on my tongue.

Needing to chase away the taste of it, I poured two fingers of Jack into a glass and threw it back, the cheap liquor burning my throat. It didn’t matter. His name was what I’d become.

Forgoing decorum, I brought the bottle to my lips and chugged as I climbed back under the sheets. Sheets that smelled like sex and my perfume. Perfume, I realized, I’d been wearing since Ford had given me a bottle of it for the first birthday we’d spent together.

I grabbed the pad and pencil I’d abandoned earlier and drank down another huge swallow of whiskey before I started scribbling again. 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
I hate to leave you, but now I must.
Your love was my savior,
And then my undoing.
I thought I could survive you,
But who was I kidding?

I didn’t know what time I eventually passed out, but when I came to, it was dark outside and I had 20 missed calls on my phone.

Just another Saturday night.

CHAPTER ONE

Two Years Later

My hands shook as I re-read the letter that’d come in today’s mail. I’d received hate mail before, but this was something entirely different. This one actually scared me.

While my latest album had achieved critical acclaim, public reception had been mixed. My fans, those who’d been with me since the very beginning and had stood by my side during my divorce from Ford, loved how open and honest my lyrics had been and had helped the record go platinum. Meanwhile, his and Belinda’s fans had been less than impressed—to put it mildly. Despite my never singing a word about them on the album or publicly commenting on the dissolution of my relationship with him, their acolytes ripped apart each and every line of my music looking for hidden meaning and assigning malice to my words.

At first, my record label’s PR team had provided weekly updates about what was being said about the record, but eventually my manager Rocky asked them to stop. No matter what else had changed in my life, I was still a glutton for punishment and if I knew he was receiving the updates, I’d ask to see them. Rocky hadn’t said so, but I got the impression he thought their comments might have me reaching for a bottle again, even though I’d been sober for 18 months.

Eighteen long months without a drop of my favorite liquid.

So yes, I knew there were online “Crawshinda” communities devoted almost entirely to creating collages of my face with my eyes blacked out and the word “whore” written across my forehead. I also knew there were fans who’d held CD burning parties the night of my latest release. Personally, I didn’t care what they did with my CDs, as long as they’d paid for them first. Sometimes I wondered if the label wasn’t secretly thrilled with all the hate the album had incited because it meant I was still front page news and the head of promotions was a man who firmly believed there was no such thing as bad press.

But this? This went way beyond that.

“You’re white as a sheet,” my assistant Charlotte remarked when she entered the room carrying a steaming mug of chamomile tea and a plate of cookies.

She sat down across from me and passed me the plate as I handed her the letter. Her eyes scanned the first few lines before her jaw dropped and her eyes went wide. “What the …”

“Exactly.”

“You have to call the police, Rae,” she implored, dropping the vicious mail to her side. “This is serious.”

That was the understatement of the year.

With teary eyes, I stared at one of my best friend’s in the entire world. One of my only friends, to be exact, but that didn’t diminish her importance in my life.

“I can’t …” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know that I can keep my composure when I explain it. Can you do it for me?”

Charlotte folded the letter and reached for the envelope it’d come in. Shoving the contents inside, she folded everything in half and stuck it in the back pocket of her jeans. “Tell you what, let’s go see Rocky and we’ll do it together.” She pushed out of her chair back and stood. “We can’t stay here anymore—it’s obviously not safe—so let’s go pack what you need for the next couple of days and we’ll figure out what comes next.”

I nodded and tried to tamp down the fear that was practically choking me. I was pretty immune when it came to the slurs and once I’d gone to rehab, I’d gotten pretty good at coping with my triggers, but knowing that someone had been lurking outside my house—my sanctuary—watching me, taking pictures of me in my pajamas as I crawled into bed at night made the darkness come roaring back. I’d mistakenly thought buying a gated estate on 20 wooded acres in the middle of nowhere would keep me safe from prying eyes, but clearly I’d been wrong.

I placed my hand in Charlotte’s and a wave of nausea rolled through me as my adrenaline spiked. I was able to recognize now it was my fight or flight response kicking in and employed some of the coping mechanisms I’d been taught in rehab to steady my breathing before my body turned on itself and I passed out.

Charlotte squeezed back and spoke in calm, dulcet tones. “You’re going to be okay, Rae. I promise. We won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

I smiled back wanly. “I know,” I replied.

The truth was, I knew she’d try to prevent anything bad from happening to me—that she and Rocky would work their asses off to protect me from whoever was stalking me—but that wasn’t the only scary thing out there. As much as this person had infiltrated my life, they’d also opened the door to my demons … and I’d learned this past year the only person who could truly protect me from those was me. Sure, she and Rocky could call the police and set up a watch on my house, but they couldn’t force me not to drink. And right now, I really wanted a taste of whiskey.

The need must have shown on my face because she asked, “Do you want to call Monty?”

Monty was my sponsor and one of the few people who knew just how bleak things had gotten before Charlotte and Rocky forced my ass into rehab after finding me face down in a pool of my own vomit while two men were tangled up in each other in my bed down the hall. There’d been needles on the nightstand and I hadn’t been able to remember if I’d shot up with them. It had taken a blood test at the hospital to confirm the only thing in my system was copious amounts of booze. That day had kicked off several additional blood tests over the coming weeks and months to ensure I hadn’t picked up some disease—sexual or otherwise—during my long spiral downward.  

I shivered as I recalled the doctor explaining how the tests worked and the waiting game that followed as Charlotte led me to my bedroom.

When I was perched on the edge of the bed, Charlotte ran back into the other room to grab my phone and when she came back, it was already ringing on the other end. As I waited for Monty to pick up, Charlotte pulled out two suitcases and began throwing clothes haphazardly into the them. I watched, almost mesmerized by the whirlwind of her activity, as the call went to voicemail.

“Monty, it’s Rae. I could really use some whiskey right now.”

* * *

Three hours later, Charlotte, Rocky, and I sat around a conference room table in Rocky’s office while a plain clothes detective sat across from us explaining how the investigation would work. They’d taken ownership of the letter and were going to test it for traces of DNA to see if they could link it back to anyone who was already in the system. I didn’t have high hopes they’d find the culprit that way. I’d seen enough serial killer movies to know these sorts of people didn’t just slap their death threats willy-nilly onto sheets of plain white paper. I would have bet good money there’d been latex gloves and tweezers involved in its construction.

“And in the meantime,” Detective Staufferson continued, “I recommend hiring your own personal security. We’ll have teams stationed outside your house and this office, but having someone with you at all times until we catch the culprit wouldn’t be the worst idea.”

“Okaaaay,” I replied, the word coming slow and drawn out since I was overwhelmed by how quickly my well-ordered life had been thrown into chaos. Turning to Rocky, I asked, “Is that something you can handle? I know it’s not your job, but …”

“Don’t even worry about it,” he replied, his deep voice gruff. “I have a call set up this afternoon and will have someone lined up in the next 24 hours. I’m not leaving anything to chance so I’m using the same team that protected you in Brazil a few years back.”

I nodded, satisfied at Rocky’s answer. I hadn’t felt particularly vulnerable during my South American tour but there’d been some concern about my safety after an actor’s daughter had been abducted from his hotel room in Rio and held for ransom. The security detail Rocky had hired had been made up of ex-Special Forces and while the three men had been hard to ignore given their size, they’d fitted in seamlessly with my day-to-day activities. After the first couple of days I’d even forgotten they were there. Thankfully, there’d been no need for their presence whatsoever, but I couldn’t deny I’d felt safe knowing those three were watching my back.

Detective Staufferson rolled his chair away from the table. “Good. With that settled, I’m going to get back to the station to get our analysis started. If we find anything, we’ll be sure to let you know.” He turned serious eyes my way. “I know this is frightening for you Miss Griffin, but let me assure you, we are very good at our jobs and I am confident we’ll have your stalker in custody soon.”

“Thank you,” I whispered quietly, still shell-shocked by how my life had taken a turn over the last 24 hours.

Less than a day ago I was talking with the promotions division of my record label about a tour in support of my album and now I was in a meeting with the police, discussing the need for a personal body guard because some deranged fan of my ex-husband’s wanted me dead.

When the detective exited the room and the door snicked closed, I turned to Rocky. “Has someone reached out to Crawford?”

When his eyes sought Charlotte’s before mine, I knew I wasn’t going to like the answer. Flicking them back my way, he said, “We have. Or rather, we’ve contacted his manager.”

I sighed. Kurt Macintyre had hated me from the very first moment we’d met.

“Let me guess, he said this was my problem and I needed to deal with it like a big girl?”

Rocky shifted in his chair and dragged his eyes to the window that looked out over the valley below. “Not exactly,” he replied, crossing his hands over his belly. “Let’s just say he wasn’t helpful.”

I swiveled in my seat to face Charlotte. “Tell me what he said.”

“Does it really matter?”

I shot out of my chair. “Yes, it fucking matters! His client’s fans want me dead! I know Ford never loved me and fucking Kurt begged him not to marry that white trash singer—” I used my fingers to make air quotes “—but the least they could do is tell those lunatics to back the fuck off. I didn’t do anything wrong!” I screamed as tears flooded my eyes. Defeated, I sagged back into my chair and rolled away. “I never did anything wrong.” The words came out sad and tiny.

“Of course you didn’t,” Rocky crooned like he was talking to a wounded, frightened animal. “But what did you expect, Rae? Given everything Ford has put you through, did you honestly expect he’d help you now?”

And that was the saddest part. A small part of me had hoped the bastard would extend me this one tiny kindness. Lord knew he’d failed me in every other regard, but no one had ever wanted me dead before now. And it was all his fault. Before he’d gone on that damn talk show and announced he was divorcing me for “irreconcilable differences” while strongly hinting that I’d been unfaithful—something he was the one guilty of—his fans had loved me, been charmed by our love story, and had been thrilled when our wedding was plastered on the cover of People Magazine.

“No, of course not,” I acknowledged. “But it’s the least he could do, don’t you think?”

Charlotte scoffed. “No, the least he could do is tell the world he’s a lying piece of shit who did everything he accused you of and more, but we all know Crawford Madigan is a text book narcissist who doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as you, much less continue to be adored by millions.” Once Charlotte got on a roll about the injustice that was Crawford Madigan, there was no stopping her. “I still don’t know why you continue to honor that godforsaken prenup Kurt made you sign without Rocky or your lawyer seeing it first. It’s not like if they actually had the balls to sue, you couldn’t pay.”

Charlotte and I had had this argument countless times in the past, but sitting here now—worrying about my safety and knowing that Ford wasn’t going to lift a finger to help me—was the first time I’d truly considered her point of view. Now, I was willing to admit that maybe she was onto something.

At just 20 years old, I’d had stars in my eyes and thought Ford and I would grow old together, happily surrounded by a gaggle of grandchildren. I’d had no reason to think otherwise. And so yes, I’d naively signed a prenuptial agreement that stipulated everything Ford made during our marriage would remain his in the event of our divorce. That was fairly standard practice for any celebrity prenup, but what hadn’t been was him getting final say in what music I released and a “fat clause” that gave him $50,000 of my hard-earned cash for any excess weight I gained over 120 pounds. Since I was naturally small-boned and had a quick metabolism, that had never been a problem.

What had been was the one I’d inadvertently glossed over before signing on the dotted line: in the event of our divorce, I could never reveal what had transpired during the course of our marriage or else I’d have to pay him a one-time lump sum of $10 million. Obviously Kurt and Ford’s team of lawyers had known more about the state of my relationship than I had because the gag order now prevented me from ever revealing his drug use, plastic surgery, and cheating. It also meant he could say whatever he wanted to about me with absolutely no recourse, while I had ten million important reasons to keep quiet hanging around my neck.

“Ten million dollars is a lot of money,” I reminded Charlotte with a cynical laugh. Never in my life had I thought those words would cross my lips. I’d grown up dirt poor and the idea that I’d have one million dollars—let alone ten—to pay my way out of an untenable situation was preposterous. Shit, it was a miracle I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck like everyone else back in the small desert town I came from.

“You know I’ve always advocated for you taking the high road,” Rocky interjected, “but I’m with Charlotte. I thought things would get better once there was a new scandal for people to glom onto, but this is your life we’re talking about here.”

“It was my life we were talking about when I nearly killed myself with booze,” I reminded him, unable to keep the bitterness from seeping out.

“Yes,” he responded sadly. “I’ll never forgive myself for not seeing it sooner. Which is why I’m not going to sit back and let this happen now. I think it’s time for you to come out swinging, Ford and his ridiculous prenup be damned.”

I’d been cowering for so long, hunched in on myself trying to keep the hurt at bay, trying to shoulder the blame for everything that had gone wrong in my marriage, it was almost like I didn’t know how to stand up for myself anymore. I’d been scared for so long yhe idea of telling the world what had really happened was frightening.

You’ve gone through worse, my subconscious reminded. As if I needed reminding.

“What would that even look like?” I asked, letting the idea percolate. “Do I just give an interview to set the story straight?”

“That would be the first thing,” Rocky said, his voice growing animated as he slipped into manager mode and his mind whipped through all the ways we could turn this tale on its head. “The public loves a tell-all book and I’m sure I could get you a fat advance from one of the big New York publishing houses.” His enthusiasm waned, just a bit, before he continued. “Since there’s no way you can tour while this threat is still out there, if you’re up to it, I’d recommend getting back in the studio and recording your next album.”

“I don’t know,” I breathed, tense over the idea of sharing that much of myself with the world. I had five notebooks filled with lyrics I’d written over the course of my marriage, and 15 additional ones filled up in the two years since we’d been divorced. Even though I’d known none of what I’d written would ever see the light of day, I’d needed to get those feelings out of me as much as I’d needed air to breathe and food to live. Writing had always been my solace—both through the good times and the bad—and without it I didn’t know how I would have worked through the wild turn my life had taken after I’d been discovered. “You don’t think an interview would be enough to set the story straight?”

I was being naïve and everyone in the room knew it but Charlotte was the first one to say so. “Right. Because suddenly everyone is going to magically believe your side of the story when for years Ford has been creating his own narrative of who you are, what your marriage was like.”

“She’s right,” Rocky added. “The second you give that interview—and I’m thinking we go with Oprah here to give it some gravitas—his camp is going to issue a rebuttal and come back at you harder than ever. Ford knows you were in rehab but he’s miraculously kept quiet up until now. The second word gets back to him that you’ve shared your side of the story, he’ll concoct some lurid tale about how you drank during your marriage and he only kept it quiet because he thought that’s what you needed to get better. No matter what you say about his misdeeds, he’s going to turn them around on you. I swear the man studied Nazi propaganda with the way he plays to the press and his fans.”

Rocky wasn’t wrong. Everything Ford had publicly accused me of were things he’d done himself … and then some. The cheating, the late night parties, the out-of-control spending—that was textbook Crawford Madigan. If I hadn’t been sure Ford hadn’t read a book the entire time we’d been together—he’d once told me he didn’t like books because, and I quote, “They take too long to read”—I might have believed he’d studied Joseph Goebbels’ playbook.

That snake Kurt, though? I wouldn’t put it past him.

Shaking my head, I was once again filled with shame and regret. Why I hadn’t divorced Ford before he could destroy me remained one of the great mysteries of my life. The last three years of our marriage I’d known he wasn’t the man I’d thought he was when we’d gotten married, but love was a strange thing. It made you do things you never thought you’d do … like try to make someone love you when you knew they were incapable of it or stay in a marriage that was dead because you kept hoping you could somehow make it work.

“So if I’m just opening myself up to that, why do it?” I asked Charlotte and Rocky. I was warming to the idea, but I still wasn’t wholly convinced.

“Because it’s time you told your side of the story,” Charlotte said, slamming her palm onto the table. “You’ve kept quiet too long. You’re not the villain here, he is. It’s time he paid for what he’s done to you. His fans are sending you death threats, for fuck’s sake, and he refuses to tell them to back the fuck off. It’s time we stopped walking on egg shells where he’s concerned.” Her tone softened. “You have the money Rae. Use it to buy your freedom.”

I looked between the two people I trusted most in my life. They loved me, wanted me to be safe, and would do anything in their power to help me. They were also professionals. This advice wasn’t just coming from my friends, it was coming from the team I paid to guide me.

“Okay,” I said with a nod, deciding to throw my fate to the wind. “An interview, a tell-all book, and a new album.” I nodded again, this time with more surety. “Let’s get started then.”

Ashes to Ashes will be available as part of the DARK DESIRES Contemporary Romance Box Set
Coming June 2017

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