Sum of Us

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Ch. 21: Poppy

Rhys strips off his shirt and reaches for the first shirt he sees in his suitcase.

I can’t resist checking out his toned and tattooed upper body. I might have to thank Harp for drooling on him later.

My perusal comes to a halt when I catch sight of a black flower that occupies the left side of his ribcage.

“What’s that?” I ask before I can stop myself.

Rhys curses beneath his breath.

“It’s a field poppy, isn’t it?” I press.

“Yeah.” He rubs the back of his neck. “I got plastered one night and woke up with it. I’m getting it covered. I’ve meant to do it for years.” He nervously rambles.

“I love it.” I stand from the bed.

His eyes go from the floor to me. He stares at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “Every time I joked about getting a tattoo of your name, you said you’d dump me to prove why it was a terrible idea.”

“The execution changed my mind. It’s beautiful.” I admit. “When did you get it?” I trace it with my fingertips.

“The night our first tour wrapped. I don’t know how I got to a tattoo parlor. I don’t even remember going back to the hotel. I just remember saying your name a lot.”

“I was on your mind to that extent?” I lift my eyes in search of his.

His boyish smile is back. “You have no idea.”

“If I promise not to dump you because of it, will you keep it uncovered?”

“Formally promise me, Pop. I want to be wooed.”

I’m grateful for his attempt to lighten the mood.

“Rhys Michael Wilde, I vow not to cite your poppy tattoo as a reason to discontinue our courtship.”

“Your flower stays.”

“Good.” I kiss him on the cheek.

“I’m getting a new one soon.” He finally pulls on a fresh t-shirt.

“Of what?”

“A harp with a small bouquet of wildflowers in its strings.”

“Harper Posy Wilde.” I smile. “I love it.”

“My tattoo artist sent me a few designs. Will you help me decide which one to get?”

“Yes. Later.”

“It’s a date.” He steals a quick kiss from my lips.

“Leave.” I point to the door.

“Going.”

Butterflies stop wreaking havoc on my stomach when he’s out the door and my ability to think returns.

I tuck Harper in using her favorite blanket. Ralph the Giraffe is made her cuddle buddy. Her baby monitor is up and running before I take the receiver and migrate to the suite’s living room.

“It looks even better on video. Shake it for me. I want to see the dimensions.” Chels makes a twirling motion with her fork.

She’s on her lunch break.

“Later. I need you to slap me in the face with reality.”

“Why?” She stabs her salad as she awaits my answer.

“He wants to get back together. I said we’ll try. We’re not officially dating yet. We’re talking. That’s the level my head knows we should be on. My stupid heart let him share a bed with me last night and kissed him three times today.”

“With or without tongue?”

“Once with. It was when we were in bed this morning. ”

“Any good?”

“Fan-freaking-tastic. Help me.” I poke out my bottom lip.

“Do I have to?” Her pouty whine rivals a sleepy Harper.

“Yes.”

She growls. “Rhys said groupies didn’t interest him because he had you. He changed his mind a week into his first tour.”

“More.”

“He’s screwed beautiful women all over the world. Countless others would kill to be with him. They will vie for their shot, regardless of your relationship status.”

I exhale and nod after I have internalized the truth.

“Oh, honey, you’ve lost your glow.” Chels frowns. “I take it all back.”

“That doesn’t make it less true.” I push my glasses further up the bridge of my nose.

“You have something none of them have.”

“That we know of. Who’s to say he doesn’t have another kid out there?”

The thought has a knot forming in my stomach. My lunch is no longer sitting well.

“We do. If that happened, the women would’ve confronted him with a positive pee stick ASAP to start their windfall of child support.”

“He loves being a dad.” I meddle with my necklace. “I can see him wanting more kids.”

“While that may be the case, he’d be pissed if he was bound to a money-grubbing attention-seeker for life. His heart is what you have that they don’t.”

I also have a permanent stamp on his body - a beautiful, sexy one.

Fog’s lifted. My bliss is back with a smile.

“Do you still want to see my hair?”

Chelsea accepts my quick turnaround without missing a beat. “Give it to me. I want shampoo commercial hairography.”

I give the woman what she wants. Her catcalling keeps me smiling and laughing.

“Now, the nails.” She snaps her fingers.

I hold them up for her.

“Plum is the perfect fall color.” Chelsea gives me a nod of approval. I might have to copy you.” She examines her nails. “I’m going to go with a gel mani too. I cheaped out last time and went with standard polish. It shows.” She angles her camera to allow me to see them.

“I’ll take your word for it.” They look immaculate to my layman’s eye.

“You will be able to tell soon. I’m going to make a salon and spa girl out of you yet.”

Chelsea has a natural beauty that makes people on the street do a double-take. Her tawny skin is luminescent. People spend small fortunes trying to recreate the cheekbones, lips, hips, and bum she was born with. She spent a year of middle school wearing braces to straighten her teeth, but her snowman-melting smile is a product of her exuberant personality. According to Chels, maintaining her bountiful dark curls is a full-time job; she deserves a promotion for the quality of her work. The artist in her loves painting nails and applying makeup. In her eyes, they’re canvases. I shrug and take her work for it.

“That’s a bit ambitious.” I retort.

“You loved it. I have text evidence.”

“Maybe.”

“Yes. You’re mine. Mwahaha!” She cackles like an evil villain.

“That’s the way to convince someone to be alone with you.”

“You’re still here, aren’t you?” She bats her eyelashes at me.

“Can’t seem to stay away.” I play along.

She catches me up on the latest developments in her life. We go on to discuss the most recent episode of one of our favorite shows. We’re exchanging our hypotheses for next week’s episode when Harper wakes up from her nap.

“Duty calls. Have a great day.”

“Give Lovebug a hug and a kiss from me. Keep doing what you’re doing. You look happy. I love you.”

“I love you too.” I blow her a kiss and end the call.

~

Harp’s settled in my lap as we go through a scrapbook of the Wilde family. Claudia mailed to me. I want to fast-track Harper’s family introduction. She’s good at recognizing faces and recalling names. By studying, her energy can be spent getting to know them when she sees them.

“Who’s that?” I point to the picture of Rhys’s eldest brother.

“Nunckle Cwis.”

Claudia gave birth to Christopher when she was sixteen; she was in her junior year of high school. Harris, her boyfriend, was sent to juvenile detention shortly before Chris was born for getting into a particularly bad fight. Resolved to do it all on her own, Claudia decided to give Chris her last name – Wilde.

Christopher’s thirty-three now. As a pediatric surgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital, he’s the most academically accomplished Wilde child. He was out of the house by the time Rhys and I started dating. Claudia often spoke of him and I saw him on occasion. He’s an all-around great guy.

“He’s a doctor. He takes care of children when they get hurt.”

“Wit and-aids?”

“He has special, super-strong band-aids.”

“Wow.” Harper gasps.

“He has a fiancée named Jessica. She will be your aunt soon.” I point to a picture of the two of them.

Harper is given ample time to lock in the image and make mental connections. I quiz her on what she remembers. When I’m sure she has the key information retained, I turn the page.

“Do you know who that is?” I point to the next member of the Wilde clan.

“Nunckle Eo.” She correctly guesses.

Leo arrived four years after Chris. Harris was making positive strides to turn over a new leaf before Leo’s conception. He was there for his birth. Leo’s last name is Wilde because Harris was too drunk to drive Claudia to the hospital when she went into labor, and instead of drinking water to sober up faster, he had another beer while they waited for Claudia’s mother to arrive at their apartment.

“Leo’s a mechanic. He fixes cars.” I tell Harper.

“Car go fast.”

“They sure do.”

Leo was a major jock in high school. He was the football team’s quarterback, captain of the soccer team, and starting pitcher on the baseball team. Everyone thought he was destined to become a professional athelete; his talent was undeniable. His talent and popularity with the ladies inflated his ego to monsterous proportions. Its size has remained intact despite the loss of his full-ride football scholarship.

He got arrested for underage drinking at a party a mere month before graduating high school. The college he planned to attend revoked their offer because of his run in with the law and it was too late for him to accept another. His cockiness and self-absorption remained untouched. Rhys and Taylor told me this is still the case. It makes me feel less guilty about all the times Rhys “borrowed” Leo’s car to see me.

“Uncle Leo has three kids – Chloe, Kevin, and Grace. They are your cousins.” I show Harper pictures of them.

They are 10-years-old, seven-years-old, and five years old, respectively. They have different mothers and Leo is not in a relationship with any of them.

“They nice?” Harp looks to me for an answer.

“They’re very nice. You’ll have playing with them.”

They were younger the last time I saw them, but they truly are good kids. My memories of them align with what Rhys and Tay relayed to me.

“Yay!” Harper beams.

Harp asks me follow-up questions. I do my best to answer all of them. She’s an inquisitive little thing.

“You know how Daddy and Uncle Taylor are twins?” I ask when I’m finally able to turn the page.

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, their sisters Becca and Lindsey are too. You can tell them apart by their hair. Lindsey has blonde hair. Becca has purple hair. ” I show her a picture of them side by side.

“Ooo, puple. Like puple!”

It’s her favorite color. She tells everyone often.

“Your Aunt Becca is a hairstylist. She does people’s hair all day long. Aunt Lindsey is a paralegal.”

“What dat?”

“She helps lawyers put away bad guys.”

“That nice.”

And relevant to her background.

After serving sixteen months in prison for grand theft auto, Harris struggled to find a job. Claudia allowed him to live with her and the kids. That’s how their daughters came to be. Linds and Becca are fraternal twins who look very similar. People often assume they’re identical. They’re 25-years-old -- three years younger than Leo and four years older than Rhys and Taylor.

“Which one is that?” I point to Lindsey.

“Ummmm….Indsey!” Harper cheerfully chirps.

“Yes! You’re way too smart.” I kiss her cheek.

“Aunt Lindsey has a daughter named Courtney. She just turned four-years-old. She’s your cousin.”

“Lot usins.” She persceptively remarks.

“You do have a lot of cousins. Daddy has a big family. Your Aunt Becca has a husband named Uncle Rob. They have a son named Robby. He’s three years old.”

“Where daddy and Nunckle Aylor?” Harper asks as she studies Becca’s family’s portriat.

“You beat me to it, Lovebug. Here are a few pictures of them when they were little.” I turn the page.

There is something positive that came out of the birth of the girls. Harris and Claudia’s relationship was stable for six years after it. All of the kids’ last names remained Wilde, though. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop; it did when he cheated on her. She kicked him out of the house. He eventually ended up in jail for grand theft auto...again. Harris was never given another chance. He rarely saw the kids by choice.

“Where Mama?” Harper inquires as she searches.

“I’m not in this book. It’s only Daddy’s family.”

“No me?” She looks at me, frowning.

“You’re not in this book. You’re in the ones at grandma’s house.” I boop her nose with the tip of my index finger.

The action succeeds in making her smile.

“Wove Gamma.” Harper proclaims.

“I know, Lovebug. She loves you too.”

I introduce Harp to Rhys’s extended family through pictures.

“Ever-body nice?” She asks when we come to the end of the scrapbook.

“They will be to you.” I force a smile for her.

Claudia and Rhys have insisted that everyone will welcome me with open arms as well. I remain skeptical. The rest of the family could still doubt my honesty. They could be furious with me on Rhys’s behalf. Their animosity would be well-deserved. I did hurt him and the circumstances of my reappearance look suspicious. Harper’s irresistible; they’ll be kind to her. I, however, will likely spend Thanksgiving on trial.

“Are you excited to meet your family?” I ask Harper.

She nods. “We pway. Pinky come?”

“Pinky’s visiting her family on Rainbow Island that day. Maybe another time.”

“Otay.”

“Do you want to help me pack your new suitcases?”

“Oh, yes.” She squirms off my lap.

Rhys bought her a Peppa Pig luggage set for our trips to Seattle. She’s surrounded by flowers and riding a unicorn on the backpack on one suitcase. Peppa’s playing the guitar on the other. One bag is for toys, the other is for clothes. Harper loves both.

I hide all of her costumes before presenting her with her clothing options. A long-sleeved, plum-colored dress with a cream-colored lace Peter pan collar, cream tights, and brown ballet flats will be what she wears on Thanksgiving. The other outfits are for her to choose.

A lack of character embodiment garments doesn’t stifle Harper’s creativity in the slightest. Rhys enables her desire to dress like a ballerina that moonlights as an 80′s rock goddess. A perfect example is the sequin heart sweater, turquoise tutu, and a studded denim jacket with ‘Little Wilde’ painted on the back is what she wants to wear on Friday.

Once we’ve got all of her packing done, we play until it’s time for dinner. I change Harper’s diaper and put her into her concert gear. Cartoons and her keyboard keep her occupied her as I get ready.

Butterflies spring back to life in my stomach when I catch sight of the shirt I am wearing in the mirror. It features a picture of the band. My eyes keep going to Rhys.

“Guess what, Harp?”

She looks up from her keyboard.

Her expectant expression looks so much like Rhys’s that it takes me a beat to answer.

Seeing them side by side 24/7 has made me realize she inherited many of his mannerisms. She’s even ambidextrous like him.

“It’s time to go see Daddy.” My smile is genuine.

“YAY!” Harper clamors to her feet.

I bundle her up in the jacket Rhys remembered to get cleaned. We’re off to the arena after I’ve packed her toys into her backpack.

As she always, Harper’s treated like a mini-celebrity backstage. She eats up the attention and gives each passerby all of hers by treating them to bright smiles and cheerful greetings.

My previous worries about her ability to adjust to life on the road were tossed out the window weeks ago. I’ve never seen her happier.

Tables and a buffet area is set up in a multipurpose room. Rhys’s seated next to Taylor as usual. They’re in the middle of a conversation. The seat on the other side of him is empty, but there’s a plate and drink in front of it. I scan the crowded room for another seat.

“DADDY!” Harper exclaims when she sees him.

He’s out of his chair and jogging towards in an instant.

“Harper!” He lifts her out of her stroller and hoists her high about his head.

She squeals in delight.

“I’ve missed you, Lovebug.” He says once he has lowered her to eye level. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“How does deep-dish pizza sound?” He smooths down her bangs.

She got them last week. Rhys takes his daily hair-styling task very seriously. He goes as far as to research new styles. He liked the styles better with bangs. He asked her before doing it by saying, ‘do you want your hair to look like Mama’s?’. Her response was, Oh, yes. Mama pwetty’.

That was a significant self-esteem boost.

The band’s hairstylist did it after doing the boys’ hair. Rhys watched with rapt attention. He was adorably fascinated by witnessing Harper get her hair cut. Though sweet, it made my heart pang. He should’ve been there for her first haircut. It would’ve meant a lot to him.

“Yummy.” Harper hums.

“Are there empty seats?” I resume scouting for a place to sit.

“I saved the one beside me for you.”

“Someone’s still eating. I can wait to eat. You can feed her on your lap.”

“That’s your food. I wanted to get it before everyone picked over everything.” Rhys informs me.

“What did I say about the charm?” I crack a smile.

“What did I say about it?” He quickly retorts.

“Hungey, Daddy.” Harper hts his chest to get his attention.

“We’ve gotta fix that.” Rhys kisses her on the cheek.

He nods for me to follow them. I park the stroller in the corner and grab her diaper bag before joining them at the table.

Rhys’s explaining the difference between Chicago deep-dish pizza and regular pizza when I catch up to them. Harper’s giving him her full attention and proves it by asking questions. She’s excited to eat by the time we reach the table.

The pizza on the plate in front of his chair is cut into small pieces just for Harper. The side salad and bowl of pineapples are bite-sized too. A bib is all she needs to start eating.

Rhys pulls out my chair before sitting on his own.

“Stop it.” I begrudgingly take a seat.

“Nope.” He situates Harp in his lap. “I did it then. Doing it now.”

And it’s the truth. Claudia raised them to be gentlemen. How he’s such a good dad is a bit of a mystery.

“Bib, hand sanitizer, and sippy cup, please.” He requests as he ties her hair up in a bun.

Harper oves grabbing her hair when she eats things with sauce.

“Tank you. You turn.” Harp insists.

She “helps” him style his hair the same way.

“How’s it look?” He asks her once she’s finished tangling his hair.

“Pwetty.”

It’s a mess that is already falling apart.

“It feels it. Thank you.” Rhys thanks her with a smile.

“Elcome.”

Together, we get Harper ready to eat. She digs right into her dinner when she’s given the okay.

Like she did with the pretzel she had earlier today, she says ‘yummy’ between each bite. Rhys catering to her gives me the freedom to eat my food.

As time goes on, Rhys’s bun continues to deteriorate. When it gets to the point that he has to shake loose strands out of his face, I intervene.

Standing behind him, I comb out the knots Harper created with my fingers before securing his hair in an actual bun. Harper’s too busy enjoying her food to notice my revision.

“And you had the gaul to talk about charm level.” Rhys waits until I’m back in my seat to tease me.

“Watching you struggle was getting me down. It was for me, not you.” I scoot my chair closer to the table.

“So being as helpless and pathetic looking as possible is the way to get what I want? Got it.” He jokes.

“Please keep saying that around our daughter. It will cause no problems whatsoever.”

With an amused half-cocked smirk and glint of mischief in his eyes, he lets me know he’s playing to win. He’s not above playing dirty.

Harper requires a thorough baby wipe scrub after eating. We release her to play in her dressing room playpen for an hour. Rhys and I take her to an empty dressing room when it is time for her second nap of the day.

She puts up a fight. Harper always does when it comes to naptime. Her claims of not being tired cease when Rhys begans singing Field. Harp’s asleep by the last verse. We carefully slip her noise-diluting ear protectors onto her head to keep it that way.

“Show me the pretzel video.” Rhys requests.

We are seated side by side on a couch. Harper’s asleep on his chest.

“Beware: it is too cute.” I warn with a smile.

“That describes her at all times. I think I can handle it.”

“We’ll see.” I load it up on my phone.

I angle the screen toward him and press play.

He’s grinning from ear to ear through its entirety.

“She demolished that pretzel and looked adorable doing it. She’s incredible.” He muses with a sigh.

“Our baby girl’s pretty awesome.” I whole-heartedly agree.

“We did good, Pop. We made a marvel.” He adjusts her blanket and kisses the top of her head.

“Do you want more kids?” I dare to ask.

“With you? Definitely. Harp will be a tough act to follow, but I think we have what it takes to produce another genius or two. What about you?” His eyes meet mine to gauge my honest reaction.

“I’d like that -- more kids. I wanted a sibling growing up. Harper would make a great big sister.”

Rhys takes my hand. “I hope I don’t get my ‘yes’ tally erased by saying this, but it weighs on my soul too much to keep to myself.” He takes a deep breath and a dramatic pause. “You’re the ultimate MILF. Getting to point you out as the mother of my child gives me a real sense of pride. I’m bound to the sexiest of mamas for life.”

I swat him on the arm.

“No hitting. You’ll wake our genius princess.” He jokingly scolds.

“I thought you were going to say something serious.”

“I’m completely serious. You’re a goddess, Pop. Brilliant, gorgeous, and kind. Total package. You’re why Harper’s so great. You flew solo and molded her in your image. I might have to hide out for the first year or so after our next kid is born to make sure they get the same treatment.”

“Now, I know you’re joking.”

“Only about the last part. I’m going to be there for everything if there’s a next time. Do I get to keep my point or what?” He picks his joke back up.

“Yes, but it’d be gone if she could hear what you said.” I play along.

“I guess we can only talk while she’s asleep because I have some extreme opinions about your new look.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. Hair is your signature.”

“I’m talking about your new curves. You’ve always been beautiful, obviously, but those things – “ He shakes his head. “They’re distracting. Why do you think I’ve never invited you to soundcheck?”

“Wait, what? I thought outsiders weren’t allowed.” The space between my forehead wrinkles.

“Only you. Taylor forbade it. Distraction.”

That means they’ve discussed it.

My cheeks and neck inflame.

“Don’t be embarrassed, baby.”

“How can I not? The ‘curves’ are baby weight I can’t seem to get rid of. They came with stretchmarks because the creams for them are tubes of lies. Under all the layers I wear, it doesn’t look like models and singers you guys are accustom to. You’ll probably chat about that too.” I remove my hand from his.

“Please say you’re joking.” He deadpans.

“Go ahead and give me a point in the ‘no’ column. I’ll even accept it as a deal-breaker without hard feelings. It’s why we broke up in the first place.” My eyes heat with unshed tears. They are on my hands as I wring them.

“Pop, that’s not – it wasn’t --I didn’t read what I was signing when the label dropped my contract in front of me. There’s a marketing clause. Without knowing it, I gave them the power to control who I’m linked to in the public eye. To push a heartthrob image, they want me to be seen with influential women. People’s interest in my personal life will coax them into giving Wilde Knights a chance, and will eventually lead to more fans. I didn’t know that’s what I signed up for until Trina presented the first contestant to me.” His voice crackles with emotion.

He swallows a lump in his throat. “I asked you if we could take a break because I didn’t want to be photographed leaving clubs and shows with other girls while belonging to you. I thought I’d play their game for a little while and we’d eventually get back together. What happened happened. I don’t blame you. I know the way it looked. I would’ve explained if I could’ve, but I couldn’t. The details of my contract are confidential; I was scared of getting sued. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve fought for us.”

Tears are streaming down my cheeks by the end of his explanation. I turn to find him in the same state.

“You are now.” I manage to speak past the lump in my throat.

He shakes his head dimissively. “It’s not enough. It never will be.”

“We both made mistakes. What matters is Harper’s going to have a great life because of the sacrifices me made.” I cup his cheek.

“I hate that I hurt you like this.” He leans into my touch.

“I forgive you.” I press my lips to his. “Thank you for telling me.” I say as I tuck a wisp of hair behind his ear.

“I didn’t leave you because you weren’t good enough. You’re way out of my league. Please keep ignoring that fact. I love being with you.”

I ward off a smile. “Are you trying to gather brownie points?”

“No, I’m just a boy, sitting beside a girl, asking--”

“Don’t get your point erased by paraphrasing Notting Hill.” I interrupt.

“Will I earn a second point if I quote it correctly?”

“No.” I giggle. “I know how many rom-coms you’ve watched with Becca.”

“It was worth a shot.”

I give him another kiss.

“What’s your favorite place?” I change the something more light-hearted.

“With you and Harper.”

I’m rolling my eyes as I remove my glasses. “A real place, not an ‘I’m at home when I’m with you’ line. You’ve been all over the world. Your answer has probably changed since the last time I asked.”

“Home.” He simply states.

“What’s LA like?” I clean my face with one of Harper’s baby wipes.

“Awful. That’s why I live in Seattle.”

“How?”

“It’s a three-hour flight to LA and I’m used to living out of a suitcase. I’m only there when I have to be.”

“I thought we’re staying with your mom for Thanksgiving.”

“We are. My house is still in the process of being baby proofed.”

“Are you a homeowner or renter?” Using the sleeve of my t-shirt, I dry my face.

“Co-owner. Taylor and I bought and converted an abandoned shipping warehouse overlooking Puget Sound.”

I snicker -- tummy shaking, verge of tears, snicker.

“How’s that funny?”

I take a shaky breath. “You Property Brother-ed.”

“What are you —those twins on HGTV?” Rhys huffs.

Grinning, I nod. “They renovate fixer-uppers and sell them together. You and Tay took it up a notch by living in yours.”

“We made it too awesome to leave.”

“You don’t have to alter your masterpiece. I’ll keep a close eye on her.” I use the hem of my t-shirt to clear my glasses before returning them to my face.

“Like I told Taylor, ‘either the hazards get addressed or I burn the place to the ground’.”

“That’s completely rational.”

“Love is the most irrational thing there is. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe.”

“Including arson.”

“Murder too. Don’t forget murder.” He continues my joke.

“You’re ridiculous. You know that, right?”

“If I recall correctly, that’s one of the things you loved about me.”

“Still do.” I give him a soft peck.

There’s a soft knock on the door before it opens. The warning gives us enough time to separate.

“Rhys, time to get ready,” Josie whispers to be mindful of Harper.

I hold my arms out to take her from Rhys.

“Good talk.” He gently transfers her to me.

“Yeah.” I smile.

He kisses Harper. I’m caught off guard when he does the same to me.

“Rhys,--” I hiss in a hushed tone, nodding to Josie.

“She’s seen worse. Much worse.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.”

“You think too much.” He presses a kiss to my lips before sauntering away.

“Don’t scare her away. I need her.” Josie shoos him into the hallway. “My lips are sealed.” She leaves with a wink.

“Your daddy’s something else, Lovebug.” I hold her close. “But he’s ours and we love him.”

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