Mine To Take
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Gabriel Woolf is unstoppable. A ruthless businessman, he has perfected the art of revenge. Ever since his mother's death, Gabriel has harbored only one wish: To take down the man who ruined their lives. But all bets are off when he meets his father's stepdaughter, Honor St. James. Beautiful and innocent, she is everything Gabriel never knew he wanted-and now there's no turning back.
Honor wasn't born yesterday. She knows that Gabriel is a wolf in sheep's clothing, willing to cross any line to get what he wants . . . herself included. But Gabriel's passion for Honor-in spite of her connection to the man he hates the most-cannot be denied, and the feeling is utterly mutual. Can Gabriel be trusted? The only thing Honor knows for sure is how he makes her feel. And she can't keep herself from coming back to him, over and over again.
Release date: November 25, 2014
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 384
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Mine To Take
Gabriel Woolf walked into the quiet of St. Sebastian's, his mother's favorite church, and stopped, stamping the snow from his motorcycle boots. He hadn't been inside the church for over twenty years but he still remembered the smell, of old stone and incense. Candle wax and piety. And guilt. Lots and lots of guilt.
Yet it wasn't guilt that brought him here. It was a promise of the worst kind. The kind you make to someone on their deathbed. His mother's deathbed to be exact. And there was no getting out of a promise like that. No fucking way.
So here he was, the day after her funeral, ready to confess his sins like the good Catholic boy he'd never been.
Luckily it wasn't going to take long. Not because he didn't have any sins to confess, because he did. Hundreds of sins all swimming around inside him, tainting his blood. Tainting him right down to his bones. No, it was because there was only one sin that mattered to his mother. Only one sin that had ever been important to her.
Gabriel stared around the interior of the church, trying to spot the confessionals. There wasn't anything special about the place, not even when he'd been a kid coming to Mass with his mother. St. Sebastian's had been a run-down city church trying to do the best for its dirt-poor parishioners and it looked like nothing had changed. It wore neglect like an old suit, frayed at the cuffs, missing some buttons, hems dirty. Just like the rest of his shitty old neighborhood.
Thank God he was long gone out of it.
Eventually he spotted the confessionals down to the side of the altar, near the sacristy. An elderly woman came out, which clearly meant a priest was there doing his duty.
She gave him a glance as she passed, her expression fearful—no prizes for guessing why. He didn't exactly look like a typical believer. And even though his tattoos and scars were hidden by his leather jacket and jeans, his clothes wouldn't hide his identity.
To the world at large he was Gabriel Woolf, construction magnate, but to the people of this neighborhood, he was "Church," president of the Avenging Angels motorcycle club who owned this little patch of New York. He hadn't been president for a good many years, but that didn't matter. People still remembered. People were still afraid. And shit, they had every right to be.
Gabriel ignored the woman. So Church was finally in an actual church. What a fucking joke. The Reverend, his mentor at the motorcycle club and a man fond of biblical aphorisms, though not a believer either, would have laughed himself hoarse.
He made his way down to one of the enclosed confessional boxes and pushed open the door. Man, he remembered waiting outside one of these things for his mom, tracing patterns on the dusty floor with his toes. He'd never managed to work out as a kid why she'd taken so long because she'd been the purest person he knew.
It was only as a teenager he'd understood. Corrine Woolf had always felt dirty.
The space inside the confessional was tiny and as the door shut, a sudden claustrophobic feeling gripped him. Christ, why was he here again? He didn't believe, not when he'd been a child and not now. His sins were his own, not for God. Not for anyone.
"Promise me, Gabriel," Corrine had begged him in the hospice, thin and wasted from the cancer that was killing her. "You have to promise."
They hadn't gotten on for years, not since he became a club prospect at sixteen and she'd turned to her faith, but she was still his mother, so of course he'd promised. And he was a man who kept his word.
He knelt and tried to remember the right phrase. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been…" How long had it been? Better round down. "Twenty years since my last confession."
A silence from behind the grille. Then the priest's voice. "Twenty years? That's a long time, my son. What brings you back to us?" He sounded young. A boy.
Gabriel shut his eyes. Why the hell was he thinking about the priest's age? What did it matter? All that mattered was the promise he'd made to his mother. The only promise to her he'd ever been able to keep.
"I'm not back. I wasn't ever here in the first place. I'm fulfilling a vow. That's all."
"I have a sin to confess, priest. You wanna hear it or not?"
Another silence, this time an offended one. But something in Gabriel's tone must have alerted the guy to the fact that Gabriel was not to be screwed with because the priest only said, "Tell me then, my son."
I am not your son. I am the son of a beast.
"I want to kill my father," Gabriel said.
The priest perhaps had heard this kind of thing before because he didn't sound the least bit surprised. "And will you act on these thoughts?"
"No. I've decided on another plan of action."
Forgiveness. Such a weak, paltry thing. His mother had tried that method and look what had happened. Her death at the age of fifty-one. The doctors had said cancer but he knew the truth. It hadn't been cancer that killed her. It had been shame. Guilt. And loss.
The loss of a future she should have had. A future his father had taken from her.
A future that you took from her.
Gabriel bared his teeth in a smile that had nothing to do with amusement.
Yeah, he was as bad as the asshole who'd fathered him.
Rotten to the core …
"Not forgiveness," Gabriel said, still smiling. "I've decided on vengeance."
* * *
The others were late. Either that or he was early.
Gabriel shifted in the high-backed wing chair he was sitting in, fingers of one hand firmly wrapped around a glass of rare, sixty-year-old Scotch whisky, the fingers of the other jammed in the pocket of his jeans. Just touching the beads of his mother's antique rosary.
After his confession, the priest had given him some crap about Hail Marys and Our Fathers and looking to his conscience, but it wasn't like he'd ever do that shit. His mother had her beliefs and they'd given her comfort but they weren't for him. So why the hell he was still carrying the thing, he didn't know.
Gabriel took a sip of the scotch. One glass alone cost hundreds but he wasn't aware of the taste.
Yeah, he knew why he was carrying the rosary. It was a reminder.
Like the check for a million bucks in his wallet was a reminder.
Like the handgun he'd kept from his MC days in the drawer beside his bed was a reminder.
Shit, his whole life was a reminder.
He put his head back on the chair, took another sip of the scotch. Tried to calm his mind before the others turned up, staring around the room belligerently.
Christ, he hated this place. The Second Circle, New York's most exclusive private members' club, was his friend Alex's baby and one of nine other "Circles" scattered throughout the world. Alex had named them after the club he'd begun with Gabriel and seven other friends one night after too many shots. The Nine Circles, from Dante's Inferno, a favorite of Alex's. Appropriate for a group of damaged people who just happened to have a ton of money. People who'd committed so many sins between them, even the devil wouldn't know where to put them.
Over the years the nine had become four and since then, Gabriel had preferred Alex's more informal name for them—the "fucked-up billionaires." Since that's what they all were.
He scowled. Alex had given them their usual private room, the one with its echoes of an English gentlemen's club. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, exposed brick walls, library bookshelves, and high-backed wing chairs. A fire burned in a huge fireplace, warming the room against New York's icy February chill.
But all the fires, library bookshelves, and expensive scotch weren't going to change Gabriel's opinion. He still hated it.
The atmosphere reminded him of everything he despised. The world of the uber-rich, the famous, the entitled. The world of money where anything could be bought, anything sold. Yeah, it could be said that he was part of that world, especially considering that Woolf Construction, the business he owned, was one of the most successful in the States.
But Gabriel didn't consider himself part of it. Like the rest of them in Alex's club, he didn't fit into that particular world, no matter the size of his own personal fortune. A fact he was glad of. Money corrupted and he was living proof.
Losing patience, Gabriel downed the rest of the hideously expensive scotch like it was cheap bourbon and put the glass down on the table beside the chair with a click.
He didn't have time to wait around here for the rest of them. He had things to do. Things such as planning a bit of personal justice.
He was half out of the chair as the door opened and Alex came striding in, a tall, icy-looking blond woman in a black suit trailing behind him. Gabriel eyed the woman. Lovers weren't allowed at club gatherings and Alex knew that. Except the woman didn't look like one of his lovers. Although Alex was partial to blondes, they usually wore a hell of a lot less than the one standing behind him now.
"What's she doing here?" Gabriel demanded. He didn't bother with the, "Hi, how are yous," despite not having seen his closest friend since the last gathering a couple of months ago.
He wasn't one for small talk. That was for people who had nothing of importance to say.
Alex stopped in the middle of the room, one eyebrow raised.
A gambler who'd made every cent of his money from wins at the table and a bit of astute investment, he looked like the kind of rich playboy who'd had one too many shots and done one too many lines of coke. Exactly what he was, in other words. He wore a tuxedo with the jacket slung over one shoulder, white shirt open at the neck, his black hair ruffled as if some woman had run her fingers through it. But his eyes were blue as a gas flame and sharper than a shard of glass. "She is my new bodyguard, dammit. Show some respect."
Gabriel didn't bother looking at her. Whatever point Alex was trying to prove—and he was always trying to prove some point—Gabriel couldn't be bothered with it now. Not so soon after his mother's funeral and finally finding out the name of his bastard father. For twenty years his mother had refused to tell him because she hadn't wanted him to go after the prick, so he'd never pressed her.
But now she was dead and everything had changed.
"She has to wait outside," Gabriel said, meeting his friend's gaze. "You know the drill. No lovers. No strangers."
Alex shrugged and tossed his tuxedo jacket over the back of the sofa in front of the fire. "What's up, Gabe? You sound a little pissed about something."
Alex always knew when he had a problem. And he always called Gabriel on it. The bastard.
"Yeah, you could say that." Gabriel pulled the decanter toward him and tipped some more scotch into his tumbler. "My mother died a few days ago."
"Shit," Alex murmured. He waited a beat then turned to his bodyguard. "Katya mine, I think the time has come for you to wait outside. Private, fucked-up billionaire business."
"Of course, sir," his bodyguard said expressionlessly, a trace of a Russian accent tingeing her words.
As the door closed behind her, Alex went over to a long, low coffee table that had been set before the fireplace. On the table was a tray of whisky tumblers, along with cigars and some canapés. Alex ignored the food and the cigars, picking up a tumbler instead and coming over to where Gabriel sat. He said nothing, lifting the decanter and pouring himself some scotch. Then he took a sip, stared at Gabriel. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Because you didn't need to know." His mother's life was private and so was her death. She'd hated fuss so he'd made sure to keep her funeral short, simple, and sweet.
One of Alex's brows rose. "Is that so? Funny, I thought we were friends. And usually friends tell each other that kind of thing."
Gabriel wasn't going to defend his reasoning. He hadn't before the priest that morning, and he wasn't going to now. "Yeah, well, I fucking didn't."
Alex's sharp blue gaze flickered. "You're pissed off with me?"
"Not with you." It wasn't Alex's fault that the name on that million-dollar check in his wallet would be familiar to his friend. Very familiar. But that didn't make him any less angry about it. A rage that had been eating away at him for all the years since his mother had told him what his father had done. A rage that had no outlet.
"So why are you looking at me like I've personally offended you?"
"How's your stepfather these days?"
The other brow rose this time. "My stepfather? What the hell has he got to do with anything? And, more importantly, why do you think I would know?"
A fair point. Alex had no contact with his family, not since he'd left home at sixteen.
For the past nineteen years all his time had been spent flying from one casino to another, chasing the big poker games and the big money.
But the man who'd married his mother had come along after Alex had left.
Still, the anger that burned inside Gabriel's veins demanded release in some form. "You don't have any contact with him you're not telling me about?"
The other man didn't respond immediately, just took a long sip of his scotch, blue eyes unwavering. "No," he said after a moment, "and you know it, too. What the hell is this about?"
The door opened again before Gabriel could answer, admitting a small, fine-boned woman in black jeans, a black Led Zep T-shirt, and cherry-red Doc Marten boots, hair the color of new-fallen snow peeking out from underneath her black beanie.
Eva King, ex-hacker, now owner of one of the largest software companies in the world, in her "incognito gear." Another founding member of Alex's Nine Circles club.
She pulled her beanie off as the door closed behind her, ponytail uncurling down her back in a silvery waterfall, and eyed Gabriel and Alex. "You two look like you're having a special moment. Shall I go out and come back in again?"
"Yeah, do," Alex said. "Gabe was on the verge of telling me something important and you just interrupted."
"It can wait." Gabriel didn't want to talk about it with the others. It only concerned Alex at this point. Besides, he'd waited years for this, another hour or two wouldn't matter.
"Uh-huh." Eva threw the beanie onto the sofa near the fire and went around the side of it to stand in front of the blaze. "Jesus, the weather in New York doesn't get any better, does it? I think I preferred Zac's island."
The last meeting of the club had been a couple of months ago, on the private Caribbean island owned by the fourth member of the group, Zac Rutherford. Certainly there had been sun, and sure, that had been great, but Gabriel wasn't one for lying around on beaches. He preferred doing things. The venue for the next meeting would be his choice and he'd been thinking about getting everyone up to his Colorado lodge for a couple of days skiing or hiking.
Then again, that had been before his mother had died. Before he'd found the check and seen the name on it. The check that had been dated exactly nine months before he was born.
He'd found it in amongst his mother's things. There had been no note with it, nothing to suggest why she'd been sent such a huge amount of money or why she'd never cashed it. Puzzling, considering she'd spent many years as a teenaged solo parent, struggling just to survive.
But Gabriel knew. Despite the lack of any hard evidence, his gut was certain of the truth.
That money was from his father. His not-so-nameless-any-longer father.
Eva looked up from the fire and sent Gabriel a narrow look. "You're broodier than normal, Gabe. Anything up?"
Mercifully, Alex answered for him. "Corrine died a few days ago."
"Oh, hell." Eva's brow wrinkled, smoky-gray eyes concerned. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he said gruffly. "The cancer was getting to the torture stage so I'm glad it's over. And glad she doesn't have to deal with it anymore."
"You should have let us—"
"No, I shouldn't." He reached for the decanter again, taking the little scotch that was left. Something had to cool the fire inside him since the first few glasses hadn't done the trick.
Another silence fell and he knew Alex and Eva were exchanging glances. Probably meaningful ones. Well, he didn't care. He wasn't going to talk about it now.
Eva turned away and stuck her hands out to the fire. She wore black fingerless gloves, her nails tipped with chipped silver nail polish. Alex had wandered over to the sofa, throwing himself down on it, sprawling like a lazy house cat.
"You said something in your e-mail about an investment opportunity, Eva," Alex said, sipping at his scotch. "Care to share?"
"Not yet." She rubbed her hands together. "You'll like it though."
"Why does that sound like a threat?"
"I don't know. Why does it?"
Gabriel watched them bicker from his armchair.
The Nine Circles weren't ones for heart-to-heart chats, but they looked out for each other, watched each other's backs. All of them knew what it was to be a misfit, a loner. To have nothing and no one. No support, no family to call on. No one they trusted.
That's why the original nine had formed their own little family one night after a poker game. Their own support network. Because, God knew, they had no one else. And sometimes, even that wasn't enough.
A couple of minutes later, Zac finally arrived. The fourth member of their club. Ex-SAS, ex-merc, Zac was now the head of a multimillion-dollar security company. And he looked like the consummate CEO.
Especially in the dark suit with his tats covered up by pristine black cotton and charcoal-gray wool. It didn't take much, however, to realize that Zac's exquisitely tailored façade was just that—a thin veneer of civilization over a man with the heart of a predator.
A quality Gabriel always respected since he was mostly predator himself.
"You're late," Eva said to him as Zac shut the door. "Fifteen minutes to be exact."
"Chill, angel," Zac said calmly, his cultured English accent at odds with the scars on his face and the casual slang terminology. "I always get here eventually. And besides, the snow was a bastard."
Only Zac could call Eva angel. Mainly because he was the only one who could get away with it. He'd been the one to discover her when she'd tried to hack into his company's client database, and he'd been the one to hire her to make sure no one could ever hack into it again.
Eva rolled her eyes. "Okay, whatever."
Gabriel nodded to Zac from his chair but made no effort to move.
"I heard about Corrine," Zac said to him as he shrugged off his overcoat and slung it over a nearby chair. "My condolences."
"Thank you." It didn't surprise Gabriel that Zac already knew. The guy knew lots of things, especially things he wasn't supposed to know.
"How did you find out?" Alex asked from the sofa. He sounded annoyed.
"I read the obituaries. Like anyone else."
Alex sighed. "I don't read the obituaries."
Zac came over to the fire, reached for a tumbler, then looked around for the decanter. "Maybe you should." He frowned in Gabriel's direction. "Have you finished all that bloody scotch, Woolf?"
Gabriel shrugged, unrepentant. "My mother is dead. I think I deserve it, don't you?"
"Guys, please," Eva interrupted, looking impatient. "Could we forget about the booze for a second? We can get some more in a minute. I want to talk about the opportunity I e-mailed you about."
The last shot of whisky had settled comfortably in Gabriel's stomach, making his limbs feel loose. But the anger inside him still boiled away like a saucepan of water on an open fire. Wasn't confessing one's sins supposed to help? At least that's what his mother had always said. But not today it hadn't. If anything, confessing had only made his anger burn hotter.
"‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,'" his mother had always told him. "Not ours, Gabriel. Ours is to forgive."
Maybe his mother had forgiven the man who raped her. But Gabriel couldn't and never would.
What had the Reverend said to him once? "Keep it cold, Church. Don't let emotion get in the way of what you have to do." The Reverend had been the old president of the Angels and had known what he was talking about. Emotion clouded your judgment. Made you weak. And he couldn't afford to be weak.
This anger had to be cold. Clean. So he could deliver justice for his mother with a steady hand.
"Honor St. James," Eva was saying. "That's who."
Gabriel blinked as the name permeated suddenly through the whisky haze.
Alex was still sprawled on the sofa but his posture was now not so much lazy cat as a lion about to pounce. "Honor?" His voice was soft and deadly.
Eva, standing with her back to the fire, smiled. "Yeah, Alex. Honor. Your sister."
Everything inside Gabriel paused.
He and Alex had been sixteen, both of them laborers on the same building site. Alex had just left home—or rather deserted it—yet Gabriel still remembered the woman who'd turned up at the site one day looking for her son, a beautiful woman with black hair and Alex's blue eyes. She'd had a serious-looking eight-year-old girl in tow. A girl who'd stared at Gabriel and Alex as they were summoned by the site foreman. Saying nothing. Just staring. Accusing.
Alex never spoke of her, just like he never spoke about any of his family.
"What about her?" Gabriel demanded, instinct suddenly gripping him tight. He could feel Zac staring at him from across the room, golden eyes unnervingly direct.
Understandable really, since two days ago Gabriel had asked him to do some digging into a man called Guy Tremain. The name of the man on his mother's check.
Zac's contacts had turned up all kinds of interesting facts.
Such as Guy Tremain's marriage to Alex's mother nineteen years earlier. His role as doting father figure to Alex's sister, Honor. His successful hotel chain. His reputation as a veritable pillar of the community.
All the while no one knew the most important fact of all: that he was a rapist.
Eva gave Gabriel another one of her narrow, suspicious looks. She didn't trust easily and hated men who took advantage of women. "Why are you so interested?"
"Don't be stupid, Eva," Gabriel said shortly. "You know me better than that. I'm not going to screw with her in that way."
"Then what way? You've been zoning out for the past ten minutes and at the mention of her name you're suddenly all ears?"
Alex was shaking his head. "No," he said. "No and no. Keep out of it, Eva."
"Get a grip, Alex," she said. "She's got one of the best investment firms in the city and I'm not going to ignore her just because she's your damn sister. If you've got a problem with her then perhaps you need to work it out? Have you ever thought of that?"
Alex went even more still, if that was possible, and the temperature in the room plunged.
"Eva, that was insensitive," Zac said mildly enough, though the reprimand was unmistakable. "And also Alex's business."
There was never any pressure to speak of the things they didn't want to talk about. "Don't ask, don't tell" was one of their first rules. Every single one of them had wounds that remained hidden. Eva especially, from what he'd heard.
She didn't look at Zac but her intense gray gaze flickered. "When I need a father, Zac, I'll ask for it, okay?"
Zac opened his mouth to say something but Alex held up his hand. "It's fine. I accept your apology, Eva," he said, even though Eva hadn't offered him one, "but for future reference, can we keep my family out of any of these ‘great investment' deals?"
"Tell me about the deal," Gabriel said, ignoring the flare of blue as Alex turned to look at him.
Eva lifted her chin. "You didn't answer my question. What's with the sudden interest in Honor?"
He wasn't quite sure yet. All he knew was that she was connected to Guy Tremain. And perhaps that did make her a potentially useful tool. Especially since it concerned claiming justice for his mother.
But he wasn't going to tell everyone else that. Even after all these years it was too personal to tell anyone. That he was the walking, talking reminder of his mother's rape. That he'd spent the last nineteen years of his life knowing that whenever his mother looked at him, she didn't see her son but the face of the man who'd raped her.
Oh, she'd told Gabriel it wasn't true. That she couldn't remember who the man had been but Gabriel knew she'd lied. He'd heard her confessions, after all, whispered so that no one else would hear. Confessions of guilt and shame. And fear. Fear when she looked at her own son.
No. They didn't need to know about that.
Gabriel met Eva's gaze. "You said investment opportunity. So? I want to fucking invest."
Eva stared at him for a long moment. Then she looked down at her hands, examining the chipped polish on her nails. "Honor contacted me personally about a large hotel chain she's needing investors for. Apparently the company's been trying to turn some of the hotels into luxury eco-resorts but ran into serious debt. She still thinks the idea has merit and thought I might want to sink some cash into it because they want to use some of Void Angel's smart tech."
Luxury eco-resorts … that was familiar somehow but he couldn't quite place it. A Woolf Construction job maybe? His company did quite a bit of hotel building and certainly one of his own personal areas of interest was in green construction—that was where the smart money was these days.
"How interesting," Zac murmured, his voice soft.
Gabriel flicked a glance at the other man and met amber eyes that were staring calmly back. Must have something to do with the information he'd asked Zac to get for him …
Ah, yes. That was it. Zac's contact had pulled up a whole lot of financial info about Tremain Hotels, the hotel chain Guy Tremain owned. About how in debt the company was after an attempt to turn a select few of the hotels into a series of luxury eco-resorts.
Looked like Honor was trying to help her stepfather. Which could mean all sorts of opportunities, if so.
"Yes," Gabriel agreed, folding his arms. "Very interesting."
Alex abruptly pushed himself off the sofa in an impatient movement and went over to a phone that sat on one of the side tables. "Could we get more of the Macallan thirty-nine in here please, James," he said shortly into the receiver, then hung up and turned back to the rest of them. "Sorry, Eva. You're going to have to count me out on this one."
"Because it's your sister?"
"Yeah, because it's my sister."
"Why? Afraid she's going to call you out on the last nineteen years of no contact?"
"Eva," Zac said quietly. "Respect the group."
There was a flush in Eva's pale, fine-boned face, the glitter of something like pain in her eyes. Most of the time she was guarded, sarcasm her armor, but there were some things she felt deeply enough about to let that armor drop. Loyalty was one, the importance of family another. Gabriel could understand it. He'd first been fiercely loyal to the only blood relative he had—his mother. And then, when she turned away from him, the Angels, the motorcycle club that had embraced him and their president, the Reverend, the man who'd been a father figure to him.
Oh, yes, he understood the importance of loyalty.
Eva glanced at Zac and something unspoken flashed between them. Then she looked back to the fire. "I'm sorry," she said stiffly. "It's not my business."
Alex let out a short breath. "I may not contact her but that doesn't mean I don't know what's going on in her life. I try and keep tabs on what she's doing."
This was news to Gabriel, and judging by the expressions on the others' faces, news to them as well. Alex made no secret of the fact that he'd cut off all contact with his mother and sister after his father's death. He'd never explained his reasons for doing so and no one had ever asked, but Gabriel had always assumed that no contact meant no contact.
Alex's expression was unreadable. "That was an apology, by the way."
"I got it," Eva replied. "Well, anyway, I guess you're interested, aren't you, Gabe?"
Interested? That went without saying. Already his mind was turning over possibilities, investigating options.
His whole life had been about doing what had to be done. At first it had all been about mere survival. Making sure the life he and his mom had was secure. Then it had been about safeguarding that security any way he could. Protecting his mother, making sure she'd never have to suffer for the fact that she'd chosen to have him.
And now? Now he'd do what had to be done again.
To take down his rapist father. Get a little piece of justice for his mother.
"Yeah," Gabriel said. "I'm interested."
copyright © 2014 by Jackie Ashenden
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