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New Beginnings-Chapter 1

Chapter One

The sun creeping over the horizon made the woodlands appear surreal. Eventually, beams of light filtered through the trees and resembled spotlights, lighting the way for early morning travelers. Lauren smiled as she lazily watched a doe and her fawns quietly grazing on tender new shoots of grass. Bird songs greeted the new day as the river babbled the harmony. Unlike the mess that was her life, the scene was one of peaceful tranquility…something she hoped would last for the entire two weeks of her vacation.

 

The lush green forest gave Lauren the necessary seclusion to rethink her life’s plan. Her drive to excel and to achieve in all that she undertook guided everything that Lauren undertook. Although, she was finding that once she attained her goal, the luster quickly faded. Work no longer held the excitement of discovery it once had; her thoughts were turning more and more toward finding a special someone and settling down. Lauren was tired of solitary meals and nights when her only companion was her pillow. The singles scene, along with many one-time dates that went nowhere, made her wonder if she might spend the rest of her life with only her research. Overall, Lauren had found herself hard pressed to find suitable companionship. It had never been high on her list of priorities to settle down. But now that she realized that it was what she wanted, it seemed out of reach. Her career, and the time her research demanded, left little opportunity to develop any type of lasting relationship. What free time Lauren did have her mother requisitioned in a relentless attempt to control her life. It would take a serious life change if she were ever to find the happiness and love she longed for. It was the reason she sought refuge in the small cabin and in its surroundings. There she always found the peace she needed.

 

“Well, at least I have the wildlife to keep me company.” She chuckled. “See you later. I’m going to have breakfast too.”

 

The doe raised her head, giving her a fleeting glance before she nudged her family to move deeper into the forest.

 

 

 

 

Coffee and a book in hand, Lauren returned to the small porch and slumped down on the well worn rocker. She always enjoyed reading but with all the demands on her time, she rarely finished more than one or two books a year. Now, she had the newest novels by Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson in the queue, along with a frivolous romance novel titled Love Found. Lauren brushed back the lock of light brown hair that had strayed over her forehead and partially obscured the words. She looked at the romance’s cover and sighed. If I can’t experience love for myself, at least I can read about it.

 

After pushing her glassed up her nose, she began reading chapter seven of Carolina Moon.

 

 

“God damned mother fucker.”When she heard a loud curse coming from the direction of the river, Lauren dropped her book and stood up while her mind was rushing through possible scenarios. The worst case...someone is drowning. Although she realized she might be putting herself in danger, she didn’t hesitate to jump down the three steps and begin a full out run to the river.

 

Lauren was only about half way to the river when she suddenly realized that all she was hearing was the sound of her own footsteps along the pathway. She stopped to listen.

 

Nothing.

 

There was nothing. She didn’t hear a bird, the wind through the trees, or any sound from the person in the river. A chill shot up her spine as she became aware that she might be too late. With a renewed urgency, she drove her five foot four inch frame quickly toward the river praying to God, that it wasn’t an escaped convict or someone equally as dangerous. When the river came into view, what Lauren saw astounded her.

 

Maggie Sullivan paddled furiously against the increasingly strong current. The river that had started out as calm and rolling was rapidly turning into white water. She was in real trouble. Shit. What an idiot I was to think this was a good way to find out if I still have what it takes to rise to a challenge. Her experience in difficult waters was limited, at best. The little knowledge she possessed did not include manipulating a canoe through swirling eddies or around jagged rocks. Arms screamed in pain. Maggie was certain that her depleted energy was no match for the danger she was in.

 

Short dark hair matted on her head and rivulets of sweat and spray obscured her view. She dared not brush them away. She needed both hands and all her concentration to try to steer the small vessel to safety on the riverbank. Where is help when you need it? Shit!

 

The rapidly moving water reached out and captured Maggie in its grip. The canoe rocked with abandon and Maggie feverishly dug the blade of the paddle deep into the water using ‘j’ strokes to keep the canoe upright. She was winning the battle until a jutting rock appeared and she pulled the paddle out of the water to push off it. The sudden motion was too much for the tenuous balance of the small vessel and Maggie found herself pitched from the canoe. As her body was about to hit the water, she let out a piercing cry that sent startled birds squawking from their nests before everything became a swirling mass of icy, foaming water dragging her under. Scraped and bruised by rocks and the river bed, Maggie fought her way back to the surface. She sucked in deep gulps of air as the empty swirling canoe continued down the stream. The nearest bank was ten feet away. Tired and weary arms protested each stroke that Maggie took toward the safety of the shore. After she clawed her way up the bank, she dragged her battered body onto the soft grass where she collapsed.

 

Maggie lay there collecting her thoughts while she gently moved her limbs to assess the damage. Relieved that her limbs seemed to be intact and functioning, she clenched her teeth and willed her tired, aching muscles to stand. She stretched her five feet seven inch body gingerly to work out the knots as she took stock of the numerous welts and cuts on her arms and legs, as well as a couple of painful slashes on her breasts that were no longer covered by her badly ripped shirt. Her wet shorts clung to long, tan legs. In one fluid motion, she shook the moisture covering her body away much as a dog shakes itself after a bath. Maggie looked up and found expressive hazel eyes gazing down at her.

 

≈≈

 

Lauren stood with her mouth opened wide. The shout that had drawn her to the river had come from a beautiful woman who was obviously in need of help. Lauren could see angry, bloody cuts and contusions over much of the woman’s body.”Are you okay” Of course, you’re not. Can I help you? What are you doing out here?”

 

“I thought it was a nice day for a swim. What the hell does it look like?”

 

“Sorry, that was a stupid question. You look banged up. Can I do anything to help?”

 

Maggie looked at the woman and smiled inwardly at her obvious nervousness. She is kind of cute. “Well, if you could lead me to a phone, it would be a big help.”

 

Lauren nodded and pointed through the woods. “My cabin is over that way. I have a cell you can use. Can you walk?”

 

Maggie grimaced as she stepped gingerly, in an effort to keep the tatters of her clothing from rubbing against the painful lacerations. Lauren screwed up her face and she gave the woman a fleeting smile. “Right behind you.”

 

Lauren’s heart was pounding. Her rule in life was caution first, and yet she was leading a stranger to her secluded cabin in the woods. Just because she’s a woman, doesn’t mean she can be trusted, does it? She looked over her shoulder and watched as the taller brunette wipe drops of water from her eyes. It was clear from her scowl that she was not only in pain, but very angry. “What happened?”

 

“Happened? That’s a stupid question. Haven’t you got eyes? The canoe dumped me into the goddamn water and I was lucky to get out in mostly one piece.”

 

Lauren felt her face burning. “Hey, those remarks are completely uncalled for. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m trying to help you. Sorry I asked.”

 

Maggie looked at the retreating back, kicking herself for taking out her frustration on the only person who was in a position to help. The woman didn’t deserve it. Too late to take the words back, she sighed heavily as she squished along, relieved when a cabin came into view. Great, now I can get out of this horrible wilderness and go home to a nice hot shower, warm clothes, and my own bed. So much for trying to prove to myself that I can still rise to a challenge. The faster I get out of here, the better.

 

Lauren opened the door and left it ajar for the other woman. She walked purposefully toward the table and her phone. I may have come here for solitude, but this brief intrusion has certainly been interesting. If the woman wasn’t such a bitch, I might have liked getting to know her better. She watched as her visitor braced herself against the door jamb and took off her shoes. She didn’t expect that. Once the woman was inside, Lauren handed her the cell phone.

 

“Thanks, “ Maggie said softly as she accepted the phone.

 

“You’re welcome.” Lauren, still miffed over the woman’s rude behavior, spoke coldly. “Just in case you need to leave a call back number, here it is.” She handed over the slip of paper before turning her gaze away from her unexpected guest.

 

Maggie punched in her friend Gale’s number and waited impatiently for her to pick up. As the ringing continued, Maggie paced in the small area. “For God’s sake, woman, pick up!”

 

Although Lauren had moved to a discreet distance, she smiled when she heard the pent up frustration in the woman’s voice. Now might be a good time to make coffee.

 

The phone buzzing in her ear, Maggie considered how quickly the day of intended personal discovery had gone so sour. Not only had she nearly drowned, but she was now stuck in the middle of nowhere and soaked to the skin with her clothes in tatters. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had no money or car keys to get home and Gale had picked that moment, her moment of need, to not be home. Maggie snapped the phone closed and turned around to see Lauren entering the cozy room with two steaming mugs of what she hoped was coffee.

 

“Hi...hmm, I’m sorry, I don’t know your name. I thought you might like some coffee. I can vouch for it warming you up.”

 

“I’d love some. I am pretty cold after the dunking I took. The name is Sullivan...Maggie Sullivan.”

 

“I wasn;t sure how you took your coffee, so it’s black.”

 

“Just the way I like it, thanks.” She hesitated a moment while she rearranged her attitude. “And, thanks for being so kind to me after I took my bad day out on you. I’m sorry.”

 

Lauren responded, “Don’t worry about it. I probably would have done much the same if I had gone through what you just did. I’m Lauren...Lauren Walker. Welcome to my home away from home, Maggie Sullivan.”

 

“Thank you. I couldn’t raise my friend to come pick me up. Guess I’ll have to try and make it back to the parking lot where I left my car and get some help there to get downstream and try and retrieve my canoe.”

 

Maggie’s statement was calm enough, but Lauren saw the exasperation in the woman’s face. “Sorry, my Land Rover is being serviced or I’d offer to take you home. You can stay here if you want, until we can get you some transportation. I have the room. I think I can find you something else to wear. Not that your outfit isn’t attractive, in a primitive kind of way,” she said with a teasing smile. “Still, I bet you would feel better with a hot shower and dry clothes.”

 

Maggie smiled. “That sounds wonderful.” In another time and under different circumstances, she might have asked the women to join her, but this just wasn’t the time. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”

 

“No trouble at all. Follow me to the bathroom and I’ll get you some clean towels.”

 

≈≈

 

Lauren rifled through the dark oak chest in the extra bedroom, trying to locate something for the woman in her shower to wear. She was hoping one of the visitors to the cabin over the years had left behind clothes that would be close to the right size...so far her search had come up empty. She heard the water shut off before she found something suitable. Near the bottom of the trunk, she finally came across just what she had been looking for and pulled them out of the drawer. Yes, sweats.

 

Lauren found Maggie sitting in front of the fire with only a towel around her. To her surprise, the fire was crackling. A small smile edged over her lips as she noted the look of pure pleasure on Maggie’s face as she thawed out in front of the fire. It looked...romantic and inviting.

 

Reluctant to move past the moment, Lauren nevertheless cleared her throat, when Maggie turned to look at her, she held up the clothing. “I found you some sweats to wear, and a pair of wool socks.” With a smile, she handed the items to the woman seated by the fire. “How did you get that fire going? I tried forever this morning and nothing, and here you have it well on its way to blazing. What’s your secret?”

 

The woman laughed. “You had it all ready; I just struck the match.” She took the offered clothes and smiled. “Thanks.”

 

Lauren’s return smile froze into shock as Maggie, without modesty, peeled off the towel to reveal a muscled torso with perfectly proportioned breasts. The nipples, a dark shade of brown in contrast to the creamy breasts, were peaked from the change in temperature. Lauren turned her eyes away, but they kept drifting toward the nude body. In her medical practice, she had seen naked woman, plenty of them, but to have one so attractive standing in her living room caught her totally off guard. After Maggie tugged the shirt over her head she ran her hand over the tightly clinging fabric.

 

Lauren’s heart was racing and she was having difficulty catching her breath. She was amazed at her reaction, unable to recall when, if ever, she’d had such a strong response to seeing someone’s naked body. Have I been alone that long? “Sorry that the clothes don”t fit better,” she offered.

 

“Hey, no problem. They’re better than what I was wearing, don”t you think?”

 

“Considering what you had on, I would say it’s a vast improvement.” Her voice went from playful to serious. “Would you like me to look at the scrapes and cuts you got? Some of them looked pretty nasty. It’s been a while since I dressed a wound, but I’m confident that I remember how.”

 

“Are you in the medical profession, Lauren?”

 

“Yes, I’m a medical doctor. Right now I’m on the research side, specializing rheumatoid arthritis. I rarely have to treat injuries. What do you do, Maggie?”

 

Maggie deliberately ducked the question. “I would appreciate you looking at some of them When the water from the shower hit them they got my attention.”

 

“Fortunately, I always keep my medical bag with me when I come to the cabin.” Lauren smiled. “Just in case I ever need it...you’re the first. Be right back.”

 

“A doctor who takes her little black bag on vacation...isn’t that some sort of sin?”

 

Lauren laughed. “Yes, it is, so please don’t report me to the AMA,” she said as she left the room.

 

Maggie looked around the homey cabin. There was the door to the bathroom, two partially opened doors that she supposed were bedrooms, and off to one side was a small kitchen. The furniture was typical cabin decor with a well worn couch, two arm chairs, and a maple coffee table along with two end tables. Tucked away in one corner she saw a round oak dining table and four chairs. There was something special about the ambience place. It said, ‘Welcome, you’re home.’ A sense of peace that she hadn’t had for some time washed over her.

 

“Okay, I have the bandages and antiseptic. Shall we take a look?”

 

“You will be gentle, won’t you?”

 

“I haven’t had anyone complain about my technique yet, but I’ll let you be the judge.” Lauren found the thought of touching Maggie very appealing and somewhat frightening. “So, tell me, Maggie, where does it hurt?”

 

“Actually, I think the ones on my breasts are the worst, although when I showered, I did notice a bad scrape on my leg.”

 

“Okay, take off the shirt and let’s look at those first.”

 

Maggie pulled off her shirt, grimacing at the pain. “I want you to know that I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. When you’re done I will call my friend again and be out of your hair soon.”

 

“I’I don’t mind, really I don’t. It’s nice to have the company.” With trembling hands, she gently wiped a betadine solution over the nasty looking cuts. It was impossible not to notice the swell of the nipples. Nothing in her experience had prepared Lauren for the emotional upheaval she was feeling. God, what is going on with me? Am I so lonely that I’m trying to reach out to someone...anyone?

 

Maggie was finding it difficult to keep her hands to herself. Lauren’s touch was gentle and it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine the skilled hands roaming over her body. I wonder what it would be like to make love with her. Those hands could touch me anywhere, anytime. She consciously reined in her libido. Get control of yourself, Sullivan. You’d think you were some horny kid.

 

“These cuts aren’t all that deep. I’m going to put some butterfly bandages on them to minimize scarring. When you get home, you should contact your doctor and have them looked at. Considering where you were when you got them, there’s the possibility of infection no matter how much I’ve cleaned them out. You’d be amazed at how one small bit of dirt can begin to fester weeks later.” Lauren’s attention turned to Maggie’s leg. “The cut on your leg will probably need stitches. I can put a butterfly on it, or I can sew it up for you....your choice.”

 

“How many stitches do you think I’ll need?”

 

“Three or four at the most, the cut is deep rather than wide.”

 

“Then stitch away. I am yours to do with as you please.” Maggie closed her eyes, mentally chiding herself for the wayward thoughts running through her mind. Half an hour later, Maggie’s leg had a neat row of four stitches.

 

“Did I hurt you?”

 

“You have a very gentle way, Lauren. You can be my doctor anytime. Thanks for taking care of me. I really appreciate all that you’ve done today.”

 

Two pair of eyes...one hazel, one blue...locked. Silence pervaded the room for a few minutes until the women heard a rumbling sound, like the beginnings of a thunderstorm.

 

Lauren’s eyes rested on Maggie’s growling stomach.

 

Maggie pressed her hand to her stomach in hopes that the sound would stop, but the growling got louder. A self-conscious smile along with a rising blush colored her face.

 

“Would you like something to eat?” Lauren offered with a grin, her eyes twinkling.

 

“Oh, did you get my subtle hint? Thanks.”

 

“Was that your stomach? I’m shocked. I thought it was about to rain.” Lauren winked at Maggie before she laughed. “Why don’t I fix us some dinner? I have steak, potatoes, and broccoli.” Still chuckling, Lauren headed for the kitchen. This is turning out to be fun. Strange how life works.

 

Maggie grimaced slightly at the word broccoli. “Sounds wonderful. Do you need any help?”

 

≈≈

 

The kitchen was too small for the both of them, so Maggie set the table and tended to the fire as Lauren prepared dinner. Glimpses of the small woman in the kitchen brought unfamiliar warmth to Maggie’s heart. This is turning out to be a fabulous day.

 

Lauren had a satisfied smile on her face as she looked at the meal on the table. “You ready to eat?” she asked her house guest who was standing by the fire.

 

“Yes. It sure smells good.” Maggie made the short journey to the table. “Where do you want me to sit?”

 

“Right here will be good.” Lauren patted a chair and smiled. “Name your poison...you have a choice of coffee, tea, soda, or beer.

 

“Beer sounds good.” Sitting at the table, Maggie swallowed the broccoli as quickly as possible. With the day I’ve had, why not the one tasteless vegetable I really hate. The rest is great, though. While picking up her glass of beer, she discreetly looked at Lauren.

 

Lauren was gazing back at her. “May I ask what brought you and your canoe to Warwick and this particular stretch of river? I can”t recall anyone ever coming this far down; the rocks are extremely dangerous here.” Her eyebrows scrunched together. “Didn’t they warn you about the rapids?”

 

Maggie was tempted to answer sarcastically. But as she looked into the friendly, interested hazel eyes, she changed her mind. “I had a free weekend before I start a new job. Probably won’t have much time for anything but business after I start in five days. I just found an access and put my canoe in the water. I didn’t see anyone else. Guess that should have been my first clue.”

 

“I thought they had warnings posted all along the bank.” Lauren shrugged. “What does your new job involve? Do you live near here?”

 

Maggie didn’t want to share any specifics about her life with Lauren. Maybe she wouldn’t want to know me if she knew what I do. She ducked the questions by posing one of her own. “How come you’re out here alone? It is a little desolate.” She gave Lauren an appraising glance. “I’d think you’d be here with a husband or boyfriend, or a significant other.”

 

Lauren decided to ignore the comment. “The cabin belongs to my family. I make it a practice to come here for two weeks every year to renew and recharge.”

 

“Ah, the Thoreau experience.”

 

“You tell me. Did the river remind you of Walden Pond? Seriously, this year there’s a twofold reason to be here. My uncle died recently and left me his business. I decided to check it out before I sell it.”

 

“Do you want to sell?”

 

Lauren laughed before she let out a long sigh. “My mother wants me to sell. She said it’s not the business for me. It has been in the family for as long as I can remember, though. My uncle was very special to me and partly responsible for my decision to go into medical research. He had rheumatoid arthritis and I really wanted to find a cure and end his suffering.”

 

“Why not make up your own mind about selling, then? Life is too short, Lauren. Regardless of what your mother says, do what makes you happy.”

 

“I’m trying to decide what that is.”

 

“What kind of business is it?”

 

“Would you believe it is one of the oldest, continuously operating, general stores? The place is disorganized, but if you want something, you would most likely find it there eventually. My uncle prided himself on having anything and everything. And, he did.”

 

Maggie saw the wistful look on Lauren’s face as she spoke lovingly of the store and her uncle. “I would like to see the store. Is it in town?”

 

“Yes you can’t miss it since it is the only one in town.”

 

“From the picture you paint, it sounds like a wonderful store. Why on earth would you want to sell it, Lauren? Sounds to me like you ought to keep it.”

 

“My mother would be livid if I didn’t sell.” Lauren knew as she said the words, what the other woman would think. The biggest mystery...why she was telling a complete stranger about the store or her mother.

 

“Mommy’s girl, huh?” Maggie couldn’t stop her condescending words. In a fluid motion she got up and walked the few steps to the fireplace refusing to look in Lauren’s direction.

 

The tone and delivery and not the words made Lauren see red. After scraping back her chair, she walked briskly over to the other woman and spun her around. “What the hell would you know about it?”

 

“I know enough to know you don’t want to sell.”

 

“Maybe I don’t, but it really isn’t any of your business.”

 

“When you told me about the store, your mother and selling it became my business. It is obvious you don’t want to sell your uncle’s store so why are you?”

 

Lauren sucked in a breath. “Sometimes it is easier to go with the flow than cause upheaval.”

 

“At what cost, Lauren?”

 

With her shoulders slumping, Lauren sat in a nearby chair. “My mother and I have had an adversarial relationship for a very long time.” Her eyes met Maggie’s. “I haven’t a clue why I’m telling you this.”

 

Maggie rubbed her chin. “What do you mean?”

 

“Because, you are a complete stranger and never in my life have I ever told even those closest to me about me and my mother.”

 

“Perhaps it is time to let it go. I’d like to hear about why you want to sell the store that obviously means so much to you.”

 

For a long time Lauren’s eyes watched the flames dancing in the fireplace. “You’re right I don’t want to sell my uncle’s store. I love him and that store.” She shook her head. “My mother will keep on me until I sell and there is nothing I can do to stop her.”

 

“You can stand your ground, Lauren. I don’t see you as someone who compromises.”

 

A slight smile wreathed Lauren’s lips. “I’m not.”

 

“Except when it comes to your mother?”

 

“Yeah, something like that. If you met my mother you’d know what I mean. She is not someone who...”

 

The intrusive sound of a cell phone ringing had both women looking in its direction.

 

Drawing a deep breath, Lauren got up and walked toward the small table where her cell phone was. “That’s probably your friend.” She flipped open the phone, “Hello.” She smiled and handed Maggie the phone.

 

“Hey,” she said softly. “Yeah, it was quite an adventure. My canoe capsized. I was lucky to get out in mostly one piece... Wait I’ll find out. Lauren what road is near here?”

 

“Fifty-one.”

 

“It’s highway fifty-one...That close...How soon...What do you want me to do, sprint in the dark....Yep, I’ll be there. Bye.”

 

Maggie closed the phone and glanced at Lauren. “That was my friend Gale. She already passed the road and has to turn around. Her best estimate as to time was that she didn’t know.”

 

“Why don’t you call her back and I can give her directions?”

 

Maggie shrugged. “She’s not all that familiar with this area so it will be easier for her if I wait for her on the highway.”

 

“It gets pretty dark out here at night. Let me get a flashlight and I’ll walk with you to the road and then wait until your friend arrives.”

 

Maggie looked at Lauren. She didn’t want to leave. There was something in the way Lauren spoke about her mother that compelled Maggie to want to know more. “Lauren, when I get home, can I call you? I’d like to thank you for rescuing me. Maybe we can go to dinner.”

 

Lauren looked into the cool, focused blue eyes, and smiled. “Sure, I’d like that. Right let me get the flashlight while you put your shoes on.”

 

Maggie retrieved her shoes from the porch, pulled them on and waited by the door. The cold dampness surrounding her feet made her shiver.

 

“I’ve got the flashlight. I think you should call your friend back so I can find out where she is and give her landmarks so if she gets there before we do, she won’t drive past by the dirt road that leads to my cabin.”

 

“Sounds like a good plan to me.”

 

Lauren took a notepad from a drawer in an end table and jotted down her number. “Here’s my number if you want to call.”

 

“Count on it.” Maggie held up the paper. “Now I have it twice.”

 

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Right I gave it to you before didn’t I?”

 

≈≈

 

Maggie squished as they walked along the path to the highway. “This is awfully narrow to be a driveway.”

 

Lauren laughed. “You’re right but my Range Rover gets me to the cabin.” Lauren handed the woman her phone.

 

“You need to call your friend.”

 

“Okay.” Maggie took the phone and dialed Gale’s number. “Where are you now...Yeah, sounds good. The woman who rescued me wants to talk to you so you’ll find me...Okay, here she is.”

 

“Hi, Gale, I’m Lauren. Where are you exactly...Good that means you are exactly five miles from the road to my cabin....You will see a mailbox that looks like a fishing boat. That’s where we will be...We should be there before you...Okay see you then.”

 

“I take it she is close by.”

 

“Yep.” Lauren focused the beam of light from the flashlight ahead of them. “There’s the road and she’s five miles away. Great timing.”

 

While they waited, Maggie paid no attention to the road and kept her gaze on the woman next to her. “I will call you.”

 

Lauren smiled. “I hope you do, Maggie.” Her eyes saw the glow of headlights. “That must be your friend.”

 

When Maggie saw Gale’s SUV, she frowned. I sure would like to stay here and talk with Lauren more. “Yep, that’s her.” Just as the vehicle rolled to a stop, Maggie leaned in and kissed Laruen’s cheek. “Thank you for everything. I’ll be in touch.”

 

As the SUV moved away, Lauren placed her palm on her cheek. “I hope you do call."

 

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Find the sequel, Atonement, here.

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