Rugged Heroes ~ Resilient Heroines ~ Heartwarming Romance





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COPYRIGHT © 2010 by Stacey Joy Netzel

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of any of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.


As I waited for my Chai tea, I scrutinized the books on the rack near the register of my favorite coffee spot to curb my growing impatience over the slow service. I didn't want to ruin my current thirty-nine day on-time-to-work streak. One title in particular caught my eye.

The Trouble with Heroes.

There's trouble with heroes? Oh, Lord, whatever shall we do? I grinned at my silent theatrics and flipped the book over to read the back cover. Sure, titles catch my eye—as evidenced by the book in my hand—and I love a beautiful cover as much as the next addict, but the voice on the back ultimately determined whether or not I spent my hard-earned money.

This voice intrigued my imagination with a collection of short stories about some of the most fabled heroes of all: Prince Charming, King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Perseus, Robin Hood—

Sold! I didn't have to read any further. I loved Robin Hood—especially when I pictured Kevin Costner on the big screen saying, "I'd die for you." Now there's a hero to make my heart melt every time.

The teller finally slid my tea across the counter, so I passed her enough money to cover the book, too. I had to know what's wrong with my precious Robin Hood; Kevin's morphing accent notwithstanding. On the way out the door, I slipped the anthology into my carry-all bag for my lunch break in the park and hurried off to work, only seven blocks down from my Manhattan apartment building on West Fourteenth Street.

There are days I still can't believe how incredibly lucky I am to—

A jolt to my shoulder blade sent my cup and bag flying. Steaming Chai splattered across the sidewalk as the man who barged into me cut off a fellow New Yorker and jumped into her taxi. No "Sorry," no "Excuse me,"; nothing.

"Hey!" I yelled after the taxi. "I have a day here, too!"

I glared at the departing taillights, annoyed with the guy's absolute disrespect on such a beautiful, promising, sunshine-bathed, spring morning. For a little background, my day started with no hot water and no Super in my apartment building to fix the problem. But after leaving a message for David (my landlord), I had talked myself into remaining optimistic. Hence the forced, cheerful description of what was truthfully a blinding, chilly start to this stupid day.

That's right, optimism be darned. And the jerk who'd made it a certainty I'd be late for work. He didn't have to face Mr. Walker—my wonderful boss. (Side note: sarcasm is not to be confused with optimism.)

I silently wished for a traffic jam so the guy missed whatever he was rushing to. That'd serve him right. With my jaw clenched tight, I began to gather up the scattered, now damp, contents of my bag. I rescued my peanut butter and jelly sandwich seconds before a humongous boot ground it to mush. Whew. As I reached for my new book about troublesome heroes, another hand beat me to it.

I didn't relish being one second later than I had to be, so I didn't bother to look up as he lifted the dripping paperback. Yes, he, I could tell by the large, slightly tanned, distinctly male hand. In fact, through the mass of my unruly red hair that had fallen forward to obscure most of my vision, I vaguely saw him wipe the cover of my book on his suit coat.
"Let me apologize for my crazed brother," he said. "His wife is on the way to the hospital—her water broke."

Smooth and rich like my favorite German chocolate cake, the man's voice was well-modulated without sounding arrogant. Hey, gimme a break, I'm a voracious-reader-wanna-be-writer-amateur-baker; I liked to think yummy. And okay, fine, I'll take back the wish for the traffic jam. The poor woman in labor didn't deserve to go through that alone just because her husband lacks basic consideration for others.

With everything crammed back in my bag, Mr. Apology and I straightened at the same time. I shook my curls back over my shoulder and gave him a quick glance as I accepted the book with a grudging "Thanks." Baby or not, his brother dumped my breakfast and I had no time—

Whoa, yummy.

This guy was worth a double-take—I just had to be casual about it. Oh, yeah. Tall, dark and so very handsome. A pair of light blue eyes were all the more electrifying off-set by thick, sable lashes, elegantly arched eyebrows, and dark wavy hair to rival a certain McDreamy Seattle doctor on television. Yesterday's stubble shadowed his strong jaw line.

Mr. Apology stood a whole head taller than me, and he looked vaguely familiar. Did I know him? Had I met him before?

Definitely no. I'd have had to have been in a coma to not remember meeting him. Especially with that voice.

"Did you get everything?" he asked before I could figure out why his face teased my uncooperative memory.

He dropped his gaze to inspect the sidewalk at our feet. He was so delicious, I stared in wide-eyed fascination until his attention rose to me again. Then I did a hasty scan of the cement and immediately declared, "Looks like it."

"Again, I'm sorry. Please let me buy you another coffee."

"Oh, that's….no, I don't have time." I shook my head and broke eye contact before all my common sense flew off to La La Land. Too bad I couldn't retain some poise and enjoy the view. "I'm already late."

"Then I'll deliver it. Where do you work?"

"Um…" What? Was he serious? No one was that nice in this city. "You don't have to do that."

"No one should have to go without their caffeine in the morning."

"We have some at the office."

"But I'll bet it's not half as good."

His charming, crooked grin made those blue eyes twinkle. He was absolutely right, our office coffee couldn't hold a candle to the spilled taste buds party darkening the sidewalk at our feet.

I opened my mouth to tell him my floor and office number when someone else in a hurry jostled me from behind. Just the reminder I needed—I was digging myself deeper by the minute. If some miracle put Mr. Walker in a good mood this morning, then it'd go 'poof' the moment he saw me mooning over some guy delivering coffee to my desk.

Yes, I'd moon over the man. If he actually showed up. But he probably wouldn't, so no sense setting myself up to cry over spilled Chai later. I forced a stiff smile and cursed my miserable luck this morning. "Really, it's not necessary, I really have to go."

Really. Before I said really again.

I brushed past him, past a gentleman who held open the door of a cab for the woman whose was stolen moments earlier, and glanced at my watch as I headed for my office building. Mr. Walker would not be happy with me. We'd just had a talk last month about my habitual tardiness. Well, he yelled, I cringed. Right now the words, "This is your last warning, Kelsie," echoed relentlessly in my head.

It hadn't mattered to him that I routinely brought work home with me, so I knew it wouldn't matter that I'd succeeded in being on time every single day since then, and it certainly wouldn't matter my valid reason for being late today. Unless…

My heart leapt with hope. He'd had a morning meeting scheduled, I just couldn't remember for sure if it was today or tomorrow. I prayed for today.

A co-worker breezed into the building ahead of me, rudely ignoring the universal courtesy of holding the door for the person behind her. With everything that'd happened, unfortunately I forgot the door had a heck of a rebound, and my reflex grab resulted in two broken nails. Lovely.

God, please, don't let this be one of those days. In the middle of my low frustrated groan, someone reached past me for the door.

"I am very sorry about what happened."

German Chocolate Cake Voice. Seriously, it's like he poured the warm batter all over me. He stood close enough that his chest brushed my back. A delicious shiver ran up my spine and tingles erupted from his overwhelming male magnetism. I barely kept myself from leaning against him by digging my jagged nails into my palm.

"Forget it," I murmured. His spicy, enticing scent enveloped me, making me long for a pen and paper so I could close my eyes and put the experience in writing. I took a deep savoring breath… and realized he held the door open for me.

"Oh, thank you." Ducking my chin in embarrassment, I made myself leave his magical presence. It was all just so strange; I never acted like this. Yes, I am single, but happily so, and by my own choice. I wasn't even looking at the moment.

After the door closed behind me, I had a sudden compelling urge to congratulate him on becoming an uncle. Spinning around, I collided with someone else entering the building.

"Watch it," the man grumbled.

My turn to apologize…and my guy had already disappeared. Served me right, I guess. I wasn't exactly friendly to him. I mentally kicked myself a good one and joined the crowd bee-lining for the elevator doors. The ride proved an exercise in patience as it stopped at every…single…floor. Eventually I arrived on seventeen and pushed through the other passengers, only ten minutes late.

When I arrived at my cluttered desk, the sight of Mr. Walker's empty office brought a wave of such dizzying relief I had to sit in my chair before my wobbly knees gave out. Amazing. My luck was still somewhat intact.

Should've known I spoke too soon. All before ten a.m., I managed to rip another nail, run my nylons, jam the copier, stub my toe kicking said copier, accidentally delete a press-release I'd spent twenty minutes composing, and lose one of my favorite earrings.

Then Mr. Walker's press-secretary arrived and dumped a stack of poll research folders on my desk, to be reviewed and cataloged by the end of the day. I took a fortifying breath and rubbed my temples because, yes, obviously, this was one of those days. No getting around it.

"Excuse me?"

I looked up to see a little old lady standing by my desk holding a kettle with pot holders. Very odd, and somehow, today, not surprising.

"Where might I find Nalinda Michaels?"

Her warm, sweet voice conjured up a memory of my grandma pulling fresh baked cinnamon rolls from the oven. My mouth watered at the thought and my empty stomach growled, but the lady in front of me was still waiting for an answer.

I directed her toward Nalinda's office just as Mr. Walker stormed through the reception area and past my desk.

"Kelsie. My office. Now."

I should make him call me Ms. Brooks. I mean, I don't get to call him Eunice, now do I? Although, to be honest, I wouldn't have been able to keep a straight face if I did. Who names their son Eunice? Even now, I found myself grinning through the nervousness churning my stomach as I dug through the piles on my desk for my pen and notebook.

Had he found out I was late? Would he make good on his promise and kick my butt out the door? How would I pay my rent? Buy groceries? I knew I should've updated my resume last week instead of watching that romantic comedy on cable.

Nalinda's visitor glanced back with a concerned frown, but I sent her what I hoped was a reassuring smile on my way to answer my summons to the gallows.

I quickly discovered Mr. Walker's meeting did not go well, and luck has nodded its fickle head in my direction once more. I swear it's toying with me today, but since I haven't lost my job yet, I'll ride the waves as best I can for the time being.

In the middle of Mr. Walker's tirade about corrupt politicians—which I'd heard so many times I could recite the diatribe in my sleep—I began to fantasize about being rescued from my mundane existence by Robin Hood. With a medieval cloak tied about his throat, he'd burst through the doors, sweep me into his arms, and carry me down in an express elevator to the trusty white steed waiting outside.

Kevin Costner is great, but for some reason, in this vivid daydream, Robin's got blue eyes and gorgeous, dark, McDreamy hair. He sounds delicious and smells even better. Held secure on his lap atop his mount, we gallop off into the sunset, and I never have to pretend to agree with Eunice again. Life would be so good.

"What are you smiling about?" Mr. Walker snapped.

I blinked to return my focus. "I was just thinking about the day you become Mayor and turn this city around."

"Darn straight I will." He finally sat down at his desk, only to glare at me with irritation wrinkling his brow. "Well? What are you waiting for? I'm not paying you to just sit there. Get to work."

Yeah, I know, with men like Eunice around, it's a shocker I'm still single at thirty-three. He may be only forty-one and very good-looking with distinguished salt-n-pepper hair, but in case you hadn't noticed, he's a first-class jerk. Like the Chai-spilling-cab-stealer.

With the fanciful Robin Hood daydream still vivid in my mind, I returned to my desk and decided to make Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out For A Hero my theme song. Only trouble with that approach is there just aren't enough heroes to go around.

I mean, Cinderella has dibs on Prince Charming, Beauty tamed the Beast, King Arthur loves Guinevere, Lois Lane's got Clark Kent, Mr. Incredible married ElastiGirl, and Marion captured Robin's heart a long time ago; to name a few. Every fairytale has its Happily Ever After, or it wouldn't be a fairytale by definition.

Was it so much to ask for my own?

I drummed my fingers against my lips, giving the situation some serious thought as my elbow rested on the stack of research files patiently awaiting my attention. Come to think of it, since Prince Charming couldn't seem to make up his mind between his glass-slippered princess, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, I might have a chance in that story. I'd be the first to admit I'm no Sleeping Beauty, but I could give Snow White a fair run for her money even with my red hair.

No, on second thought, fickle Prince Charming isn't good enough for me. When I consider the fact that I'd give him my heart and soul, till death do us part, and take those vows seriously, I won't settle for anything less than a hero who would die for me.

I was halfway through the research polls when lunchtime arrived and I gladly set them aside to scoop up my bag for the walk to Washington Square Park. My PB & J would taste better in the sunshine while I discovered exactly what was the trouble with heroes. Seriously, I owed this research to myself so I could decide whether or not to hold out for one, right?

Nalinda passed me in the hall on my way out. "Did you see my grandmother?" she asked, a note of wonder in her unusually nasally voice. "I told her last night that I felt a cold coming on, and she came all the way in from Queens to bring me homemade chicken soup."

Ah, that explained the kettle and pot holders. "That's so sweet."

"I know, she's the best." Nalinda smiled on the way back to her office, basking in the afterglow of her grandmother's loving care.

A small ache throbbed in my chest. I would love to have someone who'd do that for me. I'm an only child, and my parents retired to Arizona three years ago, the quintessential cliché; they couldn't take the cold and snow anymore. Besides a couple of good friends whose jobs kept them just as busy as me, I navigated the streets of New York all alone. Most days I didn't mind.

Then there's today.

I sat on the sunny park bench, but instead of opening the damp, Chai-scented book in my hands, I found myself thinking back over the morning and realized what a colossal idiot I am. Mr. Apology was so sincere in his remorse for something he didn't even do. I should've been nicer to him, but no, I was too worried about being late so my boss wouldn't be upset. And you know what I realized today, anyway? Eunice won't fire me. No one else would put up with his crap.

What I really should've done was let the gorgeous man from the sidewalk deliver that coffee to my desk. Maybe I could've figured out why he looked familiar beyond the sexy hair. Struck up a conversation. Given him my number.

Oh, yeah—and found out his name.

I finished my PB & J and decided the next time a man was nice to me I'd be nice right back. To add emphasis, I got up to dunk my sandwich wrapper in the trash barrel. Kind of a throw out the old, bring in the new improved Kelsie. One step away, my heel wedged in a crack. Having already leaned forward to toss my garbage, I walked right out of my shoe and stepped in the remains of a half-eaten hot dog next to the can.

Soggy bun and ketchup squished up between my toes.

Eww. Fighting my gag reflex, I retrieved the shoe I'd just purchased during yesterday's lunch and sat on the closest bench to rummage through my bag. Where's a darn tissue when I needed it? Then I remembered I'd used them earlier to wipe Chai tea off my things. Again, I was not surprised; it just went with my day.

Two designer-dressed women pushing luxury strollers passed by, and one eyed my foot with an expression of horrified disgust. From a distance, I bet the ketchup could've passed for blood. Now, do you think either one of them, or anyone else for that matter, would offer assistance with their precious bottled water?

That's okay, I didn't expect it, either.

A giggling child caught my attention, running as fast as his chubby little legs would carry him away from a woman who'd given chase. Mother or nanny? The child's glee brought a smile to my face, until I realized he bee-lined for the busy street.

My heart lodged in my throat. I jumped to my feet, horrified to realize the woman would never catch him in time.

With barely a second to spare, a young man who'd jogged past me a moment ago dropped his water bottle and snatched the boy out of danger. The frantic woman grasped the child to her chest and collapsed to her knees. Mother. My own heart pounded so loud I barely heard her tearfully thank the man who'd saved her son.

I don't feel bad about my ketchup toes. If he'd stopped to offer his water to wash my foot, that precious little boy might have been hit by a car. Carrying my unread book and damaged shoe, I teeter-tottered back to work, feeling like a jerk and beginning to wonder if I didn't break a toe kicking the copier this morning. None of it seemed important after what I witnessed, but it still hurt.

The afternoon crawled by and I found myself contemplating the hero thing again. Earlier I was being goofy about it, but now I think I finally figured out the true trouble with heroes. Ask a hundred people their definition of a hero, and I believe you'd get a majority of similar answers. Our society is so enamored with Superheroes, and great BIG gestures that are easily recognizable and indisputably heroic, that the little everyday, wonderful things people do for others often times go unnoticed.

Superheroes are great, but they're not real.

The man who saved that child is a hero, no doubt about that. He might even be super. But you know, so is Nalinda's grandmother—to Nalinda. And Mr. Apology's brother—to his wife. (At least, he better be.) And Mr. Apology himself, for trying to make things right despite my ungrateful attitude.

Oh, if only I could turn back time.

On my walk home, I looked around and was amazed at the whole new world before me. I searched for anything good and found signs at every turn. Friends hugging when they said hello, a woman assisting an elderly man onto the bus, couples holding hands, a little girl gazing at her father with hero-worship in her eyes as he zipped her jacket.

I now realized we must look carefully every day, or we might end up missing what's right in front of us.

Because I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking, I stepped on an uneven section of sidewalk, twisted my ankle, and broke the heel of my unscuffed shoe. You know what? I didn't even care. Laughing quietly to myself, I took off both shoes, stuffed them in my bag, and limped barefoot the last block.

I reached my building and started up the stairs a little after six, hoping there'd be hot water for a long soak in the tub, but not holding my breath. For some reason, a noise behind me caught my attention. I'd like to think it was because I was more tuned in to my surroundings after my epiphany.

Squinting across the street into the dim alley, I saw some kids harassing a homeless man. They laughed as they pulled at his clothes and kicked him where he lay on the ground. I knew his name was Jerry because last month I heard someone say "Good morning, Jerry," to him. I'd kept walking that morning, pretending I didn't see him, because homeless people made me uncomfortable.

Anger flashed through me—at myself, and at the kids for picking on someone less fortunate. Without thinking twice, I hurried across the street, fumbling through my bag for my cell phone. Jerry attempted to get to his feet, but one of the kids shoved him back down.

"Hey!" I yelled. "Leave him alone!"

The tallest of the three tormentors turned on me. He looked about high school age. I lifted my chin to meet his gaze, but he was in the process of assessing if I posed a threat.

"Who's gonna make us?" he sneered.

Apparently, I wasn't—a threat, that is.

"I mean it." I stiffened my spine for an extra inch of height and glared up at the kid. "Get out of here or I'll call the cops."

To prove I meant business, I waved my phone in the air. The kid lunged forward and suddenly I didn't have my security line anymore. He laughed in my face.

"Whatcha gonna do now, hero?"

Yeah, what was I gonna do now? I hoped he couldn't see I was shaking in my bare feet. Newspaper rustled against the pavement behind me. My pulse skyrocketed into the red zone as I realized Jerry and I were now surrounded, neither one of us capable of protecting the other.

"You heard the lady. Get the hell outta here."

Oh, my God—German Chocolate Cake! I never expected to hear his wonderful voice again. Weak-kneed with relief, I started to turn around, but he stepped past me to post himself between me and Jerry, and the smart-mouth little jerk. I would've laughed at the kid's expression if I hadn't been so darn scared.

Our rescuer's six-foot-plus frame and broad shoulders outlined in a black T-shirt were enough to convince the spineless punks it was time to split.

"And don't let me catch you here again," he called after their cowardly backs.

His electric blue gaze shifted to me for a quick appraisal as I helped Jerry to his feet. While he spoke softly to Jerry, I used the moment of distraction to concentrate on stopping my knees from knocking together. Mr. Apology then reached into his pocket with one hand while pointing across the street with his other. Jerry stared at him for a long moment before accepting a set of keys with an expression of dignified gratitude.

Jerry faced me, genuine appreciation reflected in his tired brown eyes. "Thank you, miss," he said, his voice gruff.

"I didn't really do any—"

His hand grasped mine, stopping my protest mid-sentence. "You saw."

Did he know only a month ago I'd pretended he didn't exist? Shame cast my gaze downward, until his fingers tightened. "It's never too late. Thank you."

I swallowed hard in the face of his forgiveness. "You're welcome."

He gave one last squeeze and then crossed the street and entered my apartment building. I swung my questioning gaze back to our smooth-voiced champion. Who'd shaved and changed and was yummier than ever.

"Do you live in the building?" I asked.

He offered that charming half smile I'd found so attractive this morning. "No, my brother owns it."

His statement effectively jogged my memory—he resembled my landlord! Only better. Younger. I glanced down quickly. Unmarried. I couldn't have held back a smile if I'd wanted to, even though my stomach fluttered nervously. "You're David's brother?"

He nodded. "And, as you probably already know, the Super quit the other day, so the apartment's open. I figured Jerry can stay there until David hires a new guy. Then again, considering how busy David will be the next couple weeks, I guess that'll be first on my list of things to do. After I get you hooked up with hot water again."

"I can't believe it was David who dumped my Chai this morning. We talk in the hall every so often, but it's usually about the weather. I didn't know he and his wife were expecting."

"Sheryl wasn't due for another month, which is why he was so freaked out this morning."

"I bet. Is everything okay, or is she still in labor?"

"Everyone is fine. And David felt really bad when he realized what he'd done, but the taxi was already moving."

I waved my hand. "All's well that ends well, right?"

He smiled. "I sure hope so."

The suggestion in his deep tone kick-started my pulse. "So…boy or girl?" I asked.

"One of each. Jessie James and Lacie Lynn."

"Twins, wow. He will be busy," I predicted. "And you'll be helping out here in the meantime?"

He gave a brief nod. "If you need anything at all, you can call me."

Which reminded me, the bully kids had made off with my phone. I almost laughed. Believe it or not, I'd been looking for an excuse to upgrade that old thing. I glanced around the darkening alley before gathering the courage to gaze into those mesmerizing blue eyes. "I believe I will. Thank you for the rescue."

"I wouldn't exactly call it that." His smile turned sheepish. It was so cute.

"I would. I honestly don't know what I would've done if you hadn't shown up."

A shiver snaked up my spine and he reached out to squeeze my arm, his warm touch gentle on my skin. "Next time bring backup, okay?"

"Oh, I don't know about a next time."

"Your lack of hesitation when you jumped to Jerry's defense was inspiring and frightening at the same time."

"Yesterday I don't think I would've done what I did today, but like I said, it's been quite a day."

"Then it sounds like a good one."

I thought about that and smiled up at him. "Surprisingly enough, yeah. Pretty darn good."

His head tilted and my cheeks warmed under his close regard. "I have no doubt there'll be a next time."

The unwavering conviction in his voice sent a tingle through my entire body. No one except my parents had ever expressed such complete belief in me before, and this guy didn't even know me. I didn't know what to say out loud, but I did know he was right. My life had changed thanks to a book I'd picked up simply because it tickled my funny bone. A book I hadn't even read yet.

The silence stretched. The moment I realized I was staring at him like a woman denied dessert for far too long, I decided to speak now or forever look like an idiot.

"Well, I—"

"Would you—"

We both broke off with self-conscious laughs. I waited for him to speak first because I liked the beginning of his sentence better than mine.

"I was going to ask if you would please let me replace that coffee now?" A hopeful note coated his sinful voice.

Yep, there were some days I couldn't believe my luck. And this time I planned to embrace him—I mean, my luck—wholeheartedly. "You know, that would be great."

I took a step toward the street, anxious to sit down and get to know him.

"Wait—" He caught my arm. "You're barefoot."

I followed his gaze to my feet. "Um…yeah. Stupid, I know, but my heel broke on my walk home. Carrying both my shoes was easier than walking with one leg two inches shorter than the other."

He reached out and touched the earlobe that was minus one of my favorite earrings. His fingers caressed my skin and skimmed along the underside of my jaw before he lowered his arm. "You really did have quite the day, didn't you?" he asked softly.

I fought not to melt in front of him. "You have no idea."

"Well, I'd love to hear all about it, just don't move yet. There's glass, and God only knows what else laying around here."

I hadn't thought of that. I searched for a clear path in the alley shadows cast by the street lights that'd flickered to life over the past ten minutes. My eyes widened. Had I really charged through all that garbage to get to Jerry?

My hero of the day stepped close and commanded, "Hold on."

Before I could speculate his intentions, I found myself swept up into strong arms and held against his broad, muscled chest. I instinctively clung to his neck as he grinned down at me.

"You want to call it a rescue, then I might as well do it right."

McDreamy gorgeous and a sense of humor. I loved it. I inhaled the spicy allure of him reminiscent of this morning, and figured it was high time I learned the man's name. "I'm Kelsie, by the way. Kelsie Newman."

"Robert Woods, at your service, m'lady."

I couldn't hold back a soft, contented smile as he carried me across the street with long, sturdy strides. The clock had been tolling midnight all day, but I was no longer worried because I knew something the Fairy Godmother didn't.

Robert Woods might not be Prince Charming, King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, or even Robin Hood, but he was close enough for this fairytale. You know…the one that starred me and my hero, and ended with a Happily Ever After of our own.

Good night, Bonnie Tyler. Sweet dreams and good luck.

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Copyright © 2005- Stacey Joy Netzel
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