Genre = Contemporary Romance, Romantic Comedy, Over 30 Romance
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Dating at age 40 is the hardest game Taylor has ever played.
Despite injured Hockey player Maximillian Wade’s charm, masculine appeal, and having an amazing brother engaged to her best friend, Taylor was keeping her distance. Her no-dating-jocks resolution went double for dating “Wicked Wade” whose womanizing past was a matter of public record. Even though he’s barely over 30, Max insists he’s a reformed man, but how can she believe him? At her age, she no longer believes the promises the men she’s known only pretended to keep.
Just like her two best friends, Taylor learned her hardest lessons about love long before she turned 40. Her ex-husband divorced her when her sports-centered career almost went bankrupt to marry a rich woman. Good riddance, right? Yes, but until then, she hadn’t even known he was that kind of person. Once Pink Link Sports became solvent again times ten, Taylor hadn’t seen any reason to attach herself to a man. Dating became optional.
That decision, though, was ironic given her business provided her with a veritable banquet of dating opportunities on a daily basis. The men who used her high-profile gym were talented, good-looking, and rich enough to afford her rates. Unfortunately, most also believed they deserved to date whoever they wanted whenever they wanted without worrying about Taylor daring to use the “c” word around them.
Taylor saw herself as having been there, done that, and gotten too many consolation gifts to prove temporary relationships weren’t for her. Instead, she learned to accept that pretending to commit to one woman was merely a romantic ploy famous athletes used to get into a woman’s bed for a short while.
Taylor wants a real home, maybe a family, and someone who’d cook for her occasionally. Those tiny dreams are all that’s survived her disappointing love life.
He’d been following Taylor now for fifteen minutes with no better results than he’d had over the phone. She was walking around the gym floor in a black knee-skimming skirt and a fitted silk blouse the same color as the halter dress she’d worn at the hotel. Ignoring him, she checked equipment, wrote down serial numbers, and bent her not-dressed-for-the-gym body at revealing angles.
And he wasn’t the only one noticing.
Max frowned at her back. “Why are you shutting me out without a chance, Taylor? You’ve already admitted you’ve dated as much as I have. I just managed it in fewer years than you did.”
Max sighed as his comments went ignored. Taylor’s long tanned legs were eye-catchingly bare, but the odd part of her Business Barbie outfit were her feet slipped into stylish, expensive sneakers. If he searched her office, he knew he would find a pair of killer black high heels tucked somewhere that went a hell of a lot better with her short skirt. Wondering how tall those heels would make her made him forget what he’d said when Taylor finally stopped what she was doing and answered him.
Glancing briefly at the way too good-looking male stalking her as she retrieved a few serial numbers, Taylor could see Max was still sulking over her refusal to date him. In her humble opinion, expecting to always get your way was not an attractive trait in a man, even one that looked as good as Maximilian Wade did. “It’s not about the quantity of women you’ve dated, Max. It’s about the quality of the way you’ve treated them. Frankly, I’ve learned all the life lessons I intend to learn by dating jocks.”
Max pointed at the men in her gym, momentarily wishing he could join them. Working out at the hotel was not the same as being around other guys in a regular gym. It was one of the things he had missed most during his forced recuperation at his brother’s hotel. “Stop stereotyping all jocks as bad guys. I bet there are some good ones out on the floor of this gym right now that you haven’t dated.”
Taylor looked around calmly, taking her time to study the ten or so men working out in the gym. She watched Reston Williams, a very sexy California cowboy, wink at her before heading off to the showers.
“Actually, I only see one or two guys in here right now that I’ve missed going out with,” she said flatly, turning back to her work. “Those were mostly due to my refusal to date married men, or anyone already in a serious relationship. I’ve learned the hard way to research any man I’m interested in dating.”
Max nodded. “Okay, I hear you. I have those same rules. I don’t date married women or those involved with other men in serious relationships. So then why is my dating past worse than yours?”
Taylor shook her head at his arrogance and went back to her task. “I never said your past was worse than mine. Not wanting to date you is not the same as passing judgment on anything you’ve done or not done, Max.”
“If you weren’t passing judgment, we’d be together already.” His glare was wasted on Taylor’s back, but Max let it linger on the woman anyway.
“No. No, it’s not. My refusal to date you is about me. It’s also about my goals for love next time around. I appreciate the physical appeal of athletic men as much as any woman, but it was a jock who married me for my money and left me when I had none. So I’m done with jocks. I want a more well-rounded man in my life and one with a more stable career.” Taylor shrugged her shoulders, remembering the hurt she had worked to put behind her. “That’s just how it is, Max. It was my bias long before I met you.”
Max grinned at her answer, but his amusement was wasted on Taylor because she still wasn’t looking at him. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d made it clear that I’m not interested in your money. I’m interested in your other assets.”
Taylor stopped what she was doing, turned and studied Max’s face. Hadn’t anything she had said in the last ten minutes gotten through his thick skull? “Even beyond my current aversion to career jocks, I’m simply not interested in dating another high profile, publically famous womanizer. The press instantly reduced my relationship to my husband to being another random casualty on his impressive sexual conquest list. I don’t intend to become some hot guy’s cast-off ever again. It’s not fun to live out your heartbreak in the news.”
“Glad to hear you think I’m hot, Babe. But how are we going to find out what kind of relationship we’ll have if you never actually date me?” Max teased.
“Being hot is a positive for you, Max. Acting stupid goes on the negative list. Even you have to know that what I just described has happened to every woman you’ve dated. They had to live down not being good enough for Wicked Wade to keep them.”
Frustrated that she had a point, but still determined to make his case, Max ran a hair through his freshly cut hair. “You’re assuming the worst of me without even knowing if everything you’ve read is true.”
As much as he enjoyed debating with her, the truth was Max liked Taylor’s honesty and found it refreshing. If he upset her, there was no doubt in his mind the woman glaring at him would tell him. He certainly wouldn’t have to read about his dating oversights in print first.
“You’re not listening, Max. I hate, absolutely hate, cheaters. Any wish a guy has for an ‘open relationship’ is a total deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I should have to share a man’s attention with all the other women he decides to date. No woman should have to share. Dating and relationships are about loyalty for me. Physical fidelity should be a damn given when you’re sharing a bed with someone.”
Max put his hands in his pockets, trying to look as if their discussion was casual, but it didn’t feel that way to him. It felt like they were laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding. It felt like Taylor was laying bare her soul by sharing her fears. He hadn’t expected anything less. “Where you’re concerned, I don’t want to share either, Taylor. And I can’t remember ever being jealous of having a woman’s complete attention before I met you. You’re the only woman I’ve kissed in months. You’re the only woman I want to kiss.”
“Stop, Max. You’re not really worried about me dating other men. You’re challenged because I keep turning you down. I know it probably doesn’t happen often, but that’s what going on here. Go ask out one of your hockey groupies if you crave adoration. Don’t you think I know how it worked for you in the past? Wicked Wade, the hot hockey star, probably slept with a different woman after every game. I’m sure you were envied by every guy you knew because of it.”
Rolling her eyes at the injured look she got in response, Taylor picked up her clipboard and walked back to her office. It didn’t surprise her when Max followed, but it did surprise her when a fully dressed, cologne-wafting Reston Williams also stuck his head in the door.
“You seem highly irritated today, Legs. This guy bugging you?” Reston asked.
Taylor looked at Reston’s stance and snorted at the pose. His pose looked like his sponsorship ads with his massive arms crossed and his chin lowered so much that the brim of his battered tan Stetson nearly covered his eyes. The man actually was a real cowboy, complete with a working horse ranch, but he was also a former football player. His endorsement contract kept him coming back to her gym so he could keep his aging body in prime condition.
She and Reston went back a long way—too long.
Taylor shook her head. Great, now two posturing males crowded her office. How much worse could the day get? “Hi Reston. Selling that stuff doesn’t mean you need to put half a bottle of it on after your shower.”
“I’m obligated to advertise it and you’re avoiding my question, Legs. Talk to me. I’d be more than happy to extract him from your office for you.”
Another time, Taylor knew she would have openly laughed at Reston’s unusual show of concern, but the last thing she needed right then was to referee a kick-ass contest between two fighting jocks. One overblown male ego was bad enough to deal with.
“Max is a friend, Tex. You can head on back to your horse ranch now. I’m doing just fine here.” The quip back was natural to her. So was using the nickname she’d given him back when they were dating. Then she got an idea. “Hey Reston, I’ve got a question for you. Are you still labeled a womanizer by the media? Tell me the truth. You know it won’t change anything I think about you.”
Taylor smirked at Max who grunted at Reston and glared. When she saw Max sizing Reston up as a challenger for her attention, she shook her head again. Despite the craving she always had for men with an abundance of testosterone, she really hated her chemical dependence. You would think at forty her body would be more way more discerning about what it preferred.
When Reston grinned wickedly over Max’s perusal, Taylor felt an urge to kick him. She rolled her eyes as he rubbed a hand over a chiseled jaw already rough with an evening beard. Even mild stubble was an indulgence on a man who shaved twice a day. He once told her he would never agree to another endorsement contract that required his face to be smooth all the time.
“Well, if by ‘womanizer’ you mean that I like women and date a lot—then yeah, I guess you could say that I still am one. But Taylor—Sugar—you know I’d give up all the others for you. You kiss like an angel, and you’re the hardest working woman I have ever met. Hell, I’ll be forty like you in a few months. I’d gladly settle down if you agreed to marry me.”
Taylor rolled her eyes again at Reston’s half-ass proposal and shook her head, which was pretty much what she had done every other time he had made the same unappealing offer. She wasn’t willing to become the prize female that the California cowboy could put out on display like he did one of his mares. Reston’s total lack of romance was only one of the many reasons she’d stopped dating him.
“Sorry about your luck, Tex. That matrimonial dream is never happening with me. But thanks for the compliment. I’m sure when the urge to settle down takes more solid root, you’ll find someone even more perfect, not to mention lots younger. Didn’t I read your last girlfriend was a scant twenty-two? That’s half my age.”
“Yes, but I’m finding youth in women to be highly overrated. There’s nothing better than being with a woman who knows what she wants. Since I’m gentleman enough not to discuss your finer attributes in front of a glaring stranger, we’d better change the subject. What’s with you and the little dude here?”
Taylor fought her amusement as Reston swung a knowing grin to the now seething Max, whose face was turning red. Reston’s cologne-selling grin wasn’t going over so well with Wicked Wade.
“Are you dating this kid, Legs? When we broke up, you said you were giving up jocks forever. Wasn’t your last guy some kind of insurance broker or something?”
Max met Reston’s gaze and fought the urge to walk over to him. “What do you mean little dude?”
The jab about being a kid hadn’t stung much, even though Max didn’t consider forty all that much older than thirty-one. But he was damn glad this guy thought he looked like a jock. Sometimes lately he sure didn’t feel like one. All the same, his scowl darkened when the man laughed again. It was obvious there was a lot of history between the bragging cowboy and Taylor.
“Compared to the men Taylor is used to—yeah boy, you’re little. Want to come out to the gym floor and meet some of Taylor’s former guys? There’s a bunch of them in here right now, though I think I was the last one of our kind that she dated.”
Taylor glared, hating she was the bone they were fighting over. “Reston, that’s enough of your teasing. Leave Max alone. He’s not interested in my dating past. Lay off or I’ll cancel your membership.”
“Are you sure about your facts, Sugar? The guy looks pretty interested to me. In fact, he looks like he’d like to kick my ass six ways from Sunday just because you and I are being friendly.”
Turning, Max gave Taylor a disbelieving stare, finally broken by a strange sound erupting from him. It was a cross between a snort and a huff and reminded him way too much of his older brother, Jasper. It also didn’t help his frame of mind that Taylor rolled her eyes at him when she heard it. He decided not to let her condescending habits make him even madder.
“I am so not like this guy,” Max said firmly.
Taylor chuckled. “Yes, Maximillian—you are. You’re just a different generation.”
When both men glowered at her reference to their respective ages, Taylor had had enough. “Now if you both will kindly exit my office, I’d like to get back to work. Max, I’m not going out with you, but I will see you Thursday evening. Emma and I are definitely coming to sing for Chloe’s second set.”
“Ah, hell—we’re both being dismissed, boy. That’s not a good sign. You might want to cut your losses and find another filly.”
Max glared when the man flashed a wide smile and tipped his Stetson to him before he walked off.
Max waited until he thought the cowboy hopeful guy was completely out of earshot before continuing his argument. “Now that we’re alone again… I want to go back to the jock question. No, let’s be more specific. What was your problem with Mr. Wish-I-Was-A-Real-Cowboy when you dated him?”
Max stood there watching Taylor ignore him again and with no visible remorse whatsoever for doing so. Walking around her desk, she sat down in her office chair and starting removing her sneakers. He walked around the side to get a better view of what she was doing.
He snorted when he saw he’d been right.
Opening the bottom drawer of her massive desk, Taylor pulled out a pair of jet black four-inch skyscraper stilettos and casually slipped them on. When she stood and straightened her clothes, Max’s gaze traveled up her legs to the skirt and back to the floor. Red painted toes peeked out of the ends of the shoes. What the hell had he asked her? Oh yeah—he’d asked why wasn’t she still dating the damn bragging cowboy.
“Time for you to leave too, Max. I have work to finish before a meeting,” she said.
“Okay—look. Maybe your dating past is none of my business since we’re not sleeping together yet, but at least answer this for me. Do the men in your life always leave when you dismiss them? And if so, what kind of wimps have you been dating up to now? I’m not that easily discouraged.”
Taylor gave Max the look she usually reserved for her ex-husband. “Well, I have had to call the cops once or twice. In your case, I would just call your brother… or Sam.”
“Sam?” Max was surprised to hear the name rolling so easily off Taylor’s tongue. “He uses the gym at the hotel.”
“I am not discussing how I know Sam because it’s none of your business.”
Taylor bit her lip at the flash of pain in Max’s eyes but wasn’t about to admit Sam had sought her out to talk about her resistance to dating the younger man. Wicked Wad’s ego was already large enough. He didn’t need to know both his brother and Sam thought he was the best thing since sliced bread.
“My question about Sam is rude—I get that—but I need to hear you’re not dating him. That’s all I really care about where he’s concerned.” The rough order barely made it out of his tight throat. Surely Sam wouldn’t try to date Taylor behind his back? Not when he knew Max was interested in her. Sam was not that kind of man.
“My relationship with Sam, or any other man, is absolutely none of your business. You can ask Sam about how I know him—if you must—but I really wish you wouldn’t. I’m usually more discreet about dropping names.” Taylor sighed at Max’s frown and nod. “Damn it… if you must know, Sam and I had a simple lunch to talk about something. It wasn’t a date.”
Max moved closer until he was a couple of feet away. He was now officially desperate to believe he meant something more to her than every other male in the jock harem Taylor’s business supplied her with daily. And God help him, he wanted to be more important to her than someone like Sam. It was too late to play it cool. All he could do was try to recover the play.
“You are an enigmatic woman, Taylor Baird. If you kiss me once like you really mean it, I’ll try and forget how much your potential dating makes me jealous.”
Taylor snorted. “Emotional blackmail is like pouring gasoline on a burning fire where I’m concerned. I doubt you ever worried about a woman’s dating habits before. I, on the other hand, do care about such things which is why I now research all the men who ask me out. A simple Internet search pulled up way more than I ever wanted to know about Wicked Wade. You seduced two different nurses while you were in the hospital recuperating from your accident. Then not too much later you did the same thing to that journalist friend of Ryan Carmichael’s. Your dating resume is not exactly filled with high recommendations about your sense of decorum.”
“The nurses were nice women and I didn’t sleep with either of them. I don’t know how that could even count as dating in anyone’s eyes. The journalist was someone I thought was a real friend, but instead, she used my accident for advancing her career. Yes, I had a brief intimate relationship with her, but I wasn’t exactly on my best game physically, if you know what I mean. Frankly, if you want to hear the real story of my life, I’d be happy to tell you all about it. You don’t have to read the online bullshit—more than half of which is not true.”
“True or not, I concede what you did and with whom is technically no more my business than my dating habits are yours. But what I read did make me curious, Max. What exactly am I to you? Am I just the next dating game you’re ready to play? I would be what—maybe Wicked Wade’s affair with an older woman?”
“No, of course not. I want to date you and see where it goes. While we’re throwing stones, I guess I’ll lob one back to you. Are you saying none of your dating relationships were ever casual?”
Taylor shook her head. “No—they weren’t. Or at least they weren’t casual for me. I don’t do casual. I selectively dated and always with the goal of finding someone to marry. I slept only with men I thought I might possibly want to live the rest of my life with. Though my one attempt at marriage ended badly, I actually was madly in love with the man when it all started. Now I’ll lob that one back to you. How long was your longest relationship? From what I read, “casual” should be your middle name.”
One day, when Taylor was able to hear him, Max thought he might tell her that the nurses had been friendly and caring at a time when he had been alone and scared of losing virtually everything. Frankly, he had needed the comfort of sweet kisses and hugs while he waited to find out the extent of his physical damage. Neither of those women had expected anything from him even when the press had linked their names to his.
The reporter had happened because he had badly needed a friend after he’d found out his career was on hold, but she hadn’t turned out to be as genuine as she had first seemed. Maybe he’d been naïve about her career, or vulnerable because of his injury, but he’d needed to hear someone tell him life wasn’t over even though he’d feared his sports career was. After all she put him through publically, her exploitation had seemed more than enough reason to call it quits with her.
Since his mistake with trusting the reporter, Max knew he’d become a lot more discerning about women, which is why he hadn’t been dating anyone he’d met at the hotel. His interest in Taylor though was different from anything he’d felt before when he was attracted, much less for any woman recently. There had been something different about Taylor from the beginning—and that counted the first time he’d ever seen her and felt the pull.
“My longest relationship was for three months. And it was with that reporter. That doesn’t mean I’m some kind of commitment-phobe who keeps women at an emotional distance. If that were the case, I would never have trusted her to begin with. I admit I haven’t found the right person for real intimacy like the kind between Jasper and Chloe.”
Taylor felt her mouth settle into a firm line. Men like Max made her want to grind her teeth. “So three months and you’re what? Thirty-one, right? That’s still being pretty casual. I was married for four and a half years while you were sleeping with your groupies. I went into that relationship thinking it would be forever, and I tried like hell to save it even after he’d moved out. That’s hard proof about how not casual I am.”
Max wondered how Taylor could think he was so awful from what she’d read online about him. He’d been on his best behavior the whole time he’d known her.
“If you honestly consider me so irredeemable, then why bother raising my hopes about Thursday then? Don’t you think I deserve at least the same shot your fake cowboy got, Legs?”
Using the other guy’s nickname for her made Taylor’s eyes blaze. Max wanted that fire to be for another reason, but he’d take anger over being ignored. He didn’t plan on being lumped into the group with the rest of her jock discards.
Of the two of them, it seemed to him that Taylor had the bigger problem with them dating. Her heart was walled up behind her bad experiences, automatically refusing entry to anyone who wanted to find out what would make her happy. Her resistance left him little recourse except to try a forecheck play and see it through. Wicked Wade had a reputation of doing anything to gain possession. Right now there was no other game worthy of his time. Winning even a small amount of Taylor’s approval was becoming critical to his self-respect.
“If you really want to convince me that this chemistry we have isn’t worth a real shot, kiss me and prove you’re not interested. Call it a dare if you want, but I think you want me way more than you’re admitting. I haven’t forgotten our last kiss, but if there’s no spark between us this time, then I promise I’ll leave you alone.”
Tired of his taunting, Taylor stalked to him. If Max wanted physical humiliation to go with the truth, then she could dish that out too. “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Max brought clammy palms to Taylor’s cheeks and saw surprise in her eyes at his show of nerves. “Yes, that’s right. I’m nervous. Your opinion matters to me, which is what I’ve been trying to tell you for the last two hours. Can you at least try to believe that I’m in the process of changing into someone you might actually like?”
Taylor couldn’t tear her gaze away from his. God, she wanted to believe him. Why? What did it matter? Max was ten years her junior and she definitely did not need to be Wicked Wade’s next sexual conquest. “I bet women have been dropping their panties for you since you were a child. Why in hell are you pressing on me so hard, Max?”
“You’re the first woman who has owned my full attention in every way and hasn’t wanted to use me. My interest in you has been growing since I saw you the first time. And baby, right now I want to kiss you so badly I ache all over with the need.” Unable to trust his reaction to touching her, Max leaned forward and kissed Taylor’s forehead instead of her mouth. “But you know what? You’re right about this not working. I can’t enjoy kissing you the way I want with you thinking I’m some random, womanizing jerk.”
Pulling his hands off Taylor was the hardest thing Max could ever remember doing until he turned and made himself walk away from her. In accepting that Taylor thought so poorly of his character, Max suddenly had a clear picture of what real failure felt like. And it was a lot worse than losing his ability to play in a hockey game.
Maybe he was already in love with Taylor. It would explain a lot about why her opinion mattered so damn much to him.
“Max—wait. Don’t leave upset like this.” Taylor snapped out the order, walking quickly to him, swearing under her breath as she did so.
Her stomach was full of butterflies and her heart was beating hard between her breasts as her feet erased the distance between them. When Max opened his arms to receive her, she walked straight into them, even though she knew it wasn’t wise. The moment their bodies touched, hers fell against his in surrender, wanting to be held. When his arms tightened around her in joyful welcome, she sighed in confusion as she felt Max bury his face in her hair. She could actually feel his relief.
“Damn you, Max. I really don’t want to feel this way about you. You’re not right for me,” she said to him.
But regardless of what her brain argued, Taylor still turned up her face and reached for his mouth. Max bent down to meet her halfway, his mouth hot and needy on hers in return. Kissing him was just as good as it had been the first time—better even, because this time it was deliberate, completely sensual, and the man was obviously putting everything he had into it.
When he put one hand behind her head and delved into her mouth with his tongue, a desperate, needy moan escaped her throat. Max seemed to take the sound as an invitation to torture her more. Her legs automatically weakened as he lifted her up against his hips and forced her to stand on tip-toes even in her four-inch heels. She felt like a ballerina about to dance away, struggling to stay in place while Max rubbed against the front of her in the promise of what could be if she’d give in to the lust between them. His hands swept down to her hips and gripped them firmly to prevent her escape.
“See? I’m not all that little. Make sure to tell the damn cowboy how wrong he was next time you see him,” Max declared.
Taylor knew better than to encourage him, but a laugh tumbled out of her mouth. “Damn it, Max. Stop bragging about your assets and kiss me again.”
She worked hard to ignore her feminine reaction to his flirty comments, but it was impossible to ignore what was pressed against her. Her stomach fluttered and her thighs melted. Max chuckled happily against her mouth the whole time he rocked against her. Her head was spinning before he finally allowed some breathing space between their bodies.
Taylor sighed as she tried to get her feet to feel grounded again. It was hard to do standing on her toes and being pressed against a hard, excited male. “I knew kissing you was a bad idea. Now what am I supposed to do with you?” she demanded.
“I don’t know, but I’m anxious as hell to find out. Kissing you drives me crazy and those shoes fulfill a couple dozen of my fantasies about you. Will you stay for a drink Thursday night after the show? At least get to know me before you condemn me to the discarded jocks pile.”
Taylor took a deep breath and swore silently. She had expressly promised herself not to be stupid about a guy again. Lewis had been a big enough mistake for a lifetime. Max had the potential to be an even bigger one. The man knew how to hug and her arms didn’t want to let go.
“I haven’t walked out on the beach in ages. Maybe we can take a late walk after your last set Thursday. I never made it down the cliffs either time I stayed at the hotel.”
“Sounds like a great idea, but also too long from now.”
She let out a breath when Max finally lowered her to the floor, letting her slide down him. The action made them both unsteady with lust. Her ragged, disappointed sigh was an echo of his.
“Max, all I’m offering is a walk on the beach.” The blatant disbelief in his grin had her blushing. When she pulled out of his arms and stepped away, he let her go but was slow about it. Her disappointment to be out of his arms was so keen that it hurt.
Max sighed and smiled. “Sexy woman. Moonlight. A walk by the ocean. That’s a lot more game than I’ve had in a while. I’m up for it. I’m sure I will be again on Thursday.”
“Is that flirting skill you’ve perfected how you earned your name, Wicked Wade? No, on second thought, I don’t want to know that answer. Take your double-entendres out of my office and let me get back to work.”
Taylor turned away so Max wouldn’t see her smiling. When she turned back to where he’d had been standing, it was to discover that he’d finally gone.
Unnerved by the neediness she’d felt in his arms, Taylor shook her head at her rising excitement about what might happen next time she saw him. She knew it was dumb to get involved with someone like him, but suddenly Thursday did seem awfully far away.
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