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In the beautiful mountain town of Nugget, California, staying out of the limelight is easy, but staying out of love is a bit more challenging… Back in Los Angeles, Sloane McBride was a great police detective, but after she uncovered corruption on her own squad, the job became nearly impossible. In the bucolic hills of Nugget, she can start to imagine a life after all that, where she keeps her head down, does her work, and doesn’t bother anyone. But her delicious next door neighbor isn’t going to make it easy to keep to herself… Brady Benson’s wildest dreams came true in LA—but they were paired with a living nightmare. As executive chef of a searing-hot restaurant, he was lauded, adored… and then found himself caught in the sights of a lovelorn stalker. Now, laying low in Nugget, he finds his own heart ensnared by the beautiful new cop with her own reasons to start over. Neither Sloane nor Brady came to town looking for love, but it seems to have found them. Trouble is, so have their pasts. And they’ll have to stop hiding from both if they hope to come out the other side together… Praise For Stacy Finz “Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance."--Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author of the Lucky Harbor Series "Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart."--Marina Adair, #1 National bestselling author of Summer in Napa
Release date: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 294
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The good-looking ones tended to have roaming hands and the cocky ones tended to be spineless.
Of course she’d been jaded by her experience at LAPD. Not by the work. She’d loved being a homicide investigator in the gritty city. Her father and brothers liked to tease her that Los Angeles—filled with palm trees, swimming pools, and movie stars—was amateur night compared to the South Side of Chicago. But she’d seen the devil in the City of Angels.
This place, Nugget, was nothing like it. Serene as the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains. The place even had one of those old-time burger drive-throughs, and the citizens actually knew their neighbors. It was the epitome of Small Town USA. Although a few months ago there’d been a murder and a drug bust that rivaled some of the gangland slayings down South. So maybe she could do good work here.
“We’re a team.” The chief continued spewing platitudes about the department, trying to sell her on the job. She knew her former LAPD colleague, Jake Stryker, had told Rhys Shepard about her difficulties in Los Angeles. The chief had offered her the job anyway. “We’ve got each other’s backs here.”
Yeah, yeah. That’s the way it was supposed to be at LAPD. What a joke.
The dispatcher—Sloane thought her name was Connie—lightly tapped on the glass door, then barged in. “Maddy is on the phone. She said you’re not answering your cell.”
The chief immediately picked up his line. “Everything okay? . . . Sure, sugar, that’ll work. But I’m in the middle of an interview right now. Can I call you back?” He smiled over something she said and hung up. “Sorry about that. My wife.”
Connie still loitered in the chief’s office, checking Sloane over. “You taking the job? It would be good to get some estrogen in this place.”
The chief shot the dispatcher a look.
“What? I’m just saying.” The dispatcher turned to Sloane. “When you’re done in here come find me. I’ll give you the real skinny.”
After Connie left, shutting the door behind her, Chief Shepard apologized. “We’re a little loose around here. But we’re a good department. Before I came back from Houston, the town contracted with the Plumas County sheriff out of Quincy. That’s more than a half hour away. Folks here are real appreciative to have us.”
He didn’t have to push so hard. So far, this was Sloane’s best option since the larger departments around the state wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. The good-old-boys’ network at LAPD had made sure of that. But here she had Jake advocating for her, and if she had to guess, Nugget PD was hard up for officer candidates. The rural railroad town, four hours northeast of San Francisco, was way off the beaten path. Too small a department to attract ambitious, experienced officers. It wouldn’t have appealed to Sloane if she didn’t need the job so badly.
At least it was a pretty place—lots of trees, rivers, and lakes—and since she’d originally come from Chicago, the cold and snow didn’t scare her. She’d make the best of it until her situation changed.
“How is the rental market around here?” she asked.
Chief Shepard lifted his shoulders. “Not the best, I’m afraid. A lot of rental cabins that aren’t really fit for year-round living. There are lots of homes for sale in Sierra Heights, our only gated community. But they’ll run you close to a mil. Griffin Parks, the seller, might be willing to rent you one, but we’re talking big bucks. I own a duplex on Donner Road. One of the apartments is vacant. I don’t know how you’d feel about me being your boss and your landlord. But it’s cheap and clean. I’ll give you the key and directions. You could drive up and have a look at it. If you’re not interested, you could swing by Sierra Heights. See if you can make a deal.”
A half hour later she chugged up a craggy road in her Rav4. Good thing it was four-wheel drive. Although people she’d talked to said the winter so far had been mild, the place typically got sixty inches of snow a year. And it was only January, after all.
She hadn’t wanted to offend Chief Shepard, so she’d agreed to look at his duplex. But after what she’d gone through in LA, Sloane didn’t want her private life overlapping with her professional one. She’d just make an excuse why the apartment wouldn’t work and try to find something else.
At the top of the hill she nosed down the driveway, parked on a well-maintained pad next to an old van, and got out to take a look around. The duplex was nothing fancy from the outside, just a single-level rectangular box made of wood shingles with two apartment doors and a nice front porch. On one side sat a pine-log rocking chair and a matching swing. Cozy. The view included downtown Nugget, which up close wasn’t much, but from this height looked like a Christmas card with the snowy Sierra mountain range looming in the background. She had to admit that it was way more picturesque than the glimpse of the bougainvillea-covered cinder-block wall she got from her Echo Park apartment window. Lots of pine trees and a river on the other side of the railroad tracks.
In her jacket pocket she found the key and climbed the porch stairs. One of the doors creaked open and a man came outside.
“You Sloane McBride?”
She took a step back. He had startled her for a second.
“Rhys said you were coming over to look at the place.” He stifled a yawn, and from his smooshed hair she got the impression that he’d been taking a nap.
“I’m Sloane. You must be Brady.” The chief had mentioned the tenant, something about him being a chef at the chief’s wife’s hotel, where Sloane was staying. Given that he wore a pair of baggy black-and-white striped pants and a chef’s jacket, Sloane thought this had to be him.
“You don’t smoke, do you?” he asked. “The duplex shares the same ventilation system.”
She blinked up at him. “No.” And she wasn’t taking the place, so it didn’t matter.
“Good. I’ve got to get back to work.” He headed to the van and opened the door.
“Hang on a sec,” she called and jogged over to him. “Have you lived in Nugget long?”
“Since summer. Why?”
He had about six inches on her, so she had to look up. “I’m just trying to get a feel for the place.”
He gazed at his watch. “I’ve got about fifteen minutes. What do you want to know?”
She shrugged. “Anything you can tell me.”
He smiled and she noticed he was nice-looking. Really nice-looking. Brown hair, hazel eyes, and a day’s worth of stubble on his chin. She hadn’t missed his Southern accent either. She was a sucker for a Southern accent. Between him and the chief, she had to wonder what the rest of the guys in Nugget looked like.
“Good people,” he said. “But gossipy as all get out. Great skiing a half hour from here in Glory Junction. If you like to hike, there’s a ton of trails. Great fishing and hunting too. Lucky Rodriguez will hook you up with a horse over at his cowboy camp if you like to ride. It’s a great way to see the countryside.” He nudged his square jaw at her. “What are you into?”
“I like to run.” And until she’d gotten promoted to the robbery-homicide division, she’d liked to dance. Salsa. “Go to the gym.”
“No gym here. But there’s a yoga studio on the square. And you can run anywhere. It’s safe as long as you don’t mess with the wildlife. A couple of the women in town organize bowling parties over at the Ponderosa. It’s probably slower paced than what you’re used to, but it’s a welcoming little town. So, you taking the job?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I am.”
“Uh-huh. How’d you know?”
He chuckled. “Everyone here knows everything about everybody. What they don’t know, they make up.”
She waited for him to ask her why she’d left the department, but he didn’t. Maybe the whole town knew already.
“I’ve got a wine and cheese service in thirty minutes. You renting the place?” He cocked his head at the apartment next to his.
“I haven’t looked inside yet.” She wasn’t about to tell him the truth. “I was hoping for something a little closer to town.”
“You can walk from here,” he said, and started getting into his van. “I’m over at the Lumber Baron Inn if you have any more questions.”
She waved goodbye, then let herself inside the apartment to have a look around. It wasn’t much, but it was roomier than her LA place. It had a decent-sized living room and her queen-size bed would easily fit in the bedroom. The bathroom was right off the kitchen. She assumed the layout was what people called a railroad apartment, because it resembled a passenger car on a train. It made sense, given that this was a railroad town. The chief hadn’t been lying when he’d said the place was clean. More like spotless.
After Donner Road she headed to the subdivision called Sierra Heights. For a gated community, the security sucked. She got right past the empty guard kiosk and zipped around, looking at the mammoth houses, their elaborate decks and giant yards. The chief had been correct in assuming that this place was too rich for her blood. Gorgeous, though. If she had the money, she’d live here.
On Main Street she found a real estate office and popped inside. A woman named Carol said she had a couple of rentals Sloane could look at, but her hopes deflated after the house tour. The first stunk like a dog kennel and gave Sloane the creeps. Lots of chain-link fence and gaudy statuary in the yard, including one of those boy-peeing fountains. The second was a cabin that hadn’t been winterized. The third would’ve been perfect. It was right in town with a sweet little rose-garden backyard, but it was also for sale. The owner would only rent it on the condition that it be made available for showings. No go. Not only didn’t Sloane want the inconvenience, but she didn’t want to have to move again in a few months.
Disappointed, she drove back to the Lumber Baron. If only she’d found an apartment or a house half as comfortable as her room at the inn. The bed and breakfast was pretty spectacular with its period architecture and elegant furnishings. Sloane hadn’t realized that the chief’s wife owned the place until he’d mentioned it during their interview. Last night, when she’d gotten in, there was only the young guy, Andy, manning the desk. And this morning she’d rushed out to meet Jake for breakfast at the Ponderosa, the kooky Western restaurant /bar/bowling alley across from the inn on the town square.
When she walked in the lobby she nearly collided with Brady, who looked to be on his way out. He had changed into jeans and a long-sleeved waffle-knit shirt—and he was seriously ripped. Not like a gym rat, but like a guy who spent a lot of time outdoors. Mile-wide chest, big pecs, flat stomach, and muscular arms.
“You staying here?” he asked by way of a greeting.
“Yeah. I checked in last night. Is that hamburger place any good? I was thinking of grabbing something before it closes and bringing it up to my room.”
“It’s good,” he said. “Or if you want to be around people, you can go to the Ponderosa for happy hour. The food’s good there too.”
She wondered where he was off to since other than bowling there didn’t seem to be anything to do. Unless he was headed to the Ponderosa’s happy hour or to meet a girlfriend.
“Chicken-fried steak and eggs for breakfast,” he said, grabbing a down jacket from a closet behind the check-in counter and slinging it over his shoulder. “Catch you later.”
“You must be Sloane.” A dead ringer for the beautiful woman in the wedding picture on the chief’s desk came into the lobby. “I’m Maddy, Rhys’s wife.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You taking the job?”
Whoa, people around here get right to the point. “I’m gonna sleep on it, but probably . . . yeah.”
Before she knew what was happening Maddy enveloped her in a hug. “You don’t know how happy that makes me.” Sloane didn’t usually get this kind of reception from the wives of other cops. “It’ll just be nice to have a fourth person on deck, you know what I mean?”
Yeah, they need someone to work graveyard and holidays. “Sure,” she said, and tried to pry herself loose from Maddy’s embrace. She was stronger than she looked.
“Rhys said you might be taking the apartment on Donner Road. That used to be my apartment. It’s where Rhys and I fell in love.”
“Really?” A little TMI, but sweet just the same. For whatever reason, it made her feel better about Shepard. She didn’t know why he’d left such a bad taste in her mouth in the first place. The chief had seemed completely professional—even decent.
Then again, they all did until you broke the code of silence. That’s when the people who you thought had your back left you to fend for yourself while the world blew up.
“It’s a great apartment,” Sloane said. “Conveniently located, clean, spacious. But to be completely honest, I feel a little weird about having my boss as a landlord.”
Maddy nodded. “Rhys feels weird about it too. We decided that if you take the apartment we’d have my brother, Nate, act as the go-between. Nate and I co-own the Lumber Baron.”
“How would that work?” Sloane asked, thinking that this might be a more comfortable solution.
“You would just have all your dealings concerning the apartment—rent, deposit, repairs—with Nate or my sister-in-law, Samantha. Rhys and I would stay out of the picture.”
That seemed better—less company town. “I’ll let Chief Shepard know what I decide tomorrow, then.”
“Great. And, Sloane, I do think you’ll really like it here. I know you’re from Los Angeles and a small town like this can be a culture shock, but it’s a wonderful place. People look out for one another. I came from San Francisco and never thought I’d get used to the slow pace of small-town living. What I found was that the big city had been pretty darn alienating. And of course I’m biased, but I think my husband is a wonderful boss.”
Sloane laughed. Jake had said the same thing, and she respected his opinion. The man had been a cop while Sloane was still a toddler. And unlike her, he’d survived the snake pit.
“It’ll take some getting used to, but I’m up for the challenge.” She wanted to stay positive.
“And Brady will be a great neighbor. If you’re lucky, he’ll cook for you.”
“He seems nice.” And hopefully quiet, since they’d be living right on top of each other and her hours were bound to be odd, given that she’d be the newbie.
“Very,” Maddy said. “We’re crazy about him.”
Sloane bet most of the female population was, anyway. After a little more small talk with Maddy, she made her way across the square to the hamburger place. It was called the Bun Boy, which cracked her up. There were walk-up and drive-through windows, but no indoor seating. Just a smattering of picnic tables on a swath of lawn, under a few big trees. Nice in summer, but way too cold this time of year. She got her food to go and took it up to her room. She probably should’ve gone to the Ponderosa for happy hour to get more acquainted with the town, but between her interview with the chief and all the new people she’d met today, she was talked out. Nugget was a chatty place.
She ate at the writer’s desk while flipping through the channels on the flat-screen. Nugget at least had cable. The food was better than expected, she thought while wolfing down a large order of seasoned curly fries. In LA, she and her girlfriends liked dining at all the trendy bistros and cafés. Sloane didn’t consider herself a foodie by any stretch. Not like her friends who read the Times restaurant reviews religiously and traded names of hot new chefs like little boys did baseball cards. Sloane couldn’t name one famous cook unless it was Paula Deen or Gordon Ramsay. But she enjoyed eating and experiencing new cuisines and flavors. Everyone in her family cooked, except her. Her mother was an avid baker and her father and three brothers worked in a firehouse, where kitchen duty was as much a part of the job as putting out blazes.
She could’ve gone home to Chicago—her father had actually insisted on it when he found out what had happened on the job. “No one messes with a McBride,” he’d said. But Sloane preferred to stand on her own two feet. So Jake’s suggestion that she come here seemed like the winning option. Still, she had to wonder whether she was making a huge mistake. Having never lived in a small town, it would take a lot of adjustment. Like what kind of place doesn’t have a gym?
The room phone rang, making Sloane jump. In LA, she’d had to change all her personal numbers. Not that that had helped. The problem with cops was they could always find you.
With trepidation she picked up. “Hello.”
“How’d it go?” Jake’s reassuring voice came across the other end.
She took a deep breath. “Good. I’m planning to take it.”
“Wise decision,” he said. “It’ll help get your confidence back. It’s good work, Sloane. People here are appreciative of what we do. You’ll be welcomed with open arms.”
She thought about Maddy and bit back a laugh. “The chief has a vacant apartment. What do you think about me taking it?”
“The place up on Donner Road? It’s perfect.”
She told him how the chief’s brother-in-law would act as landlord to prevent any awkwardness.
“That’ll work,” Jake said. “But, Sloane, Rhys is a fair guy. You don’t have to worry about him.”
“He certainly seems to be in a rush to get me here. Is there something you guys aren’t telling me?”
“Nah. He liked you from the phone interview—likes your résumé too. Most of the candidates we get up here are retirees. Rhys wants young blood.”
“Looks like a lot of cowboys up here, going by all the hats and boots in the Ponderosa this morning. Will I have trouble with the town accepting a female cop?”
Jake laughed. “These are ranching people, not Neanderthals. You’ll do just fine.”
“I’m meeting Connie for lunch tomorrow. What’s her story?”
“She grew up here, started up the department with Rhys, and is a coffee snob—her sister lives in Seattle. She’s an excellent dispatcher, has a smart mouth, and we love her to death. I’m glad you’re having lunch with her. She knows where all the bodies are buried. What are your plans for dinner tomorrow?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Sloane said.
“Cecilia and I would like to have you over. She’s a marvelous cook and desperately wants to meet you.”
Sloane accepted the invitation and Jake gave her directions to his house before signing off. Instead of going straight to bed, Sloane decided to take a soak in her slipper tub. Since she’d never bathed in one, the charming claw-foot had called to her the first time she’d seen it. Everything about the inn did. It was just so warm and inviting.
On her way to the bathroom she swiped her cell off the bed and checked emails. The first one was from her parents, who wanted to know how the trip had gone. All three of her brothers had left texts, demanding the scoop on Nugget.
But it was the last message, marked urgent, that filled her with a deep foreboding, convincing her that the sooner she got out of LA, the better.
Sloane McBride, you can’t hide. We’re coming to get you.
Brady had a full house. Unusual for a weekday in January. But tourists were taking advantage of the particularly dry winter. So far, no chains required to get over the pass.
Maddy rushed into the kitchen. “What do you need me to do?”
“Take those out.” He nudged his head at plates of chicken-fried steak and biscuits, with country gravy ladled over the top. “The vegetarian plate is for room 207.”
Maddy balanced several plates on her arm and made her way to the dining room. She couldn’t cook, but she knew how to serve. Brady assumed it was from growing up in the hospitality business.
He had a sweet deal working for the Breyers. Nate was wound tighter than his sister and wife; still, Brady had taken to the guy, who owned nine other hotels in the Bay Area and a resort near Glory Junction that he was in the midst of refurbishing. Even though Brady was overqualified for the Lumber Baron, the three Breyers made up for it by letting him do whatever he wanted. Devise his own menus, buy his own ingredients, even cure his own meats. And they gave him a hefty budget with which to do it.
Little by little Nate was using Brady to head up catering for big events at his other hotels, including weddings and parties as part of a joint venture with a neighboring dude ranch.
Last summer, when Brady had run from a bad situation and stumbled upon this little town, he’d never dreamed that it would take care of him the way it had. Of course, he still had to keep his guard up. Trouble could come at any time.
Interesting that now he’d be living next door to a cop. Although Sloane McBride didn’t look like any cop he’d ever known. She was certainly fit enough, but her golden hair, cornflower-blue eyes, and that dazzling face of hers reminded him more of one of the fairy princesses in his niece’s Disney books than a peace officer. According to the word around town, she was a friend of Jake’s; he’d recommended her for the job.
Brady measured out enough beans to brew a fresh pot, and poured the stale coffee down the sink.
“We have two more couples and Sloane McBride.” Maddy set down a tub of dirty dishes on the counter and began loading them into the dishwasher. “Make Sloane’s extra good. She’s the key to my marriage.”
He stepped back and looked at her, wondering what she was talking about.
“Do you know how much overtime Rhys works?” Maddy said. “Emma and I barely see him anymore.”
Given that the department was a three-man—four if you counted Connie, the dispatcher—operation, Brady suspected it was a lot.
“You take these out to those other couples.” He pulled four plates from the warming oven. “I’ll take this to Ms. McBride.”
“Good idea.” Maddy loaded up and started out the door. “Fabulous food and a hot guy—the perfect incentive for her to stay.”
Brady rolled his eyes. The women around here were a little nuts. Sloane sat at a corner table, reading one of the pamphlets from the front desk that told the history of the area.
“If you want the real flavor of the town you should check out the Nugget Tribune website,” he said, and placed her plate on the table. “Bon appétit.”
She lifted her head and the power of her smile floored him. Pretty lady. But if she planned to move into the apartment next door, she was off-limits lady.
“The Nugget Tribune, huh?” She reached for her phone, which sat on the table, and started searching for the site.
“All the news that’s fit to print—and then some.”
She laughed. “Thanks for the suggestion . . . and for breakfast.” Her eyes grew large as she took in her plate. “This is enough food for an army.”
“No bitty portions up here in the mountains. Dig in before it gets cold.”
He walked away so she could eat in peace. When he got back to the kitchen, Maddy was adding more plates to the dishwasher.
“Is that coffee fresh?” She motioned to the pot he’d just put on. He nodded, and she poured herself a cup. “Well, did she say anything?”
“Like whether she could start right away?” Maddy opened the fridge, pulled out a carton of half-and-half, and poured a dollop into her coffee.
“No. Why don’t you go ask her?”
“I did last night. She said she was pretty sure she was taking it. But I was hoping she’d start soon. Like tomorrow.”
Brady laughed. Then again, he’d practically started the day he was hired. The Lumber Baron’s former cook had left without giving notice. Emily Mathews, the town’s famous cookbook-ghostwriter to the stars, had filled in as a favor. But she’d been in the midst of planning her wedding to Clay McCreedy, taking care of his two boys, and trying to make a book deadline. To say that the Breyers had been desperate for help was an understatement. The timing couldn’t have worked out better for Brady since he’d needed a job. Fate.
“You don’t know what it’s like with a toddler.” Maddy shut the dishwasher door and started the wash. “Even when Rhys can break away from work, we hardly have any time together.”
“My guess is she’ll need time to pack and move. What’s her deal anyway? Why is she leaving such a big department?”
“All I know is that she needed a change,” Maddy said, and looked directly at Brady. “She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
Brady held up his hands, palms out. He knew what she was up to. The entire town was filled with matchmaking mamas. Sam, Nate’s wife, had already tried to set him up with Tawny Wade, Nugget’s resident cowboy-boot designer. Tawny, who as far as Brady was concerned was the only sane woman on the face of the earth, happened to be in love with Lucky Rodriguez, the town’s bull-riding champion. The two planned to get married in the spring and Brady, who considered Tawny his best friend, was catering the reception.
“Very pretty,” Brady said. “But not for me.”
Because the change Sloane allegedly needed was probably code for I have to get away from a bad boyfriend. And Brady didn’t want any part of that. His last romantic escapade had left him more than gun-shy—scared to death would be a truer statement. And Sloane McBride was packing more heat than he cared to handle.
“Never a good idea to start up with your neighbor.”
“In most cases I’d say that’s true. But that duplex is where Rhys and I fell in love. Maybe it has the kavorka, the lure of the animal.”
Brady rolled his eyes. “You’ve been watching too many Seinfeld reruns. Not interested, Maddy.”
No, we won’t. “What do you got going today?”
“Probably take a ride up to Gold Mountain to check on the renovations. Right now, we’re mostly consumed with whether Lina will get into the University of Nevada, Reno.”
“I thought your sister-in-law was going to USF.” Brady had only met Lina Shepard once or twice since she lived full-time in San Francisco and only occasionally came for visits.
“Yep. But she really wants to transfer into Nevada’s engineering department and learn how to build bridges.”
“Bridges as in the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“Mm-hmm. She interned over the summer with a structural engineering firm and became obsessed. USF doesn’t have a program. But it just so happens that Nevada’s is one of the best. And she’d be close to home.”
“That’s great,” Brady said.
“Yeah. Except it’s really competitive. There’s no telling whether she’ll get in.”
“I’ll be thinking good thoughts.”
“Thanks, Brady. How ’bout you?”
“I’m making savory palmiers for the wine and cheese service and have a meeting later with Jake and Cecilia to go over their wedding menu.”
“Full day,” Maddy said.
He left Maddy to finish what few dishes were left while he checked the dining room for stragglers. Except for Sloane, who he noted had cleaned her plate, the room was empty.
“You want seconds?” he asked, and she pulled her face from her phone.
“I’m stuffed. That was fantastic.”
He grinned and cocked his head at her phone. “The Trib?”
“Mm-hmm. The police blotter. May as well know what I’m getting myself into.”
“A lot of henhouse thefts in these parts.” He tried to keep a straight face.
She smiled, and again he had a hard time thinking of her as a cop. It was probably all kinds of wrong to stereotype that way, but when you looked like a prom queen . . .
“You going back to LA today?” he asked.
“Tomorrow. I still have to meet with the chief to finalize a few things.”
Maddy had made it sound like she was taking the apartment next to him. He thought it would be pushy to ask. By the end of the day whatever decisions she’d made would be all over town anyway. . .
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