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Authors: Gail McFarland

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BOOK: Dream Keeper
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“I, uh, we’re early,” he said softly when Rissa stopped in front of him. His mother nudged him and narrowed her eyes. He blinked rapidly, then tried again. “Miz Traylor. I know we’re early, Miz Yarborough-Traylor. Sorry.”

“Not a problem.” Rissa shifted her coat, tote, and briefcase again as she reached for Mrs. Clarence’s hand. Closing her fingers over the other woman’s warm hand, she smiled. “If you can give me a moment to make a phone call, I’ll be ready for you.”

“Sure, sure.” Mrs. Clarence gave Rissa’s hand a final pat as she settled her hips further back in her chair. She watched Rissa turn and head for her office, admiring her trim figure and neat suit, then leaned close to her son. “Now that’s a lady. You want to get married,” she whispered, “you get yourself one like that.”

“Yes, ma’am.” James lifted the little cup of now-warm eggnog to his lips, swallowed hard, and hoped Rissa’s call would be brief.

In her office, Rissa dropped her things in the chair nearest the door and headed for her desk. Lifting the phone, she stood for a moment fighting the urge to call Dench and scream into the phone. “Too early,” she breathed, wishing that it wasn’t. Instead, she pulled her directory closer and dialed her doctor.

Joyce Ashton was a Morehouse Medical School graduate and alone in her Collier Road office. It seemed that everyone else on her staff was still trying to finish Christmas shopping. Pushing back the heavy flow of her locked hair, she refused to be judgmental, though she thought procrastination deserved a place on the list of deadly sins. She would never understand why people put shopping off until the last minute, but it was nice to have this quiet time to herself. Sitting at her desk, reviewing files, she didn’t hesitate to answer when the phone rang.

“Rissa, good to hear from you! How is everything?”

“Fine.” Suddenly shaky, Rissa clutched the phone in both hands and sucked in a big breath. “Joyce, I know that so close to Christmas this is short notice, but I need a favor. I need an appointment.”

“An appointment?” On her end, Ashton wrinkled her forehead. “Well, sure. May I ask why?”

“I know I just saw you three months ago, but…” Air sizzled past Rissa’s teeth. “I think, uh, I could be…pregnant.”

“Oh, Rissa! When?”

“Today. I was, you know, late. So I figured…I took a home test today. But I need to be sure before I tell, so I’m calling you.”

“Confirmation, of course. I understand.” Dr. Ashton smiled.

On her end of the line, Rissa blinked and leaned against the desk. “Joyce…Am I asking too much? Am I hoping too much? Am I just wanting too much?”

“Rissa, I’m only a doctor, but the way I see it, you and Dench have pretty much got everything going for you that any couple could ask for. You’ve got a hot career and he’s coming into the new defensive coach slot for Atlanta. You’ve built and furnished that beautiful home off Cascade, and even better, you’re both blessed with good health and you were born for each other.”

“But a baby, Joyce. We both want a baby so much. And after all this time and all those fertility tests…” Rissa’s chest rose and fell when she closed her eyes on the sigh. “If I am, I mean, if the test is right and I am pregnant…” Swallowing hope, she opened her eyes. “Well, I won’t know if I don’t check, right? When can I take a test?”

The doctor flipped her calendar. “I can see you first thing in the morning, say seven?”

“Fine, I’ll be there at seven on the dot.” Rissa could almost hear Joyce smile into the phone, and it warmed her. “I’m taking the test, but I’m telling you, I already know the result.” Joyce’s light laughter echoed Rissa’s as the call disconnected. Dropping the phone into the cradle, unable to move for fear of singing like somebody in a crazy musical, Rissa tried not to think too far ahead and found herself doing it anyway.

“Baby, baby, baby,” she sang softly, then caught herself imagining…a boy first and then a girl, just like for AJ and Marlea. Tall, of course.
How could our children be anything else
? Dench was a couple of inches over six feet, and though her own five-nine hadn’t counted for much when she tried out for the WNBA, she was fairly tall for the average woman. So, yes, the children would be tall, and cinnamon-skinned like Dench, Rissa decided. And they would have Dench’s eyes, deep and brown with wildly emotional flecks of gold and green.

She was still imagining when the phone buzzed beneath her fingertips, and Karee’s voice came from the intercom. “Rissa? Its ten minutes ’til four and Mrs. Clarence wants to know if you’re ready for them?”

“Yes, certainly. Send them right in.” Lord, Rissa wondered, rising, is this what it’s going to be like working with James Clarence? Pulling his file from a drawer, she placed it on the small table in the center of a three-chair conversational area facing away from her desk. She added three Mont Blanc pens—already guessing that Mrs. Clarence would need a souvenir of the signing. Smoothing her skirt, she crossed the room and opened her office door.

With all the grace of a small yacht, Mrs. Clarence flowed into the room, her sharp dark eyes calmly taking in Rissa’s framed degrees, signed photos of her brother and other clients, and the subtly feminine lamps and artwork. Leaning, she inspected a photo of Rissa in action.

“That’s you back in 2000, the finals.” She nodded at the photo of the young woman who had rushed the camera and taken to the air with a hook shot. “I remember that. I saw that game on ESPN. I never played, but I know class when I see it, and you were really something.” Clutching her purse, Mrs. Clarence’s dark face dimpled when she followed Rissa’s gesture and sat in one of the bright red chairs with a solid thump. “You should have gone to the WNBA, but I guess we can’t all be Lisa Leslie, can we?”

“No, ma’am, we can’t, and it’s too bad because at six-five,
she
can dunk.” Rissa smiled. “But that’s okay because she’s an awesome player and an awfully nice woman.” She looked back at her client and indicated a chair. Looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, James sat facing his mother and his agent.

Mrs. Clarence looked at her son and realized his lips were still. Drawing herself up in her chair, she sniffed delicately as she pointed at the file on the table. “Are those the contracts?”

Rissa nodded and opened the file, setting three sets of contracts in front of her client. Brenda Clarence reached for one set and read it quickly. James turned the pages and let his eyes slide across the pages.

Brenda tapped the edges of the pages together when she finished reading and looked squarely at Rissa. “We’re here because you strike me as smart, and because you believe in my boy. You took good care of your brother, and I believe you’ll take care of my son.”

Rissa nodded at the mother and smiled at the son. James looked up and smiled back. “My husband says that you’re easily the most exciting fighter in the game today, James. I watched you fight and I agree. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. As a boxer, you have your flaws, but you seem consistently able to overcome them with sheer offensive might, and you sure as heck are getting hit a lot less often. You’re a good, potentially great, fighter, and I am going to take very good care of your career.”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Brenda Clarence flapped her large leather bag at her son. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Mrs. Clarence,” Rissa as she turned slightly to face the older woman, “I appreciate what it must have taken for you to turn your son’s career over to me, but I need you to realize that once he signs these contracts, the job is mine, all mine—and I will be working for him, not you. Are we all clear?”

Shifting in her seat, Brenda Clarence looked annoyed, concerned, then resigned. Her lips pushed together and she took a deep breath before nodding slowly. Across from her, her son almost sagged with relief. He reached for one of the Mont Blanc pens and began signing the contracts in front of him.

His mother watched in silence, finally turning her narrowed gaze to Rissa. Her eyes were hard and appraising when James passed the signed documents back. “You’ll take responsibility for my boy?”

“Yes, I will.” Rissa never blinked. “Full responsibility.”

“Good. Well, now that that’s done, I guess I’m satisfied.” Brenda Clarence was satisfied enough that she stood and offered her hand to Rissa. Nodding, she gripped Rissa’s tightly and smiled when Rissa neither flinched nor grimaced.

James stood beside his mother and offered his hand, as well. “Thank you, Miz Yarborough-Traylor. I never really saw this coming, this agent thing, but I’m glad it did and I’m glad to be working with you. Thanks. Can I keep this pen? For a souvenir?” His mother cleared her throat loudly. “And one for my mother, too?” On Rissa’s nod, James smiled and tucked the pens into his jacket pocket.

“James, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, any questions I can answer for you, okay?” The boxer nodded and Rissa walked the Clarences to her office door. Walking behind his mother, James’s feet suddenly slowed.

“Uh, did you mean it? I can ask you anything?” Whispering, the boxer’s face was tense, almost like when he stood facing an opponent across the ring. His mother kept walking.

“Well, sure. I’m your agent.” Rissa wasn’t sure why she was whispering, but he’d started it.

“Can I come talk to you? In the morning? Early?” He cast a furtive glance over his shoulder; his mother was sampling cookies.

“Early, sure, but…”

“I just have something to…to talk to you about. It won’t take long, but it’s important. Really.”

“No problem, I’ll be here.”

The boxer’s fisted hands pumped air and he grinned. “Great. Thanks again.”

Rissa watched his back when he hurried toward his mother. His shoulders and spine seemed straighter and stronger, as though a weight had been lifted. “Whatever it is, at least he has faith in me.”

She would have watched longer, but the phone on her desk rang. Turning, she noticed that it was her direct line, the number that only her family used. Picking up the phone, she waited a beat before saying anything, then before she could, Dench’s warm tenor filled her ear, “Hey, baby, how’s it going?”

“Good, and guess what…” She caught herself just in time.

“What?”

Damn! Didn’t mean to say that!
Pushing her chair away from the desk, she dropped into it and turned to face the window. “I made a run to Macy’s and picked up the tablecloths today. I’m so excited about doing Christmas Eve at our house, and…you will be here, won’t you?”

“Dude, that is so not what I called to say,” her husband laughed. “I was just sitting here closing out some paperwork and you were on my mind.” He laughed again. “You must be real tired, ’cause you’ve been running through my mind all day.”

“Oh, I am not nearly as tired as that joke.”

“Come on, give a brother a break. I worked hard on that.”

She shook her head. “And for that I got you the big bucks?”

“Naw, baby. You got me the big bucks ’cause I’m sexy.”

“Yeah,” Rissa sighed into the phone. “There is that.”

His voice dropped, the growl making her cross her legs tightly. “And because you know I love you like…”

“Jesus loved the church,” she finished with him. The biblical words from
Ephesians
had been a part of his marriage vow to her—he claimed that he remembered them from childhood Sunday school. Now, every time he said the words, she felt bound to him by a wash of love so deep that it defied passion and defined him as the only man she would ever love. “Nice to know you love me.”

“I do, Rissa. I always have. I always will.”

“I know,” she whispered into the phone. Turning her chair to the Buckhead skyline, she bit her tongue and closed her eyes.
Don’t tell him. Not yet.
“I know.”

“I just wanted to let you know that I found something for your mother.” Dench cleared his throat proudly. “I found the perfect thing.”

“What? You found about a million flashbulbs for that old camera of hers?” Rissa laughed, thinking about her mother’s old Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. “Goodness knows, she needs them, because she’s never going to use the digital camera we gave her.”

Dench laughed, too, and the sound made Rissa hold the phone closer to her ear. “Okay, so I didn’t find a million, but do you think she’d go for a gross? That’s a hundred and forty-four, babe. I got two gross, and a case of one-ten film to go with it.”

“Oh, see? That’s just one more reason I love you. And, AJ’d better watch out because you know that you’re going to be Mom’s favorite now.”

“I know, I know,” Dench crowed. “But I also know you’re at the office, so I’m going to go now. I just couldn’t wait to tell you.” His voice slowed, longing evident. “Maybe you’re rubbing off on me.”

“I’ll have to check on that when you get home.” Rissa heard her own longing surface. “And just so you know, I’m planning a
very
close inspection.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Love you, babe.”

“Love you more,” she whispered as the call disconnected. She sat for a long moment with her hand resting on the phone.

“He’s going to call back tonight.” He always did when he was away, and those late night calls were always interesting.
Nobody told me about those calls when I got married.
She smiled.
Nobody told me how interesting phone sex with my husband could be.
Imagining made her blush with anticipation. Then she sat up in her chair, remembering. “I just have to figure out a way to keep my mouth shut until he gets here.”

Chapter 2

“James?” Stepping off the elevator, Rissa almost tripped over her own feet when the boxer grinned up at her from the floor. “What the hell are you doing down there?”

He gathered his compact body and got to his feet. “I don’t like being late, so I left home early and then traffic was pretty light, so I got here even earlier than I planned. Nobody was in when I got here, so I waited.” His grin slipped a little bit and he held a small Starbucks bag and two large cups of coffee forward. “I brought coffee, not too light and one sugar. Will it help?”

“Couldn’t hurt.” Rissa shrugged and reached for one of the cups. A quick glance at the container showed steam, and the smell was inviting, not that she needed the caffeine jolt to wake her up. Not after last night—after Dench’s call and all the crazy things he promised, she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, didn’t dare call anyone, and after hours of tossing and turning in the empty bed, she was afraid of oversleeping. She knew from the clock at her bedside that she had gotten exactly three hours of sleep the night before.

And then there was the test.
I swear, I haven’t been this nervous since I took the LSAT,
she’d told the doctor. Now, waiting for the results and facing a client who looked as antsy as she felt, Rissa was so wide awake that her nerves shimmered and jangled. “A woman working on three hours of sleep deserves coffee,” she muttered, bringing the cup to her lips. It was perfect. “Where’s Karee?”

James’s shoulders rose and fell. “Not here yet.”

Behind them, the elevator chimed and Karee rushed off, keys and knit hat in hand. “I took the train this morning, and you know how it can be some days, but I’m here now.” Breathless, she eyed the cups Rissa and James held. “Smells good. Only two cups, huh?”

Rissa raised an eyebrow and sipped deliberately. “That we’ll probably finish before you get some made.”

“I’m on it, boss.” Karee pressed her full lips into a thin line and unlocked the door. She waited for Rissa and James to enter, then followed. “Should I order up a box of pastries?”

James lifted his small bag. “I brought muffins: cranberry and blueberry.”

Karee stopped, gave Rissa a quick glance, then peered into the bag. “I love cranberry,” she said, taking a muffin and hurrying to her desk. “Thanks.”

“Welcome,” James mumbled, following Rissa back to her office. Crossing the threshold, he headed for the bright red chair he’d sat in on his last visit. He put the bag of muffins in the center of the small table and set his cup down beside it. Unzipping his jacket, he pulled it off and laid it across the back of the chair. Then he sat in silence, expectantly watching Rissa remove her coat and hang it up. When she brought her cup to the table and sat across from him, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and waited.

“James?” His eyes found hers and their brightness softened. Rissa tried again. “James, you said you had something important to talk about. You want to tell me what it is?”

“You don’t have to keep calling me James,” he said. His eyes went back to his coffee and he picked up the cup, turning it between his palms. “That sounds too formal. Could you call me Jimmy? I’d like it if you did.”

“Okay, Jimmy it is.”

He passed one hand over his close-cut hair and nodded. Rissa could see the creeping path of an almost too youthful blush climbing his bronzed throat and clean-shaven cheeks. Opening and closing his mouth, he made a couple of false starts. “Okay,” he finally said. “You met my mother. She’s all about support, doing things right, you know?”

Now, where,
Rissa wondered,
is this going?

“Well, she doesn’t take, uh, disappointment too well. Right now, she’s kinda disappointed in me. She doesn’t think I’m ready to take on marriage.” His shoulders pulled up around his ears and he sat a little lower in his chair. “That and Sierra.”

“Sierra?” Rissa knew that the obvious question was all over her face.

The name infused Jimmy with new energy and he set the coffee on the table and shifted to pull his wallet from his pocket. “Here,” he said, pulling a small photo free and offering it to Rissa. “This is Sierra. She’s pretty, huh?”

“Very,” Rissa agreed, looking down. A young and beautiful oval face remarkable for its knife-sharp cheekbones, almost feline long-lashed eyes, and red-touched ebony skin smiled up at her. “Your girlfriend?”

Smiling, the boxer nodded as he passed his hand over his head again. “Yeah, my girlfriend and my problem—part of it, anyway. The other part is my mother—she thinks Sierra is good enough for a girlfriend, but not a wife. Especially not for
my
wife.”

Rissa passed the photo back. Now it was beginning to make sense. “You want to marry her, in spite of what your mother has to say.” He nodded, just as she’d known he would, and she straightened in her seat. “Jimmy, look, I’m your agent and my job is to do what’s good for your career—not your love life. You’ve got looks, talent, a very defensive and supportive mother, and a problem that I can’t fix. Who you marry is entirely up to you.”

“See, I know that, but there’s more. Sierra’s pregnant.”

“Does your mother know?” Rissa folded her fingers in her lap and waited. When Jimmy’s eyes darted away, she knew the answer. “You haven’t told her yet. Why not?”

“Because…I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” He shrugged and slid lower in his chair. “She already thinks I’m too young to be a husband. I don’t know what she’ll say about my being a father, but it won’t be good. I’m all, maybe not all, she’s got, but she’s invested so much of herself in me. I don’t want to hurt her. And Sierra, she says she won’t marry me. We’ve been together since we were sixteen, just kids, and I thought she loved me enough.” He finally let his eyes find Rissa’s and shrugged. “I know I sure do love her enough to last me for a lifetime.”

“You look miserable.” Rissa scooted into the chair next to him and softened her voice. “Why did she say she wouldn’t marry you?”

“Because she’s pregnant. Does that make sense? She said I waited too long. What does that mean?”

“It means that she doesn’t want you to marry her
because
she’s pregnant.” Tickled, Rissa tapped Jimmy’s knee and smiled. “Jimmy, honey, are you really that young? Don’t you see, she wants you to want
her
. She wants you to marry her because you love
her
, because you want to build a life with
her
, because
she’s
the only woman in the world you can see as being the mother of your child. You should definitely love the baby, too, but she doesn’t want her only identity to be as the mother of your child.”
Something that would never happen with Dench
, she didn’t say.

Confusion was deep and swirling in the boxer’s brown eyes. “But ma’am, I do love her. I bought her this to show her how much.” He pulled a jeweler’s box from his pocket and flipped it open. Glittering against dark velvet, the diamond shone like a small star and Rissa sighed.

Rising, she walked around her chair to stand behind her new client. “Jimmy, you’re going to have to do more than just show her the pretty ring. You’re going to have to do music and candlelight, and get down on one knee. If she’s old-fashioned, you’re going to have to go see her father and ask for her hand in marriage. You’re going to have to share finances and life insurance, and make a home for her if you want a wife. You’re going to have to promise this girl a lifetime of love, for better or for worse, even if it ticks your mama off—and then you’re going to have to be a man of your word. You’re going to have to commit all that you are to her and make her see it.”

“Aww, that’s lame.”

Rissa’s nut brown eyes narrowed and the corner of her mouth ticked. “You’ve been your mother’s boy all your life. You want to be this woman’s man, you’re going to have to man up.”

“So lame.”

He jumped when Rissa swatted the back of his head. “That’s why she won’t marry you, boy.”

“Ow.” Jimmy slid a slow hand over the smarting spot her palm left behind. He looked at her, started to speak, then thought better of it.

Seating herself, Rissa looked into his face. “Now Jimmy, I’ve gotten you the contract you wanted because that’s my job. I’ve gotten you the endorsements you wanted—hell, baby, you’re going to be an action figure. And now you want a wife. I’ve told you what to do, it’ll work, and you’d better treat her right because I am not going to do a press cleanup for you. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And your mama? Buy her something nice for Christmas. You can afford it. Then introduce her new daughter-in-law as the woman you love and intend to spend your life with.”

The boxer looked queasy. “She’s not going to like it…” Rissa’s lips pushed together, a charming pout, but James read seriousness in the look she gave him. “Maybe I could just…”

“Boy, don’t make me slap you again.” Rissa leaned forward with narrowed eyes and Jimmy reflexively sat a little farther back in his chair. “Man up. Don’t debate it, just do it. Tell your mother where your life is headed, because once you get to the part about the pretty grandbabies, I can assure you, she’ll get over it.”

“Pretty babies,” he muttered, then brightened. “They will be pretty, won’t they? Like Sierra and maybe a little like Mom. She’d like that.”

Rissa turned palms to the sky and looked wise.

“Merry Christmas, Miz Traylor. And thanks.” Standing, he dug deep into the pocket of his jacket and slid a small red ribboned box across the small table. “This is for you. Thanks for, you know, everything.” He turned and hurried from her office.

Shaking her head, she watched him leave with the ring in his other pocket. “He’s going to be fine,” she promised herself.

Lost in thought, Rissa almost missed the ring of her cellphone. Shifting professional gears, she put James Clarence out of her thoughts. Flipping the phone open, she barely got her name out.

“Merry Christmas, the test is back,” Joyce Ashton fairly sang. “Back and positive.”

“Positive? Really?”

“Did I stutter?”

Clapping a hand over her phone, Rissa squeezed her eyes shut and blew out hard. Reaching for composure, she took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “I’m really pregnant.”

“Yep. I want to talk to you about it, but it’s a definite positive.”

“Holy…” Without thinking, Rissa clicked the call off. “Finally,” she breathed. Folding the phone between her palms, she squinted, thinking. “Now, who can I tell?”

Forgetting her earlier list, her thoughts raced, checking and discarding.
Call my mother, and I might as well call the
Journal-Constitution
. Could tell Yvette, but she’s not in yet and knowing her, she wouldn’t be able to keep it to herself either; she’d be on the phone to Dench in a New York minute.

Connie and Jeannette?
Anxious fingers tapped the phone.
They’re nurses and they have had my back right from the very first fertility test. I know they’ll be excited for Dench and me. They’ve always been great, even from the first time they reached out to Marlea in Grady Hospital’s Emergency Room after her accident. They’re a part of our lives now, but as much as I love them, they’re friends, not family. I want to share this with my family. I could tell AJ, though…but he would knock Marlea over, running to Dench, and I want to tell Dench myself—in person, not over the phone.

“But Marlea…”
Now, there’s a thought. Goodness knows, she can keep a secret. Humph, I would run out of fingers and toes if I tried to count the things she’s kept her mouth shut about just since I’ve known her. Besides, she loves me. I’m the sister she never had.

Rissa flipped the phone open and hit speed-dial.

“Hello?”

Rissa congratulated herself; this had to be fate. Marlea had picked up the phone and answered on the first ring. “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” Marlea screwed the lid onto the small pink sippy cup and passed it to Mrs. Baldwin, who in turn passed it into Nia’s eager little hands. “I’m trying to get breakfast into my children, and then…hold on.”

“Apple, please.” Jabari swung his feet and watched Marlea juggle the phone, his apple, and a paring knife. When Mrs. Baldwin moved to collect the apple and the knife from his mother, the little boy grinned. “I like apple in my oatmeal,” he informed the housekeeper as his mother made good her escape.

Easing her hip onto a high stool at the granite counter, Marlea moved the phone to her other ear. “Now, I can talk. What’s going on?”

“I need to talk, but not on the phone. Can you get away? I don’t have any other appointments this morning, and I’ll meet you wherever you say. Just make it somewhere nice, okay?”

“Rissa, it’s not even ten in the morning on Christmas Eve, and my two little hooligans are up and in full effect.” Marlea paused when her children began to shout greetings at the sound of their adored aunt’s name. “They’re saying good morning, Merry Christmas, and…something special in Nia-speak. Oh, it’s ‘love you,’ I think. Anyway, what’s up?”

“I already told you that I couldn’t tell you over the phone, and it’s important. Really important. Mrs. Baldwin is there, she’ll watch the kids. How soon can we meet and where?”

Aware of the housekeeper listening, Marlea tucked stray hairs back into her ponytail and lowered her voice. “I need to change, but give me an hour. I’ll meet you at Starbucks around the corner from your office.”

Rissa sucked her teeth. “You most certainly will not! I said somewhere nice.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, but since it’s you, how about Arcadia? I think that it qualifies as a nice, by your terms, beautiful, restaurant, with good food and great service. They open early.”

“Arcadia’s good. Eleven-thirty?”

Marlea agreed, dropping the phone when she bent to pick up her free-roaming toddler.

The phone clicked in her ear, and if anyone had asked, Rissa would have sworn that she felt some of the pressure of secrecy rise from her shoulders. Pocketing her phone, she walked around her desk to gaze out of her broad window. She was only vaguely aware of the hand she slipped across the flatness of her belly. “Well, baby,” she whispered, “it won’t be long now.”

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