Meg didn’t want Jason back–she just wanted to prove that she could rise to the challenge. But the attraction they once shared has not withered…if anything, it’s stronger than ever.
Do Meg and Jason get the happy ever after that they deserve? You’ll have to read The Cowboy Rides Away to find out, but here’s an exclusive sneak peek at their love story.
“I have a lead on her.”
The slight, balding man sitting across the wrought-iron table from Elliot Capuzzo at the Echo Park Café pushed a manila envelope past his own double espresso coffee and folded his hands. Around them, the tables were full of young, upwardly mobile Los Angelinos who were all busy gentrifying the once-seedy neighborhood and who cared more about being seen in the trendy café than about noticing the two men nearby. They couldn’t have been more private if they tried. “Not quite what I’d hoped,” he acknowledged, “but at least we know she’s crossed the Canadian border into Montana.”
“Montana?” Capuzzo opened the envelope to pull out the contents. A moment went by before the frown was back on his face. Inside was a blurry photograph of a woman, alone, who might have been her, pulling a bag through an airport terminal. And another of that same long-legged woman hailing a cab outside the airport. If it was her, and the man sitting opposite him apparently felt quite sure it was, she’d let her hair grow and maybe colored it in Haiti, and they had narrowly missed her. “So? A couple of blurry photographs? How much am I paying you again, Forrester?”
“Those photos were taken at Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Quebec in late November.”
“According to my sources, she left Haiti four and a half months ago under a Canadian passport registered to an ‘Alexa Wheeler.’ She’s become quite the chameleon. I found the guy who doctored that passport for her. Strictly work for hire. He didn’t know jack about anything else.”
“I assume you…explored all avenues to see if he was telling you the truth?”
The balding man leaned back and crossed his legs. “Believe me, if he’d known, he would have told me, Mr. Capuzzo.”
He lifted his coffee cup with a satisfied nod and took a drink. “Go on.”
“She flew to Montreal then essentially vanished for four months. She’s gotten quite good at staying invisible.”
“Or you’re just bad at your job.”
Forrester colored. “That she’s managed to narrowly evade us for the last two years speaks to her ingenuity. No credit cards, no bank account, no car rentals. Which means she either was using cash to travel by bus or train, or she’s purchased a car somehow. She basically ceased to exist until—” he pulled another, smaller photo from a pocket “—one of my ICE contacts a pulled up a video of a woman fitting her description crossing the U.S./Canadian border into Montana on a U.S. passport in December, using the name Thibeaux. Alessandra Thibeaux.”
“And where is she now?”
“On a hunch, I’m heading to a small town in Southern Montana called Marietta, near Livingston. Town where her mother, apparently, got herself knocked up and gave birth before moving to Canada. Far as I can tell, her mother never married, never had a reported relationship with Alison’s father after her birth, but there might be something there. I’ll track down the birth father’s identity, and find out whether he’s still in the area. It’s the best lead we’ve got.”
Capuzzo lifted the photograph again to study the woman. In two years, this was as close as they’d gotten to her. The end of the chase was close. He could almost taste it. And when it was over, his brother could rest in peace. She would pay for what she did to him, then he could get back to his life again. He had ambitions, after all, and they didn’t end the day Mark died. She was his last loose thread. One tug on that thread could pull his whole future apart.
And he had every intention of stopping her.
He shoved the manila envelope back at Forrester. “Go find her. Fail me again and your gravy train ends here. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” Forrester stood, tucked the envelope back in his pocket. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Please. Look again. It has to be here.” Ali Thibeaux braced her hands on the glass countertop of the pawnshop’s display case, panic closing her throat. “I’m…I’m only a day late. You can’t have sold it already.” She flattened out the pawn ticket against the glass and pointed to the number. “Six-seven-nine-three-zero. Check again.”
Eeben Baxter, the paunchy, middle-aged owner of Marietta’s only pawnshop, scratched his chin. “I’m afraid it’s gone, Miss. I sold it myself just yesterday, end of day. I’m real sorry. You should’ve come then, I guess.”
“I didn’t have the money yesterday. But now I do.” She tightened her arm around her purse, where the thousand dollars in cash she’d managed to scrape together to pay off the loan lay tucked in her wallet. Suddenly, the smell of the place, the odor of discarded pulled-out-of-the-attic stuff made her feel dizzy and nauseous. “You don’t understand. I need that camera. There’s a job. I have to have it.” But that camera meant more to her than that. Much more. She closed her eyes. Panic would not serve her. She had to stay calm.
“If it’s just a camera you need, we got a few decent ones here,” Baxter said, pointing to the case full of used digital cameras, none of which could hold a candle to the one she’d pawned. “Not as nice as that Hasselblad, but maybe one of these will suit you.”
Was he joking? “No. I need that one. It belonged to my—” She caught herself and began again. “Who bought it? At least tell me that.”
Baxter tucked in his chin. “We never betray a customer’s confidence here, ma’am. If we did, we’d be out of business right quick. I will tell you that the individual who bought your camera had their eye on it for a couple of weeks and knew just when it would come up for sale. So, I’m sorry but they had every right to buy it. Fair and square.”
In her panic, Ali caught the gaze of the woman standing at the other end of the counter cleaning the glass countertop, who looked away quickly. Oddly, she reminded Ali vaguely of Eugenia Parland, a woman who’d been her foster mother for the better part of her freshman year in high school. This sparrow of a woman had deep grooves around her mouth. She was brown-haired and dowdy, kicked a few times, Ali guessed, but probably stronger than she looked. Ali was familiar with the haunted look owned by so many women she’d known. Perhaps she’d only imagined her sympathetic look. Or maybe it was simple judgment.
Pathetic was probably what she was thinking. The anthem of her youth, Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, began pulsing behind her eyes, along with the sinking feeling that she’d just torpedoed her future and tossed away the best of her past in one fell swoop. She’d honestly never imagined someone in this small town would even appreciate that camera, much less buy it for whatever Baxter must have charged. It wasn’t a hobbyist’s camera. It wasn’t even one most people would understand how to use.
“Eeben, I’m takin’ my break,” the woman said to her boss. She mimed smoking a cigarette and Baxter nodded to her. Gathering up her rags and half-empty bottle of glass cleaner, she disappeared through a pair of red velvet curtains hanging in the back room doorway.
“How much did you sell it for?” Ali pressed, turning back to him.
“Again,” Baxter said, “that’s information that’s privileged, Miss Thibeaux.” But his expression couldn’t quite hide how proud he was of the deal he’d struck with the new owner. “Now, if you aren’t interested in another camera, I got me some paperwork to catch up on.”
He’d made a small fortune on it, she was sure. The thousand dollars he’d given her as a collateral loan was only a fraction of the camera’s real worth. And if anyone knew who had once owned it, that value would be even higher.
The backs of her eyes burned. Don’t cry. Do not cry. You did this to yourself.
She spun and blindly collided with a rack holding a hundred or more vintage shooter marbles, which fell in what seemed like slow motion and bounced in all directions.
Her every attempt to catch them—to stop the disaster—failed, ending in her backing into another display of musical instruments behind her. Tambourines, clarinets and harmonicas all collapsed musically sideways like dominoes.
Eeben Baxter, who’d managed to round the counter amidst the bouncing marbles, caught the instruments before they hit the floor—except for the last, precarious piccolo that pinged to the linoleum and rolled to a stop at his feet beside the milky cat’s eyes. As the last of the marbles rolled to a stop, he gave a long-suffering sigh. He glared down at her, crouched beside his counter. “You finished yet? I got a whole store.”
“I’m sorry. I’m really very…very sorry.” Straightening, she proffered a handful of marbles to him, which he took without a word of thanks. “Believe me, that was entirely an accident. I would never have—”
Eeben pinched his fingers together at her in a universally understood male gesture demanding silence—which rubbed her exactly the wrong way.
She tipped her chin up. “Okay. Fine. But just so you know,” she said, “whatever you asked for that camera, it wasn’t nearly enough. It was once owned by Lilah—” she stopped short “—by a famous photographer.” The man’s face paled. “And you could have made a lot more money than you did.” She tsked at him and shook her head. “A lot.” Opening the door, she turned back one last time. “A whole lot.”
“Go!” he bellowed.
She turned and walked outside on legs that were shaking. Several deep breaths later, dizziness had her grabbing for the side of a building as she moved down the street. She’d been both clumsy and reckless, mentioning her famous mother, even if she hadn’t named her. But men like Eeben Baxter just made her mad. He reminded her of her second foster father who’d made that little gesture if she ever dared offer an opinion that challenged his. It was a button she very much disliked having pushed.
But what was done was done.
She glanced down at her watch. Ten a.m. She’d forgotten to eat this morning. Scratch that, she hadn’t had the money to eat this morning. Except for the money in her bag—the money she’d saved here to buy the camera back—she was officially broke. After two years, three months and seventeen days of running, this was what she’d come to at last.
Well, at least now she could afford breakfast. And enough gas to get her out of this town. No point in staying now. Where she’d go, she had no idea. How ironic she’d have to turn down the job she’d been praying for now that she’d lost the camera. But the job itself didn’t matter. It was the subject of the job—Olivia Canaday and her wedding—that mattered.
And the camera…mattered.
This whole idea that had brought her here to Marietta…had been ill conceived at best. And even that she had screwed up.
Numbly, she headed up Main Street, passing people and cars without really seeing them. In the little over three months she’d been here, she had kept to herself, kept her head down and blessed every morning she woke up alone.
She’d used the money she’d gotten for the camera to rent a room in a small highway motel outside of town, called the Dew Drop Inn, where they’d also given her a job cleaning rooms. Before that, she’d waited for weeks, hoping to hear from Eve Canaday about the résumé she’d left with her at Christmas time, about the photographer job she’d advertised in the Marietta paper. But nothing, until finally last week when she’d contacted her about an upcoming party she was organizing, which Ali assumed was a test run for bigger events. Events like the one she’d come here to attend.
But no camera, no job. Those other cameras back there would never give her the quality shots she’d been able to take with the Hasselblad. Eve and her sister would certainly be disappointed in the result. Not to mention losing the last precious connection she had to her mother. But time was running out. She couldn’t stay so visible here in Marietta and expect he wouldn’t find her.
No, she’d gambled and lost. Her time here was finished. She would put Marietta in her rear-view mirror now as fast as she could and never look back.
Dodging traffic on Main Street, she crossed to the other side and walked two long blocks to the Main Street Diner and found a booth in the corner. It was all she could do not to drop her head down on her arms and bawl.
“You look like you could use some coffee, darlin’.”
The kindness in the woman’s voice made her look up. Ali brushed a hand quickly down her cheek and straightened. The woman’s nametag read, ‘Sally’. She, too, was middle-aged and looked like she’d circled the block a few times, but this woman had a smile on her face that seemed genuine. Ali needed one right now.
“You all right, dearie?”
She felt about as far from ‘all right’ as she ever had. “I’m fine. And yes, coffee would be nice.”
Sally turned over the mug on the table and poured her a cup. “Take cream with that?”
“No. Just black. Thank you. And some eggs, please. Three, actually. Scrambled. With toast. And jam, if you have it.”
“Only the best homemade jam in the state of Montana. What kind of toast, dearie?”
“Independent thinker. I like that,” Sally teased with a smile. “Most folks just say white or wheat.”
A half-sob, half-laugh escaped her and Sally hesitated before she patted the table, stuck her pencil behind her ear and headed back to the kitchen.
Sipping her coffee, Ali welcomed its warmth on her emotion-clogged throat. The diner was half-full despite being smack in between breakfast and lunch. She let her gaze roam over the heads of the customers—families, some of them. A few singles. Businessmen and cowboys. Each of them had a place to be when they left here. Home. Work.
They were not looking over their shoulders or sitting with their backs to the wall. They seemed caught up in their lives and living, unafraid. But it had been so long since her life could be described that way, she could hardly remember it now.
She’d often heard people talk about luck, about whether or not such a thing existed. Or whether good fortune was as simple as preparation meeting opportunity. She’d quit believing in luck years ago. Whoever had bought her camera couldn’t have paid what that camera was worth and she’d never find its equal, even if she had all the luck in the world.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to look, expecting Sally with her food. But it was that woman from the pawnshop. Ali’s lips parted in surprise.
“I hope you don’t mind me followin’ you here,” the woman said, sliding, uninvited, into the booth opposite her. “But I felt for you back there. Even before the…well, you know—the marbles.”
Without a clue as to what to say to the woman, she just stared at her.
“You don’t know my name,” the woman went on, “and I don’t know yours. Which is just as well. But you remind me of a good friend I had once who did something real nice for me. In fact, you’re a dead ringer for her. And I just thought to myself, ‘I should help her.’ So here I am.”
“Y-you want to help me?” Maybe it was the hunger, but she couldn’t grasp what this woman was up to.
“Maybe I’ve just had enough of men like Eeben. See, he has a set policy of waitin’ an extra twenty-four hours after a contract expires, to sell with an item as expensive as that one—honestly anything over five hundred dollars—just to give our better patrons the benefit of the doubt. It’s not the law, but it’s a courtesy, you understand. Something the people of Marietta have long appreciated. But not this time. I think he figured you wouldn’t be back for it, not bein’ a local and bein’ a woman, at that. And that just burned me, if you want to know the truth. I’m sick to death of that way of thinking. Men like Eeben feelin’ superior to us women, not even knowin’ a girl’s story. So, I’m going to break the rules. I’m going to tell you who bought your camera, because I think that’s only fair.”
Ali inhaled sharply. “Who?”
“You got to promise you’ll never tell who told you. It can’t have come from me or I’ll lose my job.”
She leaned forward. “I swear. I won’t say a word.”
The woman pulled out a piece of paper and pen from the deep pocket of her sweater and scribbled down a name, then pushed the scrap of paper toward Ali. “There. Now you can honestly say that name never came out of my mouth.”
Ali’s eyes gathered with moisture as she reached for the woman’s hand and clasped it. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
The woman squeezed her fingers tightly. “But to be honest, if I were you, I’d steer clear and go find me another camera.”
“But you just said—”
“I know. I leveled the playing field. That’s only right and fair. But the man who bought your camera, well, folks around here talk. He’s a bit of a hermit…for reasons that are his own. You’ll see. Doesn’t like people, mostly. Some folks are even scared of him. Keeps to himself. I don’t think you have a chance in hell of changing his mind.”
Ali pulled her hand back. “All the same…”
Sally returned just then with Ali’s breakfast and set it down in front of her. “Here you go. Three eggs scrambled with toast and jam. Anything else I can get you ladies? Coffee for you, Ruth Ann?” she asked the woman sitting across the booth from Ali.
So, that was her name. Ruth Ann blushed at the mention of her name and just shook her head.
“Thank you,” Ali said to Sally, but when she left, Ali pushed the plate across the table to her new friend. “Please, I’d like you to have it. It’s the least I can do.”
“No, hon, but thanks just the same. I got to run. I’m already at least one cigarette past my break time.” She got to her feet. “Truth is, I don’t really smoke anymore. I just want him to think I do so I can duck outside couple times a day, fill up my lungs with this pretty Montana air. Now that spring’s around the corner, isn’t it just glorious? So, you eat that food. Looks like you could use a good meal. And good luck with that camera. And forget my name, would you?”
“Name? I didn’t hear a name,” Ali said with a small grin, still stunned by both the woman’s generosity and her words.
Ruth Ann winked. “Atta girl,” she said, and turned to go.
Ali watched her hurry out the front door and head back in the direction of Baxter’s Pawnshop.
She sat studying the piece of paper in her hand and wondering about the woman’s warning. A bit of a hermit. She could hardly hold that against him—whoever he was—when that word could easily describe what her life had become. Ruth Ann was right about one thing though. Ali would need a lot of luck to get her camera back. Or a miracle.
“I brook no nonsense when it comes to clutter,” said Irina Koscov, her slight Russian accent jumbling her consonants. She lifted the hand-thrown coffee mug Adam Wolfe had set down before her a moment earlier and took a brief, testing sniff of the coffee he’d made. Raising an eyebrow, she set it back down. She pressed a hanky to her nose and sniffed, her gaze flicking up once more to his cheek before she looked quickly away.
It was an impulse he’d long ago grown used to, but it made his jaw clench just the same.
“I like my house neat and tidy,” she went on. “I am allergic to smoke, dogs and kyets, so I do not allow any of them in the house.”
He was still puzzling out the word kyets when Boomer, his Chocolate Labrador Retriever mix, lifted his head from his paws and tilted a quizzical look at him, seeming to understand he was the topic of conversation. Adam squinted back a warning look of his own.
“And,” she said, flicking a gaze at the doorway to the back rooms, “you haf a daughter, I understand? I haf three sons, all in the military now.”
From across the room, he caught sight of his fourteen-year-old niece spying on them through the crack in the door. As soon as Adam made eye contact, she disappeared. Something that was becoming a habit with her. But Adam nodded at Irina’s question, suddenly sure he didn’t want to elaborate.
Irina tilted her head, having caught sight of the girl, too. She sent Adam a look that said she disapproved. “She should come out to meet me.”
Adam narrowed a look at her. “She’s not involved in this process. Not yet.”
“I see.” She sniffed. “We will work on manners later. As I say, I don’t allow interference in my kitchen,” Irina went on. “I organize it to my tastes and I expect it to remain that way. And,” she added, “not to boast, but my coffee and vatrushka are second to none.” A small, proud twitch of a smile curved the straight line of her mouth and she folded her hands on the table. “Even your girl will like the vatrushkas.”
The woman had a knife-blade demeanor and hands that reminded him of his grandfather’s. She’d come highly recommended from the domestic agency Adam had gone through. Since two of his other possibilities had canceled their appointments for reasons he could only guess and another had been rude enough to balk at his door, his candidates had narrowed down to this one and one more on her way. And while Irina Koscov apparently seemed to know her way around the kitchen—and whatever a vatrushka was, the idea of it made his mouth water—her implications about his fourteen-year-old niece Carrie’s shortcomings and the ‘no dogs in the house’ were deal breakers for him. Boomer had had his share of outdoors and Adam did not intend to give him another dose of it.
“I serve breakfast promptly at six a.m.,” she went on. “Dinner is at noon or, if you wish, I can pack a meal for you to take. Supper is promptly at five p.m. I don’t wash windows or do ironing, but I am certain you will find my other skills more than adequately compensate.”
Adam sighed and got to his feet. “Thank you, Ms. Koscov, for coming all the way out here.” He extended a hand to her. “But I’m afraid it’s not going to work out.”
Irina’s face flattened with affront and she refused his hand. “But…why not?” she demanded. “I am the best you’ll find here in Marietta. And believe me, nobody else will—” She cut off that thought. “Ask anyone. I haf references.”
He stood, half turning away from her. “To be honest, I set my own schedule and…I like a little clutter. So, I don’t think it’s gonna work out with you and me. But I will miss trying your vattera-truskaya—”
“Vatrushkas,” she corrected sharply.
“Ah. Right. Vatrushkas. And your coffee, too, no doubt, ’cause mine could pave a road.”
Irina sniffed, got to her feet and gathered up her oversized handbag. “Whatever you say,” she replied with a singsong lilt to her anger. “I will inform the agency that you require someone with lower standards than I have.” She scowled. “No doubt they can find someone like that for you, sir.”
Boomer unfurled and gave a rumbling growl from his spot near Adam’s feet. Irina flinched and backed up.
Stepping back, Adam allowed her to move past him in the direction of the front door.
He glanced at his watch as Irina Koscov made her way outside and down the steps. “Thanks again for stopping by.” Irina did not acknowledge him, but started up her car and peeled down his driveway, her tires spitting up muddy ground.
Shutting the door behind her, Adam turned to the dog, whose tail thumped against the wooden floor.
“No vatrushkas for you,” he said, pointing at the Lab. Boomer’s furry eyebrows lifted. “Or me and Carrie either, apparently. Maybe we’re just gonna have to settle for my awful cooking after all.” The dog whined and licked his hand. Adam smiled down at him. Boomer was the only one who saw past what others couldn’t help but see. All that mattered not at all to a dog like him.
Adam scratched him behind the ears. A couple of months ago, he’d found him, lost or—more likely—abandoned, on a back road in the national forest. The pup had been wandering for God knew how long, half-starved and nearly frozen. But Adam had brought him back from the brink and now, the young dog refused to leave his side—except for an occasional side play with Carrie. Boomer seemed to have an uncanny affinity for people who needed him and, several times, Adam had gone searching for him only to find him curled up with his intractable niece somewhere.
Which suited Adam fine. Until Carrie had arrived two months ago, Boomer had been his only companion. A born cattle dog, foot warmer, bed dog. And no housekeeper was about to tell Adam otherwise.
He pulled the list of interviewees from his pocket and scratched a line through Irina’s name. “One more and then we’ll call it a day,” he told Boomer. “This whole thing was a bad idea.”
After emptying Irina’s cup in the sink, he stacked it in the dishwasher. He’d scheduled the interviews intentionally close together so as not to take up his entire afternoon. There were cattle to sort and he couldn’t think of a more excruciating way to spend his one free morning than interviewing candidates who either wanted to reorganize his life or judge it.
If he’d had his druthers, none of this…this housekeeper/cook thing would even be necessary. When there had been just him and Boomer, life had seemed simpler. Predictable. Workable. Now, all his plans—his dreams—were hovering somewhere above him, poised to come crashing down around both him and the girl down the hallway if he couldn’t make things work.
In fact, he’d resisted hiring anyone full time in the house for as long as he could. While he didn’t mind his own pathetic cooking, Adam realized he should no longer be left to his own devices in the kitchen when he’d discovered Carrie sneaking food in the middle of the night. He had the girl to think about now. But feeding her was only part of it. Doing what was best for her was something else.
The next woman was late. Ten minutes late to be exact. Even as he had that thought, he heard a car pull up the gravel drive. He looked through the blinds to see an older Subaru SUV pull in across from his pickup. Boomer started to bark.
The woman who got out of that car and stood hesitating at the far end of his driveway was no Irina Koscov. A decade or two younger, her shoulder-length, dark blonde hair ruffled around her face in the chilly April breeze and she pulled a loose strand back, tucking it behind her ear. For a moment, she stood half-turned in his direction, gazing back along the road she’d just come down. She seemed to be talking to herself.
Perfect. Another crazy. That would be just his luck.
Automatically, he reached for his Carhartt jacket and beat-up Stetson, and tugged it down low over his eyes before grabbing for the dog’s collar as he opened the door. The sound seemed to startle the woman, but she turned, took a deep breath and headed toward him.
Beside him, Boomer went curiously quiet, ears up, his rear end going like a wind-up toy. Adam stepped out onto his porch.
“Adam Wolfe?” she called from a good distance.
He nodded, fighting the impulse to pull his hat down farther. He forced himself to face her directly. No point putting it off.
She strode toward him across the driveway. “I’m sorry to show up here unannounced.”
Unannounced? He glanced down at the list still in his hand. “I expected you ten minutes ago.”
Now she was within twenty feet of him and Boomer was whining to get out of his grip, his tail wagging. Adam waited, scowling down at her as she tugged off her oversized sunglasses.
And just like that, his rational brain shut down. She might as well have sucker punched him the way the sight of her up close stole every bit of his focus and slammed his pulse up against the wall of his chest. Despite her exotic beauty from a distance, he could see now she was even prettier up close. And she wore hardly a stitch of makeup. Just a touch of shine on her lips that only emphasized the long, dark lashes that shadowed her cheeks. With eyes the transient color of Copper Mountain at summer’s end—a hypnotic mixture of blues, greens, browns and gold.
She stopped now, staring up at him. A myriad of expressions crossed that pretty face of hers. But the usual suspects—surprise and disgust, the two most common—were not among them. Curiosity maybe. Or pity. Yeah. Probably that.
“Y-you were…expecting me?”
He swallowed thickly, untangling his damned tongue. “You…you’re the last one on my list.” He held it out even though he knew she couldn’t read it from there.
She frowned, glancing back at her car.
By now, the dog was whining, wagging his tail furiously at her and tugging against Adam’s grip. “It doesn’t matter. We can talk in the kitchen. You’re not scared of dogs are you? Or…allergic?” he asked, still hanging on to Boomer’s collar. The woman, stopped at the bottom of his steps, stared up at him like he was speaking a foreign language. Maybe she was just balking like that other one. “You know,” he clarified, “do they make you cough or sneeze?”
“Um…no,” she said, still looking confused. “I-I like dogs.”
“Good. Then, come on in.”
“I’d really rather do this here,” she said firmly, stopping at the foot of the stairs. “Outside.”
His jaw clenched. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re not really dressed for Montana in April.”
Her long legs were sheathed in worn jeans and impractical ankle-high boots, and her hip-length, wool city coat was on the thin side. And, despite the sun making an appearance today for the first time in days, she was already shivering at the bottom of his stairs.
“I’m fine,” she insisted. “But…I’m confused. Who told you I was coming?”
He blew out a breath. “I don’t have time for games, Miss Hathaway, so—”
“Hathaway?” She shook her head.
Taken aback by her seeming confusion, he glanced back at his list. “That is your name, isn’t it? Marion Hathaway?”
Those Copper Mountain eyes of hers dropped all pretense of fearlessness. “No.”
“Wait. You are here for the job, right?”
“The housekeeping position.”
“No.” She looked almost relieved he had her all wrong. “No. My name is Alessandra Thibeaux and you—” she straightened her shoulders “—you have my camera.”
The man on the porch seemed so surprised, he let go of the dog, who ran straight down the steps at Ali. She backed up a step or two as the Lab leapt up to swipe at her with his tongue, just missing her cheek.
Ali deftly avoided getting knocked over before managing to settle the animal’s four paws on the ground in front of her, scratching him behind the ears as his owner rushed down after him. It was only a second or two before Wolfe was beside her, grabbing the dog by the collar again.
“Sorry. He doesn’t usually do that. I mean, ever.”
But the dog was staring up at her with funny, inexplicably love-struck eyes. God, she loved Labs.
“In fact,” Wolfe growled low, “he’s afraid of most people.”
“Oh?” She sunk her fingers into the fur on Boomer’s hind end with a gentle push and the dog managed to sit at her feet. “He’s all right. Aren’t you, boy? He’s big, but sweet.”
The man straightened only a foot or so away from her and she took an instinctive step back. And by his reaction, she could see it was the wrong thing to do. Not because of the scars on his cheek, though she realized that might be how it looked. It was habit for her, maybe like the dog’s habit of not trusting people. Men, in particular. It had nothing to do with him. Too late. A scowl had descended on his expression.
The puckered scar that covered his right cheek turned a dusky color. A burn, she decided. But she had no way of telling how he’d gotten it or how far it went under the hat he’d pulled low down over his eyes. Eyes she’d only managed to glimpse but now found to be a remarkable crystal blue. By any estimate, Adam Wolfe was a handsome man who had gone through some horror she could only imagine. But was that why Ruth Ann had warned her off?
He towered over her, despite her own considerable height. She’d always been the tallest of her friends at five-nine, but Adam Wolfe was six-four at least. Six-four and solid muscle, if the tight-fitting legs of his denim jeans were any indication. His dark brown hair curled beneath his hat and brushed his collar. He kept his face turned half away from her now and wouldn’t look her in the eye.
“So,” he began, staring off at a pasture far below them. “The camera? I assume you mean the Hasselblad, from Baxter’s, since that’s the only camera I’ve acquired recently.”
“That’s right. It’s mine.”
Now he looked at her, his expression decidedly chillier. “Actually,” he said, “it’s mine. I bought it. Though I don’t know how you would know that.”
With a nervous swallow, she decided not to address that particular point. Instead, she said, “Your buying it yesterday was a mistake. He wasn’t supposed to make it available until today. How much did you pay for it?”
“Plenty. And the contract was up yesterday. I made sure. You’re not saying you think I did something wrong, buying it? Because—”
“No. It’s not your fault. But I—” She faltered, dropping her gaze to the muddy driveway. “Look, I’m here to appeal to your sense of…fairness.”
“Fairness?” He practically snorted the word.
“You’re right about the contract. But it’s my understanding that there was a twenty-four-hour grace period. But since I only had the money today, when I went in, it was already gone. To you, apparently. Look, I don’t know what you paid, but I have a thousand dollars. Exactly what I owed on the loan.”
Wolfe ignored the chilly breeze that rifled past his shirt collar. “A thousand? Well, Baxter made out then, didn’t he? I paid close to four.”
Of course, he did. She shifted her feet in the muddy driveway, looking up at him. “I have only your word on that.”
He tilted his head, giving her a deliberate, unencumbered view of his cheek. “I can show you my receipt.”
“I don’t have four thousand dollars.” Closing her eyes, she added, “I don’t even have two.”
A shrug lifted his big shoulder. “There are other cameras out there. Cheaper cameras.”
“I don’t want any of those. I need that one. It was my—” She bit off the word. “It’s very special to me.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have hocked it.”
His words left her fighting for breath. Ruth Ann was right after all. It was hopeless. She turned on her heel and started back to her car. “Forget it.”
She was almost there before she heard him crunching gravel behind her. “Wait!” he called after her. She turned on him so suddenly, he skidded to a stop. “I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know anything about you.”
“No, you don’t. But clearly I wasted my time and yours coming out here.”
He was still fighting the dog’s inexplicable impulse to chase after her. “So…you drove all this way but I guess you didn’t really want it that bad?”
She stopped again and looked back at him. “Excuse me?”
He stared off again past her shoulder. “Or have I—” he gestured vaguely at his cheek “—scared you off.”
She blinked at him, confused. “I’m sorry. What?”
“You wouldn’t be the first.”
He burned a deliberate look in her direction, clearly meant to intimidate her. Or reveal her.
“Oh, you mean that?” She gestured at his face. “Why would a scar scare me?”
He narrowed those sharp blue eyes. “It scares most people.”
“Sorry, try again. I’ve seen worse. More likely it’s your rudeness that scares people off. You do have something of a reputation, apparently.”
Boomer yawn-whined, his look comically ping-ponging back and forth between them.
“Apparently.” His voice had roughened into a growl. “I said I was sorry.”
She stared at him for a full three beats. “Apology accepted. Now if you have nothing more to say, I’ll be on my way.”
“Maybe I do.” He took a step closer. “Have something more to say.”
“The camera. I have something you want. Maybe we can work something out.”
Her eyes widened with affront and something flashed hot inside her. “You can’t possibly mean what I think you—?”
“No,” he practically barked, looking embarrassed. “What do you take me for?”
I don’t know, exactly. “What then?” The hope in her chest felt stark and raw. “Are you saying you’re willing to give it back?”
“Not give it back,” he said. “I can’t take a couple-thousand-dollar loss with nothing to show for it. And to be honest, that camera’s worth more than even I paid for it. Hell, I could turn it around and sell it for more if I was of a mind to. Which I’m not,” he added, “particularly. But I can see that camera means something to you. I’d be willing to discuss selling it back to you. For what I paid.”
“I told you. I don’t have that much money.”
“Right. You said.” His gaze fell to her Canadian license plate. “You’re not from here, are you?”
She shook her head. “What difference does that make?”
“Well, you’re clearly not just passing through if you hocked your camera and hoped to get the thing back. You have a job here?”
She could hardly call what she did to buy food a job. But she did have the potential for a decent one. “Yes. As a photographer for Eve Canaday’s event planning business. I need my camera for it.”
His gaze slid down her like a slow burn. “You mean Olivia’s sister?”
A cold wave of surprise washed over her. “Y-you know Olivia Canaday?”
“And Jake. Her fiancé. Small town. You’re a professional photographer?”
“Sort of.” She looked away. “Yes.”
“Sort of, or yes?” He regarded her with those sea-blue eyes of his that made her feel seventeen again.
“Yes. Look, that’s really none of your business. I came here for the camera and if we can’t work that out—”
“Can you cook?”
“Can I—? Of course, I can cook. What’s that got to do with—?”
“Any experience with kids?”
“I need a housekeeper/cook. And someone who might have a clue as to how to talk to a fourteen-year-old girl.” He let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “You need the camera. Maybe we could work something out.”
“A trade?” Ali asked, skeptical and a little shocked. A job? She hadn’t come looking for a job, that’s for sure. But since cleaning rooms at the Dew Drop Inn on the outskirts of town was how she’d been earning her money for the past few months, she could hardly stand on principle. And except for the thousand dollars she’d managed to save in her purse, her pockets were empty. A thousand wouldn’t even be enough to set her up with a new place to live somewhere else. Unless it was in another motel.
“A trade or partial trade,” he answered, tugging down the brim of his hat lower. “You could use part of what you earn here to pay off what you’d owe me on the camera. To buy it back.”
And how could she know he’d keep his word? It could all be some scam. Or worse. Then again, he didn’t know her either. And he was inviting her into his home.
For the first time as she considered his offer—as crazy as it was—she glanced back at the house behind him. It was a log house like so many here, but would’ve looked at home on the slopes of Aspen or Vail, with big glass windows and a homey feel. For all Ruth Ann’s warnings, there was nothing overtly sinister about it. No, it was the owner about whom she had her doubts.
Her gaze fell to his hand with its callused palm and surprisingly clean fingernails. And another burn scar on his wrist, marring some kind of tattoo in red and black ink that ran up his forearm and disappeared beneath his shirt sleeve. Another tattoo snuck around the edge of his shirt collar below his ear on the unscarred side of his face. Tattoos on a cowboy?
Yet, from his worn denims to the scuffed-up tips of his cowboy boots, Adam Wolfe seemed one hundred percent Montana wild—with a twist. And despite the scar, handsome, too, in an undeniably rough, outdoorsy kind of way. It was, she decided, his personality that needed work.
She’d seen enough cowboys around Marietta. There was hardly anything but cowboys in this town. Some rough. Some like him. All so very different from the men she’d known in the city with their distant stares, trendy suits and polished shoes. So different from—
Ali inhaled sharply. Don’t think about him.
She met Wolfe’s intense, blue-eyed gaze again. Unbidden, awareness of his pure maleness shot through her again with quicksilver heat—every bit as unwelcome as the realization that he was assessing, her too, in that blue-eyed stare kind of way.
“You don’t know anything about me,” she said finally looking away. “Why would you hire me?”
“Boomer, here, seems to like you. He’s a pretty good judge of character.”
She exhaled a little laugh. “You’d trust a dog to do your hiring?”
“Let’s just say I read people pretty well, too.”
Maybe he only saw what he wanted to see. He wanted a live-in maid, sharing a house with him and his niece? Impossible. “I…I can’t work for you. I’ll find a way to earn the money. And then I’ll send for it.” She turned and started back to her car.
“That isn’t the deal,” he called after her. She turned back. “The deal is I need a housekeeper-slash-cook who’s not going to send Boomer, here, out to the barn at the first sight of a dog hair. Or try to sabotage my routine.”
He paused, staring out at his land. “And my niece is on the brink of boycotting anything and everything I mangle in my kitchen. I need someone who can feed us. Nothing fancy. Just…edible.”
Almost on cue, loud, heavy metal music blared from an upstairs window.
She glanced up toward the sound. “Your niece?”
“She’s new here. Still adjusting.”
The volume of the music cranked up another notch.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I need someone who doesn’t come armed with twenty years of rules, regulations and judgments about my house or my life, or—” he gestured dismissively at his face “this. And in the end, you’d get your camera. But turn me down and the deal’s off. And I keep the camera.”
“But why, if you’re willing to—?”
“Because I like that camera. And I’d need a good reason to part with it.”
“As in my cooking and cleaning your house.” She braced her hands on her hips. “And exactly what makes you think I’d be any good at that, Mr. Wolfe? The fact that I’m female?”
“You can frame it any way you want. But apparently, you need money almost as much as you need that camera. If you’re worried about working here, you can call the domestic agency in Livingston who vetted me. Besides that,” he said, nodding at the car she’d parked halfway down his circular drive, “it appears you parked in the one spot in my driveway guaranteed to keep you here permanently without an actual tow.”
Whirling to look at her car, she gasped. Sure enough, the two back wheels were sunk hubcap-deep in thawing mud in his driveway. No, no, no! She mentally calculated the cost of a tow truck to come all the way out here to pull her out and felt her heart sink. Perfect. A fitting capper to a perfectly horrible day.
Simultaneously, she saw the moment he glanced in the window of her car, at the neatly folded blankets and pillow in the back seat, then shot a knowing look back at her. She felt heat rise to her cheeks, but she lifted her chin, bracing for what she knew was coming. Naturally he was judging her. Coming to all sorts of conclusions about her. Right or wrong, there was no denying the fact she’d been living in her car for the last week anyway.
She fumbled in her purse to find her cell.
“So, is that a no?” he asked.
“I…I need to call a tow truck.”
Wolfe tipped his hat off, slapped it against his thigh and settled it back on his head again. “Don’t. Wait right here.” He left her standing near her car and headed around the corner of his house toward the large, attached garage she’d seen driving up. The dog chased after him, tossing a conflicted look back at her.
Wait, he said. Where exactly did he think she was going to go?
Grateful for the man’s silence on the matter of the blankets, she stood on his driveway, shivering. Up until a little less than a week ago, she’d rented that room at the motel for a modest fee. But as it became clear she wouldn’t have the money to buy back the camera in time, she had been sleeping in her car, temporarily joining a gym for use of its showers and facilities. The coffee bar, in particular, had come in handy. Survival was a skill she’d learned about early and well. And she would survive this setback, too. Somehow.
God, what had happened to her life?
She scanned the pasture that surrounded his place. The house sat on a rise overlooking his sprawling acreage, which looked like it ended at the snake-like Yellowstone in the distance and spread north and south again as far. It wasn’t the biggest ranch she’d seen here by any means. Some were so big one couldn’t see from one end to the next. She guessed he ran cattle on only a couple thousand acres or so with a small pond in the center. But standing at the edge of his land, speckled with black angus near islands of pine trees, made her feel small. And bruised. And lost.
His quick exit was, no doubt, just his way of ending any conversation about hiring her. Or about the camera. And she couldn’t blame him. He should be scared. Her life was a mess.
The crossroad she’d reached spread out before her—on this very spot—and begged an answer from her. Where would she go? What would she do now? What choice was left? Two years ago, she could hardly have imagined coming to this. She’d had a career, a nice apartment, a life. The people she’d left behind surrounded her memories as clearly as if she’d walked away from that life only yesterday. Friends. Colleagues. But none of them could help her. None of them deserved landing in the mess her life had become. And the fault was hers and hers alone. The past that would not let her go. He would not let her go. Ever.
She pulled her gaze north, across the river, to the swell of land she knew to be part of the Canadays’ small ranchette: ‘Lane’s End.’ The irony that Adam Wolfe’s property was close to theirs didn’t escape her. They owned a couple hundred acres or so that also hugged the Yellowstone, and the cliffs that overlooked it. She knew this because she’d made it her business to know everything about them. From a distance, of course. Now, it seemed, the clock had run out on her chance to do more. Her camera had been her ticket into that world and now that, too, was gone.
She’d come here today not knowing what to expect. Hoping. She should have jumped at his job offer. Too late now.
Trust would never again come easily to her. And perhaps that was just as well. She had only herself to count on and she’d gotten adept at doing so, despite all evidence to the contrary in the back seat of her car.
She rubbed her hands on her arms and inhaled the sweet, crisp Montana air as the sound of his pickup came from behind her.
Pulling up in front of her car, the rancher backed closer then hopped out of the cab, holding a thick chain. He handed her his hat, still warm from his body heat. In one quick move, he slid onto his back at the front of her car and fiddled underneath it with the chain. Ali frowned. The same mud her tires had sunk into now covered the back of his shirt.
“Mr. Wolfe—” she began to protest.
He attached the other part of the chain to his tow knob at the back of his pickup. “If I’m going to get covered in mud for you, the least you could do is quit calling me Mr. Wolfe. Adam is easier. Now, get behind the wheel and put it in neutral.”
She did as he asked and, indeed, a few seconds later, her car was free of the mud and twenty feet down the driveway. As she put her car back in park, another car headed down his drive. A small, red Honda with a woman behind the wheel.
Climbing out of his truck, he met Ali at her car, but he too had noticed the other car coming.
“Looks like your real job applicant is finally here.” She handed him back the hat.
“So she is,” he said, watching the car approach. He rearranged his hat on his head. “By the way, the job comes with that little cabin down there. It’s really a bunkhouse, but since I don’t have any hired hands who live here, it sits mostly empty. There’s a woodstove and a kitchenette, winterized windows and a solid lock on the door.”
Ali blinked at the bunkhouse, then at him as the little red car pulled up beside him and a harried, middle-aged woman rolled down her window.
“Marion Hathaway, Mr. Wolfe, and I—” One good look at him and her face went pale She forgot to shut her mouth.
The hair went up on the back of Ali’s neck for him and she found herself scowling at the woman.
“I—uh, I—” the woman began again.
Wolfe didn’t bother to conceal his irritation with the woman. “You’re late.”
She couldn’t seem to pull her rude stare from his cheek. “Right. Well, uh, you see, my daughter came late to pick up my granddaughter after I got her from preschool and then, wouldn’t you know, my tire was…”
Ali stopped listening to the woman’s excuses. Instead, her focus had turned back to the bunkhouse down the hill and the idea of a woodstove that would keep her warm on these cold spring nights and the lock on the door that would keep her safe. And the room was included in the job. If working here could only buy her some time, then perhaps it was worth it? What better place to hide in plain sight than here? With miles of nothing nearby?
Or just go. And keep going. Forget what you came here for.
But lose the camera? And go where?
She turned back to Adam Wolfe as Boomer leaned against her leg and stared up at her with misplaced affection. She sunk her fingers into the thick fur of his neck. Saying yes meant trusting the man to keep his word about the camera. He’d given her no real reason to doubt him. Mistrust was simply her default setting. But she liked the idea of the dog. The dog—whose warmth against her leg made her feel safe—came as part of the package. Silly, really. A dog couldn’t protect her. Not really.
But this land, this place might hide her for a while.
“I’ll take it,” she said impulsively to Wolfe, who was still listening to the other woman explain away her tardiness.
While the other woman was mid-sentence, Wolfe swiveled a look at Ali. “What?”
“The job. I’ll take it. If you’re still offering.”
Marion Hathaway finally quit talking.
His eyes went dark with surprise. “I’m still offering.”
She stuck her hand out to him. “Then we’re agreed. Assuming we can come to terms on the camera.”
He reached for her hand. And when his callused fingers closed around hers, she had the oddest sense of…familiarity. Of having touched that hand before.
He held on to hers a moment longer than necessary, then, stepping back, a curious frown lingered on his mouth. The tingle of his touch lingered with her.
With a look that said he had more to say on the subject, he turned to the other woman. “Sorry for your trouble, but it appears I’ve hired someone.”
Ill-disguised relief flattened Marion Hathaway’s features. “I see. All right then. Well, I suppose it’s for the best. After all my granddaughter…and the drive out here and—”
“Thanks for stopping by. Good day, Ms. Hathaway.” Ali thought if he looked at her the way he was looking at Marion Hathaway right now—a look she totally deserved—she might have stepped on the gas to get out of here, too.
Marion flicked one last look at Ali, as she pulled down the driveway.
When all they could still see was the cloud of exhaust from her old car in the cold air, he turned back to Ali.
“So…” He hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his low-slung jeans.
Her pulse raced unaccountably as she turned and reached in through the window of her car to shut off the ignition. “So.”
“Did you mean it? Or were you just trying to rescue me from that woman?”
She smiled. “I meant it. And you don’t appear to need rescuing. You frightened her all by yourself with that cower-inducing glare of yours.”
A smile tugged at his mouth. “I wasn’t glaring,” he argued. “Much. What changed your mind?” He reached for Boomer and scrubbed him between the ears.
Indeed. “I rethought my options. And the bunkhouse will do nicely. But I could ask you the same. What changed your mind? I know you saw the blankets in my back seat. And before you ask, yes, I was sleeping in my car to try to pull together the money for the camera.”
Those eyes of his scanned her, full of unasked questions. “As you recall, that didn’t enter into our discussion.”
“Maybe it should have.”
“If I only considered people who had never fallen on hard times, I’d be eliminating ninety percent of applicants.”
His logic was flawed but who was she to argue? “FYI, I have dual citizenship, Canada and here, so I promise you, I’m legal. As far as references—”
“Eve Canaday hired you. That’s good enough for me. Like I said, I trust my own judgment and I hire who I want.”
That was only somewhat reassuring. “Why did you hire me? I’m curious. You don’t know me.”
For a long heartbeat, he studied her. “That’s my business, Ms. Thibeaux,” he said. “Yours is to make sure I don’t have to eat another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At least, for as long as you’re here.”
“I think I can manage that. And it’s Ali, if you don’t mind.”
“Ali,” he repeated, testing out the name. “All right.”
“But about the camera…?”
“Let’s talk about that inside. Come in. I’ll show you the house.” He tapped his thigh to signal Boomer to follow him, then led her into his home.
From the outside, the log ranch house was pretty, but unassuming. It looked like a hundred other homes she’d seen hereabouts and often wondered about. There was a wrap-around front porch that, for the winter, she assumed, was bare of any furniture except the rough-hewn porch swing that tapped against the log railing in the breeze. Remnants of the last snowstorm still lay in little gusty piles against the porch that fronted the house and a glass storm door enclosed a beautiful, hand-made entry door that he held open for her.
But nothing could have prepared her for the inside, which was not at all what she’d expected. She supposed she’d expected some kind of a bachelor pad—and, to be honest, if one considered the piles of stuff lying around in no particular order, there were elements of that—but the bones of this house were beautiful. A great deal of thought had gone into every surface, from the sprawling slab marble countertops and chef’s cooktop in the open kitchen to the great river rock fireplace in the connecting room with its potentially cozy seating area nearby that sat still mostly empty, but for a couch that had seen better days.
That he didn’t make more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in that kitchen might actually constitute a crime. It was all she could do not to lie face down on the marble and hug it, she loved it so much. The great room had ceilings twenty feet high with large, wooden beams exposed.
“It’s…beautiful,” she managed to say, her gaze still scouring the room. “All of it.”
“It still needs furniture. Lots of it.”
“Did you build this place yourself?” she asked, turning back to him. He was staring at her now, openly. Lost in thought. She cleared her throat and he blinked. “Or did you buy it already built?” she prompted.
“People who sold it to me moved to some city in Oregon. I guess this place was too remote for their tastes.”
“That’s the beauty of it, I suppose,” she murmured, staring out the window at the expanse of land stretching to the Yellowstone in the distance.
“Right. There are three bedrooms back there,” he said pointing to the back hallway. “One was supposed to be my office, but I’ve never got around to setting it up, and there’s a sun-room out back for when you feel claustrophobic.”
“Hard to feel claustrophobic in a house like this,” she murmured, glancing toward the back rooms where she could still hear music blasting from behind one of the closed doors. “You said your niece hasn’t been here long?”
She waited for more, but he busied himself taking two cups down from a long shelf above the sink and pouring her a cup of coffee.
“Milk, if you have it.”
He poured the milk and set the cup in front of her. Ali wrapped her hands around the warm mug.
“Apologies for the coffee. I ordered a new coffee maker, but it hasn’t showed up.”
She took a sip. “It’s not so bad.”
He sent her a disbelieving look.
“Well, I mean it’s not…terrible.” She took another sip. “Okay, it’s really awful.” She almost contained a laugh and set the mug down. “I think I can help you out with it though.”
“When can you start?” he asked, dumping his coffee out in the sink.
“Will morning be soon enough?”
He nodded, pulled a key from a drawer and shoved it her way. “Here’s the bunkhouse key. Consider it yours for the duration of your stay here. Starting tonight.”
She turned the key in her hand as if it were some precious stone. “Oh. Well, thank you.”
“Lock it at night. If that makes you feel safer. Though it’s unnecessary out this way.”
Pocketing it, she said, “Just the same, I will. And so we’re clear, I’d like to know my duties here. Especially when it comes to your niece.”
“Navigating Carrie-World is…tricky,” he said, standing at the sink and staring out the window at his sprawling acreage. “It’s uncharted territory for me and possibly for anyone who thought they knew the waters. She keeps to herself in her room, mostly, listening to music. She hates me. Doesn’t want to talk and wants nothing to do with the ranch. She’ll claim she’s here under duress, leaving behind her life back in Denver and all her friends. But the truth is, I’m her last stop. There’s no one else.”
“Both gone. My sister, Jen, tragically a few years ago and Carrie’s father in another accident this past January.”
“Oh. I’m…so sorry.”
He turned back to her. “I’ve hired a car to take her back and forth from school, because of my schedule, but she seems to resent that, too. She might respond to something less…I don’t know, impersonal.”
“And you want me to drive her?”
“Only if you don’t mind silence. Or the drive.”
“I was fourteen once. We might have something in common.”
Boomer stood and moved his head under her hand. She obliged by scratching him behind the ears. The dog panted happily.
“I usually order groceries delivered here, but if you’d rather shop, I can introduce you to the store owner and he’ll put you on my account. We can do that tomorrow. And I’ll drive you by Carrie’s school.”
Before she could answer, a girl—fourteen going on thirty—sauntered into the kitchen, paying neither one of them the slightest attention. She had the gangly limbs of a teenager but the beginnings of breasts beneath her Army surplus jacket. Her hair was very short and spiked with three shades of blue. Altogether, she was not even close to what Ali had expected.
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