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White Roses

By Shannon Taylor Vannatter

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“Whoa!” Adrea Welch teetered on top of the rickety three-step utility ladder. With both arms flung out, surfing style, she regained her balance and pressed a hand to her pounding heart.
“Let me hold that for you,” a deep voice echoed from the back of the sanctuary.
The man hurried toward her. Emerald green eyes, windswept sable hair, and an irresistible cleft in his chin. Late-twenties, maybe thirty. Probably the groom. All the impossibly handsome men, especially the nice, mannerly ones who hung out in church, were taken.
Especially in tiny Romance, Arkansas.
But looks weren’t everything and he might never have been in a church before, just here for the wedding. Underneath that heart-tilting smile, he might be a jerk.
“Thanks.” She glanced down, making sure he wasn’t helping as an excuse to check her out. He wasn’t. Instead, he studied her work.
“I’m almost done.” Adrea looped yellow roses through the white latticework archway.
“The church should invest in a better ladder.”
“Actually, it’s mine.” She weaved ivy through the roses and climbed down. He was tall, at least six foot three. The top of her head came just about nose level on him.
“Are you in the wedding party?” He slung his jacket over one shoulder. Shirtsleeves, rolled up almost to the elbow, revealed muscled forearms.
“I’m the florist.” Always the florist; never the bride. “Adrea Welch.”
She nodded at the correct pronunciation. “Very good, but I’ve been known to answer to Adrian and Andrea.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Adrea.” He offered his hand. “I’m the pastor at Palisade over in Rose Bud. Grayson Sterling. Most folks call me Pastor Grayson.”
She suppressed a gasp and shook his hand. Warmth spread over her at his firm, yet gentle grip.
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
“Um, I usually do the white roses.”
The light in his eyes snuffed out.
Six years of standing orders for his wife’s birthday, their son’s birthday, and their anniversary. For the last two, he hand-delivered the flowers to the cemetery. And added Valentine’s Day to mark the date of her death.
“Sara always treasured them and thought it so romantic to get flowers from Romance.” His voice sounded forced. “Even though mine is always the same order, you make each one unique.”
“I actually enjoy the challenge of making each array distinctive.” How lame. Might as well tell him I take pleasure in arranging flowers for his dead wife. “She must have been a very special lady.”
“Yes.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “How long have you been at Floral Designs?”
“Seven years.”
“I’ve been a patron and pastored the church almost that long.” He frowned. “Odd that we’ve never met before.”
“I hardly ever go out to the showroom, and only started decorating wedding sites in the last few months.” She fluffed the swirl of tulle at the base of each brass candelabra to catch the rainbow of light reflecting through the lone stained-glass window.
“This is the first wedding I’ve agreed to officiate since Sara. . . So, you attend here at Mountain Grove?”
“From the time I can remember, and my sister’s husband is the preacher.” She cocked her head to the side, surveying the archway. Yellow roses were her favorite. Once upon a time, she’d planned to use them for her own special day.
She checked her watch. Almost time for the round of afternoon weddings to start. “I better get out of your way.”
“Nice meeting you. I’ll pick up Sara’s arrangement later.”
“It’ll be ready.” She hurried out of the church, slipping on her jacket. Preachers really shouldn’t look so good. How could any self-respecting Christian female concentrate on the sermon? He definitely lived up to the romantic hero her employees mooned over every time he came to pick up the roses. No wonder the salesclerks called him Prince Sterling.
Adrea stashed empty boxes and transport forms in the back of the van.
Three down, three to go. And none of the nuptials were hers.
Her hometown thrived on weddings. Half her livelihood came from weddings. She was so sick of weddings.
A Valentine balloon bouquet tried to escape from the van. She punched a heart-shaped, pink foil number bobbing beside her head.
“Roses are red, my love,” a tinny tune played. “Violets are blue-ooh. Sugar is sweet my love, but not as sweet as you.”
She slammed the door shut.
Okay, time to count blessings. She started the engine.
Number one: She and her older sister had recently bought the floral shop. Number two: Since couples came year-round to get married in if-you-blinked-you-missed-it Romance, the town’s notoriety made for a busy floral shop. Number three: It was Valentine’s Day, their biggest day for weddings and roses.
Twenty-five and the co-owner of a successful business. Yet a sigh welled within her.
Just two years ago, she’d been the soon-to-be bride blissfully planning her own ceremony. Until three weeks before the big event, when Wade crushed her illusions with his curvy blond floozy, clad only in a towel.
She shook the thoughts away as she rounded the curve and turned into the lot at the post office. Adrea managed to get Mom’s roses out of the van without any trouble from the balloons.
Samantha—just Sam—Welch stood at the counter with piles of wedding invitations threatening to topple.
“Hi, Mom.” Adrea set a crystal vase on the counter.
“Hey, Baby.” Mom’s smile brightened and she stopped stamping long enough to inhale the fragrance of the dozen long-stemmed roses. “Your father.”
“Is a very sweet man.”
“Are you okay?” Mom’s brow furrowed.
“I’m fine.”
“Haylee thought you might need her to spend the night and said something about eating Yarnell’s Death-By-Chocolate ice cream straight out of the carton.”
Adrea’s eyes misted at the thoughtfulness of her seven-year-old niece. “I’ll have her over soon, but we won’t need sinful treats. I’m fine. Really.”
Mom chewed on the inside of her jaw and surveyed Adrea with her intense sapphire gaze. Unconvinced, she went back to hand-stamping the invitations with a practiced, speedy precision. The rhythm of clunk, clunk, clunk echoed through the small office, toiling out the results of Romance’s other claim to fame. The remailing program.
Valentine’s cards arrived in droves for the unique Love Station postmark only in use each February 1–15. Year-round, brides from all over the country mailed their invitations in overstuffed manila envelopes, just to have them remailed from Romance, Arkansas.
Mom had stamped Adrea’s invitations and taken care of them when the plans deflated like a balloon detached from the air hose. She didn’t know how Mom had handled it. Sent don’t-come-to-my-wedding-it’s-not-going-to-happen cards? Somehow, Mom had let everyone know the engagement was off and no one asked questions.
“I met the pastor at Palisade just now.” Adrea grabbed a stack of finished invitations as they began a slow landslide and scooped them into two piles.
“That poor man. It doesn’t seem possible two years have passed since his wife died.”
Adrea nodded. “I heard he’s thinking of resigning. Maybe Mark could apply for that church. Wouldn’t that be perfect?”
“To us.” Mom raised an eyebrow. “Your brother feels very strongly called to be an associate pastor.”
“I’m so afraid he’ll end up somewhere else.” Adrea hugged herself. “I mean, he just came home, and there aren’t any churches around here that have associates.”
“Searcy has several.” Mom’s stamping never lost rhythm. “Don’t worry, God will work it out and put Mark right where He wants him.”
“You’re right. I better scoot; it’s our busiest day.”
“Tell me about it.” Mom stopped stamping long enough to massage her wrist.

Adrea wiped away a tear, then turned to sweep the smattering of fallen leaves and trimmed stems from the workroom floor.
As always, the pale flowers made her grieve for a woman she’d never met. Especially since she’d met the man left behind. She buried her nose in the cool satin of a fragrant blossom then added a few more fern fronds to the plastic container.
From births to proms and graduations, running the floral shop thrust her into the middle of the lives of countless strangers. She delighted in her work. Except for Valentine’s Day, funerals, and white rose days.
What must it feel like to be the object of such devotion? It was hard to fathom how a man could love a woman so much he placed a standing order to mark each special occasion then continued the tradition even after her death. She swiped at another tear.
Maybe she felt a kinship with Sara because she’d arranged the white roses for so long. Or because Sara died on what should have been my wedding day. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Their happily-ever-afters had vanished like vividly colored Valentine’s balloons caught in a vicious wind and swallowed up by angry clouds.
She filled the holes between the roses with snapdragons and Queen Anne’s lace. Turning the arrangement slowly around, she checked each side for balance.
The showroom door opened and her sister, Rachel, entered jostling two large balloon bouquets, looking as if she might float away like Mary Poppins. “These are for Mrs. Carlisle. Maybe I can get them delivered before she gets the chance to add something else to her order.”
“Actually, she already called.”
“Let me guess.” Rachel tapped her chin with a forefinger. “She’s invited four more people and needs us to whip up another centerpiece for her Valentine’s dinner.”
“Six more guests.”
Rachel smoothed a hand over her hairdresser-enhanced auburn hair. “Guess I better get busy with the extra flowers.”
“Already did it, before she ever called.” Adrea picked up the fluted crystal vase filled with red roses and pink carnations from behind the counter and set it on the worktable.
The sisters high-fived.
Rachel tied a heart-shaped weight on both clusters of balloon ribbons. “Mom said you stopped by.”
Adrea propped both hands on her hips. “Do y’all call each other as soon as I leave?”
“We’re just worried about you. How many almost brides spend their time fulfilling the dreams of other brides?”
“I’m fine.” How many times have I said that today?
Rachel handed her a tissue and picked up Mrs. Carlisle’s centerpiece. “You’re entirely too empathetic for this place.”
Adrea glanced at the clock. The lavender butterfly on the second hand made slow progress visiting each silk blossom–surrounded number. Almost two o’clock. Anywhere else the gaudy business-warming gift from their brother would be too busy. Especially set against pastel wallpaper bursting with an astounding assortment of flowers. But for the workroom, perfect.
“Before you go, can you take the white roses out front?”
“Sorry, I’m fixing to make deliveries. Besides, the customers love it when the hermit comes out to visit.” Rachel threaded the balloons through her fingers. “Can you give me a hand?”
Adrea helped load the van, then waved her sister off. Alone in the back parking lot, the hair along the nape of her neck stood on end. Someone was watching. She scurried back inside and locked the door.
Just my imagination.
Silly. Rachel only had two nearby deliveries and would be back soon.
Adrea undid the bolt, and with jittery insides, picked up the white roses. She hated working with customers in the bustle of the showroom. It never failed, whenever she went out front, a client always cornered her with compliments. Nice, just not her style. She much preferred a thank-you card.
The back door flew open behind her. She spun around to see a man. His shaggy, dishwater blond hair hung almost to his shoulders in greasy clumps, hiding his eyes. She sucked in a breath to scream, but his hand clamped over her mouth.
“I didn’t think I’d quite get that reaction.” Wade’s words slurred together.
If he hadn’t spoken, she wouldn’t have recognized him. Her gut twisted at a whiff of alcohol. She pushed his hand away, put some distance between them, and gulped deep breaths of blossom-perfumed air.
He’d lost weight. Gone was the handsome, well-groomed, charming man she’d once fallen in love with. Gone was the layered hairstyle, casually gelled back from his face. Gone was the self-confident golf instructor who’d put an engagement ring on her finger and promised to love only her. Wasted.
“What are you doing here? You’re not driving like this?”
“I hitched a ride and waited until Rachel left, so we could talk.”
“You were watching the shop?” She shivered. Someone spying on her, even someone she thought she knew, gave her the creeps.
“I knew she’d never let us talk in peace. Do you remember what day it is?”
How could I forget? Adrea closed her eyes, clutching the roses. “I’d like you to go now.”
He steepled his hands, as if in prayer. “Please, Adrea. Our second anniversary. Or it should have been anyway.”
“Wade, just go. We’re over. You’re engaged to—someone else.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the name. “I have to take these roses out front.”
“They can wait.” He grabbed the white roses, and they crashed to the floor, flinging water and twisted flowers.
“Look what you’ve done!” Fresh tears stung her eyes.
“Hey, don’t cry.” He moved toward her, ready to provide comfort.
She sidestepped him.
He tried to pull her into his arms.
“Don’t.” She jerked away and slapped him so hard her fingers stung.
The connecting door to the showroom opened.

Grayson hesitated, his gaze taking in the pretty florist he’d met at the church, the red handprint appearing on the man’s cheek, and finally the ruins of a flower arrangement on the floor.
He shut the door behind him. “Excuse me, but we heard a noise—the clerks were busy so I offered to check. Is there a problem?”
“Who are you?” The man looked from Grayson to a jittery Adrea, suspicion clouding his eyes. He took a menacing step toward Grayson.
Drunk, disorderly, disheveled. The shop’s back door stood open. Had this guy just wandered in off the street or did he know Adrea? Though Grayson barely knew her, she didn’t seem like the type to hang out with drunks. Yet, the man seemed possessive toward her.
“Just a customer.” Grayson offered his hand. “Grayson Sterling.”
The man’s jaw dropped. He stepped back. Without another word, he spun around and ran out the back door, slamming it behind him. Vase-laden shelves rattled in his wake, but nothing fell.
Odd reaction. Grayson turned back to Adrea.
With shaking hands, she pushed dark bangs out of her too shiny, midnight blue eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine.” Her voice quivered.
Anything but fine. “I realize it’s none of my business, but should that guy be loose on the streets?”
“He’s drunk, but he said he’s not driving, and he’d never intentionally harm anyone.” She stooped to retrieve the container from the heap in the floor. “I’m afraid I dropped your flowers.”
He winced at the sight of the damaged roses, their heads forlornly nodding.
“I’m sorry. I’ll make a new arrangement.” A tear trickled down her cheek. She wiped it away. “It won’t take a minute.”
His gut twisted. “There’s no rush. My son’s begging to go to the park anyway.” He knelt to retrieve errant leaves and petals. “Let me help you clean up this mess.”
“That’s not necessary.” She grabbed several paper towels and sopped up the spill then took the refuse from him and threw it all in the trash. “I’ll take care of it.”
With trembling fingers, she plucked the flowers, ruined or not, from a block of foam and tossed them into a compost bin. She grabbed a contraption and began stripping the thorns from a few fresh roses on the counter.
He should go. But his feet wouldn’t move. The handprint on the drunk’s face proved she could take care of herself, yet she looked so shaken. So vulnerable.
She winced and blood dripped onto the translucent petals of a white rose.
“You’re bleeding.”
“It’s nothing.” Calmly, she removed the embedded thorn and popped the fleshy part of her right thumb into her mouth, only to gag. She crumpled the crimson-stained rose in her fingers and tossed it in a compost bin.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Really. And I’m sorry about the delay.” She washed the puncture. With no paper towels left, she rubbed her palms down slender, jean-clad thighs and dug out a fresh roll from under the sink.
“It’s not a problem.”
The back door opened, and the clerk he usually saw in the showroom entered. She frowned when she saw him.
“Pastor Grayson? Is everything all right, Adrea?”
A blush crept up Adrea’s neck. “I’ll fill you in later.”
“Good to see you, Rachel.” He offered his hand. “I wondered where you were today.”
“Just had a couple of deliveries.”
“Well, I better get back to Dayne.” What if the drunk came back? He ran his hand over his jaw and turned back to Adrea. “You really should consider locking the back door in the future.”
Rachel’s eyes widened.
“I’ll come back in about forty-five minutes. No rush.” With one more glance toward Adrea, he strolled back to the showroom.

The door shut behind him, and Adrea darted to the floral refrigerator.
The perfect romantic hero. A knight in shining sterling.
But a deep sadness lurked in the emerald depths of his sparkling eyes. The knight had lost his lady.
Arms laden, she chose another container.
“What happened?” Rachel crossed her arms and leaned against the counter.
Adrea unloaded on the worktable and touched a tender blossom to her nose. “Nothing happened, other than some broken flowers.”
“Okay, I’ll bite.” A storm brewed in Rachel’s brown eyes. “How did the flowers get broken, and why did Pastor Grayson think you needed to lock the back door?”
“Wade stopped by,” she squeaked.
Rachel propped her hands on slim hips. “Isn’t he supposed to be in Missouri?”
“Probably just here to visit his mother.” Though Helen hadn’t mentioned it. “He was drunk.”
Adrea’s gaze locked on her sister’s.
The phone rang. Adrea reached for it, but the red light already glowed. One of the salesclerks had nabbed the call.
“I just don’t want you falling for his ‘poor me’ routine.” Rachel rolled her eyes. “I still can’t believe you almost married him.”
“Yes, but I didn’t.” She picked up the rose-stripper.
“Thank You, God.” Rachel looked heavenward.
“Listen, I know you have this thing about trying to protect me, but I can take care of myself. I can handle Wade.”
“You sure about that? You seem kind of shaky to me.”
“I’d never seen him drunk before. He’d been sober for two years when we met.” Adrea hugged herself. “He’s like a different person.” And it’s my fault he started drinking again.
“The nerve of the jerk. Today of all days.”
“Can we drop it?” Finished with the roses, she inspected her thumb. Another split nail, just from arranging flowers. Flimsy and paper-thin, they’d never recovered from her childhood nervous habit of biting. And Wade’s visit made her want to do more than nibble.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“It was just a thorn.” Adrea held her hand out for her sister to see. “It’s not even bleeding anymore.”
“I didn’t mean your thumb.” Rachel touched her arm.
“I’m fine. Really.” She took several cleansing breaths and slowly rotated the flowers to inspect them from every angle. Satisfied, she turned her back to the counter and leaned against it, begging her heart to slow. “Can you take the roses out front? And let’s not charge him since he had to wait.”
“Sure.” Rachel picked up the arrangement and turned toward the showroom.
Adrea grabbed a heart-shaped crystal vase off the shelf. She filled it with red rosebuds, fern fronds, and baby’s breath, then turned to the final bridal bouquet of the day.
She started with a cluster of fuchsia stargazer lilies in the center and worked them into a V shape. She loved the traditional cascading type rather than the popular rounded, hand-tied variety. It was what she’d planned to use for her wedding.
As the bouquet took shape, she imagined it in the trembling fingers of a blushing bride. She clasped it in front of her and stutter-stepped across the floor.
“Dun, dun, duh-duh. Dun, dun, duh-duh.”
The showroom door opened and Adrea’s measured stride faltered.
Helen’s blue-tinged updo blended with her periwinkle suit. Southern Belle to the bone. She looked a good eight years younger than sixty-five.
With a wistful sigh, Adrea went back to the worktable to add more baby’s breath. “I was just wondering why anyone would come halfway across the country to get married in Romance. We even have a couple coming from New York this year. Do they think the name of our town will guarantee their happily-ever-afters?”
“Someday”—Helen hugged her—“you’ll make a lovely bride, with all that dark hair and creamy complexion. I’m sorry this is such a difficult day for you, dear. And I’m sorry about Wade. I told him to leave you alone.”
“It was no big deal.” She’d hoped Helen wouldn’t learn of his visit to the shop.
“I so wanted you to be my daughter.”
Adrea’s chin trembled. “I so wanted to be your daughter.”
Helen handed her several fuchsia ribbons. “Good news; I think Pastor Grayson has decided not to resign.”
“Actually, I met him this morning.”
“He’s such a wonderful pastor.” Helen clasped her hands together. “It’s just been really hard for him since Sara died.”
“Maybe God gave him a gentle nudge to stay in the ministry.” Adrea threaded the satiny strands through the blossoms and snipped off the ends, leaving several trailing wisps shimmering along the stems. After final inspection, she wrapped the creation in white tissue paper and gently packed it in a large carton with the bridesmaids’ bouquets.
She kneaded the tendons in her cramping hands and turned to the numerous corsages and boutonnieres lining the worktable. With sore, raw fingers, she stuck long, pearl-studded pins into the stems of each one.
Helen tucked the finished product into clear cellophane bags.
Weddings. With vehemence, Adrea jabbed the pin into the groom’s rosebud.
“Careful.” Helen took the boutonniere from her. “You need a break.”
“I do.” Her stomach knotted at the irony of her words. “Two more weddings to deliver, then we’re out of here.”

With Dayne tucked in bed, Grayson stood on the back porch, stroking Cocoa’s velvety ears. The heavy dog leaned against his leg.
When he’d returned for the arrangement, everything seemed calm at the floral shop. The salesclerk had tried not to charge him, but he’d paid anyway.
Was Adrea okay? He couldn’t get her trembling hands and voice off his mind.
He looked up at the stars and drained his coffee cup. Caffeine couldn’t hurt him. He never slept anyway.
Stepping inside, he took off his coat and sniffed the air. Apple and cinnamon. Something baking, as usual, in the freshly painted pale peach kitchen. Sara’s favorite color. But it wasn’t the same.
He sat at the pedestal table and lay his face against the cool oak surface.
“Gray, you okay?” Grace’s voice quivered.
“I miss the old house.” He pushed up from the table. “I miss her.”
Grace’s slender arms came around his shoulders, and she rested her chin on top of his head.
His twin had given up her life to help with Dayne. She’d cut back her thriving catering business in Searcy and moved to Rose Bud with them. All for him. For his future. A future without Sara. Only to hear him grumble about the new house because the air didn’t smell of Sara’s soft, sweet perfume.
“It’s just a bad day.” He ran his hands over the smooth wood. Sara had ordered the table from a catalog and waited three weeks for it to arrive. She’d made an adventure out of it by sewing a red and white checked blanket and serving picnics on the floor.
“I took her clothes to the Red Cross for hurricane victims this morning. But not the curtains she made. Even though they don’t fit any of the windows here. . .” Grayson closed his eyes. “I just couldn’t.”
“I know it was hard, but you did good.” She hugged him tighter. “Sara would be glad her things went to people who needed them.”
He concentrated on not letting her feel the sobs welling within his chest.
Grace patted his shoulder. Grabbing his empty coffee cup, she walked over to the counter. “How was the wedding?”
“I pasted a smile on my face, joined the happy couple in holy matrimony, and took Dayne to the cemetery.” Poor Dayne. A five-year-old shouldn’t think it’s normal to go to the cemetery on Valentine’s Day.
He stared out the window at the inky sky. “I never imagined this day would be anything other than a joyous occasion for Sara and I to share a special, romantic dinner. Instead of celebrating with my wife, I left the church where we were married to place flowers at a cold, marble stone.”
She poured a cup of coffee and added one teaspoon each of creamer and sugar. When she turned to face him again, her shiny eyes swam in unshed tears.
Lifelong friends with Sara, she hurt almost as bad as he did.
“I’m sorry. Maybe the move was a bad idea.” She set the cup in front of him.
“It’s not that.” He took her hand. “I shouldn’t have let the deacons talk me into staying at the church. I should have resigned back when Sara died.”
“They don’t expect miracles.” She stepped behind him again and massaged the tense muscles in his shoulders. “They know what you’ve been through.”
“I need to seclude myself in the office and not come out until I have a sermon for Sunday. I need to go see Mrs. Jones, who recently lost her husband.” How can I comfort the grieving, when I still grieve?
“Why don’t you take them up on hiring an associate pastor?” Grace pulled a chair beside him and sat.
“Palisade has never had an associate.”
“I know, but the church has grown, and I think it’s high time you got some assistance.”
An associate could hold the church together so I can fall apart in peace. Tempting. He could call his old professor for recommendations. See if there might be someone local. . .
“It’s just the day. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“We both will be.” She kissed his cheek.

The February morning air burned Adrea’s lungs. Each breath formed a visible cloud as she jogged around the walking trail.
Another Valentine’s Day behind her and she hadn’t handled any weddings for two days. She silently thanked God for the much-needed reprieve.
With the park to herself, memories stirred of the many times she’d set up flowers for countless happy couples there. Maybe a jog wasn’t such a good idea after all.
A cream-colored sedan pulled into the parking lot. A small boy in a marshmallow-puffed coat bounced from the car, followed by a chocolate Labrador retriever. A hooded man, probably his father, braved the frigid air. She looked away from yet another reminder of what she didn’t have.
“No, Cocoa! Come back!” The boy’s voice cut through the stillness.
“Dayne! Stop!” the man yelled.
As she turned toward the commotion, she saw the small boy, his little face awash in tears, chasing the Lab. Tongue lolling, the dog gained a huge lead, leash dancing behind.
Adrea gasped as the pair veered straight for the highway. Darting from the path, she cut in front of the dog and stomped one foot solidly on the leash. She grabbed it before he could jerk it away and send her tumbling. Momentum threatened to propel her after the large animal, but she pulled with her entire body weight until he stopped.
The boy caught up, sniffling. As he buried his face in the dog’s coat, the man joined them.
An incredibly handsome man. Grayson Sterling.
His breathing came in raspy wheezes. Young and in good shape, it didn’t make sense for him to be so short of breath.
“Are you all right?”
He clutched his chest and opened his mouth. Only a gasp came out.
Why didn’t I ever take CPR? She tried to remember what she’d heard about injuries he’d sustained in the wreck. Nothing to do with his lungs. Just his knee.
The boy stared wide-eyed, tears again coursing down his cheeks.

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