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Three French Hens
Brinna Atherton & Royce Thurleah
Apr 10, 2012
Previously published in the print anthologies Five Gold Rings and A Historical Christmas Present.
Brinna, a twelfth-century scullery maid, gets the chance to play a lady—and win the true love of an impoverished lord. Her fate changes when a new guest, Lady Joan, arrives at the castle. Desperate to escape her arranged marriage to Royce of Thurleah, Joan suggests that look-alike Brinna take her place at the Christmas festivities. Suddenly, Brinna finds herself being wooed by a true gentleman, getting perhaps the best Christmas present of all: a new life. A classic novella from New York Times bestselling author Lynsay Sands.
Three French Hens
Chapter One Menton Castle December 24, 1155 "Ye'd best set that aside and wipe yer hands, girl. Cook'll be wantin' ye in a minute." "Hmm?" Brinna glanced up from the pot she had been scrubbing and frowned slightly at the old woman now setting to work beside her. "Why?" "I was talkin' to Mable ere I came back to the kitchen and she says one o' them guests his lordship brought with him don't have no maid. Fell ill or something and they left her at court." "So?" "Sooo, Lady Menton sent Christina in here to fetch a woman to replace her," she said dryly, and nodded toward the opposite end of the kitchens. Following the gesture, Brinna saw that Aggie was right. Lady Christina was indeed in the kitchen speaking with Cook. A rare sight that. You were more like to find the daughter of the house with her nose buried in one of those musty old books she was forever dragging about then sniffing near anything domestic. It had been a bone of contention between she and her mother since the girl's return from the convent school. "I still don't see what that's to do with me," Brinna muttered, turning to frown at the older woman again and Aggie tut-tutted impatiently. "I didn't raise ye to be a fool, girl. Just look about. Do you see any likely Lady's maids 'sides yerself?" Letting the pot she had been scrubbing slide down to rest on the table before her, Brinna glanced around the kitchen. Two boys ground herbs with mortar and pestle in a corner while another boy worked at the monotonous task of turning a pig on it's spit over the fire. But other than Lady Christina and Cook, she and Aggie were the only women present at the moment. The others were all rushing about trying to finish preparations for the sudden influx of guests that Lord Menton had brought home with him. Aggie herself was just returning from one such task. "From what I heard as I entered they've settled on ye as the most likely Lady's maid," Aggie murmured. "Mayhap they'll send you now yer back," Brinna murmured. "That would make a nice change fer ye." "Oh aye," Aggie said dryly. "Me runnin' up an' down those stairs, chasin' after some spoilt little girl. A nice change that... Here it comes," Aggie added with satisfaction as Lady Christina left and Cook turned toward them. "Brinna!" "See. Now, off with ye and make me proud." Releasing her breath on a sigh, Brinna wiped her hands dry on her skirts and hurried to Cook's side as she returned to the table she had been working at before Lady Christina's arrival. "Ma'am?" "Lady Christina was just here," the older woman announced as she bent to open a squirming bag beneath the table. "Aye, ma'am. I saw her." "Hmm." She straightened from the bag, holding a frantically squawking and flapping chicken by it's legs. "Well, it seems one of the Lady's maids fell ill and remained behind at court. A replacement is needed while the girl is here. You're that replacement." "Oh but, well you are awful short-staffed at the moment and-" "Aye. I said as much to Lady Christina," she interupted dryly as she picked up a small hatchet with her free hand. "And she suggested I go down to the village in search of extra help... Just as soon as I dispatch you to assist the Lady in question." "But- Oh nay, ma'am, I never could. Why I can't. I..." "You could, you can, and you will," Cook contradicted, slamming the bird she held on the table with enough force to stun it, stilling it for the moment necessary for her to sever it's head from it's body with one smooth strike of her ax. Pushing the twitching body aside, she wiped her hands on her apron, then removed it and set it aside before catching Brinna's elbow in her strong hand and directing her toward the door. "Ye've been a scullery maid under me now for ten of yer twenty years, Brinna, and I've watched ye turn away one chance after another to advance up the servants ranks. And yet God has seen fit to send ye another, and if you think to turn this away for yer Dear Aggie's sake-" She paused and rolled her eyes skyward at Brinna's gasp of surprise. "Did ye think I was so dense I'd believe ye actually enjoying washing pans all day every day? Or did ye think I was too blind to notice that ye start afore the others have risen and stay at it until well after they've quit for the night in an effort to cover the fact that Aggie has slowed down in her old age?" Sighing, she shook her head and continued forward, propelling Brinna along with her. "I know you are reluctant to leave Aggie. She raised ye from a bairn, mothered ye through chills, colds and childhood injuries. And I know too that ye've been the best daughter a woman could hope for, mothering and caring for her in return these last many years. Covering for her as age crept over her making the job too hard for her old body. But, ye needn't have bother. I am not so cruel that I would throw an old woman out on her duff after years of faithful service because she can not work as she use to. She does her best, as do you and that leaves me well satisfied." "So..." Pausing, she eyed her grimly. "If you don't accept this opportunity to prove yourself and maybe move up the ranks through it, I'll swat ye up the side of the head with me favorite ladle. And don't think I won't. Now," She turned her abruptly, showing Brinna that while she had been distracted by her words, Cook had marched her out to the Great Hall and to the foot of the stairs leading to the bed chambers. "Get ye upstairs and be the best Lady's maid ye can be. It's Lady Joan Laythem, third room on the right. Get to it." She gave her a little push and Brinna stumbled up several steps before turning to glance down at the woman uncertainly. "Ye'll really keep Aggie on despite her being a bit slower than she used to be?" "I told you so, didn't I?" Brinna nodded, then cocked her head. "Why're ye only telling me now and not sooner?" Surprise crossed the other woman's face. "What?! And lose the best scullion I've ever had? Why it would take two women to replace you. Speaking of which, I'd best get down to the village and find half a dozen or so girls to help out while the guests are here. You get on up there now and do your best." Nodding, Brinna turned away and hurried above stairs, not slowing until she reached the door Cook had directed her too. Pausing then, she glanced down at her stained and threadbare skirt, brushed it a couple of times in the vain hope that some of the stains might be crumbs she could easily brush away, then gave up the task with a sigh and knocked at the door. Hearing a muffled murmur to enter, she pasted a bright smile on her lips, opened the door and stepped inside the room. "Oh fustian!" Those snarled words preceded the crash of a water basin hitting the floor as Lady Joan bumped it while dragging off her glove. Stamping her foot, the girl gave a moan of frustration. "Now look what I have done. My hands are so frozen they will not do what I want and-" "I'll tend it, m'lady." Pushing the door closed, Brinna rushed around the bed toward the mess. "Why don't you cozy yerself by the fire fer a bit and warm up." Heaving a sigh, Lady Laythem moved away to stand by the fire as Brinna knelt to tend to the mess. She had set the basin back on the chest and gathered the worst of the soaked rushes up to take them below to discard when the bedroom door burst open and a pretty brunette bustled into the room. "What a relief to be spending the night within the walls of a castle again. I swear! One more night camping by the roadside and-" Spying Brinna's head poking up curiously over the side of the bed, the woman came to a halt, eyes round with amazement. "Joan! What on earth are you doing on the floor?!" "Whatever are you talking about, Sabrina? I am over here." Whirling toward the fireplace, the newcomer gasped. "Joan! I thought-" She turned abruptly back toward Brinna as if suddenly doubting that she had seen what she thought she had. She shook her head in amazement as Brinna straightened slowly, the damp rushes in her hands. "Good Lord," she breathed. "Who are you?" "I-I was sent to replace Lady Laythem's maid," Brinna murmured uncertainly. This news was accepted with silence, then the brunette glanced toward Lady Laythem who was now staring at Brinna with a rather stunned expression as well. "It is not just me," the cousin said with relief. "You see it too." "Aye," Lady Joan murmured moving slowly forward. "I did not really look at her when she entered, but there is a resemblance." "A resemblance!?" the other girl cried in amazement, her gaze sliding back to Brinna again. "She is almost a mirror image of you, Joan. Except for that hair, of course. Yours has never been so limp and dirty." Brinna raised a hand self-consciously to her head, glancing around in dismay as she realized that the ratty old strip of cloth that usually covered her head was gone. Spying it lying on the floor, she bent quickly to pick it up, dropping the rushes so that she could quickly replace it. The cloth kept the hair out of her face while she scrubbed pots in the steaming kitchen and half hid the length of time between baths during the winter when the cold made daily dips in the river impossible. She, like the rest of the servants, had to make do with pots of water and a quick scrub for most of the winter. The opportunity to actually wash her hair was rare during this season. "She does look like me, does she not?" Lady Laythem murmured slowly now, and hearing her, Brinna shook her head. She herself didn't see a resemblance. Lady Joan's hair was as fine as flaxen and fell in waves around her fair face. Her eyes were green, while Brinna had always been told her own were gray. She supposed their noses and lips were similar, but wasn't really sure. She had only ever seen her reflection in the surface of water and didn't believe she was near the loveliness of Lady Laythem. "Aye." The cousin circled Brinna, inspecting every inch of her. "She could almost be your twin. In fact, had she been wearing one of your dresses and not those pitiful rags, you could have fooled me into thinking she was you." Lady Laythem seemed to suck in a shaky gasp at that, her body stilling briefly before a sudden smile split her face. "That is a brilliant idea, Sabrina." "It is?" The brunette glanced at her with the beginnings of excitement, then frowned slightly. "What is?" "That we dress her up as me and let her take my place during this horrid holiday." "What?!" Brinna and Sabrina gasped as one, then Sabrina rushed to her cousin's side anxiously. "Oh, Joan, what are you thinking of?" "Just what I said." Smiling brightly, she moved to stand in front of Brinna. "It will be grand. You can wear my gowns, eat at the high table with the other nobles. Why, ' twill be a wonderful experience for you! Aye. I think it might actually even work. Of course, your speech needs a little work, and your hands-" When she reached for her callused and chapped hands, Brinna put them quickly behind her back and out of reach as she began to shake her head frantically. "Oh, nay. 'Tis sorry I am m'lady, but I couldn't be takin' yer place. Why, it's a punishable offense fer a free woman to pass herself off as a noble. Why they'd- Well, I'm not sure what they'd do, but tis sure I am 'twould be horrible." "Do you think so?" Lady Laythem glanced toward her cousin questioningly, but found no help there. Her cousin was gaping at them both as if they had sprouted a third head between them. Sighing, Joan turned back to beam at Brinna reassuringly. "Well, it does not matter. 'Twill not be a worry. If you are discovered, I shall simply say 'twas all my idea. That 'twas a jest." "Aye, well..." Eyes wide and wary she began backing away. "I don't think-" "I will pay you." Pausing, she blinked at that. "Pay me?" "Handsomely," Joan assured her, then mentioned a sum that made Brinna press a hand to her chest and drop on to the end of the bed to sit as her head spun. With that sum, Aggie could retire. She could wile away the rest of her days in relative comfort and peace. Aggie deserved such a boon. "Joan!" Dismay covering her face, Sabrina hurried forward now. "Whatever do you think you are doing? You can't have this..this maid impersonate you!" "Of course I can. Don't you see? If she is me, I won't have to suffer the clumsy wooing of that backwoods oaf my father is determined to marry me off to. I may even find a way out of this mess." "There is no way out of this mes- Marriage. It was contracted when you were but a babe. It is-" "There is always a way out of things," Joan insisted grimly. "And I will find it if I just have time to think. Having her pretend to be me will give me that time. I would already have figured a way out of it if father had deigned to mention this betrothal ere he did. Why, when he sent for me from court, I thought, I thought.... Well, I certainly did not think it was simply to ship me on here so that some country bumpkin could look me over ere a marriage I did not even know about." "I understand you are upset," Sabrina murmured gently. "But you have yet to even meet Royce of Thurleah. He may be a very nice man. He may be-" "He is a lesser Baron of Lord Menton's. He was the son of a wealthy land baron some fifteen years ago when my father made the betrothal, but his father ran the estate into the ground and left his son with a burdensome debt and a passel of trouble. He made a name for himself in battle while in service to the King, then retired to his estates where he is said to work as hard as his few vassals. He does not attend court, and does not travel much. In fact, he spends most of his time out there on his estate trying to wring some profit from his land." Sabrina bit her lip guiltily, it was she herself who had gained all this information for Joan during the trip here from court. It had been easy enough to attain, a question here, a question there. Everyone seemed to know and respect the man. She pointed that out now, adding, "And he is succeeding at the task he has set for himself. He is slowly rebuilding the estate to it's original glory." "Oh aye, with my dower, Thurleah shall no doubt be returned to it's original wealth and grandeur... In about five, maybe ten years. But by the time that happens I shall have died at childbirth or be too old to enjoy the benefits. Nay. I'll not marry him, cousin. This is the first time in my nineteen and a half years that I have even set foot outside of Laythem. I have dreamed my whole life that someday things would be different. That I would marry, leave Laythem, and visit court whenever I wish it. I will not trade one prison for another and marry a man who stays on the estate all the time, and will expect me to work myself to death beside him." "But-" Sabrina glanced between her cousin and Brinna with a frown. "Well, can you not simply go along with meeting and getting to know him until you come up with a plan to avoid the wedding? Why must you make the girl take your place?" "Because 'twill give me more time to think. Besides, why should I suffer the wooing of a country bumpkin who probably does not even know what courtly love is? Let him woo the maid. His coarse words and ignorant manners will no doubt seem charming to her after the rough attentions she probably suffers daily as a serf." "I am a free woman," Brinna said with quiet dignity. But neither woman seemed to hear, much less care about what she had to say as Sabrina frowned, her eyes narrowing on Joan. "I have never said anyone called Thurleah a country bumpkin or said his manners were poor." "Did you not?" Joan was suddenly avoiding her cousin's gaze. "Well, it does not matter. Someone did, and Brinna here can save me from all that by taking my place." "Nay. She can not," Sabrina siad firmly. "It would not work. While you are similar in looks you are not identical. She is even an inch or two taller than you." "You are right, of course. And if father were here I would never dare try it, but it's almost providential that he fell ill and had to remain behind at court. No one here has seen me before except for Lord Menton on the journey here and then I was bundled up in my mantle and hood, with furs wrapped around me to keep warm. The only thing he saw was my nose poking out into the cold and she has the same nose. The same is true of Lady Menton when we arrived. She greeted us on arrival but 'twas only for a mere moment or two and I was still all bundled up." "Mayhap, but what of the difference in height?" Joan shrugged. "I was on my horse most of the journey and no doubt my mantle adds some height to me. They will not notice. It will work." "But she is a peasant, Joan. She does not know how to behave as a lady." "We will teach her what she needs to know," Joan announced blithely. "You expect to instill 19 years worth of training into her in a matter of hours?" Sabrina gasped in disbelief. "Well..." The first signs of doubt played on her face. "Perhaps not in hours. We can claim that I am weary from the journey here and wish to rest in my room rather than join the others below for dinner tonight. And I shall tutor her all evening." At the other girl's doubtful look, she gestured impatiently. "It is not as if I must teach her to run a household or play the harp. She need only walk and talk like a lady, remember to say as little as possible, and not disgrace me. Besides she will only need fool Lord Thurleah and he could not possibly spend much time around proper ladies. He does not even go to court," she muttered with disgust. To Joan, court was the place to be and it was the bane of her young life that her father never saw fit to take her there. She hung on every word that the minstrels spread about life at court and the people there. She then patterned life at Laythem after what was said. "Girl?" Joan began, then frowned. "What is your name?" "Brinna, m'lady." "Well, Brinna, will you agree to be me?" When Brinna hesitated briefly, Joan moved quickly to a chest at the foot of the bed and tossed it open. Rifling through the contents, she found a small purse, opened it and poured out several coins. "This is half of what I promised you. Agree and I will give them to you now. I shall give you the other half when 'tis over." Brinna stared at those coins and swallowed as visions of Aggie resting in a chair by the fire in a cozy cottage filled her mind. The old woman had worked hard to feed and clothe Brinna and deserved to enjoy her last days so. With the coins from this chore, she could see that she did. And it wasn't as if it were dangerous. Lady Joan would explain that it was her idea if they got caught, she assured herself, then quickly nodded her head before she could lose her courage. "Marvelous!" Grabbing her hand, Joan dropped the coins into her open palm, then folded her fingers closed over them and squeezed firmly. "Now, the first thing we must do is-" The three of them froze, gazes shooting guiltily to the door as a knock sounded. At Joan's muttered, "Enter" the door opened and Lady Christina peered in. "Mother sent me to see that all is well with your maid?" "Aye. She will do fine," Joan said quickly, a panicked look about her face. Brinna realized at once that the girl feared that seeing them together, Lady Christina might notice the similarity in their looks and somehow put paid to her plans. There was no way to reassure her that the other girl wasn't likely to notice such things. It was well known at Menton that Lady Christina paid little attention to the world around her unless it had something to do with her beloved books. Which was the reason Brinna was so startled when the girl suddenly tilted her head to the side, her deep blue eyes actually focusing for a moment as she gave a light laugh and murmured, "Look at the three of you... All huddled together with your heads cocked up. You look like three French hens at the arrival of the Butcher... Accept of course, only two of you are from Normandy and therefore French. Still..." Brinna felt Joan stiffen beside her as an odd expression crossed over Christina's face. But then it faded and her gaze slid around the room. "They have not brought your bath up yet? I shall see about that for you." Turning, she slid out of the room as quickly as she had entered, leaving the women sighing after her. *** "Why ye've made me as beautiful as yerself," Brinna breathed in wonder as she was finally allowed to peer in the looking glass at herself. It was dawn on the morning after Brinna had stepped through the door of Lady Joan's room as her temporary maid. The hours since then had been incredibly busy ones. While Sabrina had carried Joan's message that she was too tired to dine with the others to the dinner table, Brinna had reported to the kitchens, informing Cook that the Lady required her to sleep on the floor in front of her door in her room as her own maid usually did. She had then grabbed a quick bite to eat from the kitchen and spared a moment to assure herself that all was well with Aggie before preparing a trencher and delivering it to the Lady only to find her in the bath Lady Christina had had sent up. After tending her in the bath, then helping her out, Brinna had found herself ordered into the now chill water. Ignoring her meal, Joan had seen to it that Brinna was scrubbed from head to toe, then scrubbed again, and yet again, until Brinna was sure that half of her skin was taken off with the dirt. She had even insisted on scrubbing Brinna's long tresses and rinsing them three times before allowing her to get out of the water. Once out, however, she had not been allowed to re-don her "filthy peasant" clothes, but had been given one of Joan's old shifts instead. They had dried their hair before the fire, brushing each other's tresses by turn. The situation had become extremely odd for Brinna at that point as the boundary between Lady and servant became blurred by Joan's asking her about her childhood and life in service, then volunteering information about her own life. To Brinna, the other girl's life had sounded poor indeed. For while she had had everything wealth and privilege could buy, it did seem that Joan had been terribly lonely. Her mother had died while she was still a child and her father seemed always away on court business. This had left the girl in the care and company of the servants. Brinna may not have had the lovely clothes and jewels the other girl had, but she had had Aggie, always known she was loved, always had the woman to run to with scraped knees or for a hug. From Joan's descriptions of her childhood, she had never had that. It seemed sad to Brinna. She actually felt sorry for the girl... Until they're hair was dry and the actual "lessons" began. Brinna quickly lost all sympathy for the little tyrant as the girl barked out orders, slapped her, smacked her, and prodded and poked her in an effort to get her to walk talk and hold her head "properly". It was obvious that she was determined that this should work. It was also equally obvious to Brinna, that it would not. Lady Sabrina had not helped with her snide comments and dark predictions once she had returned to the room. By the time dawn had rolled around, Brinna was positive this was the most foolish thing she had ever agreed to... Until she saw herself in that looking glass. She had thought on first looking into the glass that Lady Joan held between them that 'twas just an empty gilt frame and that 'twas Lady Joan herself she peered at. But then she realized that the eyes looking back at her were a soft blue gray, not the sharp green of the other girl's. Other than that, she did look almost exactly like Lady Joan. It was enough to boost her confidence. "You see," Joan laughed, lowering the mirror and moving away to set it on her chest before turning back to survey Brinna in the dark blue gown she had made her don. "Aye. You will do," she decided with satisfaction. "Now, one more time. When you meet Lord Thurleah you...?" She raised a brow questioningly and Brinna, still a little dazed by what she had seen in that glass, bobbed quickly and murmured, "Greetings, m'lord. I-" "Nay, nay, nay." Joan snapped impatiently. "Why can you not remember? When you first greet him you must curtsy low, lower your eyes to the floor, then sweep them back up and say-" "Greetings, my Lord. I am honored to finally meet you," Brinna interrupted impatiently. "Aye. I remember now. I only forgot it for a moment because-" "It doesn't matter why you forgot. You must remember, else you will shame me with your ignorance." Brinna sighed, feeling all of the confidence that glimpse of herself in the looking glass had briefly given her, seep out like water out of a leaky pale. "Mayhap we'd best be fergettin' all about this tomfoolery." "Mayhap we had best forget all about this foolishness," Joan corrected automatically, then frowned. "You must remember to try to speak with-" "Enough," Brinna interrupted impatiently. "Ye know ye can't be makin' a lady of me. 'Tis hopeless." "Nay," Joan assured her quickly. "You were doing wonderful well. You are a quick study. 'Tis just that you are tired now." "We are all tired now," Sabrina muttered wearily from where she sat slumped on the bed. "Why do you not give it up while you can?" "She is right," Brinna admitted on a sigh. "'Tisn't workin'. We should give it all up for the foolishness it is and-" A knock at the door made her pause. She moved automatically to open it, then stood blinking in amazement at the man before her. He was a glorious vision. His hair was a nimbus of gold in the torchlight that lit the halls in the early morning gloom. His tall, strong body was encased in a fine amber gold outfit. His skin glowed with the health and vitality of a man use to the outdoors and his eyes shone down on her as true a blue as the Northern English sky on a cloudless summer day. He was the most beautiful human Brinna had ever laid eyes on. "Lady Joan? I am Lord Royce of Thurleah." "Gor," Brinna breathed, her eyes wide gray pools in her head. This was the backward oaf? The country bumpkin who's clumsy attentions they wanted her to suffer? She could die smiling suffering such attentions. When his eyebrows flew up in surprise, and a pinch of her behind came from Joan who was hiding out of sight behind the door, she realized what had slipped from her lips and alarm entered her face briefly before she remembered to curtsy, performing a flawless one and glancing briefly at the floor before sweeping her eyes up to his face and smiling. "My Lord," she breathed, her smile widening as he took her hand to help her up, but that smile slipped when she saw his expression. He was frowning, not looking the least pleased, and Brinna bit her lips uncertainly wracking her brain for the reason behind it. Had she muffed the curtsy? Said the words wrong? What? she wondered with dismay until he shifted impatiently. "I arrived but a moment ago." Brinna's eyes dilated somewhat as she tried to think of what she should say to that. "I hope your journey was pleasant." She glanced around at those hissed words, her wide eyes blank as they took in Joan's impatient face peeking at her from behind the door. "Say it. I hope your journey-" "Who are you talking to?" Brinna turned back to him abruptly, stepping forward to block his entrance as he would have tried to peek around the door. The move stopped his movement, but also put them extremely close to each other and Brinna felt a quiver go through her as she caught the musky outdoors scent of him. "Just a servant," she lied huskily, ignoring the indignant gasp from behind the door. "Oh." Royce stared at the girl, his mind gone blank as he took in her features. She was not what he had expected. His cousin, Phillip of Radfurn, had spent several months in France in late fall, had traveled through Normandy on his way home, and had stopped awhile at Laythem on his travels. He had then hied his way to Thurleah to regale Royce with his impressions of his betrothed. He had spoken alot about her unpleasant nature, her snobbery, the airs she put on, the fact that she ran her father's home as similarly to court as she could manage... He had never once mentioned the impish turned up nose she had, the sweet bow shaped lips, the large dewy eyes, or that her hair was like spun sunshine. Damn. He could have prepared a body and mentioned such things. Realizing that he had stood there for several moments merely gaping at the chit, Royce cleared his throat. "I came to escort you to mass." "Oh." She cast one uncertain glance back into the room, then seemed to make a decision and stepped into the hall. Pulling the door closed behind her, she rested her hand on the muscled arm he extended and smiled a bit uncertainly as he lead her down the hallway. *** "Well?" Sabrina turned away from the door she had cracked open to spy on the departing couple and glanced questioningly at Joan. "Well what?" "You are going with her, are you not? She will need help to carry this off." Sabrina's eyes widened in surprise. "But I am your companion. I am not to leave you alone." "Aye. And she is me just now. It will look odd if you leave her alone with him." Sabrina opened her mouth to argue the point, then closed it with a sigh as she realized Joan was right. Sighing again, she hurried out the door after Royce and Brinna.
Family Tree For
Brinna Atherton & Royce Thurleah
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