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Her Bodyguard
by Michelle Jerott
Avon, 2001


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Excerpt from Her Bodyguard

Prologue

Big Moccasin Lake Lodge, Wisconsin


August 22, 1933

"Why can't I come with you, Joey?"

Joey Mancuso raised his head from Rose's perspiration-moistened neck, and kissed her breast as he breathed in her warm fragrance--attar of roses, mingled with the musky scent of sex. As he traced the curve of her breast with the tip of his tongue, she shifted restlessly.

"Don't," she whispered. "Answer my question. You know how I hate it when we can't be together."

He raised himself on his elbows, and looked down into the face of the woman he loved more than life itself, the only person on this lousy earth he'd ever trusted. She was so pretty, his million-dollar-baby--her short red hair worn in marcelled waves, and wide brown eyes topped by pencil-thin brows like Myrna Loy, her favorit picture show star--but tonight, the sadness in Rose's eyes nearly tore him apart.

"They'll be looking for us back in Chicago, so I want you to lay low at your cousin's place in Racine. When I'm not so hot no more, I'll come for you and we'll go to Canada, like we planned." For her sake, he smiled. "And maybe I can finally make an honest woman outta you."

Rose sighed, and ran her foot along the back of his thigh. "This trouble is about that last job you pulled, isn't it?"

He kissed her lips as he eased out from her, catching her soft gasp, then kissed the tip of her nose, her forehead. "You know the rules, baby. Don't ask me no questions, then I don't gotta tell you no lies."

"Joey, I hope you're not thinking of going to Kansas City. You know the laws there are still looking for you over those killings at the train station."

Mood plunging to black, he swung out of bed. "I didn't have nothing to do with killing them cops."

"You used to muscle for Johnny Lazia, and that's all Mr. Hoover's boys care about," she said in a warning tone. "The laws want you real bad, sugar, and they'll do whatever they can to take you down."

Joey rubbed his thumb over her warm, soft cheek, then reached for his undershirt and began dressing. "Just remember what I told you--and keep your dancing shoes close by, because when I see you again, baby, I'm taking you out on the town in high style. Promise me that when I come for you, you'll be wearing a big smile for your fella, and your favorite dancing shoes."

Her gaze met his, but he shook his head in a warning before she even asked the question he saw brimming in her eyes. Not telling her the truth was the only way to protect her from the laws.

Turning slightly away from her, because sometimes Rose was too smart for her own good, he rubbed away a spot of dried mud from his trousers that he'd somehow missed earlier.

"I promise, on both accounts." Rose smiled brightly--too brightly--and swung out of bed, small breasts bouncing in the lamplight. She picked up her flowered blue dress from the floor, where he'd thrown it a half hour ago. "And maybe I'll buy me a new dress, too. A red one. Would you like that?"

"I sure would." He pulled a roll of bills from his trouser pocket and pressed half of it into her hand. Nobody could say he didn't know how to take care of what was his. "I figure this'll keep you in style until I see you again."

Rose sat on the bed, putting aside the money, and began rolling her silk chiffon stockings up her legs. He never tired of looking at her pretty legs.

"I don't understand how anybody knew where to find you," she grumbled, clipping her stockings to her garter belt. "We're way out in the wilderness. Hell, I don't even know where we are."

"Willis ratted on me, that's how," Joey said tightly. With angry, jerking motions, he strapped on his shoulder holster over his shirt and vest, then pulled on his suit coat.

And his buddy Willis Conroy, partner and onetime cellmate, knew all the truths that his girl didn't.

Trusting Willis had been a mistake.

"Willis would never rat on you, sugar," Rose said, frowning. She slipped on her dress, and began buttoning it. "He's your friend."

"People like me don't have friends."

Outside, the pine tree branches scratched across the window and the wooden siding of the lodge, like something trying to claw its way inside.

Rose looked at him, her red mouth a pretty pout. "What about me?"

"No, baby, you ain't no friend, either--you're my life."

She smiled, love shining in her eyes. Nobody but Rose had ever looked at him like that. She'd always made him feel like he was worth a damn, even on the bad days when his past rolled over him like a drowning wave. To keep that light shining in her eyes, he'd do anything for her.

"Besides," Joey added, "Willis would spill his guts to the laws if it meant getting out of the chair."

Earlier, he'd received a cryptic call warning him that his partner had been arrested in Minneapolis the day before, and was singing away. By now, the laws in Chicago would know where to find him and Rose. Life being what it was, any number of those cops were sure to be tight with Mike Riley, the meanest Irish gangster in Chicago's North Side, and ol' Mike would be keen to get to Joey before the laws or the G-men.

No doubt about it, Joey the Joker was a popular fella lately.

He had pals who could hide him, even hot as he was, but he had to get Rose away. If the laws or bureau agents found her, it would go hard on her. They'd slap her around, call her whore, and play games with her mind. So long as they got their man, they didn't care how they did it. And all those lawmen, alone with a girl they considered a floozy, wouldn't think twice about using her in other ways. He couldn't let that happen.

He pulled out a leather bag and shoved his clothing inside. Rose was already packed and ready to ride. They should've left hours ago, but he'd had to repair the car engine, and then Rose had start kissing him and fiddling with his shirt buttons, and one thing had pretty much led to another.

Joey fastened his coat to hide his gun from their hosts, but he didn't think the old man and his wife were awake. He suspected they'd guessed the identity of their only guests, but they'd treated Rose right so far, and he had no cause to be suspicious. Leastwise, no more than usual. He'd be sure to leave enough money behind to pay for the nights they'd stayed.

Nobody would ever say Joey the Joker would stiff an old man. He wasn't as heartless or without morals as the newspapers claimed.

"I'm taking the bag down to the sedan. You sit tight. I'll be back for you."

Rose nodded, suddenly going long-faced and moist-eyed.

"Aw, Rosie, baby, don't," he muttered, tensing. "I hate it when you cry."

She sniffed. "I'm feeling blue just thinking about not seeing you. I get so lonesome when you're gone. And I'm worried. This one don't feel right, Joey."

A chill shot through him at her words.

Rose was still watching him, and the light wasn't kind to her tonight. She wore more lines than a 22-year-old woman should, and her eyes were weary. The same weariness touched him now, the same bleakness that forced to him to admit he'd never live to see twenty-six. Rose knew it, too, but they never talked about his dying. It only made her cry.

"I don't know where all the good times went," Joey whispered. "It started out as a game...I never wanted it to be like this."

For a long moment, she said nothing--all the memories of their five years together hanging thick between them--then smiled. "You better quit jawin', boy, and pack those bags. I want us out of here before the laws jump you."

Or Mike Riley's triggermen. Mike wasn't about to forgive Joey for doublecrossing him. All this, because Riley's slut had bad-mouthed Rose. Jesus, skirts could be death on a fella.

He almost smiled. Even at times like these, he could still find a joke.

Grabbing the bag, he headed to the door. Nobody was in the lodge's common room. He didn't turn on the lights, suspicion second nature. He slipped out back and headed to the black Ford V8 sedan. He'd stolen it outside of Chicago, but had switched license plates. Times were hard lately, and few folks had the money to travel much. Out-of-state plates would tip off the local laws right quick.

And Henry Ford's big V8s were roomy enough for living in, for sleeping--even for lovemaking. Those big backseats of the cars he'd stolen had sure seen a lot of action. The best times of his life.

Joey looked away from the backseat, his gaze falling on the back floor where blankets hid boxes of shells, his two Browning automatic rifles, a Thompson submachine gun--his best chopper--and a half-dozen other rifles and handguns.

All at once, that ball of dread in his belly burst, overwhelming him with a powerful sense of helplessness. Two years of gun battles, police chases, roadblocks, and living on the lam...it was no kind of life, with nothing to look forward to but being shot down one day like a dog on the highway.

He'd been born to nothing, and if he died tonight, what would he have?

Nothing.

Except for Rose, and for a while, it had seemed he might make something of himself.

Joey sagged against the sedan and lowered his forehead against the cool, black metal roof and breathed in deeply, smelling the tang of pine needles and the nearby lake, the loamy scent of ground dampened by a recent rain.

He swallowed back the tears. Crying was weak, and he'd always known it would end like this...he'd just hoped to string his days out a little longer.

A sudden sound cut across the silence of the heavily wooded northern wilderness and Joey looked up, listening, his heart pounding.

Tires on gravel--and too late at night to be anything but trouble.

"Fuck," he snarled, and grabbed the chopper. He was silently slipping toward the front of the lodge when lights snapped on in the common room.

Rose...

She must think it was him, bringing the Ford out front.

"Rose, shut off the lights! Shut them off...get down, get down!"

His frantic warning was lost in an explosion of gunfire and shattering glass. A short scream cut across the thundering noise--an animal sound that raised the hair on his arms and the back of his neck.

"No!"

As the guns fell silent, Joey's bellow of rage echoed through the darkness, long and drawn out like the howl of a wolf. Heedless, knowing it was too late, he ran toward the front porch, chopper blazing whitely as he sprayed a wide arc of bullets.

From the darkness, the flash of returning fire erupted from the trees, the rat-ta-tat-tat of machine guns.

The first bullet slammed into his chest. He staggered back as another two bullets hit his shoulder and arm, and by the time the last bullets took him, he'd fallen to the soft, spongy ground, still clutching his smoking chopper in his hand.

"Rose," he gasped over the white-hot pain, each breath a struggle to pull more air into his lungs.

Sorry, baby...so sorry...

As blackness washed over him, he heard the sound of running footsteps, and a voice, muffled as if coming through a thick blanket, "He's dead! Goddammit, I told you I needed him alive!"

"He was shootin' to beat the band, Lou. It's not like we had a choice."

"I needed that bag, you idiots. Where's the shoes? Get me the shoes!"

"Lou!" A new voice shouting, so tinny and far away. "Lou, the laws are coming...three cars, down the road. They must've been right behind us."

"Aw, Christ! Get to the cars. We'll have to shoot our way outta here."

"What about the money, Lou?"

"We got no choice but to come back for that later..."

As blackness swallowed Joey Mancuso, his last thought was of Rose, laughing and twirling in a shiny red dress, kicking up her heels in her dancing shoes.

CHAPTER ONE

Chicago

Some 70 years later...

"Damn good thing I wore my best silk undies today, because if I had to go and faint in front of three hundred people, at least I did it with style." Lili Kavanaugh stopped her barefoot pacing on the carpet of her posh suite at the Drake Hotel and briefly closed her eyes. "Three hundred people...my God, I could just die of embarrassment."

"You nearly died for real," said a male voice from behind her, the tone sharp. "Embarrassment is the least of your worries right now, Lil. Are you sure you didn't hit your head when that cop knocked you down?"

Resuming her restless pacing, Lili glanced over her shoulder at her business manager, who was also her sister's boyfriend. Jared Sayers reclined on the pastel striped love seat: brown-haired, lean, and wholesomely handsome, but the lines of stress etching his face betrayed his casual sprawl.

Of course he was right, but he'd missed the point. Embarrassment she could handle and deal with; what she couldn't handle was that only a few hours ago a man had rammed a gun against her neck and almost dragged her out of the Morton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she'd been lecturing.

"Well, it's my guilty secret that I'm totally spineless." She smoothed the skirt of her red shantung silk dress. Damn, her hands were shaking again. "Fainting certainly doesn't do much for my suave and sophisticated image, does it?"

Jared didn't answer, and with a sigh, she gazed out her window at the grand view of Lake Michigan and the Oak Street beach. The sky was a cheery turquoise blue, sunlight streaming down and sparkling off the water. Although it was early October, the beach still swarmed with sun-worshippers, joggers, children, and people walking their dogs. She watched with a frustrated longing.

"Jared, do we really have to do this bodyguard thing?"

"Yes," he said with flat finality. "In case you've forgotten, somebody tried to kidnap you today."

As if she could forget. Lili rubbed her arms, wincing as her fingers reached the painful spots where her assailant had grabbed her with such vicious force. By tomorrow, she'd have a lovely collection of bruises.

And here she was, without anything in her suitcases to accessorize purple or yellow.

She continued to stare outside at all the people and activity, at the bright colors and endless blur of motion, and the suite she'd found so charming and spacious that morning closed around her, growing smaller and duller and ever more suffocating.

Lili glanced at the small knot of suit-clad detectives and uniformed officers talking by her door, including the off-duty cop who'd been in the auditorium and chased off her assailant. Outside her suite, hotel security stood guard. She wanted nothing more than five measly minutes to herself so she could wallow in a good bawl, but the police insisted on hanging around until this bodyguard person arrived.

Bodyguard. Images of a grim-jawed G-man in black popped to mind, and she gave a shiver of dread.

In all her thirty-one years, she'd encountered nothing more troublesome than the occasional jerk. Ever since the attack, she'd asked why anybody would want to harm her. No one had an answer, but at the moment it didn't appear that it was a onetime, random event.

A knock on the door cut across her thoughts, and Lili turned as the serious-faced young man in charge of hotel security poked his head into her suite. "Professor Kavanaugh? The gentleman from the security agency is here."

Lili stiffened, her breath catching, but when the tall, dark-haired "gentleman" walked into the suite, her apprehension eased into surprise.

The man coming her way with an easy, self-assured grace had a strong, angular face with the faintest hint of a cleft in his chin. He wore his hair cut short, and was one of those men who, no matter how often they shaved, always had a shadow of a beard. While not particularly handsome, he had pleasant, attractive features.

He was no thick-necked brute, anyway, and while Lili wasn't sure what a bodyguard should look like, she hadn't expected someone resembling an executive.

"Matt Hawkins," the man said, walking forward, hand extended. "You must be Professor Kavanaugh."

"Mr. Hawkins," she said as he took her hand in a firm, warm grip.

Standing so close, Lili couldn't help notice the color of his eyes--light gray, almost silver in the strong afternoon light--and that an incredible pair of broad shoulders filled out his suit.

The man discreetly cleared his throat, and Lili realized she still held his hand. She released it with a rueful smile, and quickly sized up the rest of him. Hawkins wore an expensive, conservative suit--the steel gray color did wonders to enhance his silvery eyes, and she had a feeling he was well aware of that. Armani, most likely, with a Breuer tie and a fine cotton shirt.

Gaze moving lower, she eyed his shoes. She didn't recognize the designer, but these were definitely pricey and Italian.

Obviously, guarding bodies paid rather well. And with an outward package like this, she'd bet the Kit Kat in her purse that he wore silk boxers, too.

A sudden heat stung her cheeks, and Lili looked back up, meeting the bodyguard's unwavering gaze.

Wonderful. She'd been threatened with a gun, manhandled, dragged across a floor, and had keeled over in front of a packed auditorium--yet she was speculating about the underwear of a man she'd met fifteen seconds ago.

Well, really...in a day rife with aberrations, what was one more?

Jared stepped up beside her and took Hawkins's hand in a quick shake. After introducing himself, he said, "Thank you for coming. Dan told me you initially declined the assignment, but I'm pleased you reconsidered. Trust me--you won't regret it." Jared shot Lili a quick look. "Dan Armistead is part owner of the security agency, and an old friend of mine. I asked Dan for the best, and that would be Mr. Hawkins here. He's a certified personal security specialist. Top of the line."

It sounded as if Jared were describing a luxury Lamborghini or a state-of-the-art stereo system, not a man. Frowning, Lili tipped her head as she sized up Mr. Hawkins's shoulders again. "So...you're the crème de la crème of bodyguards?"

"The best." His eyes locked onto her, seeming to pin her to the spot where she stood. "And technically, I'm a personal security specialist, ma'am, not a bodyguard."

The sound of his voice washed over her: a deep, rich voice, like that of a nighttime deejay on the radio, the kind you could listen to for miles and miles as you drove that white line into the darkness. A sexy voice that invited trust-maybe even a fantasy or two.

But before her fancy could take that thought and run with it, two other men wearing suits entered her suite, and Hawkins turned, breaking eye contact.

Immediately, her tense muscles relaxed.

"My team," Hawkins explained. "That's Manuel Mendoza standing by the flowers, and to his right is Dallas Farrell, my driver."

Lili summoned a smile for both men. Mendoza was a lanky Latino of middling height, sporting a sleek black goatee. Farrell looked surprisingly young and slender for a bodyguard. He had reddish-brown hair and brown eyes framed by long, thick lashes, and Lili's first thought was: Does your mother know what you do for a living?

With some surprise, she noted the baby-faced bodyguard wore a wedding band. Before she could check herself, she glanced quickly at the left hands of the other two men. Neither Mendoza nor Hawkins wore rings.

"I need to talk with the police for a moment," Hawkins said, reclaiming her attention. "Then I'll have questions for you. Sit tight. I'll be right back."

Lili knew an order when she heard one, no matter how politely stated. She glanced at Jared, who shrugged and dropped back down on the love seat. She resumed pacing, casting occasional curious looks at her bodyguard.

Odd, how a man who wasn't particularly out of the ordinary--and who wore an unobtrusive gray suit, albeit expensive--stood out among all these other cops. His voice wasn't overly loud, his movements weren't overly aggressive, and yet he drew her attention again and again.

In a room where testosterone all but crackled in the air, that was no small accomplishment. In his own quiet way, his entire bearing seemed to proclaim: Watch out. The big dog has arrived.

Within minutes, Hawkins had gathered his information, and the police and detectives filed out of her suite. Mendoza and Farrell followed them, which left her alone with Jared and a complete stranger who was now in charge of every hour of her life for the rest of the week.

Hawkins headed back her way, and with a renewed sense of unease, Lili noticed his frown.

"Is something wrong?" Realizing how ridiculous that sounded, she quickly added, "Beyond the obvious, I mean."

He regarded her just long enough for something uncomfortable to flutter in her chest. "Sit down. Please."

It wasn't a request, and she sank down onto a wing chair. He took the opposite chair, perched on the edge of the seat, hands loosely clasped between his knees, looking dark and ominous against the sherbet hues of her suite.

"I need to ask you a few questions about what happened."

At his words, the panic she'd been holding off for the last couple hours came rushing back, filling her with a cold, dark dread. "You just talked with the police. What more can I add?"

"I know you'd prefer not to talk about it," Hawkins said. "But it's important, Professor Kavanaugh."

Professor.

Lili managed a small smile. "Please. Just Lili."

He didn't smile back. "Tell me what happened. I need to hear it from you."

"Is this really necessary?" Jared demanded as he sat forward. "Can't you wait an hour or two? She's been through a lot this afternoon. Give her time to rest up and -"

"It's okay," Lili interrupted. Jared, like everyone in her family, tended to be overprotective of her.

Letting out her breath in a long sigh, she focused on the vase on the end table, filled to bursting with a lavish arrangement of calla lilies, irises, and asters in hues of yellow, lavender, and white. "I'm a fashion shoe designer, Mr. Hawkins, but I'm also an expert on shoe history. I own an extensive collection of shoes that belonged to famous American women, which is what I was lecturing about earlier."

"The attack came toward the end of your talk, correct?" Hawkins asked. He pulled a small notebook from his inside jacket pocket--and Lili glimpsed a shoulder holster and the dark gleam of a gun.

Fear gathered in her chest, tight as a fist. Her heart pounded.

Of course he'd have a gun. Somebody had threatened her earlier with one, so why wouldn't he? Still, having an armed man sitting mere inches from her wasn't as comforting as she'd expected.

"Yes," she answered. "I'd thanked everybody for coming, took Rose's shoes from where I'd stashed them in the podium, and made my way to the edge of the stage."

"Rose?" Hawkins repeated, looking up from his notepad. "Who's Rose?"

"Are you from Chicago, Mr. Hawkins?"

Hawkins hesitated, then answered, "I was born in Pittsburgh, but I've lived in Chicago for years."

"Then you should've heard of Joey and Rose. You know, the star-crossed gangster lovers." At his blank expression, she added, "She was the moll of Joey 'the Joker' Mancuso, and was gunned down with him back in the thirties. My collection includes shoes from bad girls and floozies, too."

Recognition dawned in Hawkins's eyes, and he nodded once. "Okay. Why did you take the shoes with you?"

"Rose was one of Chicago's most notorious personalities, so I figured a chance to see the shoes would bring in more people to my lecture. The more the merrier, that's my motto."

Briefly, Hawkins's gaze slid over her, taking in her fitted red dress designed to play up her modest curves and show a generous length of leg-and now her skinned knees, unfortunately.

His gaze moved upward to her hair, which she deliberately wore in a classic bun--her own little joke, playing off the stereotype of a professor. This month her hair was inky black. The last few months it had been red; a deep, unabashedly fake shade of red.

"Are the shoes worth a lot of money?" Hawkins asked, his gaze locked onto her face once again.

"It cost me nearly twenty-five grand to get my hands on them. Gangster paraphernalia commands a high price these days. A few years back, Clyde Barrow's bloody shirt sold at auction for eighty-five thousand bucks." Suddenly registering the meaning behind his question, Lili hastened to add, "But he wasn't after the shoes. I had the shoebox with me, so if that was what he'd wanted, he could've easily just yanked them away from me."

"You held on to the box the entire time your assailant had you?"

Lili shrugged, and glanced toward the mangled box, its musty-smelling pink cardboard faded with age. "I guess I was too petrified to let go. Smashed the hell out of it, too, which makes me mad. That was the original shoebox. Very rare, you know."

Hawkins didn't look impressed. "Tell me exactly what happened after you walked to the edge of the stage."

Lili took a deep breath, seeing again in her mind's eye the dark blur rushing toward her. "I'd just sat down, and I was watching people walk down the aisles toward me. Out of the corner of my eye, this big dark shape caught my attention, mainly because it was moving so fast. I looked over and saw it was a man dressed all in black. For a second or so, I didn't think much of it, because artsy people often wear a lot of black. But when -"

She broke off, shivering at the memory, and how terror had hit her with such paralyzing intensity. Jared came to stand behind her, rubbing her shoulders soothingly. She smiled, patted his hand, then looked back at Hawkins. The bodyguard watched her and Jared with interest.

Lili knew what he was thinking, but didn't feel like correcting his assumption just yet.

"When I saw his face was covered by a black ski mask, I knew I was in trouble," she continued. "I tried to run, but he was too fast. He grabbed me and yanked me against him." Again, she ran her hands over her tender arms, a sense of violation and revulsion filling her. "Something cold touched my neck, and I knew it was a gun. That's when I sort of froze."

"Most people do. It's okay," Hawkins said--and only then did she realize her tone had been apologetic. "Go on. What happened next?"

"He told everybody to stay away or else he'd kill me." Angrily, she blinked away a fresh burn of tears. "He dragged me toward the emergency exit, the gun still shoved under my ear. I knew that if he took me through that door I was as good as dead...and I decided if he was going to kill me, he'd have to do it right there in front of all those people -"

Once again, she broke off, struggling to regain her composure as Jared continued to rub her shoulders. Hawkins waited with quiet patience.

"There was an off-duty cop in the auditorium...he'd brought his wife down for the lecture and, luckily for me, decided to stick around. He yelled an order to stop, that he was the police. I remember trying to turn and break free, but the man jabbed the gun into my neck really hard."

Hawkins glanced at her, taking in the angry red mark just under her jaw that would ripen into a nasty bruise by the next day. Self-conscious, she touched it, then clasped her hands together in her lap to keep her fists from clenching.

"All I remember next was feeling this burst of rage, and I started kicking and screaming and biting. I was not going through that exit, no matter what." She met Hawkins's expressionless gaze, but couldn't hold it. "At that point, he shoved me away and ran for the door. All these people were around, screaming and trying to get out of the way, and Officer Wheeler tackled him, knocking me down in the process. They fought...for a few seconds, maybe, then he kicked Officer Wheeler in the face and escaped."

She stopped. Silence filled the elegant suite, the moment stretching on.

"Then what?" Hawkins prompted.

With another glance at him, she murmured, "I don't know. I...fainted."

"You fainted?"

"Yes." She narrowed her eyes and squared her shoulders. "It was an unnerving experience, Mr. Hawkins, and I -"

He held up his hand in a calming gesture. "I'm only verifying you weren't knocked unconscious."

A blush heated her cheeks. "No, I just fainted. And when I came around again, all the excitement was over."

Until now, anyway. She eyed his suit coat, detecting the bulge of his holster now that she knew to look for it.

A sudden vision flashed to mind: the roar of guns, the stink of gunpowder. Bodies lying on the ground, leaking blood.

"Have you ever shot anyone?"

If her abrupt question surprised him, it didn't show. "If I have to discharge my firearm, then I've failed to do my job. I don't fail."

Not quite a yes or no answer--but probably the company-approved one. She supposed he thought it a comforting answer, anyway.

Excerpted from Her Bodyguard by Michelle Jerott. Copyright © 2001 by Michelle Jerott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.











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