Excerpt: The Highlander’s English Bride

The Highlander's English Bride

Chapter One

London, England
June 1822

Graeme Kendrick lurked beneath the giant elm, keeping his prey within sight. After losing the slippery Sassenach a few hours ago, he’d spotted the bastard climbing over the wall that separated Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park.

He’d surely earned that bit of luck. Graeme had spent the last month stalking the wiliest criminal gang to hit London in years. The thieves were ripping through the ton like marauding Norsemen, lifting expensive jewels, fine art, and precious antiques. Normally, this was a job for Bow Street, but when the Duke of York’s gold pocket watch—a royal family heirloom—was filched at a ball, the situation had changed. King George was outraged, Bow Street was embarrassed, and Captain Aden St. George, England’s chief spymaster, was summoned.

Much to Graeme’s surprise, Aden had placed him in charge of the case.

While Graeme had come closer to finding the thieves than the Runners had, success continued to elude him. Each time, they’d dodged his grasp. Yesterday, Aden had made it clear how displeased he was with Graeme’s lack of progress.

Very displeased.

It was even worse when the chief riding up one’s backside was family. Aden was half brother to Victoria, Countess of Arnprior, who happened to be Graeme’s sister-in-law. To make things even jollier, both Aden and Victoria were illegitimate offspring of the king himself, making old Georgie part of Graeme’s extended family, too.

When it came to the Kendrick clan, familial relations were ridiculously complicated. If Graeme failed to crack this case, he would disappoint every member of his family, including the blasted Sassenach king.

Of course, in Graeme’s world, disappointing family was baked into the oatcakes.

Keep your mind on the job, idiot.

He tugged off his rain-soaked cap and pushed back his damp hair with an even damper glove before shoving the cap back on. For some reason, his target had paused behind a tree near the Serpentine, the small lake that wound through the park.

Given the dreary weather and the early hour, Hyde Park was deserted. Locals would often frequent the area on a warm summer’s morning, the more adventurous taking a dip in the Serpentine, but today the park was curtained in a steady drizzle, and a cool morning mist curled up from the wet earth.

“What the hell are you up to?” he muttered.

“Maybe he’s hoping to snaffle a rich nob on his way home, just to round out the night.”

Sighing, Graeme glanced over his shoulder. A sturdy lad of fifteen, clothed like an errand boy, hunkered down behind him.

“Got the jump on you, didn’t I?” Tommy said with a cheeky grin.

“Lad, I haven’t slept in twenty-four hours. I might be a bit off my game.”

Tommy jerked his head in the direction of their quarry. “Good thing you spotted him coming over the wall. The captain would be right frosty if you lost the bastard again.”

“And the captain’s wife would be right frosty to hear you swearing. It’s barely dawn. Does Lady Vivien know you’re wandering about so early?”

“The captain does. He sent me to see if you needed help.”

“Check on me, more like,” Graeme scoffed. “It’ll go down like a treat when Lady Vivien discovers he’s sending you out on missions in the middle of the night. She’s doing her best to make you a proper fellow, you know.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “I’m plenty proper, guv, and I do my lessons with her ladyship every day. But that don’t mean I can’t help the captain, when needs be. Besides, it ain’t the middle of the night.”

Doesn’t mean, and isn’t the middle of the night,” Graeme corrected before refocusing on the thief.

The man was waiting patiently for . . . something.

Graeme also forced himself to wait. But it had been a long night, tailing his prey from one gaming establishment to the next, all over the bloody town. The thief had obviously managed to befriend two wealthy but dim-witted noblemen. Briefly, Graeme had considered finding a way to warn the men they’d been marked. But he knew them, and they were mean-spirited bounders of the first order. If the fools had their pockets rifled by the end of the night, one could argue that Lady Justice had been served, albeit in a roundabout fashion.

Besides, Graeme had a bigger game to play—running the leader of the ring to the ground. To do that, he had to discover where the crime lord holed up. Somewhere in Covent Garden or the rookeries of St. Giles, he and Aden suspected. This morning’s events might answer that question, since it seemed reasonable that the thief would soon be returning to the gang’s lair with his ill-gotten gains.

Graeme would be on his tail.

“Come on, ye son of a whore,” he whispered. “Get yer arse movin’.”

“You’re talking funny again,” Tommy muttered.

“It’s called a brogue, as ye well know.”

“Still sounds funny, if you ask me.”

Graeme snorted. When Tommy was excited or upset, his cant grew as thick as the brogue that emerged from Graeme when he was frustrated or angry. These days, that brogue surfaced more than he liked.

Then again, anger and frustration were better than rampant boredom. Better to be up to his eyeballs in danger and mayhem than sitting about like a useless ninny, bored out of his skull.

Or, worse, getting dragged to ton parties by Lady Vivien, who said he needed a social life to cheer him up.

“Nothing to be cheery about, anyway,” he muttered.

Tommy threw him an odd look, which Graeme ignored, too tired to explain. It had been weeks since he’d had a good night’s rest. Maybe Vivien was right. Maybe he was working too hard.

His companion jabbed him. “He’s on the move.”

Graeme unbent from his crouch. “Looks like he’s heading straight along the footpath to Piccadilly. See if you can get ahead of him, in case he changes course and cuts up to one of the other gates.”

Tommy nodded, but before he could dart off, Graeme clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Do not get close to him. He’ll be armed, and Aden will skin me alive if anything happens to you.”

The lad huffed with derision. “I ain’t a flat, guv. I’ve been doing this longer than you have.”

“I’m not a flat,” Graeme absently corrected as the boy ghosted off into the mist and drizzle.

But Tommy was correct. He’d been a trusted part of the St. George household for four years now, running errands and delivering important messages. Still, he was more a member of the family than an errand boy or even an agent in training, and Graeme would cut off his own arm before he saw the lad placed in danger.

Before he saw any child placed in danger. He’d been stupid enough to allow that to happen once before, and . . .

He impatiently shook the gruesome image from his mind and slipped out from behind the tree. Following the path, he kept a respectable distance from the thief while doing his best to adopt the attitude of a local out for a leisurely morning stroll. Ridiculous, given the weather, but since the barmy bastard was all but creeping along the path, Graeme couldn’t exactly set a brisk pace. The fellow was either up to something or suspected he was being followed.

If the latter, then Graeme had to be ready for the man to bolt.

When the thief slipped behind yet another bush and froze, Graeme realized his quarry was behaving like one of the barn cats at Castle Kinglas stalking a mouse. Moving deliberately closer to his target, exercising care not to be seen.

But who—

Graeme had his answer a moment later, when the man darted across a narrow strip of lawn that ran along the bank of the Serpentine. A figure was lingering by the water, a woman swathed in a dark cloak, a deep-brimmed bonnet serving as protection against the rain. Her back to them, she peered toward the footpath that led up to Grosvenor Gate, oblivious to her surroundings and absently swinging a plump-looking reticule. It didn’t take a genius to realize what would happen next.

Mentally cursing, Graeme took off at a run. He’d be damned if he let a woman be robbed, even if it meant blowing his cover. And why the hell hadn’t he noticed her before? What in God’s name was she doing here, anyway?

He closed the distance, but his thief was too far ahead.

“Lass, behind you,” Graeme yelled at the top of his lungs.

The woman spun around, only to be seized by the thief.

Graeme spotted Tommy running in from the other direction. He threw out an arm to warn him off, but the lad ignored him, veering around a stand of oaks as he neared the couple.

The lady wasn’t giving up without a fight, struggling mightily to keep ahold of her reticule.

“Let go of ’er, you stinkin’ napper,” Tommy yelled.

When the thief threw a startled glance at the boy, the woman kicked her assailant in the shin.

It only encouraged the bastard to redouble his efforts. He yanked the reticule from her grip, then tossed a glance over his shoulder at Graeme before grabbing the woman by the arms and dragging her to the very lip of the embankment. Then he shoved her over the edge.

The woman desperately windmilled her arms before toppling into the Serpentine with a resounding splash.

With Graeme closing in, the thief took off toward the closest gate to the park, directly into Tommy’s path. The man slipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a knife.
“Tommy, duck,” roared Graeme.

The boy dove for the grass and rolled before coming up in a defensive crouch. The man kept running, heading for Piccadilly.

Graeme abandoned his pursuit. The woman was flailing about, obviously panicking as she struggled to keep her head above water, her sodden bonnet half covering her face.

“Hang on, lass,” he called as he stripped off his coat.

The Serpentine, while a piddling excuse for a lake, was certainly deep enough to drown someone dressed in layers of clothing, including a heavy cloak. Water was a killer, as he knew all too well.

He leapt in, sending a huge splash over the woman, all but submerging her. By the time he reached her, she was sputtering some surprisingly salty oaths.

“I’ve got ye,” he said, grabbing her shoulders.

She blindly swatted at him, the brim of her soaked bonnet now almost down to her chin. Still, she managed a good clout to his ear.

“Get away, you bounder,” she gasped.

“You need help, guv?” Tommy called from the shore as Graeme struggled to keep himself and the woman from going under. She was a slender thing, but no weakling.

“I’ve got this,” Graeme barked as he clamped his hands around the woman’s ribcage and pulled her against his chest. “Get after the bastard, but do not get too close. Just follow and report back. I’ll paddle your arse if ye do otherwise.”

The lad nodded and took off. Probably a lost cause, but if anyone could catch up, Tommy could. Hopefully, he’d obey orders and keep his distance. This mission was now officially a cock-up, but Tommy was a bright one, and Graeme had to trust him to be smart now.

Right now, Graeme had to focus on keeping the woman in his arms from drowning them both, which she seemed determined to do.

“Stop strugglin’, ye barmy lass.” He managed to drag her toward the embankment. “I’m not tryin’ to rob ye. That idiot’s long gone, no thanks to ye.”

The woman finally stopped swatting long enough to yank her bonnet away from her face. Graeme encountered a gorgeous—and furious—peacock-blue glare. That fury in no way detracted from the rest of her attractive face. Stunning, in fact, if one ignored the tangle of hair plastered to her forehead or the glob of mud across her perfectly straight nose and sharply delicate cheekbone.

“Release me, sir. Right now.”

She gave him a surprisingly strong shove, which unfortunately caused her to lose her balance and go under again.

Sighing, Graeme hauled her back to the surface. “If you would hold still for a minute and let me get this bonnet off, you would see that I am not your assailant.”

She stopped flopping about. He yanked the blasted hat back so it dangled from her neck instead of covering her face.

“I’m trying to rescue you,” he added.

She glared at him. “You’re making a hash of it, then. And I’m perfectly capable of rescuing myself.”

“I don’t think the man who attacked you would agree.” Graeme pulled her to the edge of the greensward that surrounded the water.

“I was doing quite well on my own, thank you very much.”

“Yes, I noticed that when you were tumbled into the water.”

“Which only happened after you rushed up at us.”

Graeme stared at her in disbelief. “He was attacking you, lass. What in God’s name was I supposed to do? Stroll on by and let you two thrash it out?”

For a moment, it seemed she would continue her fiery tirade. Then she reached up and rubbed her nose, as if trying to prevent a sneeze. When she dropped her hand, Graeme saw her mouth curve up in a rueful smile. She had beautiful lips as plump and pink as a budding rose.

Which, of course, had nothing to do with anything.

“I sound awfully ungrateful, don’t I?” she said. “It was very kind of you to jump in after me, although quite unnecessary. I’m a very good swimmer.”

“Not bogged down by that rig. That cloak must weigh twenty pounds by now.”

“Perhaps you haven’t noticed that we’re both standing on the bottom. The Serpentine’s not very deep at this end of the park.”

Graeme looked down. He was only submerged to his waist, while the water reached her chest.

“It’s deeper further out, but I only went under because he pushed me so hard,” she said. “I was quite safe at all times.”

Graeme couldn’t help feeling annoyed. “To me, it looked like you were drowning. Anyone would have assumed that you were drowning.”

“I was just surprised, that’s all. But of course there was no way for you to know that,” she hastily added.

He was beginning to get the sense that she thought him rather dim-witted. “It’s not as if genteel ladies make a habit of paddling around in the Serpentine.”

She nodded. “Correct. Having said that, do you think we could get on with the rescue?”

Apparently, he was a dimwit. “My apologies.”

The lass shoved the wreck of her coiffure out of her eyes. “I’d like to get out of here before anyone sees us.”

“Little chance of being seen with this weather.”

A quick glance around the park confirmed it remained deserted. Even the men of the Royal Humane Society had failed to put in an appearance, despite all the watery flailing about. The small building on the opposite side of the Serpentine was staffed at all hours in the event a hapless Londoner needed rescuing. In this case, it probably hadn’t occurred to the staff that anyone would be larking about on so dismal a morning.

Why this particular woman was larking about was the question. Because of her, Graeme had lost his thief. Again. And that was incredibly annoying.

“Thank goodness,” she said. “Naturally, I’m grateful for your help, but it might have been better if you hadn’t come along at all.”

Unbelievable.

He planted one hand on the embankment, keeping hold on her with the other. “How awkward of me. Thoughtless, really.”

She crinkled her nose. “I just sounded rude again, didn’t I?”

“Oh, not a bit.”

“I will need your help climbing out of the water,” she replied in an encouraging tone. “I’m positively waterlogged, and my fingers are rather chilled. Who knew the water would be this cold in the summer?”

It felt more like bath water to him, but he was a Highlander. He was used to mountain streams and lochs that could freeze the balls off a bull in August.

“Then let’s get you out. Are you sure you’ve got your footing?”

She shoved her sodden cloak back over her shoulders. “Since I am now standing barely chest-deep, I believe I can manage to stay upright.”

The mention of her chest naturally brought his gaze to that part of her anatomy. Her pale yellow dress was a sagging mess that exposed the tops of her stays. It also clung to what appeared to be a grand set of breasts—perfectly round and full. And she obviously was chilly, because even through the various layers of fabric, he could see the jutting of her pert nip—

“Ahem.”

Graeme jerked his head up to once again meet an irate peacock stare.

“Right,” he said briskly. “Let’s get to it.”

He vaulted up onto the embankment, inadvertently splashing her with yet more water. She spluttered indignantly as he reached down a hand.

“Sorry,” he apologized.

She wrapped her gloved fingers around his wrist. “I suppose you can’t help it, since you are exceedingly large.”

“Aye, that.”

He hauled her out and set her on the grass, keeping a hand on her waist to steady her.

“And strong,” she said, a trifle breathless. “And Scottish, obviously.”

“Guessed that, did ye?”

She made a game attempt to shake out her dripping cloak. “I’m not a moron, sir, despite certain indications to the contrary.”

“Never said you were. And you’ll catch your death if you keep that stupid cloak on.”

He swiped up his coat from the grass. While damp, it would be warm compared to her soaked garments.

The poor girl was shivering, and her pink lips held a tinge of blue around the edges. Graeme’s worry spiked. If he didn’t get her dry and warm, she could catch a fever. He’d seen it happen in his own family, and results had been dire.

“Let me help,” he said, as she struggled with the ribbons of her cloak.

They were hopelessly knotted, so he just snapped them and tossed the cloak to the ground.

She grimaced. “That was new and quite expensive.”

“Lass, you’re safe. That’s what matters. Now, let’s get that bonnet off, too.”

“Also new and expensive.” She pulled off the offending headgear and tossed it onto the cloak.

He tucked his coat around her shoulders, then tapped one of her delicate gold earrings. Graeme had never found ears enticing before, but hers just might be the first.

“At least you didn’t lose your earrings.”

She pulled his coat tight around her body. “Thank you for this. It’s so—”

Breaking off, she reached inside the jacket and gingerly extracted his knife.

“Sorry about that.” He slipped the knife into his right boot.

“There seem to be a few other, er, implements in your pockets.”

“Right. Sorry.”

Feeling like ten times an idiot, Graeme extracted his pistol from one of the coat pockets, shoving it into the back of his breeches, then pulled a pair of knuckledusters from the other pocket. Those he tossed on top of her cloak before tucking the jacket back around her body.

She eyed him. “Are you by any chance a Bow Street Runner?”

“No, just the sort that likes to be prepared. Never know whom you’ll run into, as you just discovered,” he added with a wink.

His answer got the response it deserved. She shuffled back, which brought her dangerously close to the edge of the embankment.

“Watch it, miss. You don’t want another dunking.”

She studied him for a few moments longer before apparently making a decision. “I suppose if you wanted to murder me, you would have done it before now. But it is rather odd to be carrying so many weapons on one’s person.”

“No odder than a genteel young lady wandering alone in Hyde Park at the crack of dawn, in the rain.”

Her eyes popped comically wide. “Oh, my goodness. Hannah!”

“Hannah?”

“My maid. I didn’t want her to get wet, so I sent her off. . . . Oh, dear!”

She darted around him and headed toward a clump of oaks at the end of the lake. Graeme followed and saw that there was another person in the park—a girl who lay in a heap on the ground.

The woman crouched next to the slender girl, who looked to be a few years younger than her mistress. “Hannah must have fainted when I was attacked.”

“How helpful of her.”

“The poor thing obviously suffered a terrible shock.”

“You’re the one who suffered the shock. This one didn’t even scream or try to help,” Graeme said.

She started to pat the girl’s cheek. “That is disappointing, but Hannah just came up from one of our country estates a few weeks ago. She finds London intimidating.”

“Maybe you should give her a good shake. That might wake her up.”

“I don’t suppose you have any smelling salts?”

“I normally carry them right next to my pistol, but I seem to have forgotten them just this once.”

She flashed him a scowl. “There’s no need to be sarcastic.”

“Really? I would disagree.”

The whole situation was now officially beyond ridiculous. They were as wet as drowned hens, he’d lost his man, and he was beginning to grow concerned about Tommy. If the lad had taken any foolish risks, he’d never forgive himself—and Aden would probably kill him and be done with him once and for all.

“I do generally carry smelling salts, but they were in my reticule,” she said.

“Perhaps the thief will find them useful,” Graeme acerbically replied.

“Instead of making such unhelpful comments, perhaps you might do something useful instead.”

“Such as?”

“You could drip on Hannah’s face. That might do the trick.”

When he laughed, it pulled a rueful smile to her lips. “There I am being rude again,” she said.

“I canna blame you one bit,” he replied. “But fortunately your girl seems to be recovering.”

Hannah let out a moan as her eyelids fluttered open.

“Oh, my lady,” she said faintly. “I was sure you were dead.”

Ah. Not simply genteel. The drenched lassie was a member of the Quality.

“I’m fine, although quite wet,” her mistress replied. “Why don’t you try to sit up?”

When Graeme reached down to help, the maid let out a faint shriek. “He’s still here, my lady. He’ll kill us both!”

“Hannah, this gentleman saved me from my attacker. Now do please try to sit up.”

They helped the maid to a sitting position and propped her against a tree.

“Are you sure he won’t hurt us, my lady?” Hannah quavered, peering up Graeme. “He looks a dodgy sort.”

“Calling him a dodgy sort is hardly going to endear him to us.”

“But who is he?” the maid asked.

Her mistress glanced over her shoulder, lifting an eyebrow at Graeme.

He sketched a brief bow. “I’m Graeme Kendrick, at your service.”

“That don’t tell us if you’re respectable or not,” the maid suspiciously answered.

“He’s perfectly harmless, Hannah,” her mistress said. “I assure you.”

Perversely, Graeme found himself irritated by that description.

“What is now important,” continued the young woman, “is returning home without anyone seeing us.”

“But the other servants will be up by now, and you look like something the cat drug in.” Hannah grimaced. “I knew this were a bad idea, sneaking off to meet his lordship like—”

“We’ll discuss that later,” the young woman hastily interjected. “Besides, lamenting the situation will not solve anything.”

“Might I make a suggestion? Lady . . . ” Graeme pointedly trailed off.

She briefly pressed her lips into a flat line. “I’d rather not tell you.”

Understandable, under the circumstances. Secretive meetings between members of the opposite sex rarely ended well, as he knew from painful experience.

“Are you acquainted with Lady Vivien St. George?” he asked.

She brightened immediately. “I am. Do you know her?”

“I’m well acquainted with both Lady Vivien and her husband. Their townhouse is only a few blocks from the park, as you probably know. You could get dry there, and Vivien could find you suitable clothing that should make it easier for you to return home.”

“That is an excellent idea, sir,” she said.

“Oh, miss, are you really going off with him?” Hannah cried in dismay.

“Mr. Kendrick has proven himself trustworthy,” her mistress crisply replied. “Besides, if I don’t get out of these clothes, I will turn into a block of ice.”

A sudden and massively inconvenient image flashed through Graeme’s mind. He was stripping off her clothes, and then warming her body with his body.

His naked body, naturally, since that was how his brain worked.

“But how will I explain where you are?” Hannah protested.

“You are to say that I’m still in bed with a headache, and that you stepped out to the apothecary to fetch some headache powders.”

“But Lady Sabrina, you never get a headache.”

Graeme caught her flinch at the use of her name. He began flicking through his mental files to place it.

“I’ve certainly got one now,” the lady muttered.

“Hannah, since the rain has finally let up,” he said, “I suggest you be on your way. I’ll see to your mistress.”

“But—”

“Please do as he says, Hannah,” Lady Sabrina said firmly.

“But how will you get back into the house?”

“I’ll think of something. Just remember what I told you.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Hannah doubtfully replied.

“I am.” Her mistress pointed a finger in the direction of the Stanhope Gate. “Now, please.”

Casting Graeme a final, suspicious glance, Hannah bobbed a curtsy and hurried off in the direction of Mayfair.

“Can you trust her to do as instructed?” Graeme asked as he led Lady Sabrina back to retrieve her discarded garments.

“I hope so, or my goose is cooked. My father will go into hysterics if he finds out about this.”

“Sneaking out to meet strange men rarely meets with parental approval, oddly enough.”

She made an impatient sound. “There’s nothing strange about this gentleman. He’s perfectly respectable.”

“Not if he’s meeting young ladies at this time of day.”

“Nonsense. Couples stroll in Hyde Park all the time.”

Graeme snorted. “This early, and in the rain? Try again, lass.”

“I was chaperoned, you know.”

“Aye. Hannah seems quite the dependable sort.”

Lady Sabrina muttered something under her breath while he bent down and quickly wrapped her cloak and bonnet into a neat bundle, after stashing his knuckledusters inside his waistcoat.

“Do you find you need those on a regular basis?” she politely asked.

“Only when I’m attending balls in Mayfair. Those affairs are cutthroat.”

That elicited a reluctant smile. “After today, I’m thinking of getting a pair myself. Perhaps you might give me advice in that regard.”

“They generally don’t come in ladies’ sizes.”

She swiped a lock of bedraggled hair out of her eyes. Lady Sabrina had quite a lot of hair, thick and wavy, it seemed. Graeme suspected it would glow like the palest of wheat under a summer sun when dry.

“Ladies could use them, and more often than you think,” she said in a serious tone.

Graeme had no doubt of that. Several of the women in his family had been forced to protect themselves under fairly dire circumstances.

He took her elbow to encourage her to pick up the pace. Now that the rain had eased off, traffic would soon pick up. In fact, someone had turned into the footpath and was trotting—

Tommy.

“Finally,” he muttered.

“Someone you know?”

“Aye, he’s a good lad. He works with me.”

She shot him a curious look. “Mr. Kendrick, what exactly do you do? Besides rescuing damsels in distress.”

“That’s actually one of my prescribed duties.”

Graeme was spared what was obviously going to be a tart reply when Tommy rushed up.

“Everything all right, guv? Is miss hurt?”

“We’re fine,” he replied. “Have any luck?”

Tommy’s mouth twisted sideways. “Caught up with the blighter on Curzon Street, but he gave me the slip past Regent.”

Dammit to hell.

“You can show me exactly where you lost him, later. I might get some ideas from that.”

“Please do not trouble yourself on my account,” Lady Sabrina said. “I’m sure he was just a common cutpurse.”

When Tommy shot him a look, Graeme gave a slight shake of the head.

“As you wish,” he said to her. “Tommy, could you run ahead and fetch a hackney? I’m taking the lady to the captain’s house. She and Lady Vivien are friends.”

“Really? Cause ladies ain’t usually hanging around the park by themselves, ’specially not this time day,” the boy replied with his usual and fatal candor.

When Lady Sabrina bristled, Graeme cuffed him on the shoulder. “No cheek from you, lad.”

Tommy let out a dramatic sigh. “I didn’t mean no offense, miss. My name’s Tommy, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”

“And I’m happy to meet you. My name is . . . ”

When she hesitated, Graeme finished for her. “Lady Sabrina Bell.”

She flashed him a startled look “How did you know that?”

Graeme led her toward Knightsbridge, as Tommy jogged ahead. “I think you’ll discover I know quite a lot, my lady.”

Her silence suggested she wasn’t best pleased with his answer.

 

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