"A story about new beginnings. Heart break. Romance in full glory. This is the epitome of fineness in romance industry."Heart Full of Reads
Four years ago, I walked into a bustling bar with my besties. On the very same day, I met the love of my life. Tiffany Page. A woman with a fiery spirit and a gentle heart. Her whimsical voice and sweet laughter ignite a fire deep in my bones. In the blink of an eye, Tiffany arrests my soul and holds it captive.
And I never want her to release it.
From the very beginning, my relationship with Liz Warren was a firestorm. Hot. Intense. Unrelenting. I never imagined being loved the way Liz loves me. Smoldering and sweet. Fierce and gentle. Blazing and heartfelt. Her love fulfills me. Her love incomparable. The only real love I've ever known.
I wish I could tell Liz all my secrets.
Wish I could shed my past. A past which is slowly catching up to me.
When the love of your life proposes, exhilaration should course through your veins. When the love of your life proposes, you shouldn't be terrified of what happens next.
But I am.
An unwavering love.
A closet of skeletons.
A beloved devotion fighting to stay alive.
Release date: July 28, 2020
Publisher: Between Words Publishing LLC
Print pages: 281
Content advisory: Some scenes contain physical abuse on a woman
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Liz and I stroll hand in hand along the sidewalk near the Santa Monica pier. The salty Pacific air sticks to my skin as the waves crash and create a soothing melody in the background. Battered and deep-fried sugary treats pierce my nose and make my mouth water. Bright lights glow from the rides on the pier as the sun starts to dip under the horizon. Children and families laugh and squeal with delight.
We step onto the boardwalk and weave through the dense crowd as we take in all the sights. It’s our first trip here and I immediately understand why the small amusement park is so popular.
“Want to share a funnel cake?” Liz asks with the widest smile before she clamps down on her lower lip.
I pat my stomach. “Maybe in a little bit. Still full from dinner.”
She nods and rubs her palms on the sides of her legs, just below her hips. For the past few hours, Liz has been on edge and I have no idea why. As badly as I want to pry the truth from her, I don’t say a word. I would rather not appear to be “on duty” in normal conversation. This is date night, not a therapy session.
Winding our way through the small amusement park, Liz stops in front of the Ferris wheel and tips her head back, staring at the oversized ride. The spokes glow blue and pink in the setting sun as the wheel spins at a leisurely pace. Liz whips her hazel eyes back to me and flaunts the sweetest smile my direction.
“Let’s go on the Ferris wheel,” she says, her tone whimsical and giddy.
It isn’t often I see this piece of Liz. The piece that reminds me of bubbly young girls experiencing something new with friends. Not that Liz is a Debbie Downer. But she also isn’t unicorns and glitter, either. Beneath all the black attire, beneath the party and rock music, Liz is a quiet romantic. How on earth can I deny her right now? Especially when her jubilance is on display for the world to see.
“Okay” —I clap my hands together and rub them— “let’s go.” At least on the Ferris wheel, I have zero worries about my dinner making a reappearance.
After two more loops around, the ginormous wheel stops. One car at a time, each bucket empties and refills. A couple glued at the hips gets in two cars ahead of us, while a father and daughter get in just before us. After the attendant secures the lock on the car before us, the wheel turns slightly. A woman and two teenage boys climb out before we slide into the bucket and latch the door shut. Once a few more cars switch riders, we float up into the lilac-coral-peach blossom twilight.
I tug my hoodie sleeves down my elbows to my wrists as goosebumps decorate my skin. A light shiver trembles in my chest as the unobstructed breeze whips my hair across my cheeks. Brushing the strands from my sight, I peer over at Liz, about to ask her if she feels chilled too, when I notice her almond-colored skin looks more like coffee with way too much creamer. Her blanched pallor throws up warning flags. Is she really afraid of heights and ignored it to ride something calmer? Is her dinner not sitting well? Oh, god.
“Hey,” I speak up, tapping her forearm. “You okay? Look a little pale.”
She shakes her head and bites the inside of her cheek. “I’m fine. Just that…” Her words trail off and I wait for her to finish telling me what exactly is bothering her.
When the Ferris wheel does a third loop and she has yet to say anything, I slip my index finger under her chin and lift it, bring her line of sight back to me. Once eye to eye, I ask again. “Sure you’re okay? You’re starting to scare me.”
Her eyes dart back and forth between mine. Hundreds of questions itch to be asked as I hold her gaze. Sucking in a deep breath, Liz leans forward and presses her lips to mine. Warm lips with a hint of lime from her margarita earlier. The kiss is soft and sweet as I melt into her body. As quickly as the kiss began, it ends. Liz’s sudden shift back to her seat, the way she scoots as far away as possible, gives me whiplash. I lick the hint of lime from my lips as a sting builds in my chest.
But before I comprehend the why behind her actions, Liz awkwardly drops to one knee in the bucket. A buzz whooshes behind my ears as my pulse races for the finish line. I may faint one hundred and thirty feet in the air above the Santa Monica Pier. Breathe, Tiffany. Breathe.
“Tiff, I have been battling with my own words for days. Trying to come up with the perfect way to do this. But saying romantic things isn’t my strong suit. So, here comes my version.” She laughs, the resonance slightly off-kilter. “From the moment I laid eyes on you, in those barely-there, skin-tight shorts and snug little top that displayed one of your best features—” She stops, winks, and I laugh. “—I knew you were the one for me. Quickly, I learned how witty and sexy you are, and I fell in love. Hard.”
I bite my upper lip and work to hide the smile stretching my face taut, but it’s no use.
“You make every day worth getting up for. Your smile and kind words. Your astonishing ability to help others. I never thought I would be so lucky as to have someone like you in my life.” The blue flecks in her hazel eyes shimmer as she searches mine for one, two, three breaths. “And I’d like it to stay that way. Forever.”
My cheeks sting from smiling. Tears prick the backs of my eyes and threaten to spill. And in less than a minute, my heart has relocated to my throat, clogging it with raw, heavy emotion.
I don’t dare say a word. Liz implying she wants to marry me is one thing. But she has yet to actually ask me. If I just blurt my answer when she hasn’t proposed the question, I may make the biggest fool of myself. And I don’t want to steal her spotlight.
Liz reaches into the front pocket of her jeans. I hold my breath and keep my eyes on her hand. When I see her trembling fingers again, a thin rose gold band with a sparkling diamond rests between her pinched thumb and forefinger. Nothing fancy. Just simple. Perfect. Exactly the type of ring I would choose for myself.
“Tiffany Page, will you marry me?” Liz holds the ring up higher and watches my every move.
I glance between her and the ring. Liz is, by far, the best thing that has happened to me. No way I would move across the country with her if I didn’t see us being together for the long haul. She has this uncanny ability to make me love life more and want to be a better person.
So, why does it feel like there is a time bomb sitting on my chest right now? Slowly pressing all the air from my lungs and rendering me speechless.
Why can I not give her an immediate answer and scream yes for everyone to hear? Without a doubt, I want to tell her yes.
But I can’t.
Because it’s complicated.
The nervous and jumpy expression on Liz’s face slowly starts morphing into concern and fear. The corners of her eyes crinkling as the corners of her mouth point down. I need to answer her. Need to not let her think I don’t want this. I do. Just need to clear up some history first.
I unclench my sweaty palm and stretch my fingers in her direction. “Yes!” I blurt, my voice scratchy and cracking.
Liz audibly inhales before her shoulders drop, and I just realize she had been holding her breath this whole time. “Thank god,” she professes, relief coating her words. “For a minute, I thought you were going to say no. Was about to lose my shit.”
I laugh, and it sounds forced. Vacant. “Please don’t lose your shit.”
Liz pushes up off her knee and presses a chaste kiss to my lips. Then she slips the dainty band onto my finger and kisses the knuckle distal to the band. “I love you, Tiff. Can’t wait for the day I can call you my wife.”
I smile at her sweetness, then stare down at the band as I twirl the underside with my thumb. The stone slides side to side, occasionally grazing the inside of my pinky and middle finger.
“Can’t wait either,” I mumble as emotion chokes me.
The Ferris wheel loops again and we pause at the top as people switch out the buckets. Liz looks out at the water, her smile bright enough to light the night sky. And I love how perfect this moment has been. Like a modern fairy tale.
I stare down at the classic cut diamond on the rose gold band and a fierce pain stabs me beneath my breastbone. Nothing excites me more than marrying Liz. Being her wife and dubbing her as mine forever.
I may have said yes to her proposal, but there is one thing I forgot to mention. I can’t marry her. Not yet, anyway.
But there is no chance in hell I am speaking that aloud.
The day will come soon. Swear it will. But I have a lot of work ahead of me. And if I’m completely honest, all of it scares the hell out of me.
“What do you mean she’s acting weird?”
I finish chewing the bite of food in my mouth and swallow. How do I tell one of my best friends that I think my fiancée doesn’t want to marry me? A knife twists in my heart at the thought of Tiffany not wanting to be with me. Of her only agreeing to marry me out of guilt or pity.
“Ugh, I don’t know, Christy. Call it intuition. Or maybe it’s the fact that I asked her to marry me almost four months ago, she said yes, and now she acts as if I never asked at all.” Fuck. This is beyond frustrating. Honestly, I’m not even sure my thoughts are properly translating into words. I ball the hand in my lap so tight my nails practically break the skin.
Christy spears her salad as if it were her archnemesis, then shoves the forkful in her mouth. A couple days ago, I shot her a text message and asked if we could meet up. I needed some best friend time and maybe someone who could decipher what was happening in my life. Because I sure as hell had no idea. And I had to get this two-ton weight off my chest, even if only for a moment.
Without hesitation, Christy agreed to meet up. Granted, we see each other almost every day at work, but it isn’t the same. Talking with Christy is effortless, always has been. But it doesn’t feel right. The two of us sitting down for lunch and hashing out problems like this. Problems such as your fiancée not wanting to participate in the preparation of your eventual marriage. Problems such as your fiancée always skirting around the topic of wedding or marriage or being together for the rest of our lives.
Talks such as these require more than our one-hour lunch break time slot. Plus, I don’t need the prying ears of my coworkers nearby.
“Maybe the idea of being married scares her.” Christy shrugs as if it’s the simplest conclusion. To me, it is much more complex. “Some people believe marriage isn’t for them. Hell, Rick and I had been together seven years before he proposed to me. Honestly, I never thought he’d ask.”
“And look at you now.” I wave my hand in front of her as my eyes trail down to the black and red rings on her left, fourth digit. The knife in my heart twists a little more. “Actually got married without inviting your friends.” Christy’s cheeks and neck bloom a brilliant shade of pick as I clasp my hand over my chest and faux-gasp. “But at least you’re still doing a ceremony for everyone to be a part of.”
The green beast deep in my belly roars louder with envy.
I love Christy and Rick, no matter what. God, jealousy flows through my veins at the fact that not only are they married to each other, but they also married—in their hearts because it isn’t legal—another couple, Ella and Thomas, that they felt they couldn’t live without. Double marriage.
All I ask for is one. One. Am I asking too much?
“Yeah… when Rick first proposed, I wanted to wait and do the big shebang with everyone around. But life happens. Shitty people happen. So, we didn’t want to wait any longer. We did what was right for us. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.”
Months ago, when Christy and I took our lunch break together, I noticed an additional ring on her left fourth digit. The one you usually get once the marriage ceremony occurs. When I questioned the flashy new jewelry, she regaled the story as to why she and Rick opted to get married so quickly. Can’t say I blame either of them. If I were in her shoes, I would do the same.
“True. I just wish I understood why Tiff acts as if I never asked. As if the whole proposal is a figment of my imagination. Sometimes I glance down at her hand and double-check she’s wearing her engagement ring.” And every time, the diamond catches the light and beams back at me. Teasing and taunting. “Did I do something wrong, Christy? What if she has second thoughts about us getting married? I don’t fucking know a damn thing and it’s slowly killing me.”
Christy reaches across the wooden picnic table in the garden area of Cozy Corner Books and brushes her thumb back and forth over the top of my hand. The motion soothes me, but not enough to wipe away the pain. The thought of Tiffany not wanting to marry me hurts on an unfathomable level. What possible explanation is left other than she doesn’t want our relationship to go down that path? If she said yes to appease me, to not hurt my feelings in the moment… well, that is so much worse.
As if reading my mind, Christy says, “I’m sure Tiffany has a perfectly good explanation as to why she’s acting the way she is. Maybe work is stressing her out. Maybe all the legwork leading up to the actual wedding is freaking her out. I don’t know, Liz. And neither will you until you sit down with her and talk it out.”
Sit down with Tiffany and talk it out.
Yes, that seems like a good game plan. Plans start rolling through my head about how to approach this. Could make us dinner tonight. Delicious food and some wine might be the perfect way to loosen her up and get her talking.
“Thanks, C. You always know what to say.”
“What can I say, bitch.” Christy flashes me her profile as she raises her hands to either side of her face. “I’m a guru. Why do you think everyone loves me?”
I shake my head and chuckle. “All right, somebody’s let their ego inflate a little too much recently. Jump down from your high horse and join the rest of the population.”
“Pff. You’re just jealous of my amazing ability to find solutions like that.” Christy snaps her fingers and blows me a cocky kiss. “But you still love me, bitch.”
Isn’t that the truth. I do love her. Couldn’t have asked for a better friend. She and Sarah both. No matter what life throws my way, both of these women—my two best friends—will be right by my side. My cheerleaders. Always rooting for Team Liz.
“I do. Now let’s finish eating so you can show me everything you love about this bookstore.” I rub my hands over my biceps and send a silentthank you to Ella for having heaters in the bookstore’s garden.
As if I demanded her to eat, Christy starts shoveling salad down her throat like a starved animal. All I do is watch, shake my head at how crazy her antics are, and slowly finish my sandwich. Utterly bananas, but she owns her version of crazy while wearing a crown. How can anyone not love her?
No one would ever peg me as a romantic. Not with my love for all things black and the screamy rock music I blare when we aren’t partying. Down to the core, though, isn’t that what every person wants? To be loved. Whether from another person. Or even a pet. To form a connection and flourish from the bond created. Whether it is friendship or intimacy, we all push for some form of attachment.
I may not be your typical roses and candies and touchy-feely romantic. But, admittedly, I love the jitteriness and flutters and all-consuming-I-can’t-live-without-them feeling. The emotion which swallows me whole and consumes every molecule in my body. The way my heart sprints for the finish line and my breathing vanishes when she walks in the room.
Call me a closet romantic, I suppose. Grand gestures aren’t so much my modus operandi. But I have my ways.
One way I have always expressed myself when someone matters… food. For as long as I can remember, I love being in the kitchen. Getting my hands messy and creating something everyone will enjoy. Both Grandma Winston and Grandma Warren had a hand in my love for cooking. My mom, too, but she doesn’t share the same passion as my grandmothers and I do.
And my love for cooking is precisely why I am shuffling between the cutting board, the pressure cooker, and the oven at this exact moment. Apron over my head and secured at the waist. Hair in an elastic at the nape of my neck. Perspiration slowly beading on my temples. Next up—the stove.
In the oven, a crumb-topped pie is baking for dessert. And for the last fifteen minutes, I have been tortured by the delicious smell of apples and cinnamon and sugar as I cut chicken and vegetables for stir-fry.
A loud squeal bounces off the kitchen walls. I glance at the pressure cooker, a light on the display flashes indicating it finished. “Yeah, yeah.”
After I release the pressure valve, I turn on the range and set the wok on the burner. Once I chop the last of the vegetables, I test the temperature of the pan with a drop of water. Hot enough, I toss sliced carrots into the wok. One by one, as things cook, I add more vegetables to the pan. Scooping them all out once they are cooked, I add the chicken in the pan with a hint of toasted sesame oil. As the small slices sizzle and start to brown on all sides, I toss the veggies back in and bring it all together with a homemade savory sauce I whipped up.
Just as I coat everything in the sauce, the front door opens and Tiffany walks through. “Lizzie, I’m home. What smells so good?”
“In the kitch—” Tiff walks into the kitchen and cuts off my hollering. She wears a button-up white dress shirt—not tucked—and a pair of black dress slacks that cover the majority of her four-inch heels. The role of doctor, albeit a clinical psychologist, suits her. As if she was born to fill these shoes. Shoes she looks amazing in… without the dress pants.
“Hey.” She presses a kiss to my cheek before scanning the contents of the pan. “Looks and smells amazing.” Tiffany waves her hand over the steam and wafts it in her direction as she inhales.
“Just finished everything. Go change and I’ll dish it up.”
“’Kay, be back in a sec.” She kisses my cheek again then heads to the bedroom. I stare at her ass as she walks off and appreciate her curves for a beat.
Turning off everything, I grab a couple of the large bowls we use for stir-fry nights and portion out the rice, chicken, and veggies, then sprinkle it with gomasio. After I set the bowls on the dining table, I fetch a bottle of wine from the fridge and two glasses from the cabinet.
As I set the glasses down and uncork the wine, my eyes dart across the center of the table. Should I have lit some candles? They would set a pleasant tone during our dinner, but might be overkill and Tiffany would be more suspicious I was up to something. After all, we don’t light candles during dinner any other night of the week. Only special occasions.
Good call on no candles.
Tiffany walks back into the room and moans. “God, it smells so damn good in here. Did you make something besides stir-fry?” She moans as she slips into her chair at the table.
I smile and shrug. “Made us pie for dessert. It has another ten or fifteen minutes in the oven.”
“Well, it smells heavenly.”
Glancing at her across the table, I melt a little in my chair from the smile on her face. “Thanks.”
After a few bites, she asks, “Is there a special occasion I forgot about? Been jogging my memory and came up with nothing. Please tell me I didn’t forget an important date.” Her cheeks tighten as her lips form a straight line, eyes squinting as if preparing for a slap across the face.
If I had to guess, she almost seems… afraid. But why? I would never freak-out over missing an anniversary or holiday. Honestly, not even my birthday. She knows all the important dates in our relationship. I have seen them written in her planner. So this shift in her demeanor is odd.
“No special occasion. Just wanted a nice dinner. Over pie, I thought maybe we could talk about wedding stuff. Nothing major. But it would be nice to pick a date and discuss how many people we’d like there.”
Tiffany shovels way too much food into her mouth and gives a noncommittal “Mmmhmm.” Again, it seems as if she is purposely avoiding anything and everything to do with the wedding. And it pinches tight and twists in my gut. But until proven to be true, I refuse to believe she doesn’t want to marry me.
Dinner ends and we clean up the kitchen as the pie cools. The way Tiffany and I move around each other in the kitchen—and everywhere else—feels fluid. Natural. Symbiotic. We don’t have to utter a word. We simply ebb and flow. As I slice the pie, Tiffany grabs plates from the cabinet.
“Want a scoop of ice cream with yours?” I ask, setting the slices on plates.
“Is that a real question?” Tiffany scoffs. “Do bears shit in the woods?”
I stare at her a moment, poker-faced, as elation soothes my heart. This girl right here. This is my girl. My Tiffany. Full of spunk and not giving a shit what anyone else thinks. Being unapologetically herself and voicing her mind.
“Not sure,” I answer. “Don’t generally stick around and wait to watch bears shit.”
A loud clang echoes off the tile backsplash as the forks in Tiffany’s hand drop and smack against the granite countertop. She throws her head back and laughs. Louder and harder than I have seen or heard her do in months. I love and hate it in equal measure.
Love it because seeing her like this—being the open and free woman I met years ago—has a colony of bees buzzing to life beneath my sternum. Hate it because since the day I asked Tiffany to marry me, this side of her has been snuffed out and faded to the background.
An endless list of questions float in my head and I continually add more to that list. Today, I will add why haven’t you laughed? to the list.
Tiffany kisses my temple once her laughter subsides. “I love you, Lizzie. And I’m sure bears shit wherever the hell they want. But, mostly, it’s in the woods.”
Once pie and ice cream are plated, we take our dessert out to the living room and plop down on the couch. Tiffany tucks her feet under her butt and wiggles her way back into the pillows. The maneuver a quirk she does every single time we sit on the couch with dessert or, on occasion, dinner. Little mannerisms like the way she scoots back on the couch hold a special place in my heart.
Generally, I had never been someone who bookmarked habits or mannerisms. Not until I met Tiffany. That first day, when Sarah, Christy, and I stopped for lunch at the bar-and-grill restaurant, there was no denying the way she lured me in. Before Tiffany, I never foresaw myself being one of those people in a serious relationship. Someone who yearns to spend the rest of their life with the same human.
But the way her auburn hair swayed in her ponytail as she went from table to table. How her ice-blue eyes heated and melted everything south of my diaphragm. I wouldn’t call it love at first sight, but there was definitely an intense level of lust at first sight.
Half our pie and ice cream gone, I chance a look at her and notice her eyes glued to the plate in her hands. Now or never, Liz. Just spit it out.
“Yeah?” she question-answers, not lifting her eyes to meet mine or even look in my general direction.
I pinch my eyes shut and swallow the boulder of emotion lodged dead center in my throat. “Do you want to marry me?” The words leave my lips so softly, I wonder if she heard me. My raging pulse drowns out all sound and I open my eyes.
Out of the corner of my eye, her fork hovers above her plate for three heavy breaths before she sets it down. Then, she leans forward and sets her plate on the coffee table, grabbing mine next and setting it beside hers before sliding back into her spot on the couch.
Her gaze burns every inch of my profile. I have yet to shift and look at her head-on. Scared of what I will see on her face. Sadness. Regret. Who knows? And the not knowing is the scariest part of it all.
“Liz, please look at me.”
We sit in silence a minute as I stare down at my fumbling fingers. I want one more minute without the truth. Because whatever her truth is, whatever the reason she is so hesitant for us to move forward, it will hurt. But I need to know. No matter how much it hurts, I need the truth.
You can do this, Liz. Just look up at her.
Rotating to face her, I lift my eyes to hers and what I see swallows me alive. Her icy blue irises bore into my hazels as if she’s trying to tell me something telepathically. Not an ounce of regret or sadness rests in her brilliant blue orbs. Perhaps, a hint of guilt, though.
“Lizzie, I have no regrets about agreeing to marry you.” Relief swells in my chest as a weight lifts from my shoulders. “But I won’t lie to you. Getting married scares the shit out of me.” The solace from seconds ago deflates as my heart shrivels.
“Why? Is it us? Me?” If she discloses the reason behind her fear, perhaps I could help her counteract it.
Tiffany shakes her head before reaching forward and taking my hands in hers. “No. It’s—” She stops and doesn’t say another word. Leaving the open-ended answer hanging out there like a dangling carrot. Taunting and teasing me.
What is it? What secret could she be keeping from me? For someone who wants nothing but honesty in a relationship, what skeletons is she hiding from me? Whatever the root cause is, it has to be huge. Crawling into a corner and hiding from the world isn’t Tiffany’s style. At least not the Tiffany I know.
“What is it, Tiff?” I rest my hand on her leg and she glances up at me. “You can tell me.”
Her icy blue eyes melt into puddles as she stares back at me. A sharp pain lances me as her eyes dart back and forth between mine. Whatever she isn’t telling me, it scares the hell out of her. Literally. The last four years Tiffany and I have been together, not once have I seen her like this. Curled in on herself and withdrawn.
Tiffany is one of the strongest women in my life. Sarah and Christy tied in for runner-up. Seeing her timid and frightened has me questioning why I haven’t gotten her to open up about her life before us. Small snippets are all she offers whenever the past gets brought up. Enough to appease me.
Now, I need to ask invasive questions. Questions that will make us both uncomfortable, I’m certain.
“It’s… I… can’t. Not yet.”
“Can’t what? Tell me?”
She glances down at our hands and shakes her head. “I will soon, but I’m not ready to tell you yet. Soon.” Her voice breaks on the last word and my heart cracks a fraction.
The more her spirit plummets, the more I ache for answers. But I can’t pry them out of her. Tiffany needs to do this at her own pace. Tell me piece by piece of her own volition.
“Okay.” I clasp her hands between both of mine and clamp down. “Whatever it is, when you’re ready to tell me, I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Tiffany nods. Leaning into the empty space between us, she presses her lips to mine. “Thank you.” I kiss her again, framing her face in my hands. Her lips salty from the few tears that escaped and sweet from dessert. “We can set a date. But I have one request.”
My heart ping-pongs between my lungs. “Name it.”
Inches from kissing her again, I stop myself when she answers. “The wedding needs to be a year or more away.”
Hurt creeps up from my belly, clenching my heart like an angry fist and evaporating the air in my lungs. Obviously, I wear my pain on my face because Tiffany flinches. I haven’t the slightest idea how to respond to her. So, I give her a generic answer.
“Sure, Tiff. Whatever you want.”
The fist around my heart tightens, another crack forming. But I will do this for her. Anything for her.
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