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The French

by Cathryn Hein
First Published 2014
First Australian Paperback Edition 2014
ISBN 978 174356866 8


© 2014 by Cathryn Hein
Australian Copyright 2014
New Zealand Copyright 2014

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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

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The heavy clay soil was stubborn, but no match for Dr Olivia
Walker’s determination. With a final scrape of her leaf trowel, the
goblet eased free. She bent forward, took a deep breath and blew
away the last clinging crumbs of dirt, then carefully levered the
goblet from the ground.
Triumph flooded her chest as she held it up to the sun. She’d found
it at last. La Tasse du Chevalier Gris. The Cup of the Grey Knight.
A crude pottery drinking vessel, amazingly intact after nearly seven
hundred years interred in the harsh Provencale landscape. Despite
its small size, it sat heavy in her hands, like a burden that needed
to be passed on. She shook her head. Her imagination was getting
away again.
‘C’est magnifique,’ said the man beside her, kneeling, like her, in
the dirt and dust. Raimund Blancard’s espresso-coloured eyes fixed
on the goblet, the artefact for which his family had searched over
half a millennium. His passion. His prize.

And Olivia’s.
The discovery of La Tasse du Chevalier Gris would catapult her into
international academic stardom and finally silence her critics, the
crusted and bitter detractors who scoffed at her theories and called
them the fantasies of a brilliant but misguided mind. The goblet was
her Holy Grail as much as Raimund’s. She was the one who’d trawled
through Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur’s rotting archives, turning hundreds
of mouldy, putrid pages until her fingers had turned the same grisly
brown as the decaying parchment. She was the one who’d breathed the
dust of Raimund’s ancestors into her lungs, who’d heard them speak
in their ancient langue d’oc, the almost forgotten language of southern
France. She was the one for whom all the clues had fallen into place.
And she was the only one who could decipher the true meaning
of the goblet’s inscription.
‘Oui,’ she replied. ‘It’s magnificent.’
On first inspection, the goblet appeared nondescript—a simple
pottery cup with a stumpy, crudely sculpted base. An item of no
particular value to anyone except an academic. But around the
top edge, just under the slightly curved lip, lay an inscription. La
Chanson du Chevalier Gris. The Song of the Grey Knight. A riddle
which, when solved, would lead to the hiding place of one of the
most famous swords in history. Roland’s fabled Durendal.
It was that which made it priceless.
She held it out to Raimund, inviting him with her eyes to take it
from her hands. He glanced at her, an unusual show of hesitation
in one normally so self-assured, and she smiled.
‘Take it, Raimund. I know how much it means to you.’
And she did. After all, it was his ancestor, Antoine Blancard,
dying of the plague, who had hidden the cup.
She had never believed the legend of La Tasse being secreted in
the Vatican, locked away lest someone solve the riddle and bring

the unknown power of Durendal back into the world. But until
Raimund Blancard, with his vague tale of family lore that sent her
skin tingling, strode into her life and handed her the chance to
chase her dream, she’d had neither the time nor the resources to
prove the legend false. The search for La Tasse had remained her
much-derided hobby, never her livelihood. Until now.
Their fingers brushed as he reached for the goblet and closed
his hands around the bowl. For a brief moment, his burning gaze
focused on hers before returning to the cup, and she wondered if he
experienced the same leap of excitement in the pit of his stomach
that always affected her when they touched, then shook off the idea.
Raimund, she’d discovered these last few months, was a man made of
stone. Although, looking at him now, it was easy to think otherwise.
He held the goblet gently, like a newborn, his strong Mediter­
ranean hands cradling it with what she could only describe as
reverence. He traced a finger around the lip, heedless of the chipped,
rough edges, and tilted the goblet forward, his eyes hungry for the
‘I should have employed you years ago,’ he said in precise but
accented English.
He turned to look at her and her stomach curled. Not at the
compliment, but at the undisguised admiration in his eyes, as if at
last he saw her as she really was—an intelligent, attractive woman,
and not just a means to an end. But like all glimpses of his emotions,
the look fluttered away as fast as it arrived, an ephemeral response
that left her debating whether she’d seen it at all.
She threw him a wink. ‘Ah, but think of all the fun you’d have
For a half-second, his mouth twitched, then he returned his
attention to the cup, spoiling her chance to sight a rare smile. She
didn’t know why she bothered to make jokes. Raimund Blancard

might be stomach-squirmingly sexy, but the man was totally devoid

of humour.
She held out her hands for the goblet. It took a few moments for
him to pass it over, as though now he had hold of it, he couldn’t
bear to let it go. She concentrated on packing it carefully into the
small, foam-padded aluminium case she’d prepared in readiness,
only pausing to wipe the sweat out of her eyes and pluck at her
shirt, pulling it away from her damp skin in an effort to cool herself.
She cast a jealous look at Raimund, amazed he could look so cool
in the burning midday sun. Even knee-deep in dust amid the
remnants of an ancient chateau he remained handsome, unruffled
and beautifully Gallic.
Olivia estimated he was in his early thirties, not much older
than herself, although in unguarded moments, something she
couldn’t quite fathom deepened the lines around his eyes and
mouth, making him appear older and more world-weary. He called
himself a businessman, yet what business he was in she couldn’t
discern. Whatever it was, it left him free to assist her in her research
whenever she called. Which, she had to admit, she’d sometimes
needlessly done. Understandable when the man filled out a pair of
jeans to saliva-inducing perfection and strained shirts with muscled,
Greek-statue beauty.
She snuck a look at him out of the corner of her eye, her
gaze hovering on the mysterious streak of pure white hair just
above his right ear. Once she’d commented on the brutal shortness
of his hairstyle, working herself up to ask about the white streak,
but he’d merely shrugged and blamed a bad hairdresser. It was a lie.
The severe style hadn’t changed in the two months she’d worked
for him and the untruth put her off probing further, although
it did nothing to halt her attraction. The suggestion of mystery
combined with his long-limbed, muscular physique gave Raimund

an irresistible bad-boy air—the deliciously sexy aura of a man who

might be dangerous to know—and a very welcome change to the
pasty-faced academics who usually colonised her world.
Not that her interest had ever been returned.
She resumed her task, silently cursing her practical but inelegant
field clothes as she tucked layers of bubble wrap around the artefact
until it lay safely cocooned in a chrysalis of plastic and air.
‘I need to get this back to the university so I can start the
restoration,’ she said, shutting the case lid, snapping the clips and
securing the box with a chain of cable ties.
Raimund’s eyes flicked over hers and then away towards the
tree line. He raised his hand and dug his fingertips into a point
above his left eye. A curious gesture he made often, as if he suffered
from a persistent and localised headache. ‘No. I have already made
arrangements for the restoration.’
A hornet’s nest of alarm buzzed Olivia’s insides. They’d already
discussed the restoration, speculated on the equipment required,
the experts they’d need to consult, and not once had he disputed
that the task would be hers. And she’d worked too damned hard
and dreamed too long to have La Tasse taken away now.
She narrowed her eyes, her tone icy as she articulated every word,
determined to show she wouldn’t be denied her goal, that she could
be as obstinate as him. ‘I’m the best person for the job. As you well
It had no effect. He rose to tower over her in pale chinos and
a pristine white polo shirt, and brushed dust from his knees with
long fingers. ‘Your assistance has been invaluable, Olivia, and I
thank you. However, your involvement in this project is now at an
end. I will take care of La Tasse from here.’
Her hand flattened protectively over the case as she attempted to
control her temper and muster her thoughts. His dismissal stung.

A lot. Apparently, it didn’t matter that she was an Oxford academic

with a PhD and an emerging reputation as one of the world’s finest
crusade historians. In his opinion, she wasn’t good enough for the
cup’s restoration, only his dirty work. Dirty work no one but her
could have managed.
The cold-blooded man had used her. Well, he might be stubborn
but Raimund Blancard was about to discover the true meaning of
She rose, calmly patted dirt from her knees as he had done, and
stepped forward until she could eyeball him, although given his
height, she had to tilt her head back to do it.
‘And whom did you have in mind to undertake such a delicate
task, Monsieur Blancard?’
That got his attention. Olivia had only ever called him Monsieur
Blancard at their first meeting.
His eyes fixed on hers. ‘Do not worry. Your efforts will be well
‘I’ve been well rewarded already,’ she snapped. She didn’t care
about money. The only reward she wanted was the opportunity to
study the cup and decipher the inscription. She’d waited years for
this. Give up La Tasse du Chevalier Gris? Who was he kidding? It
wasn’t going to happen. Not while she still breathed.
‘I demand to know who you have for the restoration. Is it
Nicholas Mansfield? Because if you’ve chosen him over me, you’ve
made a big mistake. The man’s a fool.’
Raimund’s eyes glittered dark and intense in the bright sunshine,
but his expression remained as impassive as ever. ‘This is no longer
your problem.’
‘No?’ Anger swirled inside her like a Fury unleashed, but as she
opened her mouth to speak, he smoothly interjected.

‘La Tasse is mine. It was found on my land. I will do with it as I

choose. Compris?’
‘No, I do not compris!’ She took another step forward, now so
close she could smell the subtle spice of his skin. It didn’t distract
her. Not this time. She poked a steady finger towards his chest, every
romantic thought she’d held about him destroyed by his rejection.
‘Now you listen to me. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be crawling
around the Dordogne chasing ghosts. I’m the one who found La
Tasse, and I’m the one who should restore and study it. The goblet
is mine as much as yours, Monsieur.’
She tossed him a last filthy look and reached down for the case.
As her fingers touched the aluminium, something whistled past her
ear, like the hum of a passing insect in full flight, then a loud crack
broke the torpid silence. Puzzled, she turned her face to Raimund
only to be sent sprawling by a shove in the back.
‘Get down!’
Dust blasted into her mouth and eyes. A stone dug painfully into
her cheek and her left shin smarted like crazy from the rock it had
hit. Blinking away the grit, she raised her head, coughing raggedly.
Behind her Raimund growled something in French, and despite her
fluency, such was her shock it took a few seconds for his words to
register. She coughed again, her eyes watering and her mind racing.
Guard? What did he mean ‘where’s the guard’? They were in
Provence for goodness’ sake, not Afghanistan. And why had he just
pushed her face first into the ground?
Another crack echoed through the valley. Gunfire. Panic twisted
and slithered in her gut, and she let out a low moan of fear as she
looked around desperately for Raimund. He was crawling on his
stomach like a character from a commando film, eyes flicking from
side to side as he scanned the shimmering landscape.

He wriggled parallel to her. ‘You are okay?’

She nodded, not feeling okay at all. Another gunshot clapped in
the distance. Two sharper-sounding shots followed, then a cry that
catapulted a cold jolt of fright down her spine. Someone had been
‘Raimund.’ Even to her own ears, her voice sounded tremulous
and far away. ‘What the hell’s going on?’
He didn’t answer, instead he narrowed his eyes in the direction of
the gunshots. Then he looked to the right, towards what remained
of the chateau’s southern wall, and pointed at the crumbling stone.
‘We’ll try for there. It will provide some protection.’
He reached out for the box. Glaring, Olivia jerked it out of reach.
She might be terrified but she still had some wits.
‘Give it to me, Olivia.’
He stared at her, his eyes hard. ‘We do not have time to argue.
Give me La Tasse.’
She jammed the box under her arm. ‘No. Now, are you going to
lie there arguing all day, or are you going to move?’
Swearing in French and casting her a last angry glower, Raimund
snaked forward, using his elbows to gain purchase on the rocky
ground. After a few metres, he stopped and looked behind. ‘Keep
your head down. This man does not care who he kills.’
‘Who is he?’ Dread made the words catch in her throat. She
swallowed, but her mouth remained dry and sticky with dust. She
copied Raimund’s actions, grimacing as her shirt snagged on stones
and sharp edges tugged at her skin. As she crawled, her long auburn
hair escaped its ponytail and flopped in sweaty hanks around her
face. She let it hang, too intent on reaching safety to brush it away.
After a painful eternity, she reached the wall and gratefully shoved
her back against its solid bulk, panting and eyeing Raimund. He

stood with his cheek pressed against the stone like something out
of an American police drama. Except in this instance, he wasn’t
peeking around doors or through keyholes, he was staring through
the remains of a medieval arrow slit in a ruined chateau in the south
of France while a real man, using a real gun with real bullets, shot
at them.
A strange urge to giggle hysterically fluttered in her chest.
The situation was too surreal to be true. She was a historian, not
some whip-cracking, gun-toting female Indiana Jones or real-
life Lara Croft. She taught Oxford University undergraduates
about the crusades. She went to faculty parties and ate stale,
curling sandwiches and drank cheap white wine with all the other
academics. Admittedly, she had some unorthodox ideas, but they
were only unorthodox because the establishment was too pigheaded
to acknowledge the truth.
She fingered the case sitting in her lap. Inside lay vindication for
all the years of mockery and ridicule she’d endured. The cup was
no longer a myth, a bedtime story told to French children, a legend
from the court of the beatified King Louis IX. It was real.
And that meant so was Durendal.
‘He’s coming.’ Raimund crouched beside her. ‘We cannot go
back along the path. We must go down. The trees are our only
‘Who is he?’
‘There’s no time for explanation. We must leave here. Now.’
He crept to the edge of the wall, where it gave way to a precipitous
slope, and peered down. Like most medieval fortresses the chateau
sat on a hill, but in this case, one side rose so steeply it resembled a
cliff. Olivia’s highly tensile nerves vibrated even harder as Raimund,
his features scarily calm, continued to inspect the dangerous drop
to the valley below.

He beckoned her, scowling at her reluctance to move. ‘Quickly.’

With her fingers hooked tightly around the case’s handle and her
heart hammering within her ribs, she crawled to the edge and stared
over. Weathered and pitted grey rocks of terrifying sharpness jutted
from the cliff face like wolves’ teeth. An occasional hardy, stunted
shrub poked out sideways from between them, while the remainder
of the surface comprised loose dirt, scattered pebbles and broken-
off shale. The ground at the base stretched grassless, parched and
littered with fallen rocks. There’d be no soft landing if she fell.
She stared back at him in disbelief. ‘How?’
Raimund raised his eyes skyward and muttered something in
French she couldn’t catch before crouching down next to her. ‘There
are handles, see?’ He pointed at the sharp rocks and dark crevices. ‘I
will take La Tasse to free your hands.’ When Olivia shook her head,
he sighed but didn’t argue further. ‘And I will go first. That way if
you fall, I can catch you.’
She threw him a look. Raimund stood very tall, over six feet and
broad-shouldered to go with it, but Olivia wasn’t a petite French
femme. Hardy Australian farmer’s genes combined with hours spent
in the gym grinding out her anger and frustration with weights had
left her fit and well-muscled. As a result, she weighed a lot more
than her size indicated.
Besides, Raimund wasn’t interested in saving her. The only thing
the Frenchman cared about was La Tasse.
‘Give me the case, Olivia. It will be easier for you.’
She clutched it to her chest and glared at him. ‘No. I’ll take it.’
Determined to keep custody of La Tasse, she squirrelled her fingers
under the tight cable ties. The plastic edges dug into her skin but
the hold was secure. With a last stomach-hollowing glance over the
precipice, she turned around and began gingerly lowering herself
over the edge.

Another shot ruptured the hushed countryside. Terror flattened

her against the rock face, the stone and soil hot against her heaving
chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, silently praying for strength.
Hands grasped her shoulders. ‘Olivia?’
She jerked her head up. Raimund stared worriedly down at her,
and for the first time since this drama started, she perceived genuine
anxiety in his expression.
‘I’m fine.’ She cast him a wobbly smile of reassurance. ‘Terrified
but fine.’
‘Good.’ He checked over his shoulder, mouth grim, before
focusing on her. ‘Please, you must hurry. He’ll be here soon.’
In one fluid movement, he followed her over the edge. She
closed her eyes as dislodged dirt and stones rained down over her
head and shoulders. When she opened them again, he was perched
at her side.
‘Come.’ In a heartbeat, he clambered below her.
Taking a deep breath, she let herself slide a little before grabbing
one-handed at the rock again. To her relief, the slope wasn’t as acute
as she’d believed. Only from the top did the hillside look more like
a cliff, though with the fingers of one hand locked in cable ties, the
descent remained perilous.
As she inched down, Raimund whispered up encouragement,
promising her she hadn’t far to go, that it was all right to let go of
the rock and slide. All lies. She’d barely moved away from the top,
but the underlying urgency in his tone made her jaw clench with
determination. Whoever was up there could shoot all they pleased.
They wouldn’t lay a finger on the goblet. La Tasse was hers. She’d
earned her prize. No one was taking it from her now.
With another fortifying breath, she released her grip. For a startling
moment, she hung against the side of the hill, arms outstretched
like a stick insect clinging to bark. Then she began to slip.

At first she dropped slowly, but as gravity exerted its force she
rapidly gained speed. Squeaking in fright, Olivia scrabbled to gain
purchase on the rock, but her fingers slipped and her nails broke
on the loose shale. With only one hand free, her efforts proved
hopeless, and she remained too conscious of the cup to risk using
the other to halt her plunge. She bit her lip, trying not to cry out as
her knees bumped against the stone, her palm chafed, and the cable
ties gouged her fingers.
A sob broke through as the fall rucked up her work shirt and
exposed her already scratched stomach. One sharp rock and she’d
be split right up the middle like a gutted animal. She squeezed her
eyes shut against the thought, and, with her stomach and breasts
burning, concentrated on the case held so tightly in her left hand—
her ticket to finding Durendal and the fulfilment of a promise she’d
made long ago. A promise she had every intention of keeping.
Strong hands grabbed her ankles and slid up her legs to grip
her thighs, ending her tumble. The hold loosened and she dropped
into a pair of muscular arms that clamped protectively around her
shoulders and pressed her against a broad chest. Her relief was so
acute she almost whimpered in gratitude.
‘It’s okay,’ said Raimund, his breath grazing her ear. ‘I have you.’
He relaxed his hold and let her slide a fraction until her feet
touched firm ground. Never had the earth felt so precious.
Once sure she was stable, he stepped away. She glanced at him
but he paid her no attention. His eyes were scanning their surrounds,
flicking between a distant coppice and a goat track that snaked around
the hill towards another valley, his expression steady and impenetrable.
An unwelcome tear trickled down her cheek, a stupid reaction to
fright. She swiped it away with her free hand and checked the case.
Scratches and dirt covered the aluminium, and a crack split the
handle, but the ties and locks had held. The cup was safe.

The most important matter taken care of, she regarded the front
of her tattered shirt. Scarlet shapes grew and morphed over the
fabric as her blood seeped through. Fearing the worst, she jammed
the case between her knees and raised her shirtfront. Several large
cuts on her ribcage, breasts and stomach dribbled blood, but
the damage appeared superficial. Extremely painful but not life
Dropping the shirt she looped her fingers back under the case’s
cable ties and turned to Raimund.
He examined her stomach and then her face. ‘Anything serious?’
‘Good. We must run.’
He grabbed her hand and did just that, wrenching her towards
the wood. In a heartbeat, the air exploded with noise. Bullets buzzed
past her head and detonated in puffs of dust around her feet, as if
the dry ground had been hit by a sudden hailstorm. The sharp clap
of gunfire sent startled birds screeching for the sky.
‘Allez, allez, allez! ’ yelled Raimund, yanking her arm.
Tripping on a rock, Olivia staggered and almost tumbled, but his
powerful hold pulled her up and on. They lunged into the shelter of
the coppice, Raimund zig-zagging through the trees, dragging her
with him, while behind bullets thudded into the outer trunks. Even
when the sound of gunfire had faded and they were deep inside the
forest, he ran on.
And on.
Her lungs coated with dust, Olivia’s breath wheezed in her chest,
each gulp of air tearing and painful, but Raimund didn’t falter.
Despite the sweat on her palm, his grip on her hand remained tight.
He changed direction often, darting left and then right through
trees, sprinting across open ground before ducking back into the
tree line. In minutes, she became disoriented. She had no idea

where the hill was, the chateau or the car in which they’d arrived.
Every inhalation burned and her aching leg muscles trembled with
weakness, while her sweat- and blood-stiffened shirt scratched her
throbbing, grazed stomach.
Suddenly Raimund stopped, his halt so unexpected she ran
straight into his unyielding back. With a grunt of expelled air she
dropped on her rear. Her head woolly, she slumped onto her back
and lay staring at the sky, panting.
He crouched beside her. ‘You must get up.’ Narrow-eyed, he
glanced back from where they had come and pursed his lips. ‘There’s
still great danger.’
She wanted to tell him to go to hell, but her throat was so raw
and her breath so hoarse the words refused to form. They were
pointless anyway. She had to keep going. She had to keep La Tasse
secure. As much from Raimund as from whoever was chasing them.
After several more rallying gulps of air, she sat up.
‘Come,’ he said when he’d hauled her to her feet. ‘I’ll take you
somewhere safe.’ Without a second’s pause, he strode off. Knowing
she had no choice, Olivia followed.
They kept to the valleys and tree line, crossing farmland and
startling the occasional goat. Though no more gunfire rocked
the valley, Raimund crackled with tension like an electricity sub-
station, his surveillance of their surrounds constant. She wanted to
ask him what was going on, but each time she opened her mouth
he raised a hand, indicating for her to remain silent.
All around them, the countryside slumbered. Cicadas chirped,
birds warbled and lizards bathed in the heat, but Olivia and
Raimund walked relentlessly on.
The afternoon drifted by. The sun faded towards the west, but
even in the shade there was no respite from the steady throb of
summer heat. Olivia concentrated on putting one foot in front of

the other, trying to not think about her raging thirst, which was so
intense it masked the pain of her wounds. Her tongue sat swollen
and strange in her mouth, as though it belonged to someone else.
She tried to lick her lips and instead of soft flesh, encountered the
harsh scrape of salt crystals and scabby skin.
For the fifth time since she’d fallen, Raimund broke stride and
moved alongside her to ask if she was okay. Although dirty and
slightly dishevelled, he remained as cool as ever, as if they were a
couple of tourists taking a summer stroll.
‘I’m fine,’ she muttered through tight, cracking lips.
He frowned and opened his mouth to say more, but she waved
her free hand at him. ‘I’m fine, Raimund.’
‘You are sure?’
He eyed the box. Automatically, her fingers tightened around
the strap. He gave her an appraising look and then nodded, but his
expression told her he didn’t believe her. ‘We’ll be out of harm’s way
soon. A little further and you can rest.’
They continued on. A midge landed on Olivia’s arm. She smacked
it away and scratched at the place where it had bitten into her flesh.
The skin felt dry and rough, like the surface of a paperbark tree.
Vaguely, she wondered where all her sweat had disappeared to.
The further they progressed, the more her mind wandered,
dreaming up images of lakes and oceans and icy-cold water.
Raimund became two men, and then three. A giggle bubbled in
her chest. Only willpower prevented it erupting from her mouth
and shattering the hypnotic quiet.
Deep in the still-functioning recesses of her mind, she recognised
the signs of dehydration and heatstroke. She’d suffered it once
before when, as a child, her motorbike broke down out on the far
edges of her parents’ vast New South Wales sheep station and she’d

been forced to walk miles in the deadly summer heat without water
or shade. Her symptoms now were no different. She’d taken three
bottles of water to the chateau, but had been so intent on her task
she’d failed to open a single one, which left breakfast the last time
she’d had anything to eat or drink. And that was several hours ago.
She raised a hand to wipe her eyes and staggered, then giggled at
the swimming world.
‘Shh, Olivia. It’s okay. I have you.’
Despite Raimund’s encouragement the giggles kept coming.
When they stopped, she found herself sitting on the ground with
her back against the trunk of a tree. She frowned and lifted her
left hand, peering at her fingers and tilting her head in confusion.
Something was missing, but what?
Raimund held the case in front of her eyes. ‘Do not worry. I
have it.’
She reached out to snatch it from him and toppled sideways.
Gently, he pushed her back upright.
She regarded him owlishly. ‘Give it to me. It’s mine.’
‘Non. You are dehydrated and suffering from some shock, I
suspect. It’s better if I look after La Tasse.’
She plopped out her bottom lip. ‘It’s mine.’
To her astonishment, he smiled and caressed her lip with his
thumb only to snatch it away a second later, the smile vanishing
with it. He shook his head and sighed deeply. Then as easily as
if he were lifting a child, he gathered her up, hoisted her over his
shoulder and continued the march on.
‘Mine,’ she repeated to his backside.
‘Non, Olivia. La mienne.’
But by then, she was too exhausted to argue.
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