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She was the girl next door. His brother’s ex. And the woman he spent a decade pretending to hate . . .
After twenty years of service, the Navy told me it’d be too risky to operate again, forcing me to retire as a Navy SEAL. Going back to my hometown to lick my wounds and figure out what came next was never the plan. Neither was having to turn to some old friends to save my younger brother’s life when he wound up in trouble. It was smooth sailing at first. Until I realized my brother lied. And I was falling for my fake girlfriend—my brother’s ex-fiancée.
He wasn’t only my ex’s brother, he was the most frustrating man I’d ever met.
The last person I expected to save me when my Jeep broke down was Ryan Rossi—a distant, broody, sexy man who’d been a thorn in my side for years. I had no time or room for him in my life. I should’ve been on top of the world after my restaurant survived its first year. Instead, I was drowning in debt and living in my childhood home right next door to that handsome thorn.
When Ryan offered help, a favor for a favor, how could I say no? All I had to do was find him a girlfriend within a week. Someone who wasn’t me. Because no way could I offer to fake date him, even if I found myself desiring him at every turn. And yet, the next thing I knew, I was in Tuscany with Ryan down on one knee. For me.
While the relationship may have been fake, the danger wasn’t. And Ryan once again proved not all heroes wear capes.
Release date: October 22, 2022
Print pages: 370
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Until You Can't
Three Years Ago
“If you’re going to summon me to your place, you could at least have the decency to be here,” I grumbled over the line, leaving my brother a voicemail. But why was I surprised he was MIA? Anthony barely made it to the ice rink before the clock started on game nights. “Call me back. Or better yet, get your ass over here.”
I pocketed my phone and set my overnight bag by the couch in his too-rich-for-my-blood condo in Uptown Charlotte.
For a pro-athlete, my brother’s security measures were shit. Key under the doormat and his birthday to disarm his security system—seriously, bro?
He was lucky I’d found my way inside like a normal guy tonight and not the professional door kicker the U.S. government had trained me to be over the last seventeen years.
Spotting the wet bar on the other side of the room, I made my way over. The Advil I’d popped an hour ago hadn’t made a dent in combatting my headache. Why I thought tossing back whiskey would be a great idea—hell if I knew? But I was on edge, wondering what favor my little brother would ask of me this time.
Your head injury might be my saving grace. Just head straight to my condo when you land, had been Anthony’s last message to me while I’d still been in the air. Cryptic as always.
Glad my concussion while keeping the world safe from terrorists will help you out this weekend, had been my initial response. A text like that would get me in a hell of a lot of trouble with the Navy, so instead of hitting send, I deleted it.
As part of DEVGRU, formerly known as SEAL Team Six, we weren’t allowed to share what we did or where we went. Zipped-fucking-lips was our motto.
But damn, the knock to my head had done a number on me. I could barely remember what actually went down that day in Pech Valley, Afghanistan. My platoon had been tasked with taking down a high-value target, and shit went sideways. My reward had been a concussion and two weeks of skull-splitting headaches.
Oh, and if that wasn’t bad enough . . . I’d had my “operator card” revoked until who knew the hell when. Alpha Three was currently filling in for me as our team leader’s number two, and that fact alone could’ve been the cause of my head pain. Three was a great sniper, but was he ready to be second-in-command? And if anything happened to my teammates out there because I wasn’t with them . . .
I cursed and reached for a bottle of Maker’s Mark, ready to take the edge off my pain and attitude, but my shoulders fell at the sight of a framed photo on the narrow table behind the couch. Ignoring the liquid relief in front of me, I gave in to the pull of the memory behind the glass, grabbing the picture as if the physical connection could tether me to the past.
It’d been taken in front of Dad’s shop, Rossi’s Auto Body, shortly after I graduated high school and the day I left to join the Navy. It’d also been the last day I saw my father alive.
It was hard to believe Dad was only nine years older in that photo than I was now. We looked just alike, too. We both stood at six foot one. I had his dark, slightly wavy hair. Similar sharp jawline. Same lost-looking brown eyes.
Anthony, on the other hand, had the Italian-sounding name, but he looked much more like Mom than Dad.
Our parents had fallen in love when they were eighteen. Dad came from a big Italian family, and since Mom was Irish, they’d objected to their marriage. They were old school like that. But Dad chose Mom despite his parents’ objections.
My hand trembled as painful memories tore through me, and I repositioned the photo back in place, worried I’d drop it.
When my phone vibrated in my pocket a moment later, I squeezed the emotions down my throat with a hard swallow before answering my brother’s call.
“You better be on your way,” I barked over the line. “Also, your security measures are shit.”
I grabbed my bag and headed to Anthony’s bedroom in need of a shower.
“My neighbor has an emergency key. I asked her to put it under the mat when I knew you were on your way,” he fired back as I dropped the bag and plopped down on the bed.
“Fine. But where are you?”
“About that, Ry.” Not the best words to hear from my brother.
“Let me guess, this is a trap. You’re not coming.”
“I need you to sub for me tonight and play nice with Nat. Be her date to this Halloween charity event I’m supposed to attend,” he dropped the news I sure as hell didn’t want to hear.
“Hard pass.” I attempted to stand, but my balance was off, and my ass went right back down. I needed more Advil. Or that whiskey. Maybe both.
“I’m not babysitting your girlfriend.” Any other woman and I wouldn’t care. But Natalia? Hell no.
“Come on, this charity event is for vets. Way more up your alley than mine. I’m just a donor. They already have my cash. Just make an appearance in the costume, smile, take a few pics, and then leave. Easy.”
“Costume?” Had my brother taken a few hits to the head recently, too? A couple of hockey pucks to the face, maybe? Because in what world did he think I’d play dress-up and escort Natalia to a party?
“Do this for me, and I won’t tell Mom about your head injury. You know how she overreacts.”
The fact that I fessed up to my brother I even had a concussion was proof of the damn concussion. In all my years, not once had I informed my family of the injuries I’d sustained while serving. Not personally, at least.
In my twenties, I’d found myself on the operating table twice, and my superiors had notified my family while I was in surgery.
I’d been fresh out of BUD/S the first time and thought I was Superman. I went up against a guy wearing a vest packed with explosives and no will to live, and I hadn’t had enough sense to recognize it.
And the second? My first deployment as a new recruit for DEVGRU. That mission had ended with a Navy Cross and back surgery.
“You’re playing dirty, bro. Even for you,” I griped.
“Nat will hate me forever if she misses this party. You know her, she loves Halloween. And she’s a big fan of this Maddox guy throwing the charity event. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s a former Marine with a ton of money, and he’s paying it forward by helping veterans get back on their feet.”
“Yeah, I know of him. Good guy. Great cause. But let Natalia hate you for missing the party because I’m not taking her. And in case you forgot, the woman can’t stand me.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear as Anthony hissed out a long, frustrated breath. My ears were already ringing, I didn’t need to worsen my headache. “Not true. She just thinks you hate her. And in her defense, you treat her like shit whenever you visit.”
I grunted. “I rarely visit.”
“You leave a lasting impression, what can I say?” He only gave me one second of silence before tossing out, “You’ve been an ass to her since we began dating in college. You weren’t a dick to her before that.”
“She was a kid before that,” I reminded him. “A teenager. And then I came home on leave, and . . .” She grew up.
I remembered that family dinner eight years ago, two days before Christmas, when Natalia Romano and Anthony announced they were a couple. Natalia had been twenty-one, and although Anthony was only one year older than her, they’d never been that close when we’d been younger. Not that I remembered. So, the dating news had taken me by surprise.
“And what?” Anthony prodded. “You didn’t think she was good enough for me?”
“Of course not. I just didn’t think you were right for each other.” I scoffed. “And I was right. You two lasted all of five minutes back then,” I added, unsure why that was relevant but the words slipped free anyway.
“It wasn’t our time. I was playing hockey for Michigan, and she was a Tar Heel. But . . . fate brought us back together again this year.”
“Her mom,” I reminded him. “She brought you together.”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyways, Nat is a sweet girl. Probably too good for me. So, do me a solid. Don’t be a dick, and take her to this party.”
She is too good for you. I kept that thought to myself and tried to stand again. Successful this time, I went to the floor-to-ceiling window and set a palm to the glass, taking in the amazing view of the city.
“The costume is hanging up in my closet. You can’t miss it. My fans on Twitter voted for what I’m wearing tonight. We’re the same size, it’ll fit.”
“Your fans voted?” I laughed and faced the room. “We really are living at opposite ends of the spectrum in life, aren’t we?”
“Come on. I had a game yesterday, and then this PR thing I had to do today ran late. And now my publicist needs me to stick around this weekend for some more shit.”
He was laying it on thick. Almost too thick. “Is your publicist hot?”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and bowed my head. “Just answer the question.” I hated that I didn’t trust my brother, but he was a pro-hockey player with women throwing themselves at him in every city he went to, so . . .
“What she looks like is irrelevant. I’m here for work. Just help me out.”
Work? Then why did I hear a siren-like sound in the background, as if someone just won big on the slots?
My little brother was at a casino. Of course. Gambling was Anthony’s second love after hockey. Dad taught us to play poker around the same time we learned how to tie our shoes. Betting with pennies and nickels back in the day was one thing, but now Anthony dropped stacks of cash on the tables, and he was horrible at knowing when to walk away.
“Does she know you’re not coming back this weekend?” I could feel myself relenting.
“I thought you could let her down easy for me. And why don’t you use this time to bond? Learn to like each other. I’m planning to propose soon.”
And then my dipshit brother ended the call.
Didn’t pick up when I called him back either.
“Anthony,” I hissed, then tossed my phone onto the bed before heading to his bathroom.
The en suite was as fancy as the rest of his luxury condo. I stepped around the partial glass wall to get to the shower, which had two more shower heads than necessary.
I turned each knob, and the blast of water washed the fog from my brain, and I replayed the last words Anthony had said on the call. “Wait, did he say propose?”
The water spraying my face alerted me that I was getting wet and still dressed.
Damn this concussion.
I lowered my focus to my boots, then exited the shower. One thing a SEAL hated was wet boots. Thankfully, I hadn’t been under the three shower heads long enough to penetrate the suede.
After removing my boots, I stripped off the rest of my damp clothes as quickly as possible and winced when I caught sight of my reflection.
Two weeks without operating meant my brownish-black hair was a bit more unruly than normal, and the hair on my face was well on its way to becoming a beard. But it was my eyes that told the real story. Tired. Haunted. Old.
Benched for a reason, I guess. I’d blacked out twice in the two weeks since that op, which I hadn’t told the doctors about, and waking up from those collapse-to-the-ground moments feeling hungover hadn’t been from whiskey. As much as I wanted to be downrange again, I’d never risk my teammates. But the second my head was back on straight, I’d spin up. Well, as soon as the doctor cleared me.
I massaged my temples, wishing the headache would go away. I’d turned down the stronger drugs the doctor had offered. I’d seen what heavy-duty prescription meds had done to a few buddies of mine.
With a sigh, I went back into the shower without clothes this time. I had to admit the three shower heads felt good, like a massage, especially when the water tap-tap-tapped against the nape of my neck. Extravagance had its benefits.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d simply stood there letting the water beat down on me, but I finally snatched one of the bottles and lathered myself in the soap. When the lavender scent hit my nose, I realized it was Natalia’s body wash.
I traded that bottle for another, one that was more minty-fresh, which I assumed was Anthony’s, and did my best to scrub her scent from my skin. I didn’t need to smell the woman on me all night.
But rewashing my body didn’t stop me from thinking about the last time I saw Natalia.
Mom’s Fourth of July party. When a neighbor’s big-oaf of a Doberman had gone running after a squirrel in our backyard and slammed into Natalia on his way.
I’d been close by and reached for Natalia, saving her from falling into the pool. Why had I saved her? Because she was in a sundress. The last damn thing I’d needed was to see Natalia in a wet sundress. To see it cling to her curves as if God had pasted the fabric to her stunning body.
But on that filthy hot Fourth of July day, when I’d “saved” her from the pool, I’d hauled her my way with too much force, causing her cheek to collide with my chest.
She’d lifted her green eyes, and I’d realized I was too close. Close enough to know she didn’t have perfume on, just a lavender-scented body wash. Shocked at what I had done, I’d immediately released her.
Sniffed my brother’s girlfriend. No concussion to blame then. Hell, not that I knew of, at least.
“Why are you thinking about her?” Because I’ll be seeing her tonight. “And now I’m having a conversation with myself.” Yeah, the doctors didn’t need to know about that.
I quickly shampooed my hair next, but when I turned off the shower, I heard someone call out, “Hey, it’s me.”
In hindsight, I should have opened my mouth and said, Don’t come in. It’s Ryan. But instead, I went for the towel hanging outside the shower as the door opened.
Natalia stood in the doorway. Eyes wide. Lips parted.
I half-expected her to comically slap a hand over her eyes, but nope, she slowly walked her gaze up the length of my body. Taking her time, too.
I cocked a brow. “Enjoying the show?” Not waiting for her eyes to meet mine, I secured the white fluffy towel around my waist before swiping both hands through my wet locks.
Natalia remained quiet, her eyes steady on my chest, and I assumed she’d spied some of the scars there. Including a fresh one from the op two weeks ago.
I leaned my weight against the wall at my side, amused by her shocked state.
But now it was my turn to catalog what she was wearing. And that turned out to be a horrible idea. Her Converse and skinny jeans weren’t a problem. It was the white T-shirt without a bra beneath that was the issue. Clearly, God was testing me.
Not only could I make out her full, round tits, but her nipples strained against the fabric.
“Tell me you didn’t come here in that,” I rasped, uncrossing my arms.
I felt her eyes snap to my face, so I did some sort of Jedi mind trick to convince myself to look up.
“What are you doing here?” she asked instead of answering me. “And why are you naked?”
I frowned and jerked a thumb over my shoulder, taking one step closer to her. “Spent my whole life doing the shower thing wrong, eh?” I asked, realizing the Canadian in me had taken over.
Mom may have been second-generation Irish, but she was born and raised in Toronto, and I’d spent a good chunk of my childhood living there as well. That was also where Anthony’s love for ice hockey developed.
“Right. I shower naked, too,” she murmured.
Thank you for that. My cock didn’t seem to understand she was my brother’s soon-to-be fiancée. My body only knew it’d been deprived of sex for far too long.
“Anthony’s not coming, is he?”
“Finally dawned on ya, huh?” I pointed to the room behind her. “Maybe I should get dressed. My brother and I might be nothing alike, but I’m sure he’d feel the same as me in not wanting my girl braless in front of a naked guy.”
“I doubt Anthony would give a shit, to be honest,” she responded once we were in the bedroom.
Annnd there’s the girl I remember. The blush was absent from her cheeks now.
“He’s not the possessive type. I mean, maybe he’d care if it was anyone but you. But you’re . . . you.” She circled her finger in the air like it was a wand.
“I’m me. You’re right about that,” I acknowledged, the gruffness in my voice evident as I worked to restrain my dick from standing at attention. “And since you’re my brother’s girlfriend, I’d like to say on his behalf, you shouldn’t walk around without a bra in a white tee.”
Her attention skated down to her chest as if only now remembering I’d pointed that out. “Oh shit, I had a hoodie on over this,” she began while finally giving me her back, “and when I heard the shower running, I tossed it with plans to join you . . . I mean, um, Anthony.”
My brother’s girl, I shoveled the reminder down my throat. What in the hell was wrong with me? Concussion. Right. Legitimate excuse? I hoped so.
“I can’t tell Anthony about this. He’ll want to know who is bigger. I know him. That’ll be the first thing out of his mouth,” she rambled while putting on her Carolina hoodie. She freed her long, dark hair from the inside of the sweatshirt, then folded her arms over her chest while facing me again.
“You won’t be able to lie, huh?” I winked.
“That wasn’t a joke.” I quickly erased the smirk that snuck up on me with the back of my hand. “Anthony’s first instinct should be to throat punch me, brother or not. I’d lose my shit if you were my woman and . . .” Where am I going with this? Nowhere good.
I went for my bag, unzipped it, and searched for something to put on. “What’s the costume his fans picked out?”
She had to be kidding, but when I looked up, she was in the doorway of his closet with the costume dangling from her hand. “Let me guess, you’re going as Mary Jane, Spiderman’s girlfriend?”
Natalia’s lips, which in my opinion, were better than my teenage crush, Angelina Jolie’s, twitched into a gorgeous smile. “The fact you know that’s his girlfriend’s name is kind of cute.”
“I’ve never been described as cute.” I straightened, only my boxers in my hand. “But I was a nerd in high school. Not that you’d remember. You’re a lot younger than me.”
“Only by seven years.” Her breathy tone had the hairs on my arms standing. “And I remember,” she quickly added before heading back into the closet. “But if he’s standing me up tonight,” she called out when I lost sight of her, “I think it’s only fair you get to wear whatever you want. Screw it, right?”
She returned having swapped the Spiderman costume for a suit, and her attention landed on the briefs I held.
“Talia, I . . .” No idea where I was going with that.
“Talia?” Her eyes flew back to my face. “You haven’t called me that in ages.”
Where had that come from? Shit. I tossed my free hand through my wet hair.
“I should probably let you get some clothes on.” Her pinched brows had me curious, but I kept my mouth shut.
Seeing her flustered and off-balance was somehow disarming. And I didn’t like how she was affecting me right now.
“You’re being nice to me tonight. You okay? Hit your head?” she teased, and damn, she had no idea.
“Would you prefer if I’m a dick?”
The small little swallow I clocked from her and the way her gaze dipped to my crotch when I said the word “dick” had me taking an uneasy step back.
And why did part of me want to rat out my brother right now? Tell Natalia he was in a casino gambling his fortune away. Choosing his addiction over her. Did she even know about his gambling problems?
“No, I prefer this you.” Another little swallow followed her words as her eyes returned to my face.
“So . . .” Great, now I was gulping. “What’s the suit supposed to represent? Businessman doesn’t seem like a costume.” Well, it would be for me. Far cry from my normal attire.
She lifted one shoulder. “I was thinking Italian mafioso. Wear this suit but with a black dress shirt beneath the open jacket. Pop a few top buttons. Call it a day?”
I tossed the boxer briefs onto the bed, feeling weird holding them while in a towel, but there was also nothing normal about this entire situation. “You didn’t answer me, though. Are you going as Mary Jane or someone else?”
Natalia chewed on her lip, and whatever shred of comfort I still had in me dissolved. “Aphrodite, actually. Goddess of love.”
I gripped the back of my neck, painfully worried about her wearing a costume like that around me. But before I could conjure up an inappropriate image of her in some toga, a sharp stabbing sensation behind my eyes commanded my attention. Every part of my skull was on fire, and I blinked a few times, trying to focus.
“Hey, you okay?” Natalia let go of the suit and started my way.
“Yeah, I’m . . .” I dropped to my knees as she reached for my arms, and I accidentally pulled her down with me.
“You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”
I forced my gaze to meet her eyes the best I could. “If I pass out, just let me sleep it off, okay? Don’t tell my mother,” I mumbled as a curtain of darkness slowly descended over my eyes. “Please, Tal—” I couldn’t fight whatever was happening to me any longer, so I rushed out, “Just promise you won’t take me to the hospital.”
* * *
“You’re awake. Thank God.”
But am I awake? I sure as hell hoped I was dreaming, and that wasn’t my mother’s voice I’d heard when my lids had parted for all of a second.
“Can you shut off the lights? Hard on his eyes.” Yup, that was Mom, all right. Which meant Natalia didn’t listen to me. Not a surprise.
“Honey, how are you feeling?”
A man would always be “honey” or “sweetheart” to my mother. It didn’t matter that I was thirty-six and hunted terrorists for a living. I’d be her kid until I died. And based on the fact I heard her talking, my time wasn’t up yet.
I didn’t want to face reality, so I battled the persistent urge to reopen my eyes to find out my current situation.
But the memory of wearing only a towel before collapsing, practically in Natalia’s arms, shocked my eyes open. My attention landed squarely on Natalia. At least they had already dimmed the lights. You’re here. I let go of a shaky breath and ripped the small tube from my nose that provided oxygen I didn’t need.
“I’m sorry,” Natalia mouthed, and I shook my head, knowing she’d only been scared. But still, if word about this trip to the hospital got out to my commanding officer, it’d further delay my operational status.
I zeroed in on the IV in my arm and my mother’s hand next to it, then dragged my attention to her face, where a pair of worried green eyes found mine. “How long was I asleep? How’d I get here?” And was I still in a towel when 911 came?
“It’s three in the morning. You passed out at Anthony’s place, and thank God Natalia happened to show up. She found you on the bedroom floor in only your boxers and a tee.”
My gaze flicked toward Natalia. So, you attempted to save some of my dignity, huh? I discreetly nodded my thanks, but the fact she’d had to dress me . . .
“Anthony can’t get a flight until the morning, but he wishes he was here,” Mom added, smoothing her hand over my arm, careful not to touch the IV.
“It was a bad migraine,” I insisted, not a total lie. “I don’t need to be here. Nothing to worry about.”
“Natalia called Anthony after 911, and he told her about the concussion. Then she told me, and when I got here, I informed the doctor.” Where was Mom going with this? “Given your line of work, and since you recently had a concussion, the doctor was worried about a possible brain bleed. They had to rule it out before waking you, so you also have anesthesia in your system. You’re not going anywhere yet.”
“Did they find a bleed?” I asked, hating the trepidation in my tone.
“No.” Okay, so why didn’t Mom sound relieved? “But since you signed those papers a while back that allows doctors to discuss your health with me, well, they told me what they did find on the scans.”
Great, I knew what was coming. The doctor just worried the hell out of her, and for no good reason. She had enough on her plate. She didn’t need to deal with more because of me.
“You’ve taken too many hits to the head. He said something about small tears, I think,” she nervously explained, swiping a shaky hand through her silver hair. “I don’t remember the technical term, but he’s concerned. I’m concerned.”
“And you should be,” the doctor said, entering the room. He swapped places with my mother by the bed. “I strongly recommend you quit operating before there’s so much damage you don’t wake up next time. Or maybe you wake up and don’t remember who you are.”
Shit, maybe I am dreaming? Why’d this guy look like the doc from that show my mom loved? Grey’s Anatomy? What was his name? Doctor McDreamy or something? To hell if he was making decisions about my life.
“Thankfully, it’s not up to you,” I blurted as he flashed a light in my eyes and then held my wrist, checking my pulse.
He ignored me and continued with his lecture, “I’m sure you’re well aware of the dangers of your job. And you must know the research shows that explosions and . . .”
He kept talking.
I stopped listening.
Of course I knew the risks. And it didn’t change the fact I still wanted to operate.
Then he dropped the bomb that grabbed my full attention again, “I’m afraid if you don’t report what happened to the Navy, I’ll have to.”
I tried to sit, but Mom sidestepped the doctor and placed a hand on my chest, urging me back down.
I wasn’t sure if the doctor was bluffing or not. Wasn’t there some sort of oath a doctor took? Privacy shit? But then again, I was the property of the United States government. Many civilian rules didn’t apply to me.
“I’m surprised the Navy let you run around only two weeks after you suffered such a major concussion,” the doctor continued. “I’m betting last night wasn’t the first time you lost consciousness. You haven’t given your body and brain time to heal. You’re running yourself into the ground, and your head can’t take one more blow. If you care about your teammates and their safety, you’ll make the right choice and walk away.” He looked at my mom, then tipped his head toward the door.
I had planned to protest their private conversation, certain they’d be discussing my health and my future without me, but when my gaze shot over to Natalia, I became distracted by her worrying her lip between her teeth.
“I’m so sorry,” Natalia said once we were alone. “I don’t want to be the reason you can’t operate.”
My shoulders fell at the concern in her soft voice. “You’re not the reason.” I wanted to be mad at her for calling 911, for not listening to me, but how could I be?
But I refused to believe the doctor. My head wasn’t that bad. It couldn’t be. I’d recover. I always did. I’d find a way.
For some stupid reason, I reached for Natalia. I blamed whatever drugs they were pumping through me.
Her eyes lowered to my palm resting on her forearm. She still had on her hoodie from last night. She’d been there all night with Mom, hadn’t she?
I cleared my throat and pulled my hand back. “So, uh, does Anthony know I’m bigger than him . . . or did he get the same story as Mom? That you found me passed out on the floor wearing a tee and boxers?”
She was quiet for a moment as she slowly worked her gaze from her arm to my eyes. “I went with the safe answer.”
I arched a brow. “Which was?”
Natalia wet her lips and whispered, “The lie.”
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