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A Wedding Wager

About The Book

The New York Times bestselling author Jane Feather delights with the second in the scintillating and sexy Blackwater Brides trilogy featuring three noble brothers who must marry a fallen woman in order to inherit their eccentric uncle’s vast fortune.

Lady Serena Grantley was born to the nobility, but fate’s whim placed her in control of her gamester stepfather, who uses her beauty to lure young men to his gambling tables. Serena even dismissed her first love, the Honorable Sebastian Sullivan, at her stepfather’s command. But when he attempts to force her into a liaison with a dissolute earl, Serena resolves to do his bidding no more. Sebastian is the only man who ever captured her heart, and it is to him she turns.

Torn between family loyalty and the woman he loves, Sebastian faces a devilish dilemma. His uncle is ailing, and time is running short. Desperate to find a solution, Sebastian conceives a dangerous plan—a wager that could bring him and Serena happiness at last…or separate them forever.


A Wedding Wager

Chapter One

LONDON, 1762

Jasper St. John Sullivan, fifth Earl of Blackwater, surveyed his twin brothers with a quizzical smile. “So, my dears, I’ve done my part, and ’tis up to you now to fulfill the terms of our esteemed uncle’s will.”

The Honorable Sebastian Sullivan raised a questioning eyebrow at his twin, who was staring blankly at the rich Aubusson carpet at his feet. “Well, Perry, Jasper has his bride. What are we going to do about finding our own?”

“It’s insane, worthy of a bedlamite,” the Honorable Peregrine declared, raising his eyes at last. Ordinarily serene, those deep blue eyes flickered with derision. “Somehow each of the three of us before the old man’s death has to marry a woman in need of spiritual or moral salvation in order to share equally in his fortune. What kind of nonsense is that?”

“But think of that fortune,” Jasper said gently, taking a pinch of snuff. “Nine hundred thousand pounds, my dear Perry, is not to be sneezed at.” He dropped the enameled snuffbox back into the deep, lace-edged pocket of his coat.

“ ’Tis riches almost beyond the dreams of avarice,” Sebastian agreed with a short laugh. “But I’ll believe it when I see it. ’Tis some trick of the devil, I’ll lay odds.”

“You could be forgiven for thinking that.” Jasper chuckled. “Our esteemed uncle is the devil incarnate, whatever he might prate about repentance and his wholehearted return to the bosom of the church.”

“But can we really take him on trust?” Sebastian pressed. “He could rewrite his will at any time, while we’re struggling to turn some lost female onto the paths of righteousness.”

Jasper shook his head. “No, I doubt that, Seb. Viscount Bradley has a strange sense of honor, and he’ll not leave his fortune away from the family if he can help it. He just wants to watch us squirm.” He set down his sherry glass on the mantel behind him. “Well, I assume you still have most of the five thousand pounds he gave you to aid you in your quest, so I suggest you get to it. There’s no knowing how long the old man will last.”

“Oh, he’ll probably never give up this mortal coil, just to spite us,” Sebastian declared.

His elder brother laughed. “He’ll hang on as long as possible, you can count on that.” He picked up his bicorne hat and silver cane on his way to the door. “I’ve a dinner engagement, so you must excuse me.”

The door closed behind him, and the twin brothers regarded each other in silence for a moment. “So what now?” Peregrine asked. “I’ve been putting off even thinking about the whole ludicrous proposal, but Jasper’s right. He has his bride, so we have to do our bit. But where do we start to look for our own fallen women? Not that I think, for one minute, that Clarissa was ever a fallen woman.”

At that, Sebastian laughed, thinking of his elder brother’s new wife. “No, I suspect you’re right there. But London’s teeming with the real article, Perry. Just take a stroll through the Piazza.”

“I’ve never found whores appealing,” his twin stated. “And I’m damned if I’m going to marry one, a fortune notwithstanding.”

Sebastian grinned. “I’m not so nice in my taste, brother. A tasty tidbit from one of the better class of nunnery can provide fine entertainment. At least you know where you are with them.” A shadow crossed his face, not missed by the ever-observant, ever-sensitive Peregrine.

Peregrine said nothing, although he knew his brother was thinking of Serena Carmichael, the woman he had loved, the woman who had cast him aside without explanation. In the three years since Serena’s betrayal, Sebastian had amused himself as he saw fit but had never allowed a relationship with a woman to go further than superficial dalliance. He had chosen his mistresses from the ranks of the Cyprian corps, opera dancers and orange sellers, and once or twice had dallied with courtesans from the upper echelons of Society, but never anything serious.

Sebastian rose from his chair, stretching luxuriously before heading for the door. “Well, I’m on my way. Harley has a pair of chestnuts he’s thinking of selling. I’ve a mind to look them over. They’d make a fine matched pair for that neat curricle I’ve been hankering after these last twelve months.”

“How’s that going to advance your search for the perfect bride?” His brother followed him to the door.

“The appurtenances of wealth, my dear brother, are irresistible to the kind of women we need,” Sebastian said airily, stepping out onto Stratton Street. He set his hat on his head at a jaunty angle. “Will you come?”

Peregrine considered the question. “Oh, why not? I’ve nothing more interesting to do this afternoon.”

“Your enthusiasm overwhelms me, brother.” Sebastian waved his cane at a passing hackney.

Lord Harley was on the point of going out when the brothers arrived at his house on the Strand. He greeted them with a languid wave as they stepped out of the hackney. “Seb . . . Perry . . . to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I’ve a mind to look over those chestnuts of yours, Harley, if you’re still interested in selling ’em.” Sebastian tossed a coin to the jarvey.

“To the right buyer, for the right price,” his lordship said carefully. “Let’s stroll over to the mews.”

“You sure you haven’t another engagement?” Peregrine asked. “Looks like you were going somewhere.”

“Oh, nothing that cannot wait,” Harley said. “There’s a new gaming house just opened on Pickering Place. Thought I’d look it over later. A regular hell, they tell me.”

“Who runs it?”

“Don’t know exactly. Newcomers, as I understand it. Crawley was playing there last night . . . very high stakes, he tells me.” Lord Harley turned into an alley that cut through to the mews at the back of his house.

Sebastian surveyed the match chestnuts with an experienced eye as they were paraded around the yard. “What d’you think, Perry?”

“I don’t know. I think Jasper would say they were showy.” Peregrine frowned as the animals were brought to a halt in front of them.

“Nonsense,” Sebastian scoffed. He bent to examine the horses more closely, running his hand down their hocks, over their smooth, muscular flanks. “They’re magnificent creatures, Harley.”

“Five hundred guineas,” his lordship said promptly.

Sebastian frowned. “I’ll think about it,” he said with a reluctant shake of his head. “I had it in mind not to spend above three hundred.”

“Well, I’m in no hurry to lose ’em.” Harley indicated to the groom that he should take the animals back to their stable. “Think it over, and let me know.” He walked back down the alley and into the Strand. “Don’t know about you both, but I’m devilish sharp set. Dinner at Whites, I think, then a visit to Pickering Place. What d’you think?”

“Not for me,” Peregrine said. “I’m engaged to dine with a party at the Royal Society.”

“Astronomers or scientists?” Sebastian inquired, not in the least surprised by his brother’s engagement.

Peregrine laughed. “Neither. In this case, I am dining with two philosophers and a somewhat mediocre poet.”

“Well, enjoy their company.” Sebastian patted his brother’s shoulder in companionable fashion. “I shall enjoy a good dinner and a visit to the gaming rooms in Pickering Place.”

“Don’t spend it all at once,” Peregrine warned as he strode away.

“What did that mean?” Harley inquired.

Sebastian smiled. “Just a little fraternal teasing. Let’s to Whites and dinner.”

The coffee house was crowded, and the two men were quickly drawn into a group sitting at a long trestle table in front of the fireplace, where, despite the mellow earlyautumn afternoon, a fire burned to heat a cauldron of steaming water suspended just over the flames, ready to refill the coffee pots ranged on a sideboard against one wall. Waiters dodged hither and thither with laden platters of roast mutton and carafes of wine. In one corner, the rattle of a dice cup was accompanied by the shouts of exuberant gamesters. In another, a more solemn group of players stared at the cards in their hands and made their bids in low tones.

Sebastian glanced around the room, acknowledging friends and acquaintances with a wave, before sliding onto the bench at the table and greeting his companions with upraised goblet. He held his own throughout the dinner-table conversation, but his mind was elsewhere. A third share of nine hundred thousand pounds was an almost unimaginable fortune, most particularly to one who had no private funds. Jasper, as head of the family, did his best to keep his brothers solvent from the diminishing revenues of the Blackwater estates, but he himself was, as he often bemoaned, in danger of incarceration in debtors’ prison at the Fleet or Marshalsea. He seemed to make light of his predicament, but his younger brothers knew him too well to believe that the threat was not a very real one. And Jasper’s situation was exacerbated by the demands made upon him by the extended family, who all seemed to believe that his lack of generosity stemmed from miserliness rather than genuine lack of funds.

In order to realize the fortune dangled in front of them by their eccentric uncle, all three brothers had to fulfill the terms of the will. All three had to convert and marry women who had somehow strayed from the straight and narrow.

Why the devil had the old man come up with such a devious scheme? Jasper had a theory, and it seemed reasonable enough. Viscount Bradley had been the black sheep of the Blackwater family since he was a very young man. No one seemed to know why anymore, but his name was never mentioned within the family. Bradley’s response had been to cut all ties with his family himself and take himself off to India, where he’d made his fortune as a nabob, merely adding to the family’s disgust. The idea of a Blackwater in trade was anathema to the high sticklers, and the rumors about the young viscount’s dissolute life were anathema to the moral arbiters in the family. And, as Jasper had pointed out rather sourly on several occasions, there were more than enough of those showering shocked criticism upon any family member who strayed even an inch from the straight and narrow.

Jasper’s theory was that this devious plan of their uncle’s was a piece of pure vengeance. By forcing three highly unsuitable and less than upright women on the Blackwater family, Bradley could go chuckling to his grave. Jasper’s unsuitable bride would, of course, be the crown jewel in his plot. Jasper was head of the family, and his countess would take precedence over every other woman in the family, however high in the instep. The idea of those women compelled to give precedence to an erstwhile whore was a prime jest. And the cream of it was that the viscount’s fortune, earned in the grubby world of trade, would go to rescue the family fortunes. Even the three brothers could enjoy the idea of it. But putting it into practice was a rather different matter.

“Sebastian . . . Sebastian . . . pass up the wine, man. We’re dying of thirst up this end of the table.”

Sebastian snapped out of his reverie with a muttered apology and pushed the carafe up the table. He speared a forkful of roast mutton and doused it liberally with onion sauce.

“Sullivan and I are going to try out that new hell on Pickering Place,” Lord Harley announced, refilling his goblet. “Anyone care to accompany us?”

“The play will be too rich for my blood. I’m out of funds for the quarter,” a young man grumbled from across the table. “I’ll be lucky if I can play anything but silver loo for the next two months.” He buried his nose in his goblet.

“You’re wise to stay away from Pickering Place in that case, Collins,” Lord Harley said. “From what I hear, they have tables where the stakes start at a thousand guineas.”

Sebastian whistled softly. He had set his own limit for the evening at a hundred guineas. He was tempted to change his mind and avoid Pickering Place, but gambling was not in his blood, and he knew, win or lose, he would not be tempted to play higher than his limit. He’d go, he decided, and if the play was far too high for him, then he’d simply leave.

He and Harley acquired two other curious gamesters at the end of dinner, and the four of them set off for Pickering Place. They strolled down St. James’s Street, chatting amiably in the soft evening air, and turned onto Pickering Place. The house was a handsome building, nothing in its discreet outward appearance hinting at the illegal activities behind its grand double frontage.

Lord Harley ran his cane along the highly polished railing leading up to the double doors as he observed, “Nothing to draw unwelcome attention here. The owners obviously know what they’re about.”

Sebastian nodded agreement. Private gambling clubs restricted to members only were one thing, but gambling houses run for profit and open to anyone who could afford the stakes were illegal, although in the absence of a public disturbance, they were rarely troubled by the law. The more high-toned the establishment, the greater the stakes and the more elevated the clientele, none of whom would readily risk being caught in a raid by the officers of the watch.

“Shall we go in?”

The door was opened by a liveried footman in powdered wig who bowed them into a pillared, marble-floored hall from which an elegant divided staircase rose to a galleried landing and sparkling chandeliers poured light from the frescoed ceiling. Strains of music drifted from above, together with the subdued murmur of voices. Double doors stood open to a large supper room to the right of the hall.

Sebastian and his friends unsheathed their swords and laid them in the long racks set up along one wall. Armed men in a gambling establishment, where tempers could run as high as the stakes, were clearly an unacceptable risk. They strolled up the staircase and through the double doors of a large salon at the head of the stairs. A waiter proffered a tray of rack punch and champagne, and they stood for a moment absorbing the scene.

The salon was set up with gaming tables, groom porters moving among them, calling the odds in hushed tones. A soft murmur of voices rose from the tables, with the click of dice and the snap of cards. Further rooms opened off the main salon, where smaller tables were occupied by pairs playing piquet.

Sebastian’s companions wandered away into the depths of the salon, pausing at the various tables, assessing the odds. Sebastian remained at the door, looking around with a knowledgeable eye. The expenses of an establishment such as this one, with waiters, fine wines, elegant suppers, would be more than a thousand guineas a year at the very least, he calculated. The owners would need to run a very successful faro bank to realize any profit. And often enough, the most successful faro banks were rigged in some way in the bank’s favor.

He sipped his punch and then took a step into the room. He stopped. A tall young woman in a gown of pale lavender silk, opened over an underdress of violet silk that exactly matched her eyes, was in the act of drawing two cards from the dealer’s box at a table at the far end of the salon. Her unpowdered hair, black as a raven’s wing, framed her face in a cluster of side curls.

Sebastian stood as if mesmerized, and almost as if drawn by a lodestone, the young woman’s gaze moved from the cards on the table in front of her to look across the crowded salon. Her eyes met his, and for a moment, it was as if the intervening three years had never happened, except that she was even more beautiful than before.

He took a step towards her, and she dropped her eyes, turning her attention back to her table of gamblers. At the same moment, General Sir George Heyward stepped in front of Sebastian. “So, Sullivan, are you here to play?”

Sebastian’s eyes held naked loathing, but his voice was cool and composed. “So you are returned from the Continent, General.”

“As you see,” the general agreed. “Are you here to play, sir?”

Sebastian ignored the repeated question. “Your business must have prospered, Sir George, for you to be able to set yourself up in London with such opulence.”

“Aye, it did, but that’s no business of yours, Sullivan.” A smile flickered over the general’s thin lips. “Allow me to take you to a table, where I have no doubt you will find some congenial play.” He laid a hand on Sebastian’s arm and directed him away from Serena’s table.

Sebastian made no demur. The moment he had seen her again, the residual anger at her treatment on that last occasion had surged into bright flame once more. He had been a lovesick moon calf then, barely four and twenty, but he was now that much older, wiser, more experienced, and he could laugh at the immaturity of such a passion. Neither Serena nor her stepfather need fear that he would be renewing his attentions. Without casting a further glance in Serena’s direction, he allowed his host to seat him at a hazard table. It was not a game he cared for, based as it was on pure chance, but it would keep his mind off a fickle, black-haired beauty.

Serena had prepared herself for the inevitable encounter with Sebastian, or so she had thought. Three years was a long time, she had told herself. Sebastian could be married with a hopeful family by now. She had never mentioned his name to any of the English travelers who had passed through the various salons of Europe where she and her stepfather had played their games, and in turn, she had heard no mention of any of the Sullivan brothers. She looked back on the brief months of their loving idyll as the dream time of a naïve pair of youngsters who had yet to cut their teeth on the real world. The last three years had forced her into adulthood, and she knew she viewed the world now through eyes wide open and cynical, unflinching in their acceptance of the general duplicity of life.

And yet she had felt Sebastian entering the room before she had seen him. Her skin had lifted, prickles running down her spine. In that moment when their eyes had met, the last three years melted away. He was as handsome as ever, with that golden hair and those penetrating blue eyes, the rangy, lean length of him still slender, supple as a willow, and when he had taken that involuntary step towards her, her heart had seemed to jump into her throat. Then it was over. Her stepfather had moved in front of him, blocking her view, and the vision was gone.

Her hands shook a little now as she dealt the cards, and her usually focused mind wandered from calculating the odds as the cards played out in front of her. The worst was over, she told herself. The first encounter was always going to be the most awkward. There was no real need for them even to speak to each other, beyond maybe a bow, a murmured courtesy as between very distant acquaintances. She would not be caught off guard again.

Her loss of concentration caused the bank’s loss in the play, something she should not have allowed to happen, but she told herself that once in a while, it was good to show that the bank wasn’t unbeatable. Even inveterate gamesters would eventually refuse to play at a table where the faro bank was the inevitable winner.

The clock struck nine, and she looked towards the double doors where the butler now stood, ready to announce the first supper. She smiled around the circle of players. “Gentlemen, may I suggest we go downstairs for supper? A break from the cards will refresh us all.”

The men agreed willingly enough, casting down their cards, pushing back chairs. “May I escort you, Lady Serena?” A young viscount bowed eagerly, proffering his arm. His powdered wig crowned a cherubic countenance that belied the heavy-lidded, red-rimmed eyes of a man well into his second bottle of burgundy.

“Thank you, Lord Charles.” Serena laid her gloved hand lightly on his brocade sleeve and led the way out of the salon, down the wide staircase, and into the lavishly appointed supper room. She moved among her guests as they nibbled from the dishes arrayed on the long buffets, sipped champagne and the finest Rhenish and burgundy, her eyes everywhere, noting when platters or decanters needed refilling.

General Heyward was everywhere at once, exchanging ribald comments with the gentlemen, offering flowery compliments to the ladies, refilling glasses himself with all the genial bonhomie of the perfect host. Any outsider would assume that this was an elegant, extravagant private party with the most hospitable hosts, instead of a carefully designed entertainment whose single object was to fleece as many guests as possible in the salons abovestairs. They would all pay well for the elegance of their supper.

Sebastian and his friends descended with the rest of the company to the supper room. He lingered for a moment in the doorway, covertly watching Serena as she played her part to perfection under the brilliant light of myriad candles. He found himself trying to find things to criticize. Maybe she was still as beautiful as ever, but something had changed. There was a hardness that hadn’t been there before, he thought her laugh had a brittleness, and those wonderful, luminous violet eyes were warier. But her hair was the same deep blue-black, her figure as tall and graceful as ever, and he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her.

“Seb . . . Seb . . .” Lord Harley lightly punched his upper arm, hauling him out of his reverie. “Are you staying for supper or not?”

Sebastian dragged his gaze away from the woman across the crowded salon. She was laughing at something, some supposed witticism of the cherubic young viscount downing a large bumper of burgundy, and for a moment, he had to suppress a violent urge to go to her, to drag her out into the street, to force something . . . something, he didn’t know what . . . to happen between them. Something real and true, at any rate. Not that last cold, artificial parting that had had no truth to it.

“No,” he said abruptly. “No, I’m not staying.” He turned on his heel and returned to the hall to retrieve his sword. He sheathed it as he left the house, the door closing firmly behind him.

The cool night air cleared his head a little as he walked briskly down St. James’s Street. It was still early by the standards of London’s players, not yet midnight, and yet Sebastian could think of nowhere he wished to go, no entertainment among the many on offer that would please him. He was in no mood for company, or at least, not that of his friends. He turned off St. James’s Street into an alley. Halfway down, light spilled from the open door of a tavern, and the sounds of raucous voices raised in merriment heavily laced with obscenities filled the narrow lane.

Sebastian pushed his way through the throng blocking the doorway. A heavy-set man, objecting, grabbed him by the arm. Sebastian turned his head and regarded this obstacle to his progress in cold silence. His free hand rested on his sword hilt. There was a moment of wordless confrontation, but something in the younger man’s eye, a certain reckless gleam, as if he were inviting the man to provoke him further, caused the heavy-set man to drop his hand, murmur something akin to an apology, and step aside. Sebastian elbowed his way to the rough-hewn bar counter and demanded a pint of porter. It came quickly, and he leaned back against the counter, drinking the rough liquor, looking sightlessly over the rowdy taproom. No one approached him.

The porter did little to alleviate his mood. He drained it with a grimace, tossed a coin onto the counter, and pushed his way back out into the alley. As he started back towards St. James’s Street, he felt something, a flicker of sensation at his back.

He spun around and grabbed a skinny child who was about to dive back down the alley. “Just one minute.” Sebastian tightened his hold. A grimy-faced urchin looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes.

“Beg pardon, sir.” The child suddenly twisted, bent his head, and bit Sebastian’s hand. Sebastian let go with a yelp. The lad ducked away and with a sinuous twist was off down the alley. Sebastian realized instantly that the small coin purse he kept in an inside pocket of his coat was missing.

“Fool,” he castigated himself, examining his hand. The skin was not broken. He looked back down the alley. As he’d expected, there was no sign of the pickpocket. They were so small and quick, these street children, they could disappear into a hole in a wall barely big enough for a cat. It was an ordinary enough occurrence if one ventured into the back alleys. He should have been more alert. But oddly, the incident had restored some part of his customary equanimity. It had brought him back to earth, anyway.

He walked back up the wider, brighter thoroughfare of St. James’s Street towards the lodgings he shared with Peregrine on Stratton Street.

Candlelight shone from the long windows of the sitting room at the front of the narrow house. The front door opened directly on the street, and Sebastian let himself into the narrow hall. “Perry . . . you in?”

“Aye, in here.”

Sebastian pushed open the door to the small but comfortably appointed sitting room. Peregrine was reading in a deep armchair beside the grate where a small fire burned to combat the night’s chill. The contents of a brandy goblet on a small table beside him glowed amber in the candlelight.

Perry greeted his brother with a smile, closing his book over a finger to keep his place. “Good evening?”

Sebastian shrugged slightly. “So-so.” He filled a goblet from the decanter on the sideboard and took the chair opposite his brother. “Harley and I visited the Pickering Place hell.”

Peregrine looked a little alarmed. Something was troubling his brother, and he could think of only one thing. “Did you lose too much?”

“No.” Sebastian shook his head dismissively. “You know me, Perry. I like the excitement, but I hate to lose more. At the tables, I’m as timid as an infant and as tight-fisted as a miser. The play was far too rich for my blood. More in Jasper’s line.”

“Jasper don’t like to lose, either,” Perry pointed out, stretching his feet on the andirons.

“Jasper, my dear, don’t lose,” his twin retorted smartly, and they both laughed. Their elder brother had a gift for the cards.

Sebastian swirled the brandy in his goblet, watching the light play across the amber surface. Peregrine watched him. Eventually, Peregrine said, “So, what is it?”

His brother didn’t raise his eyes, said only, “Serena and that damned stepfather of hers are running the hell.”

A shiver of apprehension touched Peregrine’s spine. He looked closely at his twin, and the apprehension grew stronger. Sebastian had the same bleak expression that had haunted his face for so many dreadful months three years ago. Neither of his brothers had been able to get close enough to his unhappiness then to help him. His previous happiness, on the other hand, he’d been more than willing to share. For close to a year, Sebastian had been deliriously happy with the woman he described without embarrassment as the love of his life. Jasper had raised an elder brother’s skeptical eyebrow and murmured something about puppy love, but he’d done nothing to quell Sebastian’s joyful exuberance. Perry had merely enjoyed his twin’s happiness and been delighted for him. They had shared in each other’s highs and lows all their lives.

And then something had happened, and Sebastian’s world had come crashing down. When pressed, he had said only that Lady Serena and her stepfather had left the country, and neither of his brothers could get anything further from him. They had watched and waited until eventually the pain had eased, the bleakness had left Sebastian’s eyes, and he had plunged wholeheartedly back into the whirling social scene. There had been an edge of wildness for a while, but gradually, the Sebastian they both knew and loved had been restored. He was his old amused and amusing self.

And now Peregrine, looking at his brother’s expression, feared that the bad times were beginning again, and he was filled with anger at the woman who, having so callously abandoned his twin, should now reappear to break open the old wounds.

“You won’t be playing there, then, I assume,” Peregrine said neutrally, reaching for his glass.

Sebastian raised his eyes and gave his brother a cool smile. “As I said, Perry, the play on Pickering Place is too rich for my blood.”

About The Author

Photograph by Steve Knight

Jane Feather is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty sensual historical romances, including the Blackwater Bride series. She was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in the south of England. She currently lives in Washington, DC, with her family. There are more than 10 million copies of her books in print.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (February 13, 2021)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982183912

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