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Chapter Three
One is Alone

"I [Matt] had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in Thee."
~ Psalm 84:10-12 ~

Matt spent the remainder of lunch in relative silence, only half listening to the chatter of his talkative coworkers. They had said nothing more of Mrs. Carter's deceased husband or her past, and quietly maintaining that she was none of his business, he hadn't asked anything further. He finished the food on his plate, the complementary glass of ice water, some breadsticks, all the while trying not to seem impatient by the frequent glances at his watch. Sylvia seemed oblivious to the time, her attention on the conversation instead of returning to the nursery. At last he could stand it no longer, and retrieved the hat under his chair.

Not catching the hint, Sylvia continued to talk.

"I think our lunch break might be up," Matt said.

She blinked her eyes and gave him a dismissing shrug. "We've got plenty of time."

Not believing her, Matt pushed away from the table. "I need to get back and finish stacking those manure bags. Thanks for the meal."

Sylvia looked mildly annoyed, but not too annoyed to give him an appraising glance as he stood up.

"See you later," Matt said, and left the restaurant as the two women continued to talk. He might have a lot to learn about the routines of the nursery, but he wasn't about to take the word of someone who appeared to be habitually late for everything. If Sylvia didn't mind getting their boss angry over a long lunch break, he did.

Tossing the tuna sandwich wrapper into the office waste basket, Beth flicked her eyes at the clock on the desk. He was late. It figured, since she had seen him leave with Sylvia and Amy. Beth unscrewed the cap of her bottled water. She had to give him credit, though. He hadn't complained about the steer manure.

Taking a drink, she replaced the cap and got to her feet. She put on a sunhat to guard her sensitive skin against sunburn and went outside. The nursery was empty of customers, had been all morning long. Spring was just around the corner, so where were her customers? She put on her work gloves. If things kept going this poorly, she would have to reduce some overhead. Such as wages. It hadn't helped that she'd taken on another employee, and she promised herself that Matt's was the last sob story she would fall victim to, little children or not.

Worried over more serious things besides lengthy lunch breaks, Beth rounded the back of the store, only to stop in her tracks.

The first thought that popped into her mind -- besides her initial surprise that Matt had returned after all -- was the fact he was without his shirt. Sun glinted off sweat as he moved, highlighting a tanned body used to outdoor labor. His face was half cast in shadow beneath the Stetson, but when he suddenly looked up, the dark eyes beneath its brim met her gaze full on.

For the second time that day, Beth found herself lost in a wide-awake dream.

"I'm almost finished," he said, breaking the silence. He mopped the sweat on his neck with the discarded T-shirt, then put the shirt on. "All I need is another five minutes."

"When you're done, pull the weeds around the back fence." Beth gave him instructions, and he nodded mildly, looking neither put upon nor indignant at being given such menial tasks. She thought she detected a hint of embarrassment in those deep brown eyes, but couldn't be sure. After that initial stare, he avoided her gaze altogether.

Beth went to the potting table to retrieve her trowel. She wondered what she had gotten herself into, by hiring Matt. It unnerved her the way he kept surprising her every time she turned around.

Trowel in hand, Beth went around to the side of the store to work on the potted roses just as Sylvia and Amy returned.

"Where have you two been?" Beth asked in as stern a tone as she could summon. "Do you know what time it is?"

Sylvia's casual laugh filled the loading yard. "It's not like we're holding up business, Beth. This place is as empty as we left it."

"That's not the point. You have one hour for lunch, no more. Did you know Matt is already hard at work, pulling weeds?"

"You've got him weeding? Why doesn't that guy ever complain? First the steer manure, and now this. Really, Beth, there's something deeply disturbing about him."

Beth thought Sylvia was right, but not in the mocking way Sylvia had meant.

"Don't change the subject. I'm struggling with this nursery as it is, without having to babysit you and Amy."

Amy startled a little upon hearing her name, and began to ease herself toward the store where she would stand duty over the cash register. Beth let her go without more of a warning, for she knew who had been responsible for the extended lunch break.

"All right, all right, I'm sorry." Peering over her dark sunglasses, Sylvia looked annoyed, but nothing more. Hardly penitent. "It won't happen again, Boss. Happy?"

"Ecstatic." Beth shot her friend a cautionary look, then returned to the roses. To her annoyance, Sylvia remained and leaned against the store siding to watch Matt in the distance.

"What do you know about him, Beth? Besides the obvious, I mean."

"Silvi, I'm not going to gossip."

"Why not?"

"I have better things to do, and so do you."

Sylvia's painted mouth spread in a smile, showing off her impossibly white teeth. "You're right." She patted Beth's shoulder, then sashayed in Matt's direction.

So Sylvia was adding another man to her collection, Beth thought bitterly as she saw her beautiful friend stop to flirt with Matt. Some women had any man they wanted for the asking, while other women had to make due with what they could get.

Unable to keep herself from watching, Beth saw Matt shake his head, then back away from Sylvia. He smiled politely, stooped to resume weeding the fence, and it seemed to Beth, ignored Sylvia's flirtation.

Beth would have gloated, except for the fact she hadn't expected Matt to show any character. It troubled her to know he had refused something she was all but ready to accept from Skip. Sure, Skip wasn't as tempting as Beth thought Sylvia had been to Matt, but the parallel stuck, refusing Beth to dismiss it from her conscience.

Apparently, Matt didn't sleep outside the marriage bed.

And she was about to.

A customer strolled into the nursery, needing Beth's advice about petunias. It came as a welcome distraction and she talked longer than she needed, discussing various plants and the weather. By the time the customer left empty-handed, Beth observed Matt working alone.

Sylvia had given up. For now.

Matt kicked off his boots, laughing as Ryan bent to pick them up, one by one. He had guessed his back would be sore after a day of hefting manure bags and pulling weeds, and he was already sure this evening wouldn't disappoint him. Even now, his muscles were aching their protest, demanding to know why he had put them to so much trouble. His body might have difficulty understanding, but Matt sure didn't. He had bills to pay, two brothers and a sister to look after. Those things wouldn't take care of themselves.

Ryan dumped the boots into the corner of the living room, then climbed onto the sofa with Matt. Matt propped his dirty socked feet on the coffee table and wiggled his toes. Even they hurt.

"I have got to find another job," Matt laughed half jokingly. He noticed Ethan sit up at attention in the nearby chair.

"Why?" Ethan asked. "Your boss giving you trouble?"

Matt expelled a breath of air. "Not exactly, but in a way, yeah. She keeps challenging me to quit, as though she expects me to throw up my hands and admit I can't handle the job."

Ethan scowled in relief. "That doesn't sound so bad."

"It wouldn't be, if that was all." Matt moved his arm as Ryan climbed onto his lap. "Mrs. Carter isn't married."

"So?" Ethan challenged him with an unsympathetic grin. "Deal with it, Matty. We need the money."

"I know." Matt did know, even better than Ethan, how much that was true. Still, the three women he worked with at the nursery were unmarried and looking. Looking at him. Looking as though he might suddenly drop to one knee and propose to one of them. Matt figured that's what women really wanted when it came down to it. A ring and a promise of happily-ever-after.

Pulling from Matt's arms, Ryan went to sit on the floor to scribble in a coloring book. The day pulsed through Matt's aching muscles, anchoring him to the sofa. He heavily leaned his head against the cushion, watched his brother play. Ryan had been the result of their mother's relationship with a loser she had picked up at some bar and brought home. The only good thing about the man, had been the fact he had helped to create Ryan. It didn't take long for Matt to relive the painful memories of fights with his mom; he felt himself grow angry, then forced himself to relax. He knew from experience anger would leave him exhausted, and he was tired enough as it was.

The smell of cooking food drifted in from the kitchen and Matt's stomach grumbled impatience. "How's it coming, Cass? Are you sure you don't need any help?"

"No, I can handle it." Cassie's voice sounded strained, and it took Matt some self control not to barge into the kitchen and take over the dinner preparations.

"Are you sure nothing's burning?" he called to her from the sofa.

"I'm sure. Relax, Matty, it'll be edible."

"I'll believe that, when I see it," Ethan said with a disbelieving laugh. "You should never have let her near the stove, Matty."

"She wanted to help out," Matt said in defense of his sister. "And I was tired enough to let her try. If it doesn't taste good, don't tease her about it. I appreciate the effort."

"Yeah, yeah." Ethan slid back in the worn upholstered chair with a textbook and propped his feet on the coffee table like Matt. "I'm just saying, we're all going to be sorry she wanted to help."

Ethan was proven half right, in that one side of dinner had turned to crusty black over the stove. But it was edible, as Cassie had promised, and thankfully, Ethan didn't tease her too much about it. Matt was so tired, he didn't feel like refereeing a shouting match, and was thankful when one didn't develop.

As soon as Matt's head hit the pillow that night, he fell into a sound, peaceful sleep. He had made it through his first full day at the nursery, and he still had a job.

It was all Beth could do to stop from pounding her fists on the steering wheel as she pulled up to the nursery. The morning sun had already come up and she had no difficulty seeing the graffiti slashed across the nursery store wall.

"Not again! Not again!" she shouted in frustration. She threw the car door open, got out, slammed it shut. She was in no mood for this. Skip had called to say he couldn't make it last night after all, and that meant she would have to go through all that guilt, afresh, tonight. Then to come to work and see this. It was too much.

A beat-up pickup drove into the mostly empty parking lot and easily found a vacant space. Matt stepped out, wearing his cowboy hat, a white T-shirt and scuffed boots. He pulled on his work gloves and stared at the nursery.

"What happened?" he asked, sauntering over to where she stood.

"What does it look like?" the words tumbled from her mouth in the form of an accusation.

An edge of warning flashed into his eyes, then disappeared. Beth wondered where he had put the anger.

"I'd say you were vandalized," he said finally.

"This has happened before," Beth said, her voice rising in anger. "Young punks like you trashed my store, killed half my plants and scrawled junk all over my walls. I don't suppose they're friends of yours?"

It wasn't a question, and Matt didn't answer. His stance stiffened, but he controlled himself to such a degree Beth felt a little foolish. But only a little.

"I'd better go inside and see the damage." Beth yanked out her keys, held them in her hand as though the mere fact of them calmed her. She had installed a new alarm system, and since the cops hadn't been called, the vandals probably hadn't broken inside the fenced loading yard that partially flanked the building's left side, or behind, where plant material was kept secure by a tall perimeter fence.

Not really expecting to find any damage inside the store, where security was tightest, she unlocked the door and went inside. Everything was as she had left it. Only one wall outside had been defaced, and that she could take care of without too much trouble. She would still have to report this to the police, but if the last time was any gauge, they wouldn't be able to do much except to promise to patrol the area more frequently.

She turned to Matt, who had followed behind her into the building. "Everything looks fine."

"Good." Matt nodded, his mouth drawn into a tight line.

"I... I suppose I owe you an apology," Beth said, hating the guilt she heard in her own voice. "I'm just so tired of those wild teenagers -- those trailer trash kids -- marking up everything in sight like animals urinating lines of territory."

The grim line on Matt's face deepened. "I'm not a teenager."

"You look like one." She had made her apology, and wasn't about to eat any more humble pie than she had to. "Go finish weeding the fence."

"Yes, ma'am." He tipped his hat, and strode out the door.

That young man. For some reason, he made her uneasy. And it simply wasn't because he came from the same kind of trash that kept vandalizing her store.

Maybe it was from guilt, maybe she was tired of trying to provoke him into quitting -- whatever the cause, Matt enjoyed hours of relative solitude without Beth closely overseeing everything he did. He worked out of sight in back of the nursery until noon, flexing the muscles that had stopped groaning when he got out of bed that morning.

Perhaps best of all, Sylvia didn't hang around, trying to flatter him with language he wished he hadn't heard. It didn't help his resolve to live life the way God wanted him to, but after fending off her advances, he felt a measure of power. He could survive these women. He still wanted to find another job, one that wasn't seasonal, but Matt no longer felt a sense of desperation. Confident that he was learning how to handle the situation God had placed him into, Matt poured his energies into the job. If Beth -- Mrs. Carter -- wanted him to sweep the nursery floor with a toothbrush, he would do it.

After that morning he felt confident enough to voice an objection, but he would do it.

Though her reasons for hiring Matt had been purely to ease her own conscience, Beth made a confession to her friend as they sat in Beth's office later that day.

"He's a good worker, Silvi."

Sylvia raised her brows, enjoyed one last draft of tobacco before extinguishing her end-of-the-day cigarette in the ashtray. "You sound surprised."

"I am." Beth didn't mind admitting it to Sylvia. "He doesn't get angry easily, and he stays out of trouble. I wish all my employees were as responsible."

Sylvia rolled her eyes. "Please, not another lecture on how I'm ruining my life. You're not any better, my dear. I know all about you and Skip."

"You do?" Beth didn't know why she should be so surprised. Her friend was a good observer, maybe too good.

The smirk on Sylvia's face was very unladylike. "Don't worry, Beth, I won't tell anyone. If your church friends found out, they might revoke your membership or something."

Beth dismissed the subject and moved on to another, but it wasn't until after Sylvia had left, that Beth allowed dread to settle in her heart. Sylvia had put it there, by treating Beth's plans with Skip as something clandestine. Something to be kept secret.

The office phone rang, and without thinking, Beth answered.

"When you didn't pick up at home, I thought you might still be at work," a masculine voice said with a chuckle.

"Skip, I was just thinking about you. About tonight--"

"I'm sorry, Beth," he interrupted, "but I can't make it. Something came up. You know how it is."

"Yes, I know." Beth tried not to betray any emotion.

"Maybe tomorrow," he said, searching for a fresh invitation. "I could come by after work."

"I don't know, Skip, I'm just not as sure anymore." Beth clutched the receiver to her ear. "I just need some time to work things out."

"I've been giving you nothing but time," Skip said, his voice sounding with impatience.

"I'm not the one who called to cancel tonight," Beth shot back. She rubbed her temple, realized a headache was brewing. "Call me tomorrow, Skip. I just don't feel like talking to you right now."

"Fine." Skip slammed down the receiver.

"What a day," Beth breathed weakly. Now she had to go home and face an empty life, an empty bed, and an empty heart.

Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she should just enjoy Skip, however long it lasted.

Home felt as alone as Beth had feared it would. Even after Bailey had struggled to get his old doggie self onto the bed, and curled up on the empty side of the mattress for the night, Beth still felt very alone. She petted Bailey's long fur, trying very hard to feel the presence of Luke through his dog.

Bailey had been Luke's, adopted as a gentle elderly dog from the animal shelter when she and Luke had learned she was pregnant. Oh, to relive those days again, when her son was alive and her only thought was potty-training and daycare.

"Caleb." The name whispered from her lips as though he were standing before her, his cherub face upturned to greet her. "Mommy loves you, Caleb." She wanted to get up, go into his room, touch his toys and remember his childish laughter. Instead, she clamped her eyes shut and tried to sleep.

It was almost spring. What had she expected? The hurt was always hardest to bear at this time of year, and she yearned for it to be over. The terrible anniversary loomed near, threatening to swallow her in grief once again.

Beth threw back the covers, got out of bed. She wouldn't haunt Caleb's room, only to melt into unconsolable tears. Not again. It only left her feeling despair, sharp and hungry despair, and still her arms would be empty.

Sensing disquiet, Bailey lifted his head to watch as she paced the room.

"I don't know how much more of this I can take, Bailey." She spoke to the labrador mix as though his large brown eyes saw her with complete understanding. "Why did God take them, and not me? Couldn't He have taken me with them? Did He have to leave me by myself, to endure this torture alone, Bailey?"

Bailey wagged his tail, hoping the mention of his name meant he was going to be petted, or at least get his ears scratched. But she kept walking, measuring out the bedroom with restless steps and distracted talk. He put his head down and went to sleep.

"I don't want to go through the rest of my life like this. I can't. I won't." Beth stopped her pacing, thought of the pills in the bathroom cabinet. If she hadn't been such a coward, she'd have done it long ago. But still the thought of what God might do to her, held her back. Suicide was a frightening word, as were the doubts that tumbled in about her whenever she thought of that way out.

Sobered, Beth sank onto the edge of the mattress. Too much of a coward to take her life, too scared to let Skip into her bed. What a mess, she thought, brushing back long tresses from her face. What was left? The nursery? Tending and selling plants hardly seemed a good reason to keep going, but for the moment, it had to be enough.

Standing, Beth went to the large walk-in-closet on one side of the bedroom. The nursery reminded her of Matt Taylor. He had survived his second day of work, and had a feeling he was there to stay the season out. The guy just refused to quit.

For the first time that night, Beth smiled.

She wondered if Luke's old nursery T-shirts would fit Matt. Luke had helped out at the store when he wasn't on call at the hospital, and she had bought shirts especially for him. Shirts with her nursery logo on the front, like the ones she and Sylvia and Amy wore -- only bigger, to accommodate the man wearing them.

Then Beth realized Matt was the first man to work at the nursery since Luke. The realization didn't settle her or make her feel good, especially as she dug around in Luke's clothing for those shirts. It felt as though she were betraying Luke somehow, by giving his "Bethy shirts," as he'd called them, to another man.

She found them neatly folded and stacked where Luke had left them, untouched since his death.

"What am I supposed to do, Luke? Hold on to your things forever? You aren't coming back, and neither is Caleb." The sound of her own words crushed Beth to her knees and the sobs she had fought so hard to keep away, descended in full force.

In the close darkness of the closet, Beth wept loudly.

The morning of his third day of work, Matt found a stack of green T-shirts on the checkout counter.

"They're for you," Mrs. Carter said with a quick nod, as she headed out with a clipboard tucked under her arm. "From now on, wear those when you come to work. Without the store logo, you don't look like you belong here."

"Really?" This surprised Matt, for he had thought he fit in fairly well, with his old jeans and cowboy hat. Then again, he was the only employee who didn't have "Beth's Garden Nursery" emblazoned across his chest. He picked up a neatly folded shirt, unfurled it and noted the slightly worn look of the material. No matter. It may have been used, but it was in better condition than the shirt currently on his back.

Taking the clothing to his truck, Matt pulled off his shirt, put on a "new" one, then returned to work with a hopeful spirit. Mrs. Carter had wanted him to look as though he belonged at the nursery. Maybe that meant she no longer wished him gone. Please, God, all he wanted was peace. Peace to do his job, to earn his paycheck and provide for his family.

Sylvia had work that kept her in the store that day, leaving the outdoor tasks to Mrs. Carter and Matt. He followed Mrs. Carter's instructions as they worked side by side at the potting table, transplanting short green plants into small plastic pots.

"These will go by the cash register," Mrs. Carter explained. For some reason, she seemed to need to talk, to keep the air filled with someone's voice. When she didn't speak, she adjusted her ridiculously large hat and kept clearing her voice as though she were coming down with a cold.

Matt subdued a groan of dismay. He'd just gotten Sylvia to leave him alone, surely Mrs. Carter wouldn't be next. The thought came to him that perhaps that was why Sylvia had backed off. To give her friend -- her boss -- a try at him next. That would explain the shirts, and the kinder treatment, if a mere lack of coldness could be called kindness.

"I'm hoping customers will want to give these pots as gifts." Mrs. Carter held a plain plastic container before her, her mouth pursed in thought. "Are your brothers and sister doing all right?"

The question seemed so out of place, here at work, hands deep in soil and the smell of earth filling his nostrils, that Matt considered a moment before answering. "Yes, ma'am, they're fine."

"And the little boy? I believe his name is Ryan? Is he happy?"

"Excuse me, Mrs. Carter," Matt straightened his shoulders, his voice stiffening as he spoke. "I'm grateful for this job, but I don't see how it's any of your business."

She dismissed the question with a quick shrug. "I was just wondering, that's all. I didn't mean to pry."

"I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, Mrs. Carter."

"You didn't."

"It's just that I'm so used to people asking questions, I've become gun-shy of good intentions."

"You don't need to explain, Matt," she said, momentarily flicking her gaze on him as she reached for a trowel. "The last time I saw Ryan, he was crying. I only wondered if he was all right."

"He's fine."

Mrs. Carter smiled, though Matt thought the smile looked somewhat forced. "You're very protective of him, aren't you."

Matt remained silent. He didn't quite know how to take her remark, a part of him sensing resentment. Why she should resent him, he had no idea.

"He's a very sweet little boy."

"Yes, he is." Matt held the pot as she dumped soil around the roots of the spindly young plant.

"I wonder if you know how lucky you are to have him," she said, packing the soil with gloved fingers. She nodded for him to tip the watering can over the dry earth.

"I'm blessed, and I know it," Matt said with an affirming nod. "That's why I do my best to protect him and the others."

Mrs. Carter's mouth parted in a most becoming way, pink and soft and even warm. When she glanced at him again, the resentment was gone, replaced by something Matt couldn't name. Admiration, perhaps, but Matt didn't think so highly of himself to believe that.

When the pink smile lingered for more than Matt felt comfortable, his previous concern returned.

"I see the shirts fit you," she said, motioning for the next pot.

Matt brought forward the next in line. "Yes, ma'am."

"I don't suppose I could talk you into bringing your family over for dinner sometime." She gave him a sidelong glance.

"No, ma'am." The words slipped out before Matt had a chance to consider his position as an employee; he owed her some kind of consideration for giving him this job, after all. But what kind of consideration and how much, he didn't know, only that he felt he was treading on tenuous ground.

Mrs. Carter laughed quietly, as though not at all surprised by his answer. "You're very independent, aren't you."

Another non-question Matt decided needed no answer. He set aside the plant, picked up the next empty pot.

"I'm not Sylvia, Matt. You don't have to avoid me too."

He looked at Mrs. Carter warily. He'd been warned about her, and something told him the warning was valid. The desperate vulnerability that flashed in those green eyes made him beware, as did her gaze, every time it fell to his lips as he spoke.

There was no doubt about it. He was stuck in a job with three lonely women, one of them being his boss.

"I'm not looking for anything but to stay out of trouble and to do my job, Mrs. Carter."

She packed the loose soil around another pitiful looking plant he couldn't name. "I can understand that," she nodded.

"I'm grateful for the work," he continued, "but if it comes with any strings attached, I'd appreciate it if you said so up front."

She shook her head. "There's no strings -- not if you don't want them."

"I don't."

"Then that's that." She smiled, motioned for another pot and let the conversation fall silent.

Beth scolded herself for speaking to Matt, and allowing herself to be caught in what had sounded like a thwarted attempt at seduction. She hadn't intended that at all, although she couldn't deny the thought hadn't crossed her mind.

Guilt seemed to be her lot in life, for it hounded her and gave her little respite, no matter what she did. The calendar on her office wall reminded her of it, and when that failed, the picture frame on her desk succeeded. Beth was growing desperate to forget.

More than once that day, she toyed with the idea of calling Skip. Not that he would come. After all the putting off, stalling, and pleading for more time, she guessed he'd let her suffer awhile before giving in. He'd come to her after his pride had healed, and then they'd get together as he'd always wanted.

Sitting in her office, staring at the frame on her desk, Beth suddenly jerked her head up when Matt's voice broke into her thoughts.

"What?" She looked at him with an almost impatient frown as he leaned against the door jamb. "What do you want?"

"I said I changed my mind. If you still want to invite my family to dinner, we'll come."

"May I ask why the sudden change of mind?"

Matt lifted a shoulder. "I figure I owe you something. I'm willing to accept your invitation to dinner, but only if it includes my family. I'm not coming alone."

She caught herself smiling. "I'm not chasing after you, Matt."

He seemed unfazed. "I'm just trying to be polite, Mrs. Carter. There's a lot of us Taylors, and you just look so--" he stopped short.

"Go on, Matt. How do I look?"

"I don't know." He shifted uncomfortably. "Lonely. You look lonely."

Swallowing back the tears that came too easily, Beth found herself powerless to deny his observation; he couldn't possibly know how right he'd been. She was so lonely, it hurt.

"Are you going to cry?" Matt looked somewhat horrified as she dabbed at the wetness gathering in her eyes.

"No, I'm just tired," she finally managed in a steady voice. "Would this Saturday evening be convenient? I'll write down the directions to my house before you get off work."

Matt sighed audibly. "Yeah, I guess it's all right." Looking as though he already regretted accepting the invitation, he tipped his hat, then strode out the store with his hands shoved into his pockets.

What he thought of her after that little display of tear-eyed weakness, only God and Matt Taylor knew.

"There is one alone [Beth], and there is not a second...

"Two are better than one... For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to [her] that is alone when [s]he falleth; for [s]he hath not another to help [her] up."
~ Ecclesiastes 4:8, 9, 10 ~

end of chapter
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