A small-town woman is swept off her feet by a caring stranger in this charming western romance from a "fabulous storyteller" (Carolyn Brown, New York Times bestselling author). Forty candles, and one for luck. Jenna Owens wants one thing for her birthday this year: a fairy-tale ending of her own and a little relaxation at a quaint California ranch. What she didn’t want was to get caught in a storm on her way to Meadow Valley. Or to get stuck with a ridiculously hot, too-charming-for-his-own-good cowboy—one who makes Jenna reconsider her “I don't date younger guys” rule. But a little vacation flirtation might be just what she needs. Colt Morgan isn’t interested in long-term relationships. Not since his last one crashed and burned after his fiancée found out he wanted a big family. So when he learns that Jenna has a list of items to accomplish on her trip—including having fling—Colt is all too happy to oblige. Yet the more he and Jenna get to know each other, the more Colt starts to wonder if maybe they have a chance at a real future. But when Jenna’s past upends everything Colt thought he wanted, are all bets off? Or will they find a way to make both their dreams come true? Includes the bonus novella Sealed with a Kiss by Melinda Curtis!
Release date: March 30, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 352
Reader says this book is...: emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (1) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) thought-provoking (1)
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Only a Cowboy Will Do
Jenna Owens loved a good party. She could turn the smallest of celebrations—like her great-nephew, Owen, pitching a no-hitter—into the biggest deal. Ice cream (always), cake, a water balloon fight, you name it. If she could think of an excuse to get festive, she’d do so in a heartbeat. The only person she tended to forget to celebrate was herself.
Thanks to her family, that so was not the case now as she stood over a three-tiered double chocolate cake alight with forty-one candles—yes, she counted—the one being for good luck. Next to the blaze of firelight sat a tub of strawberry ice cream—her favorite—just waiting to be scooped on top of its first slice.
She held her blond hair back from her face as the rest of the roomful of people sang the final “Happy birthday to youuuuuu!”
She was surrounded by everyone she loved, but what made the occasion even more special was that it was planned by her three nephews—Jack, Luke, and Walker. Although she’d raised them through their teen years, they were grown men now, taking care of her on her special day, and her heart swelled to three times its size at the constant reminder of the amazing men they’d turned out to be.
A loud squawk came from the floor below, and Jenna laughed. She almost forgot her partner in crime—Lucy, her sometimes psychic chicken.
“Looks like someone thinks it’s time to blow out the candles,” Jack Everett—the eldest of her three nephews—said. “Does it count as psychic ability if she’s warning you that the cake might catch fire when we can all see that the cake is about to catch fire?”
Jenna waved him off. “Can y’all just give me a second to think of the perfect wish? This is the big four-oh, after all,” she chided. “Plus everybody knows Lucy’s only psychic about matters of the heart. She’s special, but she does have her limitations.”
Lucy squawked again.
“All right, all right,” Jenna said with mock irritation.
She glanced around the room that was filled with everyone she loved. Her heart felt full to bursting. She had everything she wanted, yet…
No. It was too silly to put all the magic of a wish into that. It was selfish. It was— Dammit, it was her fortieth birthday, and she was going to wish for whatever the hell she wanted.
Okay, birthday wish goddess or whoever you are…would a fairy-tale ending of my own be too much to ask?
The only problem was that Jenna didn’t know what that meant for her. She didn’t know how her story was supposed to go, only that since her early twenties it had veered onto a course she’d never expected to take, and now she was forty and still clueless. Her farm and selling her eggs were successful enough. Her family, albeit unconventional, was one she loved. Her nephews, though, were grown and had started their own families. After the better part of two decades, they could take care of themselves now. What was the rest of her life if it wasn’t taking care of them?
But fairy-tale endings came in all shapes and sizes. She just wasn’t sure which one would fit her. So she’d let the wish take care of it.
And with that, she sucked in a deep breath and saved the B&B from being engulfed in flames.
Happy birthday to me.
She pulled a candle from the cake and skimmed it, even though it was chocolate-covered, across the top of the ice cream tub until she had equal parts chocolate and strawberry. Then she grinned and licked the candle clean.
“What’d you wish for?” Jack’s wife, Ava, asked, then immediately covered her mouth. “Wait! Don’t answer that or it won’t come true.”
Jenna raised her brows. “Oh, I know the rules of wishin’,” she said. “My lips are sealed.”
Lucy flapped her wings, getting everyone’s attention, and once again squawked.
Jenna rolled her eyes. “Not sure what’s up with her tonight. She doesn’t usually get her feathers ruffled about something so common as a birthday.” Then she shrugged. “Oh well. Who wants cake?”
After one slice too many—not that she was apologizing for overdoing it on her birthday—Luke popped open another bottle of the Crossroads Ranch and Vineyard’s most recent vintage.
“Wait, wait, wait,” his fiancée, Lily, said before he poured his aunt another much-anticipated glass. “It’s time for presents!”
Before Jenna could protest that the party was enough, Olivia began piling wrapped gifts onto the long wooden table in the bed-and-breakfast’s common room. It wasn’t a huge pile. After all, the party was intimate enough. But still, didn’t they get it? She was blown away by the party as it was. Jenna wasn’t used to so much attention, and she certainly didn’t need it. All she needed was to be surrounded by the people she loved, and she had that in spades. Now there were gifts?
“Open mine first!” Owen said.
He was twelve now. How was that possible? It would mean she was…Jenna laughed.
She was forty. Forty. Yet she still didn’t feel a day over twenty-one.
Forty was a grown-up. Forty meant she had life all figured out.
Forty was a big, fat lie. Happy? Sure. She was happy. Wizened with all the answers? Not even close.
But she had presents. And that wasn’t so bad.
“Okay, nephew of mine,” she said to Owen. “Yours first.”
He handed her the small, square box covered in her favorite recycled wrapping paper from the gift shop in town. She could tell he’d probably wrapped it himself, and that made her heart swell all that much more.
“What could it be?” she asked, carefully peeling off the tape in the hope of maybe using the paper again.
She held the plain white box in her hand and gave it a little shake.
“Hey,” Owen said. “That’s cheating. Mom and Dad don’t let me shake my gifts, which means you don’t get to shake yours.”
She laughed, and there it was again, that heart swell. Jack didn’t even know Owen existed before his son turned nine, and now here the boy was, calling him Dad like he’d been doing it since day one.
Fairy-tale endings abounded in the small town of Oak Bluff, California, which meant her wish wasn’t so off base. Was it?
She lifted the top flap of the box and pulled out a mildly scuffed baseball, one that bore a signature on the cleanest patch of white.
“From my last no-hitter,” Owen said, his cheeks turning pink. “Coach let me keep the game ball and…I mean, I know you’re just being Aunt Jenna when you say I’m gonna be in the major leagues someday, but in case you’re right, maybe this will be worth something, and you can sell it for buckets of money.”
Ava, Owen’s mom, swiped at a tear under her eye. She and Jack sure had raised one hell of a kid.
Jenna stood and wrapped her great-nephew into the biggest hug, marveling at how he was almost as tall as she was.
“Not even if it was worth a million dollars—or more,” she said. “No way in the world I’d sell something as important as this. Consider it priceless.”
Owen let out a nervous laugh when she released him from the hug. “Okay, Aunt Jenna,” he said, the pink in his cheeks blooming to a full crimson. “Anyway. Happy birthday.”
She opened the rest of the gifts with a full heart and belly but with just enough room for another glass of wine. When she had a stack of perfectly preserved wrapping paper, her youngest nephew, Walker, slapped a white business-sized envelope down on the table in front of her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
Walker gave her a single nod, one that told her to just open it already. Even after all these years, he was still a man of few words, yet he could say so much with a simple look.
He crossed his arms and planted his feet next to his brother Luke, who stood to Jack’s right. All three of them had their arms crossed over their chests. All stared at her with a strange gleam in their eyes, though she noted Luke had to push his overgrown blond hair—the same color as his brothers’ yet desperately in need of a cut—out of the way so he could give her that mysterious look.
They were a heartbreakingly gorgeous trio, inside and out, and Jenna liked to think she had a part in them turning out the way they did. So what were they up to now?
“Y’all are making me nervous staring like that,” she finally said.
Jack raised his brows.
And Walker maintained his stoic expression.
She lifted the envelope and gave it a little shake, not that she expected to hear anything inside.
“Cheating,” Owen reminded her.
“Chea-ing!” his toddler sister, Clare, parroted from her booster seat on the other side of the table.
Jenna laughed. “Okay, okay.” Then she tore at the envelope, careful not to rip whatever was inside, until she pulled out one single tri-folded piece of paper.
Her brows furrowed. “It’s a reservation for a two-week stay at the Meadow Valley Guest Ranch. That’s Sam and Ben’s place up north, isn’t it?”
The three men nodded in unison. Hell, they could be mistaken for triplets if you didn’t know there were two years between each of them.
“For me?” she added.
This time Ava, Lily, Olivia, and Cash—Owen and Clare, too—nodded along with her nephews.
“I still don’t get it,” she said. “I can’t leave the farm for two weeks. And—and this had to have cost y’all a fortune. I can’t possibly—”
“You can,” Walker said, interrupting her.
“We’ve got the farm covered,” Lily said, snaking her arm through Luke’s. “Between all of us here—including the sheriff—”
Cash grunted his agreement, though Jenna wasn’t sure if he’d volunteered for the duty or gotten roped into it by Olivia. It didn’t matter. They’d planned it all out, her wonderful unconventional family. Her pulse quickened, and her belly flip-flopped. When was the last time she’d taken time for only herself without worrying about anyone or anything else?
She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t fathom the idea of being carefree for even a day, let alone two weeks.
“But what about—” she started.
Jack cut her off. “Sam’s fiancée, Delaney, has an animal shelter on the property. Lucy will be right at home with the menagerie I hear she has there already.”
“But how will I…I mean, my truck isn’t meant for distance driving,” she said.
“Colt Morgan—Ben Callahan’s buddy, who owns the other third of the ranch—he’s in town for the weekend to see his sister,” Luke told her. “He’s picking you up at eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning, which means you’re spending the night with Jack and Ava at the ranch. He’ll give you a lift up north. And we got you booked on a puddle jumper to come back home when your stay is done.”
Jenna didn’t know what to say. Her eyes were leaking something fierce, so she was at least conveying her gratitude even if she couldn’t think of the words.
Jenna had taken over the family farm in her early adult years when she lost her parents and had never thought twice about it. In fact, she’d grown to love it. When her nephews needed her at the most difficult time in their lives, she’d stepped up to the challenge without batting an eye. Not once had she asked for anything in return. Family was everything, and you did what you had to do for the people you loved.
But now they were doing for her, and she’d never felt more loved in her entire life.
She stood and strode to her nephews, attempting to wrap them in a group hug, but they were too tall and too broad.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” she said with something between a laugh and a cry. “Hug the hell out of me if I can’t hug all of you.”
The three men breathed a collective sigh and wrapped their strong arms around her.
“It’s not even close to what we owe you for all you’ve done for us,” Jack said, softly so that only the four of them could hear. “But it’s a start.”
He was wrong, though. They’d done as much for her as she’d done for them. Maybe even more. They’d brought love and connection into her life when she’d lost her parents and then her sister, Clare—their mother—as well.
But she couldn’t get the words out for fear she’d start sobbing all over their shoulders. So she said what she could until she could compose herself better.
And then she hugged them a little harder, hanging on to the moment for as long as they’d let her.
That night, when she crawled into bed, she found a wrapped rectangular box—the size of a large picture frame—waiting on her pillow.
She pulled the small card from its envelope and read.
I found an old box in the attic a couple weeks ago—stuff that belonged to my mother and I guess you too. I hope it’s okay I waited until now to give it to you. And I hope you enjoy the gift.
Jenna’s throat tightened at the mere mention of her sister, Clare. It didn’t matter how many years it had been since she’d passed. Grief was forever.
Her pulse quickened, and her heart thumped against her chest as she tore the wrapping from the box and lifted the lid. Staring back at her was her high school yearbook from senior year. Colored tabs stuck out from various pages, and she opened to the first one—a picture of Jenna in the front row of the Outdoor Adventure Club—a club she’d created simply so she and her friends could plan camping trips and have the school foot the bill.
She laughed and ran her finger over the image on the page, pausing when it landed on Thomas Clayton—the boy who’d been her first kiss. It was awkward and amazing all at the same time, not to mention under a star-studded California sky. She couldn’t complain.
She turned to the next tab—International Club—and her throat tightened. The club hadn’t involved much more than sampling cuisine from countries around the world or diving into travel websites planning the trips they’d all take someday, yet that someday still hadn’t come for Jenna.
Which was okay. She was happy. She had so much.
But when she flipped to the next tab, she had to stifle a sob.
There stood seventeen-year-old Jenna, president of the Creative Writing Club, holding up the prizewinning story she wrote based on her hero, her sister Clare.
She pressed the open book to her chest and heaved out a shuddering breath. That was when she noticed the yearbook wasn’t the only thing in the box. Beneath a layer of tissue paper she found a brown, leather-bound journal and a package of brightly colored gel pens—because of course that was exactly what she’d choose for herself if she was going to ever put pen to paper again.
A sticky note sat atop the journal.
Maybe it’s time to get back some of what you lost.
The tears fell freely now, a mingling of hope and grief.
Her nephews had already given more than she could have imagined, and now Jack had bestowed upon her the memories of what once was—and the idea of what these next two weeks could be.
She wiped the tears from under her eyes and tore open the pens. She wasn’t yet ready to write a story or anything like that, but she could start with something.
Fourteen Wishes for Fourteen Days of Me:
Then she crossed out Fourteen because a wish a day? Way too optimistic.
When Jenna blew out the candles, she’d wished for her own happily-ever-after. But what if she just enjoyed this trip without worrying about what she might have lost or what came next?
Seven Wishes for a Happily-for-Now…
She could at least achieve a wish for every two days, right? She thought about the tabs Jack had left in her yearbook.
1. Sleep outside under the stars.
2. Eat food from a country I’ve always wanted to visit.
3. Eat the best ice cream in town.
Okay, she would have insisted on number three whether there was a list or not.
Her eyes went back to number one. She’d had her first kiss under the stars. What if, on this trip, she had her first…?
4. Have a vacation fling. (And do not fall for said fling because…then it’s not a fling, silly.)
There. She wrote it. She had to do it, right? She had to admit the idea was far-fetched. After all, what were the odds of meeting someone in the span of two weeks, getting to know them, and proposing a fling?
She laughed softly to herself.
You don’t need to get to know a fling, Jenna. That’s what makes it a fling. That’s what makes it fun.
Maybe that’s what Jenna had been getting wrong in the relationship department all these years. She’d tried to make every connection a forever connection. Perhaps it was time to simply have fun.
She giggled, and her cheeks flushed even though no one else was around. How had she made it to forty without having done this? Probably because while getting her school to sponsor camping trips was a clear financial gain, it did make running naked into a lake much more difficult to pull off. And because she hadn’t camped since…
6. Be the last one at the bar at closing time.
That one might sound silly to some, but for a woman who’d been waking with the chickens for as long as she could remember, staying out past 9:00 p.m. was a feat in and of itself.
7. Write something more meaningful than a list.
There. She wrote it all down, which meant she had to do it—a binding contract with herself. She even signed her name at the bottom of the list.
Maybe it wasn’t the happily-ever-after she’d wished for when she blew out forty-one candles, but it was a start. For years Jenna Owens had lived her life for everyone else—for those she loved—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. But for two weeks she could be selfish. For two weeks she could worry about nothing other than having fun. For two weeks, Jenna would put Jenna first.
Colt Morgan hugged his sister tight and then held her an arm’s length away, his hands still on her shoulders. He wasn’t quite ready to walk out the door.
“When did you go and grow up on me?” he asked, the question only partly teasing.
She laughed, her brown eyes crinkling. The eyes were the only physical trait they shared, despite having the same birth parents. Where Colt’s hair was sandy blond and his skin olive, Willow’s hair was a warm chestnut, her skin fair. You had to look at the eyes to know.
“I’ve been touring for two years now,” she said, referring to her fledgling singing career. “I’m a big girl, Colt. Have been for a long time.”
His jaw tightened. “I just hate all the time we missed,” he said, recalling the years they lived apart—Colt bouncing from one foster home to another while Willow’s very first foster family adopted her. Five years her senior, he wasn’t allowed to contact her until she was eighteen. And the wait had been agonizing—only for him to find out she’d lived one town away the whole time. They’d been back in each other’s lives since then, but even though she was twenty-five and a grown woman, he still saw her as the six-year-old girl he’d lost all those years ago.
She shrugged. “You could join me next time I head out. A struggling artist always needs an extra roadie.”
He raised a brow. “Or you could establish yourself as a local artist up in Meadow Valley, live at the ranch. Promise you wouldn’t struggle for anything.”
She crossed her arms. “That’s your dream, brother. Putting down roots, filling a house with a brood of mini Colts. Me? I prefer the road.”
She hugged him again, then nodded toward the door. “Go on now. You don’t want to be late. And here.” She grabbed a round blue tin off the table next to the front door of the small house she rented. “Baked these last night when I couldn’t sleep. Figured you’d need some sustenance on the road.”
He opened the tin and peered inside, then raised his brows. “You made me toffee shortbread cookies?” He grinned. No one could replicate their mother’s recipe like Willow. And in addition to the cookies being his favorite, they were also a reminder that despite what happened all those years ago, he and sister had found their way back to each other and were a family once more.
She nodded. “Two dozen. And you better share with Jenna.”
His smile faded. “Not if I hide them in my duffel.”
She slapped him playfully on the shoulder. “Colt Morgan. That woman is going to be a guest at your ranch for two weeks. I suggest your hospitality begin the second she gets in your car.”
He grabbed a cookie and tossed the whole thing straight into his mouth. The rich, buttery dough tasted like home, the decadent toffee awakening his taste buds, making him feel like he hadn’t truly tasted food since—since the last time Willow had baked for him. Not that he’d ever admit such a thing to Luis, Meadow Valley Ranch’s resident chef.
He closed his eyes and groaned.
“It’s a twenty-minute drive to Crossroads Ranch,” he said, his mouth still full. “There might not be anything left to share. And I’m as hospitable as they come, sis. You know that.”
She reached for the tin, but he closed it quickly and pivoted away, like a child guarding his favorite toy.
“You’re impossible,” she said.
He swallowed, then kissed her on the cheek.
“I better see you up north soon,” he said, his playful tone disappearing.
“Soon,” she said, drawing out the word, which he knew meant the exact opposite. He decided not to call her out on it. He didn’t want to ruin the moment. Besides, what reason could she have not to want to visit him?
“Love you, Wills,” he finally said.
“Love you, big bro.” And she kissed his cheek as well.
Then he was out the door, tossing his bag and the most precious cargo—his tin of cookies—into the trunk of his hybrid SUV.
He loved Meadow Valley and the ranch he both ran and had helped build. But every time he came back to Oak Bluff—and then left again—he left with an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. Sure, he could fill the pit with toffee shortbread cookies and the memory of the time he spent with his sister, but how long would that last? Only about as long as the contents of the tin. Then he’d be back to searching for what he still couldn’t find.
Connection. A family of his own. A chance to be the father he’d never had. Correction…He and Willow had had a father. He just decided parenting wasn’t for him after Willow was born. And their mother?
He shook his head. He wasn’t going down that road. Not when he was about to share a six-hour car ride with someone he barely knew who’d probably want him to talk or at least not brood for the entirety of the ride.
On second thought, it was his car, and he was giving her a free ride. Plus, Ben and Sam had given the Everett brothers the friends-and-family discount for their aunt’s stay—not that Colt even knew there was such a discount.
He climbed into the vehicle and reminded himself that he wasn’t a brooder. Those days were far behind him. Despite what he thought he lacked in his life, he was happy. Enlightened, even. Wasn’t that what meditation was for? That was what he told himself, at least. And for the past few years he’d believed it.
He kept up the reminder, a silent mantra in his head, as he made his way toward the Crossroads Ranch and Winery. By the time he got there, he’d have bet top dollar that the smile plastered on his face looked genuine.
He’d never met the Everett brothers’ aunt, but he figured the older woman deserved not only his respect but also some semblance of pleasantness. And he’d learned to be damned pleasant when the occasion called for it.
He was ready to ring the doorbell when he saw the note taped to the screen door.
Door’s unlocked. Come on in.
He shrugged, kicked the dust off his boots as he pulled open the screen, and gave the handle of the main door a gentle turn.
The house was eerily silent for a residence occupied by Jack, Ava, their two children, and a dog.
He cleared his throat. “Hello?” he said at full volume while careful not to yell. “Everett?”
A woman rounded the corner from the kitchen and approached. Her blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, revealing a tan, crescent-moon-shaped birthmark on her neck. Her plain white T-shirt—the front of which was tucked into cutoff denim shorts—complemented her sun-bronzed skin, and he guessed she spent a good portion of her time outdoors.
She was—wow. For a second he wished she would be his road-trip partner rather than Jack’s aunt. But then again, the safest way to drive was to keep his eyes on the road, and whoever this woman was would make that really difficult.
“You must be Colt,” she said, holding out her hand.
He swore he heard the hint of a Southern twang in her first couple of words.
He shook her hand. “I am,” he said, his brows furrowing. “I’m supposed to pick up Jack Everett’s aunt.”
Maybe this woman was her daughter? He didn’t remember Jack and his brothers making a reservation for more than one guest. And all Sam had said was that he was picking up Jack’s aunt. No mention of anyone else. Hell, Willow’s cookies wouldn’t last more than the six-hour ride if three of them went to town on the tin.
The woman laughed, her blue eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I’m Jenna,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you. Poor baby Clare woke with an ear infection in the middle of the night. Jack and Ava just got her down about an hour ago and fell back asleep themselves. Owen and the dog are sleeping in his room, so I promised we’d leave quietly. I just have to grab my bag from the kitchen and my chicken from the backyard.”
She spun on the heel of her well-worn sneaker and strode back in the direction from which she’d come.
Colt blinked, letting the information sink in.
Jack’s aunt was called Jenna.
Her name was Jenna.
She was grabbing her bag—to go with him.
And her chicken?
“I thought I was here to pick up Jack Everett’s aunt,” he called after her.
She reappeared and delivered a quick shhh! Then she pressed her palms together, laying her head on top of them to mime the act of sleeping.
Right. Sick baby. Whole house asleep.
Colt winced, then mouthed the word sorry. He glanced over his shoulder at the door and motioned for her to follow him out, and she nodded.
He let himself out of the house, careful not to let the door slam, then practically tiptoed back to the car as if everyone inside could hear his boots against the pavement.
He figured he was safer waiting out here than evoking the ire of a sleep-deprived family. Though if he was any sort of a gentleman—which he liked to think he was—he’d have offered to help her with her bag and her—chicken?
Whatever. It was too late now. If he barged back into the house, he’d only make things worse.
He leaned against the vehicle’s hood and crossed his feet in front of him. Not two minutes later she strode out the front door, a backpack hanging from one shoulder and a live chicken trailing behind her.
He straightened and made his approach, intending to do the gentlemanly thing and grab her bag. But the animal—the chicken—sped around her feet squawking her head off as she pecked at Colt’s boots.
“Lu-cy!” Jenna whisper-shouted. “He’s our ride, not some sort of threat.” She laughed nervously and picked the chicken up, holding her under her arm like a football. “Sorry about that,” she said. “She usually has great intuition, but her abilities seem a little off kilter this morning.”
Colt knew he should probably bite his tongue, that the answer to the question would likely leave him more confused than he already was, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Abilities?” he asked.
She nodded with a grin that made his pulse race, especially with that lone dimple in her right cheek.
“Psychic abilities,” Jenna said.
He snorted, and narrowed eyes along with a set jaw replaced her smile.
“If my nephew was awake,” she said, “he’d confirm it. But right now I guess you’re going to have to take my word for it. If there’s one thing you should know about me, Colt Morgan, it’s that I don’t lie, and I take Lucy’s intuition to heart. When she’s onto something. But clearly she is off her game today.”
The chicken squawked what sounded like disapproval. Great, now Colt was getting aboard with the whole psychic-chicken thing?
Jenna shushed Lucy again.
“That was two things, by the way,” Colt said.
Her brows furrowed.
He raised his. “You said that if there’s one thing I should know, it’s that you don’t lie and that you take Lucy’s”—he waved a hand in the air—“I don’t know…predictions? You take her predictions to heart. I was simply. . .
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